There sat the stone. The only remnant of 50 plus years. Raymond stood over the plague style marker and tried with all his might to focus, but the tears welled-up drowning his sight. He sobbed uncontrolled, he no longer cared if anyone else could see him. His shoulders, once the massive and impressive specimens of a young man, now thin and frail, bounced up and down as his grief overcame him. He fell to his knees and then slowly onto his face—prostrated across the remains of his wife.
“Lord, just take me home.”
His body heaved in anguish. He was unable to even lift his head. Bitter, unrelenting heartache controlled him. He was undone.
Life is fallen, cruel, and merciless, he thought. Yes, there are those brief and fleeting moments when we feel like life is so beautiful, and we`re so grateful to be alive. But, these are not the familiar feelings of most people. No, rather, and often, these are the naïve and even callous words of what we demand from life…what we by-god expect. The truth is that we live life judging our insides by other people`s outsides, and it’s painful. We resent, we fear, we covet, we hide the blatant arrogance and ego that fills our veins with a blackness. And we do so with a smile. Like the kiss of Judas to the check of Christ, many people move through life, and through lies, with an easiness. But in some strange twist of mercy—unknown—sometimes people change just in time to find a joy that they cannot explain. You can see it in their eyes, a sign of naivety to the skeptic, but to those who see it, their eyes become windows to a place no one can explain. You may not be able to understand it, in fact, you probably won`t, or may not even want to, but you can see it…yes, you can see it. He knew he`d seen it in her eyes.
~ ~ ~
It was in the places of the “in-between” that Raymond had begun to see himself as he was. He was not of the other world, the world of the spirits, he was of this world, and he wasn`t even happy about that. He had no understanding of the depth of life. Frankly, he thought he was in a tight spot. He felt sorry for himself. He was caught in that trap so many others were captured in called marriage. He`d find his happiness…even if it killed him.
His mind recalled the bygone thoughts of the despot he was: he had had no concern or concept of time. He had no reason to put up with what he called “that smart mouth bitch in the kitchen, always troubling me and messing up my plans. She`s damn lucky I didn`t smack her around a bit. Ungrateful bitch.” He had believed that between her, his job, the kids, and the bills, hell…he barely had any time left to himself. That`s why he took it. That`s why he took all the time he wanted when he wanted it. He’d say, “Damn her and her demands of my day. She never had anything nice to say, anyway.” He would swallow another drink of whiskey. His mind would race: “I deserve to spend some money on my truck, on a drink or two, and hell…if I get a little bit on the side, it`s only cuz she`s such a prude. It`s not like I`m leaving my family or something like that. It ain`t hurtin` a thing”—these thoughts justified him.
~ ~ ~
She tolerated him for 30 years such as he was. Why? Everyone told her to leave him—get a divorce, they`d say. Sometimes she thought she might. But for some reason, especially when she prayed, she still saw that handsome man that she loved…he was so sweet to her. She knew he was still there, somewhere. She prayed every night. The nights he didn`t come home. The nights he did come home. The nights he threatened to hit her. The nights he smacked the kids. And…she continued to pray when no one cared anymore or came around. The kids were gone. The neighbors had had enough. The truth was that police visited more than anyone else. She didn`t call them; she was loyal to her man. Her God gave her a love, forgiveness, and kindness that most would call foolishness. In fact, most of the family thought of her as a fool. She wasted her life; they`d say.
She stood in the bathroom one day and saw the wrinkled face, the scars, no make-up had been worn in years. Her hair was a mixture of red and grey. Her eyes—blue—were sunk deep into her cheekbones; they almost looked black. What had happened? Time seemed like a vast ocean that she had crossed and had landed on some lonely beach that she could not recognize, and there was no way back. That was it. Where did it all go? She wiped away the tears and gathered herself. I got work to do; this is silly, she thought.
“I love my husband. God will change his heart one day…I just know it.”
It was only a week later that she received the news that she had cancer.
~ ~ ~
She sauntered around the hall corner, from the kitchen.
“Raymond, I have something to tell you.”
~ ~ ~
Sometimes life can grab you and shake you. When it does, it has no mercy. Your head spins, your neck slams backwards and forwards, and your stomach is sick. Like a bolt of pure electricity, the adrenaline flows through your veins and your heart bursts into a beat that frightens you. All at once, you can see who you are vs. who you thought you were. Naked, raw, truth. That`s where Raymond was when she told him she had cancer. Like some ghostly experience, he was rocketed from his selfish world back to Earth and into his shell of a body; there he was staring at a woman he knew his whole life, yet didn`t know, in the face. Where had the time gone? What had happened? Life seemed a ride around the block, gone only for a moment, and now, only hours later it seemed, there he was, an old man.
She fell into his arms and cried. He thought to himself, How long had it been since he held her? He saw the reflection of himself in the mirror behind the china cabinet. His hair was grey. His eyes were black. His face was hollow, yellow, like a stone—it frightened him. In his arms, she sobbed. He was lost in thought. He was hypnotized by memories that now haunted him like evil spirits—but he knew them. He knew each of them well. And they knew him. For the next few days, when he passed a mirror he saw them. Following him. What the hell did they have to smile about, he thought to himself. She didn`t see them. He asked her once if she saw them, but she looked at him kinda funny and said, “What’d ya mean by that honey? Seen who?”
Raymond went outside to think that evening. What would he do? Who was he?
Familiar spirits will dig in. They know every weakness. They know your every desire. They`re like unwanted, evil kinfolk. Raymond`s were determined to hold on and make him spiral out of this momentary lapse of reason. He felt a burning in his stomach, and he felt weak and depressed. He wouldn`t know guilt or a sense of conscience if it slapped him, and it did, but all he knew was that he wanted to hold his wife for the first time in a long while. He wanted to stay right by her side, every second. Raymond cared that she was frightened, and he wished he could be the one with cancer.
~ ~ ~
Raymond would never have gone to church if she had asked him to go, but she needed his help, and he wanted to be with her for reasons he didn`t understand, so he went to church. He hated that damn preacher.
“That son-of-a-bitch came to my house not long ago and had the nerve to stick his nose in our business. That preacher is one of `em that wanted her to get the divorce,” he said to himself under his breath.
He figured he`d ignore that two-bit rat and just make sure his wife was comfortable. He kept his head down in the hope that people would just leave him be as he walked his wife to her normal pew. He was forced to nod to a few of the church folks. Most of them knew he was a mean bastard anyway, and they had no respect for him.
John Franklin, one of the Deacons, said to his wife in a whisper, “What…is this an act…bringin` his wife to church. He ain`t foolin` me none.”
The music started to play. Just a piano, no drums or such in an old missionary Baptist church. They were singing Precious Jesus Hold My Hand. He felt his foot begin to tap.
“Yes, I need Thee Every Hour. To This Land This Pilgrim Land…” Raymond was singing along.
His wife was sitting with her eyes closed, her head held high, and a smile on her face. Raymond looked around, and most folks had their hands in the air, they were shouting for joy, one man was dancing in between the pews, he didn`t know what to think of these people! But, he was overcome. Yes, yes, overcome…no longer undone, he thought.
That day Raymond P. Cliver was led to Jesus.
Yep, he`d tell folks, “I seen him with my own eyes. He gave me a hug.”
He never missed a service again. He and his wife, and the country folk, and the ones that still looked at him with a crooked eye, they all praise Jesus from that little `ol church. Raymond P. Cliver was a changed man. Holy Ghost changed, he`d tell folks.
She died about a month after he was saved.
There sat the stone. The only remnant of 50 plus years. He stood over the plague style marker and tried with all his might to focus, but the tears welled-up drowning his sight…
In memory of Flannery O`Conner