Friday, June 3, 2011

A Hymn For the Road..........a short story.

It had come to this. I found myself at a bus station at 6 o’clock on a Sunday night somewhere in Tennessee. It was as far as I could afford to ride from Mobile. I was out of money and cursing myself for being stupid enough to spend my last dime on a bus ticket to nowhere, the latest in a long line of foolish decisions. I suppose I thought that Tennessee was closer to home than the gulf of Mexico. But Virginia was only home because it was where I was born. There was no house in Virginia, no front porch, no light on for me. There wasn’t any family waiting. My folks had passed on years ago and my wife and child had moved on from me several years back, so there wasn’t anyone left. I had called Jill a few months ago to ask about my son. We hadn’t talked in awhile and she was cold and sad on the phone. She hadn’t even asked me where I was like she always did before. It was over for her. She was tried of hoping and worn out from caring.

It had all been my fault. I had walked away from her right after Mick’s 2nd birthday. I told her that I felt trapped and then blurted out viciously that I didn’t love her anymore and probably never did. I had been drinking too much after Mick was born. I stopped going to church with them, stopped doing anything with them. A couple of guys from the church had come over one night, said they wanted to pray with me. Something in me just snapped. Even though they were good guys and wanted to help me I had flown into a rage at their suggestion that I needed to repent of my sins. I threw them out of the house, packed my bags, and after a violent argument with Jill the screen door slammed behind me and just like that I was gone. I abandoned her with a two year old and a checkbook full of bills so I had been on the run from the law ever since.

Since that night I’d been living on the road, picking up odd jobs, drinking and wasting away. In Mobile I had taken a job at a junkyard where the greasy old boss had let me sleep for free on a cot in the back of the warehouse. One night a storm blew in off the gulf and the wind was shaking that old building to its very foundation. As I lay in the dark listening to the wind and rain beat down on the roof a memory came to mind. I hadn’t thought about my mother in so long I couldn’t even picture her face in my imagination. But there she was sitting on the end of my bed the night I had wrapped my Dad’s Impala around an oak tree after a football game in high school. I had gotten drunk at a party and on the way home had lost control and somehow managed to survive without a scratch. I was 17. My mother stared into my eyes as she held my hand between hers then said, “ Jackie, you should have been killed tonight. But you were spared. God spared you because he loves you and he wants you to learn to love him back.” I had almost forgotten that night until it came roaring back with the wind and rain. The next day I bought the bus ticket. As far as I could go for 65 bucks.

And now here I was walking the damp sidewalks wondering why I had left my free cot and job for yet another mindless trip to nowhere. I was about done. I wasn’t afraid of dying anymore. Nothing could be worse than what my pathetic life had become. I had found myself thinking more and more about ending it. It was practically all I had thought about on the bus. How much better would it have been for everyone if I had been killed that night in my Dad’s Impala.

I walked for an hour or so until I saw some sort of mission through the fog ahead. Lights were on and the old store front windows were empty but there was noise and warmth and the smell of soup. The front doors were propped open with two cinderblocks. I went in and instantly recognized the smell of bums and the sound of hungry men slurping down a free meal. This was just another soup kitchen like a hundred others I had relied on, run by some do-gooder college kids or church group. I didn’t care. I knew the drill and I was hungry so I got in line and was served a bowl of beef stew with a couple of rolls and a ham sandwich. A tall glass of tea was brought to my table by a hippie looking kid in a tie-dyed t-shirt who smiled and said, “Here you go brother.” As I ate I looked around the room at the usual faces I always saw at these places. Some were on drugs, most were drunks, some were just out of their minds whispering something to themselves as they pointed frantically at unseen demons.

Then I saw him. He was a very old black man with an oddly sane and cheerful smile. When he spotted me his eyes danced and sparkled. “ Well hello there my brother!” he shouted with a laugh. Startled, I could only think to answer..”I’m not your brother old man, and you for damn sure aren’t MY brother!” “Sure you are,” he answered. “You and me are God’s children so that makes us brothers!”

I ignored him and went back to eating, wondering why it was that God treated his children so poorly. After I finished I started to get up to leave when a strong voice began to sing. The old black man had taken his hat off and rose from his chair and with his eyes closed and his head tilted up slightly sang…

“ I will sing of my redeemer and his wondrous love to me;
On the cruel cross he suffered, from the curse to set me free.”

The room had fallen quiet. The spoons were still, the feet had stopped shuffling, the lunatics had stopped their whispering, even the kitchen had stopped to listen. The old man’s voice was raspy and worn but the notes were clear and beautiful…

“ Sing, oh sing of my redeemer, with his blood he purchased me.
On the cross he sealed my pardon, paid the debt and made me free.”

The song was familiar to me. When I was a child it was a favorite at the church Mom always took me to but nobody there ever sang like this..

“I will tell the wondrous story, how my lost estate to save,
In his boundless love and mercy, he the ransom freely gave”

Tears had begun to track down his cheeks and disappear softly into his beard. I found myself with a knot in my throat and my hands began to sweat as I watched his face with amazement. How could this old bum with nothing and nobody sing such a song?

“ I will sing of my redeemer, and his heavenly love to me;
He from death to life hath brought me, Son of God with him to be.

He must be crazy I thought. Instead of whispering and pointing he sings. But he could sing, really well, the kind of singer that might have really been something at one time. The kind of singer who might have done it for a living before the wheels came off and he ended up broken and busted up eating free soup in a rescue mission. When he finished the room erupted in applause. He seemed not to hear it as he sat back down and began to eat. I stood there looking at him for a minute as the noise slowly returned to the room. “That was some nice singing,” I managed to say. He looked up briefly from the soup and smiled, nodded his head and said nothing. “ I recognized that song from when I was a kid,” I offered awkwardly. I began to get irritated with him for not responding to me. I heard myself blurt out, “If God loves you so much old man, why the hell are you here?” He sat up straight, looked at me brightly and said, “Whatcha mean what am I doing here? Why, my God is supplying me this wonderful bowl of stew, that’s what I’m doing here! Ha! Don’t let my looks fool you brother. I got joy you know nothing about.” “Yeah, but you got nothing else,” I said in a quieter voice. “Well of course not. You got anything else?” he paused for effect. “I didn’t think so!. See?? I told you we was brothers, we’re just alike , practically twins you and me..Ha!”

He continued to eat and I sat there staring at him, unable to look away, much less leave. When he finished his meal he wiped his mouth with a paper napkin. “Jack is it?” he asked. “ Jack, I’ve got something to give you. Ha! I lied a minute ago when I let you believe I didn’t have nothing! Ha!” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a wrinkled and stained folded envelope and slid it across the table to me. I opened it cautiously and pulled out a bus ticket to Richmond, Virginia leaving in an hour with my name typed across the front. “what the hell?” I whispered .

The old man leaned forward and spoke in a quiet voice so just he and I could hear. “See, you’ve got business in Richmond. There’s something there that you need to make right. It won’t do for you to be running anymore. You’ve got to go home and be a man. You got to take whatever you got to take when you get there…but its time for you to go home.” He stood up, put his hat on his bald head and smiled down at me. “One day soon Jackie-boy you gonna sing of YOUR redeemer” And just like that he shuffled through the opened doors and disappeared down the street. I made my way back to the bus station with the words to that hymn in my head. As soon as the bus ramped onto I-40 I was sound asleep and going home.