Authors: Aaron Gwyn
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
nos haec novimus esse nihil
“If you would pray,” the old lady said,
“Jesus would help you.”
“That's right,” The Misfit said.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
seven when Freddy was born, fifteen before his brother grew old enough to sit a horse. In the autumn, after their chores were done, the boys would ride bareback across the pasture to a persimmon grove, spend their afternoons climbing the thin trees for fruit.
One day the animal they were riding stepped in a sinkhole and bucked. George caught hold of its mane, but his brother was behind him and fell to the ground. The boy's arm broke the skin, and the bone jutted into dirt. He developed tetanus and in two weeks was dead. George blamed himself for this, as did his parents, and at the funeral, when he climbed into the grave and sought to open the casket, his father lost two teeth trying to retrieve him.
Three years later, grown to well over six feet, he slid a razor in his hip pocket, a change of clothes in his knapsack, and without saying good-bye, walked forty miles through the Quashita forest until he came to Highway 3, hitching across Oklahoma in the back of a cattle truck. He went to work in the oil field and bought a new car, kept a shotgun underneath his seat, sawed at the stock and barrel. One night he left for Louisiana and returned a week later with a Cajun woman, named Sadie, whom he had taken to wife.
Everyone thought George unflappable. He was tall and lean, with a hard, lean face and expressionless eyes. He did not talk about himself or his brother or his parents back in Shinewell, pastors of a Pentecostal church. He was quiet and felt no need to speak. The men he worked with respected him, for they knew he was strong and stubborn, and they would not have wanted to face him in a fight, fair or otherwise.
Then, in 1933, working the eighth floor of an oil derrick in Pontotoc County, scaffolding gave way and George fell 116 feet onto the bank of a saltwater pit.
He did not remember this. Not the fabric blowing against his limbs or the girders moving past or the platform where he'd stood traveling into sky. It took him nearly four seconds to reach the ground, but he could not recall them. For him there was only the eighth floor and the earth.
Through the years to follow, he would recount
the incident for his wife: the stares of the men who found him, the ambulance and hospital, the doctor who examined him from top to toe as if he were a puzzle. He would tell her about watching the clouds change to ceiling tile, the sun to bright lamps and mirrors. He would tell about sandstone pressing into his back like shards of bone and then the cool of the sheets, the anesthetic.
Yet, stretched beneath the shadow of the derrick, George's first thoughts were not of family or friends, the condition of his soul, or whether he would be able to one day move his legs. His thoughts were not of the porch standing unfinished, the clothesline needing repair, the foundation wall that had shown signs of flaking just the day before. His thoughts were not of what he would lose in this world, gain or lose in the world hereafter.
Lying there with the sky weighing down and the wind moving over and across him, George had considered only the boards that had snapped beneath his feet. With his lower lip clenched between his teeth, he watched himself walk to where they lay at the side of the derrick and kick them to splinters.
HE FALL HAD
broken both his arms, his legs, six of his ribs at their connecting points. His skull was fractured, and his sternum snapped in half. The doctor who admitted him said he would not live through the night.
He lived regardless. Through that night and the night after and the night after that.
The surgeons said it was a wonder; they said it was a phenomenon. One stood in the middle of his hospital room and pronounced it a miracle. And though he said George would never walk, he thought he might, one day, have a life of some kind.
In two years George was walking. In two more he had returned to work. By the time he reached his midthirties, George was spry as any roughneck in the state. He was promoted to foreman, and through the depression years, when many left to seek work elsewhere, George and his wife began to build a collection of antique glassware. If he chose, he could retire young, live comfortably off his pension and what he had invested in glass rarities.
George seemed much the same as before the fall. To see him pull to the curb in his burgundy Pontiac, step out and approach an antique shopâa tall, slender man, graceful as a dancer, with jet-black hair and eyes like drops of oilâyou would not have thought he had fallen in his life. Not even from the height of a chair.
T WAS ALONG
this time, along the time George stacked his crutches in the rear of the closet and poured his vial of laudanum down the sink, that the dreams came.
They were not, as one would think, dreams of
falling, the body released from its federation with the earth and betrayed to gravity. Neither were they dreams of impact. The dreams that visited George after his fall were of stillness.
In them, he would be lying in a field, feeling drops of sweat run into his eyes and pool around the sockets. When he attempted to raise his hand and wipe them, he could not. His ears itched, his face and neck. His body burned. He lay among the blades of grass, blinking into sky.
Soon there was a cloud. It was small at first. If he had been able, George could have retrieved a quarter from his pocket, held it at arm's length, and eclipsed the cloud entirely. But as it grew, he would have needed a fifty-cent piece, a silver dollar, and then, even with both hands outspread and extended in front of his face, wisps of gray would have bled the edges of his fingers.
There was nothing about the cloud to warrant fear. It was not boiling and black, or streaked with light. There was no rumbling and it gave no sound. This was not the type of cloud from which angels or prophets descend.
Only, lying there beneath it, George came to know death in the stillness of wide and all but empty sky.
He awoke screaming. He awoke on the floor. The doctors said such dreams were common among those who had fallen. They gave him pills of all sizes, but the dreams did not stop.
Then one night he awoke running through the house, glassware rattling the mahogany furniture. Sadie watched him from their doorway.
“Crider,” she called, “you'll break everything we own.”
She was right; several vases lay broken already.
When he wakened and was asked what he'd been dreaming, George went to his car and fell asleep across the seats. The next morning, he was sitting on the front stoop of Woolworth when the owner unlocked the doors.
EORGE PURCHASED FOUR
belts, fastened each to the other, and threaded them between his mattress and box springs. Each night he brought the ends together and buckled himself beneath his quilts.
Years passed in this way, with George awaking early every morning strapped to his bed. His wife began sleeping across the hall and, when they stayed in motels, made him reserve nonadjoining rooms.
Visitors seldom came, but when they did, Sadie would take them on a tour of their home. By then every surface in the houseâsideboard, dining and coffee table, ottoman, divanâwas covered in antique glass. Sadie had acquired the largest collection in Perser and was slowly overtaking Herbert Nasser and his wife, Vinita, who made claim of the largest in Oklahoma.
Her guests would follow her through the small,
dark house, through the smell of must and old wood. There were two bedrooms, a bath, a small kitchen crowded with dining table and stove. None of the window blinds or curtains were open; Sadie feared those passing on the sidewalk would see inside. The worth of her collection was estimated at thirty thousand dollars.
“This piece is very old,” she would tell her visitors, pointing to a candy dish. “I found it in a filling station outside Shreveport.”
They nodded, ran their hands along its rim.
“And this piece,” Sadie said, “I didn't think the man would part with it.”
They nodded again, looked to their watches.
She would conclude her tour by showing George's room, the straps on his bed. The guests looked at her husband. They wanted to know how long it had been, if he would mind telling the story of his fall.
He would tell it. He knew it by rote: the platform, the derrick, the hospital, the dreams. It took him only fifteen minutes.
When he finished, his audience shook their heads. Often they reached to squeeze his hand or touch him on the arm. Sometimes they turned to Sadie and forced a smile.
She smiled back, gestured to George.
“This is what I have to live with,” she would tell them.
T WAS THEN
1957, the year Oral Roberts took a tent across the Midwest, bringing his revival to the lost and infirm. Sadie heard on the radio testimonies of those treated by Roberts. Some who had never walked made claim to walk. Some who had never seen claimed to see. Sharon Stilman was carried into his tent on a sheet and soon thereafter began a ministry of her own.
Sadie told her husband of this, and they drove 120 miles to a small town outside Tulsa, where for the past week Roberts had held a tent revival. They arrived late and sat toward the back.
George found much of the service consonant with what he had known from his childhood. There was a low stage and a choir on it, men in folding chairs dressed in ties and slacks and white shirts. There were rows of similar chairs for the audience, stapled pages containing a few hymns, sawdust on the floor, carpets down the aisles. Midway through, paper buckets with crosses stenciled on them were passed for offering.