(This is a chapter from Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons’ young adult as-yet-untitled novel on Jonestown. A description of her work appears here. Her complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.)
June 22, 1954
Thank you for the pictures of the children; they look beautiful. Don’t ask me about the new novel; it’s giving me fits. The good news though is Wise Blood might become a motion picture. Odds are someone like John Wayne will play Haze. There’s something to pay money for.
The new stories are going well, though I must tell you about this strange incident that happened the other day. I was outside reading the dreadful newspaper (one of its better uses is to wrap fish in it) when a blue car comes down the road. Mama was in town getting her hair done. I put down the paper to see who it was; our local priest, some Avon lady or a lost soul needing directions. It was a young man with black hair. I swear to God, he looked more like an Indian. I almost wanted to hold up my hand and say “How.”
“Good morning to you, sister,” he chirped.
Oh dear. I knew right away it was one of those earnest young men who wants to have a chat with me about Jesus. Which is fine, but that’s for Sunday. I put the paper down. “What do you want?” I asked, wanting to get down to business.
“I want to give you someone that will keep you company. You must get awfully lonely here.”
Even worse, a portable dating service was at my doorstep. “I live here with my mother. And them.” I gestured my head towards the birds. They were still picking at the cornmeal I gave them.
“My word,” The stranger whispered. “Are those really peacocks?” I then noticed he wasn’t around here. He had a big booming voice, with a touch of a lisp.
“Well I don’t know if you’re interested in this…”
Sally, I’m not making this up. He brought out a monkey. An honest to God monkey. It looked at me and shrieked. I stepped back, even though the monkey was about five pounds and wouldn’t hurt me.
“Is that a monkey?” I asked.
“Yes ma’am, a monkey. Perfect for your home. Or a fine present for someone you love,”
If you and Robert lived nearby I probably would’ve gotten the beast for you. I bet you’re counting your blessings right now that you live in New York.
“Well, I’m sorry… I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name.”
“Reverend Jones, sister.”
Ah! I knew he was a do-gooder! “Well hello, Preacher. Are you new here?”
“I’m just passing by. My home and church is in Indiana, but I’m making extra money selling these fine creatures.” The monkey cuddled near Reverend Jones’ chest. For a moment it looked like it was going to nurse.
“Even though I don’t think I can buy one of your fine monkeys today Reverend, I can get you a glass of lemonade.”
“That would be so nice Miss…”
“Miss O’Connor. Let me guess, Irish?”
“You’re very observant,” I said as I headed towards the kitchen. Mama made a pitcher of pink lemonade before she left. They were floating around like ice floes in the Arctic circle.
By then the Reverend walked in. The monkey was on a leash, looking all around. “Beautiful farm you have here.”
“Yes, we enjoy it,” I said as. I poured two glasses of lemonade in the pink glasses Mama got for collecting green stamps.
“Here let me get that for you,” he said taking one of the glasses.
“Thank you. Where do you live in Indiana, Reverend Jones?” I asked as I we walked in the sun room, I sat down on the couch, resting my crutches nearby.
“Indianapolis. I just graduated from seminary school and am looking for a church where I can spread God’s word.”
I’ll be honest Sally, if I was more brave I would’ve said: “I bet that’s not the only thing you spread. I’m also guessing you’ve spread your share of fertilizer.” However, I was polite. The last thing I needed was Mama somehow finding out I was fresh to a preacher. Then I’d never hear the end of it. “Have you thought of looking for a church around here? There’s always churches that need young men like you.”
“I wouldn’t rule it out. However, my wife’s family lives near us. Plus we just adopted a little girl.”
“Oh, isn’t that kind,” I cooed.
“Though like I said, Miss O’Connor, I’d never rule it out. I especially want to have a church that’s open to all races.”
I nearly did a spit take on that one. Who did he think he was, Gandhi? “Reverend, I must say, that’s a noble goal. Do you think it’s possible?”
“Well that’s the thing, Miss O’Connor. I believe anything is possible.”
“Oh my,” I said. This one must’ve jumped off the turnip truck. “You’re so noble, Reverend. You better not share your goals with people around here. They don’t take too kindly to the thought of integration.”
“I think this is the right place to share my goals. God doesn’t care what color a man is, Miss O’Connor. What He cares about is how we treat each other.”
Wasn’t I right, Sally? If he wasn’t a minister, he could’ve had a fine career as a fertilizer salesman. “I guess I should be honest with you, Reverend Jones. I just couldn’t imagine going to church with coloreds.”
“Don’t they have the right to go to church?”
“Of course. It’s just that I could never imagine it.”
“Just because you can’t imagine it doesn’t mean it can’t happen.” He put down the glass. “Like I said before, anything is possible if you can imagine it.”
“I understand the power of imagination,” I said, feeling sweat going down my neck, “it’s how I make my living. I’m a writer.”
“Why I had no idea!” he exclaimed. “What do you write?”
“Fiction, occasional essay.” I had an extra copy of Wise Blood that I handed him. “You can keep it if you like. I sometimes use them for coasters.”
The monkey grabbed the book from the Reverend, and opened it up to several pages. Then the monkey (who in my head I was calling Might Joe Young) started to jump up and down. “Your friend has taste,” I commented.
“I just can’t believe I’m in the presence of an author. Wait until I tell my mother. She writes stories all the time. I’m convinced she could be published.”
Oh, Sally. You know how it goes. So many people tell me they are convinced he/she/ their whoever can be published. They think I’ve got a magic wand hidden somewhere and ta da, I’ll make them a published author. It makes me want to say: “I don’t want to be convinced. If you think it, that’s why it’s called a vanity press.”
“How interesting,” I said, trying to not sound sarcastic.
“I’m convinced she’s the next Mark Twain.”
Oh, Heavens. This is when I wanted to tell him that we had Mark Twain, he was a marvelous writer, but he’s been dead for over forty years now. Let him rest and be your own person. If anyone ever says “I want to be the next Flannery O’Connor” I give you permission to slap them silly.
I noticed that the Reverend’s glass was almost empty. “Reverend? Would you like another lemonade?” I asked.
“Oh no ma’am, I must be going.”
Thank the Lord! I was about done with the small talk! “Well I’m so sorry I couldn’t buy your friend here,” I said, standing up. Joe was hopping up and down on the rug. I was just hoping he wouldn’t do his business on the rug; Mama would never forgive me.
“It’s quite all right,” he stepped closer to me. I know this sounds odd, but I could’ve sworn he had whiskey on his breath. On his neck I got a whiff of Dove soap. “I might be coming here again for my ministry. I would like to come again. You are an excellent conversationalist.” His whiskeyed breath on my neck. I felt a shudder go through me.
“Well,” I said, not sure what to do. “Unless you can convince my mother, I don’t think my birds will get along with your simian friends.”
“It doesn’t have to be a professional visit.”
It was so odd, Sally. When I lived by myself back East I was never afraid. In Iowa I was never afraid. I always thought I was too mean to deal with. But at that moment I was afraid. I didn’t trust this preacher to spread the word of Mickey Mouse. And I didn’t feel right being alone with him. And yet, what could I have done? I wasn’t sure if I could get to the shotgun in time. The peacocks are not known for their fighting abilities.
What happened next would’ve been derided in Iowa as a cliche, cliche cliche. But the telephone rang. “Excuse me,” I said, then with one of my crutches went to the other room to get the phone. “Yes, hello?”
“You sound out of breath. Are you sick?”
Mama. “I’m fine, Mama. It’s the heat.”
“You say that every summer, Mary Flannery.”
“Mama, I know you didn’t call me to chat about the weather.”
“Of course not. What did you want from the store Mars bars or Moon Pies?”
“Moon Pies. And Cokes.”
“Flannery, are you all right? You do sound a bit flushed.”
I heard the door slam. Joe shrieking. The preacher was leaving. He took the hint. “I’m fine, Mama. Just hurry home.”
I hung up and went back to the other room. That’s when I noticed my other crutch was missing. I turned around several times, thinking it fell down. No crutch.
I managed to go outside and saw the car going own the dirt road, creating a dirt storm as he drove. Funny, never pegged reverends as speedy drivers. I saw items on the ground–I couldn’t get down the stairs, but I knew Reverend Jones took my crutch. I knew it.
Mama was really upset when she got home. I didn’t want to tell her what happened but had to. She found what else he had. Are you ready? There was…
- A glass eye
- A plastic leg
- A fake ear.
It was macabre. There was also a picture of his wife; a sweet looking woman with curly blonde hair. On the back it says “Marceline-1950.” Marceline, you better watch out, for he isn’t the man you thought you married.
Anyway I’m trying to convince Mama it’s okay to leave me alone; other than church she doesn’t go out much. I am thinking this could be a good story, but better not make it a reverend. Nobody would believe it. I do have an older crutch I can use until I get a new one. I’ll wait a while to write about it. But what scares me is that people will fall for his act hook, line and sinker. And when they do, I’m just hoping someone will point out the emperor is naked as a jaybird and as genuine as a three dollar watch.
Anyway, my next letter will be back to the doldrums. Kiss Robert for me and if I get this story done I’ll send it to you. Just don’t open your door to preachers that sell monkeys. My sage advice for the month.