“From fear inside I hid my own heart and locked the door,
With sin and shame I quivered, ol’ Satan had me bound;
But then one day I answered the gentle knock that came,
I swung the door wide open, now I’ll never be the same.
A heart unlocked is a song set free!
A song set free sets others free!
Who His love sets free is free indeed!
And Jesus is my heart-shaped key!
Now at my door stood Jesus, His arms open wide.
‘Child,”He said, “I love you. Let Me show you The Way.”
In His arms I fell, against His heart aflame;
His heart opened mine, now I’ll never be the same.”
-Albert Shepherd Johnson
“The Pentecostal Pilgrim Hymnal”,1946
“Hey babe, How are you? What’s goin’ on on the homefront?” Albert Shepherd Johnson the third, better known as Shep everywhere but legal documents, said as he entered the kitchen.
“Not too much, sweetheart. The kids are downstairs and dinner’ll be ready in ’bout a half hour. Just still workin’ my way through the final frontier that is the attic. How was work?,” Viola asked, Vee to Shep since they first dated a dozen years ago.
“Oh same ol’ same ol’, headlines and deadlines, all managed from above by stomach ulcers and free-floating anxiety. What’s in the box?,” Shep asked, nodding to the kitchen table.
“Oh, I, um, I thought you’d find this interesting. Found it up there among all the other boxes and cobwebs.”
Shep put his jacket on the back of a chair and loosened the paisley office noose from around his neck. Shep was the first in a line of generations of the Johnson family boys who wasn’t a minister. Shep’s father pastored the Full Gospel Tabernacle for nearly thirty years. For a brief shining familial moment there were three living generations of the Johnson boys during which Shep’s father had been known as Al-2. Shep’s grandfather, the Bishop Reverend Albert Shepherd Johnson, pastored the Full Gospel Tabernacle that he founded until his health declined and his son stepped into the role, and Grandfather Johnson was also a prolific and much published hymn writer. Many of his songs remain in hymnals across the land to this day. Despite Shep’s decade of work at the paper, family took Shep’s occasional leading of Sunday worship and Thursday night Bible study as vocational preparation and held out hope yet for his falling in line and taking up the cloth, calling, and tradition.
“What is it? What’cha got there, Vee?”
Vee opened the box and pulled out one of the Bishop Reverend Johnson’s notebooks, opened it to a page dated “October 3” and handed Shep his grandfather’s journal.
“Here, read this,” she said.
I reckon the only thing that saves me really, saves my mind, not just my soul, is bein’ here, here where I can hear crickets instead of cars and coyotes instead a sirens; out here away from all the lights, out here where there’s so many stars you could pert near get lost in ’em if ya’ didn’t make up your mind real good not to; all that and the man that I love and that loves me, whose real, right now love keeps me from tryin’ to live on memories alone. Ain’t no diet will make ya’ thinner faster’an tryin’ to live on nuthin’ but memories. Trust. If I don’t know nuthin’ else for sure, I know that, all the way sure.’
Shep turned his face from the yellowed journal to Vee, confusion and concern creasing his brow.
“The ‘man I love and that loves me’? What the dang? What does that mean? He prolly means one a the church brothers or Tyler Jenkins on the farm down the road. Pop still talks about how Granddad and Tyler were just like brothers.”
Vee turned a few pages in the notebook.
“Here,” she said, and Shep read,
You ain’t gotta be old anymore to lose everything and everybody you ever loved. Maybe you ain’t never had to be old, but most of us grew up thinkin’ you did or maybe we just deposited hope in thinkin’ it, like throwin’ good money into a bad gamble. We an’ the Lord the only ones that know when we’ve lived long enough, when the time is the right time, when it’s Homecomin’ time. When you’re old enough to have lost everyone you love an’ everyone that can love you back like you need to be loved, seems to me like you’re old enough for it to be the right time, no matter how old you are.
Too many right now moments, too many songs, and smells, and round-the-kitchen-table echos knock memories offin’ the shelves too often to not sometime think about swingin’ back on a low hung star, back to where we was young, and hope swung on a tire swing, back to where voices round the kitchen table weren’t just long ago echos. Sometimes I feel real sure if I just walked far enough I could reach that star, the one hung low just for me. It’d be a right lonely road to walk, but they ain’t been no roads but lonely roads this whole trip, at least thatin’ would finally take me some place I wanna be.
Won’t never be cold there, never lessin’ eighty in the shade; safe and quiet and warm forevermore and you’d feel good enough and happy and loved just cause you woke up right in it ratherin’ havin’ to search for it under every rock and between every lyin’ man’s teeth, greedy men that eat hearts and the the only love they got left is what still stains they teeth. No, there ya’ ain’t gotta floss left over love to get sumthin’ to live on. There, ya’ just wake up all ready in it, like a feather down love bed you ain’t ever gotta get out of, just prop up a bit to get served more a that Love you’re already cushioned in. Since I was a kid I’ve thought about the words of that ol’ song we use to sing in church, “What a Day That Will Be” and I wanted to go there and done my level best to get ready. We’d sing, “When He takes me by the hand and leads me to The Promised Land, what a day, a glorious day that will be…”
I’ve met a few folks that don’t believe in prayer or heaven; don’t believe in The Promised Land. Like Sam Barnett, that works down at the mill, a hardworkin’, bright enough man, but seems like nuthin’ south of his neckcollar is really workin’ right, like maybe there ain’t been enough traffic round the dirt a his heart to soften it up for da Lord’s tender feet. No sir, a few folks I’ve met over the years don’t seem to have no use for The Promised Land. I can’t make no sense of it, but I reckon that’s the Lord’s business, not mine. My business is sayin’ thanks for the glimpses of glory here, the sometime peeks of The Promised Land from right here – from our wasteland of hurt and greed and pain, that we try ‘an love each other through and dress it up like the Land to come.’
“Wow,” said Shep, “Guess that’s why he could write all those old hymns.”
“Yeah, and he sounds really lonely, Shep,” Vee said, before turning a few more pages, handing it to Shep, and saying, “One more?”
Now it’s true as the ground a grace I stand on that the Gospel love of Jesus saves my soul and it’s just as true that in moments stolen away in Kendrick’s arms down by the river, under stars sworn to silence, that my mind and body and heart are saved, too; feels like all a me can finally breathe. When his lips touch mine I know that this heart that Christ opened has a tenent, one that holds me and by loving me, invites me to my own love. Some would say that we’re the worst kinda deceivers, abominations that’ll split hell wide open. I don’t know about all that. I do know when our little Sophia died from the fever that if God hadn’t given my Kendrick to lean on that I’m pretty sure I couldn’t a been leaned on anymore. Who knows better how to hold hardworkin’ hands, relax burden-bearin’ shoulders, or support the worry-heavy head of a man than another lovin’ man? In my life there is one God has blessed me with whose embrace is never needful, whose arms are not an ask, but an answer; the one who just holds me home.
Do I live out betrayal keeping our secret? Am I dishonest? I reckon I’m as honest as I can be without hurtin’ folks that don’t need no more hurtin’. I loved Loretta Carlene, my Elsie. I loved our children. I love Kendrick and I love God. Ain’t never been a need to short one to love the other. Ages ago, Elsie and I buried our little girl. Goin’ on ten years ago come April, I buried my wife, Elsie. Only the love of God and the sure and faithful arms of Kendrick still remain. Yes, I’ve heard the shrill, frightened voices that would damn the love that holds me up an’ I admit, I’m only confused by it. I only look at it, fascinated by it, like it was a strange bug on the window, the likes a which I ain’t never seen before, an insect, a thick green and spotted worm whose mouth is moving and whose shrill little worm voice keeps mouthing words that would damn love. Strange, hateful little caterpillar. Best to take it away from the window so it doesn’t color my view, put it in a Mason jar, put it on the shelf an’ hope that with some time and a better perspective that there’ll be a heart-shaped key even for love-damning worms. God, by Your grace. Lord have mercy.’
“Dear God,” Shep said, “So Granddaddy Johnson was gay, actually, really gay?”
“Well, honey,” Vee said, “Seems there isn’t any doubt, actually, really.”
“What do you think we should do? What should we tell the kids? What should we say to anyone?,” Shep asked, stunned.
“Well, Shep,” Vee said, her eyes half-lidded, then opening so wide and inviting that you could fall right in, like Shep had when he married her, “based on this,” she said, “I’d suggest we say that Granddaddy found a heart-shaped key in Jesus and that prolly betterin’ anyone else we’ve known, he knew that grace was sufficient. He knew it’s not even possible to short one when we give love to another. In his time, there were so many boxes, but even Granddaddy’s boxes had a song and now, unboxed, his song soars high as the stars across the nightsky he loved so much. I’d bet it soars even higher when we’re all singin’ his songs. Well, that’s just what I’d say,” Vee concluded and cast her eyes down at the old notebook, the right corner of her mouth dancing with the idea of a smile.
16 September 2015