Taken from the novel, Killing Of An Old Man, by John Wilson Bach
My Dear Grandson,
How are you, my boy? I call you a boy, though I don’t remember rightly when a toddler becomes a boy. I guess you ain’t even a toddler yet. Still a baby, maybe.
I try to picture you. Roose, your great uncle Roose, will be visiting me soon, and he will surely give me a full description. I wish I could hold you. As any grandfather wishes he could hold his grandchild, I wish I could hold you. It ain’t right I’m stuck up here in this hospital, and it ain’t right your Mama don’t send me no pictures of you.
Like I said, I don’t know when you become a boy, but I do know when a boy becomes a man. Least I think I do. I think it’s when you notice a girl for the first time.
This takes me back to the subject of the last letter, the lovely singer who so enthralled our tiny church.
My infatuation with the young croonette, Miss Constantine Fellows, only grew in her absence. I heard a rumor a few weeks after her song that she would be performing in the Lost Falls Baptist Church, and I pleaded with my mother to take me there for the performance. I was refused. Perhaps her performance was just a rumor, and I hoped that it was, for I couldn’t bear the thought of her being so close and me not being able to see or hear her.
There was a young man in school by the name of Balfour Hipps who regularly attended Lost Falls. He attested nothing of hearing her. I eventually reckoned the performance to be only a rumor, else he would’ve surely been smitten as I had been.
I remember not wanting to come right out and ask Balfour if Constantine had visited his church. First of all, I didn’t know him that well. He was one of those kids you can go all the way through grade school with, and though he’s always around, and you’re always in the school pictures with him and your friends, you never really know him. He could be some bank robber now for all I know. Second of all, I didn’t want to mention her name to anyone who hadn’t heard her sing.
It seems a funny thing, but her name took on a strange and wonderful reverence to me. To say it to Balfour, to ask about “Constantine” as if the name could be for just any girl, and to ask so randomly of a boy who may never have heard her, all seemed to cheapen her name. I found myself resenting Bud a little for having written his last name behind hers on the day we heard her in our church. That was about the only thing I ever had against Bud.
One day lightning hit my life, hit me directly. In church one Sunday, after quite awhile, the service was getting on, kinda lazy like. It was one of those instances where you hear the voices of people talking around you, but you don’t really hear what is being said.
So the service was getting on, and it came to prayer request time. Usually, when he was feeling up to it, Parker Thimson would do the praying. He would amble up to the podium with his little notebook, faithfully record the outspoken requests of the congregation, and then lead the group in corporate prayer, naming each specific request. I usually didn’t listen too hard, ’cause mostly it was old folks stuff. Say, Joe
Kinsley had knee replacement last week and would appreciate your prayers, especially considering his wife has come down with the gout. Things like that. A couple of old spinster sisters seemed to make it onto the list ’bout every Sunday. One of ‘em would be home for some ailment, another week the other one would home fighting the shingles, or vertigo, or some such. Seemed like it was a team effort of troubles for them two.
One week it was a boil one of ‘em needed draining. Now if I had a boil that was so important I needed prayer over it… I don’t know. Just seems like some things can work themselves out without troublin’ everybody else.
I remember the requests that drove me crazy was when someone would say, “Please pray for so-and-so… it’s an unspoken request.” That just drove me batty, and I imagine a few others too. It might as well have been, “Hey everybody, I have a secret about so-and-so, but I ain’t saying what it is.”
Back to that Sunday. Mr. Thimson gets up there and opens his book and starts to record various items needed for prayer. I wasn’t listening too good, as I mentioned before, until the lightning hit. Boom! Seems like one of the choir ladies, I can picture her, but I don’t recall her name rightly… yes, I do. Her name was Mrs. Dinkins, though everybody called her Lady Dinkins for some reason. Bud said she was kin to the Queen, but I don’t know. Anyway, she says something or another, and then she said the name Constantine! Constantiine Fellows! Oh my, how my ears perked up then!
Fortunately, it was the habit of Mr. Thimson to repeat each particular request from the pulpit for those who didn’t hear the first time. We had a lot of them kind with all the old folks in attendance. So I scooted up on my seat and turned my good ear toward him to hear better.
“So it seems young Constantine Fellows, guest singer a few months back, I think we all remember, has gotten herself into a bit of sin. Let’s do remember her in prayer, Thank you Mrs. Dinkins for bringing her to our attention.”
I couldn’t cipher any more than that. It’s all I thought about that afternoon. Bud wanted to go up in the woods and hunt squirrels that afternoon, but it held little interest for me. I went though, as the thought of sitting around the house held no appeal either. We went to our usual spot, up in the hills to the west of town and a little north. I wonder if that area is still woods even? Back then, we could get lost in them woods. Not really lost, but it felt like we was a million miles from town when we got up in the heart of ‘em. And squirrels everywhere. We’d usually get a few and then get home and skin ‘em over at Bud’s.
So we was up there and I just didn’t have no fight in me. I’d take a shot or two, but I was so down. Bud finally sits down by this big old tree and asks me what’s wrong. I can lay it out for you even now, same as it was.
“You sick, BoDean?”
“’Cause you ain’t yourself.”
“I ain’t no one else.”
“Well, what’s wrong?”
I remember looking at him. I was still standing at the time, so I sat down too. But I looked at him the whole time. I wanted to know I could trust him. I knew if I couldn’t trust Bud, there weren’t no one I could trust, so I had to let it out.
“I can’t stop thinking about that girl that sang in our church.”
I remember at that point Bud looked down at the ground and got a little bit fidgety. I knew then that it was eating him up too. I realized that people had different ways to be bothered. I wore it all out on my sleeve, so to speak, but Bud, he kept it all in.
“Me too,” he says.
Now we was best friends, you know, but I can’t say it didn’t bother me a bit that he was tore up same as I was. I wanted the thought of her all to myself. Knowing he was thinking of her too felt like she wasn’t mine alone.
“What you reckon she did?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Must have been bad.”
“How we gonna find out?”
“I don’t know if I wanna know.”
When he said that, that he might not want to know, I didn’t understand at first. How could he not want to know, when for me it was all I wanted to know?
“I don’t know.’
“I wanna know.”
“I don’t think I wanna know ‘cause I wanna think of her like she was in our church that day.”
I remember tossing a couple of sticks I’d been holding onto at a little tree by the way. My hand was all clammy, I remember that.
“She cure could sing,” I said.
And that was it. That was all we said that day. We didn’t talk about her for a long time after that. Even when I found out a couple of days later what she done, I didn’t tell Bud. One thing, I wanted it all to myself, even though we was best friends. Another thing, and maybe I was rationing this out in my mind, but he said he didn’t want to know anyway.
Here’s how I found out. You remember my Uncle Jimmy from over in Haynor that come by from time to time on his selling trips.? Well, one evening he was at our house for a night over, and my mama had made him his favorite as I recall, chicken fried steak. That served to lighten him up a bit, which had him talking pretty good, which was a rarity with him.
So he’s eating and talking about stuff over in Haynor, and then after awhile he gets to talking about happenings in other little towns in the surrounding counties. After awhile he all of a sudden says, “Oh! I almost forgot! I heard your pastor was over candidating in Higgins, for Pastor Fellows’ old job. Did you know that?”
Of course, my ears picked up when I heard the name, Fellows. I wanted to know everything. Not so much about our pastor trying for another job, but Pastor Fellows leaving his. My mama, she takes it slow and easy. I think she just says, “Oh? When was that?” I can still see her standing there in the kitchen holding her apron in her two hands, drying them and saying, “Oh?” like Uncle Jimmy had just
been talking about the weather or something.
I just couldn’t hold it in. I says, “Mama, that’s Constantine’s daddy!” She nods her head and says, “So it is.” I turned to Uncle Jimmy, who I probably hadn’t said ten words to in my whole life, and I ask, “What happened to Pastor Fellows? Did they move?”
My uncle just sits there and looks at me and chews his bite, like a cow standing in a field chewing his cud might look at you. He shakes his head a little, finally, and says, “I’ll say. To the state pen.”
That’s when I heard my mama draw in her breath and say, “My word, Jimmy, whatever did he do?” Uncle Jimmy, he finishes one more little bite, wipes his mouth with his napkin and proceeds to push his chair back and lean back in it. Finally he gets to talking. My, the things he did say.
I’ll make it brief. I don’t even know why I’m recounting this, tell the truth, ‘cause by the time you read this, everybody in it might be long gone. It seems a bit of a catharsis for me in the telling. I hope it don’t weigh you down none though. Just know it was important in the life of your old granddaddy.
What happened was, Pastor Fellows got into trouble for going out after a young man who was trying to court young Constantine. It about broke my heart right there at the kitchen table to hear there was a young man in Constantine’s life.
Seem like sometime after she visited our church, she sang over at a church in Cobb County. Some church I never heard of. When my uncle said the name of it, I remember my mama rolling her eyes and saying, “If you call that a church.” I didn’t know rightly what that meant, but whatever those folks held onto, didn’t seem much count in my mama’s way of thinking.
So Uncle Jimmy then tells how this young man wooed young Miss Constantine after the service, which he said was kinda scandalous the way he done it. He didn’t take after her to her daddy’s liking, and evidently he was a little older than she was, so Pastor Fellows ended up forbidding her to court with him. That right there should have taken care of it, if she had just listened to her daddy, but she didn’t. She ended up sneaking around with that boy somehow. I don’t know rightly how because they didn’t live that close to each other.
Anyway, Uncle Jimmy gets real quiet after a bit and leans in to the table. By this time my mama had sat down beside him, across from me. He leans in toward her while looking at me with a quick glance, and he says, “Her daddy done caught them one evening. Out in the back seat of a car parked in the alley behind Taylor Drug, right there in downtown Higgins! Least that’s what I heard.”
Well, that just completed the rending of my poor heart right there. I had pictured her many a time cuddling up to me out on our front porch, or strolling with me out by my mama’s garden, me filling her in on all the plantings and which parts I had helped with. Her holding my arm and looking up at me like I was some kind of something.
All of that came to naught in the back seat of an old car behind Taylor Drug. I would never stroll with Miss Constantine or swing with her on our porch. I would never have her for my own.
“So when he caught them,” Uncle Jimmy goes on, “he proceeded to beat the tar out of that young man. Evidently put him in the hospital for a spell. The police are getting to the bottom of it.”
My mama just sits there. Just sits there. Don’t neither one of us know what to say.
Uncle Jimmy grabs a toothpick and leans back in his chair. “That ain’t all. Come to find out he was an abusive daddy to Constantine, or so she claimed when they was questioning her. That’s a tough one for me to fathom. But they also found out he was skimming money out of the collections at his church. Had been for some time.”
I just couldn’t believe it. The stealing’s what put him in jail, and rightfully so. I didn’t think that much of him beating on the young man, ‘cause in my mind the young man deserved it, taking her from me and all.
It’s funny. I was mad at her for being in that car with him, but somehow I didn’t blame her for it. Seems like blaming a woman for impropriety comes harder than blaming a man. I figured he had deceived her. I figured she didn’t really want to be in that car with him at all.
Now, it took awhile to come around to that figuring, but I think it provided me some measure of comfort to figure it. After all of it, I just wanted her to never have done it.
Nothing ever came of our pastor trying for Pastor Fellows’ job. He stayed around a good many years after that. I don’t know if anyone besides us even knew he tried out for it. I never heard no more about the whereabouts of Constantine, or her daddy, or the young man he put in the hospital.
It got me thinking, though, who had more culpability? I think that’s the word I want. It’s a fancy word for guilt. Can’t hardly find a dictionary here in this hospital. I asked the nurse for one once, but she said we couldn’t have none because we didn’t take care of them. I told her I didn’t know exactly who “we” were, but I could certainly take care of one. Come to nothing, though. I never got the dictionary, so I’ll just stick with culpability as the word I want.
Pastor Fellows should have never taken that money. That boy should have never talked Constantine into that car. I don’t see nothing wrong with our pastor looking around at other pastoring jobs. And Constantine should have never allowed herself to be deceived. So I guess three out of the four have culpability.
So it all got me to wondering. You might wonder these types of things by the time you’re my age, and by then I suppose I’ll have the answers. I’ll be in the hereafter by then, and I won’t have no way of telling you what I find out. Just like my own Grandaddy can’t tell me now that he knows. We find out, each one of us, on our own.
When God goes to evaluating our lives, which part of it does He look at the hardest? What if I’m a good boy my whole life till I get to be a grown man, and then I do something awful, and then I never do good to make up for it? Is it all the same? Is all the good I done at first to no count because of the bad I followed up with?
What about Constantine? When she sang in our church that day, it was a gift from heaven. I believe that. But God knew right then when she was so enrapturing us, what she would do just a little while later with that boy. He knew it right then! Does that mean her song come to nothing? Was God pleased at all with that beautiful song from the heart of an innocent?
What about the young man? Say he straightened up and flew right from then on out. Does he still have to pay for what he done, or is it just wiped clean from his slate? And Pastor Fellows… does all the preaching he done prior to that come to no count?
Which part of my life counts against me and which part goes for me? Does Constanting get to go to heaven? I sure hope so. Deep down in my heart, I find myself still holding out for some strolling with her, even if it’s somewhere in the beyond. As for me, if I was to die right here in this hospital, I feel my chances to be pretty good. But I’m staying on the narrow way now just in case. I suggest you do the same. Once you fall off, it’s hard to get back on.
I am going to close for now. It troubles me to ponder on the ways of people sometimes. The older I get, the more I realize how slippery life can be. I don’t mean to end on a depressing note. I am tempted to tear this letter up and not tell you about these things, but it took me awhile to write it, so I’ll just include it.
Maybe later I will take it out, but then you won’t know it was ever there in the first place.
Maybe that is better. Never to know things in the first place.
I hope to see you soon, or rather to hear tell of you at any rate. I love you little one.