If you could sit totally still for long enough on the big rock by the sycamore, the catfish would peek out tentatively from the hollow underneath and then would move out, browsing along the bottom. A few minutes later, the ribbon snakes would slither down the honeysuckle, gliding back and forth across the pool with their heads raised barely above the surface. This time a gray watersnake had joined them, below the kingfisher’s perch, half in the water and half in the patch of jewelweed, near where the lone trout lurked in the shadows.
Suddenly all the catfish darted back into their hollow as Mary Ann climbed onto the rock. She had a way of sneaking up silently through the shallows, like the snakes. Richard suspected that she had been sent to find him. He had a vague impression that as the older sibling she was supposed to help keep tabs on him, even though she was by far the more rebellious one and often tried to incite him to mischief.
Mary Ann said, “Don’t let Mama see that big hole you’re digging out back. What’s it supposed to be, a fallout shelter?” Richard said nothing, quickly stifling memories of nuclear drills and President Kennedy’s speeches.
She continued, “Joshua’s coming.”
“What does that mean?”
“They’re gonna let him stay at our house.”
Joshua was one of their grandmother’s many correspondents, who supplied Maw with a regular stream of long, dense-looking letters about politics and theology. As they slid down off the rock, Richard grabbed a handful of Japanese beetles from the wild-grape leaves and tossed them onto the water, a present for the leaping bass.
Walking up the hill, Richard had a troubling thought: might a house guest think it odd that a ten-year-old boy had only his sister as a summer playmate? He could explain: his classmates all lived in the city, but he also painfully recognized his own shyness as a factor. Still, summers were never boring. He filled his days with collecting insects, tending a vegetable patch, walking a makeshift tightrope, experimenting with Maw’s chickens’ social order, and, on rainy days, poring over entomology books.
Up at the house, they got some details. Joshua was leaving California for a month to tour the East Coast and would stay with the family for only a few days on his way to Washington, D.C. Some well-respected mutual acquaintances had provided character references, writing that Joshua was an exemplary “man of God.” Maw warned both the kids to behave and suggested that Joshua might even be a good role model for Richard, who she often claimed had two huge obstacles to overcome, the natural tendencies of his gender and the no-good genes he had inherited from her ex-husband.
Mama seemed skeptical but added, “And just wear your own clothes, okay?” Richard nodded. A straight-laced religious person might not understand his habit of masquerading in hand-me-downs on rare but unpredictable occasions to “play Alice.”
Richard said, “Shouldn’t we keep Penny out of the kitchen for a while?” Penny was the old pet rooster that Maw kept in the house because he had lost one eye, challenging another rooster for pecking rights. “And what about Maw’s boxes?” The boxes took up half the dining room. They appeared to hold every letter she’d ever received, onion skin carbons of every one she’d ever sent, piles of decaying sheet music, and abandoned attempts at political commentary, fiction, and poetry. Richard tried futilely to consolidate some of the contents to conserve space, and while he did so, his snooping eyes found what he considered confirmation of a hypothesis: Maw had for years been sending money to small-time political crusaders she thought were “combatting the encroaching forces of evil.” Although she held most of the purse strings and was by far the dominant family member, she was a near-recluse, relying on a wide network of postal pen pals for connections to the wider world. In one letter from a Russian expatriate activist, he read, “Thank you for the support; even small amounts help my work.” So he wondered if Joshua might also have been a beneficiary of her meager donations.
In the end, the preparations were minimal. The boxes stayed largely untouched, but Penny was quarantined in the pantry with a regular supply of bread soaked in milk or coffee. Mama put some sheets in the big spare bedroom, and Mary Ann taped her cat drawing over the grease spot on the wall, where one of the real cats used to lean while it slept on the dresser. Maw tried various means of encouraging Beulah, the incontinent foxhound, to sleep somewhere other than on the porch directly in front of the main door. On the day when Joshua was to arrive, Richard picked a mixed bouquet of flowers, mostly coreopsis buds, which he claimed looked like well-fed dog ticks but which would soon open into pretty orange daisy-like flowers. He arranged them carefully in a vase on the spare-bedroom dresser. Richard still tingled a little at the memory of having jumped up there once for refuge from the two dogs that were chasing him. Maw had pulled them away, claiming they must have thought he was the girl dog he had been petting down the road at a neighbor’s house.
Only Mama, Mary Ann, and Richard went to the station. As passengers stepped down from the bus, Richard watched for a stuffy-looking man in a black suit, maybe with some type of hat. Three suited men emerged, but all walked straight out of the station. The next-to-last person to leave the bus walked directly toward the trio, maybe because they were the only thing in the area that looked as if it could be a welcoming party.
“Pew; I hope that’s not him,” Mary Ann whispered. He was smoking a cigarette, and a long piece of ash fell onto his shirt as he advanced. He was old, tall, and skinny, with oily yellow-white hair hanging to just above his waist and a matching beard that ended halfway down his chest. Richard recognized his clothing as the same style the school janitor wore, coarse-woven dark-tan overalls and matching shirt. The stranger stretched out his hand to Mama and said, “Joshua Number Eight.”
“Mister Sherman?” she replied
“The post office and the courts call me that, but I don’t really have a surname anymore.” He pulled out a driver’s license and pointed to the name ‘Joshua 8,’ almost simultaneously lighting another cigarette and dropping his luggage at the back of the car. “Can you open the trunk?” He took a fresh pack of Pall Malls from the side pouch of the big khaki bag and slipped it into his shirt pocket.
On the sixteen-mile trip to the house, Mama questioned him about his travels. He had been warned in a dream that Los Angeles would be destroyed by an earthquake, so he passed the news on to a few special friends and came east. He was going to Washington to talk to some politicians, but he wouldn’t elaborate on that plan. He seemed used to explaining the hair style and clothing without being prompted to do so. He wore menial work clothes to show humility and kinship with the common people. He had given up cutting his hair and beard after taking a Nazarite vow years before.
“Look it up in the Bible,” he said. “When you take the vow, you can’t cut your hair, and you can’t own a house or drink alcohol. And I hope it’s not any inconvenience; don’t buy any grapes or grape juice for me while I’m here. Nazarites can’t use grapes. In any form.”
Richard found a bit of comfort in the references to “the common people.” Although his family were not poor, he often felt they were; his clothes rarely fit and were usually out of date, he had never had a sled or bicycle, and for some unstated reason, the family had only recently acquired a black and white TV even though Daddy sold and repaired them for a living.
Daddy was home early from his shop when the group arrived. He looked bewildered and scowled a little at Joshua’s cigarette—the third, at least, since the bus station. Daddy smoked too—cigars—but he did so secretly and never in the house. Maw introduced herself to Joshua but said nothing more. Richard followed along as Mama led Joshua up the big rosewood staircase and showed him the spare bedroom, where he deposited his luggage—the large, khaki army surplus bag, a battered old suitcase, and a long, nondescript case that looked like it might hold some short fishing rods. Richard was eager to see whether it did. He had long dreamed of having some fishing gear himself, to use somewhere other than in his own special stream with its familiar fish, but he would never have told his parents. Downstairs, the rest of the family were gathered at the table. Richard snatched the basket of grapes from the center and took it to the kitchen, popping a few in his mouth as he returned.
After dinner, Joshua went upstairs and came back down with a large package wrapped in Christmas paper, tied with a bright yellow ribbon. A card on top read “To Maryanna and Richa.” Unfazed by the strange misspellings and the unseasonal wrapping, the siblings tore it open to reveal a cheap toy bow with a cardboard target and suction-cup-tipped arrows, which Richard was confident wouldn’t stick to the target. The package also held a toy makeup kit with a mirror and some tubes of fake lipstick. Mary Ann grabbed the archery set and said, “I guess this is supposed to be for you.” It was useless to either of them. They had long made their own powerful bows out of choice persimmon limbs, and their arrows weren’t tipped with rubber. And Mary Ann was too old for pretend makeup. Her breasts were showing some development, and she was beginning to keep feminine secrets from him. But Richard at least could use the kit to turn doll faces into grotesque caricatures.
Next morning, just before dawn, Richard awoke to the sound of hammering at the back of the house. He crept out to the back porch and found Joshua reattaching the screening to a new piece of lumber where the old one had rotted away. Daddy had been planning to fix that but had never found the time to do it. They walked to the front of the house, where the unassembled porch swing had been sitting in a decomposing box for a year or more. No one had figured out how to locate the joists where the hooks would be attached, from which to suspend the chains, so it simply sat there. Joshua asked if the family wanted the swing to be hung and if so, where. Richard had given up hope and assured him that it would be wonderful if somebody would actually put it up. He led Joshua to the basement and showed him where to find a step ladder, a drill, and some wrenches and went back to bed.
When he awoke again in mid-morning, Mama and Maw were on the porch, sitting on the fully completed swing. Richard joined them. Beulah was back in her usual place near the door, occasionally lifting her head to snap at insects. The white-faced hornets swooped down on flies and carried them back to their nest in the maple. Joshua appeared from somewhere out in the bushes and apologized for any noise he might have made with his work. Mama asked how he happened to be so handy with tools, to which he replied “Years ago, before I went into religion and bowling alley maintenance, I thought I might need a trade to make a living, so I apprenticed as a carpenter.”
On Sunday, Maw—a devout convert to Catholicism—returned from church and told Joshua that the mass had been especially moving that day. He said, “Yeah, I was there,” even though he hadn’t left the house all morning. He was holding a cluster of unripe concord grapes from the back arbor. Maw asked, “Didn’t you say you couldn’t eat those, because of the Nazarene thing?”
“Nazarite. Yeah, but these aren’t really grapes. They’re concords. A long time ago—before—I used to eat real grapes, of course.”
“Well, I guess grapes could be hard to give up completely. For some people, I bet giving up alcohol would be even harder.” Knowing her hatred of alcohol, Richard thought she might be fishing for a clue about whether he treated that part of his vow as he did the grape part.
He replied, “We didn’t have liquor back then. Hey, I did drink some wine on special occasions, like at weddings and a farewell dinner, but I never got drunk. That’s not what wine is for. I even played around with making a little wine—but from water, not from grapes.”
A few days later, Richard listened as Mama and Maw talked on the porch swing. Maw wondered if this was really the person she had been writing to. Maybe he was just pretending to be Joshua. None of the letters had revealed the bizarre traits he was showing in person. As he approached, they fell silent. He stood stroking one of the chalky white porch columns that Mama had repeatedly warned the kids not to touch for fear of lead poisoning—although she never objected to their melting lead in coffee cans and pouring it into molds. She told Joshua, “I was wondering if you’ve thought about when you’re going to need me to drive you to the bus station.” There was no response. She added, “I haven’t heard anything in the news about an earthquake.”
“Well, yeah. I probably shouldn’t go back quite yet. I did a little damage to a synagogue in the neighborhood, and they probably didn’t understand why. I had some really good reasons, though.”
“I thought you said you were brought up in a Jewish family.”
“My mother was what you would probably call Jewish, but I’m way beyond those categories. No, I’m not anti-Semitic; far, far from it. But this congregation had it in for me; they made me stop handing out leaflets at their door, and every time I saw the word “temple” on their sign, it made me mad. They shouldn’t call it that. Anyway, if they ever do haul me in, this won’t be the first time. I was arrested once when I was young. Totally, absolutely trumped-up charges. Political persecution.”
“But you’re going on to Washington sometime soon, aren’t you? I guess?”
There was no response.
One day he asked if he could put some clothes in with the family’s laundry. “Except for my undershirts. I need to wash those myself. Do you have some mild soap that won’t damage ballpoint-pen ink? Some people wouldn’t understand, but I know you do. My vestment is like a secret underwear. There’s a special labeling on it, the same words that are written on my thigh. Anybody can look it up if they don’t understand. It’s in the concordance: Man on the white horse.”
A little later, he said, “I’m not the only one that’s got a message on his skin. Somewhere out there, there’s a guy going around with bangs. One day he’ll walk out of a barbershop with them all trimmed off and let the world see who he is, what he’s been hiding under there. Three-digit tattoo. And in that day, let him that is on the housetop not come down.”
That afternoon, while Mama and Joshua were out on the porch, Richard went into the spare bedroom to get some magazines from the closet. Draped over the foot of the bed was a dingy white undershirt with slightly smudged ballpoint-pen lettering on the front: King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Just before sunset, when the hushed orange light was streaming in through the upstairs windows, Richard and Maw and Mary Ann were walking from the sewing room to the living room, past the foot of the big rosewood staircase. Above, on the back wall of the upper landing, was the shadow of a man standing motionless with a long, straight object pointing out from his body at shoulder height, one hand back near the shoulder and the other stretched out to the front. The image held firm, unchanged, for most of a minute. Then a door closed, cutting out all the sunlight and shadow.
The next day, Maw slept until evening. The night after that, at around two a.m., Richard awoke and tiptoed out to the kitchen for a drink of water. Maw was sitting in the rocking chair, wide awake, with a cup of her double-strength coffee and the telephone pulled over close beside her. He pretended not to have seen and went back to bed.
On the twelfth day after Joshua’s arrival, Mama said she was getting embarrassed at buying so many Pall Malls and asked him to come along to the store with her and Richard and get them himself. At the cash register, Joshua pointed to a newspaper headline about a devastating earthquake in Europe. “See? We’re living in the end time,” he said. The cashier looked puzzled for a moment and then ventured, “Oh, are you one of those people that says Jesus is about to come back to Earth?”
“No. No. It’s too late for that.”
When they returned, Mary Ann was coming up the hill from the creek. Soon Joshua came back out of the house and asked if anybody had been in his room. The kids shook their heads. “Why?” Richard asked. Joshua looked pale and nervous, but he didn’t reply.
Richard awoke to the sound of an unfamiliar car receding down the long driveway. At the breakfast table, Daddy said, “He’s gone.” He didn’t elaborate, and neither of the kids asked questions. Richard ran down the hill to the creek. He climbed up on the big rock and simply looked, as he had often done before Joshua arrived. Nobody but Richard, who had meditated on every inch of the pool, would have noticed some little anomalies in the mud in a two-foot long area in front of the jewelweed, over by the shadows where the trout often lurked. Mary Ann sneaked up silently in her swimsuit and sat on the rock. Richard told her about how the catfish and snakes would come out if you were really, really quiet for a while. They sat together watching until it happened.
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