By Terry Barr
David Joy writes realistically violent novels, mainly set in the Appalachian region of western North Carolina. One of the bloodier moments in his second novel, The Weight of This World, concerns a returned Afghani War vet who exacts revenge on a man who has skewered the vet’s dog. The vet forces this killer on an extended last trek through the mountains.
And on that death march, the vet uses a tactic he learned from his wartime enemy: before the march begins, he takes a sharp knife and carves off the soles of the killer’s feet. It makes the walking excruciating, but still possible.
A character who enacts this sort of violent revenge has to be single-minded and obsessed by red-hot passion, right? We can’t like him or appreciate the rest of him, can we? Well, not exactly true. We have to take him as wholly as we can; we have to be willing to see what he sees and consider the meanings of his past, triggered by his observations.
For instance, just before this character makes another irrevocable decision, he arrives at a scene he’s contemplated before, but never this deeply or from this particular vantage:
He studied the church, just a plain white clapboard building with brick steps leading to the door, no front windows, a steeple holding its cross into the sky. From the outside it was like most churches in Jackson County, the only difference being that this was where he’d been baptized, once shortly after he was born and once years later…
Soon after the church bells rang, the church deacon, Samuel Mathis, opened the front door and the congregation filed out. Children were the first down the steps. Little girls in cotton dresses and patent-leather shoes strung daisy chains in the grass, while boys yanked their shirttails loose and chased one another around the building. The older kids huddled into circles. Teenage girls pulled out their cell phones to text one another. They snickered as they glanced back at boys the same age who kicked the dirt with the toes of their shoes and told lies that Thad could read in their gestures. Middle-aged men helped widows down the stairs while the men’s wives
desperately tried to round up their kids and corral them into the cars. The older couples were always the last to leave. They stood hunched over and slowly grazed their way around the gravel on canes until all their good-byes had been said. Only then did they drive away to lonely farms that no longer had crops to grow. They’d eat their Sunday suppers and wait for Wednesday service, and when the day came that they were widowed, they’d take their meals alone” (219-20).
It’s not just that this is a sad, melancholy passage, though God knows, it is. It’s that these images are so carefully rendered that if the author himself has never noticed such scenes, I’ll be damned.
The peace that passeth all understanding makes me shiver as I think of all that this scene suggests. The kids, sure, and the middle-aged parents—they’re painted clearly and with truth.
But the elderly couples, the ones who keep coming every week, twice a week, reinforcing, or is it still seeking, their saving grace, their redemption? Do they know what has been happening in their midst: the drugs, the abuse, the torture, and waste? Are they oblivious to these realities? We don’t know because Joy is being suggestive here; we can peer closer at this sketch if we want, but he won’t fill in any more ground.
Still, we consider these couples’ end—our own end; they wither on their vine and die one by one. If they have consolation, we don’t see it, for as much as they are a part of their community and this church, their death will be alone, if not lonely, and unadorned. When they die, the church will surely embrace them again, and that is a comfort to some.
I keep seeing them: the last to leave as they “graze” through the “gravel parking lot,” and “tak[e] their meals alone.” I wonder who has cooked, what they’ll eat, and who’ll clean up? There are sadder things than an elderly person eating alone, but right now, I don’t want to know what they are.
My father passed in December 2000. My mother lived until she was eighty-five, so for the last eighteen years, she took her meals mainly alone. Sometimes she’d have a friend over for supper; sometimes she’d go out to a local restaurant with a group, and at other times, she’d go to her church’s monthly Family Night supper. I figure that she ate 6500+ suppers in that time since my father died. In 2003, when she began keeping company with another good man by the name of Vines, she probably cooked for him once or twice a week (roast beef and summer vegetables; winter stews and vegetable soup and cornbread). He certainly escorted her out to eat regularly, be it Ruby Tuesday, Cracker Barrel, or her favorite, Bessemer’s Bright Star, where the fresh red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico reigns supreme. Mr. Vines passed away in the summer of 2016, so estimating her suppers alone gets trickier. Counting those occasions plus times my family and my brother visited her, I figure that she took close to 5500 nightly meals alone, either at the table or, increasingly, in her recliner in front of MSNBC or the HG Network.
Sometimes when my wife travels with friends, I spend three or four night at home on my own. The first night might be a taste of freedom: I can eat a frozen pizza; I can binge on a violent Netflix series like “Ozark;” I can leave the dishes till morning. By the second night, I’m bored, and on the third, quite lonely, though my dog Max sleeps by my side. In these alone times, I hope, selfishly, that I’ll die first, many years from now.
In the months before my mother’s death, her church friends kept special watch over her. They called frequently, rescued her when her heart went racing, when she contracted pneumonia, and when, at the end, she couldn’t understand why she had no appetite and felt so weak. Her family was with her at the end, and we saw how her church supported her and us. Embraced us, even though neither my wife, nor my daughters and I qualify as “believers” any longer.
My mother’s church saw to it that we had a meal before the funeral, and after. Friends kept taking us out to eat or bringing food as we began the process of clearing her house for sale. I kept her TV and recliner till the end, and her supper table. My wife and I gave my parents that kitchen table almost thirty years ago, an unfinished piece of pine wood that we had clear-stained.
While it was difficult to let these things go, it was also comforting to keep what her church meant to her and to us.
I let the church have her table and chairs, her recliner and sofa, the TV. Someone who needs them will enjoy these last things, and my mother would have wanted it this way. I like to think it’s a young family that will gather round her table for fried chicken or roast beef suppers; a middle-aged couple that will share that sofa, reading together on rainy night; and perhaps another widow or widower who will relax in her chair in front of Mom’s TV, listening to voices of comedy or home improvement.
This is what happens with what we have at the end; it disperses, the original owner forgotten, if ever known.
Yet, as natural as this process is, how do I let go of what I gave freely? How do I close out a house, and say goodbye, especially when I keep this image?
Each night from my home two states away, I saw my mother eating her soup and crackers, or simply scooping Palmetto Cheese up with Town House crackers—one of her favorite meals–later finishing with a container of Haagen-Dazs Coffee ice cream.
Not long ago as my wife, my brother-in-law, and I were returning from a Jim Lauderdale concert at The Spinning Jenny in Greer, SC, we passed a beautiful old church on the main thoroughfare into town. This was a Saturday night, about 11:15. The church exterior was well lit, but I could see that inside, not unexpectedly, everything was dark, awaiting the next morning when the doors would let in scores of families for morning worship.
“Seeing a dark church late at night has always creeped me out,” I said.
When I was a kid, what I would have meant by “creeped out” was that I feared being locked alone in a church late at night. The darkened Sunday School rooms throughout a four-story structure including the basement. All those hallways with their shiny linoleum floors. What if, all alone, I heard footsteps? Worse, what if I made my way to the sanctuary and instead of a large cross hanging over the pulpit, I saw something else, shadowy and moving?
Once, our youth group held a lock-in, where we were supposed to spend an entire Friday night in the church till morning, some adult nearby just in case. I grew up in this church; it seems we always had some business there, and and my grandmother used to cook in the basement kitchen for church meetings. Yet something happened to me this night. Some thought I had a stomach virus; others contended it was the fish sticks we cooked in the church’s gas oven. Maybe they weren’t fully heated. In any case, I had to be driven home and missed whatever fun or adventures or moving specters were to come. I ran a fever the next day and had to cancel my first-ever date, but as I considered the cause of my illness, I wondered whether my illness wasn’t all fear-based, a dark closeness to some other end?
On the night we drove home from the music, though, my feelings weren’t conditioned by a young boy’s supernatural visions. I felt sad, alone. True, it had been only two months since my mother passed.
“What do you mean?” my wife asked. “Creeped out how?”
“Like there should always be someone there, someone living there. Empty churches at night make me want to cry.”
I didn’t know how to explain this to my wife. I don’t even know how to explain it to myself. I’m not dying to attend church even though my mother’s church filled a hole in me and not just on the day of her funeral.
There were two or three Fourth of July nights when the church held its Independence Day hamburger/hot dog suppers. I accompanied my mother to these banquet-room galas where we’d eat too many grilled sandwiches, revel in the homemade ice cream, watch the children’s parade, and then head out to the parking lot for the fireworks display, my mother wanting us to sit as close under the sky explosions as we could.
My mother joined this church, Pleasant Hill United Methodist on the outskirts of Bessemer, in 2010, after First Methodist, the church of both our youths, closed its doors once its congregants dwindled to single digits. The building was badly in need of repair, too, and no one could afford to renovate it.
I quit believing long ago, but twice since she joined Pleasant Hill, I joined her for Sunday services. The first was an Easter service, and I accompanied Mom more to soothe her soul than to save mine. It didn’t hurt me to listen to the message of resurrection. More than anything, as the children sang, and the other congregants welcomed me, I felt calm, peaceful.
The other time was for the Christmas service year before last, an all-musical affair. How long had it been since I sang en masse “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” or my favorite, “Good King Wenceslas?”
Attending didn’t change my outlook, my disbelief, my way of looking at religion. I even thought that if I didn’t have to accept Jesus as Savior, I could go more often. But I’m no hypocrite, and I know that I don’t have the feeling inside me. So how do I understand my sadness at seeing any church alone, empty inside?
Last night I read an essay in about the author’s exploration of Eastern Orthodox Christianity:
“…as I’ve moved around the country for my career, the Orthodox faith has remained at the center of my life…I now belong to the OCA cathedral in Manhattan’s East Village, a place with an illustrious century-plus history and the most diverse Orthodox congregation I’ve ever found. It’s more a home to me than my own apartment is; the community there is my surrogate family” (Nick Tabor, “The Light of Salvation,” The Oxford American, Fall 2018, 88).
I could say the same about many in my mother’s church, not only because they are longtime family friends, but just as plainly because they gave me that safe feeling of acceptance and love, by continuing to embrace my mother, by making those lonely nights seem less so, for her and for me. They know my name, of course, what I do, and what I don’t believe. And in their knowing, they never once tried to convince me of anything except how much they love us.
My mother’s church shows such love in other ways, too. The preacher himself has taken in several homeless children, adopted them as his own, despite their ongoing problems. His house is bursting, or so I hear.
This makes me wonder: why can’t homeless families live in the church, supervised by rotating church officials? Why can’t the kitchens operate for all meals, and beyond the homeless, why can’t any widow take her meals there whenever she wants? Why can’t the lonely couples go on other nights besides Sundays and Wednesdays? Why is Family Night only once a month?
As a kid, I wondered why the preacher didn’t live at the church instead of the parsonage next door? Couldn’t this man of God keep the flames inside the church alive by being there all the time?
I still wonder this now.
I know, if I hate seeing abandoned people and lonely places, why don’t I donate my own funds to aid this cause? I’m still working on my own answers. Thinking about my own contemplative scenes.
When I was a child, I had to be forced to go church, and no Sunday service ever gave me peace. I left the church of my youth when I moved away to college. I never really missed it, either.
When I think back on how my church affected me, even though I can’t accept Jesus as Savior or deal with his torturous execution, I realize that it taught me the desire to do good works, and to seek peace. I don’t remember all the lessons thrust at me, and many of the ones I do are blood-drenched epochs of annihilation and transformation. Still, there’s “The Good Samaritan,” and my favorite, the fish and the loaves of bread.
Jesus feeding multitudes, who all ate together, who all had enough to share with each other, who all were taught how to give what they have to ensure that no one goes hungry, is cast off, or left abandoned and alone.
And I remember the only other part of church I loved, the hymns. I sang in the choir at night and on some mornings. Even sitting in the congregation otherwise bored, I joined in every song.
I thought of those times last night when my wife and I were watching “The Andy Griffith Show.” It was the episode where an impatient travelling businessman gets stranded in Mayberry on a Sunday. No one can pacify the man who can’t see the value, but only the quirks, of this pastoral place. As day moves to evening and he awaits the Pyle brothers to fix his finely-tuned car, the man sits on the Taylor porch, rocking, and listening to Andy and Barney sing an old song.
“The Church in the Wildwood.”
“Oh come come come come. Come to the Church in the Wildwood. Come to the Church in the vale. No place is as dear to my childhood, as the little brown church in the vale.”
Maybe it’s only nostalgia. Even when you don’t believe like everyone else in the congregation, home is home, this place of your childhood, this church of your youth, your middle years or your old age.
As I now re-read David Joy’s passage, I see myself in those who congregate outside the church after service: the little boys “yanking loose their shirttails;” the older kids “huddled together;” the middle-aged men and women helping others and their own; and especially the last couple who leaves, whom everyone believes is happy and comfortable; whom no one worries about.
This passage is not a lamentation or even a wakeup call. It’s just an observable moment taken from a character who has never known peace.
I think my mother should have the last word. Whenever she felt sorry for
someone, or considered afflictions of body, mind, or material travail, or when she just got exasperated with the ravings of our current president, she’d let out a sighing but sometimes caustic, “Lord Have Mercy.” This phrase, I learned, is something the congregants say after almost every sentence that an Eastern Orthodox priest speaks [Tabor 86].
It’s something I believe David Joy would say in benediction for all the wayward, lonely, and forgotten souls in his particular Babylon.
True and soothing words of grace.
Terry Barr is the author of Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother (2017 Third Lung press) and We Might As Well Eat: How to Survive Tornados, Alabama Football, and Your Southern Family (2018 Third Lung Press). His work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, storySouth, Hippocampus, Vol 1 Brooklyn. He blogs at Medium.com/@terrybarr and lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.