Little White Church - Joe Tom King

I felt like hammered shit. Last night had left internal tattoos all through my body. Too much whiskey and too much smoke left me feeling like my skin was vellum and my bones would soon stick out like prongs. Would I ever learn, certainly did not look like it was going to happen anytime soon? I needed to have a limen hit me in the face with the strength of an ox or I was going to die very soon.

My car, I think it was my car, at least I had the keys when I got in it this morning, roared over the crest of a long hill just west of Eufaula. The road ahead of me looked like a scattered ribbon thrown from a higher place. The early morning sun was just taking a peek over the eastern horizon. I was trying to just peek at the road as my eyes did not want full exposure to the bright light.

About halfway down the hill, I noticed a white building on my left and for some reason my foot lifted off the accelerator. It was a church, painted a bright white, it almost glistened. It had a small belfry perched at the front of the roof. There was no sign or designation at all. A small gathering of vehicles surrounded the front in a weak semi-circle. The common denominator was a casting of red clay dust on each and every one. Pickups of all shapes and sizes, but all wearing dents and scratches like soldiers in a war.

My steering wheel guided me into a space at the end of the parking arc. I eased out of the car and walked towards the door in a slow shuffle. During which, for the first time I had thoughts about what I was doing. It was like I had been tossed off a distant precipice like a glider being guided by a spiritual wind. For some reason, I felt unease that I was not dressed properly. Jeans that were designed for partying, designer holes in the thighs, a shirt that was some type of nylon material with huge flowers front and back. It was unbuttoned one button too far. High top black dress boots with scuffing being far too evident. I had that seventies hippy dippy look. My hair was a mess and shaving had been AWOL for at least three or four days.

Uneven stones had been cobbled together to form steps onto a small porch. The doors were enormous and made of oak. They looked very much out of place, like a cowboy belt buckle on a thin belt. I took one of the handles and opened it to an open space no bigger than a living room in a small house. There were four rows of pews with a small speaker’s stand at the front.

Music cluttered my body like a mess. I raised my head and saw a horse-faced woman playing a clippity-clop piano. Next to her was a child playing an accordion that completely hid her body. It looked like an accordion with legs. A man was playing a Jews Harp, like it was a harmonica. The congregation was singing, ’What a Friend We Have in Jesus.’ Their voices blended together like a large chime. I stood without movement and discovered that I was singing like I belonged there.

The song crept to its end like a soft rain on a summer afternoon. Without looking at anyone or receiving any direction, the congregation sang in unison and so did I.

Part and parcel of any church of this kind would have been a strong “Amen,” from a member of the audience. This church did not disappoint. A large elderly man’s voice boomed a glorious, “Amen.” Just like Brother Kent from my younger church going years.

The Jews harpist stuck the harp in his pocket and sidled over to the speaker’s stand. He was a small man with big glasses. He was baldheaded down to the top of his ears and the fringe was a dirty gray. His hands opened a Bible that looked to be as thick as a softball. I didn’t think he could pick it up, but he did. His hands were knobby from hard work, his suit was worn to a dim sheen. The shoes flared from under the cuff of too short pants. They were what I always called work boots. But, with honest scuffing, unlike mine.

The preacher raised his head from looking at the Bible and said, “John 14, verses 1 through 4. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in Me. In my father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you and if I go and prepare a place for you. I will come back and take you to be with me. That you also may be where I am.”

If death is silence then this was death. Not a shoe shuffled, not a cough was coughed. I was afraid to move. It seemed like a long time but the piano lady moved from the first pew to sit behind the piano. The small child hid behind her accordion and preacher man took the harp from his pocket and they commenced to play a song I recognized by the third strike of the piano keys and the first wheeze of the accordion. ‘Just as I am.’

The first verse of the song crawled around the twenty-five or so people in the room with no fruition. I was kited back to my teenage years again and seated in the back row of the Baptist Church. My mother played the piano and my father had that high lonesome tenor voice that seemed to string a hard wire over the other voices in attendance. I always hated this part when the preacher would launch a sorrowful plea between verses. I disrespected his true intensions and deeply suspected he just wanted to put another notch on his born- again belt. Hands were raised by several in the congregation.

My attention was grabbed by movement on the third row on my side of the room. A lady dressed in the uniform of the day. A dress that died just short of the well- worn black shoes on her feet. Her face was exquisite and clean as a Sunday plate. Her hair was black as a nun’s cassock with a waft of gray drifting just above her ears. I could feel that my mouth was open as if I wanted to say something, but could not. I knew her.

She got to the end of the row and reached back and took the hand of a young man, he could have been as young as sixteen or as old as twenty- two or three. He was not right. He was dressed in a pair of worn khaki pants, a short- sleeved shirt that was basic white but had large pictures of Shetland ponies all over it. All of this was topped off by a bow tie that was a violent green color. His demeanor was fitting for the way he was dressed. Sounds gargled out of his mouth with no joinder among them. He had no idea where he was going or what he was doing, but he knew he was going with her.

The word that rose from her movements towards him was gentle. She guided him to the front row and knelt in front of him. She looked directly at him and said four words. One of which slammed me almost to my knees. She said, “Clyde, I love you.”

Her hands went to his weathered shoes and untied both of them. She took the shoes in her hand and slipped them off his naked feet. It was a thin tread of intimacy, an adorned ritual that wept of being a unicum. She reached back and the preacher handed her a bar of rough gray soap and a damp cloth. Her face was agleam with a smile that could not be replicated in this world. She took the soap and cloth and washed his feet with a gentleness reserved for the near dying. He had not moved during this entire scene. My whole body was chasing goosebumps from head to toe.

She stood up and seemed to have grown. Her body posture was the most regal thing I had ever seen. She took Clyde’s hand with her right hand and picked up his shoes in her left. They walked up the aisle as the remainders started to hum, which was a sound that posted a low vibration deep inside my chest.

As she passed me, she hesitated, looked me straight in the eye and smiled.

I stood there like an old lamp post while the congregation drained from the room.

My thoughts took a twenty- year leap back to an apartment in Mid-Town Atlanta. The one scene that stayed impaled in my brain leaving a permanent scar was one Saturday morning in the middle of the summer. Outside, the heat could not be escaped, late afternoon showers participated every day. People scooted to and from their cars so as not miss the sustenance of air conditioning. I was sitting in a worn recliner with patches that looked like fur balls on its arms. My head hung as if my neck was broke.

I could see into the single bedroom and took another look to make sure it was empty. The little windup clock said ten forty-five and I hoped it was in the morning. She was gone and I did not know where or how to start looking. We had been together for six months and it had been a kaleidoscope of alcohol, drugs, music and venery.

The days were spent in hunting for the spoor of drugs and the money to hunt for drugs. The hunting was sprinkled with big drops of alcohol. The nights were spent consuming the prey of the hunt. We would sit and look at each other and talk ever-loving shit. We had plans as big as dirigibles and just as unreachable. We were full of so much crap that it’s a wonder we weren’t hauled off with the trash.

She was gone and I was clotted with forlorn emotional blood.

The pain brought me back and I realized I was alone. I turned and walked through the big doors out into the brittle winter sunshine. Only two cars remained in the presence of the church. A large man, who looked familiar, was leaning into my car. I approached with caution. From about ten feet away, I could see that two people were in my car. One in the front passenger seat and one in the back.

She was the passenger. I opened the door and eased under the wheel. “Clyde, this is my father, Dempsey Charles. Daddy, this is Clyde, the man I have talked about for the last twenty years. Why don’t y’all say hello.”

We did. Mr. Kent nodded his head and walked away to the other car without another word.

“I knew you would show up one day. It took a little longer than I expected. I guess you have a question about the young man in the back seat. His name is Clyde, does that seem a coincidence to you? He is not a coincidence; he is your son. You also probably have a question about why I left. I knew I was pregnant and I also knew that I had not crossed a line from which I could not return, but I could see the line. I called my dad to come and get me. He was waiting on the street for me and I have been with him and my momma ever since. Clyde was riding on a tractor with his grandfather one day, it turned over on both of them. He has brain damage that will never get better. He is gentle, but cannot communicate at any level. My daddy and momma love him like no other.

I sat there, again with my head down.

I remembered the thought I had prior to my entering the church. My need for a limen to hit me in the face was satisfied. She was sitting in the front seat with me. I was holding hands with a directional change in my life. I clasped her hand like a drowning man.

I started the car and we left not a trace.

Joe Tom King is the author of two novels and five short stories. He has been writing for two years.

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