Ross Gay got me thinking more about Don Belton lately. It takes some digging to find actual words from the man. But those words.
You should do yourself a favor and read his story, The Pentacostal Bridegroom that was published in Indiana Review back in the day. The story of a preacher who attempts to deliver herself through faith from the cancer that consumes her thoughts.
Odessa lay in bed awake. Mr. Deal lay beside her hard asleep. The time was soon for the sun to rise. She moved to the edge of the bed and sat, her feet moving to find her slippers on the floor. She murmured as she rose in the dark, “Good morning, Father Jesus.” Then she hissed at the Devil, “Satan, you can’t have my life today.”
Her footsteps cracked against the wood of the ragged floor. Odessa was lean and tall with hair that lay like smoke around her head, shoulders and back. She came and sat at the dressing table, turning on the kerosene lamp.
“Ride on, King Jesus.”
She braided her ferocious shock of hair into three braids, then folded and pinned the braids together at the top of her head. Inserting the last hairpin, her fingers stopped, and she stared at her image in the dressing table mirror.
When Odessa watched her face in the mirror, she did not see herself as others might see her: a once-radiant girl turning mysteriously attractive in age. To her, the face in the mirror was nothing more or less than a hallmark of her covenant with God. God had promised to fortify her life and keep her in health and grace. Each hair on her head was numbered. God had numbered every one of her bones.
The story is Beautiful, in the classic sense. It enters the world of its characters and illuminates their goodness. Belton well knew that the we perceived goodness, the more aware we could perceive beauty, which is our only real hope. The story feels like a sermon, but only in the ways that make you feel cared for.
Belton had an essay called Voodoo for Charles that was featured in the anthology he edited, called Speak My Name: Black Men on Masculinity and the American Dream. The essay hinges on the moment when Belton's nephew, Charles, called him to let his uncle know he was on the run for attempted murder. Belton, as a disciple of Baldwin, is a master of metaphoric, authentic, powerful image that serves Beauty and shatters on the same line. In the essay there is a moment where Belton describes him and his older brother being caught in a rain storm when they were kids.
The following is one of my earliest memories. It emanates from both my memory and my imagination. It is literally true, however, in terms of the organic infrastructure informing my life, it has the quality of supertruth. Once, when I was four and staying in
Philadelphiafor the summer, my brother and I were walking home from Sunday school. The afternoon was sultry-hot. We were in no hurry to get home. I held his hand, as I always did when we walked down the street together, and he swung our arms in a jovial way. Soon we heard thunder and saw the zig-zag lightning. The swinging of my arm slowed. As we walked, we were caught in the downpour.
The rain pounded so hard it hurt my small body. I had never been outside in weather like that, away from home, in the street, without my mother or my father. All I had was my brother to protect me. He was lanky, athletic, almost as tall as my father. We began to run. The rain poured like a mirror of heaven. My brother held my hand tight. Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, and I began to scream and cry.
I stopped running, and my brother stopped. I couldn't move. I was too terrified. I believed I would die. God was angry. He was tearing up the world and washing it away. I fully realize now what I only realized then in part, that my brave fourteen-year-old brother was terrified too. But he said, "It's all right. I'm with you. I'll get you home." This vow was punctuated by a burst of thunder so loud it threatened to crack open the street before us. My brother took me and ran first in one direction and then another. We rushed along the flowing curb. Then we were standing near a tree. We had reached the elementary school building two blocks from our house.
"We're almost there," my brother shouted over the ringing wind. "Do you want me to carry you?"
"No," I said, "I'm scared."
"All right," he told me. "We'll rest for a little while."
We ran from the tree to the awning leading into the school building.
As soon as we came up against the closed glass entrance, there was a big burst of lightning. For an instant the world went white. The skin of my neck and arms tingled. We held each other. I felt his heart leaping just above my head, but he held me, and I didn't cry. We stood there holding each other until the rain slowed. Then we walked home in silence.
My father was sitting in the living room, reading the newspaper. My mother came out from the kitchen. I was excited. I wanted to tell them how my brother had saved me from the storm and brought me home safe like he promised. "You better take off those wet things," my mother said immediately. "Go on upstairs." As we turned on the stairs, my father said my brother should leave his clothes off when he removed the wet things and remain upstairs in the bathroom. He said that he'd received a call from church, that
Waynehad stolen money from the Sunday school collection. My father had also found money missing from the coin collection he kept hidden in our basement. He was going to whip my brother.
The terror I'd felt in the storm returned. My father was a strong but soft-spoken man. I waited in the bathroom with my brother until our father came in with the piece of ironing cord. Wayne and I had been sitting on the rim of the bathtub. He was naked except for his blue jockey shorts. I had dressed myself in my Daniel Boone outfit. I held my brother's hands, telling him not to worry. His saffron body was still marked from the last beating he'd received from our father that summer.
Our father put me out, but I turned and stood at the door. I could see him through the slightly opened door, lashing my brother's legs and back with the cord. At first
Waynefought back and my father lost his balance for a moment near the sink. He righted himself and bore down on my brother, muttering and striking him, lashing him into the floor with the ironing cord. I ran downstairs to my mother in the kitchen. I told her to call the police. I said Daddy was killing Wayne. She did not move. Had she ceased to be our mother? It was a long time that we stood in the kitchen, listening to the lashing and crying upstairs before she said flatly, "He's got to learn. Your father is beating him because he loves him. He's beating him so the police won't have to."
Goddamn we lost a great writer, a great man.