MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
It was a love song. At least it started out that way. The lyrics told the tale of a romance between a man and the woman who made his life worth living. Being a blues song, it was also about how that woman repeatedly broke the man’s heart and then repaid his forgiving ways by bringing a world of suffering down on him. The beautiful melody soared and plunged, each verse proclaiming rapturous happiness and gut-wrenching pain. Here, in a church, this piece of music couldn’t have been further outside its natural habitat. But the tune’s lovely mournfulness echoed from the back wall to the baptismal pool and from the marble floor to the vaulted ceiling and settled in as if the forlorn cry had always lived here.
As the song continued and grew sadder with every line, I thought of my parents, Dora and Wilbur Jackson. The blues was Mama and Daddy’s music. Nearly every weekend of my childhood, they spent their evenings in our living room, listening to scratchy recordings of old-timey blues songs on the hi-fi. One of those might have been as sorrowful as the dirge ringing through the church, but I couldn’t recall hearing anything that touched this song for sheer misery.
Mama preferred her blues on the cheerier and dirtier side—nasty tunes loaded with crude jokes about hot dogs, jelly rolls, and pink Cadillacs. The gloomy ballads, like this one, were Daddy’s favorites. I never saw him happier than when he was huddled up with Mama on the sofa, humming along with an ode to agony. He would bob his head to the pulse of the music, like he was offering encouragement to a down-in-the-mouth singer who was sitting right next to him, croaking out his hard luck.
Sometimes, before sending me to bed, my parents would allow me to squeeze in between them. They’ve both been dead for years now, but their bad singing lingers in my memory. And, because I inherited their tuneless voices, I remind myself of my parents every time I rip into some unfortunate melody. Whenever I hear a melancholy blues, I feel the roughness of Daddy’s fingertips, callused by years of carpentry work, sliding over my arm like he was playing a soulful riff on imaginary strings that ran from my elbow to my wrist.
I’d be ordered off to bed when Mama’d had enough of the dreariness and wanted to listen to a record about rocking and rolling and loving that was too grown-up for my young ears.
Even though the song rumbling through the sanctuary would have been a bit dark for Mama’s taste, she’d have loved the singer’s wailing voice and the roller-coaster ride of the melody. And she wouldn’t have let this song go unnoted. If she had been in the church with me, she’d have turned to me and declared, “Odette, your daddy would’ve loved this song. Every single word of it makes you wanna die. I’ve gotta write this in my book.”
My mother’s “book” was a calendar from Stewart’s Funeral Home that she kept in her pocketbook. The cover of the calendar showed a gray-and-white spotted colt and a small boy in blue overalls. They were in a meadow, both of them jumping off the ground in an expression of unrestrained bliss. Above the picture were the words “Jump for Joy,” and below, “Happy thoughts to you and yours from Stewart’s Funeral Home.” Whenever Mama ran into something that she felt was remarkable enough to merit celebration, she wrote a note on that day’s date so she’d never forget it.
Mama’s book first appeared on a Sunday afternoon about ten years before she passed. We’d just walked out of our church, Holy Family Baptist, and Reverend Brown stood at the bottom of the front steps saying good-bye to his flock. Mama strode up to him and said, “Reverend, you’re the best preacher I’ve ever heard. I’ve been thinkin’ about your Easter sermon all spring. It was truly a wonder; really opened my eyes. I want you to know that you can consider this here soul a hundred percent saved.”
Reverend Brown, who was more than a foot taller than Mama, bent over and took her hand. “That’s so kind of you, Dora,” he said. “I’m just doing what I can for the Kingdom.”
“I mean it,” Mama said. “You’ve won this battle for the Lord. And I wanted to make sure to thank you, since I won’t be comin’ back.”
Reverend Brown hung on to Mama’s hand and waited for her to deliver the punch line to what he assumed was one of the peculiar jokes she was known to tell. But Mama wasn’t kidding. She explained, “Remember how you preached that if we really wanted to be closer to God, we should look at the world around us and write down a little thank-you to Him for all the things He gave us? Well, I took your words to heart and I’ve been doin’ that ever since.”
Mama opened her pocketbook then and pulled out a rolled-up wall calendar. She flipped three pages back to Easter and showed the pastor where she had written, “Best Sermon Ever” in the little square for that date. Then she showed him how she had jotted brief notes on each day of the calendar since then.
“Reverend, you truly preached your ass off this mornin’. But, just like you said, it was nothin’ compared to the way I feel when I’m sittin’ alone, thankin’ God directly. So I’m takin’ your advice and skippin’ the middleman.” She waved her calendar in the air. “From now on, I’m goin’ straight to the source.”
She pulled a pen from her pocketbook and wrote an entry on that day’s date in her book that read, “Second-best sermon ever.” Then she patted Reverend Brown on his cheek and walked away from Holy Family Baptist forever.
Stewart’s Funeral Home came out with a new calendar each year. Since Mr. Stewart was notoriously cheap, he reused the same cover. Mama had a fresh “Jump for Joy” book every January.
Her habit of hauling that calendar out, scribbling on it, and reciting her observations to anyone nearby was just one of many odd behaviors Mama was content to display in public. I was uncomfortable with the additional stares and whispers that followed her newest eccentricity, but Mama was immune to embarrassment. She told me, “Folks can laugh at me all they want. But when the blues comes lookin’ for me, I’m gonna wave my little book at it and tell it to move along, ’cause I know how to jump for joy.”
She wrote in her book until her last morning on this earth.
As the sanctuary reverberated with the howling third verse of the astonishing blues singer’s lament, I imagined Mama beside me in the pew, writing, “Bluest blues in all creation.” With Mama in mind, I leaned toward my husband, James, and shared my evaluation of the music filling Calvary Baptist Church: “This is the saddest song I have ever heard.”
James said, “Your old man would’ve loved it.”
The singer who sat hunched over his guitar in a dark corner, crooning and roaring about loving and forgiving his cruel woman, looked to be about seventy. He was tall and skinny, and he had a white beard that swallowed his face from nose to neck. James was right. Daddy would have loved the way the blues man bent the pitches of the tune in such a bleak way that you knew love had brought him trouble and that there would be more bad news coming in the days ahead.
“The blues is what a love song turns into after the singer’s had his teeth kicked out,” Daddy once said. What kind of beating had life given to this bearded man, who stared at the floor and filled the room with gorgeous sorrow? How did he end up here, curled around his guitar, letting loose a heartbreaking cry for all the world to hear? Every line of this song brought to mind Daddy’s definition of the blues. There was no way this man had a single unbroken tooth left in his mouth.
Full of love, loss, passion, and bitterness, the song was made even more pitiful by the occasion. It accompanied a radiant bride as she made her stately procession down the center aisle toward her groom. She moved toward the altar with an ease and grace that were quite impressive, considering the character of the music and the fact that she had recently celebrated her eighty-second birthday.
The bride, Beatrice Jordan, was the mother of my best friend, Clarice. Miss Beatrice was a leading member of Calvary Baptist, the most no-nonsense church in Plainview, Indiana. She was a good Christian woman whose greatest source of pride came from being a better Christian than anybody else.
I loved Miss Beatrice, but she was so extravagantly and annoyingly devoted to the Lord and to making sure that everybody else was, too, that being around her for too long had a way of shattering my resolve to keep His Commandments. Over the years, she’d pushed me to take the Lord’s name in vain more times than I’d like to recall. And Miss Beatrice had driven everyone I knew to think about murder at least once.
The groom was Mr. Forrest Payne, the owner of the Pink Slipper Gentlemen’s Club, the only legally operating business in Plainview that had ever been called scandalous. The club had been known for on-site gambling, prostitution, and a flagrant disregard for all liquor laws. There was a time when reputations were ruined and marriages destroyed just because previously respectable men had been seen walking near the Pink Slipper’s door.
The club’s unsavory public image scared away many potential customers but served as effective advertising for just as many others. My aunt Marjorie swore that the Pink Slipper was the only place in town to hear the blues done right, as well as the only place to find corn liquor as potent as the killer brew she concocted at home. She was a Pink Slipper regular till the day she died.
And when I say “till the day she died,” I mean it. Aunt Marjorie had a fatal heart attack while disarming a man who’d pulled a knife on her during a fight at the club. At her funeral, Forrest Payne comforted Mama by telling her that her sister had passed with her opponent’s knife clutched in her fist and a satisfied grin on her face.
The brawls, overt prostitution, and gambling were now history, or so I’d been told. These days, the club was more likely to be spoken of as a respected music venue than as a low dive. Forrest had been rehabilitated, and his business had been purified along with him. The major reason for his rise from social pariah to elder statesman and philanthropist was, at that moment, serenely gliding his way, clutching a bouquet of pale peach roses and silvery-white chrysanthemums.
This love match had taken everyone by surprise. Over the years, Miss Beatrice had become famous around town as the nutty old woman who regularly stationed herself on a hillock at the edge of the Pink Slipper’s parking lot and yelled warnings of eternal damnation at arriving and departing patrons through a bullhorn. She blamed Forrest for facilitating the repeated infidelities of her first husband, my friend Clarice’s father. And it had become her life’s mission to keep other men from following that same sinful path. In spite of her softened feelings toward Forrest Payne, even nowadays she showed up at the parking lot occasionally to shout at patrons on evenings when the dancers stripped. She’d left the bachelorette party Clarice had put together for her the night before her wedding to do just that. But since romance had warmed her heart, instead of yelling, “The fires of hell await you, sinner!” at departing customers the way she used to, Miss Beatrice now hollered, “God bless you, fornicator! Drive carefully!”
Several times during the ceremony, I glanced over my shoulder and searched for Mama. The idea that I might see her wasn’t just wishful thinking on my part. In addition to a wide mouth, a round frame, and a tendency to talk too damn much, I have also inherited my mother’s ability to see dead people. Mama was the first of the departed to seek out my company. She surprised me in the middle of the night several years after her passing, and she visits me regularly. Dead, Mama can be as much of a handful as she was when she was alive. But she’s easier to take than a number of the spirits I’ve had to contend with.
Events that defy explanation draw my mother to them like magnets, so I found it hard to believe that she could stay away from the union of Beatrice Jordan and Forrest Payne. Mama’s spirit was nowhere in sight, though. So I paid close attention and took note of every detail around me. It’s not easy to astound a ghost, but the next time she stopped by, I intended to give Mama a description of the day’s festivities that would knock her socks off.
Looking as perfectly put together as always, my friend Barbara Jean Carlson sat on my left side in the pew, adjusting her pearl necklace and smoothing nonexistent wrinkles from her skirt. Back in the 1960s, our schoolmates had started calling Barbara Jean, Clarice, and me “the Supremes” after the singing group. The more widely known Supremes had been separated by fame, acrimony, and death. But more than forty years after our trio was formed, the Plainview Supremes stood united.
Barbara Jean cozied up to her husband, Ray. But she and I had our eyes on Clarice, to the preacher’s right, waiting for her mother to finish her journey down the aisle. That day, it was our job to remind Clarice, who was still in shock over her mother’s change of heart regarding Forrest Payne, to smile. To that end, each time Clarice looked our way, we grinned and gestured toward our faces as if we were presenting brand-new refrigerators to contestants on a TV game show.
Poor Clarice. Whenever she forgot to smile, she took on the astonished expression that had first crossed her face a few months ago when she’d learned of her pious mother’s romance with the owner of the Pink Slipper Gentlemen’s Club.
Miss Beatrice had told her daughter that her love affair with Forrest began the night she was stranded at his club by a sudden snowstorm that blew in during one of her bullhorn protests. He had insisted that she wait out the storm in his office, and they’d chatted for hours over tea. After that, they’d become inseparable.
What Clarice said to me was, “Mother claims that saving Mr. Payne’s soul is like climbing a spiritual Mount Everest. She can’t resist the challenge.” Miss Beatrice had also told Clarice that Forrest Payne had served her loose-leaf Earl Grey from a bone china tea service. Though her mother had gone to the Pink Slipper to do her version of God’s work, it was the tea service that had won her over. Clarice had said, “I tell you, Odette, fine china is like opium to that woman. The moment that Wedgwood cup hit her lips, Mother was a goner.”
We may never learn whether it was the Good Book or the china that brought Miss Beatrice and Forrest Payne together. But as his bride marched toward him, Mr. Payne looked as happy as a kid on Christmas morning. And Miss Beatrice seemed overjoyed to be marrying the man she’d spent decades denouncing as a servant of Satan.
The silver-embossed wedding program identified the saddest processional music ever heard as “The Happy Heartache Blues.” When the song came to an end, the bearded blues man disconnected his guitar from the amplifier and limped away from the altar with an awkward gait that made me think he might be older than I’d guessed.
Calvary Baptist wasn’t the sort of church where people applauded music, religious or secular. Such a display would be considered tacky at best, damnable at worst. But when the singer finished, everyone on the groom’s side of the sanctuary and plenty of folks on the bride’s side clapped in ovation. The blues man shuffled off without acknowledging the applause.
The pastor then began a loud and harsh homily, full of accusations and dire predictions. This was in keeping with Calvary Baptist’s reputation as the church most likely to tell its members that weekly attendance was the only thing keeping them from heading straight to hell. It was a sermon right up Miss Beatrice’s alley. With every mention of damnation, she turned toward the wedding guests and nodded her head in agreement so we wouldn’t get the impression that she was going to allow the joyfulness of the occasion to stand in the way of her efforts to save our unworthy souls.
Despite the gloomy music and the brimstone-heavy sermon, the wedding was lovely. Clarice and her mother had planned it to perfection. Miss Beatrice wore an exquisitely embroidered ivory-colored suit with an ankle-length skirt. The groom wore a gorgeously tailored black suit, which was a shock for everyone in attendance; few in Plainview could recall seeing Forrest Payne in anything other than his signature canary-yellow tuxedo. According to Clarice, there had been a compromise between her mother and her soon-to-be stepfather, granting Mr. Payne the right to choose the wedding march and Miss Beatrice the right to banish the yellow tuxedo for one afternoon.
Calvary Baptist Church is the prettiest house of worship in Plainview. It might not be what most people would call a friendly or inviting place, but the altar is made of ornately carved oak with, as its centerpiece, a magnificent pastor’s chair that would have been right at home in a medieval castle. The towering stained-glass windows paint every surface in the sanctuary with color and make you feel as if you are at the center of a rainbow. At Calvary Baptist, you can’t help but contemplate the Divine.
Behind the baptismal pool, there is a mural of the Crucifixion that makes the angry shouting of the pastor in front of it fade from your mind. The depiction of the bare-chested, muscular Jesus in the painting is so sexy that it’s hard to take your eyes off it. Sunday services at Calvary tend to go on forever. By the second hour, the majority of the congregation’s ladies, and a fair number of the men, start taking a mental break from their weekly browbeating to stare up at the beefy Lord and Savior on the wall. The Redeemer’s charms are so potent that most congregants can’t recall the sermon’s topic by the time of the benediction.
In this setting, two unlikely people proclaimed their everlasting love for each other in front of an amazed assemblage.
With a few reminders from Barbara Jean and me, Clarice managed to hold on to her smile, even as she played the piano during the blessing of the rings. Clarice is an extraordinary musician. She had already begun winning ribbons and praise for her piano playing when we met as five-year-olds. But after a midlife resurgence, she was no longer Plainview, Indiana’s secret. She was making recordings and traveling the country, performing for bigger audiences every year.
Clarice’s handsome husband, Richmond Baker, served as Forrest Payne’s best man. As always, Richmond radiated charm and goodwill. But it was hard to know if he was genuinely happy about having a role in the proceedings or was putting up a front for the sake of his wife.
In the fifth year of a separation, Clarice and Richmond’s marriage had finally hit smooth sailing. For Clarice, anyway. Life as a semi-single woman fit Clarice better than marriage. She was happy living in her own house and entertaining Richmond only when she saw fit. For nearly all the years they’d been together, Richmond had been as proficient an adulterer as Clarice’s father had. Yet Richmond was still trying to comprehend why Clarice had decided she couldn’t stand living with him anymore.
Decades of watching him break Clarice’s heart had seen me alternating between fantasies of taking a hammer to his head and visions of using a cleaver on his private parts. But even I had to admire the hard work he’d put in to demonstrate to Clarice how much he’d changed since she’d left him.
It was especially tough for Richmond to show that he’d given up his old ways on the day of Miss Beatrice’s wedding. The groom’s side of the sanctuary was populated with women who knew Richmond from a time before he became enlightened. Five years into his non-promiscuous existence, these ladies still remembered him quite fondly. From the front to the back of the church, top-heavy dancers from the Pink Slipper Gentlemen’s Club and other extravagantly dolled-up women waggled their fingertips at Richmond and mimed phones at their ears, mouthing, “Call me.” Even as he did his best to ignore them, I was certain that Richmond’s already oversized ego was expanding every second that he stood alongside Mr. Payne up at the altar.
After Clarice finished playing—the wedding program said the piano piece was “Clair de Lune,” by Debussy—she took her place beside her mother again. Miss Beatrice gave her daughter a kiss on the cheek, and the pastor gave the assembled guests one more warning to repent from our evil ways before moving on to the vows.
If Richmond didn’t take notice of the behavior and appearance of the folks on the groom’s side of the room, the Calvary Baptist regulars filling up the bride’s side certainly did. Miss Beatrice’s family and friends reacted to the exposed cleavage, gaudy jewelry, body piercings, and general raucousness of the Pink Slipper folks with a combination of open-jawed gawking and loud clucks of disapproval. Miss Beatrice’s grandchildren seemed to be the only members of her family having a truly good time. Clarice’s daughter and three sons, who had all come from their homes out of town to witness their grandmother’s surprising coupling, could barely contain their amusement. Clarice’s children were all over thirty, but the occasion had them giggling and whispering into each other’s ears like schoolkids. They stopped only when Clarice gave them the stink eye from the altar.
After Miss Beatrice and Forrest Payne were pronounced man and wife, their guests stepped outside into brilliant sunlight. In another week or so, the weather would be hot and humid, but on this day, the skies were cloud-free and there was just enough of a breeze to make the men feel comfortable in their suits and ties. The air smelled faintly of freshly mown grass and of smoke from charcoal fires in nearby backyards.
Mama would have adored everything about this day. She’d have witnessed an infamous purveyor of indecency and a woman who had devoted herself to stomping out, or at least pointing out, sinfulness profess their love for each other. She’d have seen the upstanding members of Calvary Baptist Church looking like their heads were going to explode as they played host to a crowd of people they’d have preferred to burn at the stake. And Mama would have had herself an annoyingly gleeful time, humming along in her wandering pitch with “The Happy Heartache Blues.”
As the guests tossed rice on the newly married couple, the flower girl, Clarice’s seven-year-old granddaughter, excited and happy in her lilac taffeta dress, ran circles around her ring-bearer cousin, leaping up into the air and trying to touch that glorious blue sky. Mama, never one to restrain herself in the presence of wild exuberance, would likely have shared in the rejoicing by jumping right along with the flower girl, and then scrawling an entry into her book.
Weeks after the wedding, I would look back and wonder if things might have turned out differently if Mama had seen or heard the old blues man that afternoon. Just a few words from her might have changed the outcome, or at least given James and me a chance to brace ourselves. But that’s how this journey works. We can’t prepare for the calamity heading our way, because it never looks dangerous until it’s right on top of us. We’re always too busy singing our sweet love songs and jumping for joy to realize that our teeth are about to get kicked out.
Copyright © 2017 by Edward Kelsey Moore