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The Last Democrat in South Carolina


Part 2

Back in New Ellenton cousin Willie gave me heck. “Reverend Dennison sure likes you a lot!” he giggled, as we trudged our way through the slush of Lee Meadow heading up to the school. We was gonna meet some of our friends there and then do who knows what.

“I bet you gonna be doin’ the Holy Rollin’ by the time he done with you,” Willie teased.

“Now don’t you be actin’ so superior like,” I replied. “He just want to help me pray.”

That was on Friday. Two days later I told momma I was gonna take my bike and go to Jackson, and when she asked why, I explained that Rev. Dennison had told me he wanted me to pray with him. Momma knew who Rev. Dennison was. The grapevine in that rural part of the state is pretty good. Momma was, like I said, religious in her own right, but she’d heard that Rev. Dennison was “one of those,” which is how the ladies of the Second Methodist Baptist Church referred to Pentecostals, whom they regarded as just a little too eccentric to be proper Christians. She was quiet for a moment, eying me the way I knew so well: the left eyebrow arched higher than the right, her lips tight and disapproving.

“You sure you want to go?”

“Well, momma, I said I would, and besides, Auntie Esmina wants me to.” The eyebrow remained arched; momma was not a big fan of Esmina Hunke.

“All right. But don’t you dawdle, and you be back here by three or your poppa’s gonna be angry with you. We eat proper at four.”

I can’t say I really wanted to go see Rev. Dennison, but I also can’t say I didn’t. After all, he’d singled me out, not Willie, not even Uncle Mitch. That was sort of special recognition, I guessed, and besides, there’d been something about Rev. Dennison I liked. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Maybe it was his hair that went over his collar. All the other adult men in the area kept their hair close cropped. Some of the younger ones, who’d been in the world war or Korea, even had what we called buzz cuts. It was unusual for a grown man to let his hair grow out. (Ten years later, mine would be halfway down my back, but that’s another story.)

Rev. Dennison had told me to go up to the rear of the church, where there were two little steps leading up from a muddy yard that led to a screen door. I rattled on the screen and a second later he opened it. He was wearing what looked like pajamas, which surprised me because he was supposed to preach. He must have seen the surprise on my face, because he looked down at himself, then back up to me, and laughed. “Oh, I canceled the service,” he said, almost apologetically. “Weather’s too bad. Didn’t want to make folks come out in this slush and mud. I don’t think our Lord will mind.

“But come on in, Bertram, make yourself at home.” He was allowed use of the small apartment at the rear of the church, which had a tiny kitchen and a Murphy bed, as well as a T.V. set. An old wooden dresser with a mirror stood by the wall. I wiped off the mud on my boots on the mud scraper and then Rev. Dennison told me to sit down on the couch. “You wanna watch T.V. or something?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. Rev. Dennison said he was just scrambling up some eggs and hash browns and would I like a plate. I’d already had breakfast, but the trip from New Ellenton—about ten miles—had made me hungry again, and besides, I was growing like a weed in those days and always seemed to be famished.

As he stood at the little stove and cooked the eggs, his back to me, Rev. Dennison kept up a steady pace of conversation. “I recall bein’ your age, Bert. You prefer Bert, or Bertram? Okay, Bert it is. I couldn’t wait to grow up and start going out with the young ladies. Know what I mean?” He turned around and winked at me, then back to the eggs and taters. “There was this one gal, Katharine Ann, we called her Katie-A. She was a beauty. Only eleven, but she was already fillin’ out. My oh my, yes, she was a special little gal. You got yourself a sweetie?”

“No, sir.” I replied.

“Well, that’s all right. Plenty of time for that. But I bet you think about it, don’t ya?”

I squirmed a little. “Well, to tell you the truth, sir, there is a girl I kind of fancy. Her name’s Betty Lou, you might know her daddy, he’s the deputy sheriff.”

“Betty Lou,” Rev. Dennison repeated, tasting the words in his mouth as though it were the eggs we were about to eat. “All right, Bert, grab yourself a plate from over there by the sink and let’s dig in.”

We ate away. Rev. Dennison turned on the T.V. but the reception was terrible, just a bunch of gray static and wavy lines, so he gave up. “I need to put up some kind of antenna but I never get around to it,” he said, absent-mindedly. Then: “You’re an athletic kind of boy, ain’t ya?”

That caught me kind of by surprise. “A little bit, sir.”

“What’s your sport? Or sports, as it may be.”

“Well, sir, I like fishin’, and ice skatin’ when Crockpot Creek is all froze, and baseball in the summertime.”

“What’s your position?”

“Third base, mainly, but sometimes I pitch.”

“Ah, pitchin’,” he said. “Pitcher’s gotta be in prime shape. You lift any weights?”


“You know, barbells, dumbbells, that kind of thing? At the gym?”

“No, sir. We aint—uhh, don’t got no gym in New Ellenton.”

“That’s a shame. A damn shame. We have a couple in Aiken. Myself, I worked out a lot at the Y.M.C.A. Great place for a young man to meet other men. Pool, Turkish bath, dry sauna. Meet some mighty nice folk there.”

I didn’t know how to reply to that. I didn’t even know what a Turkish bath was. So we was silent for a couple seconds.

“Tell you what. I got some weights over in that there closet. Just a couple of five-pound bells, but I like to have ‘em around. Let me show you how to use ‘em.”

Rev. Dennison proceeded to teach me bicep curls and tricep curls. “Whenever you work a muscle, you gotta work the opposite muscle, or you get unbalanced. See?” He did ten quick curls in both directions. “Now you try it. Take off your shirt, Bert, and stand there in front of the mirror and watch your muscles as you work ‘em.” As I watched my bicep tense and bulge, then relax, Rev. Dennison kept talking. “You see, God wants us to have perfect bodies. He gave us perfect bodies when we was born—well, most us, anyhow. But too many men let it go to pot, what with all their beer guzzlin’ and bacon eatin’ and such, ‘til by the time they’re thirty they got these great big bellies. It’s an affront to our Creator.” I thought of poppa.

“Keep on doin’ it, Bert,” Rev. Dennison instructed. My arm was getting tired. As I strained, Rev. Dennison put his hands on my arm, lightly, just enough for me to feel his fingertips on my aching bicep. It was warm and strong. “See? You gotta do it until it starts to hurt. No pain, no gain.”

An hour flew by, maybe more. Then I told Rev. Dennison I had to go home because we ate Sunday dinner early.

“Sure, sure, Bert,” he said. “That’s a good boy. You be careful, lots of slush and ice out there. Two weeks time, you come back now, y’hear? We gonna work on your lower body.”

It wasn’t until I reached Jackson, halfway home, that it occurred to me we hadn’t prayed at all.

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