The estimable Montreal literary magazine Matrix (a print magazine, Issue #109). has just published the first four chapters of After Grace, a novel I’ve been working on, one of many such. After Grace is an entertainment set in Ragged Point, Alabama. If you follow these sorts of things, Ragged Point is a fictional place on the Gulf Coast wherein several of my stories have arisen: “Story Carved in Stone” in A Guide to Animal Behaviour and “Sixteen Categories of Desire” and “The Left Ladies Club” in 16 Categories of Desire. Since Ragged Point doesn’t exist — and in any case, I have never been to Alabama — it’s a kind of relaxing place to visit. Anything can happen.
If you want to read the text, you’ll have to buy the magazine. But here’s taste:
Moses and the Burning Bush
Barley Tinkle was teaching Bible Stories for Little People in the basement of the Ragged Point Newest Separated Baptist Church of the Twelve Mercies, a cinder block one-storey with a half-basement out by the sewage lagoon a mile past the brick and wrought-iron entrance to the Mermaid Marina and Country Club on the bayou. Upstairs Pastor Gilboom was leading the congregation in singing “In the Firefight of Life, the Lord’s got your Back” accompanied by his wife Tabitha and her vibrating electric organ. Pastor Gilboom was a veteran of the War in Kuwait, where he had heroically driven a refrigerated food services truck for four months before he sprained his back hefting pallets of frozen TV dinners and had to be evacuated State-side. He had written the hymn all on his own, pecking out the melody on his grandson’s 10-key plastic piano. He said, “I had no idea I had a musical gift till I tried. The Lord, who made man and woman out of mud, sent the spirit to me.”
Barley was aware that the eleven parishioners made a pathetic show next to the Assyrian Baptist Church across the street, which was all black people except for his neighbour Geeda Rainbolt, who had a half-black son named Adam and no husband, also two Vietnamese shrimp fishermen and their families, an extended family of Guatemalan immigrants, a Kurdish Christian orthopedic surgeon (unlicensed, as yet, in the US of A) named Hamid, and a token unrelated white woman named Vida Delgrove, who was a defiant person and sat at the back on principle when she was home from college in the summer and at Christmas, though she had once or twice been asked to leave. The Assyrians had an overflow congregation of 127 adults and when they belted out a hymn you could hear it in Bayou La Batre. Not only that but the Church of the Twelve Mercies didn’t actually own its own house of worship but rented it from the Assyrians who had previously occupied it before moving into the spiffy, glass-fronted modern building with the curved, upswept peak that made it look like a ski chalet with a paved parking lot and palmetto hedge overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
Five small people sat cross-legged on the lawn-green fire carpet in a semi-circle before Barley who assumed the seat of authority, a purple polka-dotted bean bag chair that would not support his back. Overhead a dull yellow bar light buzzed. Everything smelled of mildew. There was only one half-window that looked out at the parking pad and the rear fender of Pastor Gilboom’s RAM Rebel (with the Southern cross vanity plates). Every time someone flushed the toilet in the bathroom upstairs it sounded like Niagara Falls coming through the walls. There was a shiny new Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner in the corner with a BUSTED sign taped to the handle, a Casio keyboard with MISSING POWER SUPPLY sign leaning against the wall, a rolled up map of the Bible Lands he had bought in a flea market, a stack of sprung-backed hymn books left by the Assyrians, and a matte black gun locker that contained Pastor Gilboom’s automatic weapons collection.
Around the walls Barley had taped up a dozen crayon drawings of Jesus in the Manger that he had collected from the children before Christmas, pictures detailing the well known and beloved story of Jesus, his mother Mary, his father Joseph and the four dogs, a pony, a budgie, two hamsters, and a kitten that had attended the birth. One showed Baby Jesus with an Xbox controller. Iris Tullahome, who was thirteen, had said, as she handed over her Cubist portrait of a dismembered Saviour and his mother’s three breasts and Joseph’s copious tears, “I feel sorry for Joseph because his wife was having another man’s child.”
Iris Tullahome was the largest of the small people, all of whom seemed faintly demonic to Barley, who had no children of his own, nor a wife (except for that one time), let alone a girlfriend. This was not for want of trying as he had profiles up on six dating websites: “Christian gentleman, 32, blond hair, blue eyes, divorced, a few extra pounds, traditional family values, non-drinker, disease free (hookworm cured), non-smoker, not a fan of beaches or air travel, nervous stomach, part-time student at the American New Light Fellowship Online College of Pastorology (license conferred upon completion of the course), prefers easy listening music, does not drive, needs inhaler occasionally, open-minded but inexperienced, interested in LTR and Civil War re-enactments (watching only), seeks like-minded white female with car.”
“Are you a homosexual?” Iris once asked. Another time: “Are you sexually interested in children or animals?” The other children looked up to Iris Tullahome. She was the pack leader and the highlight of their weekly Sunday school class. Whenever she raised her hand to speak or ask a question, Barley could see the glint of anticipation flit from eye to eye. “Personally, I am doubtful of men who wear pastel yellow cardigan sweaters and LL Bean stretch dress khakis.” At the moment she said this, Iris was dressed in a neon green belly shirt, a denim mini-skirt hemmed above mid-thigh, blue tights, pink knee socks with the word PINK in white, and Uggs because it was winter. She noticed Barley’s eye tracking the letters on the sides if her legs. She said, “Do you know what PINK stands for, Mr. Tinkle?” And the way she said the word, with about eighteen syllables and a certain arching of her prematurely plucked eyebrows, made him blush crimson and lose what was left of his train of thought.
The lesson for the day was Moses and the burning bush, chosen carefully with Iris Tullahome in mind (Rahab the Harlot was out, as was any reference to the rape of Dinah, Onan, David and Bathsheba, Mary Magdalene, Lot and his daughters, Jephtha and his daughter, the emerods in Kings, or the “hill of foreskins” on the banks of the Jordan in the book of Judges – all of which topics had been raised by Iris in the past; evidently she was an avid Bible reader), except that as soon as he said the words burning bush the demonic congregation began to titter inanely.
Iris Tullahome held up her pink phone, pressed the screen, and said, “We are not alone, Mr. T. I am streaming you. What was that about somebody’s burning bush?”
“Not that kind of bush,” said Barley. “Iris, tell me you’re not—.”
“What kind of bush did you think I meant, Mr. T.?” asked Iris Tullahome. “Golly.” She pushed the phone towards him.
Iris Tullahome gave Barley fits when she started in like this. He couldn’t imagine a motive for twisting his words so maliciously the more so since Iris had a quiet, Christian sister, older by four years, named Lorelei Tullahome, who prayed upstairs with the adults, was a straight A student, a member of the swim team (breast stroke), and had applied to Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA, early decision. With Lorelei he could have intelligent conversations about intelligent design, fetal rights, what books should be banned from the school library that weren’t already banned and why African-American people were mostly poor and behind (except for the ones they had in Ragged Point who seemed, unaccountably, above average). But Iris disagreed or misconstrued everything he said. He felt sorry for her because she would not come to Jesus if she went on like this and she would miss the blessings of heaven, the pleasures of the communion of angels, the chance to talk to illustrious dead like Pastor Weldon Taber of the Second Alabama Circuit and the saintly Sister Euphemia Applegate, Barley’s ninth grade choir director, both of whom he had sought out for one-on-one discussions of Christ’s mission on earth and the difficulties of self-pollution before they passed. She had also been seen standing outside Rance’s Men’s Wear on Water Street of late in the company of LaTrobe Washington, a local basketball prospect and rap singer (also rumoured to be a drug dealer, though Barley could not believe that there were any illegal drugs sold to the children of Ragged Point).
Barley hadn’t given the lesson yet, but Iris raised her hand again. She had thick black hair, thick eyebrows, extremely red lips and long dangly earrings. She said, “Is it true that in the Bible Moses wife is a Negro?”
“We call them African-Americans, Iris.”
“Moses’ wife was an African-American?” She held out her phone.
“It doesn’t say that. But some authorities think she was from Ethiopia and the people there are Africans.”
“So it’s true. Moses, God’s right hand guy, had a African wife. How could God let that happen?”
“Well, it’s not clear–”
“And is it true that, as a favour to Moses, God gave his wife leprosy to turn her white?”
“It’s seems – well, maybe – something like that.”
The four other demons were gaping in stunned amazement and adoration at their beloved leader’s audacity and superior Bible knowledge, also in astonishment that there were such things in the Bible (although after Iris’s interventions and digressions on Rahab the Harlot, the rape of Dinah, the emerods, etc., nothing should have surprised them).
“That would be kinda hard on Mrs. Moses, wouldn’t it?” said Iris. “I mean when her skin melted and her nose fell off and her fingers rotted down to nubbins and she died. Is this the sign of a God who thinks ahead?”
Barley was staring out the half-window, struggling with his heart. I am having convulsive heart failure, he thought, knowing full well that there was no such thing. Between the tires of Pastor Gilboom’s pickup, he could see a rectangle of the front entrance and parking lot of the Assyrian Church across the road and an endless cavalcade of African-American legs and feet debouching from their morning service. They were happy legs, couples touching thighs as they walked, families holding hands with little ones half-suspended between their elders, legs leaning together for a handshake or a hug, legs in pressed pants or billowy dresses. His neighbour Geeda Rainbolt’s lean white legs were easily recognizable beneath the chaste navy skirt he had seen her wearing when she left for church. Her legs flashed in the sunlight, next to Adam’s chubby knees. The sun was shining on that side of the street but not in the dismal cave where Barley stood with Iris Tullahome and her phone and the Mother of God with three breasts. Surely, Christ dwelt with the black people these days. Surely, he preferred their company to Barley’s who felt, especially when a female talked back to him, unutterably bereft and alone. Profile: Christian gentleman, 32, blond hair, blue eyes, divorced, a few extra pounds, seeks Saviour, LTR preferred but will consider all offers.
He felt a hand tugging at his sleeve.
“Mr. T.” Iris Tullahome said, “I got a text from Daddy. He wants to see you A-SAP.”