Within Southern culture (and especially within its literature), the mythic “outsider” is an omnipresent character, people who exist on the fringes of the mainstream but who are acknowledged as not being accepted within it. Likewise, a belief in Christian salvation is also omnipresent, forming perhaps the penultimate criteria for acceptance, or at least acceptability. In this essay, we encounter a man whose story is lived at that crossroads of the two.
by Clayann Gilliam Panetta
I did not actually hear the gunshot, as I was living away from the small, rural Northern Mississippi community by then, but I imagined it. I imagined Travis’ brain splattered over the ground underneath the peaceful pine trees that sprinkled the property he and his family called home. The first thing I wanted to know was if anyone was home. Did they hear the blast and run out into the yard to see what had happened, gasping for air when the reality hit them, the reality of death, of no turning back, of saying goodbye forever, of not getting a chance to say goodbye, of starting the long journey looking for answers? Of course, all those thoughts would not have run through their heads at that moment of discovery, but those thoughts and those questions would come. Over time.
No. Daddy said no one was home. They found what Travis had done when they came home from Town. I guess that’s when the questions must have started.
There was no note, and the whole community reeled from what had happened. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe he was just cleaning his gun, and it went off before he knew it. Maybe this was just a tragic accident. It was too shocking to think otherwise. While everyone else tried to make sense of the tragedy, surprised that he did it (or let it happen), over time I found I wasn’t surprised at all. Over time, I began to wonder how he held out for so long.
Travis was the guy who didn’t go to church. Oh, there was plenty of effort to get him there. His parents were devout, never missing a Sunday meeting, fellowship, pot luck, or evangelical event. They were pillars of the community, having grown up there themselves, as had their parents. The family roots were deep. The church house solidified all this, as it was the place where most community events occurred and where fellowship and ties to everyone else happened. To live in this community and not go to church meant one thing. The person lacking in attendance just had not been saved and was hiding from the Lord. The community’s mission was to get the lost into the fold, so Travis got lots of visitors.
As it happened, he remained steadfast, not being swayed by the deacons or deacons’ wives who came by with a cake to entice him to come for more at the church house. Apparently, his parents had no sway either. Their prayer requests, murmured with heavy hearts, were always about their son who would not go to church, get saved, and become an actual active member of the community. Nothing worked. Travis remained home on Sunday mornings as his parents waved goodbye on their way to worship the Almighty.
The family did have other places of pride that overshadowed Travis’ stubbornness. His siblings were active in church and even participated in youth and young adult activities, enough to make their parents swell with pride when those children appeared on a Sunday worship program. But then they’d arrive at home and see Travis and remember the failure they had in him. The cycle happened every week.
When he grew into his twenties, Travis didn’t leave home when most children do, and he never married. My daddy used to say he’d never even heard of Travis having a date, despite his handsome face and perfect teeth. He remained at home through his twenties, into his thirties, and even into his forties. Eventually, the community stopped visiting, and his parents stopped their prayer requests. The failure of Travis’ soul was too much to handle, so folks just put it into an “out of sight, out of mind” sort of place. I never saw much of Travis myself, unless my family invited his family over for dinner. Though decades older than me, he was always the kindest gentleman to little me during those family gatherings.
After I left home, I made the yearly trek to Homecoming, an event held at the church, set up for folks to fellowship and catch up with old friends. On one of these visits, I saw Travis there, and I was amazed that he’d darkened the door of the church house. True, when I spotted him, he was in line for the dinner after the service. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect he may have just showed up for that portion of the day, skipping the hellfire and brimstone earlier, but that he was even on church property was surprising.
But that wasn’t the only thing that was surprising. Travis had lost a lot of weight—even though he had always been trim and fit. This weight loss appeared unintentional because he looked sickly. His face was drawn, his arms looked like the flesh barely covered his bones, and his eyes were deep in their sockets from the lack of substance around them. When he smiled, as he did to everyone who greeted him (of course, everyone was overjoyed to see him there, anticipating his lost soul on the cusp of salvation), his mouth receded back from his teeth, as if he were a skeleton. I tried to hide my shock when I spoke to him. As we conversed for just a moment, I found him still to be the kind and gentle soul I’d remembered. His family stood to the side, beaming with pride, happy for their feat in getting their Travis to the Lord’s house.
On the way back to my parents’ house, I asked them if Travis was sick, and, though they didn’t know for sure, they also expressed concern, proposing that he had some sort of cancer. We all wondered out loud why his parents had not requested prayers for him if this were true. My family dismissed the mystery pretty readily, but Travis remained on my mind as I traveled back to my apartment. In fact, I thought and wondered about him every day for weeks after this encounter, realizing that there was more to the story; I really wanted to find some answers. I asked my parents a few times during our weekly phone calls, but they had little more to add. Over time, I eventually dismissed Travis from my immediate mind and continued with my life.
And then he did it. My daddy called to tell me the horrific news. Travis was no more, and he’d done it himself. In shock, I sat in my kitchen with flashing memories of the kind man who made me feel special as a little girl, wondering how on earth such a passive soul would be driven to such violence on himself. The reason dawned on me suddenly, and I cried out in horror as I replayed Travis’ life as I knew it: his never going to church, his little interest in community ways, his devastating weight loss, his one-time appearance at Homecoming. . . .
It’s true we didn’t think about such things in the ’90s— even though testing positive was always a death sentence back then, and the end generally came pretty quickly, with biased, uneducated judgement as one breathed their last breath — often alone. But, if I’m really honest, while the answer was as plain as anything, the times were not fully to blame for my not getting there sooner.
It was also because of the way I always folded back into that community when I visited. It was as if the blinders just placed themselves unawares onto my forehead as I continued forward though each visit. But, in that moment of epiphany in my apartment kitchen, away from the blinders, away from the bias, I saw Travis as that soul that didn’t need saving from the ills of hell. He needed saving from the saviors.
Clayann Gilliam Panetta grew up in Northern Mississippi, where she spent her childhood chasing lighting bugs, eating fried catfish, and attending basketball games on Friday nights. Though she let few people know it at the time, one of her favorite pastimes during those growing-up years was dreaming up stories—either on scraps of paper or by acting out scenes alone in the woods—that animated parts of her life as she knew it. She spends her time now helping college students find their way around academic writing, but her young self still emerges from time to time, conjuring up a few more stories about her Southern childhood and the messages she finds embedded in her experiences there.