Book Excerpt from Passing through Perfect
When the heart of a man gets pulled loose he starts dying. I
started dying a year ago, and I’m still working on it. I ain’t
going all at once; I’m going piece by piece. If you was to see
me pushing the plow or chopping wood, you’d figure me a whole person—
a heaving, hauling, hard of muscle and stinking of sweat man. But the truth
is I ain’t been whole since this same day last year.
It ain’t my skin and bones what’s dying, it’s my soul. My body’s still
walking around doing chores and taking orders from folks like Missus
Mayfield, but my soul… that’s lying out on Cross Corner Road alongside
In the year gone by I suffered more misery than God ought to expect a
man to bear. Now I come to where I can’t take no more. It ain’t easy
leaving a place where you was born, but I got Isaac to think of and the boy
deserves better. I ain’t gonna say if this is a good decision or not, but come
tomorrow morning Isaac and me is leaving here and we ain’t never gonna
look back at Alabama.
This is a place of shame and misery. The shame of a man called boy
and the misery of losing what you love. ’Course to understand the size of
my misery, you’d have to know how it was with me and Delia.
The war was over, and hundreds of thousands of young men
headed home to pick up the pieces of their lives. Benjamin
Church was one of them. Many came home missing an eye, an
arm, or a leg, but not Benjamin. Although he’d joined up thinking he’d
fight Germans, the truth was he’d done little more than unload trucks and
work on the motors that kept them running.
In the years he’d been gone Benjamin had sent countless letters home.
His mama had written back several times saying things at home were just
fine. But after the fall of that third year, he’d received only one letter telling
how his mama had gone to be with the Lord. The letter was penned in
Reverend Beech’s neat, even script, but at the bottom in shaky block letters
his daddy had written OTIS CHURCH. They were the only two words Otis
Benjamin climbed down from the bus in Bakerstown, slung his duffle
bag over his shoulder, and started walking. It was almost twenty-five miles
out to the farm and most of it back road. On the far edge of Madison Street
he veered toward Pineville Road and left the town behind.
On the long nights when he’d lain in his bunk thinking of home,
Benjamin had remembered raucous rolls of laughter and the smell of pork
roasting over a wood fire. He saw girls in flowery dresses and called to
mind the sound of their high-pitched giggles. Of course, it had been four
years so he expected to see some change: a few new houses maybe, a new
store, a cement road. But there was nothing. It was exactly the same as
when he left. In a strange way, the sight of sameness felt comfortable. It
was the part of home he’d longed for.
The sun was low in the sky when the house came into view. It sat there
silent as a graveyard; no motors chugging, no people talking, not even a
barnyard chicken squawking. For a brief moment Benjamin wondered if his
daddy was gone also, but when he turned into the road the old man came
out onto the porch.
Benjamin raised his arm and waved. Otis brought his hand to his face
and shielded his eyes from the sun. He leaned forward, trying to identify
Dropping his duffle in the road, Benjamin took off running. He was
three steps shy of the porch when his daddy finally recognized him.
Otis gasped. “Lord-a-mercy, I hardly knowed it was you.”
Benjamin hugged the frail Otis to his chest and laughed. “You saying I
put on some weight?”
“Some weight?” Otis echoed. “Why, you done went from boy to man.”
It was true. Benjamin had left home a lanky, bone-thin boy and
returned a man who was broad of chest and heavily muscled. His face had
also changed. It wasn’t a change you could point to and say his nose was
shorter or his cheeks fuller; it was the look behind his eyes. They were still
brown with scattered flecks of gold, but there was a wisdom that hadn’t
been there before. If you looked only at Benjamin’s eyes, you could almost
believe him to be an old man.
“I’m sorry about your mama,” Otis said.
A look of sadness shadowed Benjamin’s face. “I’m sorry too, Daddy.
He said nothing of how for nearly a month his mama’s laugh was
something he couldn’t forget. No matter how hard he tried not to think of
her, the thoughts came and he cried. There were nights when he’d fall into
his bunk exhausted from the day’s work, but the moment he closed his eyes
a picture of her came to mind. He’d see her baking a pie, drawing water
from the well, or singing in the choir, and knowing she was gone would
sting like a hornet nesting inside his brain.
After a short time of talking Benjamin went back, picked up his duffle,
and came inside the house. It was the same as the day he’d left. His mama’s
apron still hung on a peg alongside the wood stove. As he sat at the kitchen
table and drank a glass of sweet tea with his daddy, her ghost slid in
alongside of them. It was a sadness neither of them wanted to speak of.