Chapter Thirty-Four: Hank Goes to Visit Kenny, And What He Saw

Editor’s Note: taken directly from the journals of Jonah’s great uncle Hank, who, according to both Hank (in writing) and Jonah (in conversation) had no last name. Family lore holds he came from a cave in the mountains. Adopted by Hank’s great-grandmother, “like the story of Moses, but with more whiskey,” per Hank’s journals. Reprinted with (Jonah’s) permission.

When Al’s Soda Jerk first got soft-serve ice cream, I watched them install the machine. When last they updated the house drum kit at Gentleman Jim’s, I helped carry in cymbal cases. When Mrs. Edna Mae got to where she couldn’t get around like she used to, I made sure she had fresh groceries every week. When that storm felled yon tree and knocked out Greg Jackson’s barn, I was there when old Greg raised a new one. 

Now you might say: Hank, lots of folks were there when Al and his boys installed that soft-serve machine. Gentleman Jim’s had a big concert that night with customers spilling onto the porch. We all took turns bringing Mrs. Edna Mae her groceries and raising old Greg’s new barn—hell, even barbequed whole hog and made a party of it. 

Well? I ask. Who broke the news? Who got all them folks together? 

Lord tells us to love our neighbors, and hell, I’ve read some books in my time. Old Hank’s done some reading, you bet. And I know a community like Vine—consecration or no consecration—is only as strong as the people in it. So I make it my business to love my neighbors. 

Now it came one day when I was making my rounds about town—I like to take my newspaper to ClearView, Marcela makes the best eggs in town (but don’t tell Mama I said so), then walk around the square, head to the church, get a feel for the day—anyway, was making my rounds—hot, muggy day out, sun so bright you had to use your hand to shield even your hat brim. And who do I see but the old Widow Ruthanna—I expect she’d object to my calling her ‘old,’ beg pardon—who was in a state about her boy, Kenny. 

Now, I knew Kenny. He was a couple years behind me in school, but we played baseball together. He was a centerfielder, I was in right, if that tells you anything—Kenny lean and tall and handsome, me a little more comfortable gossiping over peach cobbler. 

Kenny needed help, Widow Ruthanna said. Couldn’t get off the couch lately. Couldn’t find a work crew. Would go to church, but only if Widow Ruthanna tugged his elbow. Even then mumbled the hymns. Said he went on one of his fishing trips with his friends but then she saw his friends at Gentleman Jim’s without Kenny, who didn’t turn up for a few days after that, no fish, and seemed like something was off. And well—Widow Ruthanna lowered her voice for this tidbit—she was catching him talking to himself. Murmuring. “‘And before the angels they shall tremble,’ he says,” she said. “Over and over. Repeating.”

* * *

It is true that one in possession of such a gregarious and personable orientation as myself—it is true that even one such as this can be lonely. Though I am of marrying age—a sturdy, fatherly 24 years, even if my hair begins to thin—I have not, as of yet, found a marriage partner. I do not bemoan my fate, nor do I curse God. I suspect there is something to my nature that I am not, to potential partners, viewed in an intimate light. A lilt in my voice, a smile that reads “caregiver” instead of “lover.” Yet I remain at peace, for I am of the community of Vine. 

* * *

How the same fate has befallen Kenny—chiseled, strong-jawed, a masculine 22 years, as one might expect a model for the busts of Rome or Greece—well, I don’t make it my business to gossip about matters of the heart. It is unsavory to roll around in rumor, I wish I could remind some people. Last I heard, Kenny was doing just fine for himself as one of Swanson’s construction crew. He and some old boys could be seen occasionally carousing at Gentleman Jim’s. Take the occasional hunting and fishing trips on the weekend. One of them’s daddy had a cabin up in the mountains. Besides being so far unable to secure a wife, I couldn’t think of one single demon could be causing Kenny’s sorrow.

So I walked up there, no problem, to see Kenny. Told Widow Ruthanna no need to thank me, no ma’am. Community only as strong as the folks in it. 

* * *

“What say there, Kenny?” I called from the pine-swept road, a day later. 

Kenny was sitting on the porch. I gathered Widow Ruthanna had primed him for my visit but had cleared out herself. It was humid and muggy again but I saw he had a pitcher of tea and a couple glasses next to him. “Hello there, Hank,” Kenny said. 

“How you feel? Been a minute since we talked, and I was around, so—”

“My friend, I have been wonderful.”

“Say, that’s great. Been fishing?”

“Oh yes, fishing. Hunting. It is a joy to be in God’s creation, to feel oneself a part of the interplay of man’s dominion over animals, to fulfill one’s masculine duty to God in the careful preparation of meat.”

“Amen to that brother, I grilled some pork chops the other night. Say man, how’s work?”

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him,’” Kenny said. “Ecclesiastes 5:18-20.”

“I mean, have you been going to work lately?”

“God has given me a gift. God has shown me something. It is a joy to live humbly and serve the Lord.”

“I know it is. Say, is that tea cold?”

* * *

Kenny was nice enough to pour glasses and I took a seat in the white rocking chair next to him. It’s not like what he was saying weren’t technically true—we do live humbly and serve the Lord here in Vine, that’s for sure—but part of that whole “living humbly” thing is doing your part, aka showing up for work. 

* * *

In the trees you could hear all sorts of movement. Squirrels, birds, the odd falling branch—Kenny and Widow Ruthanna’s house was in a section of the mountains with tall pines. Smelled real nice in the fall. Kept the sun out of your eyes in the summer, which I figured to give thanks to God for, if we were going to be set up on this porch a few hours. 

* * *

“Say, you catch any ball games on that radio?” I asked, pointing at the radio set up on yon wicker table. “How about that Mickey Mantle? Doesn’t seem any better than you in high school. You should be playing center for the Yanks.”

“Oh, what a sight that would be.”

“Aw hell, you could run circles around Mantle.”

“And you I remember in right field,” he said. “It seems by the power of God and the nature of our status as members of the community of Vine, a consecrated land—it seems with faith the size of a mustard seed you could hit as many home runs as another Hank I can think of.”

I looked at Kenny, scratching my temple. 

“Hank Aaron.”

“I know who you meant, you stupid bastard,” I said, and then wondered if I shouldn’t. I punched him on the arm, show him I’m kidding around. His face had an odd serenity to it, so I figured we were okay. “You say—what was that you said?—you said something about God giving you a gift? That sounds good.”

“Oh, it is wonderful,” Kenny said. “Yes, before the angels we all tremble.”

“Huh’s that?” I said. 

“They shall all tremble before the angels, yes, upon seeing the angels, all shall tremble, yes—it is a joy to live humbly and serve the Lord, isn’t it, Hank? How is your work?”

* * *

It’s a different part of the mountains, where that cabin is. I can’t remember who’s daddy owns it, why can’t I remember their name? Up by the river, where the river gets thick. Well, you can walk to the lake, too. 

But it’s not near the Lake House neighborhood. Up there where the Elders take their families on the Fourth of July and Revelation of Vine Day. 

No, it’s hidden, in the woods. How long had Kenny been there? I should say something—at this point, I am thinking only that Kenny is not hidden from salvation, okay? At this point, we are sitting on the porch. Drinking tea. Talking. That is what we were doing at this point, okay? 

* * *

“Aw man, work’s alright,” I said. I sipped my tea. “Working for the weekend, you know? I’m trying to get like you, though, get one of them cabins. Which do you think I should get first, a wife or a boat? Say, think my wallet can handle both? I guess that’s why we work. Well, work’s making sure I live humbly, alright.”

“You talk to people. You know the community of Vine.”

“I uh—yeah.”

“It is good,” Kenny said. “A community is only as strong as the people in it.”

“Say now, I like that,” I said. “Always said so myself. Now wait a second, these people in the community—they gonna be trembling?”

* * *

I was laughing. I was playing it off. I was making a joke. I was doing my part, making sure Kenny had a normal interaction so he could remember what it was like to go on and be a normal member of the community. Now we’re trading wisdoms, okay, so be it. 

* * *

“Yes, and before the angels they shall tremble,” Kenny said. 

“Now, hang on. Now, listen: I don’t know how to say it, we done danced around it some, but listen—the way you’re talking? That’s how folks talk before they—”

It was hard to finish the sentence. Not that it’s wrong, necessarily. Not that it was dishonorable or some such. I thought of Widow Ruthanna. No mother would want her son to walk that path, or rather, if they were fine with walking that path, well. That’s a stronger woman than my Mama, don’t tell Mama I said that. Mama’ll tell you she loves me no matter what. 

“How am I talking?” Kenny asked. 

“You’re talking like—that’s how folks talk when they’re on the path to becoming a Hermit. Is that what you are, Kenny? Are you becoming a Hermit? Are you to walk the hills and worship on Prophet’s Bald? Because Kenny—we love you, Kenny, all of us folks in the community. You don’t got to walk the path of the Hermit.”

Kenny was quiet for a long time. At first, I’d wondered—had I offended him? What if he was to roll up his bedclothes and set foot off to walk the land? What if he was to become as one who sleeps under the sky? But then I realized—that weren’t quite right. That’s not what was going on with Kenny. His face, his demeanor. It told me, somehow, like when I fired my searching arrow into the forest it did not find purchase in the trunk of a tree but instead fell helplessly to the ground. Nah. Kenny must’ve had some sort of vision? Had he had some kind of Revelation there in that cabin? Byside the river?

* * *

I hadn’t said anything—not out loud, I didn’t think. Yet Kenny spoke, saying:

“I can show you,” Kenny said. 

A feeling arose in me that hadn’t been there before. Like I didn’t want to see what he was offering to make privy unto my eyes, I did not want that. It was known, in the way my muscles seemed like liquid cement, that whatever Kenny had should be avoided by at least me, if not all mortal men. 

Jesus, what was I saying? No, there was the straw in the sweating glass of tea. Blue flowers on the glass of the windows—Widow Ruthanna said were a wedding gift. When did she say that? No, I was fine here on the porch, thanks. A wind blows and the grayness of dusk descends upon us, I thought. I was going to need to be—I was fine here on the porch, for now. It did smell nice, like mid-mountain flowers, like peaches. I was fine here on the porch. 

“No, Kenny,” I said in a voice I’m pretty sure was mine. “Say, it’s nice chatting on the porch, Kenny.”

“It is a comfort to my heart to see you, old friend,” Kenny said. 

* * *

When debris falls off of tree branches, on down through the leaves unto the ground, does the tree feel the scrapes? Does a squirrel tickle, a robin soothe? Does a tree feel the loss of a branch? Is there a sting of phantom pain each time a fire burns? Surely these questions are best understood by the Lord our God, Creator of the Heavens and the Earth and Vine. 

* * *

“Say, you catch any ball games on that radio?”

“We talked about this already,” Kenny said. His eyes were glued skyward. He looked right about like he was ready to evaporate his body into a cloud. “Do you think the angels know who wins this year’s pennant?”

There was something—Mama would’ve said God’s guiding hands—I don’t know how I got back to the road, pine leaves crunching under my foot. We had left amicably, Kenny and me, right? Evening was coming and it was still muggy, pants sticking all to my thighs. We had said our good-byes. Again, was it heavenly? Was it righteous before God? This compulsion to look back? Check on my old friend? 

Old boy still set up there on that porch. 

I could swear—but not in a court of law—that his eyes had turned to fire. That his ankles and shoulderblades both had fiery wings growing out of them if you looked at him from the right angle, which I could not. I could swear—but I will not—that he was bathed in a light beyond what God had created for this world, that Kenny was both there and not here, both gone and on that porch, and here was I, on a dusty road, walking back to Vine. 

I looked back again. There was Kenny, set up on that porch. 

I had to walk back to Vine. 

That’s what I must’ve done, anyway, is walk back to Vine.

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