The man’s brown baseball cap advertised the Martinsville Speedway. Morris wondered how in the world it had stayed on his head. From the sides of the cap fell long, greasy bangs. The man’s bloodshot eyes registered surprise. His mouth gaped as if he had beheld divine manifestation.
Morris Spode, lanky, pensive, took two steps up the road and then two steps back. And then two steps to the side. And then turned his back to the man with the brown baseball cap and got down on his haunches, gazing out into the field where the Holsteins dappled white and black had ignored the noise of oncoming traffic and languorously chewed the grass in front of them.
Morris remembered seeing a young boy in the man’s pickup, as young as he was when he had lain in the gravel bleeding from a cut on his forehead. The school nurse treated him after he quietly picked himself up and shuffled off to her office at the end of recess. He futilely told himself to forget the larger boys who had made fun of his grimy pants, ripped and mended and ripped again, held up by stained suspenders that they had pulled and let slap against his chest. The largest boy had lifted him completely off his feet, had thrown him to one side like one of the cast-off ice cream wrappers that littered the yard. The nurse gave him iodine and a Band-Aid. He told the principal who had hurt him, and the boys who got in trouble came to him again on the playground the next week. They said that only babies snitch on others and that their daddies were going to beat up his daddy. But he had the last laugh. His daddy had gone off to work at a construction site one summer and never returned. At least that’s what his mommy said when he asked her one night at supper. She sucked in her breath and swirled her fork around her bowl of macaroni and cheese, and said, “There ain’t no use in lyin’ to you, ‘cause I’m gonna have to tell you one day anyway.”
And so it was just him and her in their house, which looked more like a cabin, a four-room house on one of the back roads outside Stopes, with its siding peeling white paint and the dark beige latticework covering the gap under the raised front porch. He would sit on the porch in the evenings listening to his mommy singing hymns as she accompanied herself on the small church organ in the living room. She lived with the spirit of the Lord in her. It gave her the strength to work forty-plus hours a week at the food store while at the same time keeping the house in order with cooking and cleaning and making sure he did his chores. His favorite chore was milking the goats in the penned-in front yard, though often he would just lie down with Buster in the hollow section of the fallen tree as they watched Millie and Snowy crane their necks for the leaves on the bushes just outside the fence and then, frustrated, return to the front-yard grass. And then Millie had her two kids, which he named Simon and Peter, even though his mommy said Simon and Peter were the same person, but nevertheless she was proud of him for his knowledge of the Holy Book. Simon and Peter cantered blissfully in the field.
One morning six months later their neighbor Mr. Sprouse came over, kindly offered Simon a pan of food if he would only follow him into the back yard, and then shot him with his .38 and crucified him upside down like a blasphemer while Sprouse’s boy danced about like a demon. Morris sobbed, and the Sprouse boy kept calling him a sissy until his father told him to shut up. Sprouse showed him the knife, told him he needed help with the dressing, which he had better learn now how to do. Morris shivered uncontrollably there under the late summer sun as Sprouse slit the kid’s skin around its genitals and down the chest, after which they both yanked the skin from the meat. Then Sprouse placed the knife in his hand and told him to cut around the anus, pull the intestinal tract out of the body, and tie it off with twine. He stood shaking on an apple crate to perform the unholy ritual, and the impish Sprouse boy rolled around on the grass in a fit of laughter, screaming, “He’s got his finger in his butthole!” until his father kicked him into silence. And then finished pulling off the kid’s skin over its head, he stood spellbound wanting to vomit but dared not as Sprouse sliced the scrotum with field dress scissors and popped the testicles out. “Got you a nice little purse there,” he quipped. Then he lopped off the penis and severed the head, which he flung carelessly to the ground in lieu of Salome’s platter. As the kid’s belly began to bloat and hiss, Morris finally committed himself and heaved his scrambled eggs and toast as Sprouse and his boy guffawed, and his mother rushed to him to wipe his mouth. He tried to shut out the horror by burying his face in her apron, but all he heard was the laughter.
He came to recognize laughter as his ally and protector the following year at school when he learned to avoid mockery by anticipating his peers’ cruelty. Even when they weren’t particularly threatening as they passed him in the halls, he’d stick his quivering fingers in front of his mouth and squirm, feigning fear. When they approached him in the classroom and asked if he wanted them to punch him in the face, he replied he’d oblige them and do it himself. Thankful for their approval, he expanded his repertoire to baiting his teachers with obscene sketches on the chalkboard hidden beneath pull-down maps waiting to be rolled up in the middle of a lesson. Or with comical monkey noises that grew incrementally louder during the pledge of allegiance, which earned him the nickname of The Chimp and several visits to the principal’s office. But at least now he was safe in the hallways and bathrooms.
One day young Miss Linton took him out of the cafeteria during lunchtime to her classroom down the hall and told him that Jesus saw everything he did. She asked him all sorts of personal questions about his life at home, which she had no right to ask, no matter how gentle her voice, no matter how soft her eyes as he stared at the floor, shaking his head violently. And so she deserved what she got, showing her weakness like that, when he set thumbtacks on her chair and sent her crying from the room. Such a clever stunt earned him the respect of the very boys who had snapped his suspenders and bloodied his face just a few years before.
The following school year, his mother’s prayers were apparently answered when suddenly, inexplicably he became curious about this thing of hers called God. He not only counted the days to every Sunday, but also took it upon himself one evening to seek out the Carolina-Virginia Pentecostal Fellowship Crusade, a revival meeting on the south side of Stopes. The evening of prophecy took place under a tent of red and white stripes ominously stained celestial blue by the dusky summer sky. The convivial lights and lively chatter of worshippers under the canvas drew him in closer. “A spot for you over here, young man,” they called, and he threaded his way through the lawn chairs on the perimeter, down the main aisle to an empty folding wooden chair just a few rows from where the preacher stood. He was introduced as Brother Gilman, and once the service began, he was illuminated only by the ring of naked light bulbs affixed to one of the central tent poles above his head so that a faint nimbus floated over his pomaded black hair. As Brother Gilman preached the Word and drenched his shirt with sweat, he felt as if his chair were rising off the trampled grass field beneath him. In particular, the lesson from Ephesians gripped him. He must begin to walk carefully, not as a fool but as a wise man, and not to waste his time on the earth because it was really the Lord’s time, and wherefore be he not unwise, all of which meant stop being such a jerk-off. As the syncopated rhythms of the preacher’s deep bass overtook and mastered his own heart’s beats, he knew that Jesus had spoken directly to him, revealing that He had a plan for him and that his coming here on this night was no accident, that the writing was on the wall and he had been found wanting. And so rather than end up like Belshazzar brained by a candelabra, he surrendered himself to the will of God in Jesus Christ and became filled with His Holy Spirit, throwing himself onto the stage and writhing about, sputtering in a language he did not recognize, “Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me!” Brother Gilman prayed fervently that he be cured of his Satan-born afflictions, afflictions which included everything down to his emaciated physique and a severe case of acne.
He returned very quickly to the receiving end of the stick when he took this fruit of the Spirit back to school with him, but now he had the fortitude to bear it in silence. Every night found him from the late summer through the months of winter, even in the snowdrifts outside by the woods’ edge on the spot where poor Simon had been slaughtered, offering himself up for the Lord’s service and listening very carefully for the faintest birdsong or snap of twigs that would indicate Jesus’s holy presence to guide him into the Kingdom of Heaven. The following spring he thought he intuited a blessed mission in the service of Hannah Severs, large-boned and misunderstood, whose locker was just four doors to the left of his in the junior hallway. Prom was near, and nobody had stepped forward. Stirred by divine foresight, he asked her at the end of the school day to an alternative to the sinful dancing of the prom, a burger and a shake and a prayer meeting. She replied with amazement that she needed some time to think about his generous proposal. He spent the evening reading his Bible, randomly opening it to passages that might point toward his prosperity. He least expected the next morning to find tied to the handle of his locker door an effigy of a scarecrow apparently stolen from a box of Halloween decorations, a grotesque scarecrow with a crazed face full of red magic-marker dots and wearing a sign with the simple message DATE YOU? HELL NO! As he stood there dumbfounded, vainly trying to yank the poppet loose from the twine as Hannah and her friends stood not twenty feet away gurgling amusement, he felt his trust in Providence betrayed, as if his entire body had borne the brunt of a tidal wave. He ran from the scene of shame, out the school’s front doors, trudging home, where he threw himself onto his bed. His mother stroked his hair to stop his tears and held a damp washcloth to the back of his neck, cooing that God is merciful, saving him from the otherwise evil outcome of walking down the aisle with Satan’s harlot, and so he should continue to glorify God in his wisdom and accept salvation from sin bought so dearly by Jesus on the Cross. And so he did, confident in her belief that all things happened for a reason. It was not his place to question or even understand the path he was on, or the paths that others in his life were on.
Others like his mother, who began seeing a man called Stuples, who worked in the garage on the corner of Main and Railroad, who leaned back in the kitchen chair on two legs and wryly said to call him Uncle Wayne seeing as he was going to be in the neighborhood quite a lot from now on. Said he’d be performing odd jobs around the house and eating dinner with them and…other things. He threw his mother a leer that contorted the grease stains on his pink, piggish face, and then stuck his nail-chewed fingers inside his shirt and leisurely massaged his collarbone. Throughout his final year of high school, he got into the habit of avoiding Uncle Wayne as much as he could by sneaking back to his bedroom and exiling himself like the Jews under Nebuchadnezzar. There he comforted himself with the words of Paul, that fire shall try every man’s work. He knew his work was to stay by his mother’s side, especially when she began to startle at the slightest of sounds across the house and make excuses for smallish bruises that had appeared mysteriously first near her wrists and then on the side of her face. When these marks culminated in a black eye, he told himself he could no longer trust her implicitly, that her excuses were fictions, that it was time for the both of them to call someone in authority.
In the small hours of the next morning while he was praying for the strength to carry this out, wide awake and on his knees in his bedroom at 1:30, he overheard Uncle Wayne kick his way into the house, stumble past his closed door and into his mother’s room, barking her name and slurring incoherent accusations. He got to his feet and crept into the hallway. When he saw the terror in his mother’s eyes, he was on the verge of rushing him and knocking him down, but in the next second, having thought it prudent to find help, he sped to their neighbor. He explained everything to a bleary-eyed Mr. Sprouse, in his bathrobe and boxers and clutching his .357. Mrs. Sprouse phoned the police. He and Mr. Sprouse returned to find his Uncle Wayne fled and his mother looking quite at peace as if fast asleep in her bed but in reality choked home to Jesus. Mr. Sprouse checked her pulse and whispered, “Holy shit.”
Morris was silent, and remained silent throughout the funeral service. The arrangements were made by his mother’s brother from North Carolina. He would have nothing further to do with the God that had betrayed him once again. He had lived his life according to his Word, but God saw fit to become one of his punishers, one of the bullies set against him, giving him a stone when he asked for bread, a serpent when he asked for a fish, a scorpion when he asked for an egg, and while he might have been to blame for his cowardice, he buried the thought deep beneath. He left the church looking haggard and years older than when he was last there, his guts roiling and a fever sweating his brow as he drove his pickup home where he would be forced to face the silence while he waited for the police to capture Wayne Stuples. He would wait for days, maybe for weeks. Maybe forever. After all, God favors the victimizers of this world.
About three miles from his destination, he noticed in his rearview mirror another pickup similar to his riding his bumper. He forced himself into a calm and slowed his truck slightly to make the other driver slow down as well. This only succeeded in making the man follow more closely, which made him curse out loud and slow his truck even more, taunting the man that he could now see clearly in the mirror, a man with long, greasy bangs sticking out beneath a brown baseball cap. The man suddenly gunned his engine and passed him on the double yellow line. As the vehicle passed, he turned to his left and thrust up his middle finger and screamed at him as many curses as he could, venomous and horrific curses of damnation. He was startled to find he was unloading them into the face of the man’s passenger, a small boy pale with fright. The pickup sped ahead of him just far enough up the road to screech to a halt, and because he refused to play the man’s game and accept the apparent challenge, not on this day of all days, he accelerated to pass the motionless pickup on its left as it had done to him. Just as he was coming fast upon it, the man opened his door and stepped into the left lane, apparently unaware that he had no shoulder on the left for a margin of safety. It was too late. His truck struck the man, who was carried for several yards on the hood and across the grill of his truck and then catapulted farther down the road when he slammed on his brakes.
Morris Spode lifted himself off his haunches. He took several steps back down the road in the direction of the other pickup. The boy was still in the passenger seat, apparently too much in a state of shock to do anything. He looked farther down the road beyond it and then up the road, the direction he had been heading. He saw no other cars. It had only been a minute, ninety seconds at the most since he had killed the man, rested by the roadside to compose himself, and checked on the boy. His head reeled. Nobody would miss him. The goats of his childhood had all been sold off. He had just graduated high school. He had no job. He had no relatives whom he loved. The house could cave in on itself for all he cared.
He sprinted to his pickup, jumped in, and drove off. He still had the decency to ask God if he was doing the wrong thing, but as he got no response, he felt completely vindicated.