Book Excerpts: Leaving Ruin (Sept-Dec 2007)

By Matt Dabbs

by Jeff Berryman

Leaving Ruin…tragedy in the towering sublime….

I met him outside Eckerd’s in May, I think it was two years ago, just after my birthday. He asked me did I have some money to spare for a cup of coffee, and I didn’t tell him I had one of those new $100 bills with the big Ben Franklin face in my wallet. But I said I was about to get a cup down at the Grape Inn, this little diner just around the corner, and did he want to come? He grinned…an upsetting kind of grin, really, cause he hadn’t seen a dentist in a long time.
But he said sure.

I was scared, frankly. We don’t get many transients here in town, and if we do, I don’t normally do that sort of thing, but as a minister, the homeless bother me, inside my clean little pastor hole, and I can’t stand it to just go by every time, like a Levite or a priest. I think I’m supposed to help. The church doesn’t have a ministry to those sort of folks, and we’re doing good to post a couple of volunteers at the Christian Service Center once a month. The whole problem makes me nervous, and I generally avoid it. But what possessed me that morning . . . well, I’m not sure, but as he and I shuffled down the sidewalk toward the diner, I kept my distance, and wondered what in the world I was doing.
_______________

When Hubert called me and told me Alex was dead, I was surprised. And now, on this Thursday, here at the gravesite, standing next to his wife Jerri, whom I only met for the first time yesterday, I am learning about this man I most often thought of as a ministry. She hadn’t seen him in over six years, and she told me at the funeral that she had gone to work one day, and he kissed her good-bye, and handed her a sack lunch he had made, of tuna and apples, with a ding-dong cupcake, like she liked, and she told him he should go get his hair cut. Then she drove away with him waving in the door, and that that was the last time she ever saw him alive.

I called Jerri—she lives in Austin—after they found her name and picture, and a phone number in his pants pocket. When she answered the phone, she paused, said she had always been afraid of this call. How did I know Alex, she wondered, and how long would it take her to get to Ruin?
_______________

The day I met him, he and I sat down at a black vinyl booth that had these fake pink flowers in an ugly white vase next to the Tabasco, and I was struck by the presence of the man. He filled up his side of the table with a vitality that was missing on my side, a kind of raw energy that, on the one hand, was a little shifty, his lanky body constantly making little adjustments, like he couldn’t get his clothes to feel just right. But on the other hand, he was focused like a beam, with a kind of awareness that made me think he lived inside my own brain. His brown hair was matted, like you’d expect, and long, down the middle of his back, and his beard was a Rip Van Winkle. But his eyes—they were awake like bats in the night, and the waitress was clearly not happy with me when she dropped the white, plastic, one-page menu in front of us.

I watched this lean giant—he was at least 6′ 3″ or 4″—eating the breakfast special–two eggs, white still a little runny, hash browns, toast, grape jelly and coffee–and at least four glasses of water, and he still hadn’t really answered any of my standard lets-get-to-know-each-other questions. But he seemed a little more at ease after awhile, and finally he said he’d been a plumber once, and then thought he might be an actor, at which point he misquoted a few lines of to be or not to be. But something about “when we have shuffled off this mortal coil” coming out of his mouth was disturbing and real. He stopped, and said these eggs were sure good, and he had to go, cause he had an appointment down the road and thanks, mister. Maybe I’ll see you again, I said, and without warning, he was gone. Driving home, I felt funny about it, and it wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, outside the same Eckerds that I saw him again, bought him some cigarettes and found out his name was Alex.
_______________

Jerri was a handsome woman, a freckled red-head with thin lips, and though not as tall as Alex, she had presence, a broad shouldered physique, and a great, clear look in her eye. I could easily imagine them together, because she didn’t mind that she was a little undone, hair mostly askew, in her face, and she handled it with a quirky habit of kicking her head to the right to keep the red bangs out of her eyes. I liked her the minute she got to the church. We hugged like old friends. Her crying was slight, and muted, and I realized that Alex–to he–had died a long time ago. Her first words to me were of how hard he had worked to be a plumber, and she wondered what he’d been doing here in Ruin. She let out a startled cry and wept in earnest when I told her Alex was homeless for several years, living hand to mouth. They found him dead out by the railroad track in his lean-to, I told her, and she said, oh Tommy, several times and I wondered if that was the baby.
_______________

That second time I saw him, I was about to walk on by, saying see you later, but something possessed me again, and I sat down next to him on the sidewalk. We leaned on the wall, watching the cars, him scratching his ears like a dog. I listened to him, trying to make sense of it. He talked swiftly, with animation, and in his raving, he was trying to get out a story about Jerri. That bitch Jerri, he kept saying, and it turned out to be a woman, his wife of his high school years. They’d had a baby, it sounded like, and lived in a trailer park while he learned about . . . plumbing. But as I was asking him about plumbing, just to see if I might trigger a coherent thought, he said but the baby got into some stuff under the sink, and Jerri never really knew what their little Tommy got hold of, but the emergency room didn’t help, but they tried and did I know if babies went to heaven or what God did with them.

It was twenty minutes into the conversation before I put all that together, and I remember the whistle over at the meat packing plant went off. It was five o’clock. That whistle cut him off, like he’d been unplugged. He drifted, and was quiet to the point that I started to take off, but he suddenly grabbed my arm. He looked me dead in the eye, and he said that never really happened, it was just a story he heard, just a story he made up, but if there was a Jerri, he loved her, pudding and pie. His grip on my forearm backed up my blood, and my heart pounded in my shoulder, but after a minute of that stare, he let me go. I got up in a hurry as his eyes went away. But then he put his head down and started this weird keening, and though he didn’t have any tears, it was as hurtful a cry as I’d ever heard. I sat back down and put my arm around him, and he instantly raised his head and smiled, quiet as the night. He pulled out his cigarettes, and we sat there for five more minutes, him quoting Edgar Allen Poe, saying nevermore, nevermore, nevermore.
_______________

Clorox, Jerri told me, was what Tommy got into, and it had been a devastating loss. She showed me a picture, and Tommy was cute, 19 months, and crawled, and was talking up a storm. Alex was proud of him, she said, and played rough like you think a dad should. I’ve heard it helps their brains develop, she said. She said Alex was so determined to be a good dad, because his own father had been lousy. Abusive, and drank. Slept around on his mom. Alex wanted to do better. But after Tommy died, Alex went limp inside, she said. He’d sit for hours in the yard, reading Shakespeare, memorizing, and though he was nearing the end of his plumbing apprenticeship, he stopped going one Monday. It was just over two months later when he vanished. The police looked for him, but after six months, she gave up, and had worked all these years as a waitress on Sixth Street. Once she hired a private detective, and he thought Alex had gone to Cleveland, and she had been hopeful for about a week, but the detective was wrong. She never got another lead.

Jerri said she couldn’t cry much anymore, cause she’d lost Alex before, but he was a good guy, smart, and did real good in school. He used to take me to the park, she said, flicking her hair out of her eyes. He’d put me on a low tree branch, and he’d say you’re Juliet . . . and then she sobbed, and told me she’d always wanted a real wedding, with the lace white dress and all, and they had meant to, but couldn’t afford it, and now he was gone, he was gone.
_______________

I told Jerri I saw Alex a bunch over the couple of years I knew him. He lived down by the railroad tracks, kinda, in a lean-to of various materials depending on whether it was June or October. Mostly refrigerator boxes with some odd boards he came up with, but they came apart when it rained, and he was always looking for better. He’d learned some construction in the city, he told me, but I could never talk Mr. Gunston, the local builder, into hiring him, and old Hubert Mulberry who had a little moving business used to go out and get Alex–he called him “Grinner”–and they’d go move a couple of stoves or refrigerators up and down stairs, or go clean some mattresses for the used furniture place down on Pine. Hubert would swear and cuss at him and give him 20 bucks, and somehow, between the good people of this town and the God that made it, Alex got along.

Alex had some cobwebs in his head for sure. But he could be lucid, downright brilliant if I held him to the sun just right. If I listened for those unexpected bursts of poetry that broke my heart, not so much with the words, but with the timbre of his voice, which was like a reed blown by an autumn wind, brushing up against a child running by. He sang, too, and often mumbled profanities, and had a habit of saying crude things whenever he saw Betsy Carter walking her black lab along 2nd street, which happened nearly everyday. Betsy was a drop-dead gorgeous blonde who was a cheerleader up at the high school. She reminded him of Jerri, he told me finally, and he wished he had a dog. One day in July he stopped Betsy on the street with some stolen flowers, half-dead yellow roses, and told her she was beautiful, that he wanted her to have them on account of a girl he once knew, but that nobody really knew what happened to her. Betsy walked away from him pretty fast, him calling out that he wanted to thank her for…well…for being there with her dog most days. Betsy kept the flowers, though, and her mom told me just the other day that last week at the dinner table, Betsy prayed for the nice, crazy man who gave her roses.
_______________

I told Jerri about Betsy, and she said it sounded just like him, and that he loved flowers, especially yellow ones. He was romantic, she said, and an artist of a kind, who liked to make odd collages from found objects, and that she still had on her wall a mask he’d put together out of bottle caps and crushed cans with bits of slick magazine covers that he used mostly for color. He was always doodling, she told me, drawing, singing, and that one of their favorite things was going to movies, or down to Sixth street to catch a new local band. I told her I bet he could dance, and she said like a demon.

_______________

When it was time for Jerri to go, we stood at her car, an old Chrysler that she said was on its last legs, with over 120, 000 miles, and no air conditioner. Thank you so much, Cyrus, thank you for calling me, she said. I told her I was glad Alex found his way here, that he was one of the reasons I believe in miracles. She asked how so, and I told her that he and I were in my backyard one time. He’d had been out walking, and came down Curtain Street. I was just getting home, and I asked him if he wanted a coke, and he said sure. We walked around back, and he got to swinging on Wayne’s swing, nearly tipped it over. But he stopped after awhile, took a big swig of the coke I had for him, and looked at me. It was cool that day, and his hair and beard made me think of God.

But this time, looking at me, something happened. That artist, the one Jerri told me about–the guy that came before the lunatic–showed up. That artist talked to me for almost two hours. Gone was the craziness, gone was the despair, gone was the rambling profanity, and in its place was someone I’m glad I saw, someone I wish I’d known. He talked of his parents that day, and how his mom had raised him to know Jesus, though his dad failed him, and how in high school he loved acting and art. But he was never good enough. He said how much he believed, and that God was the great God of Heaven, and of the oppressed, and how hopeful he was over the prospect of life for most of the world, that God would surely not leave his people–or him–to despair. He talked again of Jerri, and said he wished he could see her, because he still loved her, but he hadn’t been strong enough to take Tommy’s death. He wondered if I ever found her, to tell her he was sorry. He said he loved to read, but it hurt too much, and that Shakespeare and Wordsworth had been his favorites, and that he hated it that Hamlet died, that tragedies had to be tragedies, but then he guessed that’s what made them great, and did I think so?

And then, would I mind if we prayed together? I said no, sure, and Alex prayed our father who art in Heaven, thank you for Jerri, and Tommy, and Mom, and even Dad, and Hubert who lets me work, and Silas, and bless little Wayne who usually swings here. Dear God, I can’t stay, he said. The clear sight of my life as it really is is too, too hard, too much, and please forgive me, but I don’t know how. Amen.

After a long silence, he finally started swinging again, quietly, and then rambled, and swore, and the old Alex was back, making a final journey.
_____________

Now, just past 2:00 a.m., I’m roaming through the kitchen, debating whether toast or cereal is best for my mood. As I slide the two pieces of bread into the toaster, the image of that kind, crazy man from Austin makes me smile. How just like you, I think, to just decide not to wake up anymore. No real sign of trauma, the fireman said, no heart attack or stroke, the doctor said, no reason to die, everyone said, but still, the rain found him dead on Tuesday.

I got there just as they were taking the body away. I watched, the drizzle beating my bald head. I wondered where he went, and guessed he just decided to go on about his business in the next world, maybe still looking for where God took babies when they die. I missed him then, and now, two days later, I miss him more, and I will never forget or dishonor the epic that was Alex. Alexander, an Elizabethan tragedy played out in the towering sublime of living, and his lost heroine Jerri, who played Juliet, who’s back home now. Maybe she’ll have some closure, and some peace, though she told me after all this, she didn’t know what to believe about faith anymore.
_______________

Dear God,

Sometimes we don’t know what to believe. Bless the people who live there, with their loss, and their dark days of wandering. We don’t know what to do with our weakness, our pain–too much to bear–but we know you are faithful, the God who is more powerful than all the hurt of the world combined. Heal us, lift us, hold us together when we come apart, and use us to heal, as we have been healed. May we know your grace, and know that what life we have is of you – indeed, the very touch of your hand. Bless Alex, Lord, and take his soul to be at peace. And thank you that his despair, his pain, became a treasure in the hearts of his friends.

And for Jerri, Lord. Send Jesus, and let him meet her, and may he tell her just who he is, so that she may be sure in her faith, and rest.
In Jesus,
Amen.

Excerpted from: Leaving Ruin
by Jeff Berryman
New Leaf Books, 2002 Wineskins Magazine

Jeff Berryman

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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