Merry and Joe, Part Two
by Terry Davis
Read Part One of “Merry and Joe” here.
My grandfather renamed himself Moses, took his wife and daughter, and along with seven other families journeyed south into Grant County, where a woman of the flock had an aging uncle with a half-section of land and a good well. And that’s where they settled, three miles outside the tiny town of Schrag, within sight of the cars rolling by on Highway 18 between Ritzville and Moses Lake. Moses Lake. It was a sign.
Laws of the Covenant Church grew to fifty families in the next year. But the miracle that created Moses Stargill had begun to fade in people’s minds, and Moses watched it grow distant. One evening at worship service he spoke in tongues. This wouldn’t have been unusual for Moses or other members of the church, but after a few minutes of familiar glossolalia Moses was gripped by a seizure of clarity. Every soul understood his every word. Except, according to Moses, Moses himself. His black eyes rolled forward, and the saliva that had flown in the candlelight like a meteor shower abated, but his words continued rolling forth as though from on high.
In the days before he was remade in the image of the patriarch, Miller Stargill possessed the gift of carving God’s miracles in stone. It came to pass that the Lord guided Miller out of stone cutting and into a life among the weak of faith and the faithless who were building the Pharaoh’s great dam. In this desert of souls Miller felt a new gift rising. This was a gift more rare than carving or speaking in tongues. This was the gift of an eye for demons.
Among the weak and the faithless worked a man of stature in their eyes. His name was Himmel. Himmel worshipped the false god of communism. One day, in the emerald-black lens of Himmel’s welding hood, Miller Stargill saw glowing the red eyes of a demon. The Lord gave Miller a vision of Himmel’s scales and cloven hooves. Miller promised his vengeful God to set a fire that would consume what the flames of perdition had not.
Himmel stood back from all assembled on the day construction began. At his side on a worktable sat a pan of solvent. In the pan lay a metal shape that Miller Stargill, who stood behind Himmel, recognized as the Mark of the Beast.
Miller walked to the nearest set of welding tanks, unwound the hoses, lit the torch, gazed into the long yellow flame from which black smoke curled like Himmel’s charred soul, then turned the oxygen up and went to do the Lord’s work.
But the holy fire did not burn as hot as it burned in Miller’s vision. The Himmel-Satan ran screaming to the salvation of wet concrete. And Miller Stargill ran after him to put out the fire he had started, because the faithless would see as murder what the Lord and Miller saw as His work.
With the Lord’s courage Miller beat out the flames, and with the Lord’s strength Miller lifted Himmel from the suffocating concrete.
It was the Lord’s will that Miller became a hero and a leader of the people for saving the Himmel-Satan—and the Lord’s will that the Himmel-Satan lived only long enough for that purpose.
Blessed be the name of the Lord.
The story my grandfather told at worship that night sealed his hold on the congregation. He was The Reverend Moses Stargill, demon slayer, leader of the people, beloved of the Lord.
In the circumscribed world of Laws of the Covenant Church, the Bible was the children’s primer in all things. They began their day with Bible study, after which the boys went the way of men, which meant farming and the maintenance of machines, and the girls pursued the womanly arts of cleaning, cooking, baking, canning, washing, ironing, sewing.
Mom’s enthusiasm for butchering was born of her desire to find observable reasons for why things happened as they did. If you cut something open, you see inside it; you are a step into its mystery. Her father was pleased with Mom’s lack of squeamishness around the chopping block, so, in spite of her age, he made the rabbit snares Mom’s chore.
The men set the snares at first, then Mom learned to do it. An older girl named Ruth Scoggins accompanied her. Mom was ecstatic to be away from the tiny houses and the church and the eyes of the congregation. She ran through the sand, kicked rocks, jumped tumbleweeds, imitated the pitch and yaw of birds, and with her voice, their voices.
One dusky afternoon in March, Mom was walking through the sand and rock and dust of snow in her big old high brogans, checking the rabbit snares. She wore a brown felt hat, turned up in front, that covered her head like a helmet. There was nothing in the first snare. As Mom and Ruth neared the second, Mom heard a baby crying. When she saw the rabbit, she realized she hadn’t known rabbits made sounds. This rabbit was gray, the size of a loaf of bread, rounded like a loaf of bread, and somehow–even in the cold–warm-looking like bread just out of the oven.
Ruth bent down to one knee and split the rabbit’s head with her hatchet.
Mom’s eyes fixed on the steam rising from the blood on the hatchet buried in the sand. She saw, too, the rabbit’s body jerking and its head, like a tiny chalice, pouring blood into the earth.
Mom had seen hundreds of chickens killed, and watched them twitch and run as if they were late for worship, but this rabbit made a fearful human sound, and the vapor rising from its warm insides was a soul ascending. She’d been told almost daily for years that in human beings lived a soul, that the soul belonged to God, and when the soul returned to God it was a cause for rejoicing. But Mom saw that this rabbit had a soul, and that the soul looked as if it belonged to the rabbit itself rather than to God, because it left the rabbit reluctantly, drifting and circling, lost in the wilderness of spirit.
Mom had a life in the church and a life inside herself. She spent every unsupervised moment patrolling the desert, walking the snares, searching for the newspaper and magazine pages that blew with the tumbleweeds; besides the Bible, this was the first print Mom had ever read. In her tumble-weed library, she learned about Hitler, Churchill, and the war in Europe. Envy weighed on her chest like a stone tablet as she watched the cars whistle by on the highway, west to Seattle, east to Spokane. She dispatched hundreds of rabbits and quail and grouse in that time, and she asked forgiveness of every one as she severed it from the world of the living. Mom remained thankful all her life to those creatures whose lives had earned her this measure of freedom.
It was on another day, in another spring, that Mom looked down into a clear puddle and saw a man in a red suit and voluminous white beard looking back, reaching out with a bottle of Coca-Cola, wishing all of creation a Merry Christmas. She picked up the magazine page and dried it with the arms of her chore jacket, the cuffs of which were crusty with blood.
Mom had never seen anybody look as happy as this man with his glowing red cheeks; he was inflated with good cheer. He looked as she had always wished God looked, although she’d never realized she wished it until that moment. In her mind God had always worn the stern expression of the men in the church. She had heard the phrase Merry Christmas, and she’d heard of Santa Claus, although she’d never seen a picture of him. But this was the first time she understood what it must feel like to be merry.
Mary and Joseph, Mom thought. Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, Mary the wife of Cleophas, Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses, Mary the mother of Mark.
Mom didn’t want to be Esther anymore; she wanted to be Merry. And when she left the church in 1945, the first thing she did after she found a room at the YWCA in Spokane—before she walked through the doors of her first real library, before she had her hair marcelled like the other girls—was to ride a bus to the courthouse and start paperwork to change her name to Merry Stargill.
Moses owned a Motorola radio on which he monitored the secular world for threats to the church. He preached that Hitler was doing God’s work in dealing with the Jews. Nothing Merry read in the Old and New Testaments or in the tumbleweed library made her think Hitler was doing God’s work—unless God’s work was malevolence.
This was the time in my mother’s life when she began to articulate the question that first presented itself with the death of Callie Quist. For some people this question is, “Does God exist?” For others it’s, “Does God take a hand in human affairs?” Merry suffered no doubts of God’s existence or of His hand swirling the waters of our lives. Of course He exists; of course He allows some of us to be swept away, while in the same cyclonic breath extends to others a branch on which to crawl to safety. Merry’s question was, “Is God good?”
What deity worthy of His children’s worship, she wondered, would tempt Abraham, as God tempts him in Genesis 22, to kill his only son and burn him as an offering? Yes, as Abraham stretches forth the knife to slay Issac, an angel of the Lord stays his hand. “Lay not thine hand upon the lad,” the angel says, “neither do thou any thing unto him. For now I know thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son.”
Yes, Merry thought, God saves Issac. But the story isn’t an illustration of God’s magnanimity; God is the one who put the knife in Abraham’s hand and brought it to the boy’s throat. God’s love is the force at work, to be sure, she thought: God’s love of His own power. What kind of father, Merry asked herself, treats his children so?
* * *
In the eighteen years I spent with him, I never heard my father use the words morality or integrity. I do remember him using honesty. Dad would say of people, He’s an honest man. She’s an honest woman. If my father had no moral sense, then on what basis would he have taught me to keep my word? My father did have a moral sense; he just didn’t have a moral vocabulary.
As I look back, I see that practicality was the guiding principle of my father’s life. He explained why I needed to be home at the hour he and Mom had set: they knew I was a boy who did what he said he’d do, so if I weren’t home on time, they figured I wasn’t capable of coming home, and that meant trouble, and they’d be coming to get their boy.
Was I always home on time? Even after I gained the independence a driver’s license and a ’51 Ford coupe gives a guy, did I always roll in at the agreed-upon hour? Not a chance. But I always called.
Dad was consistent. If he said we’d go fishing when he got home from work, we went fishing when he got home from work. If he told Mom he’d fix the screen where the flies were getting in, he fixed the screen. And when we didn’t go fishing when he said we would, or when the screen didn’t get fixed on time, Dad would look me or Mom in the face and say he screwed up.
* * *
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor curtailed my grandfather’s public enthusiasm for the Axis Powers, but his antics had already created a traitorous reputation for Laws of the Covenant Church in the surrounding communities where many of the churchmen worked. Every able-bodied man was drafted and gone from the church by the spring of 1942. None of these men was half as able-bodied as The Reverend Moses Stargill. So why wasn’t he drafted?
Moses appealed his draft status on the basis that he was the only support for the church family. A carload of supplicants made evening trips to Moses Lake before his hearing to entreat draft board members on his behalf. Ruth Scoggins wanted to help, but Moses wouldn’t allow her to go. Merry asked her mother why, and Francine said it was because Ruth was homely, and Moses wanted only the most handsome examples of God’s children to represent the church. My grandmother was herself a handsome woman, and she spent several nights in Moses Lake meeting with members of the draft board, and Mom did, too. Moses won his appeal.
In summer of 1962, when I was fifteen, Mom bought a sofa at Holden Furniture in Spokane. The store didn’t deliver outside the city limits, so she and I took our GMC pickup into town to get it. Mom was talking to the salesman when a tall, silver-haired man limped toward us. His hip was bad, and he flung his right leg out in a heavy arc to move forward. He extended his hand to Mom and introduced himself as Mr. Holden. Mom went white. She would have fallen if Holden hadn’t caught her arm.
She said she was feeling sick and went to sit in the truck.
Holden’s sign said “Holden Furniture, Moses Lake and Spokane Since 1940.” I’d never seen Mom look like that.
With a mom who was a librarian, I was no stranger to libraries, and I was at home in the big library in downtown Spokane. It didn’t take fifteen minutes to look through the Grant County weeklies from 1942 to find the controversy concerning The Reverend Moses Stargill’s appeal of his draft classification. Among the three male members of the Grant County Draft Board was Harold Holden. I never said anything to Mom about her father having made her a sacrificial virgin.
Why am I telling this now? Aside from spilling one’s guts to strangers having become a national form of boorish behavior and me being as American as anyone else, I’m revealing this as another element in her childhood that Merry Davis carried through her life with grace. This is what it means to transcend our experience. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, we are part of all that we have met. On the same patch of skin, we carry memories of a kiss and of a snake that struck without rattling.
On August 2, 1945, twelve days before V-J Day, Merry came home from the snare route to a house in which nothing remained affixed to the walls and no piece of furniture stood where she had known it. Blood ringed the walls as though someone had run through each room twirling a pumping heart in a colander. She found her father in the kitchen, where he had lost the fight of his life; she found her mother in bed. Merry thought their throats had been cut. But the work had not been done with a knife: the sheriff’s department concluded my grandparents had been garroted, strangled by fine wire.
Mom was sure that her father had done something to bring about his violent death. But she felt about her mother as she felt about the rabbits—that Francine had been a kind, beautiful, innocent creature who died because of the needs of creatures more powerful. In this way was Esther Stargill freed from Laws of the Covenant Church.
And so Mom moved to Spokane and took a room at the YWCA, changed her name to Merry, and at a dance met Joe Davis. She married Joe and became Merry Davis. She earned her General Equivalency Degree, hatched me, and—in the maternity ward of Deaconess Hospital—commenced my reading program.
* * *
Dad’s ultimate example of integrity, of morality—again, these are my words, not his—was his foxhole speech. It was a summer evening in 1956. I was waist-deep in a hole I’d dug in the garden. I’d started digging to gather fishing worms, but after my Prince Albert tobacco tin was full I got another idea. Dad spied the dirt flying and ambled over from his shop.
“I’m digging a foxhole,” I said. “I’m staying here tonight. I’m going to spotlight the deer that have been eating our apples.” I held up the big battery lantern.
“Too bad you don’t have a buddy to keep you awake,” Dad said.
I looked at him.
“What if you get tired and fall asleep and the deer walk through your perimeter? They’ll eat the apples, and you’ll never know they were there.”
I said I’d stay awake.
“If you had a buddy you could trust,” Dad said, “you could sleep awhile. He’d wake you up when he said he would, then he’d sleep awhile. Then you’d wake him up when you said you would. When the deer came, one of you would be up to wake the other.”
I said I wasn’t tired.
“A guy gets down in a hole and leans his head against the dirt after a hard day,” Dad said, “and it’s awful easy to fall asleep. Then when the night is darkest the deer walk in and eat your hat off.”
I looked at him.
“But if you trust your buddy and your buddy trusts you,” Dad said, “you can both get a good sleep. You won’t be seeing visions of those deer sneaking up on you. You’ll be the ones to give the deer a surprise.”
As I hit the keys at this moment, I see my father silhouetted in the last glow of sun as he walks between rows of string beans back to the shop. It breaks my heart to wonder if he’d been volunteering to be my deer-spotting buddy.
So why did this careful, practical man drive a ’58 Corvette, a car made of fiberglass? Dad drove the ‘Vette because it touched the nugget of frivolity inside him. I saw it in his face on a seventeen-mile drive north from Spokane to the little town of Deer Park for the drag races. We would take the GMC, Dad at the wheel, Mom in the middle, me riding shotgun and Yogi in back in the wind. Dad and I would watch the races from the pits with his hot rod pals, then go cook out in the little city park on the north edge of town, away from the roar and the fumes of the drag cars, where Mom would be sitting and reading when we tooled in. On the Fourth of July, 1963, they took the ‘Vette, and Yogi stayed home: no room for a silky moose-dog in a two-seater. I was back in Spokane, playing a double-header. They’d watched me play a few days before, so I encouraged them to go.
Were my parents’ deaths a lesson in caution? No. I ride a motorcycle every day the weather allows; one of the bikes I ride is Dad’s ’58 Harley-Davidson Duo-Glide. And I don’t wear a helmet. Do I have something to prove? Do I think I’m a tough guy? No. Am I an arrested adolescent? Of course. I just don’t like wearing a helmet.
There is no atheist in a foxhole. I heard that sentence over and over growing up. It implies that when the direct hit is on the way, every human being knuckles under to the fear of death and begs God to intercede.
For the past forty-five years, I’ve wondered if my father begged God for a hand that day on Highway 395 when the drunk cigarette salesman at the wheel of the Buick wagon bore down on the Corvette grill-to-grill. But I always come to the same conclusion: everything I know about him tells me he was too busy trying to fix on his own the lethal thing that was breaking.
After Mom and Dad died and the actual world crumpled in on itself, I still had the world of books. People from literature were more real to me than real people. George and Lennie from the Salinas Valley of California, Huck and Jim from the Mississippi, a young man named George Willard from Winesburg, Ohio, with whom I felt a kinship, and another young man named Holden Caulfield from New York, for whom I felt sympathy but no kinship. I had Yossarian from World War II, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty from the Beat Generation, and Goofy, Donald, Uncle Scrooge, and Gyro Gearloose from Walt Disney.
The world of literature is truly infinite. Even if we were able to read every book, somebody’d be writing a new one as we were reading the last. We’ll never read them all.
I was among the youngest kids in the Spokane area to receive massive doses of Greek mythology. Sitting on Mom’s lap in the library or at home in the big chair under the lamp with the burgundy fringe on the shade was a consuming thrill, and that feeling resonates through me as I click these keys. She read to me about the gods and goddesses, the demigods, the mortals great and lesser.
In my first year of high school we had to memorize a poem; I consulted my in-home librarian in search of a short one. What Mom gave me was Tennyson’s Ulysses. It’s a page-and-a-half long, single-spaced. If Ulysses hadn’t been one of my boyhood heros, I’d have declined. I’m glad I didn’t, because in the character of Ulysses I saw what I later understood was a worthy purpose for a human life. In part, that purpose is to drink life to the lees; to follow knowledge like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bound of human thought; to know it’s never too late to do some work of noble note, or to seek a newer world; to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars, until we die.
Noble human endeavors. Words to live by—and not one of them about fearing or worshipping or owing our lives to God. Words that take as much courage to ground one’s faith in as John 3:16.
When Tennyson’s words ring in my head, I feel a kinship with other human beings across time and distance who loved their lives on earth and refused to grovel and whine and beg the darkness to grant them eternity.
Tennyson taught me this, but Mom taught me Tennyson.
To follow knowledge like a sinking star . . . until we die.
Until we die. What do I think happened when the Buick wagon rammed Dad’s ‘Vette, and where do I think my mother and father are now?
I think their chests were crushed in the second it took the Buick to blast the 283 off its mounts and through them. I think these people I loved were switched off like lights. I think my mother and father faded like light fades. Maybe their souls shine somewhere—as science says, light goes on forever through the universe.
I know this: they are glowing in my memory at this moment, and they are bright there always. Merry and Joe Davis are as alive in this story-mix of memory and imagination as they’re ever going to be. This faith is the legacy they left me.
Mr. Davis’s biography, in his own words: I’ve taught Storytelling in Prose in MFA programs for thirty years, last time at Minnesota State, Mankato, where a health issue forced my early retirement. I miss the workshops, and I especially miss the classes where we read stories line-by-line (really) with all the care we could muster. I understand that what we do is way more about storytelling than about writing—that it should be, at least–but I do love working to find the right words and get them in the right places. I wish I had Louise Erdrich’s skill with figurative language; it’s possible, though, that what Erdrich has is beyond skill. I always tried to teach that skill can create the illusion of talent, and that to call someone talented isn’t the compliment we think it is before we really understand how storytelling in prose works. Calling someone tenacious, now that’s a compliment. I had good luck with my first novel back in 1979. I think my books got better; I wish there’d been more of them, but I don’t like to write a novel more than once a decade so I don’t glut the market. Consequently, people think I shone brightly, then dimmed. If you look down in there among the words, though, I don’t think you’ll find that accurate. Merry and Joe is from a novel titled Falling One Long Time, the Life of Karl Russell, All-American Boy.