He took your lives, Colette and Barbara from Iowa, a place smelling of milkfat and hay, where your Mama was looking for you, and he buried you in a shallow grave in Port St. Lucie. Nightly a priest performs an exorcism of the Devil Tree where your souls haunt Florida.
In my small North Carolina town where I kept a house with my grandma and ten cats, we read of the funeral procession of the late renowned evangelist through our small mountain community. It was a rare day my grandma felt like leaving the house anymore, but she insisted on propping herself on the curb in her favorite “outside chair” to take in the pomp of the procession and to rest her eyes on the hearse carrying her dear one who touched her at a rally and said words to her and prayed for healing for her failing heart. She was going to Jesus, she said, due to the one man on earth who has been the most like him.
It wouldn’t be easy. I would need to take her to our desired spot early in the morning, drop her off, and find a parking space somewhere up the mountain. The procession would follow the main road through and we were somewhere up the mountain on a little tributary of a road. And walking for my grandma would be inconceivable. It was also cold.
“Are you sure, Grandma?” She was bending over clawing kibble into King Frederick’s bowl, a Balinese, who gratefully mewed in response.
“Lookie here, Doreen, if I die up here on this mountain seeing the sight of that man, God take me.”
That’s what she always said when she was expressing her hell-bent determination to do something: “God take me.”
The service itself was for family alone. This was the one chance for average people like me and my grandma to witness and pay some sort of tribute. I was going out of respect for Grandma. Some of my friends weren’t as excited by all of this.
One of my friends, Keith, said: “I’m glad he’s dead, the bitch.” This was because “the bitch” in question had tried to influence law makers against gay rights in North Carolina. Other friends of mine were upset he hadn’t done more to curb gun purchases. Many of these friends have moved on to Asheville and do things like sell their wares in the River Arts district, attend massive drum rallies and protests, participate in wild events such as the annual Topless Rally. Nowadays we keep up day-to-day through Facebook. They’re not that far away but caring for Grandma is nonstop. One or two come over sometimes, and when they do I watch her talk quietly to herself as she watches the TV while we sit in the front room, chatting. She only talks to herself when she gets upset.
Mission accomplished though, the day of, Grandma, clothing layered up, chair firmly in place on a curb, blankets on her lap and over her shoulders, a thermos of hot cocoa, a packet of graham crackers and a chocolate bar, her favorite snacks, and all before the police begin the sweep of the street, the barricades, and crowd control, just in time to scoot up a side street and find a parking place, albeit way up a mountain where, if you kept walking up, the street turned into a gravel path which lead you straight up to the mountain peak. The rush of a stream beside the road was soothing, I was tempted to collapse on a boulder, at least while Grandma was entertained, but I forced my legs to propel me down the hill. It had been a while since I’d done much walking and my thighs began to burn.
I myself liked the evangelist Keith calls a bitch. I used to babysit a couple of his grandkids when they visited over the summer holidays, taking them rock hopping and to the pool, taking them for ice cream. I almost never saw him, except a time or two in his study when I came inside to fetch the boys from their rooms. He knew I was there and had a smile for me, and a wave. He kept his door open. He seemed to be the kind of man that would do that, be intensely focused, but keep the door open for a child, or his spouse, or one of his grown children, and even a relative stranger like me. I didn’t know much about what he believed. That never really mattered much growing up, only that I did what my parents and grandparents wanted me to do. I didn’t attend church in college or much afterwards. I thought it would be good to believe something, I just couldn’t decide how I felt about it all. When grandma tried to convince me to believe it was Jesus that had healed her, that seemed as just a good an explanation as any. But really it seemed most likely that she believed it was the evangelist was responsible. Had the cardiologist done much more? Hardly.
I found her in the place I left her, all squinched up in the beach chair with a wool cloche jammed down on her head, purchased in a day and age when she had more hair and it likely sat up on her head a bit more primly. She sported ear muffs that wrapped around the wool of the hat and because of that hardly touched her ears but I guess she appreciated the psychological sense of extra protection. Between all that and her cataract glasses I couldn’t even see her face, just her nose, chin, and bright coral lips she colored that morning in preparation for The Funeral of That Man. Since the healing, he had ever only been That Man, and this had never been in reference to any other man, not even Grandpa. She had even insisted on wearing her green chiffon dress, but somehow I talked her out of it, asking how Jesus’ Man would feel if she got sick watching him being escorted to the pearly gates? All that progress lost? She relented finally and I pulled her wool slacks and jacket on, a high fashion ensemble from the days she and Grandpa used to dress to fly overseas. I had to put a few stiches in it the night before to draw the pieces closer to her body and keep out the cold, she had lost so much weight.
She reached for me and grasped my hand in her firm bony one.
“Grandma, we need to get some gloves on you,” I said.
“I know, I was just eating my grahams. Yum,” She said and gave a little girlish chuckle.
An officer came up to us. “Ma’am,” he said to me, putting a hand on my arm, “You’re going to need to get behind the curb here.”
Grandma reached out for him. “My son,” she said, “What do you think about all of this?”
“I think it’s amazing, ma’am. What an amazing man.”
“Oh I think that too!” And I heard the quaver in her voice and I knew she was starting to cry.
The officer graciously held her hand for a minute. “Now you put on your gloves young lady. I’m sure that’s an infraction of some kind and I don’t want to have to take you to the pokie on such a big day.”
Grandma laughed as he went down the street, placing people where they should be. “Oh, I know it might not be right to laugh at such a time,” she said, “but what a buster that one is. What if you dated someone like that, Doreen.”
As if it was as easy as ordering a cheeseburger. I’ll have that one medium rare, please, with a big easy smile and a knack for charming grandmothers.
The police motorcade was beginning to make its way through. The chattering of the crowd died and the rumbling of motors reverberated in my chest. Grandma put her gloved hand in mind. I stood beside her chair, a space someone had mercifully made me along the street lined with thousands for miles, apparently. I could tell this was going to be a very emotional day for her. I had never seen a funeral procession. It was very somber and the occasional familiar person dotted throughout the crowd, people I had known in my life prior to becoming grandma’s full time keeper, were uncharacteristically quiet and still, people I had known from bars in town, parties at homes flowing with booze and weed, women I had known from my parents’ church who talked incessantly even during the quiet parts of the service, their voices sussurating over the hushed tones of the organ during communion. They all stood with tongues ceased in their mouths as if some sort of numbing gas had stunned them momentarily. Not even the children there were moving or talking, a rare phenomenon in a community that lavishes its attention on the young. And then a brigade of riders on horses passed us following soon after the dark black hearse. People threw flowers down on the street so that it rode over stems, crushed roses and lilies. Grandma threw the clump of violets we gathered that morning from the pot that sat inside by the window.
When the hearse was just past us, out popped a man from the crowd in a black face mask, his clothes black. He was on the street and wearing combat boots and had just escaped the grasp of police on foot though horses were bearing down.
“Good riddance!” he shouted, and a streak of red paint lifted up from a bucket in his hands, and the paint smeared the street and doused the flowers but missed the hearse, the intended target. Everyone gasped and shouted, confused. The police locked him down, almost immediately.
That night, Grandma prayed for the man with the paint.
And that was when I began to wonder just what it was she believed.
“Pray for your enemies and those who curse you,” she said to me when she sensed I was observing her through the cracked door of her bedroom. “It’s in the Bible, Doreen. Good night, child.”
I closed her door softly and went to the kitchen to fix my nightly herbal tea. The African violets which sat in the window had suffered an assault in honor of the evangelist. I fetched the growth food from under the sink and dotted it in the soil with a syringe. Only a few tender leaves remained and the rest was a waste of shorn stems.
I would never really understand grandma, not completely, even though we had spent many hours together. That’s what I came to realize as the steam rose in the kettle. We are, in the end, each of us on our own.
I poured the boiling water in my favorite mug and, cupping it in my hands, went to the porch. The fireflies were circling among the trees, luxuriously blinking. A dove cooed. The sweet smell of mountain laurel drifted in on a breeze.
I would die on this mountain too, just like grandma, just like the evangelist. I’m not sure who would be around to bury me, but it didn’t seem to matter, somehow. Besides, in that moment, I still had grandma in my care. I guess what it all amounts to are moments. When there are no more moments, there is the end – death – and that is all. Something about that made me feel grateful, that it was this simple. To my grandma this would have seemed bleak. But it was my secret to savor on this dark porch. The ground is what will meet me. And I will embrace it like an orphan daughter her parent.