Artemus James Mabry believed fatherhood was an inevitable unfortunate consequence of sexual relations with his Catholic wife. As the years went by, sex with other men's wives (Catholic or not) produced the same pleasure without the responsibility. The comfort of infidelity appealed to him.
Artemus James had always been a liar.
When he was eight years old Artemus James' father slipped under the wheels of a train; severed his leg and bled to death. It is not clear whether death altered John Henry Mabry's view of the human race, gave him some perspective, gratitude, or even a sense of humor. In life he was bitter, angry, paranoid. He drunkenly raged at the unfairness of his lot in life to anyone who would listen. John Henry's most open minded, adoring audience was his youngest son.
John Henry had never given him much attention, but Artemus James believed that would change when he got older. He knew this to be true. His brother was older and their father spent a lot of time with him. Soon it would be his time. John Henry would teach him all the best secrets life had to offer. He would teach him to drive. Teach him to be a man. He would teach him not to be afraid of the world and of John Henry. These dreams died in blood, terror, and pain.
His father's death at such an early age ensured that Artemus James would never question his father. Denied teenage rebellion, he would never see his father through a man's eyes. Most of all Artemus James would never see John Henry's beliefs as anything less than sacred truths: the world was made up of fools and idiots plotting to overwhelm his ambitions and the demands of familial responsibilities crushed his dreams. Artemus James lived a life based on a creed handed down by a frustrated, bitter drunk. A creed consisting of two simple parts: men will either use you or be used by you, and women limit men's possibilities.
With inheritance in hand—an old pocket watch and a jaded outlook on life—he began to mourn John Henry.
As a boy of eight years old Artemus James wanted his mother to be proud of him. Sarah Mabry possessed the same simple and childlike naivete of her God fearing family and neighbors. Unfortunately her kind loving ministrations were filtered through her late husband's opportunistic cynicism. She taught her son that good people were good because they wanted, needed to believe in goodness. Artemus James did love his mother deeply but even at this young age felt she had little to teach him. Viewing Sarah's belief as weakness, her youngest son soon began to protect, use, and manipulate her.
Ironically, in an attempt to faithfully fulfill her Christian duties Sarah walked her young son hand in hand along a path which would make John Henry extremely proud.
For a week Artemus James had resentfully put on his Sunday suit and gone to revival meetings. He was bored and hot and angry. The only entertainment was watching farmers' overweight wives in tight dresses and big hats faint from the heat. He tried to figure out how many would fall out and at what part of the service.
The first night, the humiliated women lamely stammered an explanation for their ungainly desertion from the upright, seated congregation : "I was so overcome by the reverend's words and the way the Lord spoke to me I simply fainted dead away!" After that so many women found themselves "overcome" that ushers had to be posted at the ends of each aisle. The preacher knew this was due to the incredible heat and lack of circulation, but his ego would not allow him to discount the embarrassed women's testimonials as to his ability to trumpet forth the word of God.
Artemus James was fascinated by the fact that everyone under the huge circus tent was mesmerized by this man—this skinny man who spoke too loudly even for a crowd this big. This sweaty man with bad teeth and little hair who had every woman in the congregation at his beck and call. This puny man who was openly admired by farmers who could physically crush him.
Even at the age of eight Artemus James instinctively knew that it was not the content of the preacher's sermons, but the delivery of the words which carried great power. More than that, the ability of the reverend to make people gladly do what they normally wouldn't do amazed him.
Men giving up their few precious hours of leisure after their twelve hour workdays. Women doing extra loads of laundry to keep their families outfitted in Sunday clothes for an entire week. Parents enduring hours of whining.
Above all, he saw something his regular preacher could not do. This visiting missionary from somewhere in Georgia using nothing more than words persuaded people to give him their money! Give him their money; not lend it and wait to be repaid. Not invest it in some stock hoping for high returns. Not give it to him to put in the bank where it would be safe from floods and other natural disasters. The money they gave him would not buy anything: not penny candy, not an acre of land, not even guaranteed admission to the kingdom of Heaven. They gave him the money because they wanted to! They would never see him again.
This realization forced Artemus James to his feet and propelled him toward the preacher. His mother gasped with amazement and pride as she watched her youngest child making his way to the riverbank, into the water, and into the arms of Jesus. He didn't particularly want to be baptized, immersed in the dirty water. Yet he had felt the power! Not of the Lord but of the way a man can put the believers of this world to such good use. He wanted to touch and be touched by the man to whom he was so grateful.
"I want to be a preacher, Momma, honest I do!"
He jumped into her arms and hugged her so tightly she could not breathe. He was soaking wet and shaking. She attributed this proclamation to nothing more than threats of fire and brimstone or the fear of drowning during a Southern baptism.
Either way he was fresh, sinless, and born again in the eyes of the Lord.
This was his defining moment.
Although doubtful he would ever be a "man of the cloth" Sarah could rest knowing Artemus James would enter the kingdom of Heaven when his time came.
He felt warm in the loving embrace of his mother knowing he had so completely, effortlessly, and utterly deceived her.
Her little boy was pure and had received Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. The course of his life was set.
His course, the creed of his life was set, so condescendingly simple, so brutally void of emotion: find enough people who will believe. The power of this revelation produced one of the last truthful moments of happiness Artemus James would ever know.
All that was left for Sarah was to pray he would find a good wife and have lots of happy children.
After another failed attempt to find Artemus James his son hung up the phone. Artemus James' desertion of his Catholic wife left her with gratitude and grief; his son A.J. with insecurity and empty vague stories of a father reaching for life with unlimited imagination becoming what he dreamed. Artemus James was everything to everyone. But ultimately he was nothing to anyone. Not son, nor brother, nor friend, nor neighbor. Not father.
Upon the death of Artemus James Mabry the family cynicism and paranoid skepticism would have no heir. A.J.'s only inheritance would be his initials. Although he would have wanted the pocket watch.
BIO: Alex was born in New Jersey, though Virginia is his adopted home. He graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, with a Bachelor of Science degree in sociology. Soon after, he began graduate studies in sociology, also at Virginia Commonwealth University. Since then, he has participated in numerous writing workshops and creative writing classes while attending Manatee College in Venice, Florida, where he resides. Alex has taken various film classes studying history, criticism and production of motion pictures. He has written a short story and subsequent screen play, which was produced as a film awarded at a Student Film Festival. He is working on a series of short stories about people living on the streets, telling their stories through their relations/reactions to other people. Hopefully avoiding stereotypical catalogs of everyday events and biographical explanations, accounts of who they are, who they were before becoming homeless. They are telling their stories. At times they don't tell Alex anything so he has to wait.