Patrick Thomas Henry
After living off his landlady’s stoneware pecan dish for several weeks, Vernon stole it. He needed something hard, something that wouldn’t be missed at night, to shatter the lead glass on the general store’s alleyway door. And the pecan dish managed it in three satisfying cracks. With his hand swathed in a rag, Vernon reached through the pane and unlocked the door from the inside. From the shelves, he took only what might keep in the dark of his suitcase—rye bread, jerky, tin cans he could open with his late brother’s infantry-issue utility knife, jelly beans, cinnamon red hots. Only later would it occur to him that he had committed the first two crimes of his life in the same night. But he could muster neither guilt, nor his standard disdain for moral lassitude, over the act.
He had taken this lesson from peddling the good book for the Livingstone Bible Company, the august and sainted “L.B.Co.”: ethical injunctions were always relative. A God who loves only just deeds must sometimes calculate—as Vernon did—that a blatant crime can shed motes of good. Besides, the company’s actions showed him that miserliness resided next door to godliness. After all, the small stipend he received for room and board forced him to accept the conditions of old Miss Munroe’s boarding house. A cot in a room the size of a doublewide closet, a communal washroom, and an extra three dollars a week if he wanted meals. She provided only tin cups of water from the rain barrel, or pecans from the dish—because these weren’t hawked by the all-seeing eye tacked to her high-necked blouse. (An omniscient eye: that’s how Vernon thought of his landlady’s mother-of-pearl brooch, engraved with the likeness of a bulging-eyed falcon.)
Each evening he removed seven pecans from the tray. Each morning, another seven. Out on his circuit, he scavenged from feed bins and the fringes of farms, stowed what he could in his case of bibles. Somehow the red leather covers with their gilt print never spoiled. The food was another matter. Vernon would catch himself apologizing for wilt on lettuce, rot on a carrot, when sharing the wares with his roommate—Eustace, a lily of a boy with shoulders prematurely stooped. At the end of a day, Vernon found himself massaging the lad’s shoulders and rubbing the ache from his swollen fingers. Eustace whispered his thanks.
Eustace had a voice like a piccolo, Vernon remembered. It hit your ears in a trill. Like the panpipes Vernon and his brother and sister had made from the stalks of pussy willows and reeds, when they were young bucks tramping in the silk mud of the Ohio’s shallows.
Eustace ought to’ve been on the trail with him, getting declined by farmers or chain-gang convicts with their shotgun-toting warders or half-slumbering sawyers, none with the gumption to read nor the wherewithal to take up Christian living. The L.B.Co. insisted that their boys travel in pairs, trusting that one lad would check the other against the “lures of moral turpitude.” But a man had no time for lust when his stomach was clenched tight as a plum’s stone.
Eustace had suffered three days in the sun before shriveling like the leaves of their pilfered cabbages. After a further two weeks as an invalid he packed his few possessions into a valise. Tears brimmed in his eyes when his arms caught Vernon round the neck at the train depot. To Vernon he’d said, if he wanted to starve and melt, he would’ve joined his father in the Allentown mills. (Vernon would send him a postcard a year later. His sister wrote back: Eustace had collapsed on the mill floor and was never revived.)
It conveniently slipped Vernon’s mind to report Eustace’s departure. And, after the passage of several nights, it appeared Miss Munroe had committed a similar omission. Her letters weren’t hard to lift: stamped and in a thick stock of envelope, her mail rested alongside that blessed pecan dish. Over a pan of water heated on his paraffin stove, Vernon steamed open the fat envelopes and discovered epistles to the L.B.Co.’s director of sales. Amidst her reveries and confessions of faith and citations of scripture, she said nothing of Vernon’s indiscretion.
Indeed, she wove the L.B.Co. a sweet yarn. So damned precious, the company sending extra dollars “for her poor starving Yankee riffraff.”
She did remark, however, on the “vexing condition” of Vernon’s immortal soul. What a penance that a Yank should find himself here, in an inhospitable country. What divine retribution, that circumstances should force him to subsist off the sweat of his brow. And if his labors produced nothing? It was an omen, she wrote to the director. The righteous saw that his soul already wore horns and walked with cleft feet. It would take every speck of providence, she professed, to allow Vernon McAvoy a sale.
And it was true: in the three weeks, Vernon had yet to sell one miserable bible. Families already owned one with endpapers festooned with faded lineages, or they were content to accept the reverend’s sermons as the voice of God himself.
It was the sixth week when he borrowed the pecan dish to shatter leaded glass; the sixth week when the sweat of his brow earned a pilfered meal from the general store; the sixth week when he washed the powdered glass from his downy arms in the rain barrel behind the boarding house.
The evening of the theft, he returned the pecan dish to the dining room’s credenza, lifted Miss Munroe’s mail from the tray, then stole upstairs with his bindle. In his room, he opened a tin from the store, ate the white beans cold, and wiped the can clean with a hunk of rye. He sucked on a few of the red hots, then rolled the jerky and other tins in his sour socks, where Miss Munroe wouldn’t deign to look. He imagined his wages lining Miss Munroe’s pockets where there ought to’ve been silk. His older brother was sprouting poppies somewhere in Europe; his father was never found in the collapsed anthracite tunnel; his mother had died of grief. His sister alone was left to him and if God gave a can of beans, the Jesuits would do right with her.
Vernon ate by the light of a taper and boiled water for coffee on the paraffin burner. He unsealed the latest letter over the steam. It was a check, pinned to an order for lace, cotton bolts, needlepoint frames, and thread. He smoothed the envelope’s flap and vowed to return it before Miss Munroe woke, with the sun.
After setting the letters aside, he took from his sales case a bible and the L.B.Co.’s script. Emphasize the parables and Christ’s nobility. The Ten Commandments and the plight of the Israelites. Vernon took his coffee in a few gulps. With his pencil nub, he left a mark next to the names of each chapter represented in the company pitch, then angled the bible so he could read the verses by the taper’s feeble light.
He suffered another week on the L.B.Co.’s line. Another week on the pecan dish, on vegetables with the mold carved off, on stiff nods from Miss Munroe. When a raptor soared overhead, he swore to himself it was the landlady’s broach come to life to spy on his every footfall. (Like all predators God must have some means of keeping his eye on the sparrow.) At each door, a wife or a cowering child greeted him. They bantered about the horrible things of late—what audacious creature would steal from Mr. Kurtz’s store? But when it came to Vernon’s business, these folks sensed the falcon’s cold eye and insisted they had no need for the L.B.Co.’s fine, gold-leafed pages. Vernon understood. He slouched around the properties, careful to linger in the shade. In the debris of fences and half-erected sheds, he collected several squat carpenters’ pencils. He pilfered an oil lamp from a stable to stretch the life of his last candles.
By night, he read against the cool blue flame. He scrawled on the back of his script.
He did not thank God, but Miss Munroe’s pecan dish, for granting him world enough and time, for preparing his transgression of the L.B.Co.’s appointed sales route. His first destination was a homestead on another poor soul’s circuit. On the farmhouse stoop, a young woman received him at the door and begged him to leave. They’d had a man last week, and her mother hadn’t given a damn for his sugared tongue. “We got enough damned promises, Mr.—”
“McAvoy. Vern McAvoy.”
“You seen them rows of corn, Vern McAvoy? Can’t feed a damned scarecrow, and what does grow won’t keep because,” she said, her eyes lathing him, “gophers or boys yank the best ears. And you bible boys ain’t got—”
“Miss.” Vernon held his cap over his heart. “If he was a Livingstone Bible man, I can tell you he didn’t know his scripture.”
“Because I’m a Livingstone man, and I’ve read the product.” He recited the Song of Songs, compared the apples of her cheeks and her modest bust and her gangly limbs to the palms and their lush fruits. Her cheeks had tinted dusky as peaches and she’d raised her hand to strike him, so he spun her a harsher spell: Joseph denying the brothers who’d sold him, David sending Bathsheba’s husband to a grisly death in war, Elisha conjuring a pair of bears to slay forty-two sinners, Christ overturning the moneylender’s tables. Mary Magdalene manning up, more than all the apostles summed together.
She lowered her hand. “Is that the word of God?”
“The passion and vengeance of God.” Vernon waved the bible. “It’s a damned good book, Miss. If you’re into inventing your own luck. Or if you’re into such fancy stories.”
She dimpled at him. “Maybe you ought to meet my ma.”
It was dusk when he left with coins rattling in his pocket, when he saw a snowy-crowned falcon ogling him from a fence post. It tilted back its head and its throat gorged, as if swallowing a morsel of prey. By compunction he began to cross himself, but stayed his hand. The hawk turned its marble eye on him. He knelt, scooped up some pebbles and earth, readied his wrist like a sling. But the bird buffeted the air with its wings, raised off toward the sun. Like seed into salted earth, Vernon let the gravel seep between his fingers.
Patrick Thomas Henry is the fiction and poetry editor for Modern Language Studies. His fiction and essays have recently appeared in publications including West Branch online, LandLocked, Lake Effect, and North Dakota Quarterly, among others. His work was also selected for inclusion in Best Microfiction 2020. He is a Teaching Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Creative Writing in the English Department at the University of North Dakota. You can find him online at patrickthomashenry.com or on Twitter @Patrick_T_Henry.