When my parents broke the kitchen window for the third time, I took it as my sign to fly the coop. I was sixteen. I didn't know if I could stay out long, but I deserved an escape. I was done running to Henderson's Hardware for drywall squares to patch up the fist holes in the walls. I was done sweeping up the fake china and replacing picture frames. I was done airing out the ammoniac stink that stuck between tiles and lurked in every corner.
I asked my cousin Davie if he could put me up in his basement again, but his parents had soured on my side of the family. He wouldn't even let me through his front door, but he seemed sorry about it. He told me to check in with a fellow named Zeke, whose crew was squatting in Fall Creek Baptist off Shoal Street where Granddad used to preach. Davie's older brother Benj had recently joined up with Zeke, and he kept begging Davie to join their congregation, too. I liked Benj, but he could be a bit of a dupe, so I was skeptical.
"Where else you gonna go?" Davie said. He got quiet and fidgety, but he didn't need to feel embarrassed. It was true that I had fewer options than I did a month before.
"I'm sorry about your granddad," he said.
"Please," I said. "Don't mention it." He was the first person to say anything to me, but "sorry" wouldn't bring Granddad back.
Zeke's people had been causing a stir among the traditional folks in town. I hadn't met him, but I had heard talk that he was a madman or cultist. Some folks just said he was a bum who put on airs. There was a minor uproar when this preteen named Azalea Lee ran off and Zeke's crew was accused of sheltering her. There was no proof, and Zeke even let the cops search the apartment where they were staying at the time. They moved into the abandoned church soon after, but only a few folks knew it. Maybe everyone hoped Zeke had left town, or maybe Zeke really was keeping things quiet, underground, so to speak. The church was down this hard-to-spot gravel road on the far edge of town, and it had mostly failed because it was a pain to get to. [End Page 58]
Ten years before, Granddad had nearly built a congregation of his own there. He held them together for three years, and they came from all over the county, though never all at once. Each Sunday, he spoke to a dozen or so souls scattered throughout the pews with plenty of space between them. There were always new faces, but they never stayed long enough to become familiar. Granddad didn't care. He could make anyone feel like the Lord was really watching with loving eyes, that we were all safe in someone's hands. But in the end, no one wanted to venture all that way for a little peace of mind, not every week. They had plenty of churches to choose from.
He was retired for seven years, though he never called it retirement. He called it my education. He kept me after school, and I was his congregation. We didn't always talk about the Bible. Most of the time he had me go over what I'd learned in school, and somehow it was actually pleasant to talk to him about The Sign of the Beaver or the Puritans' voyage and then later Dickens and Shakespeare, even though it was torture in class. For years I begged him to let me stay with him, but he said I belonged at home with my parents. He said he was teaching me to care for people, too.
When the stroke hit him, I spent a week in the hospital distracting him and me both with old stories of Fall Creek Baptist. I tried to tell him like he told us that God had a plan for everyone and that everyone carried a...