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Author Bio



I AM DEEPLY, DEEPLY AFRAID. Subtract seventeen years from my twenty-nine. I am twelve years old, standing beneath a star-fruit tree, standing on an asphalt path lined with banyan trees, their roots extending from ground to sky to ground again and forming great pockets of wild, empty space in the center of their root-branches. Fifty feet behind me, the science laboratories where my chemistry teacher last week was too careless with sodium and set the ceiling tiles on fire. Fifty feet in front, the band room where the Sonshine Fellowship (Get it? Son, not sun! Like Jesus, the Son of God, the Light of the World who takes away our sins!) meets every Wednesday morning at 6:30 to pray and sing the happiest of songs all in major keys, except the songs borrowed from the Jews, which are in minor keys and which speed up as they go along and which, when played on acoustic guitars, are faintly reminiscent of sad country songs. And those happy songs make me happy, truly happy, for brief and ever briefer periods of time, but it's those Jewish songs—You shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace. The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you ... —that really slay me, because there is something earned about that joy; it has come from a place of great pain.
      The Jews, of course, are going to hell, but, as we students are constantly reminded, Jesus was a Jew, and the Jews are God's chosen people, and in fact we must keep the Jews around—this is the real reason why the Holocaust was so awful, because it was the work of the devil to destroy God's plan for the end of the world, which goes like this: Christ comes back in the clouds, this time on a white horse and bearing a sword, and bodily raptures all the dead in Him—a veritable zombie army—and the living Christians, too, the true ones (not, for instance, the Catholics, who follow a man, the pope; and not, for instance, the Episcopalians, who have placed a premium on the material needs of people rather than their spiritual needs—the Social Gospel, this is called—and so have slipped into heresy). The Christians, living and dead, taken bodily from the earth, leave a void of darkness. Remember, in the Book of Genesis, God promised to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if Lot could find even one righteous man, but none could be found, so God rained fire upon the cities and they were destroyed. This, too, will be the fate of the earth, now that the righteous are gone. The Antichrist has already begun his seven-year reign. The clock is ticking. But—wait!—in that last hour 144,000 Jews finally accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, many of them convinced and converted by two resurrected Jewish prophets. And then the Jews fight alongside the returning army of Christians at the battle of Armageddon, which takes place right in the heart of contemporary Palestine. God's chosen people, old and new, are finally reunited, and live together in the new heaven and the new earth in the very bosom of God—forever.
      But that's not why I am drawn to the Jews and their songs. It's not that I don't care about the rapture and Armageddon and the end of time. I am extremely anxious about it. For the last eight years—for as long, that is to say, as I have had memory—I have knelt in my bed, beside my window, at dusk, and watched the light show of sunset, looking for the crimson bloodstain in the sky that I've been told is a sign of His coming. I have memorized Scriptures—If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness—and I live in fear of unforgiveness, of eternal hellfire, so I am constantly confessing my sins, an ongoing litany, a conversation, perhaps one-sided, between me and God, that consists for the most part of me trying to recount every sinful action (that part is easy) and every sinful thought (that part is hard). To look upon a woman with lust in your heart, for example, is the same as having slept with her. I am twelve years old. I am hard pressed to find a woman upon whom I will be able to gaze without feeling a twinge of lust in my heart. Puberty has come slow—my classmates, staring at my tiny naked body in the shower after Physical Education class, have made it quite clear that I am deficient in this area of puberty-arrival. But not entirely deficient. Sixth-period history: I am sitting behind Jenny Glass. Her blonde hair down to her shoulders, the shape of her hips, the sound of her voice humming softly, soft enough that Mr. Sanders can't hear, but loud enough that I can hear how fully rendered each of her notes, even at so soft a volume, such control ... and then I'm wondering what it would be like to be married to her, and would we share a bed?, and what would that be like? and I don't really know exactly what all that means—I mean, I know that there are parts, and that they fit, that kind of thing—but what I'm really thinking about is what it would be like to kiss Jenny Glass, to touch her hair as we kiss, feel it in the webbings of my fingers ... and my body responds to these thoughts in its new way, and I lean forward a little in the desk, to obscure whatever it is that is happening, but of course it is at this moment that Mr. Sanders has had his say about the Battle of the Spanish Armada and is ready for me to have mine. "Kyle?" he says, and I say, "1588," and he says no, it's not enough to just know the date. You have to trace the sea routes on the four-color pulldown map, which he is right this moment pulling down over the chalkboard. Come on up, is what he says. And, right then, I do something that I've seen other people do but have never myself done. I say no, I'm not coming to the board to trace the sea routes on the four-color pulldown map. He asks why, and I say I'm not particularly interested in sea routes, that in fact I prefer dates and that I'm tired of being made to do things that I do not want to do. Mr. Sanders says if I don't walk directly to the blackboard and trace the sea routes that I will get a zero for the day's participation grade and that I'll be in grave danger of making him very angry. I consult my pants. My pants are saying no. Jenny Glass has turned around to look at me now, incredulous—the first opportunity, in fact, I've found to use that word, incredulous; I've been wanting to use it for a very long time, but now, employing it in my own mind, the word incredulous is nowhere near as sweet as I had thought it might be—and I briefly look at Jenny, trying to gauge her reaction to this turn of events, but I find that I am not able to look her in the eye. A slow, painful moment passes. Then, for the first time in my life, I deploy a coping skill that will soon become a lifelong crutch (and will also give those who wish for one a reason not to like me). I feign confidence. I say, "Mr. Sanders," and he says, "Yes?" and I borrow a line from a television comedian: "I'Il take the zero."
      What has this to do with the Jews, their songs? You shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace, sure, but first you will undergo great hardship. This from the prophet Isaiah, a truly mystifying figure, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, come onto the scene at a pivotal point in Israel's history. Twenty years after Isaiah accepted his prophetic mantle, the Assyrians crushed the Northern Kingdom, and the better part of ten of the twelve tribes were taken into exile. (Twelve years old, and I know these things. They teach us these things at my school.) And not long after that, Jerusalem itself found the fearsome army of Sennacherib at its walls, and despite King Hezeklah's recent embrace of what Isaiah had called a "covenant of death" with a political faction that wanted Israel to be more like the Egyptians who had once held their ancestors as slaves—worship their idols, sleep with their women—Yahweh (YHWH; He whose name cannot be uttered on pain of death) delivered the city, and Sennacherib could only brag like a loser. I shut Hezekiah up in his cage like a bird, reads the famous inscription; not Jerusalem is mine.
     Like all the prophets, Isaiah was both trouble and troubled, his destiny sealed when the seraphim cleansed his lips with a burning coal; and then, no doubt blistered and in great pain, he said, "Here am I, send me!" And then he wrote great, painful, angry poems of warning: Your country is waste, your cities burnt with fire; Your land before your eyes strangers devour—and—the desert owl and hoot owl shall possess her; the screech owl and raven shall dwell in her—and—Take a harp, go about the city, O forgotten harlot; Pluck the strings skillfully, sing many songs, that they may remember you.
      I am twelve years old, standing beneath the starfruit tree, on the asphalt path, both hiding from and waiting for my daily beating. I know it is coming, because this morning the other science teacher, Mr. Guy, showed the filmstrip from Answers in Genesis about the fossil record—the dinosaur tracks with the human footprints embedded in them; the fragments of the Cro-Magnon man shown to be a hoax in a side-by-side comparison with a baboon skull; satellite imagery of the petrified remains of a massive seagoing vessel found lodged in the side of Mt. Ararat, in contemporary Turkey, where the Ark of Noah was said to have come to rest—and after class my head is so full of possibilities—a trip, perhaps, to Muslim Turkey, undercover, perhaps smuggling Bibles ... perhaps even long hours under the sunlamp so I could pass for a Turk, following the example of the author of Black Like Me ... and a daring climb with a Sherpa guide who would be proud when I bestowed upon him the Anglicized name of Henry ... and a dig through snow and ice and earth to uncover, in person, what the satellites had already suggested: the Ark of Noah, proof beyond doubt, real archeological evidence of the worldwide flood that created the Grand Canyon, the Seven Continents, the washing-away of the Garden of Eden and, at last, rest for the angel who had been guarding it with his shining sword for all those many centuries ... and also refutation of all the theories, the lies, that modern science has been serving up to support its religion of secular humanism—the Ice Age, Plate Tectonics, maybe Evolution itself— ... my head so full of possibilities that I forget to go the long way to my math class, around the front of the gym that faces the administrative buildings, instead of the short way, around the back of the gym, near the locker rooms where Drew McKinnick and his boys lie in wait for me at this time every day. A careless, careless mistake that could have been so easily avoided, but I don't give one thought to it until I pass the pale green locker room door and forget to notice if it is cracked open or not, and then—WHACK!—McKinnick makes a weapon of the wooden door. It hits my arm with a velocity I could not begin to measure, and sends my body hard to the concrete, and—I have good reflexes; I'm used to this sort of thing—I manage to twist at the last moment, to wrench my body around so I land front-first rather than flat on my back, and hands-first rather than head-first—bruise the hands, cut the hands; protect the head. A teacher—good, Mr. Sanders, a good man—comes running from behind, and McKinnick is standing in front of my body—I see him up there, scratching his head, feigning concern, and feigning it in a manner that makes very clear his utter lack of concern—and Mr. Sanders says—he yells, really—"Why did you have to go and do that?" and McKinnick says, "I had no idea he was standing there," and Sanders says, "I doubt that sincerely," and McKinnick says, "On my honor, sir. I feel as bad about it as he does."
      I know better. I know better than to say it. But I say, "No one feels as bad about it as I do." McKinnick can't help himself—it's only a moment; the slightest moment; the slightest of slightest moments—he smiles, flashes those dog teeth. In those teeth I see real pleasure, and it's not the first time, not by dozens. And then the smile is gone, and what's back is feigned regret. Sanders has his number, but who is Sanders? What can Sanders do? Sanders is already on thin ice for wiping boogers on the blackboard—to make us laugh; to make us feel better about ourselves; compassionate boogers—and before that, Sanders was already suspect, because Sanders moonlights as the school nightwatchman, because they don't pay him enough money, because he doesn't have a wife or children so he gets less than the other teachers, and sometimes he watches reruns of Star Trek on a black-and-white television at midnight in the principal's office, his feet up on the desk—he was caught once, and everyone knows—and another time he was caught falling asleep at two o'clock in the morning, and another time at five. They—They—say that Sanders jogs home at six-thirty every afternoon after coaching the junior varsity soccer team and sleeps until eleven-thirty, takes a quick shower, eats some Frosted Mini-Wheats, then humps it back to campus to nightwatch until dawn. That's Sanders, and what's Sanders next to McKinnick, whose father is the mayor of the village of Golfview, a veterinarian wealthier than God who paid for half the new football bleachers? And what's Sanders next to McKinnick, varsity linebacker in the eighth grade, second-string already, a mean two-twenty, putting hits on twelfth-grade running backs that they'll remember into their old age? McKinnick, who can crush a baseball, hit a three-hundred-fifty-foot shot to left-center. McKinnick, who could crush Sanders more ways than one.
      The locker-room door cracks open. Jones, Dodd, Graves—McKinnick's boys. Sanders sees them. He says, "You boys get on to class." They pause for a minute. "Now," Sanders says, and they go, and McKinnick starts on his way, too, but Sanders says, "No, you wait," and I want to tell him ... I want to tell him that what he is doing is a very bad idea. That it's a very bad idea for me. But I can't tell him. I can't say anything, because no matter what I say, it will make matters worse for me later. So I keep quiet. It's very hard to keep quiet.
     "So what you're going to do right now, right at this very moment," Sanders is saying, "is apologize to Mr. Minor here." McKinnick makes a sound in the back of his throat—the gathering of spit and phlegm—and then he turns his head and spits for distance in the direction of the hedges that line the sidewalk outside the gym and locker rooms. The spit lands a few feet from the hedges and—I can't help myself—I say, "Airball," and then his eyes flash like they can, the way I imagine the eyes of killers must flash in the moment before they become killers—and, be advised, I believed, then and now, McKinnick, given the right circumstances, fully capable of killing a man, or a boy, especially a boy, with his bare hands.
      He looks right at me and smiles, and this time I detect nothing but the utmost sincerity in that smile—and I know that the sincerity does not attach to the apology he is about to offer, but instead to the retribution, the beating, that will follow—and he says, "Minor, I'm truly sorry."
      And Sanders says, "Good, then. It's settled. Now, both of you, off to class."
      I let him get a head start before I start walking. I know when we turn the corner, mean Mrs. Tatham, the grammarian, will be waiting outside her classroom door, watching, looking for an excuse to jump down some poor kid's throat. God bless Mrs. Tatham.
      McKinnick takes his head start. He rounds the corner, then I do, and he is ahead of me, passing Mrs. Tatham, but then he slows down. She is still watching, so he doesn't touch me, but when I get within earshot he says—loud enough for me to hear, but soft enough that she can't—"It's not settled"—and though I knew, now I know.
      I am twelve years old, standing beneath the starfruit tree, possessing this terrible knowledge ... and yet, and yet, above me are starfruit, a great many, and I have been picking them for all the years I have gone to this school, ever since I was four years old, and I know how to pick one that is sweet enough but not overripe, and not overly bitter, either. It is truly amazing to me that I am the only person I know, student or teacher, who picks from this tree.
      The fruit are green or yellow or brown, their color a measure of their ripeness. I reach up and pick a yellow one, the five points of its star just starting to turn brown. This is how I like them. Just a litte sweet, but still firm, not mushy. I bite into one of the points of the star and some juice runs down my face and down onto my hands and into the cuts and abrasions from where I caught myself on the concrete behind the pale green locker-room door after McKinnick hit me with it. There is citric acid in the juice, and when the acid touches the cuts and abrasions, it stings, and I make a fist involuntarily, and squeeze the starfruit I am holding, and squeeze more juice, more acid, into the wounds. You shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace is the song I am hearing in my head. The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you—all this from the naysayer, the prophet of doom who also wrote, Your country is waste, your cities burnt with fire; Your land before your eyes strangers devour—and the difference, you see, between Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and New Testament disciples is that the joy in these old Jewish writings always rises from the deepest of darkness, and there is no gloss on the darkness. No purpose for the darkness, except sometimes testing, sometimes judgment, sometimes spite, all this attributed often enough to God. No all things work together for good to them who love God, to them who are called according to His righteousness. No. All things do not work together for good. All things are in opposition, and the darkness more often overtakes the light than the light the darkness. The darkness is the darkness is the darkness.
      And what would bring God joy? A final separation from sin. The destruction of the wicked. The destruction of the world.
      And what would bring me joy? The destruction of Drew McKinnick.
      I am twelve years old, standing beneath the starfruit tree, holding in my hand the most beautiful fruit any tree in the world has ever borne, and now softly humming the most beautiful, sad song I have ever heard—You shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace—and contemplating the destruction of Drew McKinnick.
      There is the baseball bat. Maybe his baseball bat. I could carry it with me around the corner, make a show of showing it to Mrs. Tatham, talk a little shop about the relationship between baseball bats and grammar. And wait. And when McKinnick rounded the corner, I could draw back that baseball bat and swing it at his head and explode his skull ... no, watch it swell like a balloon, and then swing it again, and watch it pop, watch the splatter of gray matter and crimson blood stain the sidewalk, and then, in the moment before they wrestle me to the ground, kick that mouth with my black penny loafers, kick every last dog tooth from that mouth.
      There is the baseball bat, but perhaps it is not practical. But then there is the gun. My grandpa has a loaded twelve-gauge shotgun mounted above his bed in his trailer. And a kid in my second-period study hall, Lee Paterson, has a book called The Anarchist's Cookbook. He says it is easy to make napalm. I told him once I'd like to napalm Drew McKinnick, and Paterson said it would be easy, that his skin would melt off, that he had tried this himself on a Barbie doll, and it had been only too easy.
      "But what about a bomb?" Paterson had said.
      "A bomb?"
      "Two or three. Five or ten. Ten or twenty. Plant them all around. Blow the whole school down." He showed me a drawing he had made, a diagram of the school, and where the bombs would be placed. A few of them would go inside the air-conditioning units that lined the walls, because the component parts inside would become shrapnel and take out more people.
      Paterson is small, smaller than me even, and I am the second smallest person in the whole secondary school. Some of the fourth and fifth graders are bigger than us. When he showed me the drawing, it scared me, first because I thought he might be serious, and second because I thought maybe I might be capable of doing it myself if I knew as much about chemistry and military strategy as he did. Looking at those diagrams, I thought I could maybe do it.
      I am twelve years old, standing under the starfruit tree, eating a starfruit, thinking about blowing up the school, humming a song written by the Jewish prophet Isaiah, holding all these contradictions in my head and not knowing that they are contradictions, waiting for my beating; and then it arrives.
      But not the way I think it will.
      Because usually when McKinnick finds me to beat me, he brings Jones and Dodd and Graves with him. They make a circle, a loose circle at first, and they yell obscenities and push me from one of them to another and sometimes push me down and kick me and make me get back up so they can push me some more, but then the circle tightens and McKinnick slaps my ears, hard, with his open palm. First my ears ring, and then I lose most of my hearing and it doesn't come back for a couple of hours, and when it does, it comes back with louder ringing and an awful headache. Then Jones and Dodd and Graves hold me and slap the top of my head and stick their spit-moistened fingers into my ears and nostrils while McKinnick stands over me and flicks the cartilage at the tiptops of my ears with his fingers until the cartilage turns purple, and he keeps asking if I've had enough, and when I say yes, he says, "No, you haven't," and when I say no, he says, "You need to get some humility, boy," or, "Who do you think you're talking to, boy," or, "Say I'm a dirty nigger. Say it. Say it." And then I say it—"I'm a dirty nigger"—or—"I'm a queer, I'm a homo"—or—"I fuck my mother"—or whatever other thing he wants me to say, but even then it doesn't stop. Drew McKinnick knows how to hurt a person a hundred ways and more, and there is nothing in the world funnier, so far as I can tell, to Jones and Dodd and Graves than to hold my arms while McKinnick lifts up my shirt and grabs my nipples between his thumb and forefinger and tries to turn them one-hundred-and-eighty degrees (this he calls a One-Eighty), or to hold my arms and legs, to hold my whole body up in the air while McKinnick slaps at my testicles like he did my ears, with an open palm.
      I'm waiting for that. I'm waiting for all that to happen.
      But that's not what happens. What happens is I hear my name—"Minor"—and I hear it behind me, from the direction of the band room, where the Sonshine Fellowship meets to pray and sing. I turn around. It's McKinnick, and he's alone. And the fact of this—his aloneness—is more terrifying to me than anything I have ever seen or heard or known or imagined in my entire life.
      I am deeply, deeply afraid.
      McKinnick starts running, takes off at a sprint, and I turn, too, and start to run. But I am very slow. I get five steps, maybe, and he tackles me from behind.
      I fall face-first on the asphalt. I catch myself with my hands, and my right hand goes through the starfruit on its way down and rips fresh wounds into my hands, and those wounds are bathed in a tiny new pool of citric acid.
      McKinnick is on top of me. He mounts me from behind, starts slapping my ears. "How's that?" he says, and slaps and slaps and slaps and slaps, gets a rhythm going. He reaches into my pants and grabs hold of my underwear with his hand and jerks the cotton into my anus, and pulls, and pulls. I am already bleeding. I can feel the warmth.
      McKinnick says, "How's that? You like that? You feel it burn? Burn, baby, burn!" He pulls my underwear up and down and from side to side. He says, "You know what? I could ass rape you right now and no one would know. And if they found out, it's you would be the faggot, not me. You hear me, faggot? Are you listening?"
      What does it feel like? It is the most helpless feeling in the world. No one will come for me. If I try to tell on him—as I have done in the past—no one will believe me. I am at his mercy, and I am not sure he has any.
      All I can do is go someplace else, to that band room, to Wednesday mornings, 6:30 am, where I am singing—where we are singing—the words of the prophet Isaiah: You shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace. The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you. There will be shouts of joy, and all the trees of the fields will clap their hands, will clap their hands.
      That, and this: I will grow up to become a person who will be able to make things like this not happen to other people. And I will tell this story. This story. I will make sure everyone knows.
      And here I must interrupt the thoughts of my twelve-year-old self to tell you, reader, that I did not grow up to become a person who could keep things like this from happening to other people. And until this moment, this moment I am sharing with you, I did not grow up to tell this story. I tried, a few times, and less and less as years went by, to tell this story. But no friend ever wanted to hear this story. The past, they would say, is the past. Or: That was a long time ago. Get over it. Or: Nobody likes victim stories. And, most often, they would say nothing at all. They would just be very quiet—I could tell, always, from the looks on their faces, that I had made them very uncomfortable by sharing even the opening words of this confidence. I had revealed myself to be a very, very strange and disturbed individual.
      I stopped trying to tell the story. I grew up, instead, to become a preacher. Briefly a preacher. Less than two years a preacher. And while I was a preacher I was befriended by a Palm Beach Gardens city worker, a meter reader named Tony Griffin, and it is important to know that Tony Griffin was black and that he was especially sensitive to racial issues, and that I was not—trained as I was, at this school, to not believe in any kind of legacy of racism in America, to believe that any talk of race was necessarily a crutch, an excuse used by black people unwilling to work hard, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and all that. Tony and I had a falling out over this very issue. He was part of a small group of single people in their twenties and thirties who met at my house on Thursday nights to pray and read the Bible and play video games, mostly Madden Football '99, on my Sony PlayStation. And Tony was sure that the people in the group—all of them white but him—had turned against him because he was black. I was convinced that this charge was completely unfounded, and conceded that possibly the others were growing impatient because they disliked his habit of interrupting the PlayStation games to put kung fu movies in the VCR. So we broke off our friendship, Tony and I, over race and video games and kung fu movies. And then I quit being a preacher, decided to be a writer, lived in my car for a while.
      I kept a cell phone, though, and one afternoon two years later it rang—I was near Orlando—and I saw Tony Griffin on the caller ID, and I answered and was glad to hear his voice until he said, "I'm calling because I have leukemia." And then I was making trips to West Palm Beach every couple of months to visit him in Hospice. And then we had another falling out. I didn't know that leukemia was a disease of the immune system, and I had a cold, and I came to visit, and I coughed as I walked through the door; and Tony threw a cup of red Jell-o at my head and said, "Motherfucker! You come in here with a cold!" I left the room as fast as I could and closed the door behind me, and I heard something else hit the door, and then: "I don't ever want to see your ass again until I'm dead and you're standing over my wooden box." I honored his wishes for a year, and then his niece called and said, "Come quick, he's got two days."
      I walked into the room. He lay on the bed. His family was gathered there, waiting. He asked them to leave the room. He said, "No one will be straight with me. Am I going to die?"
      I said, "I don't know."
      He said, "Bring me a mirror."
      I did, and he looked at himself for a long time, and then he said, "You ever see those pictures of the Ethiopian babies starving in the ditches?"
      He bore a striking resemblance.
      He said, "You see me, don't you?"
      I nodded. I couldn't talk. What could I do? I crawled into the bed with him. He was naked beneath the hospital gown and he had shit himself and some of the shit got on my pants. I held him for a while, and then he said, "You were right about the kung fu movies."
      And I said, "No, I wasn't. I wasn't right about anything."
      This was death talk we were talking.
      Then he said something extraordinary. He said, "I'm still praying for a miracle. I'm still believing for a miracle."
      I did not want to tell him so I didn't tell him what I had learned, what life had taught me, which is there's no such thing as miracles. God doesn't probably answer our prayers.
      After we said our goodbyes I left and knew he only had another day, probably, and it was not information I was equipped to handle. I hadn't cried since I was thirteen years old and received the last of my beatings from McKinnick. I had hardened myself so I wouldn't cry anymore, and then I couldn't undo it when I needed to undo it. So there I was, driving in my Chevy Corsica down Interstate 95, a little bit of Tony's shit still on my pants, just a little black stain, the little bit I couldn't get off with the hospital bathroom's hand soap and sink water. I was still trying to burn into memory what it was like to hold him and feel his flesh hanging like rags from the scaffolding of his bones, and to feel like if I held him too tightly I might break those bones and that it wouldn't take much at all. Not being able to cry made it all so much worse. The tightness in my chest was almost unbearable and I needed to somehow loosen the tightness, and even though the air conditioner was making the car uncomfortably cold, I felt a terrible heat in my chest and neck, and the veins in both temples were throbbing so hard I thought the vessels might burst. I pulled the car off on the side of the interstate, near a Jupiter neighborhood called The Heights where an ex-girlfriend still lived with her parents, their house a hundred feet or so from where I was sitting. I wanted to see her. I got out and scaled the six-foot chain-link fence separating neighborhood from interstate. My pants snagged on the fence and ripped a little, and I walked to her house and rang the doorbell. She wasn't there, but her mother answered the door and asked what was wrong and I told her that Tony was dying, and she said she was very sad and very sorry and wished she had time to talk about it but she had to be off to a birthday party.
      And then I scaled that fence again, and ripped my pants some more, and that made me angry, ripping my pants. A state trooper a quarter mile away turned on his blue lights and raced toward me. I was standing beside the Chevy Corsica in ripped, shit-stained pants, my chest tighter, my neck hot, a shooting pain running down my left arm, watching the state trooper's blue lights parading like fun-house ghosts against the front of my shirt.
      The trooper opened his door and stepped out, and then he looked at me, and I looked at him, and I saw that he was Drew McKinnick. I could feel the beating of my heart through my body. I could all but hear the ringing in my ears, and those old, familiar words: "You need to get some humility, boy." But then I could see that he wasn't Drew McKinnick. He only bore a striking resemblance. The same cold intensity in his eyes, same square jaw, same dog teeth.
      A couple of years earlier, a state trooper had pulled my brother over on a dark road—he was still in high school and wore his hair long—and yanked him out of the car by the arm and threw him over the trunk and threw him around a little, asked him if he knew what happens to people who hit cops.
     My officer, when he got a closer look at me, puffed out his chest, straightened to his full height. He asked what I was doing climbing the fence by the interstate. He was almost grinning. What passed between us was not unfamiliar. It was a flash of mutual recognition, the thing that two individuals of certain types immediately know about each other. Minor and McKinnick. I felt very small.
      I told him I was having a hard time and I had stopped to see a friend. I said I knew I should not have climbed the fence. I said I would be glad to get back in my car and be on my way. I asked if he'd let me. I said I was very sorry. I was ready for him to throw me around, knew he would.
      He waited a long time. He did not ask for my driver's license, and this troubled me. Whatever was going to happen between us was going to happen off the record. His nostrils flared when he breathed. He breathed hard. Each breath was like a calculated blow to the stomach. He put his hand on his holstered pistol. He looked into my eyes, measuring. I could not return his stare and shifted my focus to a fixed space beyond his shoulder, the white of the sky. "What happened to your pants?" he said, and I did not want to mention the fence. He seemed to find pleasure in my discomfort. He put his other hand on my shoulder and leaned over me so I had to look up again to meet his eyes. I told him I had ripped them on the fence. At that he grinned again, the predatory grin. His fingers dug into my shoulder. He said, "I don't want to see you on the side of this interstate again. That's a warning. I only give one. You understand?" I nodded. He sniffed the air, made a sour face. "Do yourself a favor and take a shower," he said. He gave my shoulder one last squeeze, then a little shove as he let go and walked back toward his patrol car and got in and waited for me to drive away.
      I stepped into my car and drove away, and he followed me all the way to the Indiantown Road exit, and then I exited and he kept going north. I pulled into a service station, and then I began to sob. Present or not, Drew McKinnick had undone what he had undone. I could feel him in the presence of the cop. His joy at intimidation. Somehow I had made it possible. My ears were ringing though they had not been slapped. Somehow I still carried McKinnick around inside me. I cried for a long time, and if I said that I was crying for Tony dying, that would be true, but it would also be a very, very small portion of the truth. Mostly, I was crying for the twelve-year-old boy standing beneath the starfruit tree on the asphalt path and waiting for his beating.
      When I had cried all I could cry, I started the car again. I dug through my cassette tapes and found one that Tony had given me, as a joke. It was Parliament/Funkadelic's Greatest Hits. We used to listen to that tape in the car all the time. I liked it more than he did.
      I was listening to George Clinton go through the ministrations of "Atomic Dog"—Why must I feel like that, why must I chase the cat?—and then I was singing along, falsetto: Nothin' but the dawg in me.
      The cell phone rang, and I knew it must be my brother—he was in Nashville auditioning for a six-month touring gig playing bass guitar for a well-known country singer—and I didn't even check the caller ID display. I answered and said, "Dr. Funkenstein here!"
      And the voice on the other end was not my brother. It was Tony's niece. She said, "Kyle?"
      I said, "Oh, oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't know."
      "It's Tony," she said. "He's dead. He died a few minutes ago. I knew you'd want to know."
      I didn't want to know. If this, dear reader, was a story like the kind I'd like to write, maybe there would have been a miracle. Most likely, Tony would die, but something else miraculous would happen. There would be a turn toward beauty that would reflect the joy-from-sadness in the prophet Isaiah's words, the comfort: You shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace.
      But I can't do it. Not this time. At the funeral, when the other men who had been Tony's pastors gave their portion of the eulogy, their words were full of comfort and hope. They were able to assure his family that Tony was in a better place, that he was, in fact, in heaven, with Jesus and the angels, held close to the bosom of God. But when it was my turn, I had no comfort or hope left to give. All I could say was that I loved Tony, and that he loved me, and that he was a stubborn and intractable person, and that I was, too, and that I believed, truly, that Tony had found his greatest joy in watching kung fu movies. That was all I could say. And when I was done, I stepped down from the only pulpit from which I had ever preached a sermon, and I walked past the altar, and down the steps, and down the aisle, and through the back doors of the church, and I have not been back since.

 © Kyle Minor

TThis electronic version of “You Shall Go Out With Joy and Be Led Forth with Peace” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author and publisher. It appears in the short-story collection Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor, published by Sarabande Books, Inc., 2014.   Book ordering available through and

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Author Bio

Kyle MinorKyle Minor is a columnist at Salon, The Nation, and HTMLGiant. His work has appeared in Esquire, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers, and Forty Stories: New Voices from Harper Perennial, among many other publications.  He is the recipient of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize, the Tara M. Kroger Prize for Short Fiction, and in 2006 was named a Best New Voice by Random House. He is the author of two short-fiction collections, In the Devil’s Territory, Dzanc Books, 2008; and Praying Drunk, Sarabande Books, Inc., 2014.

Photo credit:  Jennifer Percy