Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Straightened Arrow

~Tom Noyes

The Ten Commandments monument banished from Alabama’s state judicial building began a national tour on the back of a flatbed Saturday.
—Associated Press, 8/1/04

“Says you,” I say, downshifting to take the exit. “Thus sayeth Vance.”
“Not just me,” Vance says. “Thus sayeth the Apostle John. Thus sayeth the Alpha as well as the Omega.”
As we roll into Terre Haute, Indiana, Vance and I deliberate the subject of hell. In short, I’m against it, he’s for it. Since pulling out of Montgomery three weeks ago, we’ve been arguing to eat up the miles. Vance introduces a theological topic, brushes me up on the basics, describes his position, and then it’s up to me to raise questions, poke holes. Vance says if I ever get sick of driving truck, I could get advocate work with the Devil.
En route to our first stop in Decatur, Georgia, we batted around the concept of free will. Crossing Tennessee, from Gatlinburg to Clarksville, we tackled baptism, the immersion versus sprinkling debate. Last week, just outside Henderson, Kentucky, Vance introduced eternal security into the mix, and things got heated for the first time. Vance interrupted me to brandish the verse about no one being able to pluck us from our Heavenly Father’s hand, and I interrupted him right back with something I remembered from one of Pastor Jeffers’s sermons, the notion of God spewing us out of his mouth if we taste lukewarm. “Like mouthwash,” I said. “Like so much tobacco juice.” Vance raised his voice to call me dull-witted and vulgar, and in response I lowered my fist on the dashboard, accidentally swerving us into the passing lane and forcing a Nissan Sentra into the rumble strips.
Once I got us righted, Vance and I decided it best to call a truce, agree to disagree and take a break for the rest of the day. Vance took it upon himself to tune in talk radio, and we cooled off by listening to other people tangle about worldly issues like campaign finance reform, tax breaks for companies shipping American jobs overseas, and war. “Catharsis,” Vance said after a while, and I caught his drift.
The grind of the tour and the increasing fervency of our exchanges are beginning to wear on me. In the aftermath of a discussion, I can’t tell if my faith is blooming or withering. Vance tells me not to become disheartened, that untested faith is no faith at all. He may be right, but too often his words, even when meant to encourage, strike me as holier-than-thou, and I admit to having the urge sometimes to hit him hard enough to kill him and then tell God he died. That my wife, Misty, and I are long distance and going through a rough patch right now doesn’t help lighten my mood.
Terre Haute is the midway point of the 2004 Ten Commandments Tour. The order to remove the monument from the courthouse in Montgomery wasn’t even a week old when a group of local clergy and politicians began putting together the itinerary. We’re not drawing the crowds originally hoped for, but the people who do turn out are enthusiastic, and despite my being no kind of a salesman, the merchandise is moving, especially the t-shirts, which have a snazzy depiction of the monument framed by lightening bolts on the back, and the tour motto—Etched in Stone: From Moses to Montgomery—emblazoned on the front. We also have “Basking in the Son” sun-visors, “Living Water” water bottles, “I Appeal to the Supremest Court” bumper stickers, and free brochures which offer a scripturally-based critique of the court decision and warn of the dark days ahead if America continues as is.
Vance and I luck out by catching a green light off the exit, and it’s mid-day on the dot as we merge onto Third Street. Bob Evans’s parking lot is jammed, as is Denny’s, as is IHOP’s, as is Cracker Barrel’s, so we decide to get set up at the venue before eating. I haven’t lately had much of an appetite anyway.
“High ground,” Vance says. He smiles and opens his notebook. “Terre Haute translated. We’re taking the high ground.” Vance is a writer for 21st Century Christian, a monthly magazine for and about “Godly men and women living in the Last Days.” He’s riding along with me as part of a story assignment. Provided he’s not preempted by the Rapture, Vance sees a cover feature in his near future. I was worried for a while about how I’d come off in the story, but not anymore. At a rest stop a few days ago, my curiosity got the best of me, and I thumbed through Vance’s notebook while he was powdering his nose. My name isn’t mentioned once. Not a jot nor a tittle.
“Land of Larry Bird,” I say, thinking I’m talking to myself. To this point in the tour, Vance hasn’t struck me as much of a sports fan, talking over the baseball scores on the radio the way he does.
“Right, Bird went to college in Terre Haute,” Vance says without looking up, “but he hails originally from a town south of here. French Lick.”
“That’s borderline disgusting,” I say.
Vance nods as he closes his notebook, pockets his pen. “Downright lascivious.”
I’m not entirely convinced this job’s for me, yet here I am doing it. I had an inkling of this doubt from the start, but it didn’t stop me six weeks ago from answering Pastor Jeffers’s altar call. That Misty was sitting next to me in the pew praying I’d open my heart to the challenge was no doubt a factor—she’d whispered her petition aloud—but it wasn’t only about pleasing Misty. I’d been going stir crazy in Montgomery since my layoff—I’d reacquainted myself with some old companions and habits I’d been better off without—and I thought maybe this job, minimum wage and all, was something that could help me. Keep me on the straight and narrow.
There’s not to be any peeking during altar calls, but in reality, there’s all sorts of peeking—I’m a peeker myself—so when I rose from the pew to make my way to Reverend Jeffers, there were a lot of amens. Seems a large portion of the congregation had been praying along with Misty, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how cared for this made me feel. I relish being on the minds of others, and I enjoy pleasing people, especially women and the elderly.
Later in his office, Pastor Jeffers mopped the back of his neck with his handkerchief and motioned for me to sit across the desk from him. The last time I’d been in Pastor Jeffers’ office was three years before when Misty and I had gone through his pre-marital counseling program, a requirement if you want him to preside over your union. I don’t remember much of what was said in those sessions, but I do recall that his eyes were on Misty most of the time, and I couldn’t help but feel he was worried for her right up through D-Day.
On this afternoon, though, when it was just the two of us, Pastor Jeffers was all smiles. “It’s a wonderful blessing to receive God’s calling, Dusty,” he said. “Lord doesn’t make mistakes. He’s prepared you for this.”
“I’ve some time on my hands,” I said.
“The driver we’d originally lined up is full of gall stones. Just got word yesterday. This has put us in a bind as the tour’s slated to kick off tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” I said as Pastor Jeffers opened a drawer and took out a box of cinnamon Tic-Tacs. He shook a bunch into his mouth and commenced chewing like they were peanuts. “Did you mention that from the pulpit?” I said. “I haven’t yet sat down with my wife about this. I have a doctor’s appointment coming up. Misty’s car is past due for an oil change. Any chance I might get a week or two to tie up loose ends?”
Pastor Jeffers’ forehead wrinkled as I spoke. When I finished he tilted his head back and poured a second mouthful of Tic-Tacs. He studied me as he chewed, filling the gap in conversation by shaking the now half-empty box like a baby rattle. Finally, suddenly, he poked the air with his finger as if to make room for his words. “A man asked Jesus if, before following Him, he might return home once more to say goodbye to his family. You know what Jesus said, Dusty? ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’”
“That’s rough,” I said. “If it weren’t Christ, I’d consider it borderline unreasonable.”
“You’re better off than that guy, though, Dusty,” Pastor Jeffers said. “The Lord doesn’t need you until 5:30 tomorrow morning.”
“I’ve always been lucky just like that,” I said.
Pastor Jeffers shook his head. “No room for luck, Dusty. You’re a key component in God’s plan for national revival. Golden calves are being worshipped all over this country, and someone’s got to lay down the good and perfect law. You’re Moses with a flatbed, delivering to America the one true God’s instructions and expectations. I’m half glad the dark powers ordered the monument removed. Why? Publicity. Airtime. God uses even the wicked to further his purposes. Poor saps don’t even realize.” Pastor Jeffers dropped the box of Tic-Tacs in his shirt pocket and leaned forward, rested his elbows on the desk. “On a more personal note, Dusty, I’m glad for your sake. Glad my prayers for you have been answered. There are stragglers in every flock, but no not one that the Lord can’t reach, no not one that He can’t bring back to His fold.”
Pastor Jeffers opened his hand then as if he were the Lord reaching for me, and he kept it open, like he was waiting for a response. I thought about shaking it, but it wasn’t extended out to me sideways; rather, it was straight up and down, hovering over the desk, like the man wanted me to play Mercy, that game where you and your opponent bend each other’s fingers until one of you surrenders. I couldn’t imagine this was what he intended, though, and a high-five seemed just as inappropriate, so I went with instinct and mirrored him, raised my flat hand over my shoulder as if my blinker were out and my intention was a right turn.
Pastor Jeffers looked confused before dropping his hand to scratch his eyebrow. My guess is it didn’t even itch. “By the way, Dusty, your license is up to date, right?”
“Had it renewed just before my layoff,” I said.
Pastor Jeffers smiled and raised both fists to his ears as if he’d just beaten somebody at something. “All things work together for good,” he said. “Ain’t no denying.”
The venue in Terre Haute is a picnic shelter in the city’s riverfront park. The Commandments are a dual attraction this weekend along with the 9th Annual World Hovercraft Racing Championships. Vance and I saw a billboard for the event just off the exit. Neither of us knows exactly what a hovercraft is, but I like gasoline engines as much as the next guy and am hoping to catch a race or two.
As we turn into the park, we see a few of the machines on trailers. They have giant fans on the back like those alligator hunting boats in the Everglades, but they’re sleek and shiny, and the driver’s seat is sunk into the body like an Indy car or an Olympic bobsled. All the guys scrambling around the machines look like their business is serious. Most are wearing coveralls, wrap-around sunglasses, and baseball caps. As Vance, the Commandments and I rumble past, not one of them looks up.
At Picnic Shelter #11, there’s nothing but a posterboard and magic marker sign that reads “Ten Commandments.” Some towns have crews meet us to unload the monument onto a platform or stage, but in towns like Terre Haute, crews weren’t assembled for whatever reason, so the monument stays on the truck. I prefer these venues because there’s less work. Besides setting up the merchandise table—I can do this in under fifteen minutes—all I have to do is take the tarp off the monument and lower the ramp so people can climb up to get their close looks. I can easily do all this in the morning just prior to show time, so Vance and I have the rest of this afternoon and tonight for ourselves.
The two of us are circling each other in the grass, stretching our legs and discussing whether to drive or hoof it back toward the restaurants and motels when a hovercraft comes into view, skimming along the middle of the Wabash River like a big dragonfly. I take my eyes off it for a second to gauge Vance’s response, and in the very same moment I look back at the water, the machine flips onto its side and spins to a stop. We can’t see the driver’s seat from where we stand, so we’re worried and start toward the bank. We’re only about halfway there, though, when we spot him coming around the side of the wreck, dog-paddling crosswise against the current. When he’s close enough to shore that he can walk, he uses his hands to wrestle off his helmet and flings it wildly toward shore, but it falls well short and sinks slowly in the muddy water.
A couple other men coming from downriver reach the bank ahead of Vance and me. One’s in mechanic’s duds, and the other’s in an Oxford and khakis, like a bank teller. When the driver gets close enough to shore, the mechanic extends a hand. The bank teller, though, picks up a big stick and takes an uppercut swing at the driver’s head. The blow doesn’t land, but the driver’s mad just the same, and as soon as his feet are on dry land, he picks up a rock. The two are squared off now, stick against rock, telling each other their intentions, but I can tell by their gabbing that neither of them is going to go through with anything, so it’s not difficult for the mechanic, along with Vance and me when we arrive, to break it up. The mechanic grabs the bank teller by the shoulders, steering him away from the river and toward the parking area, so the soggy driver is left to Vance and me. He smells like rot, and his face is as red as a cinnamon Tic-Tac. He’s blinking fast as if to keep tears from coming, and my guess is that the purpose of the grunting noise he’s making on the exhale is to keep a sadder, more painful noise from rising.
“Hit me with a stick?” he says. “Don’t think so.”
“People lose their tempers, right?” Vance says. He has a handful of the guy’s driving suit in one hand, and with the other he’s clapping the guy on the back like they’re chums. “Your friend’s probably already feeling bad.”
“If that guy’s your friend, pickings must be slim where you’re from,” I say.
Vance gives me a look that makes me want to hit him with a stick, and the driver turns to face me. “You from a place where friends don’t quarrel?” he says.
“We’re all too busy dating each other’s wives and beating each other’s kids,” I say. I’ve spent some time on both sides of the bar, have seen my share of brawls. The best way to cool a hot head is jokes. Humor reminds people that the world goes on.
When what I said sinks in, the guy smirks, and his body loosens. He looks at his muddy hands and stoops to wipe them on the grass. “Skinner’s got every right to be mad,” the driver says. “I’m not happy, either. What I take offense at is the stick.”
“What happened?” I say, nodding to the river and his stranded machine.
“Tree limb,” he says. “It’s a mess out there. Absolutely unacceptable. The site’s supposed to be clear. Imagine a NASCAR driver hitting a pothole on a practice lap. Heads would roll.”
“Why’d your friend take it so hard?” Vance says.
“Craft’s his,” the driver says. “Owner and sponsor.” He looks once more at the hovercraft and then turns his back to the river. “This is the third mishap this season. Not one of them my fault, though. Not all my fault. Run of bad luck.”
“He’ll cool down, and the two of you will talk it out,” Vance says.
“In the meantime, have lunch with us,” I say. “Even the unlucky have to eat.”
The driver shrugs. “Might as well. Besides, if I’m not fired, I quit.”
My last night in Montgomery with Misty was unforgettable. God and I had joined forces to answer her prayer, and she was appreciative and satisfied. ’Tis better to give than to receive. That one didn’t make the Top Ten, but it should’ve.
What was between Misty and me that night makes what’s been going on since I left all the more puzzling. It’s to the point now where she’s got Caller ID, and if it’s long distance, she doesn’t pick up. I can’t even leave a message as she’s disconnected our answering machine. I learned all this from Pastor Jeffers, who I contacted, thinking he owed me in a way. When I asked him to talk to Misty for me, though, he turned it around and started counseling me, saying I needed to give Misty time and space. He said she’d been going through a time of transition since I left, discovering and exploring aspects of herself she’d never known. He told me that he was helping her work through it, that I needed to be patient in allowing them to discern God’s perfect plan for her.
“I hope God didn’t get me out of town so that He could get between my wife and me.” The moment I said this was the same moment that the suspicion first occurred to me, so I was surprised by my own words.
“You’re not thinking about this rightmindedly, Dusty,” Pastor Jeffers said. “You’re holding your own desires most dear.”
“I’m human,” I said. “You cut me, I bleed.”
I tell this tale at lunch to Vance and Raymond, the hovercraft driver. From the river we’d taken a cab to an Irish bar that the driver recommended. The three of us ordered Reubens, and Raymond and I are drinking beer. They have a local brew on tap called Champagne Velvet, and its name alone makes Raymond and me want to keep toasting each other. I can tell that Vance is surprised by the beer—I’ve stuck to Diet Coke and iced tea to this point in the tour—and I sense he’s taken aback, maybe even hurt, that now, in the presence of a stranger, is the first he’s hearing of my troubles with Misty.
“We all bleed,” Raymond says, nodding. “If Skinner would’ve landed that stick, I would’ve bled like a stuck pig.”
Vance is done eating, sitting back in his seat, wringing a napkin. Raymond and I are only about half done with our sandwiches because we’ve been talking and working our way through a couple three pitchers. I can tell the two of us see the world similarly, and we’re mutually glad to have stumbled onto each other. If Vance is feeling like a third wheel, maybe he should write about that in his precious notebook.
“What you fellows told me in the cab about the Ten Commandments? How that judge wasn’t allowed to have them in his courthouse? That’s not right,” Raymond says. “Doesn’t strike me as fair and balanced. It goes against the Declaration of Independence, the part about the government minding its own business.”
“I suppose the Supreme Court thought the courthouse was their business,” I say.
“Well, that’s true. That complicates the situation, them thinking it was their business. If they could make the case that they were in fact minding their own business, things could swing in their favor,” Raymond says. When he drinks his beer, he curls his hand to hold the glass from behind, like a sneaky hug.
Vance squeezes his napkin into a ball and drops it on the table. “They minded their own business, but they did so unjustly. They minded their own business in such a way as to infringe upon the freedoms of speech and religion. Yours and mine.”
“Of course, their argument is they’re protecting those freedoms,” I say, falling into rhythm. “Not everyone who walks into that courthouse is Christian or Jew.”
“Let’s not bring race into this now,” Raymond says in a whisper that’s somehow louder than his normal voice. He jerks his head to the left so we’ll take note of the Asian customer at the bar. The guy’s in a suit, eating a Cobb salad, talking English on his cell.
“It comes down to this,” Vance says. “You can’t serve both God and mammon.”
“Mammons have hair and suckle their babies,” Raymond says. “Except for the platypus, who lays eggs and has a beak.”
“To platypussies,” I say, raising my glass.
“It’s platypuses,” Vance says. “Or maybe platypi.”
“To every single one of the freaky-looking suckers,” Raymond says. Our glasses clink.
“I guess it’s about that time,” Vance says as he stands. “I’m going back to the truck to get my bag before checking into a motel. I think you should come with me, Dusty.” He looks from me to the pitcher of beer and then back at me, slowly, dramatically, like we’re in a movie, like this is some staged moment of truth.
“You go,” I say. “I’m visiting with my new friend.”
“Do not be given over to strong drink,” Vance says. He says it like I made him say it.
“Take a little for your stomach,” I say, paraphrasing the verse my father used to quote to my mother. “If it still hurts, take a little more.”
“Ouch,” Raymond says as he reaches for the pitcher. He laughs as he pours but doesn’t spill a drop.
Vance opens his wallet, drops too much money on the table and walks out.
“My world just brightened,” Raymond says. “Brother was bringing me down.”
“I’m disappointing to him,” I say to Raymond.
“Everybody’s disappointing to somebody,” Raymond says. “And some are disappointing to everybody.”
Raymond and I spend the rest of the afternoon at the bar. When the after-work crowd starts drifting in, things get friendly, and by the end of happy hour, I’m fielding questions about the Commandments, and Raymond’s holding forth on the ins and outs of hovercraft racing.
“They’re not the original Commandments, are they?” The woman’s dressed in her Sunday-best, heavily perfumed, wearing a corsage. She could be AWOL from a wedding.
“They’re not Moses’ stone tablets, but the words are the same,” I say. “If not the actual words, the ideas, anyway. Summarized, for sure. In English, of course.”
My answer seems to disappoint her, and she turns to Raymond. “Why not race cars?” she asks, poking him in the chest. “Why not boats?”
“Why not magic carpets?” I say to her loudly, but I’m not quite sure what I’m getting at.
“The firmament,” says a pink-headed man in a corduroy sport coat. “That’s where truth resides. That hazy border between heaven and earth. You race in the firmament.”
“Professor at the university,” the fancy woman says to Raymond. “Mr. Philosophical Poet after a few. Mr. Quirky Genius.”
“I like it,” Raymond says. “Me on my cushion of air, racing for truth in the affirmative.”
“Firmament,” the professor says.
Raymond turns to me. “Not just me, Dusty. You and Misty are in the affirmative, too. Not quite together, not quite apart. You’re in between, looking for the truth about your love.”
Hearing this, I’m filled simultaneously with fear and hope, and I begin to weep for the first time as a full-grown man. I see now that Misty and I are on the verge of catching a submerged tree limb and crashing, so to speak, but maybe with some in-the-nick-of-time help, we could still find a way to rise above it, so to speak, and continue gently, merrily down the stream of our love, so to speak.
“There there,” the fancy woman says. She’s looking at me but squeezing Raymond’s arm, like he’s the one in need of comfort. “The heart wants what it wants.”
“You’ll get through to her, Dusty,” Raymond says. “You’ll find a way.”
And then it hits me. It doesn’t come from within like a memory or an idea, but from without, like I imagine revelation must. I force the words through my tears. “Misty has e-mail at work.”
“You can get on-line at the university library,” the professor says. “Control-Alt-Delete will bring up the start screen, then you log in as ‘guest.’”
“Say what?” I say.
“Whoever’s behind the counter can assist you,” the professor says. “Despite their pained expressions, that’s what they’re there for.”
“When it comes to computers, I tend toward distrust and suspicion, but these are drastic times,” I say to Raymond.
“Do you have an account?” he asks.
“Not that I’m aware of,” I say.
“You’ll use my Hotmail,” he says. “Do you know her address?”
“Haven’t the foggiest,” I say. “My own wife.”
“There are ways,” Raymond says, pushing himself back from the table. “Let’s go. First things first, though. If we’re going to a college, we need gum or mints. We’re going to be around impressionable young Americans.”
“Got you covered,” the fancy woman says to Raymond. She digs through her purse, comes up with an unopened pack of Wint-O-Green Lifesavers, and then holds them beside her mouth as she talks, like a commercial. “If you let me know where you’re staying, I could swing by later tonight to pick up what you don’t eat,” she says.
“She’s a saint who provides for strangers in need,” Raymond says as he accepts with both hands the LifeSavers and pen the woman gives him.
“Write on this,” the woman says, sliding a napkin toward him over the table. “Write neatly.”
Raymond and I get directions from the professor and step into the evening’s soft sunshine. After a block or two we’re talking at normal volume again, and the sweat we’re working up is leveling us off. Raymond’s letting me bounce ideas off him of what I might write to Misty, and so far he likes them all.
“I’ve seen things on this tour that I could share with her,” I tell him. “A vanful of cripples traveled all the way from North Carolina to see the monument when we were in Georgia. They lined up their wheelchairs in single-file to touch it one at a time. The last of them, an old woman wearing cataract sunglasses, told me a canker sore on her bottom gum went numb the moment her fingers touched the Commandments, and she thanked me as if I’d had something to do with it. In Tennessee a rabbi blessed me when I wasn’t looking and then told me about King David’s bodyguard, a Gentile who hosted the Ark of the Covenant for a few weeks and then enjoyed blessings the rest of his life. ‘Yahweh’s a good tipper,’ the rabbi said. A week later at a county fair in Kentucky, a local youth pastor equipped with guitar set up in front of the monument and performed a song he’d written putting the Commandments to music. The chorus was catchy. ‘Living as a straightened arrow on the straight and narrow.’ The applause was thunderous. Afterwards, the rumor around the fairgrounds was that a talent scout from Nashville tracked the boy down at the 4-H livestock pens and signed him then and there.”
“Tell her everything,” Raymond says. “Bring out all the tricks.”
“Whatever her doubts and concerns may be, they are about the Dusty who left, not the Dusty who longs to return,” I say. “I’m just now realizing this very thing.”
“She’ll eat it up,” Raymond says.
“I don’t type,” I say. “I hunt and peck.”
“I’m lightning on a keyboard,” Raymond says. “My fingers are your fingers.”
When we hit 7th Street where we’re to take a right, we have to stop to wait for the light to change, and I notice an historical marker just a few feet from where we’re standing. Turns out the intersection was at one time considered the Crossroads of America. Routes 40 and 63 were big in their day. Sea to shining sea, the Great Lakes to Mexico, and for the second time in an hour, I’m on the verge of tears. It hits me suddenly how big America is, how long and lonely its stretches of blacktop are, and I think of my life on the road, all the years I’ve spent driving rig, all the people I’ve passed and all who’ve passed me, and my chest feels full like it did back at the bar, and I have to bring my fist to my mouth and cough into it to keep myself together.
“We’re on our way to making things better,” Raymond says in my ear. He puts his arm around my shoulder and squeezes.
The Lifesavers have worked. His breath is pleasant and fresh, and I can only assume mine smells similarly. This instills some hope in me, and when the light changes, we cross.
Once inside the library, Raymond takes control. In no time he has us up and running on a computer, he’s found Misty’s address, and his hands are poised over the keyboard, waiting for me to begin. Things are moving fast, and I feel pressure. “I know approximately what needs to be said, but I don’t what words to use,” I say. “I wonder if sending the wrong message might be worse than sending no message at all.”
The section of the library we’re in is wall-to-wall computers, but as for people, the room’s nearly empty. Besides Raymond and me, there’s only the guy behind the main desk. He doesn’t look like a librarian, not what I imagine a librarian to look like. He’s spent some time in the weight room—he’s wearing a tight black t-shirt—his head’s shaved, and he’s got a hoop earring in each ear. Mr. Clean is who I’m thinking.
I’m still tongue-tied when a girl walks in the room and sits at a computer down the row from Raymond and me. Upon seeing her, Mr. Clean springs into action. He’s on her before her fingers hit the keyboard.
“No beverages at the computers,” he says.
“Has a top on it,” the girl says, holding up the cup. She’s wearing a handkerchief on her head, the kind stagecoach robbers hide behind, and dangly bracelets that jingle when she moves her hands.
“Rules are rules are rules,” Mr. Clean says.
The girl gets up, marches over to a wastebasket and drops in her full cup. “Happy?” she asks.
“Not especially, no,” Mr. Clean says on the way back to his desk.
When the girl sits down again, she sees Raymond and me looking at her. “Whose side are you on?” she says. “As impartial observers, tell me who’s in the right.”
Raymond turns in his seat, clears his throat. “Tough call,” he says. “Brother’s just doing his job. You’re just thirsty.”
“Maybe you’re both wrong,” I say. “Maybe you shouldn’t be so quick to think rules don’t apply to you. Maybe he needs to learn not to sweat the small stuff.”
“Do you guys go to school here? Are you like nontraditional students?” The girl’s moved a few chairs closer now, and I can see she has a small jewel in her left nostril. It’s hard not to stare at it.
“We’re just passing through,” Raymond says. “Strangers on a mission.”
“What’s your mission?” the girl says.
“Actually,” Raymond says, and then pauses to look at me. I shrug. “It might be something you could help us with,” he says.
“You being a woman,” I say. “Same as my wife.”
“This is Dusty,” Raymond says. “He and his better half have come to a crisis point. Long story short, here we sit in front of a blank screen, looking to compose a few lines that might help initiate the healing process.”
The girl gets out of her chair to stand behind Dusty and me. She leans forward as she eyes the screen, one hand on the back of Dusty’s chair, one hand on the back of mine. “Don’t start with ‘Dear,’” she says. “Everyone starts with ‘Dear.’”
When she was sitting farther away, I could’ve sworn the stud in her nose was red, but now, from close range, I see it’s more of a purple.
“If not ‘Dear,’ then what?” I say.
“Dearest?” Raymond says.
“Skip the formality of the greeting altogether,” the girl says. “This is your wife, right? Cut through the bull. Up front and honest. Launch into it. Project urgency. Something like, ‘Here’s what I need to tell you,’ or ‘Listen up. We need to work this out.’”
“What’s your major?” Raymond says.
“Undeclared,” the girl says. “It’s hard for me to choose because I’m good at everything. That’s not me being cocky. It’s just how it is.”
“You’ve been a big help,” I say, “and I like the earring in your nose.”
The girl smiles bashfully as she runs her finger over her nostril. “My birthstone,” she says. “February’s amethyst.”
“No kidding,” I say. “My wife, too. She’s the 29th. Leap year baby.”
The girl’s still looking at me as she sticks one finger up her nose and lifts the amethyst off her nostril with her other hand. She puts the back on the stud and holds it out to me. “New plan,” the girl says. “Type this sentence: ‘I have something I can’t wait to give you.’ Then sign and send.”
“Doesn’t that sound vaguely threatening?” Raymond says.
“Does she have any reason to fear you?” the girl asks me. The hole in her nose looks like a caved-in freckle.
“Not even one,” I say.
“Trust me on this,” she says as she takes my hand, opens my palm, and presses the amethyst into it. “Have faith.”
“I know I need that,” I say.
“I feel really good,” the girl says. “Like I know why I got out of bed today.”
When Raymond’s finished typing, he tells me to click the mouse on the Send button. When I do, the girl claps, and Raymond lets out a little whoop. This makes Mr. Clean clear his throat like he wants our attention, but when we look over, all we see is the back of his narrow, waxy head. It’s unnaturally smooth and still, like a mannequin’s.
On my walk back to the truck to grab my duffel, I’m alone for the first time all day. Raymond called a cab from the library to get him back to his motel room. He figured Skinner would be waiting for him to talk things over, and he knew he’d have to face that music eventually, so he figured he’d get it over with tonight so he could hit tomorrow unburdened. He invited me along, but it was a situation in which I didn’t see a useful role for myself, and I felt like walking rather than riding, so we said we’d see each other tomorrow at the river. We covered all this in the library lobby where the girl had told us there was a courtesy phone. Afterwards, when we returned to the computers to say our goodbyes and thank-yous, the girl was gone. I made Mr. Clean shake his head by asking if he’d seen which way she went.
I step down off one curb, up onto another, and run my thumb over the amethyst in my shirt pocket. I feel a little guilty. I have no idea how much the thing’s worth and probably shouldn’t have accepted it. I wonder if this is why the girl gave Raymond and me the slip; maybe she thought I’d try to give it back to her, and it was something she didn’t want to have to take back. Who knows how she’d come by it, who’d given it to her? It’s possible I did her a favor by taking it off her hands, maybe even a bigger favor than the one she did me.
At the long red light at Wabash Street and Route 41, there’s nothing to do but stand still and watch cars go by—it’s about fifty-fifty how many have their headlights on, how many don’t—and I wonder about the now-empty hole in the girl’s nose, how long it would take to close up if left empty, if it would ever close up the whole way.
By the time I reach the river, I have a stitch in my side. When you spend most days sitting behind the wheel, your body gets used to being moved rather than moving itself. The pain’s right above my belt. What’s there? What part of my guts? Maybe it’s not a walking stitch at all but gall stones, like that guy who originally was supposed to drive the Commandments. Stones passed from him to me, like a plague. I wonder how he and Vance would’ve gotten along. I take out of my pocket the key that would’ve been his key, unlock and open the door that would’ve been his door, and pull myself up into the seat that would’ve been his seat.
I let my head fall back and close my eyes for a few minutes. I’m not sleepy, but it feels good to see nothing for a while. I fold my hands over my stomach and try to relax my muscles one at a time. Misty does this at night. She used to have to take sleeping pills, but she’s gotten so good at relaxing that she doesn’t need them anymore. She starts at the tips of her toes and moves all the way up to her scalp. Sometimes I watch her, try to guess which part of her body’s she’s on. I never fall asleep first.
When I re-open my eyes, it’s almost the whole way dark outside, but if I concentrate I can still see the river, like a silhouette, beyond the picnic shelter, and I wonder if Raymond’s hovercraft is still out there.
It’s then I notice Vance’s note. A page ripped from his notebook, folded long ways like a tent, and half-hidden between the passenger seat and the console. Beside it on the seat is the key I’d given him at the start of the tour. I switch on the overhead light and read.
Vance’s message to me is that he’s decided to rent a car, drive back home to Grand Rapids. He thinks he has the material he needs to write his story. He thanks me for letting him tag along and promises to get me a copy of the article when it comes out. He apologizes twice, once in case he overstayed his welcome, and again if his leaving seems sudden. He closes by saying he’s glad I’m his friend, that he’s praying for me. Under his signature, there’s a verse reference. First John 5:3.
I reach behind my seat, grab my duffel and dig around to find the pocket New Testament Pastor Jeffers gave me back when Misty and I first started going to him for pre-marital counseling. I told him I was quite satisfied using the pew Bible on Sundays, but he insisted, saying, “This one’s for Monday through Saturday, then.” As he handed it to me, I remember now, he winked at Misty, like she was the one he was doing the favor for.
At first I mess up by turning to the Gospel of John 5:3 rather than First John 5:3, and I can’t figure out for the life of me what Vance is getting at. “In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water.” Who’s sick? I’m sick? Raymond’s sick? People coming to the river tomorrow to see the hovercraft races and Commandments are sick? When I catch my mistake and read the verse Vance intended for me to read, though, things come clearer. “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.”
It’s not that I think that God, through this verse, is talking directly to me, instructing me to do or not do anything specific. Rather it’s that I feel freed somehow, like I’ve been given permission to do whatever it is I think I need to do. “His commandments aren’t burdensome.” Some lessons feel new, but most feel like reminders, like life is spent learning the same things over and over.
I reach the flashlight under the dash, swing my legs out of the truck, head back to the trailer, and climb up with the Commandments. I loosen the straps on the monument, hop back down and pull off the tarp.
I spotlight them one at a time. They’re hard to argue with, the shalt nots and shalts alike. On the one hand, don’t swear, kill, cheat, steal, lie, or get jealous; on the other hand, do respect God and your folks. They’re no-brainers, really. Obvious. They almost go without saying.
The only one I’m having trouble with, the one my flashlight keeps returning to, is the second. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” It strikes me that reading this rule inscribed on a touring marble monument is akin to reading the bumper sticker Vance and I saw in line at a toll booth a few weeks back: “Bumper stickers suck.” Akin to people who call themselves pro-life blowing up doctors’ offices. Akin to tobacco companies beseeching people not to smoke.
As I climb back into the cab, Pastor Jeffers’ song and dance about me being chosen echoes in my head. I don’t know if I believed at the time what he was saying—I don’t know if he believed it himself—but it turns out he was right. I turn the key to let the engine warm up. I see fuel’s getting low, but I’m not going far.
I put the rig in gear and steer it slowly around the circumference of the park, ending up at the entrance where Vance and I first came in. Seems like a lifetime ago, and I guess, in a way, it was.
I brake at the top of the straightaway that leads to the boat launch, and my headlights fall on the short boardwalks on either side of the slip. I can use them as guides to aim down the middle, a straightened arrow on the straight and narrow, and I feel like I now know why I got out of bed today. I rev the engine in neutral until it whines, and then I roll down my window and throw my duffel, wallet, belt and shoes onto the grass.
I pick up good speed down the hill, more than I thought I would. When the truck hits the water, I’m thrown forward so the side of my head caroms off the steering wheel, and I’m bleeding and fuzzy-headed as I squeeze out the window into the pitch black river. The water’s surprisingly cold—my heart and brain are drumming hard enough that I can feel my eyeballs pulse—but it’s only a short wade back to the dock, so I’m not in the river for long.
Once out of the water, I try to take care of my head wound. At first I keep pressure on the gash with my bare hand, but the blood’s trickling through my fingers and seeping into my eye, so I take off my shirt, roll it up, pull the sleeves tightly around my head and knot them in the back, like I’m Rambo or a Samurai, and then I just sit still on the dock for a while to get my bearings. To try to stop the world from spinning, I focus on the headlights of the truck, glowing under the water and rippling in the current like they’re reflections of headlights, like the actual truck with its actual headlights is hovering over the water, burning diesel in the dark, idling in the firmament.
It’s a good while before the lights go out, and although my head’s not feeling much better when they do, I’m satisfied as I pull myself up and turn away from the river. It wasn’t a perfect plan, but the job got done. The trailer didn’t get as deep as I would’ve liked, but it looks like it tipped onto its side, so the monument’s completely submerged. I imagine it probably snapped the straps and slid off into the muck.
I’m not the first caretaker of the tablets to decide enough’s enough. It was Moses himself who ruined the originals. He was so frustrated by the sins of his people that he snapped, dashed the Commandments to smithereens on the rocks of Sinai. He had to hike all the way back up the mountain to God, confess what happened, ask sheepishly if the Almighty had an extra copy. I imagine it was a long hike, maybe the longest ever hiked, and I imagine as he made the climb, Moses’s empty hands felt heavier to him than the slabs of rock he’d hauled on the way down.
I have ahead of me a long walk, too, and I’m still dizzy as I start back up the road, and I can’t tell if my head’s slowly clearing or getting cloudier, but my empty hands feel light. After locating my duffel, shoes, belt and wallet, I’m enough on the ball to duck behind a tree and get myself into dry clothes. When I untie the shirt from my head, I realize that I’m still bleeding pretty good, so I make another bandage by ripping a pair of sweat pants in half.
Patched up and dry, I sling the duffel over my shoulder and am about to leave the wet, bloody shirt in the grass when I remember the amethyst. I reach my hand into the empty pocket and then halfheartedly feel around in the grass, but I know what’s true, and on the hike back to Route 41, it’s hard not to mourn even though I know now’s not the time to dwell on what’s been lost. Keys included. I should’ve thought to yank them out of the ignition before abandoning the truck. At any rate, going back isn’t an option at this point. At what point is it ever an option? Vance will have to face this truth when he realizes that he left before having the ending for his story. No one’s fault but his own. Even if it was the Holy Spirit bidding him go, his journalistic instincts should’ve told him to stay. When he catches wind of the monument’s relocation, I wonder how he’ll spin it, if I’ll end up making it into his article after all.
As I cross a set of railroad tracks, I’m surprised and proud to find myself saying a sudden, quick prayer for Vance, that he’ll seek the guidance he needs in writing the story. When I’m at it, I offer one up for Raymond, too. I first express my thanks for him, and then ask that no matter how things end up with his career, he might find peace and happiness. If the fancy woman from the bar shows up at his door tonight, my desire for the both of them is that they’ll be able to find comfort and hope in one another, even if only of the non-eternal variety.
Less than a block away from Route 41, I stop to re-adjust my head-dressing. I feel a bit better when I loosen it, but after a few more steps I have blood running into my eye again, so I have to stop once more to re-tighten it. It’s a hindrance but nothing I can’t fight through. All I’m asking of myself is to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
The rental car places are closed until morning, of course. Besides, I’m in no shape to face someone behind a counter, in no shape to drive, and it’s probably necessary I travel anonymously for a while, keep my ID in my wallet and get out of Dodge while it’s still dark. When I hit the main road, I’ll face the southbound traffic, show them my thumb. I’m a bit worse for wear, but if I avoid trouble, if the right drivers are sent my way, those willing and able to look beyond appearances, I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to fully recuperate and reach Montgomery before Misty heads to work in the morning. Without my key, the front door’s not an option, but the locks are busted on two of our four living room windows, so my entrance won’t be a problem. If it’s one of Misty’s off Saturdays, a sleeping-in morning, I might even be there bedside to say good morning when she wakes up. At any rate, our reunion’s a matter of when, not if.
I know it’s not something the two of us should get into right away, but eventually I’m going to have to find an agreeable way to suggest that we take a break from church. If she balks—she might see it that she and I need church more than we ever have before, or she might tell me that I can attend Bedside Baptist if I want, but she’s going to stay faithful—I’ll remind her that God said where two or three are gathered in His name, there He is also. She and I make two. We’re enough. Says Him. This is me thinking positively. I shalt, I shalt, I shalt.