The soil in front of Pastor Charlie’s truck was black because of all the dead things. All the ground-up, used-up bits and pieces of the mint crops that used to grow in the area. Over time, the dead things were remade, reused. Born Again. Pastor Charlie was going to use that in his sermon on Sunday, but he hadn’t quite figured out just how the turnips would play into it.
What Pastor Charlie’s congregation did not know was that he still kept copies of Beatles and Chuck Berry and Elvis tapes in a case behind the seat of his powder blue ‘78 Ford F150. Even though an eight-track of Revolver was currently rolling, “Tomorrow Never Knows” was playing more softly than the squeaking, grinding spools in the cassette player. He wiggled the cassette and some of the racket stopped, just enough to stop the whining spools. The truck was already ten years old, and he wondered if new trucks even played eight-tracks. Pastor Charlie looked over the coal-black turnip fields and at the coal-black people working them. He wanted to believe the Holy Spirit was leading him to witness to them. Maybe it would make up for the past year and a half since his wife and son passed. Maybe God would grant him the peace.
Or maybe Pastor Charlie was sent to minister to them. Or maybe minister to Him.
He turned off the ignition, got out of the truck and scooped up a handful of the moist black earth. He sifted it, rubbing the last granules of dirt between his fingers as it fell back to the ground. It smelled wet and musty, somehow richer than the soil in the seed corn fields just down the road. He dusted off his hand and slipped on the work glove he wore to hide the psoriasis.
The air smelled damp, boggy. The dirt was still wet even in the dog-day August sun.
Pastor Charlie looked up and down the rows of turnip leaves sprouting out of the dark earth at those who worked the fields. There looked to be about thirty of them, and the preacher knew they’d seen him drive all the way down the path to the twelve shacks at the south end of the field. No one seemed too curious.
In front of him, behind a row of dried-out mulberry trees, on another piece of property, Pastor Charlie could see Atta-Mae Barker, the supposed local medium, sitting off to the side of her porch. He knew of her, but had only ever talked with her brother, Ronnie. She sat with legs swinging back and forth from under her long rust-colored patterned dress. Her brother’s property line was close enough to the field. She seemed to take entertainment watching the migrants. Her wiry red hair was matted down by the humidity. She smiled at him so widely, Pastor Charlie wondered if she might be slow in the head. And that was why someone always had to have an eye on her, why Atta-Mae had to live with her older brother.
Once Pastor Charlie rounded a mulberry tree, he could see that Atta-Mae was speaking with one of the workers—a young black woman, even younger than Atta-Mae. Like everyone else he saw in that field, her skin was the darkest black he’d ever seen. The Underground Railroad had seen to it that there were black communities in River Junction and another in the county over; freed blacks brought North by Sojourner Truth. So, it wasn’t like he’d never seen blacks before.
There was a contrast to Atta-Mae’s milky skin and red mane, sure, but this other lady’s skin was dark as the lava sands in Hawaii he remembered seeing in a National Geographic. Pastor Charlie’s daddy called these kind of blacks Mississippi Blue Gum. His daddy was born and bred in a place called Howenwald—a place the preacher thought was just called Hole-In-Wall for the first several years of his life before he could read. His daddy fixed cars for a living, but for his daddy, his real bread-and-butter was the Klan. In fact, it was his daddy’s misguided, sinful ways that forced the family out of Tennessee and to Michigan to stay with his momma’s sister. It was also his daddy’s deeds with the Klan that led Pastor Charlie into the ministry.
Pastor Charlie even wondered if it was because of his daddy that he’d stopped off at the field to meet these folks to begin with.
“That oil in your hair makes your head too shiny,” the woman called out to him, her Southern accent thicker than a jar of his momma’s honey glaze. She leaned on the porch next to Atta-Mae, who kept kicking her legs.
He’d oiled his thick brown hair for years. To him, it looked better when he was heavier. But since he’d lost his family, he’d dropped too much weight. He told his church members that was because he just wasn’t a good cook and was on TV dinner diet. In fact, he rarely ate because he was rarely hungry. His round face had become almond-shaped, skin hanging at odd angles at his cheeks and neck and eyes. Gaunt might be the word for it, but he had to keep up the shaving, the oiling, the appearances.
“Hello, I’m Pastor Charlie. I got a church a few miles down the road on the lake. Came out here to see if you folk might need a church home while you’re here.” The preacher took the Bible from under his arm, held it in his work glove.
“Been here since June. Only here till the end of September. Think you’re a bit late, Pastor Charlie.” The woman put her hand up, reached the wood-gray railing on Atta-Mae’s porch. Her smile slackened somewhat, but remained bright, if not radiant. She turned to look at Atta-Mae, who grinned, shrugged.
He looked her over, trying to figure out exactly why his daddy had called them Blue Gums. Then he remembered. It had to do with skin, how dark the gums. But, now that he remembered it, how his daddy had said it made the words sound like Irish Setter, Golden Retriever. Mississippi Blue Gum.
“You ever been to a bog, miss?” He lowered his eyes, feeling shame for the memories his daddy had bestowed upon him.
“Bog? No bogs where I’m from. Plenty of swamps though. There a difference?” the worker asked. Atta-Mae was silent, just kicked her legs, turned her eyes to the fields between her trees, toward Pastor Charlie’s pick-up, he thought.
“Loads.” The preacher realized the woman was no half-wit and wondered, briefly, why she wasn’t working in the fields with the rest of the laborers. Pastor Charlie also wasn’t too sure of the differences between a bog and a swamp, but he went on to explain it just as he’d heard it. “Swamps are fed from outside water sources. Bogs from beneath the ground. Makes the whole land around it and over it different. You can step full over a bog, take one wrong step and sink into the sludge forever. Plenty of bogs around here. A few swamps, too. Anyway, just wondering. These fields smell like a bog.” Pastor Charlie looked down, stroked the spine of black leather-bound Bible and looked back up at the woman. “In any case, miss—better late than never. The Lord’s been speaking to me. Led me to stop by. See if you folk needed anything. Spiritually-speaking. Though I might be able to help in other ways too.”
“We hold our own meetings some Sundays. But most Sundays everyone here willing to speak is too tired to do it. Rex,” she pointed to large man in a wicker hat, a dirty cream-color work shirt and loose-fitting black pants. “He’d be the one to talk to.”
“I didn’t catch your name?” Charlie reached into the back pocket of his jeans where he kept a few business cards and handed one over.
“Lynette,” she said, looking over the card. “Pastor Charles Schmidt. Garron Lake Baptist Church. If you’re really wanting to come down here to hold a service, you best talk to Rex over there.” Lynette grinned, holding the business card in the palm of her hand, seemingly unsure what to do with it.
“My phone number at the church is on there. If you should need anything—and I do mean anything—don’t hesitate to give us a ring.” Pastor Charlie stepped, hesitated, and looked back. “Where are you guys from, anyway?”
“Down South. Hotter. Wetter than this, if you can imagine,” she said, rubbing her bare arms as if she were even cold. The preacher turned to Atta-Mae and noticed that she was missing her left index finger. It was gone completely right down to the knuckle. There, her skin was a mottled pink starburst where the finger should have been.
“Further than Tennessee?” Atta-Mae had noticed Pastor Charlie looking at her hand. “I heard that’s where you were hatched.”
“Yes, ma’am. Momma brought us to Saint Tom County when I was eleven. Been here ever since.”
“Heard that,” Atta-Mae caught sun in her eye and squinted.
“Brilliant, Alabama. Not so brilliant, but maybe so once upon a time. Maybe never.” Lynette gestured toward Atta-Mae, who now stood rigid against the doorframe of her house. Atta-Mae grabbed a rumpled pack of cigarettes from a single front pocket of her patchwork-and-gingham dress. She flattened the green pack of Salem cigarettes, pinched out her last two, gave one to Lynette and put the filtered end in her mouth.
Pastor Charlie had presided over so many funerals because of cigarettes. He even called them angels of death. Lynette held out the cigarette Atta-Mae had given her.
“No, ma’am. Take care, Miss Lynette. Miss Atta-Mae.”
Lynette waved. Atta-Mae nodded and cupped her hands around the cigarette as she lit it, then tossed the lighter to Lynette. Pastor Charlie tucked his Bible back under his left arm and ambled between the mulberry trees and over to Rex.
He spoke with Rex, but Pastor Charlie got the feeling that Rex and Lynette were both brushing him off, even after offering to do a Sunday afternoon service in front of the shacks. At least, he thought, he planted the seeds. He shook Rex’s hand and thanked him for his time. He gave Rex one of his last two business cards and returned to his truck, waving at Atta-Mae who was still smoking the same cigarette. She was sitting down again, rocking her legs back and forth to a song Pastor Charlie knew was only in her head. He’d lost track of Lynette.
Pastor Charlie’s parsonage was behind Garron Lake Baptist. It was a two-bedroom bungalow he and some of his church members had built with their own hands 14 years before. An addition served as the church office. He’d married his wife, Lindsay shortly after moving in. They were both 27. He remembered their anniversary because it was the very same day President Nixon resigned—August 9th. That was just a few days away. But Lindsay had passed the year before. And their son Simon with her.
Lindsay had taken Simon shopping for his birthday two hours away in Grand Rapids. Neither one of them ever came home. They were carjacked. Pastor Charlie did not know any details other than what the state police had told him. Both of them were shot in the chest. Both of them died quickly—with the Lord in the blink of an eye.
The pastor left the Strong’s Concordance on his desk with his Bible open to 1 Samuel 28. It had nothing to do with the sermon he had planned for Sunday, but it did feature King Saul trying to summon up the spirit of the prophet Samuel. He’d thought long and hard about that passage since Lindsay and Simon went home to be with the Lord. He had first come across it while in seminary. He’d asked one of his teachers about it. Dissatisfied with that particular professor’s answer, he asked another teacher about its incongruity with everything else he’d learned. Over the years, he’d picked the brains of parishioners and colleagues and theologians, if given the chance. Fact of the matter was, no one knew. Was Samuel summoned from heaven just to prophesy Saul’s death, or was it a demon pretending to be Samuel prophesying Saul and his sons’ demise at the hands of the Philistines?
Pastor Charlie looked out the window of his office, to Garron Lake. It was a good lake for fishing—and he fished it often—but not as good for taking a dip. The shoreline was a reedy marsh unless you had a dock that took you about ten yards out. He’d meant to build a dock last summer. But it never happened. And there was a clear enough patch to wade into under the branches of a willow just outside the parsonage. It was also where he baptized those who needed it. The day was hot enough, and he found himself sour and clammy with sweat. The water seemed like a perfect idea.
Pastor Charlie already had his trousers off and was slipping on his swim trunks. He brought along his maroon beach towel and a little fishing line with a hook and a rubber nightcrawler attached to it.
He waded in, walked back and forth in the muck, sending up dirty clouds in the water. He heard cicadas whirring in the field across the road as he closed his eyes. He found a painted turtle swimming and lifted it up in the palm of his hand, letting it splay its webbed feet out, trying to swim through the air.
Pastor Charlie put the turtle into the water, leaned back to float and look through the willow at the late afternoon sun peeking through. He closed his eyes and imagined himself a piece of driftwood pushed to the bank. He started whistling the tune to Eleanor Rigby, found that whistling while floating was more difficult than he thought, so hummed instead.
He moved toward the willow, where his towel sat on one of the roots with the fishing line he never got around to using. He held onto the root and pulled himself out of the water and stood on the shore drying off.
When he took the corner of the towel out of his ear, he thought he heard something coming from his house. It was the upright piano that had sat untouched on the side of his dining room since his son’s last piano lesson. It had been given to him by one of his elderly parishioners. It was so old and beat-up that several of the white keys were exposed showing only the wood where white veneer had been. But more than anything, its sound was distinct in that no matter how many times Pastor Charlie had it tuned, it always played with a hollow, boxed-in, out-of-key resonance. It was like it had a fingerprint.
He slung the towel over his bare shoulder and walked over to his house slowly, listening intently. He stopped outside the house, trying to place the song, to hear more clearly what he thought he heard.
He pushed the door open, but heard no one, just the soft thrum of the cicadas still singing outside, the gentle squeak of his floor board beneath his right foot. Pastor Charlie went over to his son’s piano and saw that the fallboard still covered the worn keys. He pressed his palm on the lid, then the side, feeling for vibrations and felt nothing but the coolness of the lacquered wood.
Pastor Charlie chalked it up to someone playing music across the lake. Radios from boats and docks carried quite a distance. And there were enough people on the lake, hot as it was.
He dressed in a fresh pair of trousers and a plaid short-sleeved button-up to go visit Mrs. Marley at the Sturgis Hospital. Instead, he found himself sitting on one of the rocking chairs on his porch, angled out to peer over the sun-specked water, and listening intently for any signs of the piano he thought he’d heard. He heard cars coming down the small hill, slowing around the bend next to the church, then accelerating once more. That, and the whining of speed boats’ and fishing boats’ outboard motors finally sent him to sleep.
The preacher awoke sometime in the evening. He swatted at a horsefly and shooed it away half-asleep when it bit him between his thumb and index finger.
Pastor Charlie yelped in pain. He heard it echo across the lake. He went inside and grabbed a sandwich bag and stuffed it with ice: where other people would feel a fleeting sting, he would swell.
He sat back down on his rocking chair and pressed the ice to the bite.
“Something get you?”
Pastor Charlie’s eyes were closed again. He opened them and saw the impossibly wide smile of the young woman at his steps, still wearing her rusty gingham dress.
“Atta-Mae? How’d you get here? That’s not a short walk.”
“Five-or-so miles. Not much on my bicycle.” Atta-Mae held the railing to his porch, one foot on the first step, one elbow resting on her knee. “May I have a seat?” she asked.
Pastor Charlie gestured to the empty rocking chair to his right. “Let me get you something to drink.” He stood up.
“No, I’m fine. A rest is all I need.” Atta-Mae climbed the stairs, sat, and began to rock. She put a hand inside the front pocket of her dress and pulled out another pack of Salem cigarettes. It was nearly empty like the other one. He thought about asking her to not smoke, but since they were outside, he decided to stay quiet.
She fished out a light green Bic lighter and lit the cigarette. Atta-Mae inhaled so deeply, it reminded the preacher of some of his Rigdon High School chums trying to get high in a bathroom stall.
Finally, she exhaled. “I’m here to help you, Pastor Charlie.”
His left hand was getting numb from the ice, so he put the bag on the barrel between the rocking chairs that served as his table. “Help me? Not sure what you could help me with just now, miss.”
Most of his Tennessee accent was lost entirely. But it still came out when he was uncomfortable. Or angry, though he couldn’t recall the last time he’d been that mad. His accent didn’t remind him of home or halcyon days. Instead, it reminded him of his daddy. And when it did happen, he wondered if he not only looked like him now, but if he sounded like him, too.
“I think you’re looking for something,” she said. “Maybe something you haven’t found in that Good Book of yours.”
Pastor Charlie edged himself back in the rocker, but kept his feet flat. The place where the fly had bitten him itched now that it was no longer numb. He looked down and saw that a small pink welt was already forming there. It was a strange thing her riding her bicycle to his church. But maybe she was on her way to the party store on the other side of the lake so she could buy more cigarettes?
“All the answers are in The Good Book, miss,” he said, deliberately enunciating each word, erasing any trace of Howenwald.
“Why’d you stop at the turnip field then, Pastor Charlie?” Atta-Mae put the cigarette to her mouth, flaring the orange iris at its end. Again, he saw the scar of her missing finger.
“I felt the Holy Spirit leading me there. Invite the workers to church. You too.”
“Maybe,” Atta-Mae’s rocking slowed and she ran her only index finger over the stained wood grooves on its armrests. “But what else?”
“Well, honestly, it might have a little bit to do with my,” he paused at the word daddy, “—father. He wasn’t a good man. Caused a lot of suffering. For black people. And his own family.”
“I think that might be part of the reason why, sure, but at the very least, I know you need someone to talk to. Someone who isn’t going to find the devil in what you say. People seem to like to talk to me, so why don’t you just tell me what’s on your mind.”
Pastor Charlie picked up the bag of melted ice and stood to go inside. “I’ll be right back.”
When he came back to the rocking chairs, his King James Bible was under his arm and he held two glasses of sweet iced tea. He set the glass intended for Atta-Mae on the barrel, sat down, took three long swigs. It was cold enough to make his teeth hurt.
He opened his Bible to where the ribbon bookmark rested: 1 Samuel 28. “You familiar with this passage, Atta-Mae?” The preacher was thankful for the dim light, how it helped to obscure the psoriasis on his hands.
She looked it over, ran her finger over the lines, but did not take the Bible from him. “Sure. Saul goes to visit a witch. Tries to talk to a dead prophet.”
“Yes,” Pastor Charlie sat back down in the rocking chair. He had to admit, he was surprised. Outside of theological circles, most people were unfamiliar with the chapter, other than its capacity to further condemn witchcraft. “You hear about my family, then?”
“I’ve read this chapter for years before and almost every day after. I never stopped wondering about it. And I wonder now more than I did then. Some say it was a devil disguised as Samuel. Some say God allowed for this one special instance for Samuel to come down and deliver a message from the Almighty Himself. I don’t think it’s a devil, because demons don’t deliver words of prophecy. And I’m not so sure it was a special instance just for Saul.”
He looked over at Atta-Mae. The sun was setting and with the shade of trees and his porch, it was difficult to see Atta-Mae’s face, let alone read any expression now that she wasn’t smiling.
He went on, “I’ve talked to a Jewish friend. Messianic, the ones who believe in Jesus as Lord. He says in the Talmud, they teach that the spirts of the dead wander the earth for twelve months after they die, so it very well could have been Samuel himself.”
“And you’ve thought about it? How you can contact your wife and son?” She’d stopped rocking, but started again as soon as she finished her question.
“You mean like a psychic or Ouija Board?” Pastor Charlie asked. He felt anxious. A nervous lump was hardening in his throat. He wasn’t sure where the conversation was headed, but he feared it was exactly where his thoughts had lingered all these months.
“So you’ve thought about it?” Atta-Mae’s cigarette was burned down to its filter. She put it out on her shoe and flicked it into the yard.
Pastor Charlie winced. He would have to remember to pick it up later. “Thought about using a psychic or spirit board or the like? I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t crossed my mind.”
“What would you have to say to them?”
“I’m not sure. I imagine time in heaven being different. Moving different. For them, it might be like I’d just gone out for a loaf of bread. Like they might not even miss me yet.” Pastor Charlie drained the last of his iced tea and swallowed one of the ice cubes.
“So, what’s stopping you?” she asked.
The preacher crunched the ice cube. “The Bible. And contacting the dead is textbook witchcraft according to that passage.”
“Maybe God doesn’t want anyone talking to the dead because they’d have too much to talk about. I bet some could jaw your ears right off.”
After that they were silent, save for the gentle rocking of Atta-Mae. Pastor Charlie hadn’t noticed that he’d stopped rocking himself.
Finally, when the sun had fully set, the preacher saw everything beyond the porch was black and the ground beyond them dark as the soil in the turnip field. He heard the crickets
“It’s like God set the table,” he croaked, “but he only set it for one. And the rest of the world is just looking around, wondering what we’re all supposed to do with what little we got, never mind the food we’re waiting for.”
Atta-Mae said nothing to him in response.
Pastor Charlie sighed. He ruminated.
“I’d tell my boy how much I miss watching cartoons with him. I’d tell him how I wish I could have seen him become a man. Even if it meant questioning his faith like I have mine. I’d tell them both I love ‘em, sure, but I’d also tell my wife how I miss her tuna casserole and how she could make flowers grow even in the shade around the house.”
“If I offered you a chance to speak to them now?”
“What do you mean?” Pastor Charlie asked.
“If I could conjure them both up right now—would you let me do it?”
“I think I’d be betraying my faith.” Instead of feeling his pulse quicken, Pastor Charlie was feeling almost serene.
“Just because of what it says there?” Atta-Mae stared ahead. They both did not need to look at the leather-bound book sitting on the barrel between them. She lit another cigarette.
“Even the fact I’d consider it makes me think I’m not cut out to be a man of God. Maybe never was,” he said.
“I think,” she drew in her cigarette smoke and exhaled through her nostrils, “it makes you human, don’t you? But you still haven’t answered the question—would you?”
Pastor Charlie had spent a year and half pondering that question. He had turned it over so many times that the mental cud had become loose and insubstantial. Nevertheless, he knew the answer. He’d known it since February the Ninth, 1987. A year and a half ago. The day after the Michigan state troopers came to the bungalow on Garron Lake.
The moon was only at half, but between its dim light, and the stars and all the lights that had come on at the houses and docks around the lake, Charlie could make out the shadow of reeds swaying near the willow.
He put his hand out toward the near-stranger.
She clasped his palm with her four-fingered hand and she flashed a smile and then it was gone. It had been foolish of him to think she could be simple.
Charlie then thought of all the dead things in the field next to Atta-Mae’s house. About the soil, black-as-soot. All its secrets. Everything it held. And what would one day grow to be again.
[Check out Aaron Buchanan’s back porch wisdom]