Excerpt from Love, Charleston

~ Chapter 1 ~

The Reverend Roy Jessup Summerall Jr.
April 3, 2008

Roy’s right eyelid began to twitch when he sat down in the small antique chair across from Bishop Boatwright. He pulled at his stiff white collar. It was an XXL, but it fit his thick neck snugly, and he often undid the metal tab toward the end of the day to give himself a little relief. He repositioned his broad frame, and the small chair creaked. Then he rubbed his wide, sweaty palms on his khaki pants and looked up to meet the bishop’s gaze.

“Church of the Good Shepherd is thriving, isn’t it?”

Roy nodded his head. “I can’t tell you what a blessing it is to serve in my hometown, Bishop. It couldn’t be better for me and Little Rose.” Roy had a thick South Carolina sandhills accent, very different from the slow, round tidewater drawl of Charleston. The sandhills accent was clipped and most of Roy’s “e” and “a” vowels made the short “i” sound so that the word heck or hack both sounded like hick. It was the kind of accent folks in the metropolitan areas of the state called country or redneck, and he tried to temper it when he met with the bishop whose office was at The Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul in the center of downtown Charleston.

“Why do you think it’s going so well?” The bishop’s question seemed more directed to the stack of papers on his desk than to Roy. The old man tugged at his white mutton chops before looking up.

The young priest cleared his throat and puffed up his broad chest. “Well, we keep it simple, I guess. I stick to the gospel in the pulpit every Sunday, and we pour all that we have into our Alpha Course, which folks have attended from as far afoot as Darlington, Hartsville and even Florence.”

The bishop patted the left pocket of his pressed purple shirt. He wore a large and ornate gold cross around his neck which he kept tucked in his pocket when he wasn’t decked out in his heavy robe and ruffles.

Roy looked out of the thick glass panes of the third floor corner office. It was a Holy City view if he ever saw one, with the largest, most historic steeples in the country dominating the sky line – St. Philip’s on Church Street, St. Michael’s on the corner of Meeting and Broad, St. Matthew’s on upper King, St. John’s on Archdale and the Unitarian church right next door which he had forgotten the name of.

He smiled when he thought of his simple red brick sanctuary circa 1967 back in Ellijay with the letter of marquis in the front. This month it read, Distressed? Try This Address! (Every Sunday at 10 a.m.)

He turned back to the bishop who watched him steadily as if he wanted him to say more. “It’s my kind of people at Good Shepherd, Sir. The kind I grew up with, and we speak the same language, you know?” He tugged at his collar and smiled. “They trust me, and I know just where they’re coming from. Then it’s not long before one or another brings in a friend or a neighbor or co-workers . . . ” The chair creaked as he sat back. “And that’s why we’ve grown, I reckon. ‘Cause we know and understand each other.”

Bishop Boatwright made a steeple with the tips of his fingers, then he raised his white bushy eyebrows forming two symmetrical arches. “I called you here because I have a new position I’d like to recommend you for, Reverend.”

The twitch in Roy’s right eye turned into a flutter. He reached up and rubbed it, then he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his wide knees. “Bishop, you know it’s been a tough few years for me personally.”

“Of course, I do.” The bishop squinted. His pale blue eyes shot a sharp look that Roy recognized as a complicated blend of love, concern and most striking of all, appraisal.

He kept on. “And, now Rose and I are hunkered down in Ellijay. She loves her school, and my mama sold the farm and bought a house just down the road from us. Plus, my brother is only ten miles away over in Robbin’s Neck.” Roy bit his bottom lip hard. “It’s been real good for me to be back in my old stomping grounds after losing Jean Lee.” He patted the left side of his chest. “I feel like the Lord’s had his hand on my heart, and he’s been binding it up.”

“Undoubtedly.” The bishop balled his right hand into a fist, his large gold ecclesiastical ring catching the afternoon light. Roy had been a second string offensive guard for Clemson University before he became an Episcopal priest and the bishop’s gold band always reminded him of a Super Bowl ring. This made him chuckle a little, imagining Bishop Boatwright at the ten yard line giving some defender the Heisman before running toward the goal.

Bishop Boatwright held out his fist and leaned forward. “You know what happens after you receive healing, son?”

Roy wasn’t sure how to answer this. Was it a theological question or a personal one? He wasn’t bookish like the bishop; he just knew the Holy Spirit and felt its daily presence like the air his lungs inhaled or the soft light that fell on his face on his morning walk to work.

“Sir?” he said.

“It’s been my experience these short seventy-six-years”—the bishop pounded his fist twice on the arm of his chair —“that after you receive healing, the Lord calls you out to a new frontier.” He pursed his pink lips and leaned forward. “He takes that fresh strength and puts it to a new test.”

Roy tilted his square chin. He was a big, handsome fellow with a head full of thick brown hair and dark brown eyes to match. Bishop Boatwright had confirmed him when he was twelve years old. And he’d ordained him the same year his wife died some fifteen years later. Both times he had laid his stubby hands on Roy’s head full of hair, his gold ring rubbing against the boy’s scalp, blessing the holy ceremony with the presence of the Almighty One he represented. The truth was, this man was in authority over Roy, and like Saul on the road to Damascus, there was no use kicking against the goads. He exhaled and uttered a prayer of mercy. “What did you have in mind, Sir?”

“Phil Rainey is retiring this spring.”

Phil Rainey, Phil Rainey, Phil Rainey. Roy ran the vaguely familiar name through his mind as he thought about the other churches in the middle part of the state. The only Phil Rainey he knew was the Rector of St. Michael’s in the center of downtown Charleston. The fancy old church on the corner of Meeting and Broad where his Aunt Elfrieda used to drag him during his miserable summer visits.

Roy reached up to steady his right eyelid again. “I’m . . . you don’t mean . . . ?”

Bishop Boatwright nodded. “Yes. St. Michael’s here in Charleston. I’d like to recommend you to their search committee.” He looked toward his desk as if his mind had already concerned itself with his next appointment. “I think you could be the man for the job, Reverend Summerall.”

Roy felt the burn of perspiration beneath his arms. He blinked several times and set his jaw. “With all due respect, Bishop, I’m not the kind of fellow that can lead a Charleston church, especially a South of Broad one.” He looked around the room at the shelves and shelves of books as if to find proof. Then he pointed to his mouth. “Just listen to my accent.”

The bishop turned back and cocked his head in curiosity.

“Or this.” Now that Roy had the bishop’s attention, he smiled and pushed a little bit of his tongue through the gap between his two front teeth. “I need braces.”

The bishop furrowed his bushy brows and Roy continued, counting off the examples like a verdict.
“I drive an all terrain vehicle on the weekends, I go to the races for fun, I wear gold jewelry. Heck, I even vacation at Myrtle Beach by my own choice.” Then Roy said with a firm whisper. “Bishop, did you know that I have a tattoo of a Clemson tiger paw on my right shoulder?” He rolled his shoulder forward at the mention of it. He had dislocated it his junior year, and his senior year he had torn so many tendons that he had to have an operation. It still gave him a fit. “Sir, I wouldn’t know the first thing about ministering to those ‘mind your manners’ and ‘just where do your people come from?’ folks.”

The bishop took his time standing up, then ambled over to his desk where he thumbed through his stack of papers. “You spent your boyhood summers in Charleston, as I recall.” He glanced toward Roy who was peering out of the window at St. Michael’s massive white steeple with its clock tower and weather vane and one ton bells that had called the city to worship since before the Revolutionary War. He remembered reading about how the steeple was painted black during those days so the British ships wouldn’t spot it. Only it backfired. The black made the church all the more noticeable from the harbor, and the troops were quick to ransack it.

“They were the worst summers of my life.” Roy rotated his right shoulder again. “My brother, Chick, and I were treated pretty harshly by the local kids.” Roy could still hear Heyward Rutledge calling him a “Neanderthal” when he asked the fellow’s crush to shag at one of the Friday night dances at East Bay Playground. He’d had to go home and look that word up in Aunt Elfrieda’s encyclopedia, and then he had to take the scientific definition and translate it into the slang.

The bishop chuckled. He sniffed the air and scratched his mutton chops.

Then he looked down at Roy and whole seconds passed before he nodded once. “You might be just the man for the job, Reverend. I want you to be open and trust me in this. I’m going to recommend you to the search committee and the vestry, and you’ll be hearing from them.”

Roy sat back in his chair as though he had been hit by a three hundred-pound nose guard. The chair seemed to waver and, for a moment, he thought it might collapse under his weight. He pictured Rose, his five-year-old daughter, curled up in Mama’s lap on the front porch this morning. Charleston was the last place he wanted to raise her. Jean Lee was gone. Why in the world would the bishop, why would the Lord even want him to entertain this outlandish idea?

The bishop bowed his head and started to pray, but Roy didn’t hear the words. When he heard the old man say, “Amen,” he stood and firmly shook the bishop’s hand. Then he got back in his pickup and drove quickly down Interstate 26 toward Interstate 95 where the live oaks and palmettos gave way to the scrub pines and the flat lands of the only place, this side of heaven, he ever wanted to call home.


“What did high and mighty have to say?” His mama was sporting her new rhinestone-encrusted flip-flop heels and white shorts too short for a sixty-five year old woman. She was flipping pancakes on his griddle while her new husband, Donny, and Roy’s office manager, Skeeter, sipped coffee at the kitchen counter.

“Breakfast for dinner, Daddy!” Little Rose abandoned her piano playing in the den and ran into his arms. He picked her up and squeezed her tight, overcome as he often was by how her little embrace soothed his very soul like the balm of Gilead.

Mama turned down the eye of the stove and stacked three fluffy pancakes on a plastic Dora the Explorer plate. She coated each one with a thick pad of butter and set them on the little round table in the corner of the room.

“Enjoy ‘em while they’re warm, Rosebud,” she said. “This is a one-plate-at-a-time meal, and I’ll do your daddy’s next so y’all can overlap.”

“What’s news around the church house?” Roy massaged his bum shoulder and looked to Skeeter who blew a bubble with the pink gum she always seemed to be gnawing on. He watched the bubble deflate as she pulled four white slips from her Day-Timer. “Here are the messages, but the most pressing matter is Brother Jackson.”

Roy winced, his dark brown eyes, narrowing. “He looked real good a couple of days ago.”

“Well, hospice told Mrs. Jackson that they figured that was a last burst of energy. They think the end is near.”

Roy nodded and looked at his watch. “I’ll take him the Eucharist tonight.”

“Can I go too?” Rose said. She was dipping a fork-full into a pool of syrup she had poured right on Dora’s oversized head.

Rose loved Mr. and Mrs. Jackson who used to sing in the choir until they found cancer in his pancreas. And she often made sick visits with Roy. She was no stranger to Ellijay Memorial and the Darlington County Hospice Center or the Robbins Neck Funeral Home for that matter, and the nurses and caretakers usually set aside a lollipop or some other little trinket from the dollar store in anticipation of her next pastoral visit.

He nodded yes as Mama handed him a stack of pancakes.

“What did Bishop Boatwright want, son?”

“He wants to recommend me for a job . . . ” Roy shook his head in disbelief as his kitchen got real still. “In downtown Charleston of all places.”

Mama’s eyes widened. “The Holy City!” She clicked her long silver fingernails together and winked at Rose. “Now wouldn’t that be something!”

“Charleston?” Rose’s eyes lit up. Her granny had taken her there once and bought her a pair of red, glittery shoes. “Oh, that’s my dream city, Daddy!”

Roy pushed his pancakes aside. He turned to Donny. “Why do all females go ga-ga at the mention of Charleston?”

Donny shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

Jean Lee used to love Charleston too, Roy now recalled. She’d begged him to take her to some historic bed and breakfast on their first anniversary, and he had complied though he didn’t care much at all for the squeaky old bed or the ridiculously high rate or the bathroom down the hall that they had to share with four other guests.

“Don’t get too excited, gals,” he said. “I don’t think the bishop has really thought this thing through. And if it was up to me, we’d never leave Ellijay.” He gently laid his paper napkin over his plate. “I’m going to run over to the church to get what we need for Brother Jackson’s communion.”
“Well, who is it up to?” Rose said. Skeeter popped her bubble gum and Mama cocked her head, her big, amply-sprayed hair shifting in one cohesive clump.

Roy shook his head like an exasperated teacher and pointed upward with his index finger. “Now who do y’all think?”

Late that evening after administering the Eucharist to Mr. Jackson who the hospice folks predicted would meet his Maker within the next forty-eight hours, Roy lifted Rose out of the pickup and tucked her into bed.

Then he went to the hall closet where he kept Jean Lee’s stuff. He often came in here late at night and took comfort in the touch of her shimmery blouses, her cowboy boots and the sweaters folded neatly on the shelf above that still contained just the faintest hint of her sweet and powdery scent.

He thought about Bishop Boatwright and his surprising request to submit his name to the search committee of what was arguably one of the oldest, stuffiest, most affluent churches in the whole diocese. He didn’t want to minister in some historic monument where the parishioners might shudder with disdain at his country accent, or shoo him out with the business end of the broom the way Aunt Elfrieda did when he forgot to put the napkin in his lap during one of her Sunday afternoon dinners. Truth was, he couldn’t even imagine relating to those folks. It was a ridiculous idea. Maybe Bishop Boatwright was slipping as he tilted toward retirement. Maybe he was downright delusional.

Roy tucked his hands into the satin-lined pockets of the pink leather jacket Jean Lee bought on a vacation they took to Six Flags in Atlanta. She had stood in front of the three-sided mirror at one of those strip malls on the outskirts of the city and said, “Tell the truth, now Roy. Is this too much for a future priest’s wife?”

“Nah,” he said. “It’s you, baby.” And it was. It fit her in all the right spots, and he knew in his heart that God wanted her to be herself—lipstick, teased bangs and all—like the first day he laid eyes on her in the parking lot of Ellijay High just days after his sixteenth birthday.

It had taken years to get used to life without her. And he was just beginning to feel (after much urging from his mama and daughter) that he could maybe meet someone one of these days. He had even thought about asking Skeeter out but the bubble gum bothered him, and he just never seemed to get around to it. Maybe now was the time. Or maybe now he was ready to meet some of those daughters and nieces the ladies at church kept trying to introduce.

Roy’s unspoken hopes were becoming clearer in his heart and mind. And they were these: that he might love again and expand his family right here in Ellijay with his mama down the street and his brother Chick and their lively brood just a few miles away.

“My life is here, Lord.” Roy said as he buried his face in the pink leather jacket. “Don’t allow this to be taken away too.”

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