Fresh Ink: Howard Brown Returns to Mississippi for Literary Award

Howard Brown's "Pariah" won the first-place prize in poetry in the Faulkner Literary Competition hosted by the Union County Historical Society and Heritage Museum in his hometown of New Albany, Mississippi which is also the birthplace of William Faulkner. His short story "The Transient Salvation of Buster Mitchell" was awarded third-place in fiction.

Howard Brown is a retired attorney, who currently lives in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. He has published short fiction in Louisiana Literature; flash fiction in F**k Fiction, Crack the Spine, Pulpwood Fiction and Mad Hatters Review (forthcoming); and, poetry in Old Hickory Review and Poetry Super Highway. In 2012, he published a collection of poetry entitled The Gossamer Nature of Random Things. Howard Brown is a member of the Southern Lit Alliance Board of Directors.

Pariah

by Howard Brown

He had a pale and pallid look,

and it wasn’t just

his fair complexion, corn-silk hair,

or the faded jeans

and thread-bare shirts

in which he faced

the world each day.

No, there was a washed-out quality

about his very soul.

Raised on a hard-scrabble farm,

a stone’s throw from the Tallahatchie

(a turgid stream that meandered

along the edge of Two Mile Bottom

like a coiling king-snake

until the government

came along and

made it straight

as an arrow)

he spent an entire summer

entranced by the great, churning drag-lines

as they clawed their way

down the length of the bottom,

metallic jaws scooping up

endless buckets of silt and mud,

dumping them to either side,

so that, in the end, the stream

was nothing more than a sterile ditch.

And in all the years

that followed,

however a conversation started,

whatever its substance,

he always managed to

bring it around

to those idyllic days he spent

watching in wonder

as they dredged the Tallahatchie.

Waiting patiently for someone to befriend him,

he was a pariah,

a perpetual loner,

a modern day Huck Finn

but without Huck’s wit and guile;

like a dog kicked one too many times,

his first impulse

always to tuck tail and run.

I remember, with no small measure

of guilt and pain,

the day he dropped his head

and wept when our sixth-grade class

laughed as he struggled to describe

the tiny attic room in which he slept,

proof positive of the unwitting and

infinite capacity of children

for abject cruelty:

Though boys throw stones

at frogs in jest,

the frogs

they die in earnest.

"The Transient Salvation of Buster Mitchell"

by Howard Brown

The holy rollers are here again, two of them, an angular boy wearing a cheap grey suit and black high-top tennis shoes, and a fat woman in flip flops, a full length purple choir robe, and some sort of white cloth wrapped about her head like a turban.

The boy is unremarkable in appearance. Ah, but the woman, she’s a sight to behold: a pale undulating mass of flesh barely contained by her flowing vestments. They were here once before, with fire in their eyes and an old leather satchel stuffed with religious literature. I made the mistake of trying to humor them last time—it won’t happen again.

I can see them plainly from where I sit on the screened-in porch upstairs. The boy is lugging the satchel today, the woman waddles along at his side, fanning herself with a handful of tracts. I watch as they work their way up the street, moving from house to house, not finding much of anyone home this time of day. Finally they turn in at my building, walk up the drive and disappear from view as they step onto the porch downstairs.

You can hear the fat one laboring to catch her breath. She sounds asthmatic. A woman that heavy doesn’t need to be out trudging about in this heat. One of them begins rapping on the front door, the fat one I would imagine, for despite her infirmities, she seems to be the moreaggressive of the two. I pause over my laptop, afraid that the slightest sound, even the murmuring click of the keys, will betray my presence.

I can hear them whispering but can’t quite make out what they’re saying. Probably putting the final touches on their game plan. They go to some sort of school before they turn them loose on the streets, you know, to learn how to put the hard sell on religion.

I’m half-way tempted to go down and turn Ajax loose. I’d love to see how fast the fat woman could move with a snarling Airedale about to sink his fangs into her ample buns. But there would be legal consequences I’m sure, a thing I don’t need in my life just now. So I sit here, hoping that if I’m quiet they will eventually give up and go away. And, as I listen to them whispering back and forth, no doubt plotting the course of my redemption, I remember my boyhood idol, Buster Mitchell, and his transient call to salvation.

* * *

I grew up south of here, in a bucolic little town by the name of Vermillion. It was no different from a score of other hamlets scattered across the red clay hills of North Mississippi. Perhaps the only thing that set us apart from the surrounding communities was the fact that our courthouse did not sit on a town square, nor was there any memorial to the Confederate war dead rising from its lawn.

It was a nice place to live, most of the homes modest but quite comfortable. The streets were paved and tree-lined, although they followed no discernible pattern, twisting and turning through the town as if they had been laid out along cow paths rather than according to a draftsman’s plan. Yet it was that very lack of symmetry which seemed to give the place a special quality, a quaintness which will forever separate it from the antiseptic, foursquare subdivisions which would spring up about its periphery in years to come.

Most of polite society was Methodist, Baptist, or Presbyterian. I was Presbyterian, not by virtue of any conscious decision on my part, but because it had been foreordained by my mother. She had me baptized as an infant, as is the custom in that denomination, and thus my spiritual status was a fait accompli, something I took for granted like my race and gender. I went to church and Sunday school each week at the behest of my mother, but by the time I reached thirteen, I had begun to view religion with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Much of my growing disaffection with spiritual matters could probably be attributed to the natural urge for rebellion which begins to manifest in young people about the time they reach puberty. As the sap began to rise, my friends and I became distant, brooding beings, motivated more by glandular changes than logic or reason and anxious to throw off the trappings of mainstream society that seemed to smother our parents’ lives. But it wasn’t all glands.

Buster Mitchell was a Huck Finn sort of character who lived with his mother in the hollow on the far side of the town cemetery. He was an amoral being whose concept of good and evil was strictly existential in nature—if it felt good, you did it; if it hurt, you abstained. It was just that simple.

Buster’s mother was a woman of easy virtue who slept with any man who had five dollars and the inclination for the sort of love that paltry sum could buy. I doubt she even knew by whom Buster had been sired. As for Buster, he likely never gave the matter a second thought. For his world seemed to encompass neither past nor future, but only the precise moment in which he happened to be living.

Buster quit school in the fifth grade, spent most of his days hanging about town, passing time as an equal of the old men who sat on the loafers’ bench in front of Rose’s Drugstore, working at odd jobs now and then to keep himself supplied with tobacco and whatever else a boy of his station might need, and generally pursuing an aimless and carefree existence. He cursed with proficiency, seldom bathed and darkened the door of a church only once to my knowledge, living exactly the sort of life most boys my age truly longed for. And though that longing was destined to go largely unfulfilled, my friends and I emulated his bad-boy ways as best we could.

Buster is long since dead, having fallen off the back of a log truck about the time I graduated from high school. He’s buried among the weeds in the paupers’section of the cemetery and the last time I looked, his grave was marked only by a small aluminum placard and a green Mason jar containing a clutch of badly weathered plastic daisies. Am I the only one who still remembers the shabby, amiable boy who ambled about the streets of Vermillion for so many years?

Surely the Reverend Sanford Peeler would remember, if memory is a thing which survives man’s passage from this world to the next. He too is now dead, buried just up the hill from Buster beneath a massive granite marker which bears the inscription: I Came Not to Call the Righteous, But Sinners, to Repentance.

For all of his bombastic ostentation, the Reverend’s view of life was only slightly more complex than Buster’s. All of mankind’s pursuits fell into one of two categories: those of the flesh and those of the spirit. Exactly how he determined what qualified as spiritual was always something of a mystery. But if a thing brought pleasure, it was carnal, a snare of the Devil. Life for Reverend Peeler was a never-ending battle against liquor, tobacco, gambling, pool halls, dancing, rouge, lipstick, patent leather shoes, Ouija Boards, playing ball on Sunday and a thousand other simple pleasures of life.

So given Buster’s profane, non-conformist lifestyle and his considerable influence on a sizable portion of the young boys in Vermillion, he was a definite stumbling block for the Reverend. And while Buster probably never recognized that he was involved in a battle for anyone’s soul, I feel certain Reverend Peeler saw the challenge as an endless Sisyphean struggle.

Spring in Vermillion was revival time. And whether by design or happenstance, none of the mainstream churches ever seemed to hold these special services the same week. My mother had a peculiar affinity for these spiritual Chautauquas, which meant that I not only had to listen to someone rant and rave over my soul for a week at the Presbyterian Church, I generally had to sit through it at the Methodist and Baptist churches too.

No matter what church you happened to attend or who was preaching, you generally got one of two types of sermons—hellfire and brimstone or the sweet love of Jesus. Hellfire and brimstone was just that, a lot of talk about sin and the last days and the prospect of being condemned to hell, where there would be eternal weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was scary talk and seemed real enough while I sat in the pew beside my mother, but when the moon and stars didn’t fall from the heavens that evening and I awoke the next morning to find that the sun was still shining, it seemed little more than an elaborate fairy tale and its power over me was gone.

The sweet love of Jesus sermons were just the opposite. They were weepy tales about how God had sent his only Son down to earth and how Jesus had gone around healing the sick and raising the dead and trying to convince people to love one another, and how he kept at it until the Jews finally decided they’d had enough of his rabble-rousing and euchred the Romans into nailing him to a cross. And somehow out of all of this, you were supposed to see that even now, if you just accepted him as your savior and asked him for forgiveness, everything would be alright.

Still, I could never quite figure out how loving Jesus was going to bring about any sort of change in me or how I could ask someone for forgiveness when I’d never known him in the first place. My mother’s response was simple—I could talk with him when I prayed and if I was patient and listened, he’d surely answer. So I prayed as best I knew how and listened as well.