This is the third volume of Gospel Harmonies, a series of seven stand-alone books (four have been written) that follow the character of John in various guises as he attempts to navigate the uneasy relationship between the self and the postmodern world.
|Publisher:||Soho Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.53(w) x 8.19(h) x 1.22(d)|
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If it's after midnight it’s my birthday.
I once picked up a novel that started that way, but before I could read more than a few lines something distracted me. Though I remember the bookstore, which is closed now, and the distraction—he was about six foot three—I don’t remember anything else about the novel, neither title nor author nor what came next. But even so, I’ve never forgotten that line. I don’t know why. If it’s after midnight it’s my birthday. Evocative maybe, but also pretty meaningless. Still, it’s stayed with me, popped into my head from time to time, and shortly after I left Galatea it came to me again. During my year there I was witness to one rape, several murders, and something that, context aside, I can only call a riot, but in twelve months not one single person celebrated a birthday. No, only the town observed its birthday. Only the town, as Rosemary Krebs insisted all along, was important, and with that in mind I feel safe in saying that the story you are about to read is the story of a place, not a person. It is like a parade: though one marcher after another will step forward and claim to be the star, it is, in the end, the spectacle of stardom itself that lingers in the memory. And so I, first on, will now step aside, first off; but I leave this impression with you, a palimpsest that lingers behind the remainder of these words. If it’s after midnight it’s my birthday. In a way, I am striking a bargain with you: if you can make that one sentence mean something, then I promise to take care of everything else.
He opened his eyes.
The porch light’s glow pulsed through rain sluicing down his bedroom window. His eyes had their pick-a things to choose from—the mirror on the wall, the stack of read and reread detective novels in the comer, the photographs of his parents and sister—but they settled finally on the painting of Jesus he had made in Bible camp when he was eight years old. The rain-soaked light caused the Savior’s heaven-gazing eyes to cry-shadows of tears.
The phone rang again.
He knew before he answered what it would be. Not who. What. Wasn’t no other reason for someone to call at such a ungodly hour.
He picked up the receiver, held it to his ear without speaking. A pause, and then a quiet voice came over the line.
“John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave.”
Melvin bit back a sound, at once a laugh and a gasp. The laughter was for the silliness of the code, the gasp was a gasp of shock and acknowledgment. It couldn’t be. But it had to be. It was.
He composed his voice as much as possible.
“His truth is marching on.”
When the voice spoke again, it was in a more familiar tone, the exhortatory boom that could make a request for a glass of ice tea sound like a divine summons.
“Was down at Cora’s Kitchen earlier this evening,” the voice said.
“Have some-a that stew?” Melvin said.
“I did indeed.”
“Had some myself,” Melvin said. He paused for a moment, amazed at how easy this was, how natural it seemed, scripted.
Scripted is not a word he would have used.
Melvin cleared his throat. “Mighty good stew,” he said.
“Indeed,” the voice said again, and in a word ambrosial status had been conferred on beef, carrots, potatoes, pearl onions. A pause, and then: “DuWayne Hicks was down about the same time I was. Said he heard from Vera over to the new I.G.A. that Eddie Comedy’s pulling up stakes.”
“DuWayne shops at the new I.G.A.?” Melvin said. He was out of bed by then. He was at his bureau, pulling open a drawer. The long yellow spiral of the phone cord wagged behind him like a jump rope warming up, or maybe winding down.
“Well, that’s another story,’’ the voice chuckled, and, for a moment, things were almost normal. Then, in a voice deepened by seriousness: “Said he can’t find work. Eddie Comedy said.”
“Times is rough,” Melvin assented. He had pants on by then, he had a shirt, he had the gun.
“That’s true enough,” the voice said. “Man has to go to extreme lengths to provide for his family.” The voice broke the word ex-treme into pieces, held it out, emphasized extremity.
“That’s true enough,” Melvin repeated. The pistol’s barrel tickled his balls, and he shifted it an inch or so to the right. Ex-treme.
“Yep, he had himself a round of goodbye drinks out to Sloppy Jo’s. Told everyone this is it, see you later, be gone in the morning. Truck’s packed and parked in the garage.”
“Blazer, ain’t it?” Melvin said. “Blue on bottom, silver on top?”
“Two-tone. I think they call that kind of paint job ‘two-tone.’”
Melvin nodded silently. He allowed himself a look in the mirror: saw the close-cropped head of a black man, thirty-three years old going on some kind of zero. Reflected rain caused his image to cry the same fake tears as the painting of Jesus. Never liked the name Melvin. Momma called Malvernia: named after her. He suddenly wanted to ask her where she got her name, but she was dead now. Dead a whole year.
The voice filled his ear. “Well, I should be retiring.”
A name he did like was Malcolm. Malcolm Cartwri—Carter. Malcolm Carter.
“Perhaps we’ll be seeing you in church on Sunday?”
Melvin turned to the painting of the Son of God. Under a bright light you could see the faint shadows of numbers beneath the light brown hair, the pale pink flesh, the pure white of flowing robes—555, 666, 777—but in this light the face seemed almost real. As real as his, anyway, in the mirror, in the dark.
Tears coursed dryly down.
Melvin spoke slowly. “Tell the truth, sir, I been thinking-a pulling up stakes myself. Never mind a job. Man can’t even find a wife in this town.”
“Not at Cora’s anyway,” the voice said, and the two men shared a laugh again, and again, for a moment, things were almost normal.
“Been thinking bout heading west,” Melvin was saying, and even as he said it he could almost believe he had been thinking about it. Never been westa the state line after all, and that was hardly more than a hundred miles away. A man had a right to see the world. A right, if not a duty.
“West, huh?” the voice said. “’S’a’ whole world out west.” There was a pause. “I guess Eddie Comedy said he was heading east. Missouri, I guess he said.”
Melvin nodded his head at no one. “East is nice,” he said then, but the truth was he woulda preferred west. “Twenty-four heads east.”
“Heads west too,” the voice said, “but I guess Eddie Comedy said he’s taking it east.”
It was enough then, Melvin thought, it was almost too much. Anything else and he wouldn’t be able to do it. Eddie Comedy had pulled a lotta shit in his life, but he’d never done nothing to Melvin—except for that, of course. And he hadn’t really done that to Melvin.
Well, he thought, there wasn’t no one to say he couldn’t turn around when it was all over, turn around and head as far out west as he felt like it.
He looked in the mirror to check himself one last time, but as soon as he saw his face he realized he didn’t know what he was checking for, and he shifted his gaze to the reflection of Jesus. He remembered then, for the first time in years, how Sawyer Johnson had deliberately ignored the numbers when he’d painted the same picture. His Jesus had brown skin and black hair, his robes were green and red and blue. Sawyer had used the pink only on the scarred palms of Jesus’s hands, and he’d left the white out entirely. Reverend Abraham himself had pretended to scold Sawyer for the infraction, but twenty-five years later Sawyer’s Jesus still hung in the Reverend’s little office in the basement of the church.
Melvin wondered where Sawyer Johnson was now.
“I’m real sorry to hear you’re leaving us too,” the voice cut into Melvin’s thoughts, and its veneer of sorrow was as thin as the paint on the cheeks of the Lord. “Maybe you’d like it if I sent Grady Oconnor round to help you pack up? In the morning, I mean. Not right now.”
“No, not right now,” Melvin said, and he thought, Grady Oconnor. He wouldn’ta thought Grady.
“Well then,” the voice cut in again, as if reminding him that it wouldn’t do no good to speculate, at least not now it wouldn’t. “I guess that takes care-a just about everything.”
There was a long pause then, and then Melvin heard the voice for the last time: “I wish you all the luck in this world, son’’ is what the voice said. “This world—and the next.”
Melvin started to say thank you, but he realized the connection had already been broken. He imagined it: a brown thumb depressing a white button, a wizened hand with skin the color and texture of an old-fashioned grocery bag silently placing the handset in the cradle so as not to wake the sleeping members of the household. Melvin hung up his own phone just as quietly, even though there was no longer a household to avoid awakening. Momma died last year, Daddy killed in the Kenosha fire when Melvin was still a teenager. It occurred to him then: that was the reason he’d been picked this time. No one would ask where he’d gone away to, nor why. No one would miss him. No one expected him to say goodbye.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Although there were elements of this book I really didn't like, there was so much, much more that I loved. Wonderful characterisation, raw emotion, unusual storytelling and different perspectives. There were some questions left unanswered at the end, but also some that had initially seemed important, but became irrelevent. I think that this is a book that improves even more on second and third reads.