by Stanley McFarland
“We got another one, Reverend Strawberry.”
I didn’t have to ask Edith what she meant by another one. Panhandlers regularly visited the churches looking for money, and St. Stephen’s was no exception. In the past, their stories varied: wounded veteran, laid off, cheated, bad divorce. Part of my job was to sort through the truth and the fiction and find the best way to minister to each. Most of them begged off when it became apparent that I was more interested in helping them put their lives together than giving out cash.
But things had changed in recent years. The stories were now remarkably the same. I ran out of gas down the road. I’m about a hundred miles from home, can you help me out? It was a pitch much more likely to discourage those prone to help people change and also more likely to produce cash. We got a couple of these a month now. Had some Tony Robbins of panhandling done a seminar in our town?
Ever since a frightening incident at a neighbor church, I’d had a camera installed on the front door and told Edith to keep the door locked until she knew who it was. She had a buzzer at her desk, but when panhandlers came, I went to the door myself.
As I opened the door, I wasn’t surprised to see a gas can next to our guest. The guitar case was something new.
“May I help you,” I said.
One method of detecting a con artist – at least a small-time one, is the speed of his delivery. A person who knows he’s doing wrong tends to speak fast. He’ll give you a rehearsed story in quick cadence so you’ll hear his whole pitch before you shut the door. The tall, thin black man facing me smiled for a minute – then started laughing.
“I’m in a fix,” he said.
“You out of gas?”
“No,” he said, picking up the gas can and swinging it so that I could hear the gas swishing around inside. “I’m out of car.”
“Out of car?”
“I suppose,” he said, “you could say I’m like Miss Blanche Dubois. I’m depending on the kindness of strangers.”
At worst it was a novel delivery – guitar, laugh, slow approach, paraphrasing Tennessee Williams. I was intrigued.
“Why don’t you come in,” I said, opening the door wider. “I’m Tom Strawberry. I’m the senior pastor here.”
“Oh, Wilson Santone,” said my guest putting down the guitar case he was in the process of picking up, and offering his hand. “Some people pronounce it Santone like Zamboni. I prefer Santone, like ham bone. I don’t want people to think I’m Italian.” He laughed again. It was a hearty, unaffected laugh, and I found myself laughing with him as I shook his hand.
He already held the gas can, so I picked up his guitar case. “There’s no tommy gun in here, is there, Mr. Santone?”
He laughed again. “See, that’s why I don’t want people to think I’m Italian.”
Edith had a wary look as she released the electronic latch to the office door. I couldn’t blame her after what happened at First Baptist, and Wilson Santone showed no offence. I slid his guitar back over to him as we sat in the outer office.
“Would you like some bad coffee?” I offered.
Wilson laughed. “I would. Thank you.”
Edith grabbed one of the guest mugs and buzzed herself out of the office to rinse it out. “So what’s this about your car?” I asked.
“I’m not sure what happened to it,” said Wilson. “You see I ran out of gas sometime last night. A police man came by and told me I had to move it in the next 24 hours or they’d tow it to the lot.”
I nodded my head. It was starting to sound more like the standard line. Was Wilson just a better talker than the others?
“This morning,” he continued, “I got my gas can and my guitar and walked down to that shopping center down the road. I played until I had enough money for gas and some breakfast. I ate, filled my can here, but when I came back, the car was gone.”
Edith was back and punched the code before I could get up to buzz her in. She filled the mug and motioned to the sugar and powered cream.
“I just take it black, thank you,” said Wilson.
“So you think they towed your car early?” I asked.
Wilson laughed. “I hope so, or I’ll never get it back. Thing is, I don’t know where it’s gone.”
“And you’ll need money to get it out,” said Edith in a flat tone.
“Maybe not,” said Wilson. “That is, I might have some money at the post office in Winston-Salem. Is that far?”
“Not far,” I said. “How will you know?”
“I gotta number I can call to find out,” he said.
“Edith,” I asked, “would you mind calling the police and see if they have Mr. Santone’s car?”
“What kind of car?”
“It’s a ‘87 Corolla wagon,” said Wilson, “mostly white. Here,” he stood and leaned over Edith’s desk to grab a pen. Edith jerked back defensively. Wilson calmly wrote out his name and tag number on a scrap of paper.
I knew Edith wasn’t trying to be rude; she was just scared. “Why don’t we make your phone call in my office,” I volunteered.
“Say,” said Wilson as he stepped into my office and saw the vintage Les Paul hanging on my wall, “you’re a git’ man too?”
“That one’s just for show,” I said. I pointed at my Gibson case leaning against the wall. “I play that one when I get a chance.”
“I knew there was somethin’ right about you,” he chuckled.
I handed Wilson the receiver and punched the button Edith wasn’t on and hit 9.
“Hold on,” Wilson said, digging into his back pocket. “I have one of those phone cards for this.” He pulled out a slim worn wallet, extracted a card, and started punching in his numbers.
“You mind if I have a look?” I asked, motioning to his guitar case.
“No, Man, go ahead,” he said, then straightened up like people do when someone picks up on the other end. He wasn’t saying anything. He must have gotten a machine. The guitar was a Martin, good quality, but old and used hard. There were several unused strings sitting in the well of the case, not in the neck box. I picked up the instrument and strummed lightly. It held tune pretty well – even after Wilson carried it half a mile from the shopping center.
“This is Wilson calling for Mr. Kline,” said Wilson in the over-loud voice people use for answering machines and at drive-throughs. “I’m in Winston-Salem at…” I scribbled the outside number on a scrap of paper. “At 336 – 555 – 3700. Is there money at the post office here? Don’t know how long I’ll be at this phone.” It looked like he was going to say more, but he just shrugged his shoulders and laughed, then hung up the phone. He fiddled with his phone card, having trouble getting back into his wallet. “Get in there, Little Chain,” he said. He gave me a shrug. “I never know what to say to machines. Am I talking to the people, or just a bunch of goo-gaws? Somebody oughta write a book.”
I didn’t have an answer for him so I just strummed a chord on his Martin. Wilson laughed. “Or write a song,” he said. “You mind if I take a look at your Gibson – that is a Gibson in there, isn’t it?”
“It’s a Gibson,” I answered. “Go ahead and pull it out. I have your Martin – it’s only fair.”
He took out the guitar and held it at arm’s length looking down the neck. “This box’s been played some.”
“Youth group,” I answered, “and when the sermon won’t come together.”
“Sometime’s the tune calls the lyrics,” he said, picking a couple strings and tuning.
It took us a minute tuning the guitars to each other, and then Wilson began picking out Tom Dooley. It was a song my father used to play all the time when I was a kid. We played through the chorus twice and he pointed to me. I shook my head, no and he started singing the first verse. His voice was rich and weathered, a lot like I’d hoped it would be. I joined in on the choruses, harmonizing as best as I could. I thought of those old Andy Griffith shows when Andy would throw someone in jail and end up playing guitar with them. I don’t suppose that really happens in county lock-up, but there was no reason it couldn’t at St. Stephens.
I never heard the phone ring. Suddenly Edith was standing in the doorway. Reluctantly, I put down Wilson’s Martin.
“Call for Mr. Santone on one,” said Edith as she handed me a note. I gave Wilson the receiver as I punched the lit button. I pushed a pen and scrap paper in front of him.
“Yeah, Mr. Kline?” said Wilson. He was silent for a while. Edith mouthed the words, “Tolands at eleven o’clock,” to me, reminding me that I had a job to do. I nodded and she retreated back to her desk.
“Kinda like I’ll fly away?” asked Wilson on the phone. “Yeah, I’ll come up with somethin’.” Then he scribbled on the scrap I left. “Yeah, well thank you, Mister Kline. I do appreciate it,” and he hung up the phone and smiled at me.
“There’s a money order waiting for me at the post office on First Street.”
“Your car is in impound on Fifteenth,” I replied.
“I guess I have some walkin’ to do. You mind if I leave my guitar here?”
“It’s quite a ways downtown,” I told him. “Why don’t you wait in the library while I have my eleven o’clock appointment? I can take you there at lunch.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Not at all.”
It was the Tolands who first noticed the lingering smell that Wilson left behind, or at least pointed it out to me – in retrospect, I’m certain Edith did too. Among the many duties of a pastor’s wife, my Abigail took on the test of smell inspector. Though I think I can smell things like coffee or paint thinner, my capacity for detecting body odor, (most particularly mine own,) is lacking.
It made sense. Wilson was living in his car. The 87 Corolla wagon did not come with a shower and washing machine as standard equipment.
Wilson’s odor was confirmed in the line at the post office, where people left plenty of space in line. Once he got to the desk, he produced an ID and received a small package. I didn’t see what it contained beyond the money order. Wilson signed the money order and the clerk counted out eight hundred dollars in cash. Wilson stuffed the money into the opened package like it was so much loose packing material.
“That should be enough to get the big chain,” said Wilson, laughing.
The impound yard presented him with his keys and a ticket to appear in exchange for two hundred and forty-eight dollars. I found myself wondering how much more that towing fee was because the owner had no choice. If I had called from the side of the road for a tow truck, would it be even half as much?
“I sure do thank you,” said Wilson.
“What will you do now?” I asked.
“Well, I guess I’ll head down to City Hall and pay this ticket,” he said.
“I was wondering if you’d like to have dinner at my house,” I said. “Maybe you could catch a shower and do a load of laundry.”
“That OK with the missus?”
“You’re right,” I said. “I better check.”
Abby’s always been a trooper. I knew she’d say yes, but since the cancer came back, she’d been tired a lot more often. Today seemed to be one of her better days.
“You’re in luck,” she said. “I was already making a post roast.”
“You like pot roast?” I asked Wilson.
He smiled and said, “You know anybody who don’t like pot roast?”
Abby took everything in stride, a strange man coming into our home – using the washing machine and shower, then sitting down to dinner in a pair of my old gym shorts and a t-shirt I got in the Bahamas for two dollars. I had a vision of Bob Marley sitting at my table, though Wilson lacked the dredds.
“You look a little tired, Ms. Strawberry,” said Wilson.
Abby, who looked to be fading shrugged. “Actually, this is a good day.”
“Abby’s sick,” I told him.
“You got the C?” asked Wilson.
Wilson shook his head.
“It was in remission,” I told him. “We thought she was through with it.”
“But it’s back,” said Abby.
“Let me ask you a question,” said Wilson. “Might sound kinda strange.”
“Go ahead,” said Abby.
Wilson looked her in the eye. “You wanna get rid of the C?”
“Of course,” she said.
“Of course she does,” I said. “We both want it gone.”
“Ya know,” said Wilson, “and I don’t mean disrespect, but I don’t know you well. There’s a lot of folk feel more comfortable bein’ sick than bein’ well.”
“Oh,” I said. Then I shut up. I’d seen what Wilson was talking about a lot in the ministry. Some people weren’t happy unless they were suffering – getting attention for their problems, but Abby? Abby wasn’t like that.
“I’m not offended, Mr. Santone,” said Abby. “I also don’t take your question lightly. I want to be well.”
Wilson stood up from the table. “You mind?”
I looked at Abby who raise an eyebrow. “What do you have in mind?”
“I’m jus gonna put my hands on your shoulders,” he said.
“Alright,” said Abby.
I didn’t know what to expect – maybe I was looking for Wilson to turn into Reverend Ike and start yelling and stomping. Instead he just stood behind Abby with his hands on her shoulders. If he said a word, I didn’t hear it.
Wilson’s clothes were in the dryer as we sat on the front porch. He had his Martin and I had my Gibson. We played The Wreck of the Old 97, and Amazing Grace, then Wilson started fingering some chords around the tune of I’ll Fly Away. I joined in, and soon our improvisation left the song completely.
“Hold on to that,” said Wilson, and he opened the neck compartment in his guitar case. He took out something that looked like a thumb drive.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a recording doo-dad I get from the fella in New York that sent me the money.” He flicked a small switch on the side. “Let’s go back where we were,” he said.
I felt self conscious for a while, but as we played, I forgot the device. Wilson brought out the best in me. Wilson started shaking his head up and down. “Fine, fine,” he said in a low voice.
The jam wove down to a natural end like the best ones do. Wilson reached over and clicked the device. He smiled wide. “Mister Kline’ll find something there he’ll like, I bet.”
“What does he do with it?”
“I don’t know,” said Wilson. “He just keeps sending me money and more of the doo-dads.” Wilson started picking out a tune that sounded vaguely familiar. It reminded me of a salad dressing commercial I liked.
The dryer buzzed and we both got up. Abby was in bed, so Wilson and I were quiet as we folded his clothes. The dish washer buzzed, so I went to empty that as Wilson finished his laundry.
Wilson declined my invitation to stay overnight. I can’t imagine an ’87 Toyota was the most comfortable place to sleep, but I didn’t press.
Over the next few weeks I kept hoping I’d see him again, or maybe get a letter. I saw a commercial for a travel website that had a musical background a lot like what we’d played on my porch, but no word from Wilson Santone.
When we got word that Abby was back in remission, I wondered if it had anything to do with what Wilson did that night after dinner.
“Cancer’s like a chain,” he said to me that night. “We own it, and it tries to own us – just like a car, or a house, or fear or what’s comin’.”
It didn’t make much sense to me at the time, and I don’t think I could explain it now. It just felt true, like a song means more than just the lyrics.
And those with hard-luck stories are a little more welcome at St. Stephen’s these days.