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A Fixer of Boys

Franklin Jubilee watched Hawthorn guide the plate along the rows.  Gray-haired women unsnapped their purses and tired farmers reached deep into their pockets.  Sweat beaded on his upper lip as the tent filled with hallelujahs.  He glanced at Hawthorn and thought, God gave me the gift to work a crowd this way. When Jubilee spoke of the pearly gates of heaven to the weary souls who came to the revivals, money poured into the collection plates.  Afterwards, there were good meals to eat and Cuban cigars to smoke.            

“Ya’ll a bunch of fools.”            

A blond haired boy of fifteen or so stood at the back of the tent, one arm lifting the flap.  Jubilee looked across the room and inhaled sharply.  The boy stood in dirty overalls, dressed like he lived in the backwoods.            

“Ya’ll a bunch of fools,” the boy said again, “to listen to this nonsense.”

“The boy is desperate for salvation.” Jubilee’s voice resounded from the altar.            

“I ain’t desperate for nothin’,” the boy said before he dropped the flap and disappeared.             

The trailer was parked next to the tent.  It had been a good afternoon, despite the interruption.  Jubilee gave five dollars to Hawthorn, who immediately left for the part of town where the chance of meeting anyone from the revival was remote, at least tonight.           

“I could use a voice like that cracker boy’s,” Jubilee said to the empty trailer.  “Bundle all that fierceness and anger and let it explode with the wrath of God.  I could fix up that boy real good.  Show him a better life.”            

He lit a cigar and thought about the boy.  The tip glowed in the darkening trailer like a red eye with each draw.  He was dirt poor once and almost as skinny, wasn’t much older when he first felt the spirit fill him at that revival back home in Louisiana.  The Lord took hold of him and the words spilled out of his mouth like honey one moment and a cleansing fire the next.  The whole tent quieted and listened to him.                  

Oh, how he believed then.  It gave him the courage to leave his mother and the men she found to shack up with, the ones who used both of them.  His faith became as ferocious as that boy’s denial; their feelings only different sides of the same coin.                

Passion was what mattered, and that boy had it.  Jubilee could teach him to command his passion, and then he’d see what the Lord would do for him.  It was obvious that the boy never owned a decent thing in his life.  Just like he used to be before the spirit caught hold and the flocks rolled in.            

And the women, Jubilee could teach him about those in good time.  There were willing women in almost every town.  They were the salve on his conscience up till now.  The Lord provided a good life.

Jubilee ground the stub of his cigar into an ashtray by the bed.  The rising moon shone through the window as lonely as a widow; the light made him restless, so he put on his best pair of shoes, the ones polished to a fine black luster, and stepped into the night.

He walked along the road thinking how fine a drink of whiskey might be, but a voicecalled out. It was higher than a woman’s and as shrill as the yowl of a cat, stopping him in his tracks.  Rape!An old flatbed truck passed by and Jubilee looked to the field in the direction of the voice.  It had only been a peacock’s cry, and the bird—iridescent plumage illuminated by the headlights—stared back at him.  Several peahens also faced him, frozen in the beam of lights.            

The cry brought back the memory of what he had done, so long ago, the thing he had pushed down so often that it had begun to feel like a myth, an act another man named Jubilee had committed. Jubilee took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.  Now he felt accused by the dumb stares of the birds, and the old confusion flooded back.           

In his panic, he didn’t notice the woman who was watching him.  She had leaned her crutches against a wall of the pen and was about to usher the birds inside when he stopped.  She studied him until he went on his way and only then did she put the peacocks to bed. Jubilee hurried on down the road, running now, the peacock’s call echoing in his ears.  He kept going until he caught sight of a bar.  “Ruby’s” flashed across a silver martini glass.  He needed a drink.  He needed to find a woman, especially now; there was nothing like a willing woman to make him forget.              

When he reached the door, he rested his hand on the push plate and saw a boy standing on the next corner.  A moment passed before Jubilee realized whom the boy was.  He pressed himself into a shadow.  The boy shifted from one foot to the other, his hands in the pockets of his overalls.            

“My deliverance,” Jubilee mouthed in the dark.              

This boy had been twice placed in his path.  Jubilee felt his confidence rise and his brashness come back to him.  The boy’s defiance showed how strong he was, the type of boy who could understand that without sin there could be no salvation; that sin was necessary in God’s plan. Jubilee had no doubt that this boy would hear his confession before morning.             

 

Winslow Stubbs lived fifty miles from town with his mother, left with a sharecropper’s inheritance—a shack made of pine wood and a yard full of chickens scratching in the dirt.  All summer long, the boy had worked the ten acres allotted to them and now he was taking his due.            

The night before, he had found her on the porch leaning against the post, smoking a cigarette.  A mixture of static and “Your Cheating Heart” drifted through an open window.  There was enough of a breeze to ruffle the curtains but it was too hot to stay inside.            

“Goin’ to town tomorrow,” he said.            

She looked at him blankly for a moment.  Winslow thought she must have been pretty once, though he wasn’t certain.  He looked at the dark circles under her eyes and he couldn’t remember a time when the circles weren’t there.  He resented how she drifted through the days, doing as little as she had to do to survive. Since he was a little boy she had depended on him to take care of her and Winslow felt he was the tether that kept her attached to the earth. Without him, she would simply vanish into the boards of the shack.  He wanted to protect her from fading entirely away.  He took care of the things she neglected, made sure she ate at least a little something each day.            

“What you goin’ for?” she finally asked.            

“Just want to see a picture show.”            

“Nothin’ much to see, Winslow.”            

“I’ll bring you back something,” he said, though how he would do this he didn’t know.  The words sounded good, and it was the promise that was important.            

“Don’t have to.”            

She walked passed him like a ghost and went back into the house.  The door of her room closed.            

The next afternoon he hitchhiked to town on the way to his first picture show.  He was dropped off at a field where a big tent was perched.  Singing came from the tent; he walked close enough to hear the hymn.            

“Shit,” he said after a while and spat on the ground.              

One thing his father had taught him was a lack of respect for anything to do with the promise of salvation.           

"God never gave me nothin’ but calluses and a bad back. You remember that, Winslow.  Hope gets shattered mighty hard come a bad year.  Best not to have any at all.”

From what Winslow could tell from his own experience, everything his father said was true.  He had watched both his father’s body and his mother’s spirit wither away.  He had decided as a young boy not to let false hope get the best of him.            

But as he stood in front of the tent listening to the crescendo of the preacher’s voice and each ‘glory hallelujah’ of the audience, a sharp pain stabbed his heart.  He had never heard anything like it before—hope, or some similar expectation that made him yearn for a better life, a better place, rose inside of him.  He stood there feeling foolish.            

“Damn that preacher’s talk of a better world,” Winslow thought.  “Ain’t no such a thing.  Never will be.”            

He had to do something fast or he’d succumb to the pitiful feeling in his chest, so he raised up the tent flap and shouted the first thing that came to him.       

“Ya’ll a bunch of fools.”            

He said it twice and, as soon as the preacher had challenged him, he ran as fast as he could toward town, only slowing at the sight of the peacocks.  The same woman who would watch Jubilee later that evening sat on the porch in a wicker chair.  Winslow had no time to contemplate the brilliance of the peacocks’ feathers or sense that he was being observed.  He continued on his way, and she went back to her writing.            

And now he stood alone on this street, not knowing where to go.  He had been to town once before, but that was long ago.  He had no idea how to find the picture show.  The biscuits he had packed for dinner hadn’t lasted through the morning and he was hungry.  He felt in his pocket and rubbed the few dollar bills he had brought between his fingers.             

 

Jubilee followed the boy down the street and then over a bridge that straddled the railroad tracks.  He had placed his hopes on Hawthorn years back, had attempted to fix him when he was still a boy but he had failed.  He bought him good clothes, taught him about preaching, but Hawthorn was no account and had no gift for the work, couldn’t bring in fifty cents if he tried.  He finally gave up on him, kept him around only out of charity.  Hawthorn took care of the menial tasks well enough, did all the driving; for that Jubilee was willing to feed him and give him enough money to carouse at night.            

Hawthorn was lost, anyway.            

Winslow came to an intersection, stopped, and turned around.            

“What you following me for?”            

“Son, I know you  . . .”            

“I ain’t your son, and you sure as hell don’t know who I am.”            

“Oh, but I do, and I want to help you.  I want to help both of us.”         

Winslow spat and then said, “Why, you’re that goddamn preacher.”

He tried to turn away but Jubilee sidestepped him. “I was impressed by what you said today, by your courage.”  These words made Winslow look at him.  “Of course, they’re all fools, they’re just like sheep.  It was real smart of you to figure that out.  But that’s why they need me, don’t you see?” 

Winslow said nothing, but he stopped trying to get away.  No one had talked that honestly to him since his father had died.            

“Away from home for the first time?”            

Winslow nodded, caught by the tone of Jubilee’s voice. 

Jubilee put his hand on his arm, and then wrapped his fingers around it. “I’m going to Atlanta.  You’ve ever been to Atlanta?”            

Winslow shook his head, but said, “I’ve got to get back home by tomorrow.  My mother needs me.”              

Jubilee’s voice hardened.  “She’ll make due without you.”            

The older man’s face clouded and a tenebrous look in his eyes frightened Winslow.  Winslow took a step back and pulled away his arm.   Looking up and down the street, he saw that the lights were brighter to the left.  He turned and ran toward them.            

Jubilee smiled slightly and said,  “He’s the one, all right.”  He put his hands in his pockets and started to whistle, following the boy deeper into town.  

 

Winslow‘s father had brought him to town when he was five years old to take care of some business.  Winslow never figured out what, all he knew was that there had never been any reason to return.  He remembered how his feet hurt walking along the hard sidewalks, but then, seemingly from nowhere, a palace of light appeared.  The marquee of the theater shone brightly, and there was a line of people waiting to get inside; the palace was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.  As his father dragged him by the hand past the building, Winslow promised himself he would return and go into that place someday.            

And now this fool preacher was following him, speaking nonsense, ruining his night.  Winslow looked all around him.  He was downtown.  There were people on the street; if his pursuer was among them, he didn’t see him.            

“I hope I lost him good,” he said, and then shouted across the street to an old black man carrying a bag of groceries.  “Where’s the picture palace from here?”            

“Two blocks up, then turn right,” the man shouted back.            

Winslow ran all the way, but when he got to the theater he was sure he had been given the wrong directions.  This wasn’t the same place he remembered; the lights were not nearly bright enough; the building was much too small; plaster had fallen from the facade.The boy stepped in front of a man wearing a business suit.           

“Where’s the other one?”            

“Are you crazy?”            

“The other picture palace.  Where is it?”           

“This is the only one in town,” the man said and, yanking his arm away, headed on down the street.            

Winslow walked slowly to the box office and shoved his money through the slot in the window.            

“Buck twenty-five,” the cashier said.              

She pushed his change back at him as Winslow stared at her lips.  He had never seen lips that color on anyone.  He took his ticket and change and walked inside.   

 

Jubilee’s thirst for whiskey had left him.  All he needed to do was walk long enough; he’d find that boy again.  He would have a good talk with him, sit him down over a cup of coffee and explain things.  Yes, that’s what he would do.  

The boy would listen and understand.  Hawthorn never could.  He tried to tell him once.  Hawthorn was stupid, but he was a good enough looking boy ten years ago.  Jubilee remembered the night he had met Hawthorn; it had been a fine night like this one.   That night, when he spoke, when the congregation began to sing and the money began to roll in, Jubilee was at peace.  No sounds of trains rumbling over tracks. He could forget how the body beneath him had stilled, how his hand would not let go. The whole tent seemed to be on fire with the Spirit that night.  Hands in the air, palms raised.  Cries of  “Oh help me, Jesus,” rose through the air. “Help me, Jesus,” Jubilee had echoed, praying for himself as he looked at Hawthorn, sitting in the first row of chairs.   Hawthorn’s eyes were wide; every word Jubilee spoke seemed to be sinking into him.            

Hawthorn was the last person to leave the tent that night.  Jubilee reached out to shake his hand but couldn’t let go.  The boy turned out to be a runaway, just like he had been.  Jubilee fed him, and the boy followed him to the next town.            

Broke down outside of Jackson a week later, Jubilee lit a candle and they played cards, Hawthorn’s face illuminated by the flickering light.  Hawthorn studied Jubilee’s hands with the same rapt attention he had given the preacher that first night, a look Jubilee now knew came from dullness.  But on that night, Hawthorn looked to him like an angel.  Jubilee bent over and put his lips on the hand that held the cards.  Hawthorn didn’t even wince.            

Jubilee started to tell Hawthorn about what he had done.  The kiss had broken something loose in him.  His desire for someone else to know, someone other than God poured through him, growing with his desire for the boy.              Hawthorn stared at him and then laughed.            

“So that’s what this is all about,” Hawthorn said before Jubilee could tell him the worst part of what he had done. “Hell, you ain’t the first.”            

But all of that was a long time ago.  Jubilee sat down on a bus stop bench and watched the glare of the streetlight reflecting in his shoes.  He had paid a small fortune for them, and they were worth it.  All the walking he did tonight and his corns didn’t hurt at all.            

The cry of the peacock filled his mind again; the memory of the other boy’s mother returned, how she had cried out when she walked in on them on the train, how the cries mixed with the boy’s silence. Jubilee closed his eyes and willed himself to the present, turning his mind to this new boy, standing in the back of the tent with that angry look.  Jubilee took a deep breath and felt steadier.            

“The time has come,” he said aloud.            

He rose slowly; without hurrying, he walked straight for the heart of town.             

 

Winslow spent the rest of his money at the concession.  His shoes made snapping noises over the floor as he followed the usher to his seat, trying not to drop his armload of popcorn and sweets.  The curtain was made of faded red brocade; it wasn’t as bright as the cashier’s lips, and this disappointed him.  Yellow light shone from shell fixtures hanging along the wall.            

He began to eat.  By the time the lights went out, he had only a candy bar left.  He was still spooked by the look on the preacher’s face.  The sudden plunge of the theater into darkness jolted him, but as Woody Woodpecker pecked his name across the screen Winslow laughed.  Unable to stop, his stomach convulsed.  He leaned over in his seat and took deep breaths.            

Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he sat up to watch the preview for the next week’s movie.  Godzilla’s foot kicked over a Tokyo skyscraper.  A roar filled the theater, and the monster’s cavernous jaws spread open.  Winslow felt like he was about to gag.  He crushed the chocolate bar in his hand, and stepping on the toes of the man sitting next to him, fled to the refuge of the lobby.            

He stood in front of the exit sign so long the manager came up to him.    “You want your money back?”            

Winslow was still sweating.  He shook his head and pushed through the door, leaving the theater behind him. 

Jubilee knew all he had to do was find a place to wait.  The boy would come to him, no use wearing himself out.  He could see the street well enough through the window of the cafe.  He would just sit and drink the coffee in his cup.  The boy would pass by sooner or later.            

Jubilee stirred his coffee absentmindedly, listening to the far off rumble of the train that was always in his head when things got quiet, the rumble which usually muffled the cry of the boy’s mother, but not tonight.  Tonight her shrieks blended with the peacock’s lamentation.            

He stared at the people passing back and forth across the window for a long time, trying not to listen.            

“Sweet Jesus, there he is.”            

Jubilee threw a quarter on the table and rushed outside.  There was the boy, sure enough, walking down the other side of the street with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders hunched up.  Jubilee waited at the cafe door for a moment, and then in long strides crossed the street cutting him off.  Before Winslow could yell, Jubilee put his hand over his mouth and shoved him into the alley.            

“Don’t be scared.  Just listen.  I need to confess.  And you got the strength to hear it.  When you forgive me, you’ll save me.  You’ll save yourself.”   

Winslow was trying to bite Jubilee’s hand, but his head hit the wall behind him.              

“I can fix you.  That’s what I am, a fixer of boys.  I can lead you to a better life, and you will be my son.  I’ll let you have my inheritance; you’ll speak with a tongue of fire.” Jubilee took his hand away from Winslow’s mouth and grasped him by both arms, shoving him against the wall.   He forced his mouth on Winslow’s. When he was done he said in a whisper, “I didn’t mean to kill that other boy.  I only covered his face so that he wouldn’t scream.  His mother found us, but the Lord’s been merciful.  I ran and never got caught.”  Tears welled in his eyes.  “Tell me you forgive me.”            

Jubilee stared at Winslow.  The boy stopped struggling.            

“I forgive you, Mister.  Just let me go.”            

Jubilee released the boy.  For a moment, Winslow couldn’t move.  The preacher’s voice had mesmerized him.  His voice was dreadful but also enticing like the lights of the picture palace.  The two of them stared into each other eyes.  Winslow felt he once again stood at the edge of hope. Compassion filled him, but then the preacher’s look changed.  Winslow took a step backwards, and he turned and ran from the alley.              

Jubilee walked slowly out to the street and wiped his mouth.    

Winslow didn’t stop to catch his breath until he arrived at the field where the peacocks had been.  A feather lay on the road.  He bent to pick it up.            

“What are you doing there?”  The woman who had watched him earlier stood behind the railing of the porch, supported by her crutches.  “Why, you’re the young fellow I saw earlier today.”            

Winslow held up the feather as though it excused his loitering.            

“You can have it if you like.  My birds are always dropping them.”            

“Never saw nothin’ like them before.”              

“They’re called peacocks.  I’ve taken a fancy to them lately.” She made her way down the porch steps.  Her crutches tapped the flagstones as she walked toward him.  When she reached the gate, she looked at him and frowned.            

“You’ve been crying?”            

“No, Ma’am.”            

Winslow looked back toward town.            

“But something is wrong,” she insisted.            

“Nothin’s wrong.“            

Winslow kept staring into the darkness.  The woman was in no hurry for him to tell her more, but he sensed her stubbornness.  She’d stand right there until her curiosity was satisfied.            

“I met the devil tonight, that’s all.”            

“Fascinating,” she said, and looked up the road as though she hoped to see him too. Winslow clasped the feather to his chest. “I’ll give this to my mother when I get back home.  I’m sure she’ll think it’s real pretty.”            

He ran off toward the south.  She waited, watching at the gate, and listened to the crickets.  She had always wanted to take a good look at the devil.