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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Black Market Pall Malls

by Emily Rich
2015 Essay Contest Winner, Theme: “War and Peace”

Colonel Troung was getting up from the desk again, excusing himself with a polite bow, pulling at the creases of his threadbare trousers as he stood.
“Why don’t you smoke at the desk like everyone else?” I asked. I was worried about falling behind on our cases. “It won’t bother me if you do.”
The colonel’s eyes scanned the long folding table “desk”: took in the neat pile of manila folders, the inkpad for taking fingerprints, the stacks of loose forms anchored by a stapler, a hole punch, a small piece of cinderblock.
He gave an apologetic smile. “No ashtray,” he said. “Too messy,” and stepped outside into the dusty heat.
The year was 1989 and the official ends to the conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were years in the past. But the borders still teemed with camps of refugees who didn’t want to return home. Most lacked proof of official ties to the ousted regimes and would be denied asylum by Western countries only willing to take in the politically persecuted.
My job, as a caseworker for the quasi-governmental Joint Voluntary Agency, was to interview the displaced and mold their individual hardship stories into narratives that would impress the American Immigration officers stationed in the camps. Colonel Troung was my interpreter.
The colonel’s arrival had signaled a change in the nature of our work at JVA. That year, in a gesture aimed at normalizing relations with the US, the Vietnamese government released thousands of former South Vietnamese bureaucrats and army officers who’d been sent to re-education camps after the Fall of Saigon.
Many of the newly freed fled the country immediately, some by boat, others across land through Cambodia, paying “snakehead” refugee smugglers to get them into Thailand, into the camps where I worked. Colonel Truong was in the latter category.
 He had been a rising star in the South Vietnamese Army, had been sent to Fort Benning to train with Americans, had been awarded the Silver Star of Bravery by American forces during the war. He was what we caseworkers called a “water walker,” someone who would be awarded US refugee status, no problem at all.
Because of his excellent English, he was offered a six-month stint as an interpreter for our organization. So now, the military wunderkind-turned political prisoner-turned refugee, was sitting on a folding chair next to a twenty-four-year old caseworker in a bamboo hut on the outskirts of Aranyaprathet, Thailand.
At first, I viewed Colonel Truong with suspicion. I’d been a history major in college and had studied about the war, how it was a mistake, how the South Vietnamese government was corrupt and undeserving of American attempts to prop it up. The idealistic just-out-of-college me had come to Thailand to help the victims of the war, not the perpetuators.
In return, Colonel Truong was nothing but gracious and respectful.
He admired the seriousness I applied to my job, he said. He advised his fellow education camp parolees to wait until they could get me as a caseworker. He was patient, with kind eyes and a gentle manner. With his oversized head and thinning combed-over hair, he reminded me of an elderly Asian Linus from the Peanuts cartoon. More like an egghead physics professor than an American-trained warrior.
He was also a nervous wreck. He would spring up suddenly from our little folding table desk and pace the dirt floor or gaze out the cutout windows of our bamboo wall. His hands shook and his legs were constantly moving even when he was deep in conversation with a refugee applicant.
Sometimes, between interviews, he would tell me about his decade in captivity, about the forced marches, the compulsory labor, the disease and starvation that did in fellow prisoners on a daily basis.
“I was once so hungry I ate another man’s vomit,” he told me, and then laughed awkwardly, embarrassed.
“I’m so sorry,” was my inadequate response.
He seemed to want something from me during these conversations, some sort of recognition of the unique horror of his situation, but I was unable to see him as anything more than one more story in the endless tales of hardship and brutality that were recounted before me on a daily basis. Before my stint in this camp, I’d spent three months stationed outside Khoa-I-Dang camp, interviewing Cambodian survivors of the murderous Khmer Rouge. Imprisonment, forced labor, starvation, it was all part of the cruelty unleashed by the senselessness of war.
One time between cases Colonel Truong unfolded a black and white photo of himself in dress uniform wearing the Silver Star. It was an eight by ten photo, an official portrait, creased heavily at the folds. He told me he’d taped the portrait to his calf before he fled Vietnam. Other than the clothes on his back and gold to pay the snakeheads, it was the one possession he had brought with on his escape to Thailand. It was his ticket to the US, and he knew it.

In the picture, he is crisp and pressed, grinning with pride. In some ways I could see the familiar Colonel Truong: the wide forehead, the dark eyes, the sharp nose that reminded me of an Indian arrowhead. But in other ways he looked different. His face in the picture is young, angular. His eyes are brilliant, energetic and alert. His smile is cocky and self-assured. Could such a man be capable of anything in a time of conflict? I wondered. Bravery, heroism, cruelty, atrocity? What would have happened had the war turned out differently and he could be jailer, not prisoner in its aftermath? The idea of it made me shudder.
Because he worked for us, Colonel Truong didn’t have to live in the refugee camp anymore, but he was not allowed to leave the cheap hotel compound where the JVA workers stayed. There were five other interpreters in situations similar to his, and the group of them kept to themselves after hours.
There wasn’t much to do in Aranyaprathet in any case. On Sundays, our only day off, the other caseworkers and I liked to wander about the local open-air market. Once, while meandering through the tables of piled sarongs, tin cookware, plastic strainers, and serving utensils, I passed something that caught my eye—a kitschy, ceramic hula girl attached to a turquoise lagoon ashtray. It was the kind of thing I thought was “campy;” something I might have displayed ironically in my off-campus apartment back home. I bought it for Colonel Truong.
I plunked it down on our folding-table desk Monday morning.
“Now you have an ashtray!” I exclaimed, happy with myself.
          I guess I thought he would react with amusement, but he said nothing about the ashtray’s silliness, only thanked me with a bow of his head and a slight smile. As if I’d given an order for him to accept it.
From then on he smoked at our workstation and did not take breaks outside.

Colonel Troung smoked throat-scorching Krong Thip brand Thai cigarettes, one after another. American cigarettes were banned in the country at the time.
“Can I try one?” I asked once. I wasn’t a regular smoker, just curious.
I took a drag and wheezed it out immediately. It was like inhaling field hay infused with Pine Sol.
“These are terrible!” I coughed. “What type of cigarettes did you smoke back home? Were the Vietnamese brands as bad as these?”
He sort of chuckled, and his eyes took on a far-off, remembering look.
“During the war I smoked Pall Malls,” he said. “American brands are always the best.”

Day after day we interviewed refugee applicants. Usually they were single men, but sometimes whole families would array themselves on the wooden bench in front of us. Western aid groups provided them with decent clothes and they would sit straight and proper as if in a church pew, children scrubbed and combed, parents clutching Ziploc baggies of what few documents they had. The hopefulness in their eyes never failed to break my heart.
One time a young father who couldn’t keep his story straight was trying our patience.
“The town he says he was born in is in the North,” I said. “But he claims his father was in the Army for the South?” I was trying to pin him down on specifics. When did the family move? What was his father’s rank? Where was his father now?
The man stalled. In the silence, an oscillating fan whirred and ruffled the stacks of forms on my desk.
The man’s wife said nothing but held her eyes on me with a beseeching look. Their three young children focused silently on their hands folded in their laps, as they’d no doubt been instructed to do.
Colonel Truong broke from interpreting my questions and began lecturing the young man in Vietnamese. His tone was stern but soft, in a caring, fatherly sort of way. The man bowed his head and frowned.
          The interview was over. We fingerprinted everyone and placed their file on the stack to go to Immigration. Colonel Truong pinched the top of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He was crying.
          “They will never make it to America with that story,” he said.
          He was normally so stoic and this show of emotion unnerved me. Did he mourn for the tragedy of this one family? For the young father who reminded him of his own lost youth? Or for the whole sorry state of his countrymen, crammed on a foreign border, raising up children in the hopeless dusty squalor of refugee camps with only the slightest prayer of escape? Colonel Truong had been granted his freedom and a shot at a new life but until that moment I hadn’t understood how irretrievable was his loss. These were his people and this was the tragedy he was destined to carry with him even as he made a new life for himself in the States. A generation lost to war.

          I was a rule follower in those days; not someone who would, for example, go to the black market areas of Bangkok and pick up a carton of smuggled American cigarettes. But I knew plenty of co-workers who would. Every smoker on the JVA staff had a supply of Marlboros or Camels or some other American brand. On a Friday when Tan, our Thai driver, was going into the city for supplies, I gave him money to pick up two cartons of black market Pall Malls.
          On Monday, I pulled them from the plastic bag beneath my chair and handed them to Colonel Truong.
          “I thought you might like these better than the Krong Thips,” I said, feeling suddenly self-conscious.
          His hands trembled as he held them out to receive the gift. His mouth slackened, his eyes moistened. He seemed in awe.
          “My old brand,” he said. “You remembered.”
          He held the cartons before his face, marveling at the crimson packaging, the regal lettering. Pall Mall. I watched nostalgia overtake him as he travelled back in time, as he became again the young promising officer working for the Americans, anticipating a bright future carrying him, carrying his country up and up and up.

Emily Rich is the non-fiction editor of Little Patuxent Review. She writes mainly memoir and essay. Her work has been published in a number of small presses including Little Patuxent Review, Welter, River Poet's Journal, Delmarva Review and the Pinch. Her essays have been listed as notables in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

What I Know about Dads

by Sharon Frame Gay

What I know about dads fits into a 3 x 5 photograph, ragged, faded, and dog eared on one corner as though someone was trying to save the page for eternity. The photo was taken by the shore of a lake. He sits in a chair, with me firmly planted on his lap, a child of few months still sporting my milk teeth. The wind is rustling his hair. His eyes squinted into the camera and the sun. My tight ringlets must be tickling his nose as the wind tosses my hair like a dandelion.

He is a handsome man, Irish as Paddy's Pig, as they say, with dark hair, light brown eyes, an athletic build. There is an assurance about him, the kind of confidence one exudes after fighting in the South Pacific during the war. His gentle fingers wrap around my body, though I can imagine that in another life they may have thrown hand grenades or clutched his cross in violent prayer in a distant foxhole.

He was a gifted skater, a bar room brawler, a sweet talker, with just a hint of cruelty at the corner of his mouth, coiled like a sleeping snake. He met my mother when she was home from college one December, a restless young woman looking for somebody to waltz her around the frozen pond and warm her feet by the makeshift fire in the moonlight. By spring thaw, they had married and began a life together, a life filled with chaos and drama, long nights at the pub, the scent of other women.

With the storms and turbulence, one autumn, before the first snowfall, he simply vanished. Slammed the door on his children and wife and skated down some angry highway, leaving my mother to waltz alone, and my brother and I to spend endless days in new schools explaining to other children that we had no father. No father. As though he whimsically appeared one day, then fetched a magic carpet and took himself away to another realm.
When I look into the mirror, or at my brother, I see him in our faces. We resemble his Irish heritage much more than we do my Swedish mother with her glacial blue eyes and Viking figure. I see him in my cheekbones and in the color of my iris, in the slant of shoulder. I see him in my brother, in his quickness to brawl as a young man, though later my brother harnessed that energy and put it into becoming a Marine, and later a pilot, following in footsteps that were only marked in sand.

My father remarried, I heard. Asked his entire family to never tell his new wife that he had two children. We no longer existed. We didn't die. We were never even born.  Ghost children, perhaps peering out from an old photograph, creased and tucked into an ancient leather wallet, hidden from the light of day.

My photograph of that summer morning so long ago by the lake is one of the few reminders I have that I was once held in his arms, the light summer breeze bearing witness. In the old dog eared photograph, I am peering up at his face, but I can see now that his gaze was already far off into the distance.

Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, traveling throughout the United States and playing by the side of the road. Her dream was to live in a house long enough to find her way around in the dark, and she has finally achieved this outside Seattle, Washington. She writes poetry, prose poetry, short stories, and song lyrics.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Tao of Poo

by Mara A. Cohen Marks
          My home is an oasis of beauty and order, but as much as I enjoy it, I spend most of my time in my head. Which sometimes feels like a dangerous neighborhood.
That’s why I’ve started meditating. It’s a remodel for my internal landscape.
I’m carving out time each day to just sit quietly. No multitasking, no worrying about the future or rehashing things that happened in the past. Just paying close attention to what’s happening right now, moment by moment.
And in this moment, I’m perched in a lovely half-lotus atop my brand-new meditation cushion. Although my eyes are closed, I know the cushion complements my bedroom’s decor. Its curry color looks quite handsome against the wheat-colored background of my antique wool rug from China. This pleases me. What’s more, although my eyes are closed, I know the brand-new standard poodle napping beside me atop my antique wool rug from China will not shed. This also pleases me.
In point of fact, the poodle’s eight years old, so it’s only brand-new to me. My daughter was the main reason there’s a poodle in my bedroom. She’s wanted a dog for the longest time. “Oh Mommy, see that fluffy dog? Isn’t it cute? Please, can I have a dog? Someday? Or at least a fish?” But every time my daughter said, “dog,” I envisioned slobber on my silk upholstery, scratches on my glossy black floors, and fleas in my Egyptian cotton sheets. I felt like a failure as a mother, more concerned with maintaining the museum-like atmosphere of my home than with my daughter’s happiness.

I wasn’t entirely sold on getting a dog, but my interest was piqued when I heard about an eight-year-old standard poodle that needed a home—a retired show dog who’d given birth to several litters of champion poodles. Such a dog would be obedient and even-tempered. As far as dogs go, this one sounded ideal.  
But adopting a champion standard poodle is an entirely different prospect than say, bringing home a fish. Prior to welcoming such a creature into my home, I wanted to feel confident I’d be able to welcome her into my heart. My husband and didn’t tell our daughter what we were up to the day we went to meet the poodle. I stroked the poodle’s curly black fur and enjoyed its surprising softness. I held the poodle’s long, elegant muzzle in my hand and admired her regal face. I imagined how comforting I’d feel at night, knowing the poodle was there in my room, asleep on the antique Chinese rug. The poodle and I gazed into one another’s eyes, and I decided that yes, I could open my heart to such a creature.
I imagined my daughter’s excitement to finally have a pet. She’d have her pet, and I wouldn’t have to contend with an untrained puppy.
Come to think of it, my mind is like an untrained puppy. Notice how my attention just wandered off—replaying events of the recent past that explain why there’s a poodle beside me right now? And the thing I need to remember right now is that I’m breathing. I’m perched atop my meditation cushion, paying attention to nothing but my breathing. I’m paying attention to my breathing as I sit atop curry-colored meditation cushion that complements my bedroom decor beside the poodle napping on my antique wool rug from China.
The poodle sure sleeps a lot. I hope she isn’t sick or anything. That growth by her rectum doesn’t look so good. It’s probably nothing. Her veterinary records indicated it wasn’t anything to worry about.

The next day, a veterinarian recommends surgery to remove the growth beside the poodle’s rectum. But his floors are dirty, so I decide to get a second opinion. The veterinarian at a well-regarded animal hospital where the floors are immaculate explains the poodle suffers from an enlarged perianal gland at imminent risk of rupturing. I present the poodle’s health records, which indicate the perianal gland in question had been surgically removed two years earlier, but the veterinarian at the well-regarded animal hospital with immaculate floors is unimpressed. “They probably didn’t get all the cells,” he shrugs.

The poodle undergoes surgery later that week. It costs approximately what a reputable poodle breeder charges for a healthy puppy, but afterward she’s given a clean bill of health. Back home, the poodle spends most of the next two days sleeping. She dozes on the antique Chinese rug while I read instructions for a walking meditation by Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. “Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet,” he writes. “… every step makes a flower bloom under our feet.”
That night I awake to the sound of the poodle barking. Undoubtedly she’s attempting to alert me to an intruder. Glancing at my husband’s unoccupied pillow, I surmise that poodle has mistaken whatever action movie my husband is watching downstairs for an intruder. “It’s okay,” I whisper groggily. But the poodle keeps barking. “It’s okay,” I say again as I stagger out of bed. I head toward the bathroom where my robe hangs from the hook on the back of the door. I tiptoe over creaky hardwood floors until I feel the antique Chinese rug under my feet. “Shhh,” fearing the barks will wake my daughter. “It’s just Daddy watching TV—”  
My voice trails off as my right foot slips on something cold. Recovering my balance, the ball of my left foot comes down on something squishy. “Oh-no. No, no,” I chant. My stomach tightens as whatever I’ve just stepped in oozes between my toes. Hobbling on my heels, I traverse the remaining distance over the antique Chinese rug to the bathroom, punctuating each step with my desperate mantra: “Oh-no, oh-no, oh-no.”
I reach the bathroom and flip on the light. Time stands still while I struggle to comprehend what my eyes are seeing. My feet are covered in brown sludge. Turning to face my bedroom, it is as if an army of Buddhist monks have conducted a walking meditation there, tracking enough dung across the antique Chinese rug to fertilize an entire meadow of flowers.
I conduct a triage operation on my feet and bathroom tile and return quickly to the bedroom to assess the situation. The situation is not good. The poodle, its vision obstructed by a lampshade-shaped surgical collar, paces the antique Chinese rug. Coppery marsh-like paddies are spaced irregularly over the wheat-colored wool. Several paddies bear smeary imprints of feet—some human, some canine, some both human and canine. “No, no, don’t move!” I plead. “Stay!” I correct myself. I lift the poodle, careful to avoid her sutures, and carry her to the stairs.
“Help!” I call my husband’s name in a loud stage whisper so as not to alarm our daughter, then louder: “Help! Help me!” I stagger down the stairs toward the landing.  In all the excitement, I’ve forgotten my robe, and as my husband and I reunite before the giant window overlooking the street, I have only the poodle to cover my nakedness. Exposing myself in the light of the moon and the glow of the street light, I bark, “You take the poodle! I’ll handle the poop!”
Back in the bedroom, I flush what’s flushable and scrub whatever’s left over with Nature’s Miracle, a scented product meant to prevent repeat offenses. Why? Why? Why? asks my puppy-mind running in circles. Stop, I command. The poodle just had surgery, and her bowels are just now waking up. The poodle was barking. The barking was probably the poodle’s attempt to warn me she’d had a mishap. The poodle probably feels terrible about this entire episode. I’m surprised by my equanimity, and I credit my meditation practice.
Sure enough, the harrows of the night recede in the dawn of the new day. I lie in my bed, my attention focused on my breathing. Nothing to do right now but breathe. Outside my windows, the morning sun kisses the top of the eucalyptus tree, and I watch the branches sway gently in the breeze. When I’m ready, I rise and inspect the antique Chinese rug. The wool feels coarse where I’d been scrubbing, but the color seems fine. This rug is very old, I tell myself. Probably it has been through worse. As for the poodle, the veterinarian has given her a clean bill of health, and with luck, she’ll see my daughter through her high school years.
Wearing her surgical lampshade collar, the poodle snoozes beside me while I settle into half-lotus on my meditation cushion. I close my eyes and feel my lungs expand and contract. I feel the cool rush of air through the tip of my nostrils as I inhale. The smell of Nature’s Miracle is very strong. It reminds me of Tang. Did the astronauts really like that stuff? I feel my shoulders relax as I exhale. I inhale again. Do I smell poop? I peek at the poodle to reassure myself she’s still sleeping.

After dinner the next night, I’m cleaning kitchen when I hear the click-click of the poodle’s claws climbing the stairs. Isn’t that sweet, I smile to myself. The poodle is tired and has decided to retire to the antique Chinese rug. Fifteen minutes later, I head upstairs toward my bathroom, intending to floss my teeth. When I reach the landing, I look up, and the poodle’s eyes lock on mine. Her face, framed by the lampshade collar, wears a mournful expression. “What did you do?” I say accusingly. I tell myself not to jump to conclusions, but my heart pounds with dread. I race up the remaining steps and down the hall to my bedroom.
I arrive at the doorway and flip on the light. I’m dismayed to discover that the poodle hadn’t gone upstairs in innocence. Instead, she’d returned to the scene of last night’s crime with the express purpose of repeating her offense. Anger, denial and betrayal compete for dominance as I take in the tableau—smeary turds deposited at random intervals across my antique Chinese wool rug.
I cry out for my husband who rushes from the den. “Bad dog!” he scolds. The poodle cowers and attempts to run away, but she’s no match for my husband. I think he’s been watching another action movie. He scoops up the poodle and deposits her in our kitchen. Where she will pass another night.
My sleep is fitful, and the sky is the faintest violet when I feel a set of eyes staring at me. The poodle has managed to push open the kitchen door and now has her front paws on the edge of my mattress, two inches from my face. “Off,” I growl.

A few hours later I head to Petco where I purchase a crate for the poodle to sleep in at night. The crate is beige and brown plastic and clashes with my decor. I put the crate in my kitchen. Beige and brown and hulking, it looks like a VW bus. I look at it parked there, and l feel sad as I drink my morning coffee. I look at it parked there, and I feel sad as I sit down to dinner. I move the crate to a corner of my bedroom, near my closet, off the antique Chinese rug. With my eyes closed and my back turned on the crate, I sit on my meditation cushion, and I feel sad. Very, very sad.

“Hello, Monarch Rugs,” says the voice on the other end of the phone.
I tell the voice the size of my rugs and give my address. I tell the voice about the antique Chinese rug and the fact that it is wool. “Wool is highly absorbent,” observes the voice.
“Think you guys can get rid of whatever the poodle is smelling so she doesn’t keep doing it?”
“We don’t guarantee against red wine or pets.”
“Okay, I understand you don’t want to give me a guarantee. But do you think you can get rid of whatever it is the poodle’s smelling?”
“We don’t guarantee against red wine or pets.”

I perch atop my meditation cushion on my bedroom’s naked hardwood floors. The room seems austere and uninviting. I close my eyes, and try to follow my breath. Instead, I follow the click-click of the poodle’s claws as she wanders around the room. I hear her walk behind me, toward my side of the bed. I make my eyes slits, and see the poodle is sniffing my pillow. I close my eyes, and I hear the poodle click-click back to the floor beside me and lie down. I hear the poodle sigh, and I know for now my bedroom is safe. After a time, the poodle stirs, and I follow the sound of her click-click walk to the French doors overlooking my backyard. There she stops. I imagine her crouching in preparation to poop. Opening my eyes, I see the poodle standing alert, ears cocked, facing the backyard. She is the very picture of focused attention.

The full gravity of my situation begins to sink in as the next days and weeks unfold. One morning, I’m unloading the dishwasher while I drink my morning coffee. Turning around, I realize the poodle has wandered off. I discover her standing on the vintage Japanese rug in my dining room, and on the ground beside is a pair of fresh, brown turds. Several days later, the poodle savages a meticulously woven Navajo rug. And twice the poodle lays siege against a humble mass-produced doormat hecho en Mexico. The poodle embraces multiculturalism and does not discriminate.
But I do not blame the poodle. Instead, I greet each doo-doo boo-boo as a fresh opportunity to judge my shortcomings.  It’s my own fault for failing to anticipate that even a former champion show poodle would need to be taught where it’s acceptable to “go.” It’s my own fault for not realizing that even a mother who’d raised several litters of champion show poodles would need instruction as to how to navigate her new home and to recognize which door leads outside. It’s my own fault for not watching her every moment. I have to be more vigilant.
This awareness of my failings doesn’t prevent me from feeling irritated and bitter. The poodle anticipates my every movement, and she accompanies me everywhere. Sometimes she’s so close she causes me to trip. I tell myself I should be generous and offer the poodle some affection, some token of reassurance that she’s welcome in her adoptive home. Sometimes I pet the poodle, but inside my heart feels closed and stingy. Sometimes I wonder what it would feel like to kick her.
Things were better before the dog. Things were better when my antique rugs were safe. Things were better before I had to pay such careful attention to the comings and goings and bodily needs of the poodle, before the poodle transformed the oasis of my home into a prison.
At night I toss and turn, analyzing each new mishap. In the light of day, the situation appears equally bleak. I sit on my meditation cushion, I close my eyes, and all I can picture is the poodle and her pooping. The poodle’s life expectancy is another four to seven years. I envision that time stretched out ahead, one long trail of excrement leading throughout my once-beautiful home.

“I’m sure the poodle can learn where she’s supposed to poop, but I’m not sure I’m the one to teach her.” I’ve interrupted my husband’s action movie to tell him this. It’s the middle of the night, and I’m exhausted. Sleepless nights have become a regular thing.
My husband pauses his movie. “Look,” he says, struggling to sound patient and reasonable. “Training a dog just takes time. And until then, we just have to watch her, that’s all.”
“We?” I say, my voice rising. “What do you mean ‘we?’ I’m the one who’s stuck here all day! I can’t watch her every second!”
“We should just put all the rugs in storage,” he proposes.
“Turning the house upside down? That’s the whole reason we went with an eight-year-old dog!” Struggling to regain my composure, I express the thoughts I’ve been afraid to admit. “Listen, I know we just paid for this big surgery. B-b-but it’s just not working out!” My eyes turn to faucets and the words tumble off my tongue before I can stop them. “I mean, it’s all I do—keeping an eye on her to see if she needs to poop and waiting for her to poop and cleaning up her poop and never knowing if maybe she’s going to poop!”
“Oh my God, you’re obsessed! I don’t want to talk about the dog and her poop!”
But there’s little else I can talk about. There’s little else I think about. My daughter sees I’m coming unhinged. “Mommy, it’s okay. I understand if we can’t keep the poodle.” I don’t want to disappoint this little buddha. I think of the effort I’ve already invested and the sickening possibility it’s all been wasted. I decide I’m not ready to concede defeat.

I spend hours in the yard, watching the poodle for some signal, some indication she is ready to poop. “Go poo-poo,” I say brightly. “Go poop!” I command. But the poodle seems more interested in eating the herbs we’ve planted in the garden. Tiring of my vigil, I bring the poodle inside. Wearily, I ask my husband to please keep an eye on the poodle so I can meditate before dinner.
Twenty minutes later and feeling quite refreshed, I decide to prepare my family a nice dinner. But there’s been an exciting football game on television, and my husband’s gone off to watch it in the den, leaving the dog locked in the kitchen. When I encounter her there, the poodle greets me enthusiastically. Unlike me, the poodle does not worry about the future, and she doesn’t regret the past. The poodle lives only in the present moment, and she’s forgotten about the three small turds she’s deposited on the kitchen floor while I’ve been upstairs meditating.
But I’ve been meditating and am the picture of calm as I clean up the poop. Sure, I’m disappointed to have missed a teachable moment while I was off meditating. But because I’ve been meditating, I have the clarity of mind to recognize there’s no point reprimanding the poodle for an offense that occurred during some indeterminate past moment I hadn’t been present to witness. Anyway, no rugs were damaged because the poodle pooped on hardwood floors. I have the insight to recognize this as progress. Because I’ve been meditating.

I feel my heart pumping from the morning’s brisk walk as I bow low behind the poodle. “Good girl!” I enthuse in an octave higher than my normal voice. “Good poo-poo!” I make this pronouncement with genuine pleasure. That’s because for the past several weeks I’ve subjected the poodle’s bowel movements to mindful attention—charting their time and location. The wisdom born from this daily practice enables me to recognize the small sack of shit dangling from my right hand as a precious gift. The poodle has given me a gift of freedom, good for the next five hours. During that time, I’m free from worry about the dog, and I’m free from worry about my rugs.
I’m also free to enjoy to the poodle. So later when I settle onto my curry-colored meditation cushion that complements my bedroom decor, the poodle will stand before me. She will stare at me with soft brown eyes, demanding my focused attention. I’ll cup her chin in one hand and stroke the back of her neck with the other. “You’re a goo-ood gir-rel,” I’ll whisper. When I drop my hands to my lap and close my eyes, the poodle will nudge my arm with her wet nose, and I will pretend to ignore her until I hear her lie down on the antique Chinese rug. When I hear her sigh, it will be my signal to focus my attention on my breathing. And to ponder the environmental impact of those plastic bags of poop.

Mara Cohen Marks’s stories have appeared in Alimentum, The Hairpin, Jewrotica, Medium, Mothers Always Write and Pentimento. Her essays and op-eds have been featured by New America Media, Los Angeles Daily News, LA Business Journal, La Opinion, and rarefied scholarly journals including Urban Affairs Review, Sociological Perspectives, and Political Research Quarterly. She holds a doctorate in political science, an invaluable degree for her current position in the field of uncompensated domestic labor. She lives with her family in Los Angeles. The poodle is doing just fine.

Friday, November 6, 2015

God's Vagabond

by Tom Darin Liskey

If you compared Buddy Burchs Christian ministry to the high-flying evangelism so prevalent in America these days, youd probably conclude that his was a flop. Burch and his wife Lydia rarely had a head count topping more than ten in the storefront church he pastored near a brake repair shop in Waveland, Mississippi. 
Unlike the financially well-oiled megachurch-malls dotting the country, the members of Burchs mixed congregation, mainly poor blacks and whites, had to dig deep in their pocketbooks for a Sunday offering. More often than not, the loose change and crumpled dollar bills these salt-of-the-earth kind of believers tossed in barely covered the bottom of a collection plate. 
Yet Burch was not into that hard sell religion of pledges and fund raising. He just didnt believe that it was his job to admonish people over money. Burch had realized long ago that the people who came to his small church gave what they could, and hed always trusted God for the rest. That was no stretch for a couple well into their sixties living off a fixed-income and disability. 
The Sunday offerings were usually enough to cover the light bill and other expenses, and Burch never drew a salary from the funds. To help make ends meet, he would park his pickup on the side of the road to sell firewood from the tailgate.  
There was one irony never lost on Burch where he served as a pastor in the tiny Gulf Coast community he called home. Before “getting saved” as a young man, Burch was an unreconstructed racist who believed whole heartedly in segregation. That is until the night God spoke to him. And he would tell you, he didnt like what God had to say. 
Burch was at a revival when a preacher from Jamaica took the pulpit. The way Burch described it, he sat in the pew of that little church fuming like a smokestack on a fast-moving locomotive. He just didnt think it was right for a man of color to be preaching to white folks, God or no God. 
He only stayed seated because his Cherokee wife urged him too. She liked to hear the preachers message delivered with a soft Caribbean lilt. 
Once the preaching was over, Burch stood up to bolt from that church. That is until God whispered in his ear. It was the first time he heard God speak to him. But there was no great revelation or epiphany; no answer to life’s biggest question. What God uttered was a simple command: “Hug my son.” 
Burch stood there in the aisle of that church, dead in his tracks. He tried to shake it off, but the command came again. Firm, but simple: “Hug my son.” 
Burch turned around and looked at the revival preacher. His voice was shaky. 
Sir, I don’t know you, but I need to hug you,” he recounted later.  
Thats what he did. He embraced the preacher from Jamaica. And what had been until then an impregnable edifice of race-hate crumbled like dust. 
Burch was never a freedom rider during the civil rights movement, yet while the fight to dismantle segregation in the South raged, Burch found himself drawing in African American churchgoers to his services like never before. At one point Burch received threats for preaching in black churches. Was Burch color blind? No, but there was love. A love so compelling that it was tangible. Hed shrug off any hint of praise for doing what he did by taking the message of Christ to black churches. 
“I went where God said to go,” he said once. 
I had met the Burch family through my mom when I was about four or five. My mother played piano in a Southern Gospel group, and she crossed paths with Lydia Burch in the small world of roving tent evangelists. The two women became fast friends early on, and Lydia would often spend a week or two with us in the summers. Buddy, when he wasnt pastoring, would come up with her. I ended up going to college in Mississippi, and I drew close to the Burches at a time when the world around me—and inside me—was opening up.
This was the South and I, like most of my classmates, grew up in church. I saw some of my friendsfaith eroding as they pondered scientific theory, but the history and literature that I devoured blasted away the old dust of religion I had grown up with, revealing a new bedrock of belief.
I didnt find the answers to life I was looking for in the dusty fossils of Darwinism or in political theory. My mind was feasting on Faulkner and O’Conner. I saw faith revealed in Rembrandt's hues, in Johnny Cashs lyrics, and in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's writing. For the first time in my life I began to see the grain beneath the varnish. The more I saw, the more I wanted to scratch that lacquer away. The arts opened my eyes. Faith became my iris.
My college, the University of Southern Mississippi, was only an hours drive north from the Burch household. Id often drive down to visit them on the weekends with the excuse of doing laundry. What I really wanted to do was talk to Buddy and his wife. When I came down for a visit, sometimes Buddy would load lanterns and gigs in his truck and wed fish for flounder in the tidal shoals of the Mississippi Sound. 
But most of the time Buddy and Lydia and I would sit at their kitchen table while I waited on laundry. I chain smoked and talked about my dreams and my hopes. Instead of browbeating me for my lofty, if not footloose ambitions to see the world and write, they encouraged me. 
“Follow your dreams, son,” Buddy Burch would always tell me. “Money will follow.” 
Once, when I was facing a steep learning curve in my college courses and I was close to dropping out, Buddy Burch prodded me on with this advice: “An education is something they can never take away from you.”
Some may have frowned on the stark content of my writing, but they were proud of me for following the muse. 
“Truth,” Lydia would tell me. “Speak in truth.” 
I knew book-smart believers brushed Buddy and Lydia aside as backwoods bible-thumpers. True enough, Burch and his wife were foot-washing Christians who could barely pronounce the jumbled consonants of Biblical Hebrew, but the Word of God to him was sacred, and he treated it as such. He savored every tittle of scripture as if it were a wonderful and redolent vintage, something miraculous.
Later in life, as a journalist in South America and in other parts of the world, I met presidents, ministers of state, economic leaders, and the executives of some of the worlds largest companies. And yet, for someone who never made it past middle school in the hardscrabble South, Buddy Burch always loomed large in my mind and heart as a wise man.
Even more importantly, Burch and Lydia showed me something pretty wonderful. That an extraordinary God is often seen in the most ordinary people. Because in the end thats what they were, ordinary and imperfect people who had the capacity to love Gods vagabonds.

Tom Darin Liskey spent nearly a decade working as a journalist in Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in the Crime Factory, Driftwood Press, Mount Island, The Burnside Writers Collective, Sassafras Literary Magazine, Hirschworth and Biostories, among others. His photographs have been published in Roadside Fiction, Iron Gall Press, Blue Hour Magazine and Midwestern Gothic. He lives in Texas.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Holy Fool in Winter

 by Vic Sizemore

My sister Alma, my brother Vaughn, and I have converged on mom and dad’s house to see if the danger is real. Might dad snap and stab mom with a kitchen knife?
The rain has let up, but the sky is dark and low. From where I sit in mom and dad’s living room, I am looking down Route 119 toward Coonskin Park, which is visible on the other side of the Elk River. The picture window is a gray slab splashed with the blacks and greens of wet trees along the mud-brown river. An occasional car hisses past on the wet road.
It smells like Christmas inside, though it is April. I stopped at Kroger on the way in and grabbed two rotisserie chickens—they are heavy on the sage and rosemary today—a pound of roasted red potatoes, and another pound of roasted Brussels sprouts. Mom cannot cook anymore, and dad was an old-school Baptist preacher, so cooking was never a part of his description—except for scrambled eggs now and then; when we visited, he used to yell out through the sleeping house that he was cooking eggs as if he were throwing a party.
For the past several years, my sister Alma and I have loaded up supplies and done the holiday cooking here, but even this is petering out. The kitchen is emptied of knives sharp enough to easily use for violence. The chicken is tender enough to tear off the bone with forks. That will have to do.

Two nights ago, dad called mom’s best friend in the middle of the night and asked her to come quickly—he couldn’t stop obsessing over the kitchen knives and he was afraid he was going to hurt mom. Understandably, she asked him how she could be sure he wouldn’t hurt her. He assured her he wouldn’t. In the end, Vaughn, who still lives within thirty minutes of them, drove over, met the friend in the driveway, and accompanied her inside.
          One day later, here we all sit in mom and dad’s living room. We are circled as if for Christmas, only without the kids fidgeting to get through dad’s preacher shtick before opening gifts. I sit on a dining room chair in front of the fireplace. To my right, mom’s best friend leans back on a dining room chair with her ropy, athletic arms crossed. To the right of her, mom sits on a dining room chair as well. Then dad, in his blue-gray recliner, and then Vaughn and Alma, and my brother-in-law Mike, squeezed onto the couch below the picture window.
          The oldest of us, Alma starts the conversation, and eventually tells dad we are at a loss as to what to do. Was he still obsessing over knives? Vaughn had taken the kitchen knives out of the house, but there are scissors, and letter openers—dad’s workbench down in the garage is covered with hazardous tools. If he is going to hurt mom with something sharp, confiscating the kitchen knives is not going to do much good. Alma asks him for a second time if he actually thought of doing something to mom with the knives, and if so, what.
Dad has his recliner folded closed and sits on edge leaning slightly forward, as if ready to jump up and flee. After a long pause, he says, “No.” “I just couldn’t stop thinking about the knives. I worried that I might start thinking about it.”
          “So you weren’t actually tempted to hurt her?” Vaughn asked.
          Dad nodded, his eyebrows pinched down like a boy in trouble. He was the center of attention, which was usual. All our lives he had been the center of attention, at church, or group meetings, reunions, family gatherings, pool parties. He was always speaking up, and the man stayed on message to the point of obsession, trying to steer the focus of every event or meeting to one single thing: you need Jesus, and if you already have him, don’t forget the rest of the world needs him too.
Just four months earlier we sat circled with children and spouses in this very room on these very chairs for dad’s Christmas routine. He tried to lead us in singing “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night,” and “It Came upon a Midnight Clear,” his strong preacher voice carrying the melody, mom accompanying him in her clear alto. She enunciated all the correct lyrics—she could not remember her grandchildren, but Alzheimer’s had not yet started corrupting her hymn files.
No one else felt like singing, but the preacher pressed on—he’d had plenty of unresponsive congregations over the years. Plant the seed, and let the Lord take it from there, you can’t know what kind of soil your seeds are landing on. After the hymns, dad read the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke 2, all the way to verse 20 where the shepherds all return home, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.”
          In lieu of the usual mini sermon, he pulled out a piece of glossy paper snipped from a magazine, and read from it a prose poem-like thing about Jesus designed to convince us that every pursuit in the world, if not done to win people to Jesus, was bullshit. Remarkably, the poem managed to get all of our professions in—military, law, teaching, economics, writing—so that, but for the glossy magazine page from which he read, he could have penned it himself. I’d been lectured directly from the pulpit enough in my childhood and youth. I pursed my lips and waited through this part, aimed at me: “He never wrote a book, yet more books have been written about him than any other man in history…”
          “He can’t turn off the preacher,” we used to say of our dad. That is what he was to us, the preacher, whether he was behind the pulpit or driving downtown to Shoney’s Big Boy after Sunday morning church. He spoke in Bible verses and aphorisms, his clear, strong preacher voice carrying to all in the vicinity.
As we packed up to leave his house after Christmas, he said, “Thanks for stopping in, folks,” as if we were just friendly acquaintances.
We could have easily said, “Goodbye, preacher,” with a smiling handshake. It would have felt more natural than filing past them like a receiving line, giving awkward hugs.

During this family meeting to figure out what to do about dad’s knife obsession, Mike has sat silently down at his tablet. Toward the end, he breaks in and says, “Everything I’m reading says that whatever the focus of the obsession is—knives are not uncommon—that’s not the real problem. Something else is causing the anxiety.”
          We follow that, ask the preacher what he feels anxious about. Yes, mom has Alzheimer’s and is in decline; yes, they went to a support group which, instead of helping, gave dad a glimpse into what could be his future as she declined, and it scared the living shit out of him. Also, yes, mom can no longer run the household—plan meals, shop, cook, wash dishes, do laundry—which she had done as dutifully as any Baptist preacher’s wife ever has. Dad is retired and has plenty of time for these chores, yet the thought of learning all this woman’s work fills him with dread. Although he still travels all over to preach, church people have been bringing them meals three times a week.
He has not been able to preach recently, and this, we discover, is the real problem. Without a ministry, his life has no value. “I feel useless,” he says.
“Isn’t taking care of mom a ministry?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says. “I consider it a privilege to minister to your mother in this way.” As he says it, his brow stays knit into its deep wrinkles and his eyes do not meet anyone else’s.

In his book God, Guilt, and Death, Merold Westphal writes of the believer’s ambivalence toward God. Ambivalence begins with the awakening to the “ontological poverty of the believing soul.” In short, if there is an Ultimate Other, who is not contingent and upon whom all existence depends, then by comparison, I, the center of my own observable universe, am really worth nothing at all. My very existence is less than shit.
If this is true, then the only way I can give my existence meaning is to figure out how to tap into this Ultimate Other—I must find God. The realization is expressed in phrases such as this one from a Baptist invitational hymn I sang countless times:
Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way
Thou art the potter, I am the clay
Mold me and make me, after thy will
While I am waiting, yielded and still
In another stanza, worshipers tell God, “Hold o’er my being absolute sway.” From our earliest years in Sunday school we are taught to say, “He must increase, I must decrease,” a mantra that only brings our attitudes into plumb with the already-established reality of our nothingness before the Ultimate Other.
          Add to this ontological poverty the notion that whatever measly existence we do have disgusts God, and you have dad’s religion. He grew up in a home marked by tragedy, bitterness, and booze. When he and his parents heard the hellfire-and-brimstone preaching at the Brethren church, they knew it to be true. They understood that, as Jonathan Edwards preached, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you … looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire...” In a novel, I once imagined an obsessed soul winner’s vision of the world as:
a meaty mass of human flesh sprang from the earth and rolled like a swollen creek down a mountain crevice—anguished faces, flapping arms and legs, twisting, churning torsos. Then, off a cliff as high as Hawk’s Nest, they hurtled for a brief instant into the sunlight, and then tumbled over themselves, screaming and crying, into the dark and craggy gorge below. Endless bodies continuously tumbling over the edge like a great rushing waterfall, their souls sprayed like spume out into misty air and disappeared into eternity—into eternal torment and flame.
Dad’s parents knew that they were indeed sinners in the hands of an angry God. Yet they were also eternal souls, of infinite value to God. In Mark 8:36, Jesus says, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” World here is the Greek cosmos. The implication is that one human soul, since it is eternal, is worth more than the entire cosmos, the whole space/time/matter creation, which is passing away and will end.
In another piece of fiction, I recounted a story I’d once heard in Sunday school about how long the unsaved would burn in hell:
A bird lives on the moon. Every one thousand years this bird comes down to earth and pecks one sand grain from a rock the size of the Empire State Building. It gets one tiny grain and flies with it back to the moon. One thousand years later, it comes and gets another grain. And so on plucking one grain every thousand years. After that bird has moved the whole, massive rock and rendered it a pile of sand on the moon, the time spent would still not be equal to one second of eternity.
If living human beings who die “without Christ” really do burn in excruciating torment for eternity, nothing could ever be as important as saving a single soul. Nothing.
My dad got a heavy dose of this message at ten years of age when his parents accepted Christ and his home transformed from booze and fighting to peace and Jesus. Seeing this, he surrendered to Jesus as well, and determined to share this good news far and wide. Preaching the gospel so that, like the Apostle Paul, he “might by all means save some,” became his entire life and identity. Out of high school at sixteen, he left home for the newly established Appalachian Bible Institute. That was in 1957 or 1958, and his jaw has been set on this mission ever since. It is not just his calling, but the very substance of his existence, nothing less than his bid for immortality—not as a measure of time, as trusting Jesus gives eternal life, but as a quality of being. His air-hollow, empty being was filled with the heft of God.

When my wife and I announced our wedding date a few years ago, dad was not sure he could make the ceremony. He had a preaching gig and he could not get out of it. It came as a surprise to the woman preaching the ceremony, but not to me. Close to fifty years earlier, dad had missed his own sister’s wedding for a preaching gig. Alma, Vaughn, and I have reminisced about how our childhood was absent dad-the-father and chock full of dad-the-preacher. He passed out tracts, started up conversations with the sole purpose of setting people up for the big ask: “If you were to die right now, do you know…?”  Talking to mom’s friend on the phone—the one he had called in the midst of his breakdown—Alma mentioned that we didn’t remember him being around much. Plainspoken and brutally honest, mom’s friend said, “You don’t have to tell me. I was there while she was home and he was out saving the world.”
When he retired in 2006, we assumed he would have a rough transition into retirement. He had only ever been a preacher. Our worries were premature. He found ways to keep preaching. He went on at Appalachian Bible College as staff evangelist. He traveled all over West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky, preaching the Word in season and out. He was ever more urgently seeking out preaching gigs. We changed our language about dad in retirement: it was not so much that he wouldn’t know what to do with himself—take up golf, or fly fishing—but that he wouldn’t know who he was. We predicted an existential meltdown for dad without his preaching.
Even during this intervention, brought on by his knife-obsessed meltdown, dad frets aloud that he has been forced by this episode to cancel one preaching engagement, and stresses that he might have to miss another one on Wednesday.
“I don’t know what to do,” he says.
“The first thing you need to do,” Alma says, “is start taking the antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication your doctor gave you.”
“I don’t like that stuff,” he tells her. “It makes me woozy and I can’t drive.” Mom cannot drive him. If he can’t drive, he can’t preach.
At last we get him to acknowledge that he simply has to take the medication, and that he must see a psychiatrist for an evaluation—not an easy thing to get out of him. He does not want to see anyone who disagrees with his theology. (How can they help him if they do not have spiritual insight, cannot see through to the eternal tragedy—comedy, I guess, if you consider the ending—that has shaped his entire life.)
“This is not about philosophy or theology,” Alma says. “They are medical doctors.”
After some discussion along these lines, he agrees to do it. From there, we make practical arrangements to keep mom safe and fed in the meantime. After that, we break up the meeting. Mom’s friend springs up and strides to the kitchen where she makes a plate of food for mom. Dad follows and makes himself a plate. I pick at a couple roasted Brussel’s sprouts halves. Garlicky and bright with lemon, they are delicious, and my stomach again cinches in hunger.
Mom sits in the dining room eating with her friend. Dad goes down the hallway and returns with his journal. Alma looks through it to get an idea of when the obsession started and how concerned we should be. She calls me over to look. On one page, along with some Fox News-fueled hand wringing about Obama and the moral decline of the country, are the words, “The fields are white unto harvest.”
At eighty, he is still crying out in prayer, “Here am I Lord. Send me.”

Hungarian-American writer Lawrence Dorr has a fine collection of stories called A Bearer of Divine Revelation. In the last story, “The Angel of His Presence,” an old religious man takes in his enemy, feeds him, cares for him, does not allow his own people to harm this man, their sworn enemy. The religious old man lives “in total abnegation of the self ... amidst the running tide of killings and hate, praying for the peace of God for all.” He does not just pray for peace for all; he lives it, loves his friends and enemies alike while war rages all around him. He ignores the tribalism and hatred because he sees through his immediate surroundings to a deeper, spiritual reality. He lives his life by this spiritual light. He is a holy fool.
The Russian term for this kind of holy fool is yourodivyje, literally “fool for Christ”—Katerina in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov calls Alyosha a holy fool; Prince Myshkin in The Idiot is a holy fool. Dorr’s example is the historical Nicholas of Pskov. Nicholas stood before Ivan the Terrible after the Czar had massacred thousands, destroyed homes and farms, and sacked monasteries. Nicholas castigated Ivan, who could have him killed with no more than a nod, to his face and then, for emphasis, slapped a bloody piece of raw meat into his bare hand.
In the short-lived HBO show Carnivale, near the end of the second and final season, Sampson, a midget who runs the carnival, talks to Ben Hawkins, a gifted kid—a holy fool—who is out to stop the evil Brother Justin. Ben is determined to carry out his mission although it is almost certain to kill him.
“What the hell is it with you people?” Sampson asks.
“What do you mean?” Ben says.
“You know what I mean,” Sampson says. “You, Jesus, John the Baptist, the whole bunch of you—all fired up to throw your lives away.”
          It is only throwing your life away if what you believe turns out to be untrue. The holy fool lives by a different reality. I remember reading stories about holy fools who threw rocks at the homes of people they knew to be righteous and left the homes of evildoers alone. It makes no sense until you discover that they are seeing into a spiritual realm where demons roam. They skulk around the homes of the righteous because they are barred from entering; they are nowhere to be seen at the evil homes because the doors were flung open to them and they are inside.
Last year, dad and mom went and saw the movie Son of God, in an actual movie theater—something that was forbidden in our youth in Elkview; were they loosening up in their old age? Dad was very much moved by the movie, called me on the phone and went on and on about it.
What I had read about the movie was that movie Jesus was a sexy European man, with long brown hair and straight nose. The Satan character—cut from the movie, but clearly present in the miniseries The Bible that came before it, and from which some of the footage in Son of God was borrowed—had been made up to be a dead ringer for the despised and feared President of the United States. I found that fact alone disgusting, but I was also confident the movie was the worst kind of kitsch.
I listened silently, not wanting to ruin the experience for dad. He went on to talk of his health problems for a while, and eventually said, “Keep us in your prayers.”
“I’ll be thinking about you,” I said. Our two visions of the world no longer meet.
“You need to pray too,” dad commanded into the phone in his preacher voice.
I waited for the moment to pass so we could move on to other things.
“Are you on speaking terms with the Lord?” he asked.
“That’s not a conversation I’m going to have with you,” I said.
We waited through an embarrassed silence. We would have been using the same words to talk about vastly different realities—it would have been a pseudo-conversation at best.
Dad wrapped things up cordially but abruptly after this. I’m sure he was praying for my soul before he had even set down his phone. I was in danger of hell because I no longer believed essential truths about God and humanity, life and history.
          Apparently, many people still believe what dad does, or at least say they do. According to a recent Gallup poll, 42% of Americans believe God created the world in its present form sometime between six and ten thousand years ago; 76% of Americans believe the Bible is the actual holy words of God. Polls by both Gallup and the Pew Research Center show that four in ten Americans believe that all humanity has descended, with a sin nature, from a literal Adam and Eve who were created full-grown, Adam from dirt, Eve from Adam. Another poll by Life Way Research found that 61% of Americans believe in a literal burning hell, and 53% believe that salvation from that hell comes through Jesus Christ alone.
          The real question might be why there aren’t more people like dad, obsessed with saving souls. If you truly believe that people are dying and going to hell—to eternal burning torment, don’t forget—and you believe they must accept Christ as their Lord and Savior to avoid that fate, and that Jesus has tasked you with trying to save them, you have two choices: disobey God’s command or win souls to Christ. What else could possibly be more important than winning souls?

After our family meeting about dad’s knife obsession, each one of us calls him within a few days to encourage him to see a psychiatrist as he promised he would. After a week, I call to see how things are going. The preacher admits that he has not called his doctor about seeing a psychiatrist yet, but promises he will.
Instead of seeing a psychiatrist, he sits in his own basement for informal counseling with one of his church deacons—a very nice guy, and, coincidentally, a retired butcher. When we are not satisfied with that, he lines up a few sessions with a licensed counselor—one with his degree from a Southern Baptist seminary. The counselor tells him he is fine.
A couple weeks later, Alma calls him. The anti-anxiety meds have alleviated his knife obsession, which is good since he is still there at the house with mom, who is herself doing better on new Alzheimer’s meds. Not what we wanted, but it will have to do.
Then, several days later, Alma calls. “Dad stopped taking his meds,” she tells me.
“Why?” I say. “I thought they were helping.”
“They made him woozy,” she said. “He couldn’t preach.”
She tells me he is, as we speak on the phone, driving up the Elk River with his guitar, which he uses to lead singing—ladies ready to accompany him on piano are dwindling—in the back seat. Even if no one repents and turns their life over to Christ—which is ever more unlikely since the churches he visits are peopled with oldsters who have been listening to gospel sermons about as long as dad has been preaching them—he is going to preach the gospel, woe unto him if he does not.
This holy fool will preach until the day he can preach no more. Maybe when he can preach no more he will snap, find something sharp, and harm mom. It is hard to imagine because he has been a gentle, nonviolent man his entire life. Maybe, the day he steps from behind that pulpit for the last time—a day that looms ever closer—the preacher will begin to empty out. Empty, he will wither. Withered, he will dry and crumble. Crumbled, he will blow away and scatter in the breeze. No longer connected by his purpose to the Ultimate Other, he will exist no more and be gone.

Vic Sizemore's writing is published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Connecticut Review, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, PANK Magazine, Silk Road Review, Reed Magazine, Superstition Review, Ghost Town, Entropy, Eclectica, and elsewhere. Excerpts from his novel Eternity Rowboat are published or forthcoming in Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Drunken Boat, Prick of the Spindle, Burrow Press Review, Pithead Chapel, Letters and elsewhere. Sizemore's fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award and has been nominated for Best American Non-required Reading and two Pushcart Prizes. Visit him at his website.