Retry: Tommy's Novel, Part I
Here's the first part of what I'd written, written back in November:
I think I’ll start by talking about Lyndon Waverly. Seems as good a place as any to start.
I didn’t know Lyndon Waverly well. I didn’t really consider him a friend, at any rate. That’s not to say I didn’t like him. Just to say that I knew him, and he knew me. To all accounts, we had just slightly more than a nodding acquaintance. Over the past few years, we’d talked over beers at the Mule, but then in a town this size, there aren’t many people you don’t talk with over beers at the Mule. We weren’t friends, or even buddies. Hell, I’d be lying if I thought we were even barfly contemporaries.
Fact is, I’d had a handful of conversations with the fellow over the course of my 30 years, but I’d never thought of him as anything more than a part of Trainersville scenery: he was like Jesse Cochrane’s old yellow Gremlin that you never once saw being driven on the roads. You only saw it parked at various points around town, hood up, with three inches of Jesse Cochrane’s buttcrack smiling sideways out of the engine compartment at you as you drove by. You simply started to accept it as part of the scenery, and you never really noticed it unless the sun shone just right on it.
That’s the way it was with Lyndon Waverly. He was just one of those people who seemed to be there, in the background, all the time.
He was ancient as hell, had been ancient as hell for all my life. Let me say that. I’d always thought of him as an old-timer, and since in my youth, I’d reckoned him to be in his 60's, which should have put him near 90 at the time he died. Even if my reckoning had been faulty, if he’d lived a hard life of tobacco and high, beating sunshine, if he wasn’t licking 55 when I was 10, then I’m a horse-faced son of a bitch.
I first remember him being in church, when I went to church as a kid. He sat in the back pew, in the rear left of the sanctuary, nodding quietly to himself to some point that I never found myself hearing in the sermon...points that nobody else heard, either, judging from their lack of nodding. I remember him because unlike most grownups, ancient or otherwise, he never took offense to the gaggle of kids sitting in the back pew with him, doing anything but listening to the preacher’s sermon.
Actually, you want to know what my first impression of Lyndon Waverly was, other than “old guy who nods to himself in church?”
I was about 10, and I’d gone on a camping trip with friends the previous Saturday night. Well, on this camping trip, we ate like kids do...mostly candy, marshmallows and soda. Truth be told, I don’t think we’d worn the sugar buzz completely off. I think that’s important. Add to that the fact that we’d eaten eggs for two different meals that Saturday (owing to the fact that neither Mark Green’s Dad nor any of us kids could catch a trout).
And then, that night, Mark and I had liberated a handful of beers from Mark’s Dad’s cooler, and given those first beers of our lives good homes in our stomachs.
Well, that Sunday, still on some manner of sugar buzz, heads aching slightly from those virgin Natty Lights, with intestines filled with little more than eggs and yeast, we wandered down out of the hills, got cleaned up and went to church, like you do living in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Mark and I sat in the rear of the church with our good buddy Lance. We sat on one end of the pew, with Floyd and Elmira Reece in the middle of the pew, and Lyndon Waverly sitting on the far end.
Do I need to take time to explain sitting in the back of the church? Probably not. Mark’s, Lance’s and my parents were all three in the choir, except for Lance’s dad, who’d had his throat mangled in some manner of copy machine accident, the embarrassment of which had kept Lance’s Dad from even showing his face in church until I was 17 or so. Anyway, as long as we didn’t disrupt the services, Mark, Lance and I were left to our own devices, in the back of the church, where we felt like we were escaping the prying eyes of our parents, up in the choir pit.
I should note that we, more often than not, were not escaping the prying eyes of our parents, and all three of us had taken enough butt whoopins in the parking lot of Keystone Southern Baptist Church to know this. Still, it often did not dissuade us from our notions.
None of us claimed to be that bright.
Well, anyway, on this day, the trouble started to happen just after the children’s sermon. Mark, Lance and I were coming up on that age where we’d no longer be expected to tromp down to the front of the church so Preacher MacDougal could give us some pared-down version of the story of God’s Wrath and Fury, giving us just enough wrath and fury to get us to behave through the rest of the church service, but not enough to give us nightmares (no small feat, when you consider that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego going into the furnace gave me nightmares for most of the spring of my second grade year).
But today, we were still expected to hear the sermon, so down to the front of the church, to crouch on the padded benches used for those praying at the altar in another part of the service. I don’t know what Preacher MacDougal talked about that day. I spent most of the childrens sermon contemplating the fit of the stockings of Ms. Alloway, our church organist (a wonderfully fit music major from the Baptist college up highway 411). In fact, so deep in study was I that I hadn’t noticed that Preacher MacDougal had finished his story, and was distracted from my anatomy study when the other kids started moving in front of my field of vision.
I stood, coming out of what was essentially a catcher’s crouch, and I felt an odd gurgling in the lower half of my torso. Gurgle, rumble, whatever you want to call it, it felt like some manner of creature (a squirrel, or perhaps an armadillo) had come awake in my gut, and decided to rustle around a bit.
It went away as quickly as it had come. I headed back to my pew, mind alternating between that gurgling and why the hell I was just so fascinated with the way Ms. Alloway’s stockings fit on her legs.
I took my place on the end of the pew, next to Lance, with Mark on his far side.
“Did you see Ms. Alloway today?” Mark asked, his voice a theatrical whisper that I’m suprised to this day that Ms. Alloway didn’t hear all the way from her organist’s position.
“No,” I said, vaguely aware that I’d just lied like a dog in church.
“Her panty hose are awesome,” Mark said again, with all the eloquence a ten-year-old from rural Tennesse can muster, and a touch more discreetly, though I felt like Floyd Reece, all of 969 years of him, was listening intently.
“My Mom has panty hose like that,” Lance said, and all the air went out of the conversation. Lance’s mom was roughly the same size as the hippos I’d seen at the Knoxville zoo, with much the same temperament. At 30, I can now say that I’m truly surprised to see Lance turn out to have been the family man he became given the fact that his Mom was more the type to fight Godzilla in one of those movies than a nurturing female roll model.
Well, I was putting Lance’s disquieting admission away deep into the “gonna need therapy” recesses of my brain, I shifted uncomfortably in the pew. I tried hard to look like I was intent on the reading of the scripture lesson, when the gurgling started again. Insistently. Somewhere below where my heart was, and somewhere above my bladder.
And with it came a bolt of pressure.
I must have jumped, or clutched my belly, because Lance asked “You okay?”
“I think.” I sat in the pew, leaning forward slightly, with my arms clenched around my gut. I must have looked, well, exactly like what I had to do...I probably looked like a kid with the most horrible impending case of the beer shits that anybody’s ever had.
Only I didn’t know it was that.
One: I never claimed to be the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.
And two: the previous night’s foray into a lifetime of operational alcoholism was my first.
I’d had the talk with my Dad. More than a couple of them, actually. The whole “birds and bees” talk. The whole “Men don’t hit women, and you especially don’t hit your little sister” speech. I’d even gotten the “don’t pee on the electric fence” speech, for all the good it did.
But I’d never gotten the “beer and eggs mix and turn into a horrible death gas inside your intestines” speech.
If I had, I might never have done what I did next.
I knew I had to fart. I mean, there may not be much that a 10-year-old know about life, but he knows when he has to fart. Looking back, I might be a little ashamed that it took me just that long to figure it out, but there it was, nonetheless. I had to fart.
A brief interlude, for a joke I’ve known nearly all my life:
Did you hear about the guy who farted in church?
He had to sit in his own pew
Well. I may be in love with the sound of my own voice, but I don’t know exactly how to spell this one out, except to just come out and say it: I thought I’d relieve a little of the pressure in my gut. Squeeze just a bit of that out, see if I could alleviate a bit of the strain in my gut.
I was the guy who farted in church.
We had padded pew cushions. I should mention that. I had a muffler. Were I sitting on an oak or pine bench, even I would have had the good sense to reconsider my course of action. But I knew that the couple inches of cushion to silence the muzzle, as it were.
I considered my action. I shifted my weight again, straightening up a touch, and I let loose.
It was a small one. I looked slowly at my pew-mates. For several second, nobody seemed to note my emission. Lance was looking ahead. I couldn’t tell if he was listening to the scripture lesson, or studying Ms. Alloway, or simply devising another Voltron battle plan (Lance was famous in our circles for his Voltron battles) in his head. I looked farther down, and saw that Mark was busying himself, drawing some manner of robot-monster on his church bulletin. I was quietly impressed with how he’d managed to merge the rose/vine pattern running up the side of the page into his portrait, with the roses becoming “battle damage” on his robocreature. Floyd and Elmira Reece were staring intently ahead....I’d bet Elmira was listening to Preacher MacDougal, but would bet a testicle or two that Floyd wasn’t just studying Ms. Alloway, rather he was memorizing the girl for later examination.
Only Lyndon Waverly gave the slightest notion that something was amiss. At the precise moment I turned my attention from Floyd to Lyndon, Lyndon turned his attention from Preacher MacDougal to me. Our eyes met. I instantly looked away.
“Now rise and turn in your hymnals to number 292,” I heard Preacher MacDougal say. We rose, and I grabbed a hymnal and looked forward. As I turned to number 292 (He Walks With Me), I decided that it was just a coincidence that Mr. Waverly had turned in my direction, and decided that I’d gotten away with my one cheek sneak scott free.
The congregation sang the hymn, a pretty song despite the domination of the tuneless bass sounds that any man over 30 who isn’t use to singing seems to give, in combination with the number of stunningly tone-deaf vibratos put forth by folks who are too enamoured with the sound of their own singing voices to realize that they aren’t even in the same state as the key of the song, let alone the same ballpark.
The hymn finished, and we were invited to sit for the sermon–something I always thought funny. Preacher MacDougal invited us to sit for the sermon, and I always wondered what would happen if I’d declared in front of God and everybody that I figured I’d stand for the sermon. Or perhaps lie down on the floor in the aisle. Lounge on the altar? Lean in the door way?
Perhaps this day, I should have declared that I’d take this sermon on my throne in the shitter.
Preacher MacDougal wasn’t eight words into his testimony when the gurgling renewed itself in my gut.
“‘Sin is a private matter,’ we tell ourselves,” Preacher MacDougal began.
And my sin was just about to make itself a public record.
I clenched down again. There’s a joke somewhere about making a diamond in somebody’s ass. Well, I had images in my head of my butthole being something akin to the Hoover Dam, straining against the flood inside.
My first attempt at relieving the stress had worked without much cause...Lyndon staring in my direction was surely a coincidence, right?
I tried again. Shifted my weight to the left, snuck a bit out, and felt immediately better.
I took a deep breath, checked my pewmates, and saw that none seemed to notice, until I caught Lyndon’s eye, yet again. This time, we locked eyes. And in that moment, I noticed that Lyndon was trying hard to communicate something to me. With his eyes, he looked from me, and then to his right, toward the back aisle, which ran behind our pew.
My eyes followed his gaze, until they rested upon a picture of Jesus. A nice painting, as paintings of Jesus go, it’s the one where Jesus is resting beatifically on a rock, as if he’s posing for the cover of next month’s Vanity Fair, with the Lion and the Lamb resting peacefully beside him.
I looked at the painting, and back at Lyndon. His stoic, tired eyes were resting on me. Once again, his gaze went to the back of the aisle, and back to me. I looked again a the picture. Studied it. There were three lambs and one lion, who seemed mostly asleep. I wondered for a moment if perhaps Jesus had some manner of sleeping dart, or maybe powers like Crocodile Dundee to make the Lion sleep, so that he wouldn’t eat the lambs.
I looked back at Lyndon. Again, his eyes went to the back aisle, then to the front of the church, where Preacher MacDougal was speaking, and where my parents sat in the choir pit, both of them fanning themselves with their bulletins. At this point, my mind was reeling for an answer. What was this old coot trying to tell me? My brain worked for a moment. After a brief consideration of the powers of Jesus possibly taking away my horrible gas pains, I finally settled on the idea that Lyndon was trying to tell me to be peaceful, like the lamb, while the preacher was speaking, or he’d deliver me to the lions (my folks).
That, or he’d go lion himself, and slaughter me.
My grasp of the holy powers has never been that tight.
I looked at him, and nodded.
He seemed satisfied, and leaned back in the pew. I leaned back in my seat, entertaining and horrifying myself with the picture of the old man Lyndon Waverly, in his dress overalls, running a 10-year-old down in the parking lot, catching him with his teeth, and shaking him until his neck snapped.
It wasn’t until several minutes later that my original problem resurfaced. Only this time, it wasn’t so insistent. I figured I might be able to squeak out one more sneaker, and make it until I reached the relatively free air of the church parking lot.
I made myself an opportunity. Quietly, nonchalantly, I leaned forward to pull my hymnal out of his place on the pew in front of me, and made like I was looking to see what the day’s final hymn would be, and I tried to squeak one last one fart out. This one surprised me. More than a little escaped out. Actually, quite a lot escaped out. I think you might have been able to inflate a tire on what escaped.
This one was different from the first ones in timbre. The previous two had been relatively quiet, easily mistaken for the rub of skin across polished wood pew. This last one was deathly silent. For a heartbeat, I figured I’d managed to sneak this one by, too. The first hadn’t had much smell to them. This one was whole different breed of beast.
Lance smelled it before I did. I wasn’t far behind him, but Lance smelled it and reacted before anybody else in the church. His face instantly became one of surprise and indignation, and morphed almost as quickly into one of horror and disgust.
Mark perked up next to him, and I found out why next.
Now, I knew polite circles don’t go around discussing their own flatulence, but I need you to bear with me for a few more paragraphs.
The smell was horrible. It’s like somebody took a pillowcase full of rotting, dead skunks, dowsed it was kerosene and used it to light a tire fire. It was doubly horrifying to me. Its stench was oppressive, and this from a kid who’d come around to the revelation that his own farts didn’t bother him as much as they did other people. This one was bad enough to make me gag, and it was stupefying to me that such a thing had emerged from my own ass.
First, I realized that I had made this smell, and then I realized that if I thought it smelled this bad, other people must think even worse of it!
Lance’s initial horror hadn’t diminished, and he was regarding me with wide, questioning eyes that asked “Why would you do that to me, do it here?”
Down the pew, Mark couldn’t stop the reaction to cover his nose with this shirt. He looked left, first, perhaps thinking that such a smell could have come only from the rotting innards of Floyd or Elmira Reece, and then he looked back in the direction of Lance and me. Seeing Lance’s initial reaction, Mark knew the answer. It wasn’t even a question of “He who smelt it, dealt it.” Both knew where that bugger had come from.
I hoped, quickly, that only these two would smell the monster. This beast, I was thinking, was not one to even make fun of. This is the type of fart that signifies incipient death. Cancer patients and dead animals are the only things to make this kind of smell.
And to do such a thing in church!
My hopes were dashed when I saw Sam and Esther Black perk up in the pew in front of us. Esther, who had the week before scolded us for kicking the back of the pew, and Sam, who had given us a secretive thumbs up after the scolding, both perked up, looked at each other, and then turned toward.
From there it was a domino effect. Like one of those massive displays of tumbling blocks that you see every now and then on the news, when they have 30 seconds to fill with human interest stories. Pew by pew, I saw people perking up. The Blacks were followed by the Samsons. The Samsons by the McGills, more Reece’s, the Davidsons and on up to the front of the church. Really, really, impossibly quickly, this horrid, paint-peeling stench that should have come from the bowels of hell rather than the bowels of a ten-year-old boy wandered and wound its way up to the front of the church.
First, the smell overtook the 12 person choir (where my parents, Mark’s parents and Lance’s Mom) all were overtaken.
It wasn’t until then that I figured a small lesson out.
Without even further noting the people who were now turned and looming over me like I’d, well, like I’d farted in church, I turned over my right shoulder.
See, this was 1987 in the rural south. Keystone Baptist Church was the smaller of two Baptist churches, and we didn’t quite have the funds to air condition our church, just yet. We had an envelope you could deposit money into for the collection plate marked specifically “Air Conditioner Fund.” But in that summer of 1987, Keystone Baptist Church was still relying on an open window or two.
And a box fan.
I turned over my right shoulder, and I noted on the stand the whirring machine that I’d managed to block out of my consciousness. There on a pedestal was a square box fan, turned on high, circulating a little air in the small country church.
And I’d just put the worst possible ingredient into the airstream that the entire church was now smelling.
Looking back, I think it’s testament to the truly awful nature of mixing eggs and beer. For that kind of smell to wander the length of an 800 square foot room, sticking low enough to the floor so that it might reach people’s nostrils, and not lose any of its horrid intensity, I’m thinking it’s something of an accomplishment.
At this point, Preacher MacDougal had stopped his sermon. His eyes, the eyes of the choir, the eyes of Ms. Alloway, whom I’d declared in my mind to be the prettiest woman in the world, just about all the church, in fact, had turned in my direction.
There was a pregnant silence. I didn’t know if I was supposed to apologize, or what.
“Dude,” Lance said. “Are you sick?”
I looked at Lance, at Mark. Down at the Reeces, up to my folks (my Mom had stood up, hands on her hips in the choirpit). Before looking back at Lance to answer, I caught Lyndon’s eye.
There were a lot of emotions in that church, that day. There was a bit of anger, not much of it justified, to my mind, even to this day. There was disgust, which probably was justified. There was questioning. There was wonderment.
I then looked back at Lance and Mark, who should have at least been supportive, especially Mark, who’d been eating and drinking the same mess I had for the past 36 hours.
“It’s so bad I can taste it,” Mark said.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” I said. I did my best to act as if nothing was wrong, but for a kid who absolutely hated all eyes being on him, for any reason, a kid who intentionally misspelled “dollar” to get out of a spelling bee, who tried (and nearly succeeded in) breaking his own leg so that he wouldn’t have to sing solo “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” at a Christmas pageant....I’d managed to breach the first level of Hell, and I’d done so in the sanctuary of Keystone Baptist Church.
It wasn’t until I rounded the pew and headed for the rear exit, for the toilet, when I caught the eye of Lyndon Waverly. Of all the emotions in that church that day, which ran the gamut from righteous anger to wonderment and disgust, Lyndon’s was unique among the congregation.
Lyndon Waverly was laughing his ass off. He was laughing so hard he couldn’t breath. The old man was crying, hitching for breath, he was laughing so hard.
As I made my way to the toilet, to make sure that I hadn’t, indeed, crapped in my pants, I started to laugh as well.
I got grounded. For a week. Nothing bad. My parents were punishing me not for farting, because we all fart.
“Even Mom?” I asked.
“Even Mom,” she answered.
“Especially Mom,” Dad had chimed in.
“Not helping,” she said, before turning to me, and grounding me for a week for not having the good sense and taste to go outside and do that sort of thing.
I should mention that I’ve spend a great deal of my life wondering, since then, if people are leaving the room for the sole intention of letting a little wind go in private.
Anyway. I’ve said all that to say this.
I was woken the other day by a knock on the door. It was my day off, and I was sleeping off a few too many I’d had the night before.
The man at the door was about my age, and he introduced himself: “Mr. Wells, I’m John Waverly. I believe you know my Uncle Lyndon.”
It took me a second, but I did realize and respond that I did know Lyndon.
“Well, Uncle Lyndon passed away the other night.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. After a moment of silence, I added: “Is there anything I can do for you guys?”.
“I apologize for not calling in advance,” John said, his accent one I’d taken for upper midwest–Chicago, or maybe Minnesota/Wisconsin, but now becoming a little less placeable. “But Uncle Lyndon has requested in his last moments that you serve as a pallbearer.”
“Me?” My mind raced to think of the last time I’d even seen Lyndon, let alone spoken with him. It had to have been nearly ten months ago, just before Christmas.
“He specifically requestion Michael Edwin Wells. That is you, or have I made mistake?”
“No...it’s just that...”
“Services are tomorrow at Uncle Lyndon’s homestead on County Road 452. Do you know it?”
“Yeah, just off the frontage road.”
“That is the one. We will proceed at 2 P.M.”
“Thank you,” the man who introduced himself as John Waverly said. He turned on his heel, and almost marched from my front doorstep. He hit the sidewalk, performed another marchstep heel-turn, and continued down the sidewalk.
“Homestead?” I asked myself, as I closed the door.
I pondered that word. As far as I knew, Lyndon lived in a little old but well kept farmhouse, the kind my Dad had always called a crackerbox, just off the frontage road on the otherside of Trainersville. Definitely not something I thought of as a homestead, which brought to mind great sweeping areas of land, covered with fields of cotton or livestock. As I flipped the switch of the Mr. Coffee to “On,” I pondered two things: Whether my funeral suit still fit, and whether it’d be too uppity of me to start referring to my little brick shithouse as “The Wells Homestead.”
A few minutes later, I sat on the porch, taking in the Saturday paper and my cup of coffee. I was looking for Lyndon’s obituary, and not finding it. I looked up and saw Jesse Cochrane wandering by on foot.
“Gremlin down again?” I hollered toward the street.
“No,” Jesse said, shoulders rounded and hands in his pockets. “I think she’s gone for good this time.”
He hitched up his pants, and continued shuffling his way past the Wells Homestead.