Jacob was an appalling man – short, long-torsoed, stubby-legged, and bellicose. A rough, red face; flat, black hair that reflected light; and he was loud. He laughed at unfunny jokes and had to fight everything.
But Jacob excelled at church. Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights he was there, wearing his black suit, his wife, and their children. He sang hymns with all his heart. He testified freely. He prayed easily in public. He could preach a passable sermon. He was sober, unbending, a pillar. And he avoided worldly things.
He wished the rest of his life were as easy.
A maintenance man at his sons’ school, Jacob bristled when called a janitor or asked to clean spills and vomit. He hated most moments of his job, wanted a drink most every day. He hated the students who thought him ridiculous, hated the children who laughed at greasy hair and sweat stained t-shirts. He detested teachers more: they saw in him failure, stupidity; and they imagined they could hide their thoughts. They treated him kindly.
Jacob began his days good-naturedly, laughed and joked. Breakfast was usually pleasant. But as the hours passed anger and hopelessness settled on him, increased their pitch to cold, resentful fury.
He tried to maintain a stoic posture toward his life. “You made your own bed, Jake, now’s the time to lie in it,” he would say to himself, then sigh.
He disliked never having enough money. He disliked being behind on all his bills. He disliked the fact that everything he owned was second hand, broken down, or defective. He disliked not having respect. He disliked everything always being hard work. He disliked having disobedient children.
In church Jacob wondered sometimes if God was punishing him, was against him. The others always liked to say God was love – they wanted to believe it. “Part right,” Jacob thought, “but God has another nature.” He usually remained silent. For Jacob God was also harsh, unknowable, exacting, unfair: the God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart and loved Jacob while hating Esau. That use of his own name was mildly reassuring – nothing happens by accident.
Jacob’s wife Ruth was not pretty, and she knew it. She was half a head taller than Jacob. Her hair was straight and dead; her teeth crooked; her face horse long. No makeup, no jewelry; her clothes were second-hand – except the ones she made herself. Plain, quiet, shy, thoughtful, she made little impression.
Ruth did not love her live; she was content. All she’d ever wanted to be was a wife and mother. She liked children, sewed as a hobby, enjoyed cooking, could live on very little. She did not like to clean and was glad that Jacob wanted no visitors in their home.
Ruth was happy keeping her family to herself. She felt their shame of her: of her accent, of her clumsiness, of her dropping out of high school. She seldom went out – church, meetings with teachers, picking up kids.
She sometimes wished Jacob gentler and more romantic. That wasn’t Jacob’s way; he didn’t express his feelings. But Ruth was certain he cared for her; most days that was enough.
She sometimes wished he wouldn’t insult her – talk to her like she was stupid.
They had three sons. Joshua and Josiah were twins. John Ross – we called him J.R. – was two years younger. J.R. was in my class, but I remember all three from school.
They were thin and small for their age; all three had shaved heads. This was one of several of Jacob’s preferred punishments. Hair cutting was usually reserved for talking back. It appealed to him because all three boys hated it. It also appealed to him because the style was then unpopular and made them unpopular. Being unpopular insulated them from bad influences. When people made fun of them, their punishment was reinforced.
Jacob had other punishments of course: the belt, feeding them foods they hated, locking them in their room (the lock only worked from the outside), or special chores around the house and yard.
We never much liked Joshua and Josiah; they were bullies. Aggressive and cocky, they backed each other up. To fight one was to fight both, and they fought dirty. They were repeatedly caught in lies and small crimes; they had a taste for cruelty. At home they ganged up against J.R., and he was powerless. Jacob always took their side: he wanted to drive he weakling out of J.R..
J.R. never fit in well at school either. He wasn’t like his brothers; I can’t remember an instance when he was unkind to anyone. But his hair, his clothes, his size, his lack of coordination all worked against him. He was also always a few steps behind.
J.R. had no television, knew no movies, no popular music, no video games. When these topics came up J.R. stayed silent. After Christmas, when we bragged about our presents and wore new clothes, J.R. stayed silent. He alone didn’t purchase school pictures or go on field trips that required money. He did not wear a costume for Halloween.
No one was actively mean to J.R.; we remained neutral. His world and ours had nothing in common.
Growing up, J.R.’s single wish was to be just like everyone else. He was shocked that people had friends outside of school, that they went to each other’s houses, that they did things together, that they hung out or talked on the phone. J.R. did not have close friends; the idea of inviting someone home never entered his mind. He knew better: he knew he did not live like other people did.
J.R. was not religious – an unforgivable trait. He heard sermons his whole life, and he was immune to them. He remained neutral to the concept of God, neither actively believing nor actively rejecting. During revivals Joshua and Josiah went to the altar – feeling guilty, sincerely meaning to change. Every time his mother cried. J.R. did not make fun of belief; he remained skeptical.
J.R. never went forward. He droned through the unnumbered verses of “Just As I Am” – that most popular and least singable of all altar call hymns. Head bowed, eyes closed, he played games in his mind to pass time.
J.R.’s was an ordered universe: people got what they deserved. He did not feel guilt, but imagined he must be a bad person – a wrong person. During the altar calls, while his eyes pressed shut and games could no longer distract him, J.R. rehearsed the humiliations of his life, at home, at school, in the church youth group. There was no question of why – it was simply because he was J.R..
J.R. did not graduate with our class. In the middle of his junior year the whole family suddenly moved – I think it was to eastern Tennessee. We never knew why. I heard several years later that he went into the army, but I know nothing else about him. When his name came up in conversation I had to think for a long moment to place it.