The Lord's Earth

Callie Collins

After His Brother Left

It got real quiet. Everything took longer than it used to. Drives, meals, nights. Time stretched out like roads in every direction.

Roger’s mother was still young. She’d had Vernon at fourteen; her stomach slapped taut again right after. She seemed freer after he left, started wearing makeup again. Vernon had been demanding of her time and persistent in his judgment. He’d grown a beard. He’d meddled in the affairs of her church, tried to seduce the pastor’s daughter on what he thought was an order right out of Isaiah 34. Roger’s father just smoked on the porch, kept to himself. Roger was sixteen; the stretch marks clustered like skinny white worms around his mother’s waist were all his doing.

The whole town of Garland sweltered and glistened. There was fog for months that fall, and the sun hung behind it round and shining like the moon or a piece of fruit. It was hard for Roger to stick around, so he didn’t.

Then, after some years, men came to his door.

Winter ‘93

The morning the men came was a cold one, but Roger had the heat cranked up so high it rattled and gave off a tinny smell, sweet at the finish. He had an off day in between jobs, was sitting on his couch in his apartment in Denton, wearing a V-neck and his boxers with the ducks on them, watching the women on infomercials. This one was about a magic mop and a redhead who couldn’t get her son’s toxic chalk off the tile in their den. When she bent over the mess with a sponge, her jeans gapped around the small of her back, and Roger could see a little glimpse down her pants of navy blue.

There was a firm knock at the door. Three firm knocks, actually: a signal Roger was too slow to read. He pulled on a pair of sweatpants that had been draped over the back of the recliner and twisted the knob, cracked the cheap, hollow door half open. On the threshold were two guys in slacks and coats too big for 45 degrees, necks red under the collars.

“Hello,” one of them said.

“We’re looking for a Roger Haldeman,” the other one said. This one was tall with dark hair that was buzzed too short on the sides and a pockmarked face. Roger hated pockmarked faces, because they made him see men as the teenagers they’d been, and Roger had hated being a teenager. He looked down, knew well enough not to answer directly to this kind of questioning.

“Roger’s not home, boys,” he said. “Whatcha need?” Roger looked at the shorter one, because he was easier to look at. He was younger, his face round like a melon and pale around the edges like one too. The pleats of his pants had softened around his thighs and knees but were still structured at the bottom, around his loafers. Roger could feel the other guy staring at him. He looked past them both at the complex pool, empty and cratered behind an iron fence on the side of the parking lot.

“Roger’s not here,” Roger said. “I can give him a message if y’all need.” He could feel his cheeks warming and felt afraid.

“I tell you what,” the short one said. “Say we walk over to the super’s unit and ask him to come back with us and ID Roger.” Roger folded a hand over and cracked his wrist with the other palm. “If we brought him up here with us in a couple minutes, you think Roger might be here?”

“What’s this about?” Roger asked, but he knew what it was about. “I was a little late but I paid my taxes on everything. I did.”

“We’re not here for anything like that, sir,” the tall one said and rubbed a trail down his long nose with the back of a hand. “We just got some questions we’d like to ask you about David.”

“You’re looking for the wrong man, then. I don’t know any Davids.”

“Sure you do. David Koresh,” the shorter man said, and he rustled through some papers inside a blue leather folder in his hands.

“Vernon?” the tall man asked, his voice lilting. “We’re talking about Vernon. Your brother?” the tall one peered, and then seemed to bend at the waist toward Roger.

Roger waited a minute and swung the door full open, watched them walk past his chest like through a gate into the dim of the blackout blinds.

Roger Tries Not to Think of Vernon But He Can’t Help It if He Sometimes Still Hears Vernon Speaking, The Way He Used to Speak, Saying

It’s pretty out here. The Lord’s Earth.

These Women

Roger had spent most of December and January trying to figure out Annie, whom he’d found in the parking lot of the HEB loading cases of bottled water into her trunk alone. After a paper sack of fries at Storm’s, with grease turning orange in the deep pockets of his palms, he had taken her home with him. The water was for her mother, he learned—Annie wasn’t stockpiling for herself—but she had a job substitute teaching at the junior high, and Roger thought he knew what she was telling the kids when the door was closed. She was an Adventist; or, her parents were. She was strange about it and forgot her faith in certain places: Roger’s bed, the bar on Friday afternoons, Smokehouse when they had the spicy sausage. But she clung to the rituals, and she was expecting a savior someday. When she got angry, when Roger refused to go to church on Saturdays, she’d just blink more than usual, her eyelids like strobes.

He kept getting involved with these women—thin and wild-eyed and lord, did they know how to move—but he wished he could find someone left who didn’t believe Jesus was coming and soon. Everyone seemed normal to Roger until they didn’t anymore. He wondered if it was like this in other places, or if it was something about Texas that made Revelation feel close and easy and somehow comforting. Would there actually be fire? Would rushes of wind and hard flame come down from mountaintops? There were no mountaintops near Dallas, and Roger hated anything that got in the way of his seeing the land around him.

He didn’t keep a TV in the apartment because he was sensitive to noise, but Annie started coming home from school in March very worked up. On the rolling set in the teacher’s lounge, she and the math teachers had been watching a government siege on a group of believers near Waco that’d been going on for more than a month, and she was convinced this was a harbinger of doom, or of glory. He didn’t want to know anything about it. But she wouldn’t stop bugging him about the TV, so he went down to Circuit City on a weekend and bought one. It sat mammoth on the carpeted floor in the living room.

“Mama thinks it might really be happening,” she’d said, after they’d gotten the antenna so it would show the national news, and then Wheel of Fortune, without any static.

“What might be happening, baby?”

“The Coming,” she said with a hard exhale.

“I’ll show you coming,” Roger almost tried, but she’d have gotten angry. Roger knew part of keeping a woman around was keeping your mouth shut. He was working landscaping and was gone from early in the morning until late at night, driving an hour each way through the dark to Highland Park, lifting rocks onto bigger rocks to form rock sculptures in backyards that cost more to maintain than his whole life cost to live. Those months had been fine. He drank some. He kept to himself. His life felt like a straight shot on a flat plane. As much as Annie wanted him to, he didn’t believe there was anything for which he needed to be prepared.

Just Shut Your Mouth

Roger offered the men coffee and they declined, which was better anyway, because he would’ve had to use yesterday’s filter, and they’d be able to see him fish it out of the top of the trash through the cut-out in the wall between the kitchen and the living room. He filled up two glasses of water under the tap and felt his back clench. He tried not to get angry. He knew they’d come.

He sat down on the couch, and the two men perched on the ripped-up chairs on either side of the TV, which was tall enough between them to make Roger feel like he was being examined by a team of three. He could see the bottom of his sweats and his socks in the glass. They balanced their water on their knees and held the lips of the cups with their thumbs and index fingers. “—at the beginning?” he heard. The tall one, who’d introduced himself as Paul, had been talking already.

“Excuse me?” Roger said.

“May we start at the beginning? We’ll try to make this brief, sir.”      

“I don’t know much at all, guys. I haven’t seen Vernon in years.”

“We’ll keep it brief,” he said. “We’re just hoping to learn a little bit about Vernon, you see—we’re confused by him, and he’s starting to be a little bit of a problem for us, and we thought you could help.”

Roger stared at them, worked to keep his mouth closed and his shoulder blades flat and tucked against his spine. “Who’s us?” he asked.

“I’m Paul, and he’s Kenneth,” Paul motioned at Kenneth.

“Yeah, I got that,” Roger said.

“Do you live here alone?” Kenneth asked.

“Yeah. Well, kinda.”

“What’s kinda?”

“I got a girl,” Roger said.

“Y’all aren’t married, then,” Kenneth said, and Roger shook his head once, and said, “She’s a substitute teacher down at the junior high. At Guyer.”

“How do you feel about marriage then, Roger?”

“I thought this was about Vernon.”

“It is about Vernon,” Kenneth said. “We’ve heard from some folks that Vernon—he has some particular,” Paul paused, “views about marriage. We wonder if you’d know anything about that.”

“Vernon had particular views about almost everything, last time I checked,” Roger said before he could stop himself. He remembered his mother suddenly, and a night she came home really drunk and nasty, how he’d tried to reason with her in the living room, and how his father had told him to stop, shut your mouth, Roger, shut your mouth now.

“We hear that’s true still,” Paul said and smiled. Roger wasn’t sure if it was the dark of the room or just having looked at Paul for long enough, but the marks on his face seemed to be deepening in a way that made him look only half-there. “Can you talk to us a little more about these particular views?”

“Not really,” Roger said.

“Can you talk to us a little about Vernon’s dealings with women?”

“Not really,” Roger said.

“With children?”

“I never saw Vernon with any children,” Roger said.

“Do you have guns in your house, sir?”

“What is this?”

“Does Vernon think he’s God?” Kenneth asked.

“No,” Roger said. “I don’t think so.”

“Jesus?”

“No. Not really.”

“We’re getting reports out of Waco that he thinks he’s Jesus.”

“Sorry, Vernon’s in Waco?” Roger asked, and they narrowed their eyes at him. “With those people?” They were all silent, and the heat rumbled loudly and then shut off with a bump.

Roger Thinks of His Mother

It was beautiful for a while. Bonnie locked that Bible in a drawer in the forest-green cabinet in the kitchen, even ripped Vernon’s dog-eared corner straight off Psalm 108, though she still turned it over like something dead in her mind before sleep—“O God, my heart is fixed; O God, my heart is fixed”—left the house, poured Coors tall-boys into cold pint glasses at Angelo’s, enjoyed herself again. But then she got into some trouble with men who weren’t Roger’s father, and she came back to her Lord. Where was Vernon, Roger? Where was he now, when she needed him?

Oh

The men weren’t technically supposed to give Roger much of anything, they said, prompt any answers. But they thought that showing him the video might help bring back some useful memories. Kenneth’s fat lips curled into a smirk. Roger couldn’t afford a VCR on top of the TV, though, so Kenneth shuffled out to the car to get their portable machine, and then Roger was alone in the apartment with Paul. Outside the thin window a car alarm went off, blared in quick rhythm, and silenced.

Roger needed to get these men out of his house. He’d given them nothing, he hoped, and would continue to give them nothing until they got fed up and left him alone. Vernon wasn’t his problem.

He studied Paul, wondered if getting someone so strange looking to play good cop was part of the strategy. Paul was visibly uncomfortable inside the hot apartment, and Roger could see large ovals of sweat stretch out like ponds underneath his arms. Roger felt more in control alone here with him. He tried to harness that control, planted his hands on his thighs and leaned forward on the couch. “What in the fucking hell is this?” Roger demanded.

Paul shifted on the chair so that one side creaked. “The news,” he said. “It’s all over the news.”

“What’s all over the news? I just got the TV,” Roger said, looked down at his socks, dirtied from the kitchen linoleum. “Annie asked for it. And I got a job to go to usually, multiple jobs.”

Paul was quiet a minute. Roger could hear Kenneth’s boots lumber up the staircase outside. “When was the last time you talked to Vernon, sir?” Paul asked.

“Ten years, eleven,” Roger said.

“Oh. Oh. I thought you were just being difficult,” Paul said, his face white and lit up, and then Kenneth was back through the door, holding a big gray box out in front of him with both hands.

Roger Thinks of His Father

Roy really didn’t think there was much to do about Vernon’s leaving. He’d never cared for the kid, his stepson, who got his ass kicked all around for years and couldn’t defend himself but with his loopy words and then after that kept getting into messes with girls half his age. Roy had even paid for that first girl to deal with the baby.

In fact, Roy had not liked Vernon at all. In fact, he’d hated and resented Vernon. In fact, he’d been relieved to have Vernon’s crushing, crushing, ridiculous Bible-thumping misery out of his goddamn face and house, and lord, weren’t you too? and no, Roger, I would rather not discuss your mother.

It May Not Look Like Your Family, Now, I Know

Roger didn’t know if what these men were doing in his house was legal. He’d never been taught anything about the law other than to stay far away from the men who know it, and he hated the cop shows more than he hated the news. Kenneth had sat himself down awkwardly on the floor, hooked their video player up to the TV, and moved the machine under the chair he’d been sitting in. They’d given Vernon and his people cameras inside the compound, he told Roger. This tape was only about a day old. “We want to understand what they’re up to, what they need,” Paul said. He’d moved his chair over so that Roger could better see the TV and he could better see Roger. His eyes were set deep in his face and were small—two more craters in a face full of craters.

“What they need is a goddamn padded room,” Kenneth said, spittling. He inserted the cassette and climbed to his feet with a little, high-pitched grunt that made Roger want to laugh.

“The situation is getting dire, and we’d like to negotiate their safe exit from it,” Paul said. “The situation.”

Something had shifted in the room. He honestly couldn’t answer any questions about Vernon’s life past twenty-two better than these men could, and he’d surely made that clear. But he saw now that he was valuable to them in a way he hadn’t considered. He understood suddenly that they would want him to go to Waco and talk to Vernon. He hadn’t stood up from the couch in a while and his legs were restless. He clasped his hands between his knees, and a small, dusty piece of the popcorn ceiling fell near him.

There on the screen Vernon was looking at him. The camera must’ve been propped up on a chair or a table only a few feet off the ground, because Vernon was sitting on the floor and level with the lens. He was wearing white, a tank top, big glasses. The lenses cast shade on a strong jaw Roger barely recognized, a symmetrical, capable face; he had arm muscles, even, and they flexed and stirred a little at his sides when he moved. Vernon’s legs were splayed out unnaturally—made Roger shift his own underneath him—and he was surrounded by so many kids Roger didn’t even count them. Vernon reached out and grabbed a girl a little too hard by the shoulder. She didn’t seem to mind. “See,” he was saying. Now they were all looking directly at the camera. “This is my family. It may not look like your family, now, I know.”

“OK, fellas, all right,” Roger said.

“That’s him, then?”

Vernon had launched into a sermon Roger remembered, about the Day of Judgment, the sixth seal, eternal life. He had this way of speaking, he still did. Even though Roger heard some of this on Sundays with Annie, in Vernon’s mouth it was riveting and repulsive, just like he remembered.

He was absolutely not going to Waco, and these men could not make him, and that’s what Roger was thinking when they got fed up with his silence, switched the machine off, stood up, asked him if he could please stay put, thank you, and promised to come back tomorrow. He stood on the landing outside the apartment and watched them get into their gray sedan. He stood there as long as he could, and then turned around and went back inside, slamming the door so hard behind him it seemed to hover off its hinges.

Of Course Roger Had Known

Did Roger know where Vernon was? Of course Roger had known where Vernon was. Roger had known as early as that first night Annie came home from school and described the Davidians to him while he peeled his dirt-caked clothes off and washed his hands. Roger had known when his phone started ringing all the time. Roger had picked it up once, heard his mother’s frantic voice cracking and popping over a bad connection, set it right back in its cradle on the wall. It kept ringing, so he pulled the cord from its jack to make the sound stop before Annie noticed. It would’ve been his mother, after all, who’d told them where he lived, had sent them here. Of course Roger had known. Just because he didn’t want to talk about it didn’t mean he hadn’t known Vernon was in trouble.

Vernon, in Trouble

I don’t know why they’re coming for us, I don’t really. But I do. They came in yesterday, seventy-five of them, and they shot Chuck and Wayne. We have some guns, sure, they’re right on that, but who doesn’t have guns? I got them all legally. And they’ve got more guns than we’ve got, that’s for sure. I’ve got these babies and these people here, and I keep telling all them it can hard to understand, I know. But God meant it to be that way, God meant for the chaos, so that we can tell the righteous from the unrepentant as well as He can, because He made us in his image and He gives His love and unfathomable grace so that we can follow the calling and the path of the seven seals and be lifted up above the fire of sin, all our sins, all this junk, and be welcomed into the fertile land of Heaven. They want to play this game, I’ll play this game with God on my side. But still they’re shooting, and they punctured all our water tanks with bullets so there’s a river flowing into the upstairs, and they killed my dogs. 

Roger Thinks of Annie

Annie didn’t think Roger was listening, really listening, listening in the way she wanted him to listen. Not to her and not even to the Lord. The Lord spoke gentle to Annie, and she had learned how to block out the other noise and hear the peaks and valleys of His demands and comforts. On Saturdays at church she felt a broad space open in front of her, a big chasm when the pastor spoke to her about salvation, and when Roger was there she could close her eyes and hold his stiff hand and imagine that they were looking out together over a beautiful valley. They’d roll down the side of the hill underneath them like through delicate St. Augustine, curl up like kind animals in the sun at the bottom, on earth as it is in Heaven, and God watching over. He’d get it if he’d only read, open up his stubborn ears, let the words sink down soft like clay on his bones. It couldn’t be simpler. Don’t you see how lucky we are, Roger? The call takes different forms for different people, but for us it’s just the easiest, the easiest thing.

Ugly Things

Roger was watching the news when Annie came home during her lunch break. She tried to open the door but he’d locked it, and he grabbed the remote off the cushion next to him and muted the TV while she found her key, slipped it into the lock, flipped it over. The sun had come out from behind the slanted roof of the building next door and was casting a glare on the screen. Roger could see both three helicopters circle a boxy building and his own face reflected back at him.

“Hi, baby,” she said and walked into the kitchen. “Have you left the house this morning?”

“You’re home?” he turned and half-shouted over his shoulder.

“I forgot my lunch. You should really do something today, Roger. Idle hands, you know,” she said.

“It’s my one day off. Bring me a beer, would you?” he responded, and she came over to the couch with a can in her soft hand. Her nails were long and square; she sighed but flipped him the can and sat down gingerly next to him.

“I was talking to Carla about this yesterday, and she thinks it’s about to end,” she said, leaning toward the TV.

“Yeah,” Roger said softly, cracked the can, slowly licked the beer out of the top of it.

“You think so?”

“I don’t know, Annie.”

“She heard something on the radio about how they’re running out of supplies. But God’ll protect them, I know it.”

“Will He?” Roger asked.

“Of course He will, Roger. What are you talking about?”

“They’re doing some weird things in there, Ann.”

“I don’t want to hear about it.”

“You don’t want to hear about it?” he asked. “It’s a cult thing. There are young girls in there having babies.”

“Stop, Roger.”

“What do you mean you don’t want to goddamn hear about it?” he asked.

“Don’t you cuss at me like that. Don’t you do that.”

Roger was quiet. He sat still with his beer can, his finger tracing circles on the smooth aluminum.

“Don’t you say ugly things to me, Roger,” She stood up and walked back into the kitchen. “They believe. They’re believers.”

The morning had been long, and now she was talking and talking and filling all the space in around him. He needed to breathe. She came and sat back down next to him rolling a piece of deli turkey she’d gotten out of the fridge. She slipped her fingers around his arm and wedged them in against his tricep. He closed his eyes and tried to breathe deeply. But on the screen something was happening. A red breaking news banner was scrolling across the grass of the compound. Annie leaned forward.

“Roger, look.”

He couldn’t look.

“Roger, I think that building’s on fire. All those people are inside and it looks like it’s smoking.”

Roger pictured Paul’s face, its crevasses, the soft way he’d smiled at Roger when Kenneth had gone down to the car, how he’d trusted Roger’s silence when he shouldn’t have. He thought of Vernon. He should call his mother. He should get in his truck and drive to Garland; he should’ve done that weeks ago.

“Annie,” he said.

“Is it on fire?”

“It doesn’t matter, baby.”

"Of course it matters. Why would you ever say something so awful?”

He reached over Annie’s lap for the remote, held it in his hand, ran his thumb over the screw in the back panel.

“Roger,” she said. “Roger?”

Look Up, Roger

I look around me, and I see God. I look inside my own soul, the soul of a sinner but a prophet too, and I see God. And when I look up and out the windows, I see beautiful Texas skies and a straight shot into the heaven we’ve been promised as reward for our righteousness and faith. And I’m scared, I’ll admit that. My babies keep asking me questions. I know y’all’ve been listening, I tell them, and this is it. I know we’re headed for eternal life above the muck of all this sinning, because I see God when I look up, Roger. When I look up, I see Him there.

When They Were Still Boys

Roger spent most of his days in Carl and Kevin’s yard, where a braided-wire drying line hung tight enough a boy could swing from it, and the husk of an old Chevelle sat on bricks like a shell into which they retreated during storms.

Vernon came around one afternoon to fetch him home. Roger’s father was driving out to a small evening job, and he wanted to take Roger along. Roger had only just turned ten, but it was clear already that he had Roy’s build, neck like a slugger and broad shoulders, and he was filling out quickly. His friends were older. Roger was with Carl on the savaged leather of the front bench seat of the Chevelle, looking at a magazine, so Kevin—coming out through the sliding door—was the first to see Vernon walk gingerly up the gravel.

Vernon was still so slight he’d get mistaken for a lost child. Cars swerved gently toward the curb to ask where he was headed, if they could help get him there, but then he’d start to speak and they’d shift back into drive. It didn’t matter: Vernon barely left the house in the summer. But here he was. “Y’a-a-all,” Kevin sung. “Visitor!”

Roger swung his body out of the car; Carl clamored out after him. Vernon stood a small distance from Kevin and had his body squared up against him, but he looked at Roger and said, “Roy would like you home now, if you can.”

“Why don’t you give him a minute to get his shit, Vernon. How you doing today? You good?” Kevin asked. Carl came out from behind Roger. Roger didn’t have any shit but what was in his pockets: two dollar bills, the sharp lead point of a pencil. Vernon was on the ground faster than a rifle shot. Roger ran over. Carl was using his forearms to keep Vernon’s head down against the dirt. His legs were spread over Vernon’s chest bone, and his kneecaps dug into his skinny triceps. “Look at this brother of yours,” Kevin said. “Look at this fairy, thinks he’s Jesus or some shit. I don’t know how you listen to it. Or are you just a fairy too? You think you’re Jesus too, Roger? Couple of Jesuses?”

“You just a fairy too, Roger?” Carl asked, rolling his knees up and down Vernon’s muscles like they were putty.

“Come on, Roger. Look at your fuckin’ brother on the ground here.” So Roger did. He walked up flush with Vernon, really looked into his eyes. Carl put his hands on the side of Vernon’s head, lifted it up and slammed it down. “Roger,” Vernon whispered. “Roger.”

But Roger knew he couldn’t do anything for Vernon. Vernon’s face was so soft then, and his voice was so soft then, and all of the other things about him were soft then too. Carl leaned back off Vernon’s shoulders, and Vernon barely took a breath before he started to go at it with returning and resting in God and quiet confidence and the might of Thy spirit. So Roger put the sole of one of his sneakers against the side of his brother’s neck. He pushed down. Vernon’s eyes bugged, and he made a single choking sound, like an engine turning over.

Everything was still and quiet. Roger listened. The humid air pushed down on him like a broiler. Tonight he would have to go out to the work site and watch his father put up walls, but maybe tomorrow he would bike down to the creek and swim a little. Summer was coming, and it’d be like paradise. Around him the sky was latticed with orange the way it gets an hour before the sun goes down. He let Vernon go and turned away, ran toward the street.