This Too Shall Pass
Clarence Jacobs smoldered in the front seat of his cruiser at the corner of Marberry and Homestead. A thin glazing of heat slid off the hood of the car and spilled onto the macadam, which had been transformed by the mid-afternoon July sun into a lustrous sea of convection. The dog day temperatures this year had been relentless, bullying the citizens of Adelaide County into a state of cautious submission. Some inhabitants of the small, dusty town tried winning back a small measure of dignity by slinging invectives against Mother Nature. Most others just passed around slightly different versions of the same refrain: that the heat signaled a reckoning, an omen for some portending calamity, a warning that something was about to give out, go bad. Some said it was the hand of God bearing down on a community that was long overdue for a lesson in humility, a stern reminder that man’s certitude of the everlasting first required that he bear the pain of his impermanence. Behind closed doors, still more whispered that the Devil himself had his ear to Adelaide’s desiccated underbelly, waiting for permission to leave the furnace room for a while and take up residence in some chilled and bitter soul.
If nothing else, the heat demanded compliance, and nearly everyone in the town obliged by staying low to the ground and keeping to the shadows.
For Clarence, it was just damned hot, an inconvenience that simply required a steady dose of patience and dry undershirts but that at least kept things quiet and kept people from moving too far or too fast. Clarence had grown up in Tatum, East Texas and had lived through his fair share of rough summers. This too shall pass, he thought, but damn it if it wasn’t hotter than the Devil’s backside.
This too shall pass. The proverb buzzed through Clarence’s head like a fly caught in a bell jar, bouncing around madly. He closed his eyes against the heat, against the incessant pinging of the glass, and found himself standing on the dry, cracked floorboards of tin-roofed shack Clarence had once called home, that dust-laden den of privation where he had learned to endure the Texas heat and the fiery temperament of his father. The son of a Baptist preacher, Noah Jacobs had been a simple, God-fearing man whose moral temperament had been hammered into a fine edge by the Good Book and hardened by the duties of his office. Tatum was not a lawless town, but it contained its fair share of drunkards, roustabouts, and moral decrepitude, enough to warrant a large caliber peacemaker, which Noah always wore slung low over his narrow hips and which lent a fearful credence to the shiny brass sheriff’s badge pinned to his chest. The law, according to Noah, was a pact between civil reverence and divine responsibility, and it was not open to question or interpretation. “The Devil’s got enough real estate,” he often said. “And I don’t plan to sell ‘im any more.” So you lived according to the rules or you paid the price. And peace demanded a very high premium.
Folks in Tatum liked their peace and held fast to their simple ways. The town was, for the most part, a quiet, humble community built upon the conformity that quiet, humble communities engendered, and they looked to Noah to see to it that this simple formula was kept in balance. So no one asked questions when dissenters went missing or outsiders were given their walking papers on the pretext that they just didn’t belong
Tatum’s lone sheriff for over twenty years, had consented to an uneasy truce with the pagan beliefs of his mother. The daughter of a cattle rancher, she had grown up just outside of Bogalusa, Louisiana, where, it was rumored, her mother wore the white of a mambo asogwe, or high priestess, and whose intuitive artistry enabled her to fulfill the role of spirit guide for those crossing over. It was even said that on nights when the moon’s radiance permitted travel the priestess could be seen accompanying Papa Legba himself, the cane-wielding steward of the crossroads, upon his otherworldly errands. Clarence’s mother, marrying young as part of an arrangement that saw Noah richer by over 200 acres and by 50 head of Polled Hereford, did not follow in the shadowy footsteps of her mother, but she nonetheless regularly and discreetly practiced her devotion to Legba by making humble offerings, such as candy and rum, and by privately observing rites that Noah tolerated from a distance.
Clarence shifted uneasily in his seat, the extreme temperatures causing him to stick to the vinyl upholstery. He began to feel languid, the heat caressing him into a mild somnolence, and his mind drifted back to that warm June evening nearly thirty years ago, just as Father Callaghan arrived to deliver the last rites. Noah had taken Clarence’s hand and pulled the boy close in a sturdy half-embrace, the strength of which belied the ruined mass of flesh that lay withering beneath a thin horse hair blanket. Looking into his father’s eyes, Clarence knew that death had come and that there was nothing he, or Father Callaghan or his mother could do about it.
“Listen to me, Clarence.” His father’s voice sounded hollow and scratchy, as if emanating from deep inside the horn of an old phonograph. He pulled the boy closer. With his free hand he fished a small unopened envelope from his shirt pocket and pressed it into Clarence’s hand. The stiff paper crunched as Noah gently folded the boy’s fingers over the envelope.
“You have to be a man now. For me. For your mama.” A hollow rattling came from somewhere deep inside, like a spoon dropped into an empty well bucket, and in that final ebbing moment he brought his parched lips to the boy’s ear. “Whatever you do, work at it . . . with all your heart . . .” The words caught in his throat and his eyes went wide.
Clarence wanted to cry, wanted to embrace his father and beg him not to go. But he didn’t want his father’s parting image of him be one of weakness, so he only said, “I promise daddy.” At that moment he felt a looseness come into his father and saw the body settle into the contours of the pallet. A tiny smile seemed to play on his father’s lips and his eyes rotated up as if to glimpse his own final breath. Still standing in the doorway, the time to deliver the rites had now passed, and Father Callaghan crossed himself and began to utter a prayer.
His mother led him out of the room and into the kitchen where she gave him a warm slab of cornbread and a cold glass of buttermilk. After she had returned upstairs to assist Father Callaghan with preparing the body, Clarence took out the envelope, which he had slipped into the large front pocket of his overalls. He gently squeezed the edges of the paper, probing the contours of the object item within. Each point of the slightly convex hexagonal object terminated with a bump, and, running his thumb back and forth over the middle of the object, Clarence could clearly make out the word that he had seen pinned above his father’s heat nearly every day: Sheriff. The police officer’s badge was one of only two things Jacobs Sr. had entrusted to his son upon his passing. The other was the care of his mother.
And Clarence had stayed true to his word. With all his heart, he worked tirelessly for the benefit of others, kept the town safe and clean. Kept it pure. He would be the man and he would be the law. So he made sure that every slipknot was cinched with reserve, every Baptist church burned without equivocation, every bullet delivered with the invocation of This too shall pass. And when the infirmities of old age prevented her from leaving the rocking chair she so enjoyed, Clarence took care of her, too.
Oh yes, Sheriff Clarence Jacobs lived his father’s words every day.
And today the opportunities had seemed to abound. Returning from Junction Creek, where the trout and crayfish had most likely begun to take a special interest in the apportioned remains of Clarence’s mother, Clarence saw the old man nearly rise up out of the rippling macadam, too good to be true, too enticing. Here on the edge of town no one would know. He would be doing the interloper a favor, saving him the trouble of an unwelcome stay. Clarence pressed on the accelerator and allowed himself the smallest of smiles. This too shall pass, he whispered.
The aqueous wall of heat dancing off the surface of the road receded as Clarence neared the old man, who seemed oblivious to the roar of the metal beast bearing down upon him. Instead he continued steadily across the street, a cane made of twisted wood preceding each step, an old straw hat obscuring much of his dark face. Clarence could see a small brown dog loping along behind the old man. His red shirt made him an easy target, and just as Clarence pressed down on the accelerator again, he realized with a mild shock, that the man was barefooted.
At that very moment, just as the sneering chrome visage of the Hudson Super 6 was about to grind the old man and his dog into a greasy pulp, Clarence saw the old man look up at him.
As a boy Clarence used to spend most of his summers at Junction Creek, vaulting off of the sturdy oak branches that spanned the creek’s many swimming holes. The tickling lurch that Clarence now felt was similar to that, like a family of panicked mice scurrying around his insides. Strange, too, was the pinwheel of images that flashed before his eyes. Earth, sky, earth, sky. The vehicle had suddenly become a carousel of light and dark, day and night, hot and cold accompanied by a percussive symphony of thunder and hail buffeting a tin roof.
Clarence had almost been anticipating the impact with the cool darkness of the swimming hole when the cruiser, having flipped and then rolled nearly 100 feet, came to an upright stop at the corner of Marberry and Homestead and then burst into flames.
It took a moment for Clarence to shake loose the residual feeling of vertigo and to realize what had happened. He peered over the tops of his blanched knuckles, somehow having never lost his grip on the steering wheel, and saw that most of the front windshield was gone as was the hood of the car. He would have laughed then—how ridiculous that must have looked!—had he not also saw the flames blossoming from the engine block. Reaching down to undo his lap belt, he also saw flames licking up over the side of the passenger door, which had been caved in and nearly torn off its hinges. Turning to his left, he let out a cry as the first tentacles of flame began to slither in through the smashed driver’s side window and probe the inside of the vehicle. He frantically fumbled with the door latch, which was so hot that it singed and blistered his rough and calloused palm, and slammed his now smoldering shoulder into the door panel. But the door would not budge.
Clarence also realized that he couldn’t feel his legs and that his right foot seemed to be missing. Contemplating where in the hell his foot might’ve run off to, the flames continuing to grow and multiply in and around the vehicle, Clarence heard the measured crunch of gravel and glass underfoot.
“Oh, thank God! Hurry! Help get me the hell . . .” The words lodged in Clarence’s throat when saw the old man stop several feet in front of the car. “Oh, Jesus. Hey, listen . . . I . . . the car, I lost control. I didn’t see you . . .”
The old man tapped the ground twice with the cane, which brought the dog trotting over. He settled on his haunches next to the old man and regarded Clarence with a curious tilt of the head. The car was hissing now, paint bubbling, vinyl melting. Clarence squirmed and whimpered as the flames began to close in and the heat grow more intense.
The old man used the head of the walking stick, which Clarence could see resembled the head of a dog, to tilt back the brim of his straw hat and reveal a face of smooth mahogany. A thin band of shadow still covered the upper half of the man’s face but Clarence could clearly see the neatly trimmed ring of white whiskers framing a pair of full lips that had curled into a tight smile. And the eyes. They seemed to glow under that thin veil of shadow. Oblivious to the small flame now working its way up the right sight of his trousers, Clarence actually leaned forward to get a better look at the man’s face. As if sensing his curiosity, the man tilted his head back slightly to lift the veil of shadow. Clarence screamed . . .
. . . and decided in that instant that he would have rather burned for a thousand years in that ruined heap of metal than to have looked into those eyes. For in that pair of crimson orbs was the promise of a terror too great and too everlasting to be comprehended by the human brain.
The old man’s smile softened into a slight pucker and he tapped his upraised index finger to his lips. Clarence felt his chest seize as if he were being enfolded by a giant hand, and in a blink the old man was at his door, leaning slowly toward Clarence as if to get a closer look at the now burning Sheriff. Clarence’s tongue lolled like a butchered cow and his eyes felt ready to burst their sockets.
Seemingly immune to the flames, the old man calmly reached into the car and laid his hand over Clarence’s heart, over the brass sheriff’s badge that Noah had given to him nearly thirty years ago. With a quick tug, the badge tore free. Clarence made a feeble grab for the badge but the old man simply shook his head, smiled, and deposited the badge in left breast pocket of his shirt. The dog barked as if to confirm the acquisition and the flames seemed to riot in those carnelian globes.
The flames now began to crawl over Clarence like a congregation of enraged centipedes, the heat biting deep into his flesh. He was beyond pain now, beyond suffering, for he knew what awaited him once his physical body had been reduced to jelly and his soul was unfastened from its mortal coil.
The old man rapped his cane twice on door of the car and swung the brass tip up so that it was pointing ahead of the car. An inky occlusion had began to dull the edges of Clarence’s vision, but he sighted along the length of the cane to see what the old man was pointing. All that stood in the distance was an old three-tiered road sign. The rectangular top sign simply had the word “South” printed in white on a faded field of blue, while just below that the red-capped blue shield of the Interstate system showed that Clarence’s burning car was sitting on Interstate 30, which bisected Adelaide. The bottom sign simply showed an upward pointing arrow on a field of blue. Each of the three signs was riddled with bullet holes. The old man slowly brought his other hand up, the long slender fingers fluttering like cattails in the wind, and jabbed the air hard in the direction of the signs. In that same instant the head of the top bolt that held the bottom sign in place popped off with a hollow clang, causing the sign, still held in place by the bottom bolt, to shift and swing clockwise. The sign sawed back and forth for a moment before coming to rest, its arrow now pointing down.
The old man erupted in a burst of laughter, the dog was on its feet, barking wildly now and turning in circles. Leaning in through the thin porthole of fire that had replaced the glass of the driver’s side door, Papa Legba brought his face near to the steaming and festering mask of Clarence Jacobs and whispered four short, simple words: This too shall pass.
J. Boydstun 8/2/13