MINISTER TO THE NEEDY
Uncle Jobe was dying. Geloler was sure of it. How could he not be dying? The cancer had gotten into his lymph nodes, and once it’s in your lymph nodes, it’s all but over for you. And Jobe Stolz was too simple a man to get a good doctor. So he always stayed with the town doctor, who everyone agreed should’ve been locked up years ago.
“Stupid old fool,” said Geloler under her breath. Yes, Uncle Jobe would be dead soon and Geloler knew she had to act quickly.
First, she got on the phone with Lela—Jobe’s only granddaughter—and talked real sweet-like and comforting to her. Then, she called up Omie’s Hair Salon and scheduled an appointment. Tomorrow. 2 p.m. That way, she’d have the whole morning to pick out her dress and shoes.
Then the car had to be washed and polished. Alec would do that. Her husband of forty-two years, Alec Schwarz, was always by her side in these crises. Sometimes he would bake a cake to give to the family. But his greatest effort was carrying the King James Bible. It was a harsh white Bible he carried, bought especially to show up against his dark suits. Geloler could always count on him for that.
There was only one complication she could foresee: Rickie Stark, a high school sophomore Jobe had befriended of late. Geloler had heard he bore a striking resemblance to Virgil Stolz, Jobe’s eldest brother, and father of Geloler. Rickie and Jobe had grown so fond of one another that they made a pact: whoever should die first, the other would be there by his side.
Geloler drew in a pensive breath. She had encountered this complication before. Of recent memory was her own father’s demand that he and Jobe and Vester (the youngest brother) be reconciled to one another…
“I want them here, do you here me?” Virgil had said. His voice was weak, but at that moment it roared like thunder. “I want Jobe and Vester here, just like when we were young!”
“Daddy,” said Geloler, seizing his hand. “Don’t you know they’ll make you sign that land over to them?” She gulped, swallowing down the lie. “I’ve heard them talking about it.”
Her father’s eyes opened wide in horror.
“Don’t waste these last moments on worldly brothers who seek to do you harm,” said Geloler. “Think about your heavenly brothers. Jesus is one of them. And no matter what you’ve done here on earth, He’ll always be your brother…”
Yes, Geloler had been beside her father in those last moments. She had faithfully ministered.
Yes, Geloler would have to do some thinking about that.
“Well, it’s no surprise,” Omie sighed. “Once it’s in your lymph nodes, it’s all over for you.”
She had put the last of the hair rollers back into the tray. “I just wish all of them had made peace with each other at the end. Now, your father, Virgil, he was the older one, right?”
“Yes,” Geloler nodded. “Daddy was the oldest brother.”
“And Vester,” said Omie. “Where did he come in?”
“He was the youngest,” said Geloler. Fat, wrinkled, ‘ol busybody, she thought. She should’ve had her hair done by now.
“That’s right,” said Omie, wiping a comb on a towel. “He was the youngest. I remember now. And Jobe was right in the middle. Poor, old Jobe. He was such a good Christian man. All of us down at the church are praying for him.”
Geloler barely concealed her annoyance. Omie didn’t care one whit about Jobe. None of them did. And who were they to pray for him?
“I was just saying to a lady the other day how much Jobe meant to the community,” said Omie, teasing Geloler’s hair. “Virgil and Vester and Jobe…they were all such fine men.”
They were not, thought Geloler. They acted like wild animals, cussing and carrying on and chasing after girls who didn’t have enough sense to stay away from them.
“It was later in life that things became strained between them,” said Omie.
Only because Virgil had cheated them out of their birthright, Geloler told herself. He bullied their father into changing the will, leaving him all the land and Jobe and Vester a little money and some mementos.
“I think they all regretted that,” said Omie.
Geloler’s hair was a half-sphere now, stiff and frayed at the ends.
“I remember Jobe taking Lela to her AA meetings,” Omie continued. “It was a half hour’s drive for him in that old truck, but he didn’t mind. That meant a lot to Lela. Lord, she had a time kicking that habit. It’s like that with some people. They’ve got these needs inside them. But Lela got rid of hers. Lord knows she hates that liquor now and anybody who touches it.”
Omie raised her eyebrows to show she meant business. “She even broke up with that Roberts’ boy because she saw his friends drinking beer one night. I told her that didn’t mean he drank, but Lela wouldn’t hear it. I guess, in a way, that’s good. It’s kept her sober.”
The teasing was complete, and Geloler’s hair was now a perfect sphere.
“I’ve always felt,” said Omie, laying down the comb, “that if a person keeps trying, they can overcome any misfortune no matter how bad it is.”
Geloler had felt this coming. She had felt it all along.
“Like your daughter, Cornilla, losing her house,” said Omie, reaching for a can of hair spray. “I tell you, it’s getting harder for people nowadays.” She unleashed a veil of sticky mist over Geloler’s head. “But I know Cornilla will find another job soon.”
“Oh, she will,” said Geloler. “These things happen to everybody.”
“That’s what I’m saying’,” said Omie, raising her eyebrows again. “But it’s always worst when it happens to good people. Just the other day a lady was telling me how you and Alec sat with her mother at the hospital just so she could go home and clean up a bit.”
Geloler waved an indifferent hand. “That was no trouble to us.”
“Well, it would be for most people,” said Omie, taking the cape from around Geloler’s neck. “If there’s anything we can do to help Cornilla, you just let us know. You’re in my prayers, darlin’.”
The nerve of that woman praying for her, Geloler told herself on the way back home. And all the women down at the church, as well. She wiggled her hips around like she was sitting on the hot seat instead of the passenger seat in the car.
Suddenly, a car sped around them, tires squalling. Geloler looked at the light.
“Alec, that light is green.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Alec, pressing the accelerator pedal. “It was red just a second ago.”
That’s how it works! Geloler could’ve screamed.
“I meant it used to stay red longer than that,” said Alec. “They must’ve changed the setting on the box or—”
“You haven’t forgotten to wash the car, have you?”
“No, I haven’t forgotten.”
“And polish it afterwards?”
“I haven’t forgotten that either.”
At home, Geloler put the dress and the shoes she picked out that morning back into the closet. She had felt in the car they were not right. Scavenging through her wardrobe, she came up with nothing. She finally grew so weary with it she had to lie down on the bed. (But not before putting on a hair net so as not to disturb her hair.)
Outside, Alec was hosing down the car. He had changed into a t-shirt and shorts, making him look even scrawnier than he actually was.
Geloler watched him scrub bugs off the hood of the car, the veins in his legs popping out with the effort of it. It was a miracle they had a child at all, Geloler thought. She immediately felt bad for thinking this. But that’s how she had been lately. It was that need she had always felt deep inside her, except now she had become frustrated with it. An old woman—she was sixty-two—she could no longer bear it pressing her to go where she was needed, where a call might be found to offer some poor soul the gift of salvation.
Not so many people were left to minister to anymore. The young did not want saving. They were too proud, too sinful, Geloler felt. She had not been like that when she was young. At sixteen, she walked into Sweet Gum River with Reverend Lawson—Henry, as she liked to call him in her private time. She didn’t care that he had a wife and children. One June day, she held his hand as he lowered her head in front of him. For a moment, she feared the water would rush into her mouth, drowning her; but Henry had her up beside him, secure in his strong arms.
“Blessed is this young woman,” he had announced to the crowd witnessing Geloler’s baptism. “Today, she has chosen the path of righteousness. She has chosen the gift of salvation…”
And when Geloler saved Ruby Butler, who was on her deathbed with cancer, Henry again praised her.
“People spend their whole lives searching for their one talent.”
His voice was warm and deep and his face was closer to hers than it had ever been.
“But you have found yours,” he said. “Ruby was a broken woman. She never got over her husband leaving her. She never stopped loving him. Even I couldn’t make her see that there was greater love than that of a man. But you did, Geloler. You made her see that Jesus’ love is the only love that matters.”
Geloler could hardly contain her excitement. That was exactly what she had told Ruby: Jesus’ love is the only love that matters. She also told Ruby that her estranged husband had sought salvation at the end of his life and wanted Ruby to do the same. It wasn’t true, but Geloler knew how badly Henry wanted Ruby saved that one little, white lie wouldn’t matter so much.
“And you dressed so nicely, too, just to come see her and give her the Lord’s message,” said Henry.
He shook his head, overcome with emotion.
“Promise me,” he said, holding Geloler’s hands. “Promise me that you’ll use this talent your whole life. You’ll change so many people for the better. What you have is more than a talent. God has called you, Geloler. It’s your duty to minister to the needy…”
Yes, Geloler thought, it was her duty. God called her, and Henry loved her for it.
Her heart still throbbing from the memory of it all, Geloler looked out the window. Alec was out of breath now, his silver temples darkened with sweat. He was still scrubbing the bugs.
Geloler tore out of bed and threw up the window. “You’re gonna have to use a bug scratcher!”
Alec turned to her, his eyebrows sagging. “It’s just been so long since it was last cleaned.”
This annoyed her more than the baked bugs.
“Make sure you mop the garage floor before you pull that car back in!” she said.
Before he had time to reply, Geloler closed the window and headed to the wardrobe. Seizing a mauve dress and jacket, she hung them on the chest of drawers. Then she clutched a pair of pumps, aligning them under the garment on the floor. Standing back, Geloler cast an eye over the ensemble. She thought about Lela and the Roberts boy and smiled. Yes, Omie may have gotten her jabs in about Cornilla, but she had solved the problem of Rickie Stark for her.
The following day, Geloler got a call from Lela. Jobe would not last through the evening. After lunch, Alec and Geloler headed off. As they drove along, Geloler watched him accelerate through the green lights. Only once did he hesitate to brake, and only then because he was glancing at some cows in a field.
“Those two hedges either side of the drive are looking unruly again,” said Geloler.
Alec nodded, turning his head back to the road. “I plan on taking care of them soon as we get back.”
As they pulled up to Jobe’s house, Geloler was disappointed to see so many cars parked in the driveway. It would be difficult to maneuver around a crowd of people, but Geloler’s tension eased when Alec opened the car door for her and she glimpsed his King James Bible shining against his gray pants.
“Come on in,” said Lela, motioning from the front door. “I’m so glad ya’ll could come.”
She hugged Alec, but held on to Geloler a little longer. “Jobe’s been going in and out all day. It’ll be any time now. I know it will.”
“The Lord will take care of his own,” said Geloler. “It’s in His hands…just like it’s always been.”
Lela dabbed her eyes with a tissue and led them into the kitchen. Avon perfume and cigarette smoke shrouded the room so much that Geloler held the back of her hand to her nose a few times so she could breathe.
Seated at the table was a young boy busying himself with a heap of macaroni and cheese.
“So many people have been coming in and out lately I can’t keep up with them all,” said Lela, in a tired voice. “One or two of the old girls Jobe knew when he was young have been by.” She winked at Geloler.
Alec laughed, but Geloler found the comment about as distasteful as her clothing. Some old soiled shirt and faded jeans. Could Lela be any more disrespectful?
“We’ve got plenty of food, so just help yourselves,” said Lela, pointing to an array of containers lining the countertops. “Everybody’s been so good bringing us casseroles and things. At least Danny’s enjoying it.”
Lela smiled as her son shoveled in another spoonful of macaroni and cheese. Then she led Alec and Geloler to a room filled with half a dozen people.
“Everybody,” Lela announced as if it were a party. “This is Alec and Geloler Schwarz!”
Geloler stiffened at the sight of so many eyes upon her, and was grateful Alec made the introductions. That was another thing she could always count on him for.
“Has Jobe’s new friend been by to see him yet?” Geloler inquired.
Lela looked confused, then laughed. “Oh, Rickie!” she said. “Yes, he came by yesterday morning. Jobe was so glad to see him. He…he even took a few bites of oatmeal.” Lela wiped the tears from her eyes.
“Oh, now, wasn’t that wonderful?” said Geloler, placing a hand on Lela’s arm.
“Yes, yes, that was wonderful,” said Lela, managing a smile.
Geloler just knew the silly girl would burst out crying any minute. Removing her hand from Lela’s arm, Geloler interlaced her fingers prayer-like against her skirt.
“I’ve heard he’s the spitting image of daddy.”
Lela’s eyes shot up. “Oh, Geloler,” she said. “I wish you could see him. Grandaddy showed me some pictures when they were all young, and Rickie does look a lot like your daddy. He’s here, you know. Rickie, that is. He just stepped out for a while, but he’s coming back. You should stay and talk to him. He’s a real nice boy.”
Geloler half-smiled, the thought too much to bear.
“Only if you want to,” said Lela. “I just thought you’d wanna see how much he looks like your daddy.”
Geloler let the pained smile linger a little longer on her face. “I just might,” she said. “Goodness knows he can’t be no wilder than daddy was at his age. I know Jobe’s told you stories.”
Lela’s body stiffened a little. “Oh, just a few.”
“All boys that age are like that, though,” said Geloler. “That’s just expected behavior.”
“How wild was he?” said Lela, a touch of impatience in her voice.
“Well,” Geloler replied, in no hurry, “they were all a little wild in their own way. But daddy, they said, daddy loved drink. He’d nip out whenever he got the chance. Him and his buddies would get liquor from men in town or some bootlegger, anyway they could think of. Sometimes Jobe would go along, but mostly it was daddy. ‘Virgil,’ they said, ‘Virgil drank like a fish.’ Ever since he was about fifteen or sixteen.”
As Geloler spoke, Lela’s face grew red and fierce until her lips were set tight, one against the other, as if no evil would ever be allowed passage between them.
“Yes,” said Geloler. “Daddy certainly had his faults. And he stayed that way till he met momma and she straightened him out. But, you know,” she said, taking hold of Lela’s arm again, letting her in on a little secret, “daddy always kept a bottle or two around. And, every once in a while, he’d steal a drop out of it—when he thought nobody was looking.”
Geloler laughed at the memory of it.
“I think I will stay afterwards and speak with that young man of Jobe’s,” Geloler decided suddenly. “It’d do me good to meet someone who’s so much like daddy. It would help to know he’s not so far away from me. Now, the boy’s name is Rickie, you say? Rickie Stark?”
Jacklon Michelle Wright has a BA in English from Birmingham-Southern College. She has just been accepted into the MA program in English at Auburn University. Her stories have appeared in Southern Women’s Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Blood Moon: Anthologies of the Heart, Vol. 2.