The Grace of Itawamba County
Mack Bryant was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by the Class ’77 at East Yalobusha County High School. He was the only contender, voted unanimously, not counting abstentions. He made a B+ in Algebra II and scored the touchdown at Homecoming, when EYCHS lost 6-42 to West Itawamba County High School. Not many folks in Yalobusha County were swinging the world by the tail. Yalobusha hadn’t a single psychologist, certified counselor or palm reader. There wasn’t even beer. It was dry. As of the spring of ’77, Yalobusha County counted forty-nine Baptist and born-again churches. However, Yalobusha could be insensitive. EYCHS seniors not only voted for “Most Likely to Succeed” but also for “Most Likely to Fail.” Every year, there were more contenders for the latter, and the winner got more attention. In the Class of ‘77, there were twelve viable candidates. The Algebra teacher called them “The Dirty Dozen.” As for Mack, his peers admired and resented his B+ in Algebra II, the highest in the class. No one at EYCHS made an A in Algebra. Moreover, no reasonable curve could inflate Mack’s B+ to an A-. By national standards, his B+ was a stretch. Math grades were a perpetual dilemma for the Yalobusha County School Board, and King’s English was a hopeless cause. However, Itawamba County – a few counties to the east – had a better tax base. It had more Episcopalians than Yalobusha, and it sold booze and fireworks. It had better pay for football coaches and Math and English teachers.
The Dirty Dozen thought Mack a mama’s boy, but they respected him. He was well groomed, studious by Yalobusha standards, athletic and had a steady girlfriend since Junior Prom. He smoked cigarettes on weekends, but they were his mom’s Parliaments. Because Yalobusha was dry, neither Mack nor anyone at EYCHS drank much beer, except when Daster Pitts made runs to Itawamba County in his dad’s pickup truck. He was the Dirty Dozen’s man with the fake ID, which he never needed but carried just in case. His beer runs cost him all chances of being voted “Most Likely to Fail,” though he was reckoned a contender.
Mack and Daster came from different towns. Mack was born and raised Pecanville, a relatively fun place known for Rooster’s Burgers and Pinky’s Roller Rink. Daster was born out-of-state in Toad Suck, Arkansas. But in 1970, Daster’s mom was booked for check kiting while dad was in Vietnam. She was let out on $500 bail, for which she wrote a check and ended up in prison. A few years’ prior, the minister at the First Pentecostal Church of Toad Suck didn’t think “Daster” was a proper name for Baptism. But right when all the saved (including Daster), dressed in white, had been led down to the Arkansas River, Daster’s mom wrote the minister a $100 check. Shortly after her arrest in 1970, dad blew town and took Daster with him, heading east and over the state line. They moved in with grandma to work her ailing cotton and corn farm outside of Pittleboro. The town had a one-street commercial district on the eastern edge of Yalobusha County, comprised of a Conoco Station, an ex-depot and two boarded-up buildings, one of which was spray-painted “David Loves Bathsheba.” That old building used to be Uriah’s Grocery, which closed when the owner died from mysterious causes in 1972, shortly after his wife left him. A pack of rib-caged, hungry hounds hung around the Conoco station because folks would toss them beef jerky, which was sold at the counter. In that world, Daster was a reliable farmhand. Beyond that, beer runs to Itawamba were all that he could be counted on to do.
York Lambert was voted “Most Likely to Fail” by the Class of ’77. He was from the wealthiest family in Pecanville. His dad owned Rooster’s and Pinky’s but spent weekends drinking and philandering in New Orleans while his mother ran the businesses. York was baptized Episcopalian, but he didn’t’ know it. He didn’t even know he was Christian. At EYCHS, he was a loner, played no sport, involved himself in no extracurricular activity and graduated on an unduly steep curve. York’s English teacher, Sara O’Brien, told her colleagues, “What would failing him accomplish?” He was like the forgotten apostle of the Dirty Dozen, as he joined for the beer, not for the company. When they drank beer in the woods behind Pitts farm, York said nearly nothing, just sitting and drinking his Dixie. He paid for everyone’s beer out of his dad’s money and never got a “thanks” – and never expected one – save for the understanding that one six-pack of Dixie was reserved just for him. He didn’t resent being voted “Most Likely to Fail.” Rather, he thought, “I count.”
Daster thought himself a failure for not being voted “Most Likely to Fail.” But the beer runs won him too much recognition. The runs gave him a sense of accomplishment and relief from Pittleboro’s confining boredom. For him, entering Itawamba was a self-transcending experience, like approaching the Pearly Gates. There was a massive, lit-up, white billboard with red letters that said, “BEER! LIQUOR! FIREWORKS!” A flashing, red, neon arrow pointed to a dingy little liquor store and a fireworks stand, not 50 yards over the county line. That sign – “BEER! LIQUOR! FIREWORKS!” – reminded him of his baptism in the Arkansas River. When he came out of the water, the minister of Toad Suck said, “My boy, you count for somethin’. One day you’ll see Saint Peter at them Pearly Gates.” The beer runs made him feel born-again. But the feeling faded when he brought back the Dixie and Schlitz. It was like bringing back a rock from the moon. The trip was fun, but the return was depressing. Daster felt re-entry sadness, especially after sundown when his headlights caught a little, dull, green sign, tangled in a Huckleberry bush, which said, “Entering Yalobusha County.” That spot was marked by a sudden deterioration of the pavement. The road became even worse, crumbled and potholed, when he entered Pittleboro. The town was usually patrolled by a cop named David. He’d ticket anyone going even slightly over 20 mph. David was the most disliked man in Pittleboro. But his inhospitality was the town’s – and his – biggest revenue source.
The summer after graduation, Daster invited Mack and York to join him on a beer run. A pale, longhaired guy with a nametag “Peter” was manning the liquor store’s cash register. York noticed a crucifix dangling from a chain over Peter’s t-shirt. He asked, “What’z da guy on dat cross?” Peter replied, “Dat’s Jee-sus, who da’ hell d’you think it is?” “Dunno,” said York, “ma’ paw never done took me ta’ no church ‘cause all he does is dranks and whores.” Peter replied, “Go down yonder some miles to dat church called Sacred Heart and see da Father. He gets his Crown Royal and fireworks here, but he don’t whore none. He can tell yew all ‘bout Jee-sus on da cross, and he might even give yew one. He’z one a dem funny-talkin’ guys from Ire-land. He sometimes shoots fireworks off his porch.” None of boys had ever been beyond the liquor store. All they knew about Itawamba County is that it sold beer and fireworks and had good football. They didn’t know what a Catholic or a Father was. They never met anyone from Ireland. To them, Itawamba County seemed a special place, full of surprises and new things. Itawamba was great for a reason, they felt. So they took a ride, heading east.
They were disappointed. Nothing looked different from Yalobusha, save for the smooth highway. Otherwise, it had the same old pines and corn and cotton fields, and some peach orchards. After about eight miles, they came to the church. It was marked along the highway by a small Jesus statue and a weathered, plywood sign with peeling white paint and fading black letters that said, “Sacred Heart Catholic Mission.” A small gravel parking lot was on the right of the simple, white church with a plain cross atop the steeple. It didn’t look different from any little Baptist church in Yalobusha. On its left was a small house with a sign that said, “Office. Rectory.” When they pulled into the parking lot, Mack said, “This ‘aint nothing. Let’s keep goin’.” But York said, “No. I wanna’ see what Peter wuz talkin’ ‘bout.” No one argued with the man who bought the beer. When they opened the church door, it was more exotic inside than outside. Centered against the back wall was a cross with Jesus on it, a gigantic version of what Peter wore. Beneath the cross, and behind a table with candles, was a container that looked like a miniature gold hut with a door and a red candle flickering next to it. The boys felt a mysterious Presence. On the left corner of the church’s back wall, near an exit, was a statue of a man with curly brown hair and a beard, wearing a brown robe. In his right hand, he was holding flowers. In his left arm, he was holding a boy. The boy was holding, in his left hand, a blue ball with a cross on it; and his right hand was held up and opened, as if someone was tossing him another ball. On the right corner of the church was a statue of a woman in a blue robe and a white towel on her head. In bare feet, she was stepping on a snake swallowing an apple. “Holy s***,” said York to himself. Candles were lit beneath the statues.
York got close to the statue of the woman to get a good look. She was staring at him, he felt. She gave him the creeps but in a good way. He looked down to examine the snake but noticed a paper note shoved beneath the statue’s base. He reached over the candles, pulled it out and read it. “Watcha’ found?” asked Daster. “Get the hell away! It’s my note,” said York, red-faced. “What’s it say?” asked Mack. York read silently, concentrating. In familiar handwriting, it said, “Dear Blessed Lady, Mother of my Savior, Jesus Christ, guide and protect your son, York Lambert. Behold your son! Mary, Mother of God, pray for York. Love, S. O’Brien.” “What’s it say, York?” asked a voice. He tore up the note and knelt beneath Mary. He wept. Mack and Daster knelt too, but they didn’t know why. There was a Presence. York said nothing. Then, they went home and drank beer in the woods behind Pitts Farm.