You wore a card shark’s jacket the night at dinner we talked about the uncrackable code of Saint James. The inspired lunatic creator of the Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly left us written texts also, concerning his religious visions, in a hieroglyphic form to this day unreadable, defeating codebreakers. You said he knew what he was about, that Hampton fellow. His writings meant only for a chosen few, and him as exclusive a recluse as Emily Dickinson, subject only to a higher power.
I handed you the check. You made me put it in another envelope, addressed to your wife.
“That’s how it’s done,” you said. “Don’t ask. Now we must go seek a mailbox.” It really can be extraordinarily difficult to find a mailbox in a dying midwestern town. We both remarked on this. We drove around for a while, more and more incredulous, searching still.
You mentioned how you once bought the best secondhand car ever in Texas, an Oldsmobile or something of that nature, a retired police car purchased at a stunning knockdown price. You invited a few friends over to drive around Austin in order to show off your latest prized possession, only then to discover the back doors couldn’t be opened from the inside.
“It was a metaphor of some sort,” you mumbled, discreetly slipping another wad of chew beneath your lip. “But a good car also.”
“Where have the mailboxes gone?” I wailed. “Is this because we don’t write letters anymore?”
“There’s one,” you yelled in excitement, “It’s blue!”
“They’re all blue,” I said. “They’re mailboxes.”
“Well,” you said, “I knew that.”
Just then, I felt like I had become a character in one of your stories. It felt awesome too.
You dropped the envelope in the box. “You saw me do that, you’re a witness. . .”
The Best Western had the cruddiest of carpets. Hampton assembled his magnificent outsider artwork from discarded aluminum and gold foil, old furniture, lightbulbs and mirror shards. But even the Director, Special Projects for the State of Eternity could have made nothing of a carpet like that. It was very embarrassing to me. “It looks like someone’s nightmare,” I observed, accurately.
“This is a nice motel,” you said, benevolently, “as motels go.”
I decided not to say anything at all as we strolled by the ueberkitchen.
“Ah,” you mused. “The wurst is still to come.”
The week after, you were a finalist for the National Book Award, but couldn’t attend the ceremony because you had scheduled a trip to Iraq. A war correspondent type deal, I believe you said. Missing the big literary event didn’t seem to bother you that much.
“Why couldn’t you reschedule the trip?” I inquired
“Well. . . ” You glanced off, shifty. “. . . I did. I rescheduled a trip to Iraq.”
It had never occurred to me till then that a writer might prefer dodging flak in Kurdistan to attending an awards ceremony. But I think I’ve always known the wrong kind of writers.
By the way, you won. But of course you knew that.
You dedicated the books to HP, and I believe I know who that is. But not as well as you did, a son of John composing your latter-day visionary book of revelations. ‘Fear not,’ it is written above the Hampton Throne and, the morning I heard you were gone, I all at once had a vision of my own, of you and St. James comparing veiled notes, engaged in apostolic re-ciphering, fearlessly reconstructing from the janitorial detritus of Heaven glorious visions anew.
Rob McClure Smith lives in Galesburg, Illinois. His work has appeared in Gettysburg Review, New Ohio Review, Manchester Review, Barcelona Review, and other magazines. His novel, The Scotsman, is forthcoming from Black Springs Press in March 2023.