15, Number 87, October/November 2012 The Bell Ringer of Rouleau by John Norris
That Sunday morning, Hank Snow lay supine on his bed, his lanky, ghostly body stiff like a corpse in a casket. His black Stetson covered his face, smothering his bull snoring interrupted occasionally by spells of gasping for breath, when, in the course of his nightmare, he feared drowning, panicked, and imagined himself rocketing up through actual ocean depths instead of his deep, drunken stupor. His hands lay folded neatly across his bare chest, protecting his one, long, black hair sprouting from his breastbone like a pigtail. Only his striped red and white boxer shorts and high, black cowboy boots, sheathed with his crumpled blue jeans, offered him a wisp of warmth from the zephyr wafting through the window to his right. On it rode the sweet aroma of freshly cut hay from the fields beyond. His pink nose twitched unconsciously.
At 8:45 a.m. he was still swimming in darkness. Later, he would tell his drinking buddies he thought he’d died and gone to the Pearly Gates. “This is what heaven is like,” he would say. “Darkness. Pure darkness.”
From the depths he rocketed up for a third gasping breath. However, this time, he thought he heard, in the distance, a faint ringing, a ship’s bell alerting other boats of its presence in dense fog. At last he was saved! The pealing grew louder and louder. Was the boat within his grasp? He clawed the air with both hands. Nothing .... Only raucous ringing.
Startled awake, he jerked himself upright and clamped his hands to his ears. “Aaawwwww! God almighty! Turn it off, woman!” he yelled.
Silence .... Had she heard him? He eased his legs over the side of the bed. Using a chair top as crutch, he hoisted himself up, and, stumbling on his dragging pants, waddled to the kitchen.
Through foggy, swollen, red eyes, half shut from his hangover, Hank peered at his wife Barb, a lean woman with short brown hair and brown spectacles, reading a novel and sipping on a mug of coffee at the table. A wisp of steam pirouetted in dizzying circles from the mug and snaked lazily across to him. Briefly he inhaled its chocolate, pungent fumes.
“It’s that woman again!” Hank said.
But Barb did not acknowledge.
Hank shuffled closer to the table. “I said, “It’s that woman again!”
Barb sipped her coffee.
“Oh,” Hank said. “Am I to get both barrels this mornin’, ringin’ in my right ear from that one next door and silence in my left from you?” He moved closer to Barb, opened his mouth again to speak.
Barb raised her hand. “Stand way back, Hank .... Now, what do you want me to do about it? It’s only you nagged by the ringing.”
“I don’t need a human alarm clock shockin’ me awake at 8:45 a.m. every Sunday! A man’s got a right to sleep in on the Lord’s day!”
“Then tell her.”
“‘deed I will!” He shuffled to the front door.
“First better pull your pants up and put a shirt on,” said Barb. “You might shock the neighbours. Remember, too, she’s a lady, a minister, and new in town.”
“Hm!” Hank yanked up his jeans, and clutched them at the waist. “This’ll do for the likes of her.”
Next to his house stood the Rouleau Anglican Church, a small building of white boards, tall steeple, and metal cross on top, a Prairie icon, like the grain elevator. Hank glanced up at the steeple housing a large brass bell with long, dangling rope. He hoped he would find the new vicar still there, tugging on the rope, ringing that bell, creating more noise and havoc in his life beyond that already festering from the village kids playing and yelling in the streets. He would give her a piece of his mind. He would stop her once and for all from ringing that bell on a Sunday morning, when he was trying to sleep.
But she was not in the steeple. Instead, Hank spotted her cutting some lilies from the garden of the vicarage behind and to the left of the church. He yanked up his pants to his breastbone and marched after her.
“Hey, you!” he shouted and waved frantically.
The vicar turned around. “Hello.” “We gotta talk,” said Hank.
She extended her right hand. “I’m Muriel Enright, the new vicar. Nice to meet you.”
“We gotta talk.” “And you are ...?”
“Snow. Hank Snow, your next door neighbour.” He glanced down at the stubby fingers of her extended hand. He squirmed. “Can’t shake. My pants’ll drop. You wouldn’t wanna see ... well, can’t shake.”
The vicar withdrew her hand. “How can I be of help, Mr. Snow?”
Hank pointed to the steeple. “It’s about that bell up there.”
“Of course, it rings, Mr. Snow. I ring it to call my parishioners to morning service.”
“Yes, but it rings every Sunday.”
“That’s right. Service is every Sunday.”
“And it rings at 8:45 a.m. every Sunday,” said Hank.
“Did my predecessor not ring the bell at 8:45 a.m. every Sunday?” the vicar asked.
“Nope,” said Hank. “The last vicar was so old and feeble he could hardly climb even the steps to the church, let alone the ladder to the steeple. That bell wakes me up. It rattles my nerves like someone’s banging symbols with my head in between them.” Hank held his hands up to show her. “Oops!” he said, peering down. His jeans had plunged to his boots.
“Good God, Mr. Snow!”
Hank bent forward, almost knocked the vicar over, and yanked up his jeans. She reached out to touch him, but he whisked her hand away. “Don’t!”
“Are you a sensitive person, Mr. Snow?”
“You mean my hearing? You got that right!”
“Have you tried closing your window to drown out the sound?”
“What! In the heat of summer? Ain’t got no air conditionin’ ‘cept an open window.”
“It’s tradition for churches like this one,” said the vicar, “to ring the bell to announce the call to service. Perhaps when the bell rings, you can get up and close your window just for the time when it’s ringing.”
“It wakes me up! I don’t wanna be woke up, ya hear?”
“Is there a Mrs. Snow? Perhaps she can close the window for you before 8:45 a.m. so the ringing won’t wake you.”
“But it wakes her, too,” Hank insisted. “Rattles her nerves, too.”
“Then I’ll try ringing it more softly,” said the vicar, “But just loudly enough for my parishioners to hear it.”
“Ain’t no matter how soft you ring it. Still wakes me up.”
“Ah, here come some parishioners now in time for the 9:00 a.m. service. I must greet them at the church door. Would you care to join us, Mr. Snow?”
“That’ll be the day!”
“Excuse me, then, Mr. Snow,” said the vicar, and she scurried around the church corner.
Hank shuffled home the back way to avoid the parishioners. Once inside his kitchen, he scowled at Barb.
“Well?” said Barb.
“Well, what?” replied Hank. “What’s she like?”
“Fat. Built like a tank.”
“That’s all?” said Barb.
“A short, fat woman in black men’s pants - and deaf.”
“Won’t listen to reason. She’s deaf, I tell ya. Deaf.”
The following Saturday evening, Hank ambled down to the town bar and, as usual, drank heavily with his buddies. He swapped stories with them till near midnight, then decided he’d better head home. If that new vicar next door was going to shock him awake again at 8:45 a.m. Sunday, he wanted to get an early start on his sleep.
As he closed the bar door behind him, he glanced up at the moon. It glowed full and creamy like thick, gooey, mozzarella pizza topping spread over a dark crust. Its bright light showered him, waltzed with him as he tottered home, his legs on automatic pilot, unerring in carrying him to his front door.
As he passed the front of the church, he glared up at the bell and the long rope dangling from it. Hmm, he thought. I’ll fix her! He stumbled up the stairs of the church to the front door, and wiggled the knob, but finding it locked, wobbled to his garage to fetch a ladder. He struggled with it, swinging it back and forth, back and forth, till he reached the church landing and leaned the ladder against the wall.
As he climbed, the tall, thick heels of his cowboy boots hooked over each rung like clothespins, nailing him momentarily to the spot. He peered down at his predicament. I can climb better without my boots, he thought. So he jiggled them off, and cringed as they bounced down the rungs and thudded to the landing below. “Shhhh!” he whispered.
He continued climbing in his socks. But their soles, shiny and slippery from constant wear, slid forward on each rung and propelled his feet into the space between. Near the top, he completely lost his footing, and dangled in mid-air, with only a tenuous grasp at best on the ladder. Recovering, he paused to compose himself. Beads of sweat trickled down his spine and pooled in the valley at its base. His shirt was damp. He unbuttoned it, exposing his bare chest.
Reaching the steeple, he tumbled into it, almost plunging through the square hole in the floor, through which the rope dropped. The top of a ladder, leading down to the pews, rested against an edge of the hole. What an ol’-fashioned way of summonin’ parishioners! Hank thought. Has the new vicar never heard of a CD player?
He groped in the dark for the rope, then worked his hands up the coarse cord till he found the knot tied to the clapper. He tried drilling his index finger in a groove, but it wouldn’t give. “Darn!” Then, to get a better grip, he raised himself on his toes and leaned all his weight against the knot.
(Days later, he would tell his drinking buddies that, at that moment, he felt his toes buckle beneath him and his slippery socks slide backwards, throwing him off balance. “I grabbed hold o’ the rope just in time,” he would say, “and swung like Tarzan, the ape man, back and forth, back and forth. The rope saved me. Course, it did have to ring the bell each time I swung. Now I know why that new minister’s deaf.”)
As he swung, below him, Hank could just discern a female voice. “Is that you, Barb,” he cried out. “Come to save me?”
“Mr. Snow! Mr. Snow! Hang on! I’m coming right up!”
Hank peered through the crack between his dangling feet at the bulk mounting the ladder. “God help me!” he cried out.
When the vicar reached him, she steadied the rope, while Hank slithered slowly down to the ladder. He felt her chubby hands grasping him tightly around the waist from behind and her shoulder bracing his bum like a caryatid as he descended to the pews. But near the bottom of the ladder, he lost his grip on the rungs and tilted backwards. His fingers clawed the air.
“Steady, Mr. Snow, I have you!” the vicar shouted, and bounced him on her shoulder like a dock worker heaving a sack of potatoes. She moaned and groaned, huffed and puffed, whirling him ‘round the room.
“Put me down, woman! Put me down!” Hank yelled.
Finally she set him, dazed and dizzy, on the floor. “Well, Mr. Snow, what a surprise!” she said. “Thought service was at midnight, did you?”
Hank squirmed, a worm dangling on a hook. “I was testing the strength of the rope,” he said.
“Indeed, you were, Mr. Snow. It might have snapped under your weight. You could have fallen to the floor and hurt yourself had I not heard the ringing.”
“You gonna ring that bell again at 8:45 a.m.?”
“Actually, Mr. Snow, I hoped it’d be you would want to ring the bell. After our conversation last week, I talked with the church board about your complaint that the bell wakes you up every Sunday. A member suggested we pay you, a retired farmer, I gather, a small stipend to ring the bell every Sunday from 8:45 to 9:00 a.m., while I’m welcoming my parishioners at the front door of the church.”
“Me? Ring that bell? At 8:45 a.m.? Every Sunday?”
“Yes. And we’ll be holding a 7:00 p.m. service for parishioners who can’t attend the morning service. We’d need you at 6:45 p.m., too.”
“Think of what good the extra income will do you, Mr. Snow.” She winked at him, tweaked the black hair on his chest, and turned to leave. “Oh, one more thing, Mr. Snow. When you’ve finished ringing the bell, you might as well stay and join us for the service.”
A week later, Hank stumbled home earlier than usual from the bar and into his kitchen. He sidled up to Barb reading a new novel at the table. This time she acknowledged him. “What’s wrong?” she said.
“Something’s bothering you, Hank Snow. I’ve been married to you too long not to know when something’s wrong. Did you get into another fight at the bar?”
“No,” Hank replied.
. “What then?”
“The boys were teasin’ me ‘bout my new part-time job ... Barb, what’s a‘Quasimodo’?”