The final installment of a short story set in the small town in the early Sixties--with commentary.
“Ain’t nothing but a matter of money, that’s all—and she is good—you know that, don’t you? Shoot, an old man like yourself—“
For a minute they stood there staring, then Gimp backed off slowly, maybe ten steps, until he turned and walked away, his head ducking forward the way a pigeon walks. Then he stopped and half-turned. “Dickie,” he said, “you ought to know what it’s like to go without, you jailbird.”
When I looked at Dickie, he wasn’t breathing. In the sun, the sweat lit up like glitter where it streamed from his hair down his neck. He waited until Gimp got to the corner of the east wall before he took off after him. The sound that came out from his chest was something of a growl and something of a scream.
Gimp heard Dickie take off, and he split without looking back. I knew right then there was going to be a beating, and I knew right off that Dickie could kill the guy. In a second, I knew all of it. In that little time I thought of Dickie back in jail.
And just like that this five-gallon pail full of wet cement dropped from the roof like a sledge. It cracked the old concrete where it hit not a two full strides in front of Dickie. The bottom edge of the pail crushed from the impact, so it stood there, right-side-up, crooked as some comedian's hat.
Gimp never knew what happened, but Dickie stopped cold in his tracks, his hands out front of him like a surgeon. Then he looked up and saw his Uncle Ed at the edge of the roof with his hands on his hips.
Dickie picked up the pail and held it high over his head. The cement flew out in thick globs. Then he flung the empty bucket against the block wall, picked it up and hurled it again and again and again until the thing was bent up like a soup can.
And Ed stood there up above in very principled silence. "How many times I got to tell you to wear the hat," he said.
It's understandable that I should be looking back a bit. This story, I'm quite sure, is just about 30 years old. It shows its age.
Not long ago, Context starting running old stories from its many years of publication, and one excerpt was from some theologian or sociologist who said that the church of 2000 would look unlike anything anyone could imagine. I think he was writing in Sixties.
This story--or so it seems to me--illustrates that argument. The picture I found to go with the story hardly seems fitting for the grittyness of the story itself, but behind the action here is a small-town church with incredible authority in the lives of its people, including the authority to toss someone out. That is the church I grew up in.
But there's more. Even though Ed doesn't particularly like what the church has done, he abides by its rules. For that matter, so does the rest of the town, gritting its teeth as it does. What I know very well is that I was drawn to the story because of Ed's stubborn faith in the church itself and its decree about Dickie, who was, of course, a formidable foe. But people like his uncle Ed still cow-tow--and do so quite sympathetically, at least in my mind. All of which suggests that even the author lived somewhat peaceably under the powerful dominion of the church.
What's changed--or so it seems to me--is that today the church I'm a part of has nothing at all of that kind of authority. I'm not trying to ring the doomsday bell here. That's not the point. What I'm saying is that the institutional church has lost that authority somehow, perhaps, most specifically, by way of our great and still growing affluence.
What I'm saying is that "the world of this story" is no more, at least for me. I'm sure there are fellowships extant who still rule the lives of their people as fully as mine did when I was a boy, but the church as I know it best--the church in a small town--doesn't have the reach or the pull or the clout it once did.
I honestly don't think that's a fall from grace. This Calvinist is neither a doomday prophet or progressivist. Sin abides, as, thankfully, does grace.
Some things change. His love--and our need--doesn't.
I guess I find my own fascination with a story like this, way back when, really interesting today, 30 years later. It is now, very much, historical fiction.