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Friday, January 23, 2015

Chapter 11

Renee shifted the cold cloth covering her eyes. She was worn out. Three days with those people was too much. She felt as if she had been chased by wolves through a burning forest. Now, back in the quiet of her own home, her exhausted mind struggled to figure out just why the events of the weekend had left her such a mess.

All those years ago, they had been the perfect family; stable, attractive, talented. They were ridiculously talented; all of them, in all sorts of ways. She was a gifted actress from the time she was in elementary school. And if it was a musical, she stole the show. She was never the instrumentalist that each brother was, but vocally she could bring down the house. And make people weep. Something neither of the boys, with all of their training and expertise, could do. Oh, people enjoyed it plenty when Dane or Wesley played. Audiences would smile and applaud and call for encores; they were that good. But when Renee sang, it was as if time stood still. There would be a deep, almost reverent hush come over the crowd. You could feel people stop whatever they were doing; fidgeting, looking around, distracted, thinking. You could feel it all pivot and stop. About the third note was when it would happen. It was arresting, captivating. A collective, “We weren’t expecting this.”

The brothers were as much alike in their personalities as they were different looking. Dane was small. He almost didn’t get into the Air Force Academy because he didn’t meet the height requirement until the month before he was supposed to be in Colorado Springs. He was blond and blue eyed with Northern European features. The Irish and German branches of the family tree contributed most to his looks. Wesley, on the other hand, looked like an Italian prince. Long limbed and tall, he had a flawless olive complexion and deep chocolate brown eyes. There were jokes their whole lives about the milk man fathering one of them. But in their mannerisms, gait, tone of voice, sense of humor, they were identical. They were brothers.

They were all together that convoluted weekend for the wedding of the fourth Bauer, their baby sister, Peyton. She was the auburn-haired, grey-eyed darling of the family who seemed to make beauty appear out of thin air. She could decorate a room with just a few yards of exquisite fabric and some eclectic touches and make you feel like you were having a religious experience. She could arrange flowers in such a way that you grieved when they died. She could make a meal that was so perfect in its balance of tastes and colors and aromas that you considered never cooking again because you knew the memory of that soul stirring meal would mock you. She had all of the music lessons and opportunities her siblings did, but her true talent was in cultivating and lavishing beauty on the world. She was magical.

Renee was pouting. “Why did I even come down here a day early? I should have known there would be nothing I could contribute to bouquet making.” Peyton was grabbing fresh flowers and arranging them into bunches so fast and in such deep concentration that watching her made Renee feel a little woozy. Her sister was in the zone. It was an amazing thing to watch.

“You are so good at that Peyton. You really should do it for a living.”

“I did. Don’t you remember? Right out of high school, at Cooper’s. Denise says people still ask for me. Says I put her on the map. She’s so funny. But that was the hardest work for the least pay I have ever done.”

“Yeah, but that was 12 years ago. Things are different now. High end shops make a killing in the city.”

“Renee,’” Peyton sighed her sister’s name, “You know I cannot live in the city. Besides, Jimbo’s work is here and his boys are growing up here. I’m not going anywhere.”

Renee’s stomach did an involuntary lurch at the mention of Jimbo. Her beautiful, talented, intelligent sister had waited until she was 30 years old to marry a man named Jimbo. Jimbo came with four, ill-mannered sons. And to make matters worse, in true redneck fashion, his mother and grandmother lived with them. It was almost too much to bear. But in true Bauer family fashion, Renee said nothing about the way she felt. It was her sister’s life and she did seem truly happy for the first time since Justin. At least she wasn’t marrying Justin. “The Justin Years” as Renee called them, were officially over as of four o’clock tomorrow afternoon in Weatherbee Park. Their mother interrupted her thoughts by screeching something from the kitchen about someone leaving a glass on the counter.

Peyton walked through the living room holding the bouquet of flowers she was working on. Even before she reached the kitchen she started talking in that warm honey tone she used on babies and old people. “Now, Mother, there are going to be a lot of people through the house in the next couple of days and you just cannot overreact to everything. You'll make everyone nervous. That’s my glass and I'm not finished with it. Go find Sonny.”

“How does she do that?” Renee thought.

Renee usually just seethed and remained silent when their mother went into banshee mode—which wasn’t so much a mode as a lifestyle. Mitzi Bauer Caldwell was a study in contrasts. She was the belle of her own ball and believed she should be treated like visiting royalty wherever she went. The four Bauer children were taught to call her Mother, not Mommy or Mama or Mom. She was beautiful, charming, a good conversationalist. She was loved by everyone except her children. The country club folks never saw her as she was at home. Impatient, exacting, overbearing, it was her way or the highway. Joan Crawford could have taken a lesson.

“Mother said that Dane is still about nine hours away.” Peyton relayed the information absentmindedly as she walked back in the room. She was staring critically at the flower arrangement in her hands.

Renee shot back, “Have they ever been early to anything? It seems like we hold our breath at every family function wondering when Dane and Patty will arrive. They are just as likely to stop somewhere tonight to sleep and have us all on pins and needles tomorrow morning. It’s just inconsiderate, that’s what it is. At least Wesley is already here.”

“Wesley’s not here.” Peyton said matter-of-factly, again without looking up from her work.

“What do you mean Wesley’s not here? I saw his dog in Mother’s back yard. Tell me he didn’t just drop that dog off.”

“He just dropped that dog off. Went to the beach. Said he’d be back in the morning.”

Renee stomped off to find her mother. She knew of no good reason she was doing so, because complaining to her mother about Dane or Wesley was like telling the Pope that Jesus and the Virgin Mary were not all they were cracked up to be. In her mother’s eyes those middle-aged men, whom they all still called “the boys”, had descended bodily from Mt. Olympus. Not that either of them appreciated her blind worship of them. Growing up watching her fly into a rage on a daily basis, even though it was never directed at them, had left them with no respect for her.

Renee had come to realize that she resented her brothers for this. If they had truly loved their mother for all of the attention, praise and money that she had lavished on them, Renee would have understood. But the boys didn’t love her. They used her in spite of hating her. Used her to get what they wanted out of life and then mocked her behind her back.

“It’s not all Dane’s fault, you know.” This had been her mother’s remark last spring when it had all hit the fan.

“Oh, really,” Renee had responded bitterly to Mitzi’s absolution of Dane’s behavior. “Exactly who held a gun to his head and forced him to fool around with half of Patty’s friends? He never mentioned a gun being involved in all of that sordid crap he unloaded on me. No, I’m sure there was no gun mentioned.”

Everything after ‘Oh, really” she had only said in her head. Renee said a lot of things to her mother in her head.

The sharp yapping of Wesley’s little Boston terrier brought Renee’s attention back to the matter at hand. Ridiculous, she thought. If she had even tried something so inconsiderate, her mother would have never allowed it. But, because it was Wesley, there was now a puppy digging up the marigolds. Renee realized that the worst part of it was that she would be the one to hear her mother gripe all weekend about it. Oh, not a word would be said to the dog’s owner – that would make too much sense. No, sometime tomorrow in addition to making sure her sister ate breakfast and picking up her grandmother from the airport and directing a wedding, Renee would be replanting marigolds. Well, she was not going to remain silent this time.

“Mother!” Renee did a little barking of her own as she reached the middle of the house. She knew it would be easier to start this conversation without actually looking at her mother. “Mother, where are you? If you think I am going to look after that little black and white gremlin this weekend while Wesley works on his tan, I am not.” Renee was looking around corners and through the French doors out onto the patio. Her mother was nowhere to be found.

And then she heard it. Giggling. Muffled and several rooms away, there was the unmistakable sound of her mother giggling. As she cautiously moved towards the master bedroom, Renee could also hear a man’s voice interspersed with her mother’s. It was Sonny’s voice, low and playful. An emotion akin to terror engulfed her as she inched towards the open bedroom door. The thought of actually seeing her mother cavorting with her new husband made Renee feel weak. Her intention was to quietly close the door without looking in. As she put one shaky hand on the door’s handle, something primeval forced her to peer into the room. The bed was neatly made and empty.

“What the—?” Renee muttered. She could hear the disembodied voices clearer than ever. And water running. Realization started in her toes and crept up her body until it crystallized in her brain. They were in the shower. Together. Two old people.

“Ew, ew, eww,” was all Renee could say as she scurried out of the room and closed the door behind her. About that time, Peyton walked towards the door that Renee had just closed. “Is Mother in there?”

“No. I mean, yes, but she’s not, um, dressed.”

“I’ve seen her not dressed, Renee.” Peyton reached for the door.

“Trust me Peyton, if you value your sanity, do not go in there.”

Peyton pushed past Renee and went into the bedroom. She looked around the empty room. When she heard the voices from the other side of the bathroom door, she stepped over to it and knocked. Renee gasped.

“Hey Mother, where are your good scissors?”

“The third drawer of that little cabinet in the guest bathroom, baby,” Mitzi answered, cool as a cucumber. Peyton walked past Renee with a crooked little grin on her face. Renee heard her mother and Sonny erupt into gales of laughter.

“Ick,” said Renee.

“Oh, grow up, Renee” Peyton said over her shoulder.

Mitzi had met Sonny Caldwell at Bill Bauer’s memorial service. He had been a school chum of Bill’s and had read about his death in the newspaper. Sonny's wife had died two years earlier and most of his time was spent organizing his tackle box and attending the funerals of his friends. He asked Mitzi to have a cup of coffee. They had coffee every day for three months and then told the children they were getting married. Renee had burst into tears.

“Daddy’s only been dead three months, Mother. Three months. It’s just not—appropriate. What will people think? What is the hurry, anyway?” Renee was afraid of what her mother’s answer to that last question might be.

“The church is having a retreat in two weeks and Sonny and I want to sleep in the same room. Pastor Mark said he’d marry us next Tuesday after the Senior Citizens’ luncheon.”

“Mark knows about this?” Renee practically shrieked. She could feel her face getting hot. Mark Foster had been Renee's friend for 25 years. He had been a studio musician in the days when Renee was doing backup vocals. She had encouraged him to go to seminary and he had convinced her to marry Keith. Five years ago, he had moved back to Linley and was now Mitzi's pastor.

“Mother, you should have told me before you asked Mark to get involved in this. He probably thought you were kidding.” Renee grabbed her purse and started fishing for her phone. She intended to ask Mark a thing or two. Beginning with just why he had not called her immediately after her mother presented this preposterous idea to him. Seventy year old people had no business getting married and sleeping in the same bed at church retreats. Ridiculous.

“Renee, what is so wrong with your mother having a companion?” Mark had calmly reasoned. “If nothing else, it will be a distraction for her. Do you want her bored - with your number on speed dial - for the next ten or fifteen years?”

Mitzi and Sonny were married the following Tuesday in a small, tasteful ceremony witnessed by the four Bauer children and Sonny's daughter, Kim.

“Peyton must have gotten inspired.” Mitzi had said when Jimbo and Peyton were engaged the week after. In spite of her reservations about Jimbo, Renee spent the next six months helping Peyton plan a storybook wedding. The emails flew back and forth and trips to bridal shops and caterers were a weekly occurrence. Now with less than twenty-four hours until the “dog and pony show” as Jimbo irritatingly called it, Renee was pleased that there was so little left to do. If the rehearsal was an indication, tomorrow they would witness the world's most perfect wedding.

They were watching the late news for Saturday’s weather forecast. Weatherbee Park was plan A and the church social hall was on standby in case it rained. Renee and Peyton were laughing at the anchorman’s obviously store-bought hair. Jimbo was sprawled out in the recliner, snoring. Renee struggled to not comment on the fact that the bottoms of his feet, which were pointed right at her, were as black as coal. Finally, she could take it no longer.

“Peytey, don’t you think you better wake him up so that he can go home? It looks like he might need to bathe.”

“Huh?” Peyton rarely picked up on sarcasm. Besides that, Renee had observed that Peyton did not seem to notice Jimbo’s many flaws. “Well, ain’t love grand,” Renee muttered to herself.

They shuttled Jimbo off to his house and gathered up linens and pillows for Renee. She would sleep on the couch. Peyton had the guest bedroom. She was staying at their Mother’s house because Pastor Mark had required the couple to spend a couple of weeks apart to reflect and contemplate the future. Truth was the church board of elders had forbid him to marry couples who were cohabiting. Peyton and Jimbo didn’t question the requisite time-out. Good southern people didn’t argue with preachers.

About three a.m., Renee’s eyes popped open. Was that the click of the front door? She decided she had dreamed it. Settling back into her pillow, she heard a floorboard creak. Must be Dane and Patty, she thought. She started to call out to them when she saw two crisscrossing flashlight beams coming down the hallway. It was the oddest thing she had ever seen in the middle of the night. Renee started to feel anxious. Who would be in the house with flashlights? Her heart started pounding. She considered shouting out, “Who is that?” in her best burly man voice, to trick them into believing that a burly man was awake and pissed off that they were in his house, but reasoned that startling them might cause them to shoot in her direction. They were most certainly armed. Who would break into someone’s house in the middle of the night without a gun? She decided she would just pretend she was asleep until they were gone. Someone walked past the couch where she lay hyperventilating.

“Dane?” she whispered, breathlessly.

The man walked into the bathroom without answering. Now serious panic took over. Renee was convinced that it really must be a break-in. Her head started to throb. I’m going to have a stroke, she thought. I am going to lay here and have a stroke while my mother’s house is being robbed. Just then, whoever was in the living room made another sweep through the house with a flashlight. Renee resolved that she had to make a break for it. She was going to try to get to her mother’s room undetected. Shaking with fright, she quietly moved a few steps from the couch and started through the kitchen. In an instant, a beam of light blinded her to everything but the faint outline of the shadowy figure behind it. The shadowy figure spoke. In an Alabama accent.

“You up, Naynay?” It was Patty. Renee’s whole body went limp and she just sat straight down on the kitchen floor. About that time, Dane walked in.

“What are you doing on the floor, Renee?”

“Flashlights? Really, Dane? Flashlights? Why would you come into someone’s house in the middle of the night brandishing flashlights?” Renee didn’t bother to get up.

“We didn’t want to disturb anyone.” She could tell Dane was grinning, even in the dark.

“Well, you nearly scared me to death.”

Patty was still holding the flashlight on Renee.

“Oh, Nay, I never knew you were such a nervous person.” The pity in her voice was the last straw.

“Crap,” Renee said, a little too loudly.

Mitzi called out from her room, “What’s going on in there?”

“Dane and Patty are here, Mother.”

“Well, you kids can cut up in the morning, Renee. People are trying to sleep.”

Renee quietly muttered, “Crap,” again, this time through clenched teeth. It took her over an hour to get back to sleep.

A little while later, little streaks of sunlight sliced through the blinds. Renee woke up, feeling surprisingly well-rested. The morning had arrived a tiny bit chilly and without the normal, oppressive humidity. Peyton had wanted to be married on the first day of spring since she was a teenager. Renee was happy for her that it looked like it was going to be a perfect day.

Burton the cockatiel was whistling the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show as Renee took her coffee to the porch. She was grateful for some time to herself. In just a few minutes the day was going to get very busy. As Renee was going through the day’s timeline in her head, she heard her phone ringing in the other room. She did not get to it in time but it immediately started to ring again.

“Good morning. Weddings Are Us,” she answered, laughing.

“Hey, Renee…” It was Mark. Something in his voice made Renee nervous. “Listen,” he started, “I have a little bit of a situation here. I'm at the hospital.”

Renee cheerily replied, “Well, you tell whoever called you to come hold her hand that you have a wedding to officiate, in exactly, um...” Renee looked at the clock. Yikes, was it nine already? “…seven hours, so she needs to...”

Mark interrupted.

“I'm not here for someone else, Renee. I'm being admitted. My arm has a pretty bad break, a compound fracture, actually, and they are going to have to do surgery. I fell into the baptistery this morning at the church. It's a long story.” He was talking so fast it seemed he didn't pause to take a breath. “Now, before you fall to pieces, let me tell you what I've already worked out. I called Jim Torrance and he is able to fill in for me.” He didn't tell her that he had called nine other ministers first. “It'll be fine, Renee. I'm so sorry. Tell Peyton I'm sorry, please? Jim is the Methodist minister, remember? It will be fine. I have to go. There's a cute nurse heading this way and I need to act pitiful. Don't panic, Renee.” The line went dead before Renee could respond.

“Jim Torrance?” Peyton was trying to assimilate the information that Renee was relaying.

“What do you think, Renee? Do you think it'll be all right?” Peyton searched Renee’s face for reassurance.

Renee didn't have the heart to tell her that Jim Torrance had spent forty-five minutes at the class reunion regaling her with his collection of conspiracy theories. He also had less than ten teeth. But, he was a minister and they needed a minister.

“Sure, Peytey, it'll be all right. Now, what do you want for breakfast? Let's get it started in here!”

Renee ignored Wesley when he came in from the beach, badly sunburned. Patty had made pancakes and Dane and Peyton were eating. Sonny and Mitzi were slowly pressing through their morning routine of coffee, medications, a little bit of breakfast and more coffee.

Renee was glad the wedding was not until four o'clock. The old folks would have never made it otherwise. When Renee started discussing the minister change with them all, Wesley immediately started giving orders.

Dane stopped him. “Third in birth order - you're lucky we let you sit on the furniture.”

Dane had already figured out that Renee was irritated so he was trying to run interference. “I think Renee's got this one, little brother.” He looked at Renee to see if she appreciated his efforts. She was obviously still mad about last night. Or something.

“Wesley, you have two songs to worry about,” Renee said in her best big sister voice.
“That will be enough. Why don't you go practice? Dane's right. Everything else is handled.”

Renee was proud of herself for not telling him off about the dog. She was saving a couple of conversations for after the wedding.

The Reverend Torrance read the words of the wedding ceremony from a laptop perched on a 1970's swivel barstool he brought from home. Other than that, the wedding was the thing of beauty that Peyton had planned. Renee cried through the whole thing. Dane escorted Peyton through the winding pathway that led to a gazebo in the middle of the park. Wesley sang with passion and tenderness. The reception was a relaxed, happy time for all of their guests. Jimbo's boys were disappointed there was no liquor for them to sneak, and told everyone so.

Renee surveyed the remnants of the reception. Most people had gone home. She watched Dane dancing one more dance with Patty and wondered how Patty had stayed with him after all the things he had admitted last year. Renee couldn't get past it and she was just his sister. Renee looked at her mother and Sonny, obviously exhausted, sitting on a bench, holding hands. It still hurt. It still made her sad. Actually, it made her mad. Mother has only lived for herself all these years, Renee thought. She was hateful and demanding while my father was alive. Why does she deserve to be happy? Mitzi saw Renee looking at her. She got up and left Sonny on the bench. She made her way over to where Renee was standing and took her hand.

“I'm so proud of you.” she said looking straight into Renee's eyes.

“Really, Mother? For what?”

“For turning out so well in spite of how awful I was to you when you were growing up. I was too hard on you. I told the boys, you know. I told them they had all the advantages and attention that you never got. I'm sorry, Renee. Please forgive me.”

It took Renee a minute to find her voice. “Why now, Mother? What made you see this after all this time?”

“Xanax.” Mitzi laughed at herself. “No. I don't know. Age. Love. God. Something. I just know I was wrong and you deserved better. I am truly sorry.”

“Wow.” It was all Renee could say. She went home the next day without berating Dane and Wesley as she had planned. Now, sitting in her living room, she couldn't wrap her brain around what had happened. It didn't really change anything and yet it changed everything. It was like her mother's apology had poked a tiny hole in the anger that had filled her up and it had all slowly leaked out. And in its place was a strange new feeling. It felt like forgiveness. She got up from the chair. She had some phone calls to make.

Chapter 10

Big Carl continued. “And then suspending the physical laws at work in the world, suspending His own laws, superseding the laws that He Himself created, the very laws that He established, God carried Ezekiel out in the spirit. Carried him. Out in the Spirit. We want to experience that! The move of God! Yes! The move of God. Move us God!

"Well, God moved Ezekiel alright. There are certain experiences you have that it could only be God who moved you. You know I’m right. I said, you know I'm right! If God established a law only God can break it. I don’t know who that’s for right there but God is willing to even suspend the natural laws, the usual course of events, the way it is supposed to be, to get you where you need to be. Where He wants you to be. And God will go above and beyond what anyone is expecting, what all of human history has known and experienced, God will counteract what He’s done before and what is the norm. I could stop and preach right there, couldn't I, Brother Thomas? Ohhh, move us, God. “

Blaine could tell when his father was really “feeling it.” He started saying words slowly, drawn out for effect. In the confines of his car, what had seemed so electrifying and holy when he was a child, sounded jaded and plastic. Blaine thought, "When did I become this person? When did I decide these things and this kind of life weren't for me?"

Blaine had no answer to his own question. He turned is attention back to Big Carl's preaching.“The Holy Ghost will show you things. I’m telling you, the Holy Ghost will show you things. It may not be what you want to see, or what you are expecting to see. You know I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, most of the time it is not what you’re expecting. Most of the time your human brain cannot even imagine what God wants to show you. God is so big and so high and so limitless. 
Mark and John knew this. They both had experiences that showed them that the Spirit transcends the laws of physics. God is not limited. There is nothing that can keep him from teaching you what He wants you to know. If you are in the wrong place, God will move you. If you need something different, God will move you. If you need revival, God wants to move you to a place of revival. But watch this—sometimes there is work to be done when you get there. Ezekiel was transported by the Spirit of God to another place and when he got there, all he saw was bones. Sometimes in our lives a mighty move of God gets us to a whole new place, and we look around and, lo and behold, it is not what we were expecting! We were expecting the miracles to continue, expecting that if God took us there then everything would be alright and we look around and it just looks—impossible,. Looks like it’s too late, too far gone, beyond anyone’s ability to fix it.

"Even though you are full of the Spirit sometimes you are taken by the Spirit of God to places that are dead. If Ezekiel had been some of us, he would have looked around and said, 'Uh uh, God did not bring me here. God does not take people to graveyards. No sir, I was mistaken. God did not do this.' I am telling you and I know from experience that God will take you to places that are dead, dead, dead.

"Verse 2 says about those bones, 'there were very many and they were very dry.'

"Very dry means they had been there a long time. Very dry meant that a lot of time had passed. They were a long time dead. No hint of life left. No shreds of tissue, no hint of blood, no DNA. Ezekiel heard nothing but deafening silence. All alone in a valley of bones. No clue why, no idea what God was up to. Have you been there? I have.

"Verse three. 'And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest.'

"Ezekiel did not shrug his shoulders and answer “I don’t know,” He did not answer with sarcasm. His was a bold statement of faith. 'You know, Lord.' It takes faith to acknowledge that there are things that only God knows. The human brain wants to figure everything out, understand the 'why' of everything. Atheists can’t figure God out so they deny He exists. Even people who know God intimately can waste time trying to figure everything out before they will let go and trust Him. There has to be a maturity of spirit that enables you to square your shoulders and boldly answer a seemingly impossible question with, 'God, You know!'

"Moving on to verse four: 'Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.'

"What? HUH? Miracle number one—bones are going to hear. Ponder that for a moment. God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy—to speak—to bones. Long dead, dry, bones. God told Ezekiel to tell them to hear. Tell them. To hear. They were bones! There were no ears! No inner ears! No ear canal, no tympanic membranes, no cochlea, no cilia, no nerves, no brain to process the sound waves that would be generated by his words of prophecy. No outer ears. No flesh, no cartilage, no skin. If there had at least been outer ears, it would have strengthened his faith to believe that these bones could hear. It would have at least looked possible, even symbolic, that his words were falling in the general vicinity of something that looked like it could hear. But no, there was no visible sign that what God was telling him to do could possibly happen. And there certainly were no inner ears, nothing even unseen to facilitate the miracle, nothing working behind the scenes. Are you listening? This was not going to be a progressive miracle, one phase following another. The Word from the Lord didn't say after the miracle, after I create ears, the bones would hear. They would hear even before there were ears! I don’t know if you are getting this or not.

"Not only were there no ears, remember there were no brains to process the sounds. Again, no human intellect involved to figure out what God was saying. Ezekiel believed God knew what he was doing He was God, after all so he could prophesy that kind of faith to even long dead, defeated losers. This was a dead, defeated army. Dead, defeated losers. skeletons of soldiers. God doesn't need anything at all from us to do everything He wants to do. Shoo! That's good preaching right there!

"Verse five: 'Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live.'

"The first promise was breath. There were all kinds of promises God was going to make to those bones, but the first promise was the most preposterous promise. How many of you know that God knows the end from the beginning? And He can tell us beforehand how it’s going to end up. I’m talking to somebody today. Somebody here, God promised you something. It might have been while you were reading the Word and a promise just jumped right out at you. It might have been in the midnight hour when you didn't know where your help was going to come from and deep down in your heart, the still small voice of God whispered, ‘It’s going to be alright.’ Yeah, somebody in here knows what it’s like to hear from God when you really need to hear from God. Somebody say, 'Hallelujah.' Oh, my. Thank you Lord."

There was a silent pause. Blaine could see Big Carl in his mind’s eye. See him wiping sweat with a crisp, white handkerchief. He’d wipe it slow and deliberate, across his forehead and down his jaw line. Pressing down hard. There was a place in just about every sermon that he would start this. It was part of the whole package that was Big Carl’s preaching. There were gestures and actions that had meaning and were intended to have an impact on the regulars. Whether he was doing it intentionally or not, when Big Carl wiped his face like that, it signaled that the serious phase of the sermon had just engaged. He was through with introductions and object lessons and anecdotes. That brow mop was a signal – the preliminaries were over. He was pausing, slowing things down, holding himself back, because it was about to shift into high gear. This was always the most electrifying moment of young Blaine’s week. Big Carl was feeling the Holy Ghost. His face and voice and posture changed.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Chapter Nine

Blaine drove west towards Bradenton. He took the tape with him but couldn't bring himself to listen to any more of it for a while. He didn't intend to go all the way to the beach, but ended up on Longboat Key. He absentmindedly followed the winding road along the beach side of the island. About a mile in, he parked his car on a public access road that was wedged in between two mom and pop motels. The wind was blowing through the sea pines and the tide was coming in. He just sat and stared at the blue-green water. It was Monday, so there was only a handful of people on the beach: families and couples laughing, sunning, taking it easy. The memories rolled into his mind like the gentle Gulf waves he was watching.

When Blaine was growing up, at least a month of every summer had been spent on this island. His family would rent a house and they'd live like beach bums. Every morning, they would gather towels and buckets and shovels and sundry-shaped flotation devices and walk the little shell-strewn path from the house to the beach. The sea oats and pines divided the quaint island cottages from the breathtaking beauty of the Gulf of Mexico. The happy little troupe would find a break in the sea oats and step onto the beach and into another world.

When the sun got straight overhead they would trudge back to the house for lunch and a siesta out of the midday sun. About three, or earlier if he could wear his parents down, they would all don their sun-baked swimsuits and head back to the water. He didn't remember ever being bored at the beach. Swimming, digging trenches in the sand, shelling, walking, walking, walking. He never tired of it. And now, sitting here alone, it was so peaceful that he fell asleep for about twenty minutes.

On the way home he stopped at a roadside produce stand. He decided that the name of the place must have been Three Old Drunks' Farm, because that's certainly who was running the place. He walked around a bit, more to stretch his legs than anything. He meandered through the maze of wooden tables laden with fresh produce not really sure what he was looking for.

In the back, were three, huge, metal oil drums sitting on a big grate. Underneath them was a magnificent fire. The flames licked up and around the sides of the sooty, black barrels.

He found the giant, outdoor fire mesmerizing. He stood with his hands in his pockets and watched it for a long time. So long that he knew he was worrying at least two of the Old Drunks. He tried to figure out why he couldn't take his eyes off that fire. He had never paid much attention to indoor fires, the kind in fireplaces. They were too contained, too civil. 

But this outdoor fire was raucous, dangerous, uncertain; built with sticks and bigger sticks. An outdoor fire is not framed by a decorative mantle strewn with candlesticks and pictures of the grandbabies. An outdoor fire is not a backdrop for anything; it’s not built to enhance a mood or be a conversation piece. No, outdoor fires are pure function; they're used by hardy people to cook or burn trash or keep the coyotes away. Outdoor fires are necessary; to protect tired hunters and fishermen and campers from the cold. And an outdoor fire might get out of hand at any moment—like a bad relationship. And burn down the barn. His daddy would have made a sermon out of these thoughts. Blaine laughed to himself.

Blaine stared silently. What was it about this fire that made it so pleasant and relaxing? The flames performed a disorganized, angry dance around those big cans as he began to slowly realize why he was captivated. All the memories he had of big, outdoor fires were associated with happy things. 

Like watching his grandmother burn stuff. Granny was a throwback to the pioneer days. She believed she could handle anything on her own, right down to burning her own trash. No fooling with some government-paid men to haul her trash away, no siree. That was as wasteful a proposition as she could think of. Why, she had that big old piece of land out back of the house and she could burn up more stuff in a day than those men could haul away in a week. She’d pile it all up over the course of an afternoon. About dusk she’d douse it all in flammable liquid and set it ablaze. She knew how to contain it so that it didn't burn up the surrounding countryside. Watching her old furniture and trash burn in those giant fires were some of the most delightful memories of Blaine’s childhood.

Another happy memory of fire was overnight camping on the river. About twice a year his Uncle Dudley would take Blaine and a cousin or two down the river on the pontoon boat. They'd go about as far as Punta Gorda or Port Charlotte and stop to camp for the night. Their camp would be bare bones functional and not resemble anything like the camping scenes in the movies. They'd set out to gather sticks and hope they'd find enough dead, dry wood to make a decent fire. Those camping fires were no match for the ones his granny could build, but each boy would smell wonderfully of smoke for days, nonetheless.

Last in the “fire file” in his brain was the giant bonfire at church camp. After a week of archery contests, softball tournaments and nightly revved-up revival meetings, the camp counselors would gather burnable materials all day for a bonfire. It was the highlight of the week. Apparently, the cafeteria workers needed that last night to do an overhaul on the kitchen before closing it up for the summer, so dinner was hotdogs and marshmallows toasted in that fire. The most thrilling part of the evening, of the entire week, really, followed dinner. It was an unspoken ritual that on the last night of camp, at the bonfire, each boy would sidle up to whatever girl he had been eyeing all week and invite her to sit with him during the sing-along. The air was charged with anxiety and hormones. Blaine felt like he was going to break out in a sweat just remembering it.

His brain bounced to another thought as he stood spellbound by the flames: Fire makes me happy the same way the smell of cigarette smoke does. He realized that this was a strange phenomenon. In his family, on both sides, smoking was considered a sin. Nobody smoked. Or admitted they did, anyway. This meant when he was growing up, Blaine only smelled cigarette smoke once a year—at the fair. So, in spite of never being around smokers, the smell of cigarettes was associated with happy crowds, bright lights, and loud music. It was a fun smell, a happy smell. His daddy said so, too. Blaine remembered how shocked he was as a teenager to hear his daddy say that he liked the smell of cigarette smoke. It made his daddy seem a little less holy, a little more “worldly.” Blaine stopped his inner ponderings and wondered, "How did I start thinking about the smell of cigarettes? Oh, yeah, fire."

On that day, this particular fire he was watching was boiling peanuts. He bought a pound of them, and then thought to himself, “I need a cold drink.”

“Ha! Now where did that come from?” Blaine laughed at himself. He had never heard anyone north of Lake City say cold drink. "You wanna cold drink?" in rural Florida specifically means a soda or pop, or whatever other folks call a carbonated drink. It is said as if it was one word and is pronounced "coal-drank". He was scaring himself now with how quickly he could slip back into old habits. On the drive back to Clyettville, he fished those peanuts out of the big, Styrofoam cup that “One Drunk” had put them in. Fire, boiled peanuts, and cold drinks. He had regressed to his cracker roots for sure.

Cracker roots. Blaine’s thoughts turned to the funeral. He wished he didn't have to go. Was there any acceptable reason to not attend your own daddy’s funeral? Of course not. Nostalgia for his daddy caused him to reach for the tape. He pushed it into the slot. Big Carl’s voice jarred Blaine from his relaxed state of mind.

Chapter Eight

Blaine started the tape. Hearing his father’s voice startled him. That voice. That long-ago, preacher voice. The voice that Blaine believed as a child was God actually speaking through Big Carl. It had been a long time since he'd heard it. For the last couple of years—since his mom died, really—Big Carl had sounded frail and old on the phone. The booming bravado in Blaine’s memories was missing. Now here it was blaring from an old cassette tape player. It pulled Blaine in.

Big Carl gave the congregation instructions concerning where to turn in their Bibles. A peculiar sensation started to form in Blaine’s stomach; it felt like a mixture of fear and sadness. Blaine pushed away the feelings and focused on the story his father was telling.

“A little boy told his mother he was having trouble sleeping at night. She said, ‘Why can’t you sleep, son?’ He said, ‘Mama, there’s a whole lot of dust under my bed and it scares me.’ She said back to him, ‘Son, why would the dust under your bed scare you?’ He says, ‘Well, Mama, my Sunday school teacher said that from dust we came and to dust we shall return. I can't sleep knowing that under my bed somebody is either coming or going!”

Blaine heard church people laughing like they were hearing standup comedy. "Sad," he thought. He could remember four different occasions that Big Carl had told that same story to those same people. They laughed every time like it was the first time. Weird. His dad made a couple of remarks out of mic range and continued.

“Fear is a common human emotion. And one of the most common fears is the fear of flying. People avoid it, take a train or drive, they medicate themselves, they sit for entire flights holding onto the armrest like that’s going to keep the plane from going down. But while some people fear flying, many people have a lifelong fascination with it. Have you ever dreamed you were flying? Without an airplane, I mean? I have. Pretty simple explanation for why we dream that. It has to do with wanting to get above your circumstances, with feeling like you need to escape. I’m glad everybody is not afraid of flying. I’m glad when I need to get to Charlotte to see my mama that I don’t have to drive 13 hours. I’m glad pilots aren’t afraid to fly, and stewardesses. Do they still call them that?”

Muffled sounds from the congregation.

“Oh, flight attendants, yeah, that’s right. Don't get me started. Anyway, flying is an age-old quest. A most common desire, this desire to fly. Men tried to fly for centuries before they figured it out. They jumped from high places; they ran with contraptions on their backs, pedaled until their legs gave out. Icarus, Leonardo DaVinci, the Wright Brothers. Our literature and history books are full of stories of men trying to rise above the shackles of gravity. Scientists say that there is DNA that they have no idea what it is for and some folks theorize that it is the untapped ability to fly. Now there’s a thought that'll keep you up at night.”

Big Carl was notorious for dropping a bomb like that into the middle of a sermon. He wasn't exactly well-read, but he read a wide variety of stuff. He preached without notes. The bulk of his sermon was stream-of-consciousness, so as he remembered something he'd read, which may or may not pertain to his subject, he would say it, without a lot of explanation. His congregation thought he was a deep thinker. Blaine knew better. Big Carl was about as deep as a Petri dish. Blaine’s word for his father’s preaching style was a made-up word he had heard another preacher use: Scatteratic. And the congregation mistook their own confusion for awe.

Big Carl had moved on.

“Ezekiel 37:1 says, ‘The hand of the LORD was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones,’ God’s hand was upon Ezekiel. And he knew it. There is nothing like that feeling, nothing like knowing that the living, powerful, mighty God, the All Sufficient One, yes, the Eternal One, the Holy One, who created everything out of nothing, I said He created everything that is - out of nothing - and to know, to know that He has His hand on you. Mmmm…I already feel His hand on me in this service. I said, I feel His hand right now. It’s called the anointing. He’s here to touch you, too. Whatever you need today, He will supply. God is a good God. I said, God is a good God. Can you say amen? Oh, I'm about to get happy in this place, but I've got a message to preach. I need to show you in God’s word that there is a recipe for Revival.”

“God placed his hand on Ezekiel…you know while I’m there, let me just say that there are all sorts of people: preachers, ministers, evangelists, men who say they are men of God, who claim - and maybe really believe - that the hand of God is upon them, but talk is cheap, you ever heard that? Doesn't the Bible say that many will stand before God and say that they cast out devils and did great things…talk, talk, talk, even to God - all they got is talk. Where is their fruit? Where are the changed lives? Where is the revival? Hoo boy, I could stay there awhile; let me get back to Ezekiel.”

“Ezekiel had more than just talk; he had an encounter with the miracle-working God. It’s one thing to say the hand of God is on you, to have some tingly, goose bumps run up and down your spine but it’s quite another to be CARRIED AWAY BY THE HOLY GHOST!!! I’m gonna shout! I’m telling you, you better clear a path for me down that center aisle, ‘cause I’m gonna shout!!!”

Blaine sighed knowing the next few moments would be taken up with an emotional outburst from the people there. He could hear the organ as it began to play the chord progressions that would get it started. He could hear their loud shouts of “Halleluia” and “Praise the Lord” mingled with other talking and laughing and crying that was all labeled, along with running and dancing, as “shouting.” It was a Pentecostal thing. To "shout" was more than just loud talking.      

Blaine hit “Fast Forward.” Three times he restarted the tape and three times they were still carrying on. Blaine sat and stared at the now silent tape player. Only someone who was Pentecostal in the 70’s could understand how that flat, black machine made him feel. Not nostalgic, exactly. Just transported back to a time when “Tape ministries” were an integral part of church life. The portable model tape player was a common accessory at church services and conventions. Other people had cassette players, but Pentecostals lived with them, carried them around, on top of their Bibles. They taped meetings for themselves and swapped the bootleg recordings like baseball cards. It was a freaky, hard-to-explain subculture. Information was effectively disseminated, passed person to person, through those tapes and nothing in later years would replace the fervor that people felt back then for cassette tapes.

Blaine stood up abruptly. He had lost interest in listening for now. He decided to take a little road trip to clear his head. He snatched up the tape, headed out of the house and into his car.
This proves it. Eighteen months has passed since I wrote a blog post so the fact that I am typing here, today, proves that I have no shame. Anyone else would have started over somewhere else or admitted defeat. But I don't want to start over or admit defeat. I want to write. My delusional worry that thousands of people will be bored or offended or surprised at the revelations in my writing is comical.

I recently asked women on a ministry page I manage to list what gifts they wanted to develop and improve this year. What a hypocrite. What am I going to do to improve/expand/increase the talents God has given me?

We'll see. I hope I write. Words are important. I want to use them.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Love and Death

tales have been told of Love— 
falsehood and fable, most of it
One: the lie that Love can be captured 
or even held by the hand 
Love is not beast or mythic titan,
to be bested and made useful
Love is a land, a hold
a majestic, wide chasm from which echoes
of rhyme and song call out 
enticing, pursuing, singing, "Come," and they come
to the precipice to peer in—Such vastness! 
but few begin the decent
into the dark quiet. Few brave the rocky path
down, down, down
and then lower still to
Lie in Love's grave;
be soothed
by its silence be
freed by finality; feel fertile black
earth 'neath wearisome bones
such peace and repose is only
for those who give in, give up
a million imaginings
the dead keep the secret
of finding the way
to die of love

Not Buying In

Epinephrine is a stimulant and endorphins are natural opiates. Both of these are released in the brain when we experience fear and both are highly addictive. I believe the basis of the turmoil surrounding recent events is fear. And I believe the fear that people have in varying degrees concerning racial issues is being magnified by the media and politicians. The idea is being promulgated that there is a cauldron of unrest and violence roiling mere inches below the surface in America and one day, ONE DAY, one final unfair, unjust incident is going to be the last thing the people we’ve been convinced to fear can take and KABLOW!
All of us, regardless of our skin tones, are being manipulated—told that there are people and cultures, and ideologies to fear. For what purpose? Maybe, just maybe, it’s about money. Wait a minute, listen to me. Maybe we are being whipped into a fear-filled frenzy to sell air time, and books, and music, and ratings, and most of all political power—we just might need to follow the money to get to the root of it all. Money of itself is not evil but when you lie, cheat, and steal to get it, as I contend these fear mongers are doing, you are operating out of an evil place. “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith” 1 Timothy 6:10.
We can’t allow ourselves to be manipulated, we cannot afford to fear. Like Joshua and Caleb, let’s speak life, let’s encourage each other , let’s declare what God is able to do through us in spite of the giants of fear, hate, and greed in the land. 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For God has not given us the spirit of fear,but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”