There was a man in Summerville named Preacher Simmons. I don’t think Preacher was an ecclesiastic title, but merely what his mama had named him.
Unfortunately, cancer had claimed Preacher’s larynx, and after his tracheotomy, he communicated by holding a vibrating wand to his throat that produced a strange humming robotic voice. He and my granddaddy, Kistler Blanton, had been pals for a half-century, once boyhood fishing buddies, now surreptitious drinking buddies, both cursed with Baptist wives raised by Puritanical mothers way back in the days not long after Reconstruction.
Preacher called my house one time when I was twelve or so, asking for my granddaddy, and not putting two and two together, I thought I was getting bamboozled with a prank call. Not to be outwitted, I said in a theatrically polite voice, “I’m sorry, sir, but there are no extra-terrestrials by that name living here.”
Without waiting for an answer, I hung up.
In less than a minute, the phone rang again, so I picked it up and heard again the robotic vibrato in my ear, “Preacher Simmons, this is Preacher Simmons on the line. I need to talk to Kistler.”
Of course, I felt terrible. “So sorry, Mr. Simmons,” I said, halfway apologizing and halfway not, segueing from my sorry-ness about my rudeness to my sorry-ness that Kistler was not at my house. I told him I had no idea where he might be, though I couldn’t imagine he wasn’t in his room, where he spent virtually all of his time. No, he hummed, he’d tried that. My grandmother had given him our number.
Alas, this next anecdote featuring Preacher Simmons may strike you as cruel, but if I were telling it to you in the flesh, I guarantee you that you’d laugh out loud. When I was an English teacher, I used to tell it to my classes to illustrate the cruelty of comedy, to suggest that laughter itself could be strange and creepy, a sort of nervous reaction brought on by either discomfort or perverse incongruity. When telling the story, I’d act the part of Preacher, placing an invisible wand to my throat, mimicking his robotic voice, making a Lowcountry baritone sound mechanical. It never failed: at the denouement, every year, every single student would be laughing out loud, some ashamed of themselves but unable to stifle the reaction.
In fact, the story would make a great silent one-reeler, with Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd starring as Preacher. It would have to be filmed outside in a yard with an unpaved driveway that snaked some fifty yards between pine trees to a clapboard house without a garage.
Anyway, Preacher’s wife, whose name I’ve forgotten, had purchased some piece of furniture that had been stashed in the back of their station wagon and impeded her view from the rearview mirror. She had parked the vehicle way up the driveway and honked the horn, summoning Preacher from the house. The idea was that he’d turn the station wagon around and back the vehicle to the front porch so they could save some steps unloading the furniture. When she got him on the porch, Preacher’s red-rimmed eyes and the telltale olfactory emanations of Old Grandad signaled to Mrs. Simmons that she ought to be the one driving, that Preacher ought to be the one to help her negotiate the twists, turns, and trees of the driveway.
So she pulled up a ways, turned the car around, and started backing up. Standing behind the wagon, with auditory wand to throat, he guided her, waving with his free arm, back peddling as the vehicle moved slowly in reverse.
“COME ON BACK,” his electrified voice hummed. “TURN IT MORE. KEEP TURNING.”
He backed into a tree, so he decided to cut around the back of the wagon to the other side, but tripping on a root, he went sprawling, arms splayed, the wand falling from his hand and rolling out of his reach.
Of course, when he screamed for her to stop, there were no sounds, just a mouth franticly mouthing, “STOP! FOR CHRISTSAKES, STOP!”
Mrs. Simmons felt the vehicle run over something, a root or limb she thought, so she shifted gears, put in forward, and ran over Preacher one more time.
She got out, walked to the back of the wagon to find her husband, thrashing on his stomach in the dirt, screaming in pain, mime-like, his head lifted with his mouth opening and closing again and again in thunderous silence.
She leaned over and handed him his wand, so he could scream out loud, so she could ask him how bad off he was, but the contraption no longer worked.
The good news is that he wasn’t bad off at all. The station wagon had rolled over his legs, not inflicting all that much damage. According to Mama, Preacher and Kistler had consumed so much alcohol over the course of their long lives, they had become “pickled,” a metabolic process that made them impervious to injury.
I guess you could say Kiki and Preacher lived semi-charmed lives.