Southern Legitimacy Statement: I grew up in a small Georgia town and spent my childhood summers in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Since then I have lived in many countries, finding a way to make a home in all of those places. But no place in this world speaks to me and my soul’s contradictions like the South. I love it. I hate it.
One morning Rev. Dr. Augustus Martin III woke up and realized that he’d forgotten to love.
He hadn’t forgotten to love in that often intangible “love of humanity”sense of the word; after all, he’d spent the better half of his adult life trying to preach and live the Great Commandment, “Love the Lord, God with all your heart and love your neighbor as you would yourself.” His parishioners loved him and he loved them, but in spite of that, he realized that he was profoundly lonely, because in the final analysis he understood that the love he experienced was incomplete and it did not sustain.
He was not quite twenty-eight and in those days he was always thinking about God, but he couldn’t recall ever experiencing him. At least he couldn’trecall ever experiencing his love or more correctly, his Grace. If he ever did, he secretly doubted that he would even realize God’s presence. Often Augustus wondered if it would be like that first and last time he tried heroin twelve years before when he was just sixteen. First, he got sick and vomited in a corner of Billy Flynn’s basement. But then all of sudden there was this overwhelming feeling of well-being. He dropped to his knees, opened his arms, and let the moment wash over and then through him.
He was finally free and nothing in the world could touch him. It didn’t matter that he loved Evangeline Eichelbaum with his entire being but could not tell her. It didn’t matter that his father had died in Vietnam and that his mother walked away from him when he was just a baby. It didn’t matter that he had an uncle clear on the other side of the world who didn’tseem to know or care that his father was dying. It didn’t matter that his grandfather was dying for the third and final time, and that when he would die Augustus would be left alone. It didn’t matter that he was filling up with music, but couldn’t let it out. Augustus Martin III just existed in that sweet and warm moment of peace.
When he returned to the reality of then and there, Augustus realized that he could so easily spend the rest of his life destroying himself and everything he touched just to get back to that moment. Deep down, he knew that that was impossible. You can’t go back to bliss. So that night he sat alone in the dimly lit kitchen of his house on Lantana Street and waited for something remarkable to happen.
Perhaps the telephone would ring or the door bell would chime and there would not be a person on the other end who had found themselves in a moment of physical, mental, or spiritual crisis. Perhaps, instead there would be someone who genuinely wanted to talk about the world, about life, about music without fear and condemnation. But that was not the nature of his life. So he sat for a while longer and indulged in another glass of wine and when nothing of the miraculous sort occurred he thanked the Lord for the day and went to bed.
The phone rang, but he didn’t want to answer it. Nothing good can come from answering the phone at three o’clock in the morning, he thought. He knew that if he responded he’d be locked into someone else’s late night existential crisis.
But after a few rings Augustus picked it up anyway and drowsily said, “hello,” simply because that’s just who he was and that’s how he lived his life, regardless of the time.
“This is it,” the woman on the other end said. “He’s dying.”
He tried to digest those words and make sense of them, but it was cold and dark outside and warm in bed and he was still only half awake. Deep down Augustus didn’t want any of it to make sense.
“This is it,” she repeated. “He is dying.”
The “he” of this cryptic conversation was Reverend Evan James. And the “she” was his wife, Cheryl. The young wife of his old age, he called her. He’dbeen alone for so long that everyone who knew him had taken it for granted that he would never marry. He was forty and she was barely thirty then.
Augustus distinctly remembered the day Evan told Augustus’ grandfather of his engagement. Augustus was just a boy then, only about eleven. He lived with his grandfather on 110th Street then, and Mrs. James used to live across the street from them when she was married to a man named Loomis. He died young and foolishly because of his drinking. Six months after he died, Rev. James came to the house with the news.
“I’m getting married, Doc,” he said.
“Married? Who are you marrying?”
“Cheryl Loomis? Cheryl Loomis from across the street?”
It was obvious that he loved her. Augustus was just a child then and love of that kind was new to him, but he recognized it immediately in the way Rev. James spoke of her. There was just something in his eyes and in the warmth of his voice when he said her name. His grandfather married them in the church Reverend James pastored. It was a winter wedding. It was cold and there was a very light snow on the ground. Augustus distinctly remembered the crunch and the crackle of the snow under his feet as he rushed to get inside the church. The sanctuary was lit by candlelight and she wore a white dress. As she walked by the candle lit pew, she shimmered and her eyes glowed. That seemed like so long ago. It was hard to believe that that was almost twenty years ago.
Now he asked himself, “Why didn’t he ever call me and tell me he was sick again?” “Why didn’t I call him?” was a much better question.
But then again they hadn’t spoken in six or seven months. Their telephone conversations were always brief. They would only call each other to plan to meet for breakfast or lunch. Over time, those calls and those meetings became rarities. I am not altogether sure why. He was his friend. “I am on my way, Cheryl,” I say. “Just hold on.”
I roll over and kiss Evangeline on her shoulder and she pretends to be asleep, I’ve never had the words or the actions to make them less bothersome. It does no good to say, “It is what it is and such is our life.”
“Baby,” I whisper. “I have to go.” She doesn’t respond. “It’s Evan. He’s dying.”
She rolls over and in the darkness she kisses my face and holds me close and tight. I don’t want to get out of the bed and get dressed and face the end of a good friend. I want to stay in this moment, but I kiss her, and tell her that she is my heart’s darling. Evangeline offers to get up with me and fix a pot of coffee, but I could tell from the tone of Cheryl when I spoke with her that there wasn’t much time left for Evan. Cheryl answers the door and I remember her as she was when I was just a boy. She and Reverend James didn’t have any children and she doted on me. She was extraordinarily beautiful, but that beauty had nothing to do with the things everyone said she did with the Undertaker Smith. As beautiful as she was, there always seemed something essential missing within her. It was something I was too young to name. Yet, even as a kid, I knew something wasn’t quite right with her and the home they shared.
Cheryl reaches out to me and holds me too tightly, burying her face in my chest. I want to tell her that regardless of what happens next that she will get through this moment and everything will be okay because when Evan dies his pain will die as well.
“Take comfort in that,” I want to tell her, but I don’t say anything. I just hold her at the door until she lets go and wordlessly beckons me to cross the threshold. Nothing in this house is as it should be, or should I say nothing is as I expected. There should be people with food and sympathy here, but the house is quiet and empty. She takes my hand and squeezes it hard. In her eyes there’s a look of desperation and confusion.
“Cheryl,” I say. “I am so, so very sorry. Just know that God is with us and I am here for you.”
She reaches out to me and cries on my shoulder. “I’ve made mistakes,” she says. “So many mistakes.”
“We all have, Cheryl,” I say. “But we have to forgive ourselves.”
“Not this,” she pulls away and says as she takes a tissue from her pocket and wipes her eyes. “Not this.”
I’m trapped in the middle of a moment that I know I can’t fix, so I ask to see Evan. She looks in the mirror that hangs above the entry table and wipes the corners of her eyes and her hands betray a slight trembling as she adjusts her hair. Cheryl tries to compose herself, but it’s obvious that inside she can’t. She clears her throat and asks me if there is anything that she can get for me.
“Something to eat or a cup of coffee,” she offers. “No dear. I’m fine,” I say. “May I see Evan now?”
Cheryl leads me through the house and to the bedroom. She knocks on the door and opens it without waiting for an answer.
“Evan, you have a visitor,” she says in a strained voice.
I hug Evan and there doesn’t seem to be any flesh to him; there’s only hard bone and dry skin. He barely acknowledges my embrace. I step back a little.
“Talk to him, Augustus,” she pleads in my ear and immediately I want to retreat. “Ask him to forgive me.”
She releases my hand, looks back at Evan, and reluctantly leaves us. Evan doesn’t look up at first to even acknowledge me. Instead, he runs his dark, thin fingers over and over the same spot on the comforter. It is almost unbearably hot and stuffy and I don’t want to be here. There is a hint of a smile on his face. Evan seems to have found a moment of peace into which he loses himself. Who am I to intrude, so rather than sit in the old cane backed chair by the bed I reach for the door knob.
“Hello Bull,” he says as he peers up at me.
I sit beside him and take his hand. “Don’t leave so soon. I haven’t seen you in such a long, long time, and I miss my old friend. I miss my old teacher.” He refers to me as Bull. That was my grandfather’s nickname. Evan doesn’t remember me. Instead, he remembers the young man that was once my grandfather. As he reminisces, I listen and nod in agreement. I barely know those places, and I have never met those people. It wasn’t my time. I want to tell him that my father died twenty-seven years ago, but I can’t speak the simple words, “My grandfather is dead.”
I find it hard to breathe and talk at the same time. “Did you know, Augustus,” he asks me. Something inexplicable clicks for him. The smile fades and instantly he recognizes me. “Did you know?”
“I was just a boy then,” I tell him. “I heard things. They were things said by adults in whispers.” I wanted to lie to him, but I couldn’t. I owe him whatever truth I have.
“So you knew.”“I heard, Evan. I heard neighborhood gossip,” I say. “but hearing is not knowing.”
“They say he had her on the cooling board.”
“Forgive,” I implore. “Forgive them. Forgive her.”
“I can’t,” he cried.
“Don’t die with this on your heart.”
“Why,” Evan begged. “Oh God, why wait until I am dying to tell me this? Why let me die with this in my heart? This is too much to bear, Augustus.”
“You’ve lived your life, Evan,” I assure him. “You lived a good life. You are a good man. Just forgive.”
“I can’t forgive her. I can’t forgive them,” he rasps. “And I can’t forgive God. I only want to close my eyes and escape from this.”
He is crying now and his shoulders convulse with the weeping. Oh God, I am at loss as to how to fix this, so I just reach up and hold him close and rock him like a child until the crying subsides. Then I offer him my handkerchief. He takes it and wipes his eyes, blows his nose, and apologizes for everything. I sit back in the chair and try to assure him that he has no reason to apologize for anything. For a time we sit quietly together, and we remember those times long ago when I was just a boy and Evan would drop by my grandfather’s house for dinner.
After eating they would congenially debate points of politics and theology and I would sit quietly on the floor and play. Sometimes I would just sit and listen and wish that I was a grown man with a grown man’sunderstanding of such things.
“Will you have communion with me?” he asks, “Will you forgive her?”
“Is receiving communion conditioned upon my forgiving her?”
“There are no conditions.”
I reach into my bag and arrange the instruments of communion on the nightstand next to his bed. There’s the wine and the bread and the small pewter cups. Everything fits neatly in a small box which has an impression of DaVinci’sLast Supper etched within its lid. He begins to hum a song that is so very familiar to me.
“Augustus, will you sing that old song for me. You always had such a beautiful voice. And just now I remembered that old song. Please sing it for me.”
Evan taps on the bed and keeps time. He sings along with me and his voice is low and hoarse. I can hear the pain in is voice and see it in his face.
Let us break bread together on our knees,
(on our knees)
Let us break bread together on our knees.
(on our knees)
When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord, have mercy on me.
“A table has been set for you,” I say. “Come and accept the gift of the Lord.”
With a groan he leans forward. I hold the bread before him and offer it.
“This is the body.” He takes the bread and holds it forth. I hold up a small cup of red wine. “This is the blood.”
Evan is holding the blood and the body and waits for me. I pour my own wine and take my own wafer and he groans, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
I put away the objects of communion and he closes his eyes. He whispers something I can’t quite make out and goes limp. He’s dead. And I just sit here and close my own eyes and wait for nothing in particular to happen, because I have no answers. I know that when I leave this room I will have no comfort to offer.
She sits in an old leather chair by the door with her face in her hands. I kneel beside her and rub her back and tell her that he is gone. She collapses against me and this is almost more weight than I can bear. I hold her as I hum, “Let us break bread together.”
I want to lie to her and tell her that in the end all was forgiven. I want to tell her that all will be forgiven. But I can’t do that. She’ll have to live with this and so will I.
I delivered the eulogy on a warm day when the sun was shining and my heart was breaking. Evan’s widow was there. The very people who for decades had held and ultimately divulged the secret were there. They wept and I hated them all.