Pond

We all thought Lucinda married Garrison Hopper because he was the only boy who ever paid her any attention.  We figured Garry married her because, after his wild teenage years, only a girl as desperate as Lucinda would have had anything to do with him.  She wanted to be loved by someone…anyone.  She needed to prove that she was important enough for someone to love.  We thought Garry probably saw her as easy prey.

Regardless of what brought them together, we knew deep down in that place where words are forbidden to go, in that place far beneath the spoken word where only thoughts commune, that life with Garry had taken a heavy toll. She still came to church from time to time, and when she did, she would bring Stephen, their little boy.  But she always had bruises, the ones she would explain away as best she could if anyone asked, and sometimes when they didn’t.  We tried to make her feel welcome, but the wounds we carved into her as teenagers were carefully guarded in her memory, and they lingered long, went deep, and held fast.

Time had finally matured us into adults who no longer drew confidence from knowing we were part of a group to which certain lesser mortals could not possibly belong. We were settled into life’s steady idle, living on cruise control with families and careers. The thrill of belonging, enjoyed at the expense of one who didn’t, no longer brought us joy.  Instead, such feelings brought shame.  We had come to love Lucinda and Stephen, and we wanted to make things right, although we never spoke of it. Our guilt was there, though, living in that dark place where words were forbidden to go.  But none of us had suffered as Lucinda had, and we were never quite sure how best to express our new-found concern for her. Our empty promises of prayer and offers of financial assistance often sounded demeaning and condescending.  So, we felt guilty trying to help and began ignoring her again…same effect, just different reasons.

When Pastor Keller came to Broad River Baptist Church, he met the Hoppers on his first Sunday as our new pastor, and from the moment he first peered into Garrison’s dark, hollow eyes, he recognized an evil that haunted him every time he thought of them.  He, like the rest of us, didn’t pay Lucinda too much attention, and none of us ever even bothered with Garry.  He had threatened to shoot the late Pastor Simpson, on his first and last visit out to their home, and from then on, no amount of persuading could convince him or any other church member to make a home visit. 

In the summer of Pastor Keller’s third year in Broad River, Lucinda came to see him.  I never knew what they talked about, but after their meeting, Pastor Keller was convinced that we needed to do something to get her away from Garry.  Despite our best efforts, though, she wouldn’t budge.  She was afraid to stay with him, and she was more afraid of leaving him.  Her refusal to heed the warnings, though, ended in tragedy.  One night Garry got drunk and ended up in a fight with Lucinda.  We may never know for sure how it happened, but he managed to hit Stephen, their three-year-old son, in the head.  He died later that night after having been airlifted to Charlotte.

After that, something died inside Pastor Keller.  He had a real struggle getting through the funeral, and it was though a cloud of despair and depression settled in over him and would not move away.  We all thought that Stephen’s death affected him so profoundly because Caleb, his son, was about the same age as Stephen.  But Janice, his wife, knew better.  What none of us realized was that our pastor carried wounds and scars far deeper than any of us could fathom… wounds that God exposed to him through the Hopper family’s tragedy to expose.  Janice encouraged him to take a few days off so he could return home to take care of some unfinished business that he and God had to settle.  Sometimes God is like that.  When he comes to visit, he won’t let a man alone until he sits down and listens.  He may let us run loose for a little while, but eventually he will get our attention.  That’s what he did with Kenny Keller, and soon after, that’s what he did with all of us at Broad River Baptist Church.

Want to know what happened?  Kenny will tell you…in Crickets of the Silver Queen.

The Clinton County Fair

The Clinton County Fair comes to visit every October.  When it does, it brings all of the people of our various little communities together.  They don’t necessarily associate with one another, but it’s the only time every year when we all get close enough to breathe the same air.  From the richest to the poorest, everyone goes to the fair.  That’s the way it has been for years, and it’s the annual rite of passage into autumn that somehow binds us all together. 

I remember standing in line with my father to get vinegar fries when, as a boy of six or seven, I saw one of my classmates in line in front of me.  He caught my attention because he pushed a younger boy down on the ground, jumped on top of him, and started beating him with his fists.  His mother screamed at him, and a man in line behind her had to pull him off.  I recognized him immediately as Garry Hopper, a boy from my first grade class, and the first boy I had ever seen get a paddling in school.  I later learned that the boy he was beating was his little brother. 

Garrison Hopper was crazy, a mean kind of crazy… the kind of crazy that kills small animals and then laughs about it…the kind of crazy that has a bad temper and likes to hurt people and tear up things.  When we were kids, he never had a toy he didn’t break, and we all knew better than to try and play with him because if any of us ever had a toy that he wanted, he would beat us up if we didn’t give it to him; and if we did give it to him, he would tear it up before he gave it back, if he ever gave it back at all.  He was wild. We all knew he would go to prison someday, and he did.  He’s still there.

Garry grew up in Broad River, and he was probably in his mid-thirties by the time he married Lucinda.  He had a violent temper, drank too much, and drove too fast.  He was the first one in his high school class to get arrested, and that was for drunk and reckless driving.  He drove his Trans Am right through the bedroom wall of the guidance counselor’s house, went to jail for it, lost his license for good, and shamed his parents before the whole community.  He got more press than anything or anyone else at Broad River High School that year.

Lucinda, on the other hand, was a quiet girl who lived in the really poor part of town, the part where someone was in a fight or a shootout at least once a week.  She grew up in the Queen Anne’s Trailer Park over by the only grocery store in town, the Piggly Wiggly.  She was a shy, timid girl with a prominent overbite and no money for an orthodontist.  Her large ears stood at attention on either side of her head, poking through long brown hair that hung straight down from a part in the middle.  By the time they were in high school, the boys had lost interest in her and stopped drawing the ugly pictures that made them laugh in elementary school.  Mostly, they forgot about her and moved on, which in some ways was worse than the pictures.  The girls drew her out of their circles too, leaving her all alone and drifting.

Despite the cruelty, though, she came to church every Sunday and got another helping of it from all of us who thought we were better than she and her family.  Most of us wondered why she continued to come, week after week, almost never missing a service, and having to walk there by herself since her family didn’t have a car and didn’t go to church.  We secretly wished she’d stop coming.  We were embarrassed by her, and no one wanted to admit having anything to do with her.  The way we treated her is one of our greatest regrets as a church family, and now, as adults, we are mortally ashamed.  By the grace of God, she still comes to our church, and we have finally sought and received her forgiveness.  Hopefully, we have God’s as well.

 In one of their cruelest acts as teenagers, her senior class unofficially voted her as the girl least likely to marry.   She shocked us all when we learned of her engagement to Garrison, and we were even more shocked when she wore an engagement ring to school a week before graduation.

Cleveland_County_Counryside

I have lived in Broad River, North Carolina all of my life, and I am a member of Broad River Baptist Church where I was baptized at the age of fourteen after making a decision to become a Christian at the end of a long revival service on a hot August night.  Churches are important to people in Broad River.  We have over seventy of them in a ten-mile radius of my home.  Most everybody goes to church somewhere, and if they don’t, folks wonder why.

I’ve always liked life in a small town, and I’ve never found one I like any better than Broad River.  I moved away for a few years to attend college so I could fulfill my dream of becoming a teacher.  But as soon as I graduated, I moved back, and I’ve been here ever since. 

When I came back home from college, I picked back up with church as though I had never left.  The only change was that I sat in a different spot in the worship service on Sunday mornings.  We have a new minister now, and his name is Kenneth Keller.  Actually, he’s not really new anymore because he’s been here for a little over six years.  He just seems new because the minister we had before him, the one who baptized me, served the church for almost thirty years.  Pastor Simpson was a good preacher when he was younger, but as he got older, he quit preaching and started reading.  When I came back from college, I opened my Bible one Sunday morning to take notes on his sermon and found that I had already taken the same notes twice before, once in blue and once in green.  Since I only had a blue pen that morning, I just closed my Bible and let my mind wander until it was time to leave.  I began to wonder if God had quit speaking to him or if he had just grown hard of hearing.  Maybe it was both.  After all, Pastor Simpson was eighty-five years old.

Some of the folks with shorter memories and no notes in their Bibles probably figured he was immortal since he never died.  Their assumptions were proven wrong, though, one Sunday morning when he failed to appear behind the pulpit as the choir was being seated.  Even after the first hymn, he was still missing.  Finally, someone went to look for him and found him dead in his office.  He had apparently expired in his study during Sunday School, and when his body was discovered still sitting in the brown leather chair behind his desk, the coroner, Ralph Harris, and Bobby Francis the funeral director from Riverside Funeral Home, were summoned from the sanctuary where they sat, still expecting a sermon.  Upon their arrival, Pastor Simpson was immediately pronounced dead.  Mitch Williams, Chairman of the Deacons went to speak to the congregation and tell them the bad news.  Charlie Johnson, the assistant funeral director, whisked Bobby over to the funeral home to get the hearse.  Upon its arrival, the late Pastor Simpson was promptly rolled out of the church on a stretcher beneath a green velour blanket and loaded unceremoniously into the back of a black Cadillac station wagon in full view of the faithful. 

The former Pastor Simpson was rolled back in three days later for the funeral and then rolled back out and over to the cemetery where he was planted just behind the shrubbery beneath a stone marker.  His name was simply added to the growing list of tenants reposing in our graveyard, Row 4, Plot 9.  One Sunday morning we had a minister; the next, we didn’t.  Life happens; sometimes death does, too.

There was a short-lived revival among the unsure that lasted for a few weeks as many of us considered anew our mortality under the tutelage of an ironically named Dr. John Edwards, an interim who was a religion professor borrowed from Gardner-Webb University  A pastor search committee was quickly formed to find a new preacher.  That resulted in the hiring of our current minister, Rev. Kenneth Keller. 

How we found him was nothing short of a miracle.  Bob McMurray, one of our members, just happened to be vacationing down near the coast with his family for a few days of fishing when he ran into Kenneth and struck up a conversation with him.  Kenneth was originally from our area, was serving as pastor at a little church at Brunswick Beach, and Bob told him how much he wished he would consider sending his resume to our committee.  He did, and now he’s our minister.  God works in mysterious ways.

Kenny is a super minister.  He is much younger than Pastor Simpson and is married to a fine young wife named Janice.  They have a son, Caleb, who is in the first grade this year.  Everybody hopes he will stay for a long time.  He is one of my closest friends. 

I hope he is immortal.

Broad River 2

Highway 74 West veers off from Interstate 85 just a few miles north of the South Carolina line.  And then, like a ribbon of licorice, it stretches westward, winding into the foothills toward Shelby and eventually into the mountains of North Carolina.  Occasionally, a driver might catch a glimpse of the tiny town of Broad River, but most people never notice us.

The tallest steeple in our little town sits on top of my church, Broad River Baptist.  It is a Southern Baptist church of average size; with nothing in its appearance that would set apart its traditional red brick building and gleaming white steeple from the thousands like it that dot the rural South.  Most people simply drive by without giving any consideration whatsoever to the ebb and flow of life in our community. Since the new bypass opened up, outsiders never buy our gas, eat in the Broad River Cafe, or take notice of the funeral tents set up in our cemetery, the ones that are appearing more and more often these days.  The hottest real estate in town is out behind our church in six-foot parcels. 

The kids don’t stay around much anymore once they finish high school.  We’re growing older, moving away, or dying off.  Our well is drying up, and it never rains.  But folks have no idea what they are missing … no way of knowing how strongly God’s spirit can be felt here. 

Traffic up on the four-lane passes quickly, moving faster than the speed of life … restless souls, racing through life under the collective illusion that its quantity somehow is a measure of its quality.  They’re making good time, hoping they don’t get caught.

My name is Jesse North, and I have lived in Broad River all of my life.  Most people have no idea who I am.  My name has only been in the newspaper two times, once when I graduated from high school and the other when I was married.  The people who do know me regard me as a simple man.   I don’t live in a rich man’s house.  I don’t drive a rich man’s car.  I buy my clothes wherever they’re on sale, and I wear them until they wear out.  I am no longer pretentious.  I strive to keep a pure heart and love God’s children as best I know how.

I see myself as a philosopher and storyteller of sorts, an English teacher at Broad River High School who spends too much time studying the trees while missing the forest, or so my wife and students like to say.  Looking back on the years that have sculpted me, I realize with some discomfort that their collective assessment of me is annoyingly accurate.  My life has been lived from the inside out, but mostly from the inside. 

I have come to the conclusion that being part of a little community that is more often than not at the end of “the road not taken,” as Robert Frost aptly described it years ago, is not necessarily such a bad thing after all.  I love the people of Broad River, and they have a special grace and spirit all their own, a spirit shaped by their relative isolation, their powerful sense of community, and the love they have for each other and God. 

This is their story.  This is my story.  This is the life we share.  These are the people who have shaped my life and who continue to shape it. These are the people I love, and I want you to meet them before they are all gone.