Dark Light

Fools and Children

by Melvin Sterne

     You end your Bible study with the same tired line every week: “Have a bless-ed day.” You emphasize that first syllable: bless. It’s a Southern thing, this pronunciation. You were born and bred in Deer Lodge, Tennessee, and only moved to Wichita with your wife, Sissy, in your 40’s, after Sissy’s mother had a bad stroke and took to a wheelchair. The crosses we bear, you thought at the time. After all, you’d lived your whole life in Deer Lodge – and it’s a fine place to raise a family. But that was years ago, and you and Sissy hadn’t been able to have a child. Another of those things that makes you wonder, Why me, LORD? So you settled into your mother-in-law’s little farmhouse on the edge of town, and you work the late shift loading the grain silo and Sissy waits tables mornings at the truck stop, and on weekends in summer you set up a stall by the off-ramp on the interstate and sell pecks of strawberries from your garden. And in the winter, you sell firewood on the side – split and delivered. And you devote the rest of your time to taking care of her mother and your ministry. 

     You host that Bible study every Sunday. Have for years. There’s a circle of seven today. They come for Sissy’s chicken and stay for the word of the LORD. They’re all men, all losers at life – “the offscouring of all things until now.” Convicts on parole. Drug addicts in rehab. Men on the run. Men with no names. Men with problems. Sometimes evil to the core. Sometimes just plain fucked up in the head. They show up at your door homeless and hungry and unemployed. They eat first – fried chicken and tater tots sloshed down with cups of strong black coffee. Then they sit for an hour to read His word and talk about their week. At the end of the hour, you all hold hands and recite the Lord’s Prayer. You have no illusions. You know that after prayer, the men are itching to get out and go do whatever they do when they’re not in your living room repenting of it. Or at least get outside to smoke a cigarette. And after a while – a few days or a few weeks – they either get better or they disappear. 

     Usually they disappear, back into the void from whence they came. But once in a while… lightning strikes. Over the years, a few changed their ways. But today, they’re itching to get outside but in no hurry to leave. Everybody’s looking out the window or leaning towards the door. They want to know what’s up with the fire truck that just barreled through your barn and crashed down the old cattle chute where you stacked those cords of firewood you sell. 

     The engine is sitting there now – leaning precariously to one side but miraculously not rolled over. There’s a thin little trickle of steam rising from under the hood. No lights, no siren, no fire. The truck just burst through the barn and barreled down the chute sending splintered boards flying until the engine came to a rest on top of the firewood. You had just finished the “deliver us from evil” part. You finish the part about the kingdom and the power and the glory. You say “Amen,” and the group rushes out on the front porch to see what’s up. But you already know what’s up. It’s Jesse. 

     Sissy’s hears the ruckus and comes into the living room with an inquisitive look on her face. She hasn’t seen yet but she already has that Oh, no, not again! look on her face. You shrug your shoulders and smile sheepishly. The crosses we bear. You follow the men out into the front porch and say, “Ya’ll should prob’ly go on home. I’ll take care of it.”

      Most of them leave. Your words stir memories of old warrants and debts and scores-to-be-settled with the police. And there isn’t much else to see. There’s no explosions, no gunshots, no action heroes or pretty girls. It’s not like TV at all. The men scatter like pigeons except for Domino. Domino’s one of the ones who ‘got it’ and stuck around. He’s six-six and maybe 300 pounds. Bald. All muscle. Used to be a strong-arm robber but now he’s a mechanic. Works on farm equipment. He can twist a rusted nut off a cold iron bolt bare-handed. Hasn’t had a drink in forever, it seems. But he’s still an adrenaline junkie. “Want me to hang back?” he asks. He cracks his knuckles.

     You shake your head. “No,” you say. “The LORD is my shepherd.” You look over at Domino and wink. You are maybe five-five and might make 150 soaking wet. Your hair is long and blond and stringy, fading to gray. You’re wearing a white sleeveless tee shirt and jeans. Your shirt has a blue dove on the front with the words I can’t follow Him on Twitter printed in simple black letters underneath. Your arms are a tangled vine of pale blue prison tattoos. And Jesse’s not going to do anything. You think. 

      Domino says, “Hokie-Dokie” and leaves, glaring over his shoulder now and again to make sure that whoever is in the fire engine behaves.

      You watch as Jesse thrusts open the driver’s side door and rises like the dead up onto the side of the fire engine. He slides gingerly down to the wheel well and then, holding on the wheel to steady himself, jumps to the woodpile and the ground like a kid in a playground. He grins and looks over his shoulder at the truck, then back at you. “Whew!” he says. “That was a close one.” He laughs, then saunters over to where you stand, watching. 

      “You okay?” you ask.

      “I think so,” Jesse says. He looks back at the fire engine and then adds, “Not really.”

      “Want a coffee?”

      “Is it fresh?”

      “No. But it’s hot.”

      “Well, okay.”

      He follows you inside. Sissy has already picked up the plates and silverware and coffee cups. The Bibles are stacked neatly on the coffee table. She comes in with two cups of coffee and sets them down. One black, for Jesse. One with cream and sugar, for you. “I got some chicken leftover,” she says. “But the tater tots is all gone.”

      “No thank-ee, ma’am,” Jesse says. He’s all shucks and polite. He’s got a black ball cap that says CAT in bright yellow letters. He’s taken it off and holds it in his hands. 

      You and Jesse look a lot alike. Sometimes you see him as your dark, evil twin. You’re both scrawny, skin-and-bones, long-haired and bearded. You’re both tattooed, your clothes perpetually rumpled, even when they’re clean. But while you’re pale and blonde and blue-eyed, Jesse is buckskin tan with black hair and dark eyes. He could be Mexican, or Italian, or Gypsy. Who knows? He’s wearing faded jeans and an old Black Sabbath tee shirt, black with white Gothic lettering. He’s got a fossilized shark’s tooth on a red string around his neck. 

      You sit down and Jesse sips his coffee while you rub your temples in a gesture that almost looks like prayer. Finally, you look up and say, “You know, Jess, you can’t go on like this.”

      “I know,” he says. He’s looking down at the table like a schoolboy who forgot his homework, not like a grown man who’s just crashed a firetruck through somebody’s outbuildings. 

      “Where’d you get the truck?”

      “I stole it.”

      “That’s a felony.”

      “I know.”

      “Any others I need to know about?”

      “Not that I can remember.”

      Jesse gets like this when he’s drinking. Does crazy things. Wakes up in crazy places. Sometimes has no idea where he’s been or what he’s done. 

      “They can hang you, you know, even if you don’t remember.”

      “I know.”

      You want to be angry but you’re not sure why – or what good it would do if you were. You used to get angry – Lord knows – before you got religion. Angry all the time. That’s what landed you in prison. And in prison you met Bingo. “Deliver us from evil,” Bingo said, doesn’t mean what others might do to us. It means what we might do to them.” That got your attention. It got you started down the path. “Deliver us from evil,” you say out loud, though you’re talking more to yourself than to Jesse.

      “Amen,” Jesse replies. He spills his coffee.

      You roll your eyes. What next? You’re not worried about the coffee, like you’re not worried about the property damage outside. Sissy will wipe up the spill and insurance will take care of the barn. And you were going to tear it down anyway. Hell, Jesse might’ve done you a favor, of sorts. Now insurance will finish the job and pay for it. Still, somehow Jesse’s showing up this way feels like a personal failure. It feels like you did something wrong, not him. If a court can hang you for something that you did that you don’t remember, what might God do for something that you did wrong, even if you didn’t know when you did it? 

      You don’t know Jesse, outside of these (for lack of a better word) encounters. You don’t remember for sure where or when you met. Maybe it was on one of your prison ministry calls. Or maybe Jesse came to one of those Sunday lunch sessions once a long time ago. Or maybe you never really met. Maybe some hobo pointed the place out to him. Lookee there. See that cream-color house? There’s a man there’ll feed you for free Sunday afternoons if you listen to him preach for an hour after. Not much on the preachin’, but the chicken’s right tasty

      You look at Jesse, now wringing the CAT cap in his hands like he’s twisting the head off a chicken. You see that corresponding tangle of blue thread tattoos bearing the signs and names of prison gangs and blood grudges. On Jesse’s right forearm there’s one that stands out – the bright, glowing outline of a cross. But the bottom edge is pointed and shaped like a dagger dripping blood. You wonder, What is it with this guy? You know that someday he’s gonna go one way or the other.

     The first time Jesse turned up was in the middle of the night. The flickering light of a fire woke Sissy. “Something’s burnin’,” she said.

      You got up and pulled on your jeans. You went out barefoot into the front yard. Jesse was standing there with a bottle of Jim Beam in one hand and a gas can in the other. A cross was burning in the yard. Funny how even then, that first time, in the middle of the night, you weren’t afraid. The thought never crossed your mind. A voice whispered in your ear, “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you.” 

      Jesse swayed side-to-side, glassy-eyed, like he was in a trance, the blaze reflecting in his pupils. 

      You took the gas can out of his hand and set it away from the fire so it wouldn’t explode. It was late January and trying to snow, tiny chips of ice or frost dropping from a heavy sky. Sissy still had Christmas lights strung over the front door and a tree blinking in the window. You looked at the lights, then at the fire dying down in the yard. “Are you cold?” You asked.

Jesse nodded. 

      “Come on in,” you said. “I’ll make you a coffee.”

      You sat in the living room and drank coffee ‘til dawn. Small talk. Where you from? Been to jail? How’s the family? When Jesse sobered up enough to have a conversation, you asked, “Why’d you do it?” 

      “Do what?” he replied. 

      You showed Jesse the cross burnt into the front lawn. The sun was coming up, the sky gray and pink on the horizon. The fire was long gone. Wasn’t even smoking. 

Jesse blinked and stared like he had no idea. “I don’t know,” he said. “I did that?”

      You nod. “You working?”

Jesse shook his head. 

      “Got a place to stay?”

Jesse gestured with his right thumb over his shoulder. 

      It was a gesture that might mean that way or no place at all. You took it to mean that Jesse was afraid to say. Or couldn’t remember one. You said, “It gets right lonely at holiday time, alone, you know.”

Jesse nodded. 

      “I spent three years alone at Christmas,” you said, “homeless. Drunk. It’s hard living. I woke up once face down in a park with three inches of wet snow on me. Got the pneumon-ee. Hard to get over bein’ sick when you got no money to see a doctor and no place to get warm. And that pneumon-ee come back every winter for three years after.”

Jesse nodded. He wasn’t one for talking, but he listened. 

      “That was a-fore I got right with the Lord,” you said. “A-fore he cured me of my wickedness and sin. You know, you don’t have to live like this.”

And then Jesse laughed, a deep, rolling, lose-your-balance belly laugh. “I don’t?” he said. “Who you think made me like I am?” 

      “With evil things God does not try, nor can he be tried,” you replied. And sometimes you wonder if maybe that was the moment when it became personal between you and Jesse. Some invisible glove thrown down.

      The second time you met was six months later and your truck was on fire. The truck was a total loss. The neighbors called the fire department – somebody’d seen it burning even before you woke up. The fire department came out and doused the truck in foam. And you saw Jesse there, in the distance, across the road, standing in a field of alfalfa, out beyond the circle of flashing red-and-blue lights. You didn’t say a word and Jesse didn’t run away. He just stood there like a statue, like a wraith, watching. Son-of-a-bitch, you said, but you still didn’t point him out to the cops. You wanted to, knew you should’ve. It was your civic duty. Serve him right. And Sissy would scold you good for not doing it. But that voice inside said, Now is not the time and you thought, God looks after fools and children. Even if it don’t say so in the Bible. Not in those exact words, anyway.

      Next spring, you poured a concrete ramp to help Sissy take her mom up and down the front steps. You’d had a plywood ramp but it weren’t any good in the winter. In the morning, you woke to find footprints in the slab. There was no sign of Jesse, but you knew. And you didn’t like him prowling around the house like that. Creepy. You thought about getting a restraining order. You thought about buying a shotgun. But you didn’t.

      And sometimes, it was just little things. Notes under the windshield wipers. Or little things missing. And sometimes it was little things found: a box of donuts, a cellophane pack of green plastic toy soldiers. A box of candy hearts on Valentine’s Day. 

      “Tell me,” you say, “why do you do this?”

      “I don’t know,” Jesse says. Then, “Yes, I do know. It’s the pain. I get this crazy pain, and then I just don’t know what else to do.”

      “So you do these crazy things?” You hear the sound of sirens in the distance, out on the interstate. 

      “Yeah, I reckon.”

      “But why me? I ever do anything to you?”

Jesse looks at you, and you think he has the saddest eyes you have ever seen. 

      “No, sir. You never done me no wrong.”

      “Then why me?”

      “You’re the only person I know I can talk to. I ain’t got no family. No nothin’. You’re the only one who will listen.” He looks down at the Bibles stacked on the coffee table and sighs. 

      You say, “You don’t have to do things to talk. You can just show up, and we can drink coffee right here anytime.”

Jesse sets up and looks out the window.

The sirens, you think. You say, “You better get going.”

      “Thing is,” Jesse says, not going, “I know that someday I’ll come back and I won’t do crazy things anymore. And then…” he looks up at you almost hopefully, “and then you’ll be proud of me.”

You think about this. Can you be proud of somebody for stopping doing something they shouldn’t have did in the first place? 

      The sirens grow louder. The cops are maybe a mile away. You can see the flashing lights in the distance. In a few seconds, you’ll make out clouds of dust rising when the cops turn down the dirt road that leads to your house. 

      “I better go,” Jesse says. He walks to the front door and stops by the closet. He opens the closet and looks inside, then takes a long, orange, terry cloth bathrobe and holds it out for you to see. “Mind if I borrow this a while?”

      “Take it. It’s yours.”

      Jesse puts it on and then walks back through the house to the kitchen, where he passes Sissy. She’s standing by the kitchen door with the coffee pot and a plate of cornbread. “Thankee, ma’am,” Jesse says, tipping his hat and then taking a slab of cornbread, “but I best be gettin’ along.”

      You follow Jesse to the back door and watch him hold the cornbread in his mouth while he puts on the bathrobe. Then he runs across the yard, fast, and jumps the fence into the neighboring pasture. You watch Jesse run. He looks ridiculous with that bright orange bathrobe flapping around him. And he’s fast for a man running in Red Wing work boots. 

      Sissy puts a hand on your shoulder. She’s still holding the coffee pot, but she’s set the plate with the cornbread down. “Reckon they’ll catch him?” 

      You laugh. “You’d think they would,” you say. But you sigh and know that somehow, they won’t. “I reckon that’s the last we’ll see of him, though,” you say. But even as you say this, you hear that voice inside. It sounds like it’s trying not to laugh. No, it says, you’ll see him again

      “Fools and children,” you say. 

Sissy looks at you like you’re the crazy one.

      You smile and reach for the cornbread – she makes the best cornbread, moist and crumbly and buttery – and then you wonder which one you are. Which is better, you wonder, to believe foolishly, like an idiot, or to believe credulously, like a child. But then again, you think, maybe one day you’ll open the door one Sunday morning and find Jesse standing on the porch. He’ll be sober, hat in hand, and smiling. “Remember me?” he’ll say. 

How could you forget?

      The cops are banging on the front door now. Sissy lets them in. “No,” she says, “I was in the kitchen. Didn’t see a thing.” And Jesse’s almost out-of-sight. He’ll catch a ride someplace. Or hop a freight. Arizona? California? Canada? Who knows? You turn and cross the kitchen and come out into the living room. You swallow a bite of cornbread while the cops look at you. “I didn’t see either,” you say, even though you hate to lie. It’s a sin. Even little white lies. Or is it? Would He want you to lie to cops to protect one of His own? Somehow, you just can’t pull the trigger on this one. You want to. You want to know more than anything. But somehow, you just can’t do it.

      Someday, the voice says, he’ll be back. You’ll open the door, and he’ll be standing there and smiling, and you’ll say, Jesse. Come on in. Want a coffee? You wonder if the gates of heaven might be a little bit like that. You close your eyes and imagine Jesse coming through the door, hat in hand. He will. And you’ll be proud. Even if you never know the reason why.

“Shrine” Courtesy of Lindsey Morrisson Grant
Related Posts

Hope Like Stars

Every day I try not to drown. Every day I try to breathe. Every day I try to…