Who do those who comfort others turn to for solace? A short story featuring a reassuring preacher, well-versed in the art of loss, who acts as an anchor for a family struggling to endure…
by: John Cody Bennett ((Header art, formed from hundreds of folded bike chains, is by Young-Deok Seo.))
4:00 am. October 29th. The call.
“Scott, wake up,” came the voice. “It’s Jenkins. Jenkins Barnwell. Ephraim Hills Church.”
Brother Graham, the revivalist preacher, roused himself from his bed at home in Bentonville, Arkansas. “Has it happened?” he asked, scraping sleep from his eyes. “Is Eliza―”
“She’s still here,” Jenkins reassured him. “She’s fighting it. But it is close now. It’ll be soon.”
“OK, then,” said Brother Graham. “OK, I’ll wake up and drive down. Should I pack a bag?”
“Um, don’t know, probably,” said Jenkins. “Thanks, Scott. Thanks so much. See you in a bit.”
For five hours Brother Graham drove his Buick LaCrosse south on Highway 71 until he reached the town of Fouke and its Monster Mart gas station where he stopped to fuel up. He filled his tank amid row upon row of cavern-eyed jack-o-lanterns and agreed to photograph a tourist in front of the mural of the Boggy Creek Creature. He bought coffee and then browsed the museum.
“This infamous creature,” he said to the cashier as he paid for his gas. “Have you seen it?”
“Not lately,” she said and slammed shut the register. “Will that be all?”
Brother Graham drove on. In Shreveport he arrived at Willis Knighton and roamed the halls of the hospital until he found Jenkins eating a bowl of Special K at a cafeteria table. They shook hands.
“Eliza’s the same,” said Jenkins. “Claudia’s in the ICU with her. I had to get out. I had to eat.”
“Absolutely,” said Brother Graham. “You need your nourishment. You need your strength.”
With a napkin Jenkins dabbed sweat from his brow. His hands trembled.
“Scott, I don’t know what to do,” said Jenkins. “This has all happened so fast. I can’t bear it.”
“Jenkins, you know I understand,” said Brother Graham. “But I tell you what, you’re practiced and ready at this point. You’re tough. You can withstand anything with the Lord’s help.”
He took Jenkins’s palms and gripped them across the table. They bowed their heads.
“Father God,” said Brother Graham. “This year has been hard, especially for the Ephraim Hills congregation and their extended church family. We lost Mr. Johnny, Pat Risinger, also Brother David by his own hand. Even so, we thank you still for the blessings of life. We thank―”
“Excuse me!” came a loud, obstreperous voice. “Excuse me! The salt!”
They glanced up into the gray-bespeckled eyes of a dapper stringbean of a man.
“Sorry, sir, I bumped the table, and the shaker rolled out under your feet. Can you help? “
Brother Graham bent to the floor and picked up the shaker and passed it over.
“That’s perfect,” said the man. I’m sorry, I’m sorry to disturb a prayer. I’m a klutz.”
He staggered back to his seat and pumped the shaker, sprinkling salt on his eggs.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” continued Jenkins as he pushed away his cereal. “Scott, you and me, we ain’t old, we’re in our prime! Not even fifty yet, I ain’t supposed to be losing my wife. It’s crazy.”
They rose and followed an orderly from the cafeteria into the bowels of the hospital. They requested entry at the ICU and a door opened and swooshed behind them. A nurse led them.
“Nothing’s changed,” admitted the nurse. “Mrs. Eliza’s exactly as she was. She’s strong.”
“Oh, don’t I know it,” said Jenkins. “She’s too tough for this cancer.”
In the room the brightness of fluorescents flushed darkness from the corners like an antiseptic and bathed all in sterilizing light. Eliza lay in bed, arms splotched and spindly, her body limp, inert. She shifted, shuffled intravenous coils. She had been blonde once — no longer.
“Daddy, hey, guess what? She’s been talking again,” said Claudia. “You just missed it.”
Jenkins wrapped his arms around his daughter. “Thanks, baby. Thanks for letting me know”
Claudia was blonde and tall for thirteen, with full cheeks and a charmingly crooked smile. She favored her Mama. She wore leggings, turquoise boots, and a T-shirt. Her hair was unwashed.
“Morning, young lady,” said Brother Graham. “You sure have grown. How you holding up?”
“Claudia, you remember Brother Graham from the church?” said Jenkins. “From revivals?”
“Yessir, I remember him,” said Claudia. “Yessir, I’m holding up fine. I’m doing OK.”
Claudia shrank down onto a stool at the edge of her mother’s bed and peered again into that messy tableau of cords, machinery, and bedsheets. She squeezed her mother’s hand, petted it.
“Hey, baby, how are you feeling?” Jenkins asked as he approached his wife. He cooed to her with no embarrassment, and only the ventilator dared to interrupt him. Puff, puff, puff, puff.
“Brother Graham,” said Jenkins. “You’re always so well-practiced and prepared for these moments. Would you pray with us here? Would you pray for my wife as she…as she passes?”
Brother Graham straightened his tie and unbuttoned his suit coat.
“Jenkins,” he said. “I apologize, but I think I’m a bit dizzy from the drive, a bit lightheaded.”
He heard sounds in the hall, a swoosh of the door, a tap, tap, tapping of bootheels.
“Well, wait, I’m sorry,” said Brother Graham. “OK. OK, I’ve got one. One second. I’m ready.”
Brother Graham lowered his head and chanted above the beeps and the whirs of the machines.
“Almighty God, we’ve all witnessed in our way the power of your wrath and the majesty of your forgiveness. Make not your mysteries known to us unless desired by you. But if it be your will, grant Eliza, Jenkins, and Claudia that peace of faith and that willingness to let go, to let be.”
“Amen, brother,” said Jenkins. “Amen. I’m sure glad you came down. I sure am.”
In the bed Eliza began to stir. She moaned and grunted. Claudia interpreted her.
“She’s trying to say something!” said Claudia. “I think she’s saying—”
“What is it, baby?” asked Jenkins. “What is it she’s saying? What is it?”
“Be careful,” translated Claudia. “Be careful. I won’t be there to bust you out. Be careful”
“Bust you out?” repeated Jenkins. “Did you really say that, baby? Be careful? Bust you out?”
Jenkins chuckled and caressed his wife’s cheeks, but his body shook with the effort.
“I’ll be right back, I’m sorry,” said Brother Graham. “I’ll leave you three here, just a minute.”
He slipped out and paced the hall and recited scripture to himself. “Do not be discouraged. I am with you always. I am with you.” He noticed an open door and peeked inside a neighboring room and caught through gauzy curtains a furtive glimpse of a doll-like patient, its skin elephant-gray and cross-stitched with calluses, leathery like the hides of desert lizards, and knotty as bark. It was a child, or else an elderly shrunken stump of a man, and it puckered its lips and whimpered until Brother Graham dissected an unusual refrain: “Keep, keep, keep. Keep it up.”
“Keep it up?” repeated Brother Graham. “Keep what up? Is that…is that for me?”
Brother Graham heard commotion in Eliza’s room, a bedlam of machine warnings and babbled speech.
“Scott!” came Jenkins’s voice. “Scott, I think this is it, I think she’s passing! Oh, good God!”
Jenkins wept into a tissue and prayed as he lingered with Brother Graham and Claudia and accepted condolences from the hospital staff. At 3:00 p.m. he commenced with obligatory phone calls to family and friends, and then dialed Farrar’s Funeral Home and negotiated through delicate silences the first of those awkward but necessary arrangements. Brother Graham, meanwhile, composed the obituary and scheduled the transportation of the body, while Claudia’s gaze slid into the emptiness of her iPhone’s sheen, and she said nothing.
“I’m sorry, I realize it’s another funeral to be preached,” said Jenkins to Brother Graham. “But I hope you won’t mind too much driving out to Ephraim Hills for the service. I’ll put you up.”
“Of course not,” said Brother Graham. “Of course I’ll come preach it. Don’t worry. It’s fine.”
Later that afternoon, they left Willis Knighton in their separate vehicles, with Jenkins driving his daughter in Eliza’s Dodge pickup and wheeling with devil-may-care abandon through Shreveport traffic ― merging here and there, braking, and then speeding up ― and with Brother Graham cruising along behind them on the interstate in his Buick LaCrosse. They parted at the Minden-Sibley exit as Jenkins and Claudia continued to Ruston and Brother Graham steered north onto Highway 79, detouring through Claiborne parish and stopping off in the town of Homer in the shadow of its antebellum courthouse. With neither design nor intent he strolled the grounds and perused a historic marker: 1860, point of departure, the War Between the States. A rifleman in votive stone stared, unblinking, at the dilapidated square. Brother Graham saluted it.
Survival of the fittest, he reflected. The sick, the lame, the unlucky, the lonely. So be it.
He moved on. In an hour he arrived in North Carthage on Highway 3121 and submitted in the fading sunlight to the boredom of dense dark stretches of pasture punctuated by the glow of mobile home porch lights and by the sporadic electric-blue of TV as seen in the windows. He continued until he spotted ‘THE BARNWELL’S’ in black letters on a mailbox and swerved left and spun up sharp gravel as he tilted into the driveway beneath the limbs of grasping pecan trees.
In the yard, decorated for Halloween with black cats and styrofoam tombstones, Claudia leaned against her father and waved at Brother Graham as he parked and opened his car door.
“Scott, thank you again for coming all this way,” said Jenkins. “Which road did you take?”
“The old Summerfield route,” replied Brother Graham. “The scenic one. It’s been many years.”
Snorts from out back indicated a horse, and Claudia brightened as she detected its sound.
“That’s Old Bailey,” she said. “That was my Mama’s horse. I’ll go feed him.”
She tugged her father’s wrist like a balloon’s string, then released it.
“All right, Scott, let’s go get you your bags,” said Jenkins. “Here we are. The humble abode.”
They entered the house and dropped Brother Graham’s bags in the guest bedroom and dripped coffee and sipped it and nursed the scabs of remembered time as the evening’s hours unspooled like the peeled skin of an apple. By nightfall Claudia had drifted in from the horse’s pasture and remained for half an hour indulging in stories of her mother before saying her goodnights and traipsing off to bed. Finally, at 12:30 a.m., a dog’s barking disrupted the conversation, and Brother Graham rose groggily to monitor the yard from the front window.
“Change of subject,” he whispered. “What’s that out there? Who is that?”
Jenkins turned and squinted. “At this time of night?” he asked. “Who do you mean?”
“That man,” said Brother Graham. “That man out there. That man walking.”
“I don’t see no man walking,” said Jenkins. “I don’t see nobody. I swear you, I don’t.”
“Well, nevermind,” said Brother Graham. “I must be tired from the trip. We can turn in.”
They took their leave for the evening, and once more Jenkins offered him his thanks.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your coming,” said Jenkins. “You understand us, somehow. You’ve seen it over and over. Heck, I remember how me and Eliza used to talk about it. I mean, what it would be like ― except we ain’t understood nothing back then, we really ain’t.”
“Jenkins, don’t,” said Brother Graham. “I’m no expert. Get you some sleep now. You need it.”
“Yes. Yes, you’re so right,” said Jenkins. “I can’t help it, I just like to talk. I just miss her.”
Brother Graham smiled meekly and embraced his friend.
“Good night,” he said. “Sleep well. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Brother Graham crossed the hall to the guest bedroom and undressed by the hard naked light of a hanging bulb in the closet. He collapsed upon his mattress and drifted off into sleep. He dreamed of a church, of Ephraim Hills, of a chalkboard and a wooden pointer and a succession of Do-Re-Mis on his pitch pipe as children dusted off their hymnals and squirmed in their seats.
“All right, kiddos,” said Brother Graham. “Turn to page 553, to ‘Jesus Loves Me.'”
The children sang the hymn ― a flat, low hum amid the trilled rain dance entreaties of bottomland frogs. A toddler bobbed and jittered in its seat. A thunderclap embellished the show.
“Keep it up, you all!” Brother Graham shouted. “Keep it up! Let’s practice!”
The children stopped. They closed their books in protest. They thrashed and kicked pews.
“No! No, don’tcha quit on me!” Brother Graham yelled. “Verse two! Verse two!”
Outside, the winds scattered sycamore leaves, and the tin roof purred — stroked by rain — as a storm from parts unknown in the Gulf blackened the very sky. With veiny hands Brother Graham strained to reach an open window above his head. He fought to shut it, the window never budging.
“Wait, where am I? Am I alone?” asked Brother Graham. “Why am I here? Who are you?”
“I am who I am,” said his debonair companion. “I’m the Old Salter. And you are? And you?”
Brother Graham woke up, and two days later he watched as a procession of North Cartheginians and Ephraim Hills congregants assembled in church and wended its way pew by pew for a last quick glimpse of Eliza’s corpse: men in scuffed pipeliner boots and Skoal-ringed Wranglers; teary, braceleted wives with questioning children; toothless addicts, fidgety in flip-flops and shorts; and prim widows and dour patriarchs, grim-faced, tightly-wound, disillusioned. Beside him Jenkins and Claudia swayed in place in a long receiving line and glommed onto the hands of mourners and thanked them and cracked jokes and mused at length upon the rejoicings of the dead.
“Of course, she’s in a better place,” agreed Jenkins. “We know that. We gotta trust Him.”
Jenkins permitted himself a break and spoke softly to Brother Graham so as not to be heard.
“I keep asking ,” admitted Jenkins. “Who are these people? Is this a dream? Is this my life?”
He retrieved a Starburst from the pocket of his coat, unwrapped the candy, and ate it.
“You know what I mean?” he asked. “How did I get here? It’s like staring down on my life from 10,000 feet.”
“It’ll get worse before it gets better,” said Brother Graham. “Trust me on that. You put one foot in front of the other, you take it day by day, you practice the art of loss until you learn it.”
Jenkins nodded and seemed to examine his shoes. “All right,” he said. “Yeah, OK.”
Brother Graham heard a mourner’s song but could not locate the source. “There is a balm in Gilead, there is a balm, there is…” A one-legged war veteran limped to the coffin and placed an empty 30.06 shell casing on Eliza’s satin pillow. He trundled by with his cane, Jenkins patted him, and Claudia threw her arms around his neck. He clicked free his false teeth, eased them out, balanced them on the bridge of his nose, and popped them back in. They all laughed.
“Hey there, y’all, I’m so sorry for y’all’s loss,” said the veteran. “Y’all will be OK. Y’all will.”
“Thank you, old friend,” said Jenkins. “Thank you for taking the time. We’ll be alright.”
The visitation concluded, and they followed the veteran down the aisle as Brent Farrar and his attendants from the funeral home ushered the crowd outdoors and readied the church and its furnishings for the solumneties of the following day. In dwindling light, Brother Graham tracked the marchings of trick-or-treaters along Highway 3121 ― a witch, a hobo, a pirate, a clown ― and from this vantage across a barbed wire fence on the steps of Ephraim Hills their jaunty silhouettes appeared as splotches of spilled ink, happy accidents of composition, brave dollops.
A mid-20s brunette in a muted pencil-skirt approached Jenkins and offered him her sympathies and leaned in as she talked. She patted Jenkins’s arm, Claudia interrupted them.
“Daddy, I’m exhausted, can we just go?” asked Claudia. “Can we please leave? Can we?”
“All right, baby,” said Jenkins. “All right, we’re leaving. Thank you again. We’ll see you soon.”
They plodded out to the car, and Brother Graham overheard a muffled sob. He prayed.
“God, if it be your will, make it all make sense for them. Make it all work out. Please help us.”
Brother Graham felt more like himself in the morning, roused by a lively murder of gossiping crows that perched out his window and revived him with loathsome jests and all manner of coarse talk. He dressed for the funeral in slacks and a suit coat and adjusted his tie with the considerable help of his mirrored self. As he finished with his knot he heard a Keurig pop to life in the kitchen and bubble cheerily as if thrilling to its task. Through the blinds, he could see Eliza’s horse in the pasture and poultry houses across the road. Sunlight gleamed off Padgett’s Pond. A boy fished.
“Hey, Scott, you decent in there?” asked Jenkins. “Are you ready? Is your sermon prepared?
Brother Graham opened the door and could see Jenkins shaking and avoiding his gaze.
“We’re just distraught,” came Jenkin’s voice in the hall. “We’re just—”
“I know,” said Brother Graham. “Eliza would not want you to suffer, though. Would she?”
“No,” said Jenkins. “No, she would not. You’re right, you’re so right. You’re always right.”
They met Claudia in the hall, and her blonde hair in conversation with the sable of her dress rendered them all but speechless. She hugged her father and pressed her face into his arm.
“I know we can do this,” she said to her father. “We can make it through this day.”
“Yeah, I reckon so,” said Jenkins. “I reckon we will.”
They sat in the church in the front pew a yard and a half from Eliza as Brother Graham mounted the stage above the baptistry, riffled his papers, and ranged them on the lectern.
“We are gathered here,” he proclaimed, “to celebrate life and to exalt the Lord God in his wisdom and to draw courage from Eliza Barnwell and from her family, as we, too, travel with creatures and wayfarers through a parched and ravenous land upon a long wilderness highway.”
Brother Graham surveyed the crowd, gripped the Bible, and delivered his long-practiced message. “Hallelujah!” he bellowed. “Praise be to God and to His Holy Name! Praise be! Praise!”
In the back pew, immaculate in a gray windowpane suit, the Old Salter saluted him.
“Keep it up,” he whispered. “Keep it up. Keep on. You’ll be alright.”
John Cody Bennett is an educator at The Birch Wathen Lenox School in New York City, a graduate of Sewanee: the University of the South, and a Fulbright scholar from Louisiana.