Photograph via Flickr by Brian C. Carter
In Koulèv-Ville, Haiti, spring of 1983, the bachelor missionary Samuel Tillotson stropped his father’s straight razor on the leather he hung from a ring on a nail he’d driven into the cinderblock beside the mirror in his quarters, which were smaller than everyone else’s, but it wasn’t the quarters he minded, it was his growing sense of loneliness, all kinds of loneliness. He finished preparing the razor and he made the lather in the bucket of water he had brought from the kitchen, and as he shaved his face he couldn’t help thinking of the day at age five he walked in on his mother grooming herself with her razor in the bathtub, and she said, If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all. But it wasn’t true. There were big ones and small ones and medium-sized ones, blonde and brunette, and even bald ones, ones of various shades of reds and pinks and purples and browns, fat ones and skinny ones, elongated ones and compact ones, ones that tasted this way or that way, smelled this way or that way, responded this or that way to the touch of this or that. He chased ones of every kind, he found one he wanted to settle down with, he lost that one after sneaking off with another one, and then he was seized by the attentions of a higher One, but he didn’t forget about the other ones.
Once a year or so, he traveled home to perform the exotic missionary patter known to take pockets and turn them inside-out—the hope of God for the hungry and the fleabitten, the long tradition of yellow jungle planes greeted by savages bearing sticks, the trick of wretch-saving grace.
He was also lonely for the friendship of men, and not the thin pleasantness that passed for friendship around the mission, but the kind of bosom friendship he had found with Leslie Ratliff, his roommate at Apalachicola Bible College, whom he was able to see less and less often in the years since he had started his work in Haiti. Once a year or so, he traveled home to perform the exotic missionary patter known to take pockets and turn them inside-out—the hope of God for the hungry and the fleabitten, the long tradition of yellow jungle planes greeted by savages bearing sticks, the trick of wretch-saving grace. Leslie set up the itinerary. Churches and schools, Fellowships of Christian Athletes, Youth for Christ, Young Life, the occasional Rotary or Kiwanis Club if the membership was sufficiently Baptist. The talk took on a four-part structure, the beats prescribed by the elderly Dr. Lou Phelps, veteran of the Brazilian Amazon, now stationed in the home office in Richmond, Virginia, and so the fundraising method became known far and wide as the Phelps Rules:
• Phelps Rule #1: Picture, Story, or 16mm Film. Poverty, neglect, or pure atrocity, it matters not which. A child squatting in a muddied pile of rain-soaked rubble. A mosquito near an eyeball. A body machete-hacked and set on fire. Something high stakes, something savage, something local, because if you want to get somebody’s attention, you have to puncture their complacency by demonstrating an outrageous material need.
• Phelps Rule #2: Missionary’s Own Testimony. Why, missionary, did you leave the comforts of family and home and the United States of America, to travel to some place—don’t you say some godforsaken place, no place on earth has been forsaken by God, no race, sex, age, creed, or color—where you don’t know a soul, where people speak another language, where they do the most ignorant things? And list the ignorant things. Do the people in your new country cockfight, eat cat or dog, keep mongoose in the house, bathe where they drink, take three brides, practice the blood sacrifices of Santería? Show another sad picture, and make sure your face is in it, a healer amongst the suffering.
• Phelps Rule #3: Asking the Question. “Are you going to let the devil rob, steal, swindle, hornswoggle, con, or cheat you out of the joy of the victory of giving?” Because hear you me: People have money, and people like to give. It makes them feel good. Missionary, fundraising is not a sad obligation. It is not a burden. Money is not unspiritual unless it is used carnally. Money belongs to God. We are mere stewards of what’s His. And the material suffering this money will ease is nothing compared to the spiritual suffering just beneath the skin’s surface. Not to mention hell, the pure physical suffering of fire and brimstone for those who die without Christ, and, worse, the pure spiritual destruction of an eternity without God. What’s it worth, in dollars and cents, to rescue a child of God from eternity in the river of fire?
• Phelps Rule #4: The Time to Decide Is Now. There is no tomorrow. You could walk out these doors in five minutes, and a school bus could run you over. A dump truck. A stray bullet. These are dire times. I know you watch the evening news. I know you read the newspapers, because you care about what’s going on in the world. Friends, we may well be in the End Times, the Last Days. This present Dispensation of Grace may well have run its course. The Day of Lord will come like a Thief in the Night. What if He rides in the sky on his white horse tomorrow, in a great company of angels, all of them bearing swords, to raise the living and the dead, and the dead in Christ will rise first? Can you imagine all those graves split open? Will you be ready? Can you stand before the Throne of Judgment with a clear conscience, knowing you did what was commanded of you, when the Man of God came to ask you to do what was commanded of you, and give according to the great need? Friends, take out your wallet, your checkbook, your pledge card Now. Can you hear the music? Tomorrow may be too Late.
The trick with the home audiences was to keep it light, keep it close to reverent, turn it in the direction of a life lesson sooner than later, which meant you open with half-funnies, and then you playact the Theater of Phelps.
To which Samuel wanted to say: What about the joking? He had a catalog of groaners—(Q: What did the cannibals do when the missionary came to their village? A: They had him for breakfast!)—which got the job done, broke the ice, cleared the churchy cobwebs, laid the groundwork for, paved the way for, curried favor with, courted, and cozied, but which didn’t move him in his own happier places. He enjoyed, for example, dead baby jokes—(Q: What’s funnier than a dead baby? A: A dead baby in a clown suit.)—and believed that all true hilarity rose from irreverent talk about the things no one is supposed to say except with reverence. The trick with the home audiences was to keep it light, keep it close to reverent, turn it in the direction of a life lesson sooner than later, which meant you open with half-funnies, and then you playact the Theater of Phelps. And the Theater of Phelps was not so hard to conjure, not when poverty, neglect, and atrocity were less than a kilometer in every direction from the Koulèv-Ville of his recent memory and imagination. Not a week earlier, he had gone into a dark dirt-floored house where the rainwaters that leaked from the stone-covered rust holes in the tin roof were falling on the bodies of Leila Altidort—the wife of his best Haitian friend Kenel—and her stillborn baby. Blood everywhere. Stained the ground, her legs, Kenel’s hands and chest as he held his wife’s head to his chest. He put the dead baby in her arms, and he held up her arms with his arms, and they rocked there, the three of them, the two dead, and the one living. And when Samuel came into the house and saw them there, he joined them, put his arms around Kenel and the bodies and rocked with them. He didn’t need a doctor to be first to the diagnosis: Placenta previa, that low-ride and tear in the uterus that killed the mother, and that horrid umbilical tangle that strangled the baby with the life-giving cord. So often it was this, the too-late diagnosis for want of an ultrasound machine, a sonogrammer, to catch it early, and mother and half-term baby bled to death within spitting distance of the mission hospital. He wanted to grab old humorless Phelps by the lapels and shake him and say: This is what is sacred. This is what you want me to say, and I will not say it. But time would play the changes. He knew it. The time would come, and he would say the words, use the gruesome story of the untimely and purposeless death of Kenel’s wife and baby to get the money, then use the story again on the disbursers of the money he raised, to try to convince them to use the money to buy, really buy, an ultrasound machine, instead of another batch of battery-powered radios that would only tune to the one radio station, the one with the preaching and singing the mission approved. To try and fail, because Brother Joe and his ilk—those who controlled the purse strings—would say: What power is there in the ultrasound machine? The ultrasound machine proclaims on one life, but the radio station proclaims to tens of thousands the greater message, for the greater life giving, and: Don’t do that, they’d say. Don’t do that to me. That Phelps patter doesn’t work on me.
He showed pictures from some faraway mud village he’d never visited—slides color-stripped by the miracle-working lab techs in Virginia. . .
But it worked on crowds. So in sanctuaries and gymnasiums and fellowship halls and lodges in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, he showed pictures of half-built sand-strewn cinderblock bidonville shanties from the city slums in Port-au-Prince, with a child’s face in the opening where the window should be, or a nursing mother holding open the thin pink bedsheet that served as a door. He showed pictures from some faraway mud village he’d never visited—slides color-stripped by the miracle-working lab techs in Virginia, the positive image people, or the sympathy people as Samuel called them—of scrawny children potbellied from malnourishment, and he didn’t mention that nobody in Koulèv-Ville was that malnourished, not with the mission so near, not with the USAID rice, or the fact that the mission was in the mountains, not the city below, which meant planted fields and gardens and fruit-bearing trees. (He missed them the moment the plane hit the tarmac in Miami, the avocados, the pineapples, the sweet bananas, the tomatoes and pumpkins and soup-fit leeks.) He didn’t say that yes it was risky—he had seen people lit on fire or their hands cut off as expressions of village justice, a deterrent he thought certain American bleeding hearts might do well to consider, what with all that was happening in the lawless inner cities—but if a hungry person needed a piece of fruit or a vegetable badly enough, you could wait until nighttime and steal it, or you could ask a neighbor and trade it for a favor or for some work. Koulèv-Ville was poor, and it was functional, but the slides he showed from the mission hospital—the gangrenous arm, the malarial skinniness, the glaucoma-eaten eyes—didn’t lie at all. Taken as a composite, he reasoned, the range of slides and hand-passed pictures, even the fibbish ones, told a greater truth for a greater good, because, let’s face it, these good people in the audience would take their twenty dollar bill and spend it on hamburgers and French fries, G-rated movies, gas station fountain drinks—have you ever seen a 64-ounce Big Gulp?, one part water, one part sugar?—just sheer wastefulness of the sort Samuel could no longer abide. Better wheedle that money out of their pockets and into the mission coffers, where, battery-powered radios aside, it would fund agriculture programs, Sunday Schools, the homes for orphans and retarded kids, supplies for the mission hospital, and, yes, his own meager monthly stipend. “In Haitian Creole,” he told the congregations, “Koulèv-Ville means Snake City. And you know as well as I do who the Snake is. It’s the devil himself.” From here he went on at some length about the Garden of Eden and the story of how this earth is temporarily the devil’s territory, and on long drives from, say, Wauchula, Florida, to Meridian, Mississippi, Leslie tried to convince him to leave out that part of the speech, because the earth, Leslie said, even in the here and now, belonged to God as everything belonged to God, and it was hard to take him seriously when he was dropping peanuts into his glass bottle of Coca-Cola to fizz and flavor it, and taking long swigs, and then shaking the Coke-soaked peanuts out of the empty bottle when all the liquid was gone, and sucking on them like they were some kind of thirty dollar truffles, but isn’t this the kind of thing you miss later about a friend like Leslie?, and wouldn’t you spend half your month’s stipend on Coke and peanuts and gasoline just to get him going around in a car with you again, arguing theology? “What, you like the gangrene, but you can’t abide the snake talk?” Samuel’d say, and Leslie would reply: “You think it’s the dark stuff, but I’m telling you Phelps was dead wrong. Dead wrong!” The conviction! Leslie was balding, and he had started to comb his hair over the bald spot, and when he got worked up like this, he chicken-wobbled his head, and the combover flopped up and down—hairheaded, baldheaded, hairheaded, baldheaded. Samuel didn’t have the heart to tell him, but somebody ought to tell him. Surely the students at the Good Shepherd Academy, where Leslie served as principal, made jokes at their desks or by their lockers. Why didn’t his young wife tell him? “It’s you they like,” Leslie said. “The lightness of you. The light in you. They like the jokes, and you know what they like most of all? You know what they really respond to? Marisa Holden, that’s what.” Which was, Samuel pointed out, classic Phelps stuff. Phelps Rule #2, right? Why, missionary, did you leave the comforts of family and home and the United States of America His life was evidence, he told the congregations, his life had borne out again and again how God’s ways are not our own. He never planned to live in Koulèv-Ville, Haiti, any more than he planned to attend Bible College in his thirties. He owned and operated a thriving plumbing business with his brother Frank, he was engaged to be married to Marisa Holden, his childhood sweetheart, he had a whole happy life planned out in High Springs, Florida—good honest work Monday through Friday, dinner every evening with Marisa, six or seven kids, at least one of them a boy he was going to name Samuel Jr., weekends out at the cold springs, swimming in those shallow caves, picnic blankets, cold cuts, laying out there in the cool of the evening with Marisa and the kids “But God got a hold of me,” he’d preach, “in a tent meeting of all places. They don’t even have tent meetings in High Springs anymore.” This might for all he knew have been the last of the tent meetings. And that preacher laid hands on Samuel Tillotson’s head and said, “The Lord is commissioning you to bring the good news to a faraway place,” and—Samuel told the churches—he already knew it before the preacher said it. He asked the people: Do you think it was easy, to walk away from Marisa? To walk away from my business? To walk away from my brother? “I didn’t understand it at the time,” he’d say, “but I had faith. I had trust. I believed in the things I had not seen,” and it led him to Apalachicola, to Room 23F in the Oldham-Betts dormitory, to that wonderfully transforming friendship with Leslie, to the mission board, and, eventually, to Koulèv-Ville, Haiti, “My home,” he’d tell the churches.
All of that was true, but it wasn’t all of what was true.
All of that was true, but it wasn’t all of what was true. Like his daddy used to say, not everybody needs to know all your business. In Koulèv-Ville, it gnawed at him every day, not having anybody in his daily life who knew the rest. It wasn’t any particular thing he missed about Leslie. It was the comfort of knowing that Leslie knew his secrets and forgave all of them, and loved him anyway. They could walk together and talk without holding anything back. It had been like that since their third week together in school. They were sitting up on the roof of Oldham-Betts, and Samuel said, “It’s hard to be up here and not smoke a cigarette,” and when Leslie gave him a sideways look, Samuel said, “Look, I have a past. It’s pretty apparent, right? I’m a good thirteen years older than everybody here. There’s some things I had to walk away from. Can you handle that?” “Who am I,” Leslie said, “to judge you. I’ve got my own things to walk away from.” And Leslie—this kid—began to lay out his confessions, chief among them the lust he held in his heart when he looked upon a woman, this guilt he carried around with him daily, along with images he had seen in the magazines his father had kept behind some Time/Life books about World War II. “I used to pull them out to see the pictures of the corpses,” Leslie said, “these terrible mass graves, and the ovens at Auschwitz, and the cattle cars at Bergen-Belsen. And not just that. There were these pictures of these survivors, these terribly emaciated people, men, women, and children, many of them standing in a line, naked. I had never seen a naked person before. They were nearly dead, these people, but they didn’t have any clothes on. It nearly sent me to the moon, and it wasn’t any less exciting for being so wrong, everything hanging down shriveled against these rib cages that wanted out of the skin that held them. Normally I had this high fear of sin and the way it separates us from God, but here I was ogling these naked bodies standing three feet from these skulls and corpses and uniformed men with long bayonets at the end of their rifles, and I knew that this was as far as you get from normal, me feeling like I’m about to burst in the presence of all this, and knowing these people are the Jews—God’s chosen people, Samuel—and so I decided right then and there. I’m going to put this Time/Life book back on the shelf. So I did, or I tried to. My hands were shaking. Conviction was all over me, as you can imagine. In the midst of this clumsiness, I reached wrong and knocked down almost the whole row of Time/Life books. And what I found behind them, I couldn’t believe this, it was a stash of magazines. Playboy, Penthouse, Gallery, Genesis, Oui. I can see every last picture in my mind. To this day I can.” He took a straight razor to four or five favorite pictures and hid them in a hollow he carved in the left foot of the headboard of his bed. He had to take off the mattress and the bedsprings and lift the whole bed to get at them. “I got at them all the time,” Leslie said. “I put a lock on my door. My father didn’t say anything. They were his magazines. I’m pretty sure he was the same way. I think he knew. He must have saw the razor cuts in the pages. I kept cutting more and more pictures, four or five at a time. There were a lot of holes in the pages. One day I pulled away the Time/Life books to get some more pictures, and the magazines were gone.” He fixed Samuel with a long stare. His eyes were the color of a welding flame. “Can you handle that?” Leslie said.
“That’s nothing,” Samuel said. A low pride welled up in him, and he tried to tamp it down. In the years ahead, it would grow, this low pride at being the chief of sinners. Where sin increases, grace increases, the Scriptures said. So often he could feel the low-grade jealousy he stoked in others when he told how much he’d been saved from. He needed a couple dozen warehouses for his store of grace. “You thought about doing those things. I was doing them and doing them and doing them.” Stacy Yerke, sixth grade, his first, on her mother’s bed while skipping school. Her sister Lucy, a year older, the next day. Their best friend Letitia, two days later. There must have been some talking among the girls. He had a feeling that he was being passed around, and he didn’t mind. Corinne Michalski, Lindsay Lewis, Katie Davis, Lily Erdrich, and then sixth grade was through. How had no one found out, no adult? People were talking, but no one was talking to him. “I got bold about it,” he said. “That summer out in the orange groves I had a special place. I had a picnic blanket, a couple towels, a special song I liked to sing where I’d change the eye color of the girl in the song to match the eye color of the girl I was with.” He got to older sisters, older and older, older cousins. He learned how to spot a certain kind of older woman. “They taught me things,” he said. He let a little leer into his patter, a little lewdness Leslie could see, a little lewdness to match Leslie’s eagerness. Saved from so many things.
“What’s it like,” Leslie said, “knowing a woman?” That word from the Old Testament. King David knew Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and she bore unto him a child.
Samuel leaned back and the tarpaper of the dormitory roof bit pleasantly into the heels of his hands. “Leslie, buddy, are you a virgin?”
“Proudly,” Leslie said, but he said it like he wasn’t. “I’m saving myself for marriage. But sometimes I think, you know, what if you get there, you went through that ceremony, and there she is, wearing white, you pull back the veil, you kiss her in front of her father and God and everybody, you go to the reception, you’re holding hands, you drive to the hotel, you’re sitting there on the bed, what if you don’t know what to do, and she doesn’t know what to do, either? Or what if she does know what to do, what then? What does that mean about her? Or what if you find that you know what to do, even though you’ve never done it before? What does she think about you, then?”
“Well,” Samuel said, “I think it’s a natural enough thing. Think about it. Your daddy’s magazines. You didn’t go looking for them. You didn’t cultivate some lewd habit to rile yourself up for the day you found them. One day they were there to find, and you found them, and when you opened them up, your body knew right away what was so exciting about them. It didn’t have to be told what to do.”
“Sin,” Leslie said, rotely, “is fulfilling a God-ordained desire in a way God forbids.”
Here was a grade A one hundred percent red-blooded American male virgin thinking about the thing he’d seen women do in his daddy’s magazines but never heard about in real life from somebody who had been there.
“That first time,” Samuel said, “with that little Stacy? I mean, she didn’t seem so little then. I was no bigger than she was. To me she was a woman and I was as good as a man right then. Our bodies knew what things to do. I remember pulling down those white panties, I remember this rush that came to my head. There’s pheromones down there, you know. We’ve got em, too. Don’t let anybody fool you. Women are as crazy for it as men. They just need warmed up a little more. They want you to touch them, even if they don’t know it yet. Once they let you touch them, and you touch them, that red gets in their cheeks. After awhile you kiss their neck, you kiss their collarbone, you kiss that hollow down there by their hipbone. Nobody has to tell you to do it. Your body tells you. And their head gets thrown back. They close their eyes a little. Nobody has to teach them how. Their bodies teach them how.” He noticed Leslie’s breathing had got a little quicker, a little shallower. No reason to embarrass him and say something about it. No queer stuff going on here, not with Leslie. Here was a grade A one hundred percent red-blooded American male virgin thinking about the thing he’d seen women do in his daddy’s magazines but never heard about in real life from somebody who had been there. It wasn’t weird. He wasn’t going to make him feel weird about it. “What I’m saying,” Samuel said, “is you don’t have nothing to worry about. You get in there, in that hotel room, those clean white sheets, maybe you light a candle, maybe one of her girlfriends got her some of that frilly black underwear, maybe a camisole or somesuch, something sheer and silky, something meant to light a fire in you, not that you needed any help with that, but how is she to know? She looks at you, she’s a little timid, but timid is hot, too. Everything in both of you, your skin, your lips, your swelled up parts, is about seven degrees past burning already, and the match is thrown as soon as there’s no more I do between the two of you. It’s wonderful, it’s God’s plan, it’s what all these old ladies know when they’re sitting around frowning at two kids holding hands, or jumping up to change the channel when something steamy hits the TV, Juliet looks down from the balcony at Romeo, and it doesn’t matter that they’re speaking in British accents even though it’s supposed to be bloody Italy. And it wouldn’t matter if it was High Springs, Florida, or Apalachicola, or Paris, or Tokyo, or the planet that goes with the star just to the left of the moon, where the lovers are shaped like hoot owls, and instead of kissers they have a seventeeth fingerbone in the tip of their wing, which they press erotically to the boy’s right ear or the girl’s left ear, and make each other as crazy as the two of you in that honeymoon suite with the green carpet and the wood panel walls and the orange telephone.”