As a teenager, I swore to God that if I ever got out of that wretched little town alive, I would shake the dust off my feet, cuss them out, and never return. To hell with them all!
But one should never doubt just how twisted God’s sense of humor can be. Nor underestimate Her patience when it comes to pulling off a good joke at the expense of your well laid plans. Nearly forty years after I escaped Hazlehurst, Mississippi, it turned out there was only one place in the entire world that housed the documents I needed for a novel I was researching. They were boxed and stored in the dank courthouse basement of that very town. I decided it would be a quick trip. I would fly down, rent a car, drive the eighty miles to the courthouse, find the papers, and get out. All that remained for me there were a few documents and a lot of ghosts.
But after spending the day scouring musty historical records, my curiosity got the best of me. I had plenty of time before my flight, so I decided to drive around town, comforted by the realization that my old tormentors would be as old as I, and if they had remained here, they were the ones who were the pathetic losers, not me.
There was not much to see. The town was in its death throes, stores boarded up and houses abandoned. Once immaculately cared for gardens overgrown. When I found my family’s house, it appeared so much smaller than I remembered, a cramped cracker box with seven tiny rooms. But my father had been proud of it. I’m not sure he had ever been the first-time owner of anything, especially a house.
It now looked shabby, the siding peeled and buckled. The single carport sagged. But the trees Dad had planted in that once bare, red-dirt yard were now magnificent maples and sycamores that towered over a lush remnant of Bermuda grass, something Dad had nurtured one sprig at a time.
I sat parked out on the street, thinking of my family. In my memory, my parents are still alive. Dad is in his old recliner patched with electrical tape, a glass of iced sweet tea in his hand, cursing Walter Cronkite for being too hard on Mississippi again. “Damn it! Everybody’s not in the Klan down here,” he cusses.
Mom is in the kitchen cooking supper, maybe sober, maybe not. Either way, the food, in whatever condition of preparedness, will be on the table at promptly at 6 p.m. when Walter signs off.
I remember Christmas trees and birthday presents. The hours I spent alone, preparing for my eventual escape to an imagined place where a boy who was indifferent to girls, preferred the company of books, and didn’t play sports wouldn’t stand out.
I remember the night I met James and smile. James is a good memory.
My mother and I had the same taste in men, and James Walley was the first crush we shared. I was 13 and James was a young bachelor my father had recently hired. As he did with all his new managers, Dad asked his new man home for supper to meet the family. James brought his fiancé with him.
Together, they looked like a Hollywood couple. Their engagement picture had recently been splashed across the pages of the Copiah County Courier. Inez was famous for being a runner-up in the local beauty pageant sponsored by my dad’s poultry company. She wore her strawberry blonde hair piled high and fixed into a sweeping bouffant, kept in place with something that emitted the sweet odor of insecticide. She was embarrassed to show her crooked teeth, so she let James do all the talking, who didn’t seem to have a shy hair on his head. He was trim with broad shoulders and sported a crew cut, which made his square-jawed ruggedness even more pronounced.
I got the sense right off that this man was special. So did Mom.
My clinically depressed mother perked up. She giggled like a schoolgirl. Ignoring Inez, Mom teased James about being so handsome, complimenting his gentlemanly manners, his manicured nails, and his willingness to speak in complete sentences to a woman, unlike other men she knew. Dad didn’t seem to notice that she gave all her attention and the biggest piece of pecan pie to James.
James, however, gave his attention to me, a thirteen-year-old boy, starving for something I couldn’t name. Something I had never seen on TV or in the movies or in magazines. I never saw it in a book. A teacher never spoke of it.
But that night, when he looked at me, I recognized it in James.
Before he arrived that evening, I had effectively given up. Where I lived, belonging was everything, and I didn’t. People were starting to notice. The only option, I decided, was to disappear from the picture. I secretly drank bleach, just enough to make me vomit and move on to plan B. I was now pilfering tranquilizers, one pill at a time, from my mother’s amply stocked medicine cabinet. My plan was to make another try at disappearing when I had 20 squirreled away.
But with James, my depression began to lift. I sensed I finally belonged somewhere, and it was with James. He was my group. At last, I was not alone. The thought made me as giddy as my mother. I didn’t know it at the time, but when he walked in through the door, he brought a bushel basket of hope with him.
James was unlike any man I had ever known, and right then, I wanted to be just like him. The first thing that set him apart was his name. It wasn’t Jimmy Dale or Little Jim or Jim Bob or whatever syllable we tack on to perfectly good, respectable names in my part of the country. I thought that took a certain gutsiness, even nobility, to be known by something as elegant yet unadorned as James, refusing the requisite redneck frills. After that night, I insisted my family call me Jonathan instead of Johnny, though they never did.
Besides his name, there was something else that stood out about James—his hands. As a child, I studied men’s hands like most boys studied baseball stats. The grown-up men I knew didn’t seem to be aware of their hands in the least. Like my father, they seldom used their hands for touching. Their hands were for gripping and holding firm and tight, and for fixing things. They were for rolling cigarettes and clenching into fists when they were angry. They were for cradling guns, gutting deer, slapping their friends on the back and, more rarely, for shaking hands with other men, like the preacher after church or at funerals when words were too awkward and only women spoke. They had motor grease under their nails, which they trimmed with pocketknives, and their calluses turned yellow from cigarette smoke. In public, most men seemed embarrassed by their hands, and hid them in pockets or behind their backs.
But James flaunted his well-tended hands. He inspected them frequently, dramatically, extending them palm flat and out, all five digits pointing up, like he was telling someone to halt. His hands were always in motion. He ran them over his clothes, smoothed the back of his head, gently stroked his own face or Inez’s bare arm or the top of my head when he greeted me. He drew pictures in the air to emphasize his words. Clean, smooth, scrubbed, beautifully tanned hands with what my mother called “musical fingers,” because they were long and elegant, hands she imagined on a concert pianist like Van Cliburn, whom we had just seen play on TV.
Since James didn’t cook for himself, Mom frequently asked him over for “a real country supper.” Because she craved his attention as much as I did, she never mentioned that James should bring along his fiancé.
I would furtively study him while we ate, and often, even while my mother flirted, I caught him studying me. Sometimes he asked me questions. Remarkably, James never once embarrassed me by asking what sports I played, or what professional teams I followed, or what animals I liked to hunt or, worst of all, if I had a girlfriend. Rather, he asked grown-up questions, like what books I liked to read and what music I listened to. He even knew who the Beatles were!
He called me Jonathan without me having to ask.
I believed he was sincerely interested and not just trying to humor “the kid.” I began to trust this man. After supper, while Mom was doing the dishes and Dad lit up a cigarette and sat drowsily in front of the TV, James and I would talk.
For those few minutes, there was no one in the world except him and me. I fetched the little things that I was interested in from my room, one item at a time, to show him. An arrowhead, a glass ruby ring I won at the State Fair, the scrapbook on my favorite Mississippi tales about Indians and Civil War heroes. I told the story of each one. He listened thoughtfully, not the least bit embarrassed to look straight into my eyes, and then he would make some admiring observation, always the exact right comment to let me know that it was just fine if I liked these things.
On his last visit, something extraordinary happened. I invited James back to my room. He sat on my bed while I stood before him and read the poems and little stories that no one knew I had written. He applauded each one.
Many years later, I came across a line in a Graham Greene novel. He wrote, “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” When James looked at me with those piercing blue eyes, put a solid hand on my shoulder, and said, “Jonathan, you’re going to be a writer,” that was the moment my own door opened. No one had ever told me I was going to be anything before, except maybe too smart for my own good. When James made this pronouncement, I knew in the deepest part of me that he spoke the utter truth. He had seen into me, and he was delighted with what he saw.
When he left that night, I enthusiastically began writing new pieces to read to him. I now had an audience, and that made the act of writing electrifying. When I was done, I locked my door and slipped on the glass ruby ring and admired my hand in the warped bureau mirror. I practiced studying my hands like James, palm away, fingers up. I struck poses with the ring in the mirror, pretending to be one of those big New York writers waving to a friend across Fifth Avenue or hailing a cab on Broadway.
After that night, several weeks passed without James coming to visit. I yearned to ask about him, but for some reason I couldn’t name, I knew I wasn’t supposed to be interested in a grown man, a man who paid special attention to a boy like me. So, my ears perked up when my mother suggested we have James over that weekend to barbecue out on the grill.
“Can’t,” my father said without turning from the TV. “Had to fire him.”
“Why?” my mother and I exclaimed simultaneously.
“Caught him riding around in a company car with his…boyfriend.” He said the last word like it soured his mouth. “James is a queer.”
My face burned so hot with shame I was afraid my father would see. He had named my secret before I had. That’s what I had recognized in James.
I was like James. I was queer.
That obscure yet unforgiving word I had tried unsuccessfully to grasp for years through context alone suddenly lit up like a rocket across the sky.
“Too bad,” Dad said. “He was my best man.”
Dad replaced James on the job with a married, middle-aged man who had four kids. Inez went on to marry someone with hands like my father.
Just like that, James was plucked from my world. No one spoke his name again, but I knew that James’s fate was my fate. Our destinies were inextricably linked by that word, “queer.”
I decided to believe that James had found a place to live far away, where men unashamedly wore ruby rings and read poetry aloud and delighted at what they saw in each other’s eyes. I imagined that James thought of me often and smiled. Perhaps, like him, one day I would be found out and they would make me leave town. And when I did, I would gladly join James and his friends.
But while I was here, I knew I needed to be careful. James had shone too brightly and had to leave. I needed to disappear as well, but not all of me, only certain parts, the best parts. Those shiny parts that attracted unwanted attention. I needed to become invisible to those who hated the entire truth of me.
I never saw James after that night, but that didn’t stop me from loving him. He was the first person who could see all of me, and he pronounced it good. He presented me with the possibility that there were others like me. That perhaps I might find someone I could love and be loved by in return. He gave me a reason to live. At last, I was able to imagine a future bright enough to draw me through the darkness of the present. I just had to wait it out.
I did survive Mississippi by keeping my head down and disappearing when I needed to. After college, I took a job in Minnesota. Just as I had imagined, a thousand miles away from those who thought they knew me best, the person that James believed me to me emerged. I began to let the shiny parts sparkle.
I found others like me. I built a successful business, came out, and found a husband I adore. Like James had predicted long ago, I eventually became a writer, publishing three novels, all inspired by the secret loves James had applauded. I believe none of it would have been possible without James Walley opening that door for me.
It was dusk now, and the house was lit up from one end to the other. Whoever lived there was home. I wondered how things had changed.
I decided I would ask to have a peek inside. Why not? I thought. What was the worst that could happen? I walked up to the door and knocked tentatively.
When the door was flung open, there stood a stooped, elderly man, balding, with fleshy jowls. He stared apprehensively through the screen.
“What do you want?” he asked worriedly.
“Sorry to bother you so late,” I said, instantly regretting my decision. “But I used to live in this house when I was a kid. And I was wondering if you would let me come in and look around. Just for a minute.”
His eyes widened. “When did you live here?”
“Dad bought the house new,” I said. “In the early ’60’s.”
He was silent for a moment and then spoke the last words I would have ever expected.
“Jonathan?” he said. “Are you Jonathan, Fay and Odell’s oldest boy?”
Was he a former teacher? A friend of my father’s? Somebody from church? But he had called me “Jonathan.”
“Do I know you?”
A trick of time: Every so often, something drops out of the blue, from beyond the reach of logic, and the mechanics of timekeeping are thrown into reverse.
The man smiled. “I’m James Wally. Do you remember me?”
He asked me in. He made coffee, and we sat in my family’s old den, paneled in the same fake knotty-pine, and talked of superficial things. The unusually cold winter. The last time it had snowed in Mississippi. How things had changed. How Walmart had killed off the old downtown. He talked disdainfully of all the Mexican immigrants who had come to work in the poultry plants, how they had run down the area. In fact, houses had become so cheap, he had been able to buy several, break them up into smaller units, and rent them out to mostly undocumented workers.
That still didn’t explain why he chose to live in this particular house, once owned by the man who fired him. Perhaps, I guessed, it was a perverse way to rewrite the past. Whatever the reason, I didn’t ask.
James continued with his complaints. “Now we even have a colored mayor!” he said, assuming I would share his contempt.
As he went on this way, it struck me how much smaller he seemed now, disappointingly narrow-minded and racist. But more than anything, he seemed afraid. We hinted at being gay, but neither one of us said it aloud. I could tell he was closeted and didn’t verbalize such things comfortably or directly. I believe he was terrified I might.
It seems James had never made it to New York, after all. He stayed behind to disappear. He had lost his shine.
We struggled for things to say because, in truth, we had so little common history. There was only a child’s memory of magical evenings after supper, my dad asleep in his chair and me entertaining a handsome visitor with my stories. Another trick of time: events so decisive, so memorable, laden with meaning mostly of our own invention, are only fleeting moments, so void of material substance they can be summed up in a few awkward sentences.
“I remember you coming over for supper,” I said at last. “And you and me talking.”
He brightened. “You were such an intelligent young man! And sociable.”
“You listened to my stories,” I said, not sure he remembered. “I write now. It meant a lot that you paid attention.”
“Well, then,” he smiled, “I’m glad for it.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
“You’ll have to sign a book and send it to me.”
How do you say to a stranger, “You saw into me and that meant everything.”
At this point, I’m tempted to provide you with a different ending to this story. I want to tell of the magic that happened during James’s and my reunion. How I rediscovered in him the hero whom I had idolized. But it didn’t happen that way.
When it was time to leave, James and I shook hands. I promised to keep in touch, and then I returned to Minnesota. I wrote him once, trying to lay out what I couldn’t tell him in person, the role he had played in my life. He wrote back, mystified that I felt this way, but flattered. He went on to tell me that the town had finally got a Taco Bell.
Recently, I saw his obit online. If there is a standard issue obituary, this was it. I guess no one knew him well enough to provide personal details. But the James I knew, that beautiful man who dispensed hope so freely, seemed to have died long ago.
Maybe there are no heroes after all, but only particular moments, every now and then, that are ripe for heroism. And some willing soul, however unlikely, steps into that moment and shines brighter than God. I want to believe that this moment of grace lives on, even as the hero himself continues to lead his generally non-heroic life.
The truth is, what James gifted me was a possible story for myself in the world, an alternative to the one I had imagined—the sad, tragic tale of lonely, dread-filled man. That shining moment gave me permission to become a businessman, an author, a husband. To create a life lived outside the shadows of shame and self-hate.
Perhaps this is the best way to end the story: There was a moment when I met a handsome man who shined brighter than God, and that passing beacon made all the difference, forever lighting my way. I can only hope there has been some gay kid who, unbeknownst to me, has crossed my path and, for one shining moment, was able to see something in himself beautiful and perfectly lovable. Perhaps that fleeting glimpse would be enough to light his way to worlds so marvelous even I could never have dreamed them.
Jonathan Odell left his business, broke up with his partner, sold his home, and began writing at 45. He is the author of three novels, The View from Delphi, (Macadam Cage 2004), The Healing (Random House 2012) and Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League, (Maiden Lane Press 2015). His essays appear in various publications (New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, Commonweal, The Bitter Southerner, Minnesota Monthly, Salon, and others.) He was granted a BA and MA in psychology from the University of Southern Mississippi before he fled the state for the North. Odell presently lives in Minnesota with his husband.
Image: Flickr / Angy DS
Wow! I am thrilled to read this beautiful essay and revel in your gift of words again. Long time reader and lover of all three of your books. I met you once, at a book club reading in St Paul. You are as lovely as your writing. Keep shining, Jonathan!
Oh Jon – How good to read your words again. I still use lines from the Healing when speaking about the “calling” of birthwork. Your writing has always had a place in my heart and, even more, in my soul. This doula is one of your biggest fans.
You are a gifted writer! I miss visiting with you in the back of the church sometimes. Keep shining your light!
Jonathan your story is indeed sunlight therapy. I liked following you back home, and I think of my cousins back in Copiah, knowing that they likely directed their negativity towards you. I particularly am glad that James predicted your future as a writer, and glad that I am one who read a couple of your books, and learned from you. So very good to hear from you, love, love, love you, and all the esteem you have gathered and shared.
The awakening of a spirit. A story that could have been lived and told a thousand times but I read it here first. Thank you Jonathan.
What an incredible story! Thank you for sharing the thoughts and feelings of your tender years, when so much can snuff out that light and sparkle so easily. I’m glad that your story now has happier days in it and the success because of your considerable talent.