Dancing to Church Music


This fall, Harvard Square Editions is publishing an anthology of short fiction which includes an excerpt from my novella,
Dancing to Church Music. If you want to purchase a copy of the book, click on the link at the very end. I'm shamelessly hawking the book because all of the proceeds go to support the work of JubileeUSA and Doctors Without Borders, two fine organizations that have saved lives all over the world for decades.
Enjoy (we hope),
Stan



Summary of what has taken place before excerpt begins:

In her very last days of pregnancy, and her last day of life, Mary Minton was dancing, as she always did, in the shallows of the Poteau River, by her home in Heavener, Oklahoma but today the skies were filled with storms and lightning struck the water. Her husband, Bobby, pulled her ashore and tried and failed to save her life, but in the midst of the storm and rain and water and lightening, their son, Panis Angelicas Menton was born.

“Panny” grew to be tall and broad with incredible strength, but his mind could never go beyond eight or ten and eventually he dropped out of school and spent his time making friends down at the lumber yard at Charlie Wilson’s coffee bar. Then one day his father, who had worked in the coal mines outside of town for far too long, coughed and wheezed and bled and died and then joined his beloved wife in heaven.

The town took care of Panny after that. Martha Johnson found him a place to stay. Charlie Wilson gave him a place to work. And the story’s narrator, Rev. Ben McLean, welcomed him home at the church where he had gone with his father, and he would sing and sway and pray as though possessed by the ghosts of his parents and was filled with the spirit of church music.

Everyone in Heavener loved him except Buddy Hanson, arguably the wealthiest and certainly the most unpleasant man in town. His wife Betty didn’t like Panny because she was uppity and Panny was slow and unkempt. Buddy seemed to dislike him simply because Buddy was mean. He hated Panny early on and when he grew up, Buddy campaigned to drive Panny out of town. It wasn’t legal, it wasn’t moral, but since Buddy was neither it didn’t matter. It was his crusade until that day when they made a bet.


CHAPTER SIX

For reasons I never quite understood, after a while Buddy’s verbal attacks began to take on a more vicious tone. Everyone worried about it but most were either frightened of Buddy’s power in the community or they felt helpless to make him stop. It’s one thing to recognize a wrong. It’s another to know how to fight it. And the fact that at one time or another Buddy had employed about half of the men in town at one of his businesses made people look at his attacks with a degree of real fear.

I occasionally complained to people that they should stand up to Buddy more often, but I realize now that I never did much to stop him either. I tried to talk him down once, but when he turned on me I was as frightened as anybody. He towered over me and outweighed me by fifty pounds. And there was an aura of loosely harnessed rage around him that made my soul grow numb when I thought of really taking him on. So, I was as guilty as anyone about allowing the tragedy to unfold.

Charlie Wilson was the only person I knew who was not afraid of Buddy. I don’t know why. Perhaps his own embattled past was so scarred that he wasn’t worried about what anyone else could ever do to him. Perhaps he just was braver than the rest of us. Long before I moved to town, Charlie had gained some notoriety for one day kicking Buddy out the door and into the street after he refused to keep his hands off of the store’s new clerk. Barbara had just been hired on to help take some of the work off of the other salespeople, and Buddy — who was solidly married at the time — was instantly attracted to her. He started hanging around the coffee bar for hours at a time, talking, flirting, and occasionally laying his hands on her in inappropriate ways. Finally Charlie told Buddy that he’d have to leave her alone or get out. “Buddy,” he said, “There are a whole lot of decent and respectful ways a man is supposed to treat a woman and then there are your ways. You keep this up and that thing you keep threatening her with won’t be able to function for a month.”

“Charlie, my friend,” Buddy said, smiling wickedly and taking a threatening step toward him. “This here girl likes it, and you know that. You been down this road too and you know all about that.”

Charlie said, “She don’t want it, and we don’t want you in here pushing my help around.”

Buddy laughed. “But she does want it.” Buddy turned to Barbara with a sickening smile. “You know you do darlin’. You know that in just a little bit you’re gonna give in and we’re gonna go and have a good time together. Ain’t we?” He closed his eyes as though dreaming of the possibilities.

At that moment Charlie did what nobody had ever seen him do or ever expected him to do. He kicked his foot up and drove it straight into Buddy’s crotch. Buddy’s eyes exploded open in pain. He dropped to the ground clutching his groin. Charlie stepped over him and grabbed the back of his shirt and began pulling him toward the door. Buddy managed to unsteadily get to his feet at the door but Charlie kicked him again, this time in his stomach, and he fell straight out the door and into the street. Huge applause erupted from the customers in the store.

After that time there was a warring truce that settled over the two men. Years later when I came to town and first heard the story, I complimented Charlie for it one day while we were drinking coffee. I told him I was proud of him for standing up and showing Buddy that there were limits. Charlie himself, however, thought their fight had been a failure. “Naw,” he said. “Any slug can beat someone up and make them back off. It takes real brains to change a piece of scum like Buddy Hanson without making one of you go limping off clutching your crotch.”

I agreed, and wished that I had said that first, but at the same time I didn’t really have the wisdom to know what kind of “real thinking” could ever nonviolently make a man like him change. The truth was there wasn’t too much that any of us could have done to stop him; that is without at the same time doing great harm to our own livelihood. Buddy’s power in town was immense, and he seemed increasingly obsessed with dedicating that power to the malignant task of destroying the life of another human being, piece by piece.

The one time I tried to stand between Buddy and Panny it didn’t go well. He had been poking Panny with his finger and yelling at him, and, gentle as he was, Panny looked like he was about to fight back. That was just what Hanson wanted.

“Mr. Hanson,” I said pushing the two apart, “you’ve got no right to pick on Panny like that. No right at all.”

Buddy pulled back, but he was more amused than afraid. He laughed. “You watch it, preacher,” he said, pointing the same beefy finger at me now. “You ain’t no credit to this town yourself, and you know it.” He turned slowly and walked away, chuckling quietly to himself. I caught my breath and got over the incident, but two days later I received a notice that my credit at his dry goods store had been cancelled. It wasn’t a tremendous inconvenience, but it taught me a lesson about where his heart was. I knew at that moment that Buddy was no longer after Panny because of some real or imagined indignity. It had become personal. He was doing it now because he enjoyed it.

After what seemed like dozens of these confrontations, Buddy one day decided to raise the stakes. At least he appeared to have decided that. He may have just taken advantage of a situation that came his way. It happened on a day when Charlie was out of town and Buddy was once again taunting Panny to see if he could get a rise out of him. I came in late to the argument, but Panny had already taken several slings in silence before eventually beginning to cry, which of course egged Buddy on even further.

Panny had accidentally broken out a front window in Charlie’s store with his broom. A crowd of ten-year-olds had come in to buy some pop on their way back from a field trip for the school. They were running all over the place. Panny started chasing them around the store like he was one of them. He shouldn’t have done it. He was too big and too clumsy. When he swung his broom at one of them in fun it slid out of his hand and into the main window, showering glass all over the porch and the front of the showroom. One of the little boys was hit with a piece of glass. He wasn’t hurt badly, but the teacher called his parents and quickly took the rest of the children out of the store. Two of them left crying.

Charlie’s men got to work quickly cleaning up the glass, but everybody was shaken by it. We all knew that Panny was awkward and broke things now and then, but usually nothing much came of it and Charlie let it go. The parents of the little boy who was hurt were upset, but they decided not to do anything. They knew he hadn’t meant it. Buddy Hanson, on the other hand, was furious. Predictably furious. When he heard what had happened he rushed into the store, waving his arms and jabbing his finger at Panny again. “You could kill one of the children in this town,” he screamed. “You’re dangerous! You take a simple tool like a broom and you turn it into a weapon. I’m tired of you hiding behind Charlie Wilson’s dress. That man’s got to fire you and get you outa town, ‘cause this ain’t no place for big, worthless, dangerous retards like you.” His eyes blazed with a fire that was part fury and part entertainment.

He pushed into Panny, backing him up further and further until he was against the wall. Panny’s hands were alongside him, cupping the wall’s surface. For a long time he didn’t speak at all. It was as if he didn’t really understand the charges, and in fact, he probably didn’t.

“You don’t pull your own weight. This whole town supports you, ‘cause you cain’t do nuthin’ on your own, and that ain’t right. You’re a charity case. You cain’t do anything constructive and wouldn’t be alive today except that some of these social-worker-types have taken care of you. You’re a leech. You couldn’t survive on your own. You’re just weak.”

By this time Panny had tears in his eyes, but was still trying to look strong. “I’m not bad,” he said. “I’m sorry about them kids.”

“Sorry?” Buddy raged in joy at the opening of a new front into which he could thrust a spear. “Well, I’m sorry too. I’m sorry you’re alive. This town has been in nothing but turmoil ever since that daddy of yours moved you to town and made us look at your fat pig face. I’m sorry all of us here ever had to be born on the same planet as you.”

“I mean,” Panny stammered, “I’m sorry if I can’t do them big things like you do. I don’t mean nothin’.” He wasn’t totally clear on the meaning of the words in the insults, but he could tell they were intended to hurt and he was easily hurt. Having never known his mother, and having lost his father early, Panny had an ongoing look of mourning on his face under the best of conditions. And when he was receiving one of Buddy Hanson’s brutal onslaughts, he had a look of receding into a secret place where only he and his now-heavenly family lived and where he could be safe.

Buddy turned away, feigning disgust, but personally delighted that he had gotten tears to flow. Just as he turned, I opened the front door and saw the two of them in the center of the room, and also saw fifteen to twenty men standing around them in embarrassed silence. Buddy looked at me while directing his final words to Panny. I think we were as much his audience as Panny. “A worthless piece of crap’s all you are,” he said. “The weakest, pansiest, limp-wristed bag of crap in this town, and you cain’t do nuthin’. Aside of hurtin’ little kids, you cain’t do nuthin’, and it’ll be a great day for all of us when the state finally finds you out and takes you away from here.” With great drama he brushed past me and reached for the door.

Before he opened it, Panny finally spoke. “But I can do some things,” he said, his voice frail and frightened. “I’m a lot stronger’n you are.”

He shouldn’t have said that. Buddy stopped. He turned back, smiling. “What’d you say?”

“Lemmel says I’m the strongest man in this town, and he’s strong hisself.” Lemmel Burns owned a Citgo Station down on Route 59 on the way to Hodgens, and was himself a pretty good sized man. “I lifted up his car for him a couple times at his station when he needed to put blocks under it. I done that twice for him and Lemmel says he never seen no one could do that.” Panny still had his head down like he’d been reprimanded, but he held his ground.

Buddy looked at the crowd at the coffee bar and then to Panny. His mouth smiled, but his eyes squinted, as though a small portion of him secretly wondered if Panny was telling the truth. Panny’s reputation for strength was all over town, but no one knew just what he could do, and he never seemed stable enough on his feet to actually do much.

I looked up at him. “Can you really do that, Panny?” I asked quietly, remembering a time I had seen him lift Alice Cameron’s entire porch with leverage pole so that she could fit new cinder blocks under it. “Was it a big car?”

Panny looked up slightly. “Well, it was pretty good sized. And I held it up a pretty good while, so’s Lemmel could get them blocks underneath it, but I done it a couple a times. You go ask Lemmel if I’m not telling the truth.”

Buddy said slowly, “How big a car?”

“Oh, not as big as them big cars, them vans and like that, but pretty big.” He smiled, beginning to feel slightly pleased. “I lifted a truck once. It was one of them little Japanese guys, but it was bigger’n a car. I pulled it all the way across the gas station driveway. All the way across. And then I picked it up. I picked it up.”

Buddy’s eyes were gleaming. I didn’t like the way he was enjoying this. “My wife’s pickup’s one of those Japanese fairy cars. Not worth shit, but she likes it.” He glanced around the showroom with a malevolent smile across his face. “How far you think you could pull it?”

“I pulled that truck of Lemmel’s there all the way out front the gas station from out back, that way. And it was pretty big.”

Buddy rubbed his face, thinking. “Boy,” he said with a whisper just loud enough that everyone in the showroom could hear him. “I think you’re lying. I think you’re scared and you’re lying through your teeth. You’re a sorry stupid retard and all you can do is lie about things there ain’t no way you could do. And I also think you need to get the hell out of this town, because there’s no way on earth that you can pull a truck all the way across town.”

I walked over and held my hands up. “Listen, guys, I don’t know where this is going, but this is as far as it ought to go.” I gave Panny a gentle nudge toward the coffee bar. “Panny,” I said, “I’m thirsty. Why don’t you fish me out a Coke from the icebox and then let’s talk about something else for a while?” But Panny was transfixed by the look of violence energizing Buddy’s face, and Buddy was in no mood to pull back now that he thought he’d found a new tool with which to inflict pain on Panny.

“Boy,” he said, his voice rising. “On the off chance that you ain’t just a pile of crap, I’m gonna make you a deal that might make you a rich man.”

Panny was amazed. “How?”

Buddy laughed and a little stream of saliva flew from his mouth. “You meet me here next Saturday morning; let’s say nine o’clock, right outside, down in front of the Methodist Church. I’ll have my wife’s truck with me. What about it?” I unconsciously looked out the window. An hour or so earlier I had seen Betty driving her little blue Datsun pickup truck through town. I looked to see if it was still around to remind me how big it was. My recollection was it was little, but still far too large for any of us to handle.

“What do you want me to do?” Panny asked Buddy.

“Well,” Buddy said, his voice smoothing with false friendliness, “what I want you to do is to make me a little bet.”

“What’s that?” Panny asked.

“Well, if you are really telling the truth about this superman business, then you can prove it to all of us by pulling my wife’s truck all the way down First Street. And if you do it, then …” he paused for a moment to think it through and to decide whether he really wanted to say what he was about to say. “Then the bet is that I’ll give you her truck. I been needing to get rid of it for a long time anyway.”

Panny’s eyes grew large. I suspect he knew there wasn’t a chance in hell that he could actually ever drive the thing, but the idea of his even owning a car was an amazement beyond anything he could ever imagine. “What else do I need to do?” he said, incredulously.

“What else?” Buddy clapped his hands and roared with laughter. “Boy, that’s all you have to do. Just haul the stupid thing down through the center of town, from one end of — let’s say — First Street down to the other, and if you can do that, then it’s yours. It’s a simple proposition. I’m a simple man.”

Panny couldn’t believe it and I couldn’t either. “What’s the catch, Buddy?” I asked.

“There ain’t no catch,” he said innocently, though there was no way I could believe him. “Just pull the truck all the way across the center of town, one end of First Street to the other, and I’ll give him the goddam thing. That’s it. It’s easy money.” He turned back to Panny as though he just thought of something. “Well, here’s one thing, but it’s not like a real ‘catch.’”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Well, if he can pull the truck, he gets it fair and square, and that’s all there is to it. I’m a man of my word. However,” he was struggling to suppress glee, “if he doesn’t, then he’s gotta pack up and finally get out of this town.”

I knew it. “Then it’s off,” I said. “Panny won’t do it. You know that there’s no place Panny can go. You know he couldn’t just go and live somewhere else. He’s got nowhere to go.”

“No, no, no, Preacher, that’s not true,” he said. “There’s them group homes for retards up in the cities. I seen ‘em. And then there’s his mother’s kin up in Tulsa. One of them’s not too old to take him. He’s got places he can go. You can’t keep him here if he loses a bet fair and square and gets shamed out of town for lyin’ about being some superhuman retard.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I won’t let him.”

“And you ain’t his momma, and you cain’t stop him,” he said.

Panny had been watching us argue with bewilderment. He cupped my shoulder with his huge hand, and looked at me plaintively. “Reverend Ben,” he said, “I can pull his truck.”

I looked back at him, trying to get him to understand. “Panny, don’t do this,” I said. “You know Buddy just wants to trick you.”

“But I can pull his truck,” Panny said again. “He cain’t hurt me just by me pulling his truck.”

“Yes he can,” I said.

“You let the boy decide,” said Buddy.

“I don’t know how he’ll hurt you,” I said, “but we all know that he’ll try to do it.”

“But I want to pull his truck,” Panny said, growing a little defensive. He clearly — and I thought wrongly — saw it as an occasion for vindication, for finally proving some of the self worth that his worst enemy on earth had always denied him. Perhaps, too, he felt that showing off his abilities in a major feat like this one would somehow exonerate him from the humiliation of the incident with the children.

Deal!” shouted Buddy clapping his hands again. “It’s a deal.” He swung around and announced to the others, “You all heard it. The lying pig said he’d do it.” He turned back to Panny. “This coming Saturday, then. We’ll be here at nine o’clock. You’ll get a chance,” he turned back to Panny, “you’ll get a chance to prove that you’re the lying little brainless shit we always said you were.” Voices in the crowd groaned in misery at his glee. “And we get a chance to get you out of town and out of our hair forever like we all shoulda had years ago. So, if all goes well, we’re all gonna be happy.”

I’ve sometimes wished that I was smarter. If I was, then perhaps I could have understood what drove and motivated Buddy’s hatred. Why would someone so powerful and rich get so much pleasure from attempting to destroy someone like Panny, so simple and almost harmless? But whatever its reasons, it was very real and very powerful, and it felt evil.

CHAPTER SEVEN

THAT SATURDAY MORNING people began gathering down at the center of town long before nine o’clock, afraid of what might happen, but wanting to be there to see it nonetheless. Looking up and down our little First Street, I almost thought that Panny could pull this off. For one thing, I had seen his feat at Alice Cameron’s house with the porch, so I knew something about his tremendous strength. And also I believed him when he said that he had been able to pull a pickup across the driveway of Lemmel’s gas station. And Heavener’s First Street was only about a block and a half long. From what I could tell, it began in front of First Methodist Church at one end, where Buddy had said that Panny would start, and it went on down to about where the Eagles Club was at the other end. Beyond that the pavement narrowed, and it became a neighborhood with houses for another couple of blocks, until the street bumped up against the motel at the edge of town and then merged with highway 59 going south toward Waldron, Arkansas. So if the weather was good, and his strength held out, and everything else broke his way, then Panny might just get through this thing, and what’s more, he might even become some kind of hero. Even more important, if all that happened, then Buddy Hanson would suffer some of the humiliation that he blessed so many others with for so many years.

The more I stood there, however, the more I began to understand that things were unlikely to break Panny’s way. For one thing, the weather that morning looked like it would intentionally add to the test. The air was thick and dark, and thunder roared in the mountains around us like angry church bells. Clouds, heavy and wet, hung ominously in the skies. Still, we thought, if it could just hold off for the next hour or so, Panny might surprise everyone and pull it off.

About fifteen cars were parked along the sides of the street, and about twice that many people were standing on the sidewalks looking uncomfortable. Others were arriving on foot from side streets. It was beginning to look like the entire community had come out. Lemmel Burns was one of them. He parked his now-famous Toyota pickup — the one that Panny had claimed to have pulled — right in front of Charlie’s store for everyone to look at. It had become a conversation starter by the weekend, and he knew it. He had a big sign fastened to its side that read, “Burns’ Gas, Auto and Lawn Mower Repair — Fillin’ and Fixin’ Since 1965.” He had the tailgate down in the back and was distributing coffee from a huge urn and hot “sticky buns” from the Wood ‘n’ Rail restaurant. Oh my God, I thought. This was clearly turning into a freak show, and that was the last thing I wanted for Panny.

At about 8:45 Buddy drove up in a van with three of his men and parked at the north end of First Street, in the Methodist Church parking lot. Pulling up close behind was David Lipton, a tall thin Choctaw Indian who had been town clerk and was just recently elected mayor. David arrived just after Buddy did, but sat in his car for a long time looking very hesitant about getting out and facing the crowd. When he finally pulled himself from his car he was wearing a black suit, as though he was attending an official function.

Charlie Wilson and I were huddled together in the cold, drinking some of Lemmel’s coffee under the awning of the First National Bank on the corner near the church. “What’s that boy Lipton doing here?” Charlie asked no one in particular.

“I don’t know,” I said. “And what’s with the suit?”

The men in Buddy’s truck got out and began marking off a starting line with bright orange ribbons tied between poles stuck in cement barrels beginning at the parking lot of the church. David stood off to the side watching somberly. I wondered if maybe Buddy had arranged for him to be there to help give the event a veneer of official respectability. While the men were working, Buddy saw us watching him from across the street and gave us a wide grin and wave. “S’gonna be a great day,” he called out. I looked back at him weakly; Charlie spit on the sidewalk. When they finished marking one end of town, the men got back in the truck and drove down First to set up the second set. But as a surprise to all of us, they drove far past the last building and at least two blocks further into the neighborhood.

Charlie jumped out into the street watching them and then turned and yelled at Buddy, “What the hell they think they’re doing way up there?” He knew what extending the length of the pull could mean for Panny. “The end of First’s right down here.” He pointed up at the end of the street where the Eagles Club stood.

Buddy waved again off in the distance with a look of great enjoyment, and with an expansive gesture motioned over to David, now looking even more uncomfortable in his role there.

“What’s this all about?” Charlie asked him.

“It’s true, Charlie,” said David. “I’m sorry, but he’s right.” He pulled a file folder from a briefcase he held under his arm.

“What’s true?” I said.

“The actual end of First Street is about two blocks up what most of us call Division Street.” He took out a photocopy of what looked to be a hand-drawn street map that was dated 1909 in large ornate script at the bottom. “See,” he said, “First Street actually goes two blocks on, and Division doesn’t start until way up here by the motel. I don’t know when the town fathers started calling ‘First Street’ by the name of ‘Division Street’ way down here in the center, but Buddy’s technically right. If he wants to tell you that Panny has to pull the truck two more blocks up there, in order to pull it all the way through the end of First Street, then legally he’s right.”

“Damn,” said Charlie.

“Yeah, I’m sorry, Charlie, but it’s true. Buddy may not be acting completely moral about all this, but he’s not lying to you. This street legally extends another two blocks further than we usually think of it as going. The businesses in town just didn’t ever build down there, and eventually houses filled it in.”

“‘Completely moral’?” Charlie was fuming. “The man lied to us.” He turned to Buddy with fire in his eyes and strode toward him enraged. I was afraid he was going to take a swing at him. “You got any more tricks or bald-faced lies you want to pull out of your sleeve before we get this thing over with?” He was walking and screaming at the same time.

Buddy was both taller and heavier than Charlie and never afraid of a fight. But he was enjoying himself far too much to be troubled by Charlie’s outrage. “Charlie, my friend,” he said, grinning with a broad false graciousness. “It’s all in fun. We’re all just out here to have a good time.”

“Bull!” yelled Charlie, pushing threateningly at Buddy’s chest. “You’re a goddamn liar, and you know it.”

I didn’t know whether I should get between them or let them fight it out for good, but just then we heard a horn honk and the crowd’s attention turned back toward the Methodist Church. Alice Cameron’s Ranchero was turning the corner and pulling into the parking lot at the bank. When it stopped, the motor died, and the door on the passenger side opened hesitantly, and I saw Panny Minton’s head emerge. When he got out he waved hesitantly at the several of us in the street, and we awkwardly waved back.

Alice got out of the other side. “Panny!” she yelled at him. She held up a wadded black windbreaker. “Don’t forget your jacket. Looks like it’s gonna rain.” Good old Alice, I thought. What a friend. With a wide swing of her arm she threw it up and over the car and Panny caught it on the other side. He teetered uneasily on his ungainly feet and stumbled when he caught it. Not a good sign, I thought.

I had been hoping that he would appear that day fit and excited and ready to show the crowd — and Buddy Hanson — what he could do, but I was disappointed. He looked awful. His hair was a mess and his overalls looked slept in, as I suspected they had been. I doubt that he had gotten any sleep the night before. He looked more frightened and forlorn than I had ever seen him before. Panny may not have had the intellectual resources to understand all of the intricacies of Buddy’s plans for him, but something in him knew well that this simple-sounding wager held critical importance. There was something fearful and dark about this morning’s solemn gathering and I’m sure he could see it in our faces. He didn’t know — as none of us really knew — the full extent and meaning of Buddy’s demented love of hatred, but he could tell that much of his life and his future rested on how this day would end.

Just then we heard a yell from the edge of the crowd, and we turned to see a second and very different truck slowly driving toward us. It was huge and black and swallowed the road as it approached. I recognized this truck, but only from pictures. It had just come out in 1972, and this was the first time I had seen one in real life. It was a brand-new, solid black, and very big Dodge pickup. They called it a “Sweptline.” It weighed at least three-quarters of a ton and maybe more. It had four doors instead of two and had a slide-on camper in the back that gave it a swollen, ominous look, like a house on wheels, and which probably added another four hundred pounds.

“Whose is that?” someone said. I was sure that most people in Heavener wouldn’t be driving down the middle of the street like that on this particular Saturday morning unless they were planning on being part of the show. It stopped right beside us. The brake engaged inside, the door swung open, and Betty Hanson stepped out. She was dressed up like she was ready to go to church. She had on a fine, formal dark-blue dress with white fringe on the collar and sleeves. Along with that she had an almost comical, matching fringed umbrella, just in case it rained. She swung her umbrella at all of us, smiling innocently. She looked as if she had been invited to judge a beauty contest.

“Hey Betty,” I yelled up at her. “What’s with this … this school bus you’re driving there?”

She looked back at it beaming. “It’s my new truck,” she said.

“What?” the crowd roared in one voice.

“Buddy always told me I shouldn’t be driving that little thing.” She glowed with na├»ve reverence at her new pickup. “It wasn’t safe.”

Buddy was ecstatic. “Ain’t she a beaut?” he crowed, rubbing the palm of his hand across its front fender. “This here’s a club cab. It’s like a whole house in there. She’s got three-sixty horsepower and a four-hundred cubic-inch V8. It’ll outrun and out-pull anything. There ain’t much like it on the road anywheres.”

Suddenly it became clear to us what was going on. This was to be the truck that Panny would be expected to pull all the way across downtown Heavener, a distance that only moments before had mysteriously doubled from two blocks to four, in weather that was looking increasingly treacherous. Even those who out of fear or respect or stupidity still looked up to Buddy Hansen must have now realized that the deal had been rigged. Buddy had no intention of letting this be a fair contest. When Charlie understood what was happening, he couldn’t stand it anymore and without a word he swung his fist at Buddy and hit him in the face. Startled and caught off guard, Buddy crumpled to the ground. He quickly rolled over and up to his hands and knees, and looked ready to spring back like an animal. Charlie leaned tautly forward like he was about to kick him down again.

“Charlie!” I yelled. “Don’t do it.”

He pulled back, proud of what he had done. “I wouldn’t waste the mud on my boot,” he said to Buddy. “A pig like you deserves to be down on his knees.”

I got between them and held my hands up to them both. “Alright, guys, this whole mess has gone on long enough.” I looked around to get a sense of the crowd around us. Half seemed mad at Buddy’s deceitfulness and half wanted to see a fight. “I’ve got an idea,” I said to them. “This whole thing was a bad idea. It’s a rotten day, and the weather is awful. It’s clear that Buddy has rigged the contest, and it’s clear that Panny can’t do it. He shouldn’t even try it. Let’s just call it all off. I don’t see any point in humiliating Panny Minton and giving this jerk any more satisfaction.”

“Now preacher,” Buddy said, his voice booming into the crowd of onlookers, “I done nothing wrong and you know it. I didn’t change the weather; I didn’t make up the maps. Not my fault if you boys never knew nothin’ about how long the streets were in your own town.”

Charlie said, “You’re dishonest scum, and I know that. And I don’t ever want to see you come into my store again unless they’re carrying you in a box.”

“Buddy,” I said, straining to sound reasonable in a situation that had veered far off from reasonable. “What about this truck? This isn’t the truck we agreed to.”

He laughed. “Yeah, well it is different, but I ain’t lying about it. It is my wife’s truck, new and legal. I been meaning to get my wife a new truck for some time. I done nothing wrong by picking this week to finally get around to it.”

“Buddy,” I said, “either you do this thing with the smaller truck or the whole deal’s off.”

From the corner of my eye I could see Panny standing at the edge of the onlookers. I didn’t want him to hear us bartering for his future, because I was afraid of what he might say. I turned slightly away from him and lowered my voice as I spoke. “Buddy, the truth is you know Panny can’t pull a truck like this one in weather like this. He just can’t do it. Nobody could do that. You gotta change trucks or we call it all off.”

Then I heard Panny’s words from over my shoulder and my heart sank. “Yes I can,” he said quietly. He was looking right at Buddy. “I can pull his truck. I done more’n that a buncha times before.”

“Panny,” I said, turning and feeling increasingly frustrated, “no you can’t do this. You really can’t. It’d be too hard for anyone. I know how strong you are, but this is a big truck and the distance is way too much.”

But Panny was defiant. There was honor at stake, misplaced and futile, perhaps, but still honor. “I can do it,” he said. “I can pull any truck he’s got.”

Buddy was, of course, delighted. He looked around at the crowd. “You see that, men? How can this be a bad contest if both of us principals in it agree to its parts?”

“I want to pull the truck, Reverend Ben,” Panny said. “What’s wrong with me pulling Buddy’s truck?”

By that time Alice had slithered her way into the crowd and was looking up at Panny. “Panny,” she said, speaking just to him, but with a voice that all the rest of us could hear. “Do you really think you can pull that thing?”

He looked down at her and I realized again just how large a man the person we often called “little Panny” actually was. He was taller than most of the people in the street that day, and he towered over Alice. I didn’t really think he could pull a three-quarter-ton truck for six blocks during what could turn out to be a nasty rainstorm, but if there was anyone in town who could even come close, it was probably Panny Minton. “Sure I can,” he said to her, eyes wide open and without a hint of doubt in his voice. “I done more’n this over at Lemmel’s many times.”

Alice looked at me and I knew I was defeated. “If Panny says he can do it,” she said, “we should let him try.” At that I let out all of the breath that had been building in my chest. Maybe, I thought, at this point I should also feel a little proud. There wasn’t another person in this town, save maybe Charlie Wilson, who ever had the gall to stand up to Buddy Hanson. And now here was “little” Panny doing it for us. The one we all tried so hard to protect and take care of. Here he was in his own crazy, simple way performing the greatest act of bravery we’d ever seen. Maybe we should just let him try it, and maybe in his own fuzzy, unclear logic he wouldn’t even realize that he didn’t make it. But then the dark side of the wager — that if he loses he has to agree to get out of town, possibly meaning being institutionalized in the city, among strangers, cut off from the friends he had — kept me from feeling totally good about the decision. I looked back at Charlie who was also conflicted over the turn.

“What do you think? I asked him.

There was pain and resignation in his eyes. “Well, Ben, what can we do? We can’t stop him if he agrees to go through with it.”

Buddy clapped his hands. “So, we’re in business!” He whooped in glee. “The game’s on, boys.” He held up his hands over his head expansively to the crowd like a winning prizefighter. “All right you boys, let’s get this contest rolling. The weather’s looking bad and we only have just so much time for this worthless leech to show us what he can—or cain’t—do, as the case may be.” He took Panny by the arm and started back toward the Methodist Church, and most of the crowd followed them. When everyone had rumbled away it was only Charlie, Alice, and me still standing silently in the street watching them.

“We let him down,” Charlie said. “We did it. We killed him, you know.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“The only way to really stop an evil bastard like that is to take him on, dead on, drive straight into his belly and stop him. But we didn’t do that. We’re all cowards, and I’m no better than anybody else.”

I tried to look positive. “Well, you did what you could do.”

“Naw. The only one here with any guts is Panny. He’s the only one knows what to do with evil: take it on, on its own terms, head to head, risk everything, and then beat it. He’s the only one with any courage here today.” He looked tired and beaten. I wondered how much of that statement was about Panny’s story and how much was about his own.

As the crowd began to swarm around the truck in the Methodist parking lot, Alice stayed behind for a moment staring down at them. “By the way,” she asked, speaking to no one in particular, “how many of us exactly was Buddy calling ‘boys’?”

I looked down at her and smiled. I was so glad she was there.


CHAPTER EIGHT

THE AIR WAS GROWING THICK AND WET. Thunder roared in the mountains around us in angry disapproval. Buddy, clearly enjoying his role as the destroyer of human dignity, backed his new and towering truck up into the parking lot of the Methodist Church, which opened onto the street. The church was wet and grey, and looked almost remorseful for its culpability in the sins of the day. He shut off the motor and took it out of gear. Two of his men put bricks in front of the tires to keep it from rolling into the street. He slid out and slammed the door shut with great drama. One of the other men crawled under the front of the truck and tied a thick rope onto the drive chain. He pulled it out as far as he could on both sides and wrapped it around the front bumper. Buddy stood in front of the truck and took hold of the rope and gave it a strong pull on both sides to test it. It held. “Done!” he shouted. “We got the truck. We got the rope. Now let’s get that lazy-ass kid over here to try to pull this thing.” It started to rain.

Panny stood silently in front of the crowd, focused now, and more intent than I had ever seen him before. I think he knew exactly what was at stake that morning — both for his future and for ours. And I think he knew exactly what everyone silently expected would be the outcome. He may not have understood why all of this had come to pass — hell, none of the rest of us did either — but he certainly could understand the weight of what Buddy had brought down upon him that morning. He stepped forward firmly, almost regally to the front of Betty’s new truck. He looked over the top of it. With the tips of his fingers he rubbed a portion of its shiny black hood. Assuming that the world was still capable of grace and magic, by the end of the day this truck might be his. He smiled a soft courteous smile that gave his face a look of wisdom — or at least age — that startled those of us standing close by.

Buddy’s men had tied two large knots close together in the front of the rope for Panny to hold onto for grip. He picked it up and studied it like an athlete considering his equipment. He turned the rope over in his huge hands, weighing it, feeling it, bouncing it in his palms. Then he lifted it up and stepped inside the loop, his back to the grill. He placed his chest in between the two knots and leaned against it, testing its strength. Buddy said, “You ready yet?” He paused for a moment longer, then looked at Buddy and nodded. The men pulled the bricks out from in front of the tires and the truck began to roll slowly forward down the slight slope of the parking lot driveway and out into the street.

Buddy leaped into the air clapping his hands once again, and yelled at the top of his voice, “He’s off!”


CHAPTER NINE

BY THIS TIME WELL OVER A HUNDRED PEOPLE had gathered in the street to see the event. They lined the sidewalks or looked out from windows in the stores, staying as close as they could to the action, yet out of the way of the increasing rain. As Panny moved forward their cheers grew louder. Panny knew many of them well, and their support seemed to encourage him. His face had a straight-ahead, determined look, but occasionally I could see him glance from side to side to see who had come out to be with him in this, the most important the ordeal of his life. Can a community’s love and support save us, I wondered? Can the strength of their psychic concern translate into physical strength? It was a wonderful idea, I thought, but at bottom I doubted it. As much as we cheered and tried to be with him, ultimately Panny was alone in his endeavor and we couldn’t pull the truck for him.

He inched slowly forward. He passed the First National Bank on the corner and the drugstore after that. He was approaching Tate’s clothing store. A crowd of about fifty who left the sides and endured the rain marched alongside him, cheering his name in encouragement. “Pan-ny, Pan-ny,” they shouted, building in excitement in spite of the rain. “Pan-ny, Pan-ny.” They sounded like they were at a football game cheering for the home team. Out in front, by about four or five yards, rode Buddy in the van from the charcoal plant. The double doors in the back were open and he sat inside on a lawn chair, looking out, drinking coffee, and silently studying Panny’s progress. I truly believe, at least in these early stages, that he was slightly worried that Panny might be able to pull it off. There was a slight intensity in his face that might have belied his earlier cockiness.

For a few raw moments at the beginning of the ordeal, Panny’s tremendous strength seemed to be more powerful than the weight of the truck or the force of the storm that was falling down upon him. He crept slowly ahead, steadily and firmly, leaning into the thick rope across his chest. The rain pounded and its sound competed with the cheers of the people who encircled him. Panny strained, bending out almost straight against the weight, with everything he had in him, slowly pulling this mass of metal and glass and rubber down the street. Please God, I thought, give him strength that even Panny doesn’t think he has. The consequences for his future and for our little town’s moral future were too great. He trudged forward, pulling against time and the rope, marching in the midst of a growing cluster of people, yet still completely alone. I felt warm tears on my cheek mixed with cold splashes of rain. The thought of the disaster that this would mean for his entire life if he failed tore at me.

After about half an hour he reached the mid-point of what we knew of as First Street, just before the front of Charlie Wilson’s store. The crew inside was glued against the window, whistling and beating on it with knuckles and palms in encouragement. Panny looked at them and smiled as he stole more inches. Charlie himself looked more convinced that Panny could do it and he slapped me on the back so hard I felt a welt growing on my shoulder.

“The damn kid might make it,” he said, hitting me again and pushing me on ahead.

Alice also was alongside us, hiding from the rain under a sheet of plastic. “You think he might do it?” I called, laughing at her.

“He just might,” she said, and offered a part of her plastic sheet to me for cover.

I think Panny himself began to believe it by then because occasionally he would relax his hold on the rope and wave his fingers briefly at some of the gathering fans. Once he even briefly broke his determined look and smiled when Alice caught up with him and patted him on the back for his work so far. “Keep on goin’ Panny,” she said. “We’re all here with you, and we love you.” That seemed to give him strength, and he leaned even more heavily into the rope.

At forty-five minutes of pulling he reached the Eagles lodge, not far from where we all had thought that First Street ended. He was still moving, but more slowly now. This was the distance he had first believed he could accomplish and, as we learned only that morning, it was about half as far as he needed to go. Panny was strong but not magic, and I couldn’t see how he could keep up this level of strength for the rest of the journey.

The rain agreed, and it turned thick and heavy. It fell in roaring sheets and our ability to see much more than the drama before us became increasingly difficult. Amazingly, as Panny pulled past the businesses and into the neighborhood, the crowds actually got larger. People started coming out of the stores where they had been hiding to keep warm and dry and now joined his entourage. At least two hundred people now, maybe three, surrounded him, cheering, screaming, singing, and pushing him onward with their enthusiasm. It became a party, a dancing, clapping, stomping party, celebrating the clash and smash and triumph of will. The driving rain became the music. The cheers were the rhythm. Above us in the drenching skies, the ghosts of parents Mary and Bobby were twirling and swirling and singing to the music of the rain, reveling in the outrageousness of the affair. The rain became a river, and music poured forth from it like an enormous waterfall.

Panny, filled with their spirit, pulled even harder, perhaps slightly slower, but still almost regally. He seemed poised to prove us wrong, supporters and detractors alike. He waved, we cheered. He smiled, we screamed. He could do this, we thought. He could win. We jumped up and down, arm in arm, dancing with his progress. Drenched in rain, someone began singing “Shall We Gather at the River,” and we laughed and sang along at the incredible miracle of it all. He was doing it. He was defeating Buddy Hanson once and for all and the conniving evil that he had become. It could happen. He could do it. He could win.

But then he fell. It was about a block past the end of First Street proper, about six or seven houses into the neighborhood. He slipped, actually. The rain was blinding, and none of us could see very well. Somehow on the slippery asphalt just past “F” Street, he stumbled and fell, and the rope and the truck slid backward. Even in the thunderous rain I could hear the crowd gasp. The truck didn’t slide back far, but it scared us. Most of all, it showed us that Panny was tiring, and this was the first time since we began over an hour earlier that his movement was not totally forward.

He got up quickly, staggering and exhausted. He looked around him as though hoping that he could get started again before anyone noticed. But everyone had seen it. It took some of the enthusiasm out of us as much as it took the energy out of him. But he positioned himself once again between the two knots on the rope, leaned his chest against it, and started forward. The cheers came back. Maybe it was just a small setback, we thought. Just a temporary slowdown.

But then he fell again. This time he had only gone about two houses before it happened. This time it was very clear to us that it wasn’t just the rain and slippery asphalt. It was, in fact, that he was growing weary. He was drained. This had been going on at its most damaging, punishing level for nearly two hours, in what had become torrential rains, and there was little left in him. Looking down the street, we could see that he still had over two blocks to go. As strong as he was, he simply couldn’t do it.

Even so, the crowd stayed with him, and we still yelled our encouragement, but after the second fall there was a slight sound of despair in our voices that I knew he could sense. He still smiled at us on occasion after that, but it was a grim fateful smile. I think he knew he was failing. There wasn’t any human way that he could make it to the end. The road was too long and the weight was too heavy. He knew he would never finish it. But in spite of the impossibility, he still slogged on.

We continued cheering but with increasingly less joy in our hearts. Like trying to act sunny with a dying relative, we continued, but no one could look at the weariness in his face and the remaining distance and believe that at the end of the day he would be the owner of that big black truck. Instead, our voices were hollow. We knew that the only thing that waited for him at the end of the contest was disaster and that Panny’s simple life with friends and family in Heavener was about to come to an end.

He continued pulling for perhaps another half hour after that. Panny was trudging and the crowd was following, all of us moving faithlessly, praying for magic, but expecting tragedy. Life had not been good to us that day. God, I thought, must have stepped aside to allow us humans to make a mess of things, and to permit ruin to fall upon a harmless, decent man who deserved more out of life than this.

And then it finally happened. I was out in front of him with about ten other people. We were still making noise and doing what we could to keep him focused but knowing that he had little left in him. His eyes were empty. His heart was empty. He had a look of fatigue and desolation that looked like he had already given up. It was a deep resignation of failure and defeat. His legs were quivering with strain. He looked at me as though praying that I would somehow rescue him from his fate, but there was nothing I could do. He opened his mouth as though starting to speak, but then his foot slipped again, and he went down again. Straight down. So tired and so weak that this time he didn’t even try to break his fall. And this time he simply lay there. He was exhausted. It was over.

“THAT’S IT!” It was Buddy’s voice, and it was like a shriek at a touchdown. “That settles it! The boy’s done. He couldn’t do it. He lied to us all, and now we all know it.” His voice was hoarse and other worldly as though coming from a deep and demonic place. “So, let’s clean up this mess here and get my truck on back home. I’ve got work to do. Don’t have time to stand around here in all this rain with you fellas.” He was marching around with his chest stuck out. “Let’s get movin.’” But none of us moved. We were tired, physically and psychically. Something in our souls had been bruised that day, and we didn’t have the energy to go home. There was something in Panny’s failure that took us all down with it. We had failed him by allowing this travesty to take place, and when he fell he took all of our own guilt down with it.

I got down next to Panny and tried to help him up, but he was dead weight and I couldn’t lift him. “Charlie,” I said. “Get some people over here. I think he’s hurt.”

Charlie knelt down and started pointing to faces in the crowd. “Bill, Pete, Sandy, get over here. This boy might be hurt.” Suddenly we were surrounded with people wanting to help. Together we pulled him up to his feet. He could stand but just barely. He looked dazed. It was clear he was spent and would have to be carried back.

That’s when something strange happened. No one knows exactly who started it, but it just happened. Two of the men around him — I don’t recall who they were — were helping pull Panny up, but as they did, they lifted him higher than just up on his feet. Someone else in the crowd gave him a big push upwards on the butt, and suddenly he was thrust up in the air and on top of their shoulders. Another two or three got underneath his legs and they all held him up. Soon others joined in, locking arms and they held him high like he was a winner of a race. Those who had been walking away from the dwindling crowd now looked back and saw him up there, being carried on the shoulders of friends, looking vaguely as though he had accomplished some great feat. And then someone in the crowd began to cheer. At first it felt wrong, like a cheer filled with pity and dark humor. But then others joined in and it took on its own life. It began to sound like an authentic cheer, a winner’s-circle cheer. A “Damn it, Panny won this race!” cheer.

Buddy, who had been strutting and looking like he was in charge, looked stricken. “What are you ...What the …” he sputtered.

“Winner!” They cried out, bouncing Panny in the air. “Winner. He did it! He did it!” Dozens of others who had drifted away in grief turned back and joined in. “Pan-ny! Pan-ny! Pan-ny!” It became a celebration, one that invented itself as it moved. “PAN-NY! WIN-NER! PAN-NY! WIN-NER!” Panny himself, as surprised as anyone, began to smile. Uncertain as to what was happening, but a smile. They tossed his huge bulk into the air and then caught him again, and marched him back down First Street, as though carrying a hero. As they marched, hundreds more joined in, many of whom had left the scene when he began failing, and were just now realizing how things had come out. “WIN-NER! WIN-NER! WIN-NER!” They threw him again high in the air. Now he was no longer just smiling, but laughing.

Buddy was furious. He stomped to the front of the parade and tried to yell down the participants. But no one would listen. “This is enough!” he said. “You men know what happened. Put that trash-eating boy down and let’s us settle this thing square.” But the crowd ignored him. They pushed forward, carrying Panny and dancing in the street, and Buddy was knocked backwards onto the ground under their feet. The celebration passed him by.

The day was raw and wet. We were strangely ecstatic. Panny was in heaven. The entire town now seemed to have come out into the rain to join in the mantra: “WIN-NER! WIN-NER! PAN-NY, PAN-NY!” and it was truly so. It was so, because we declared it to be so. We were the voters, and we were the witnesses, and we proclaimed this truth to be true. By declaration of the people who loved him, he had won. And as they told the story many times for many years afterwards, the good people of Heavener, Oklahoma, had seen him do it with their very own eyes. Whenever anyone would ask, they would always repeat the events of the day with great pride — how Panis Angelicas Minton had pulled a two-ton truck three miles down a road in driving rain, all through town, down to the extended finish line, and had beaten and humiliated Buddy Hanson, and how they all had been lifted up with him high in the air, in the glorious celebration at the end. “WIN-NER!”

I stayed back for a while and just watched them as they carried Panny down First Street, jumping and leaping and praising the day — Panny on top, being held like a champion, swaying to the music. The supporters were cheering. Panny was smiling. The rain was a hymn and they were a choir. A hymn of redemption, a hymn of deliverance, and the whole town sang it together. The waters flowed down from the skies like a river, from the mountains of heaven, from the throne of God. It cleansed the streets as it flowed, and healed the people within them. It appeared to me, from back where I stood, for all the world that Bobby and Mary were also there, twirling and singing just above the revelers. And, held in their arms, held in their love, it looked to me for all the world that Panny Angelicas Minton was dancing.