An Arm and a Leg
by Ron Cooper
As a philosophy student I learned about the problem of evil and how for centuries the great thinkers agonized over whether they could believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God who let bad things happen. As a member of the 4 X 440 yard relay team of the First Baptist Church of Moncks Corner, South Carolina, I reached my conclusion in only one afternoon forty years ago after facing Dennis Burbage.
First Baptist was the all around winner in the annual youth track meet four years straight. The largest of the six Baptist churches in the Santee Regional Association, we had an impressive number of 12-15-year-olds eligible for the team, like Boogy Phipps, who at 14 and 280 pounds could lift or eat any hog in the county and was sure to win the shot put. We had Hoke Driggers, first-place miler two years in a row. I was the ninth-grade champ at jump sticks and took to practicing by digging out Mama’s tomato garden and filling it with a dozen wheelbarrowfuls of sawdust from an old pile down the road. The practice paid off — I had to lengthen the pit by a yard, putting my best leap just over 18 feet in my Chuck Taylors with the high tops cut off.
Although confident we would white-wash the other teams yet again, we were anxious about upholding another legacy. For those four years we had also taken the blue ribbon in the tournament’s culminating event — the 4 X 440 relay. Our lead and anchor legs both were 15, the maximum eligible age, and had three years’ tournament experience under their drawstrings. Birch Rondeau, who slobbered and sang lead in the youth choir, ran second leg. I got third. Smart money was on us to win, but this year fear incarnated in the person of Dennis Burbage.
Wyatt Newberry was in my homeroom class and ran for Bethera Last Harvest Baptist. He said that Dennis had recently joined the church and was their relay anchor. “Runs like a deer,” Wyatt said. “You can’t believe it.”
We could believe it. Dennis had a bad arm, hooked in and around towards his chest like a chicken wing. At school the left arm looked simply at rest on his desk. Dennis wedged a book into it when he walked to class, and hardly anyone noticed it. At gym he skirted around the edges of whatever game we played. He was masterful at being overlooked, never in trouble, rarely speaking. He would smile, give you a quick wave with his good hand, but conversation was not in him.
We believed that all his reservation, his ’umbleness as Mama would say, was part of his compensation. Who wouldn’t trade an arm for the Godly gifts of purity of heart, deep settled peace of mind, and, as we had just learned, unmatched fleetness of foot?
Seeing Dennis by the track waiting to anchor a team that even without him may have beaten us gave us a chill. While the other runners warmed up with wind sprints or practiced handing off the baton, Dennis squatted, traced something, maybe a scratch, on his hairless leg.
“You reckon he shaves them?” Birch asked. “Those Olympic swimmers do that because of drag.”
“Maybe he has to take some kind of arm medicine that makes his leg hair shed,” our starter Johnny Tuttle said. This was his odd sense of humor. His favorite form of entertainment was getting Coon Bodiford, anchor, to say the obvious.
“He’s got hair on his head, dumbass,” Coon said. Coon was the fastest but dumbest kid at school, and later became principal there. “Slick or furry, his legs ain’t crooked, and it’s their dust we got to eat.”
Birch wiped his chin on his shoulder. “If the Good Lord decides we need to get our asses whipped, at least it’s not to them foot-washers from Bonneau Gospel of Fury like Talmadge Higgins with the extra row of teeth.”
Dennis retied a shoe with his good hand. We were not allowed to wear spikes, but most of the sprinters had lightweight track shoes that we got from the second-hand sports equipment shop in Charleston. Dennis wore cheap, black tennis shoes, “skips” we called them, that were sold at the dime store for $3.95. The rest of us took any help or talisman we could grab — wearing socks inside out or no playing with yourself the night before the race — but Dennis’s edge lay curled against his side.
Coach called us into a huddle. He was Brother Harley on Sunday mornings, County Agent Turpin taking soil samples and inoculating chickens on weekdays, but “Coach” with whistle and stretch shorts two months of Saturdays before the meets each year, primarily because he had a station wagon that could hold us all.
“Ten minutes to race time, boys. Y’all best get out there and practice your hand-offs or something.”
“Won’t help, Coach,” Johnny said. “Last Harvest’s got a crip.”
Coach spat on the ground and kicked dirt over it. “I know it. But that don’t necessarily mean we’ll lose. Oh, the crip boy’ll sure enough blister some cinders and the Lord will exalt him, but that don’t mean his team will win. They probably way too prided up.”
Coon pulled the back of his hair through a rubber band to make a ponytail. “I’m the one that’s anchored against him. The rest of y’all got to hoof on past the first three legs, pride and all, so I don’t have to play catch up with the holy hook-arm.”
“Rejoice in the Lord’s creation, boys,” Coach said, “no matter how deformed. Now let’s bow for a quick prayer. Ronnie, how about it?”
I moved into the middle of the circle. “Dear heavenly Father, we ask that this race today be one of fellowship in your name and let us all be safe and show sportsmanship as you would have it as it is your will, and please Lord let this be a fair race and those who have worked hard and bow down to you at this time be justly rewarded as you have promised and we shall praise and fear your precious love and fairness, and we are thankful that we are whole of body — ”
“Amen,” Coach said. He snatched the rubber band from Coon’s hair. We took to the track and practiced hand-offs, spat into the air to check the wind, picked up tiny rocks from our lanes, and tried not to blaspheme.
The six teams of runners were called to line up. Remaining athletes, coaches, family, and friends who may have wandered about earlier as concurrent events played out now took seats on the bleachers near the starting/finish line. The first legs took their spots. The other runners bunched along the outside lane. One of the coaches hollered, “Marks, set,” and fired what sounded like a live round from a revolver.
Rounding the first turn, Johnny had a good lead with Last Harvest second and Full Bible and Free Will tied for third. He stretched the gap to 15 yards by the time he handed off, but Birch got excited and sprinted the first 200 yards and winded himself to let Last Harvest come within five yards when they got to me.
I ran the best quarter mile of my life. I had memorized Corinthians 7:36, which said that “toward his virgin” a man may “do what he will, he sinneth not” and with which I had convinced my girlfriend that we may do as our frisky little bodies willed, as long as we planned to marry. I paced my strides on each syllable — “be-hav-eth him-self un-come-ly” — and while Wyatt Newberry closed the gap by the first turn, I pulled ahead at the third for a 10-yard lead as I neared Coon’s outstretched hand. Coon led all the First Baptists in a chant: “Dig, Cooper! Dig, Cooper!”
And there stood Dennis. He wore his familiar, serene smile, the soft, assured face of the blessed. As I handed Coon the baton and watched him tear away, I had an image of Dennis’s teammates hoisting him upon their shoulders in a triumphant parade around the track, and I envisioned the rest of us following along, rejoicing in the Lord’s creation and ways that were not so mysterious after all.
We had a slew of ribbons. Boogy had won the blue in the shot put, Hoke the blue in the mile and the red in the half, Johnny the blue in the 100, I the blue in the long jump and white in the high, and others won a few reds and a sheaf of whites. We were surely far ahead on points and would win the overall again. Coon and Johnny would be too old next year, but we could build a winning relay team if we found a couple of good sprinters among the 13-year-olds, if we started training a month earlier, and if Dennis Burbage left the regional association.
Dennis took three strides and reached back with his good hand to grab the baton without looking and sped down the lane in beautiful form: back straight, head high, feet pointed with a slight twist like a dancer’s. Arms curled and barely pumping by his sides, the left one was hardly distinguishable from the good one. He could have been a messenger for Joshua, rushing a papyrus order to a general flanking a Canaanite regiment. He could have run ahead to Greek churches to tell them that the boat had docked and to make ready for the Apostle’s arrival. Paul had his own affliction, but the Loving God more than made up for that too.
I bent over to take a few deep breaths then looked up to see if Dennis had taken the lead yet. Coach always fussed at Coon for wasting energy by reaching his arms too far as he ran, giving him his signature head roll that made his long hair flap behind him. He was reaching and rolling harder than ever, a flailing and angular contrast to elegant and linear Dennis.
But Coon was pulling ahead.
Coming out of the second turn, Coon had a 15-yard lead. Dennis’s strides were long and steady. Surely he was about to pick up his pace.
Along the back stretch Coon widened the gap. At the third turn he had a 20-yard lead, at the fourth 25.
“Go Coon!” First Baptists yelled from the stands.
Coach hopped around like the preacher at Mama’s Pentecostal Holiness Church that I attended until I needed one with a larger selection of girls and some who did not wear their hair in a bun. He whirled his arm around like a windmill as if Coon might forget to run the whole oval.
Last Harvest yelled for Dennis. Free Will yelled for their Walter who had secured third. Gospel of Fury yelled to Talmadge for glory’s sake not to finish last.
Everyone yelled, except for me and my team. Even Boogy, who chanted “Praise Him” at church and “Get it, bubba” on the track, went silent.
Coon looked back at Dennis twice in the final 30 yards and turned to us as he crossed the finish line. “What the hell? What happened to the crip?”
No one tried to answer. We crept to the infield where we each got a blue ribbon. We stood beside the Last Harvest team. They glanced at each other in confusion. Only Dennis smiled, waving his red ribbon high over his head.
After 10 minutes in the silent station wagon Coach tried to rouse us from our theological funk. “Another all-round! Lord, that’s a record sure enough. I’m going to get the newspaper to do up a big story on this. Hey, want to stop by the Dairy Queen and I’ll buy us some banana splits? I bet Reverend Wright calls y’all to the front of the church tomorrow and gives y’all something like them study Bibles with the gold on the page edges. Act grateful.”
“I don’t want no Bible,” Birch said.
“Don’t talk like that,” Coach said. “Listen. I know what y’all thinking. But y’all still just kids. You’ll come to see things different when you get older. I guarantee it.” Two months later Coach was cutting grass drunk and flipped the lawn mower over on himself, and from then on was just Brother Turpin.
“He wasn’t fast,” Johnny said. “What did Newberry say, Ronnie?”
“Like a deer.”
“Wonder what he meant, Coon,” Johnny said.
“Just meant he was fast,” Coon said. “Deer are fast. But Dennis wasn’t. Wasn’t nothing like a deer. More like a cow. Maybe a hog.”
“Now listen,” Coach said. “I know you’ve heard people say the Lord moves in mysterious ways, eh? Even the preacher’ll tell you that. God didn’t mean for us to understand everything. But he durn well has a plan for everybody. Every one of you, and me, and that boy with the crook’d up arm. Today just wasn’t the day for him. Shoot, that boy’ll probably grow up to be the governor or something. Wait and see.” Coach wiped his face with a handkerchief. He talked faster than usual, and I wondered if he felt as if he were trying to rescue us from perilous theological waters but knew that he himself was not a strong swimmer and may end up dragging us down with him. “If God made everything clear to us, we wouldn’t need faith, now would we? And he has to test our faith, or it wouldn’t be worth nothing, right? So, you got to have mystery. God tests us through mystery.”
“Ain’t any mystery here,” I said. “God gave Dennis an affliction but nothing to make up for it. God could straighten out that arm. He could end the war. End all diseases. But he doesn’t. So either God can’t do anything about bad stuff or he just don’t care. Or maybe he just don’t exist at all. That would solve the mystery.”
“Now look here!” Coach said, just a little too sharply.
“Let’s talk about something else,” Boogy said. “This kind of talk is sort of scaring me a little bit.”
“Y’all know what?” Coon asked. “I could use a damn study Bible. Might help me figure things out some.”
It did not. Three weeks later, Coon was the first to leave the church. He joined First Presbyterian 20 years afterward, which is what people in Moncks Corner did when they wanted to become a principal or run for sheriff.
The Dairy Queen girl with her little paper hat would not put two cherries on my banana split. Company policy. I said “Jesus Christ” as a cuss word for the first time and never again as an address. I was not, however, one for making announcements, so I held out and attended church for Mama’s sake until I left for college. When I came home on weekends, I made sure to have some ruse to get back to campus Sunday morning.
After our junior year Dennis married Dot Parnell who had a baby three months later. For a couple of years he drove a propane truck, somehow managing with one arm to lift tanks on and off mobile home tongues. Somebody found a bag of weed in his truck, and Dennis lost his job. I heard he was divorced and doing maintenance — cutting the grass, swatting wasp nests from the corners of the jalousie windows — at one of the trailer parks where he used to deliver propane. He could be seen most nights in a lawn chair, smoking a joint and waving at whoever drove by his little rectangle of settled peace under the tin car cover by his 10 X 30 trailer.
Last time I went home to visit the folks, I got Birch on the phone.
“Let’s go get a beer,” I said. “See if we can get hold of those other peckerheads.”
“I don’t know, Cooper. It’s been a long time.” Birch had joined the Navy after high school then came home after four years to work as a fishing guide, live alone in his grandfather’s old A-frame, and be thought gay by many. “Johnny came by to see me a while back just before he moved to Columbia where his ex-brother-in-law made him vice-president of his company that’s something like an Amway for farm supplies. Live in the same town but hadn’t run in to one another for over 10 years. We couldn’t hardly think of nothing to talk about. And Coon’s running for school superintendent, so he’s sure as shit not going to be seen around us getting drunk. But listen, hell, you can drop by if you want to. You remember Granddaddy’s old place across from the Presbyterian Church? Come by tomorrow about noon in time to see Coon coming out of it. He’s a deacon, you know. Damn hypocrite.”
I did not visit Birch on my way back to Florida the next morning. Instead I took a ride around town to see the old elementary school, the ball field where I played Little League, and the ruins of the drive-in movie theater, the only place in the county for a date. That is what I told my wife and kids, but I really wanted to pass by Dennis’s mobile home park. Maybe he would be outside running the weed trimmer around the trailer tires or replacing a board on the rack of mail boxes. He was not outside, if indeed he still lived there. I had not even rehearsed a speech. But some evenings I sit on the back porch with a glass of bourbon and a volume of Twain or some other fellow heathen and imagine what I might have said to Dennis. I try to explain how his not running like a deer on a Saturday afternoon 40 years ago caused me my first serious religious doubts, how these doubts kept me terrified and awake many nights in my late teens and early adulthood, how he may have saved me from a life of superstition and delusion, how because of him I grew to face hardships with some measure of resolve instead of empty hope. He smiles, not letting on that he has no idea what I am talking about. As I leave, he reaches out to shake. I hesitate, then offer my left hand.
Ron Cooper was born and raised in Berkeley County, South Carolina, and received a BA from the College of Charleston, an MA from the University of South Carolina and a PhD from Rutgers University. He moved to Florida in 1988 and has taught at the College of Central Florida since 1995. His publications include the novels Hume’s Fork and Purple Jesus, as well as short stories, poems and essays in a number of journals. His new novel, The Gospel of the Twin, will be released by Bancroft Press in early 2016.