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  • Brother Sammy
  • Deborah Thompson (bio)

After the evening funeral, I lower myself onto the dead man’s bed, as he must have done less than a week earlier, the night he died in this very spot. The sheets have been changed to clean ones, I’ve been assured; those dark splotches are just old bloodstains that won’t wash away.

I’m not superstitious. I don’t believe in afterlives, or ghosts, or even auras. I don’t believe he’s haunting me here.

Still, the sheets are cold and unwelcoming smelling simultaneously, in that Mississippi way, of both dust and mildew. The mattress hesitates, reluctant to accommodate my shape; I feel my body nudged into the deep indentation of its last inhabitant. I now take the place of a dead man, a man who, in life, told me I was going to hell.

Brother Sammy, they called him at the evening’s funeral service. Despite all his degrees, including a doctorate, he simply wanted to be called Brother Sammy. He was humble that way, the preacher said. I never felt comfortable addressing him as Sammy, though that’s what he asked me to call him. He was too much the patriarch, a Southern Baptist missionary preacher. His son, my boyfriend, Casey, called him “sir” to the end. But now, after a night of Brother Sammys, I’m beginning to yield to the name.

Days after his metastatic renal cancer finally claimed Sammy, his children and grandchildren have converged on the patriarch’s home. Casey never admitted to any of them, certainly not to his father, that we sleep together, even though he’s 54 years old, I’m 51, and we’ve been dating for ten years. In my social set of Yankee unbelievers, such intimacies would be assumed, but that’s not the case in this evangelical community. So Casey’s alone in his childhood bedroom, while I got put in the one remaining room [End Page 111] with a sleeping surface, the room no one else will brave. Although they’re all Southern Baptists who believe by dogma that Brother Sammy is in heaven, the unspoken suggestion that Sammy may be haunting the room hovers in the musty air.

I’m not one of them. I was raised a reform Jew, but by the time I was bat mitzvahed I was already turning atheist, which I’ve been for nearly four decades, despite significant trials in foxholes.

Atheists don’t believe in ghosts. The dark, lifeless limbs all around Brother Sammy’s room are—I confirm as I put on my glasses—the outlines of antique armaments. Remingtons, Derringers, and Colts, as well as hundreds of pocketknives and hand knives, some in display boxes, stand sentry. Many of the guns and knives lean against bookshelves, which at eye level feature Bibles, scripture scholarship, and testimonials to the missionary life. On the lower shelves, at arm level, are gun guidebooks and catalogs. On the bottom rung, the two themes of Sammy’s life combine in the serialized Shooter’s Bible, which to me reads as self-evident irony, but to him would not have posed a contradiction.

I know all of this because I investigated the room before the funeral, when I quickly changed from my traveling clothes into respectful black. The room is dark now, and all I can see are the furtive shapes of rifles resting. I resign my glasses back to the bedside table, where the dead man would have put his, where his cell phone still sits, charging.

I met Sammy a few months after Casey and I began dating, when we flew from Denver to Tupelo to share Thanksgiving with his extended family (whose members I now meet mostly at funerals). Casey’s mother, who went to elementary school with Elvis, was still alive then, but, many years into Alzheimer’s, had long since stopped talking and stared at her son as if trying to place him. Sammy explained to his wife that the stranger was their son. Once an English teacher, like me, she now responded to words as if they bore the meaning of wind chimes. The love of Sammy’s...


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pp. 111-117
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