Holy Smoke

excerpts from a novel by Graham Lewis


other rises at dawn, washing the sleep from her eyes over a metal basin and methodically going about her chores of tossing feed to the chickens from the back porch, collecting eggs from our few hens, starting coffee and breakfast on the potbellied stove.  All at once there's Daddy, bursting like an ogre through their bedroom door.  "You bitch," he hollers.  "You goddamn bitch!"  I’m startled awake by his voice and Mother dragging me from my cot to the floor.  She pulls me by my neck across the room, stands me up, and pushes me into a corner. Then she turns and presses her body backward to protect me.  "Don't you touch this child," she hollers back.  We have nowhere to hide, as our shack has only two rooms — the room we are in and my parents' small bedroom, whose door Daddy has already split from its hinges.  She watches him tear open our small cupboard and smash all the plates and glasses within.  Moving to the furniture, he snaps our one table and strips our three chairs of their legs, all while giggling and grunting.  Mother says nothing else, but presses her back against me so hard I can scarcely breathe.  There’s the stitch-pattern on the back of her frock. I try to blank out the chaos I’m hearing.  One stitch, two stitch, three stitch, four...

When nothing is left to break, Daddy kicks his way through the screen on our back door.  Mother lets me go; we run across the room.  What we see is Daddy, wearing only a pair of gray trousers and black suspenders, his hairy back flexing, huffing his way down the road to town.  He babbles loudly and swats the empty air.  Mother finally speaks.  "Oh Lord," she says.  We follow him, keeping our distance and ducking from the road every time he halts or turns.  There’s my hand in Mother’s.  I ask her what's happening, what is wrong with him, but she only squeezes harder and says,  "Quiet now, Right.  Your mama's thinking."  She thinks and remains silent the entire time, all the way into town.

Nodd, Arkansas, in 1938 still looks like the set of a Hollywood western — dirt streets, nearly every building built of wood, horse troughs and hitching posts still on every block.  Only the presence of a couple primitive automobiles and pickup trucks breaks the illusion.  Daddy utters no signs of recognition to the few passersby, though most are members of his flock.  They stare at him as he lumbers past, shirtless, shoeless, unwashed.  The few who attempt approach are met with silence or a noncommittal grunt.  It isn't more than a few minutes before shopkeepers and old ladies are gawking as if the Ringling Brothers have invaded.  They whisper and avert their eyes and follow him along Main Street.  Daddy stops and enters a building.  It's Haney's Honey Hole, Nodd’s only saloon.  Though liquor is still considered the bane of mankind by most Noddites, our county didn't go dry after the repeal five years before — one of the few in Northwest Arkansas.  There is a large, filthy picture window at the front of the building; the crowd of twenty-five or so doesn't even have to jostle for a good look.

Inside Haney's, Daddy pays with donation money for two jugs of whiskey.  I barely recognize him and feel a chill rise between my shoulder blades when I study his dead dark eyes.  His face twists itself into a mask of self-loathing, his brows furrowed and cheeks hollow.  I hear old Jasper Link say, "I knew he wadn't much of a preacher."  To this my mother replies (with some juicy gossip), "Get home to your Emma, Jasper.  Might be somebody telling her all about May Hart this very minute."  Several folks chuckle and start whispering again.  Jasper huffs in embarrassment, stutters a curse of some vintage and hurries away.

And there’s Duncan Haney, the fat, pitted sponge of a proprietor.  He’s serving up the liquor and laughing.  For yearsbefore, during, and after Prohibitionmy daddy and mother battled with Lloyd Haney, the Sheriff of Nodd and Duncan's brother, over the saloon.  Mother, of course, wanted to rid the town of evil drink, a thing all righteous Christians want though Christ himself drank and even worked miracles to provide wine to the masses.  Daddy, I think, went along with her because he was supposed to do things like that, though most would recount that his heart never seemed true to the job.

But today he’s Duncan Haney's first and only customer.  Daddy pours a four-finger glass of whiskey, looks to the window, lifts his glass and toasts the crowd.  He drains the glass as if it’s full of water and Mother sinks to the sidewalk, pulls me to her and cries with frightening abandon, her hysterics unnerving me more than Daddy's display.  "Giv’em some air," someone is saying.  "Let’em breathe."  Mother holds me between her knees with my back to her face.  I feel her body jerking behind me as if it's fighting off all the sadness in the world.  Again, someone bends to offer service but Mother just thanks him through her tears and waves him away.

By ten o'clock the crowd begins to thin, some bored, some back to their chores or jobs.  No one has yet gone into Haney's to talk to Daddy and the fight everyone thinks imminent has yet to materialize.  Mother tells me months later she saw money pass hands every fifteen minutes between Mayor Tommy Rue and a beaming, cocky Sheriff Lloyd Haney himself.  "They's betting," she said, "on how long it'd take your daddy to kill Duncan Haney."  But much to everyone's chagrin, Duncan and Daddy seem to be hitting it off, passing the day as if old friends.  Haney plants his girth on a stool next to Daddy and is having a high old time, his flabby arms gesturing wildly, spittle flying from his lips.  Daddy nods and laughs and pours more whiskey.  By early afternoon, even the Mayor and Sheriff Lloyd yawn and move on about their business.  Mother has composed herself enough to have passed through sadness and entered into viperous anger.

She rises stiff from the wooden sidewalk and brushes her frock with her hands.  "Don't you move," she says to me.  She pushes her way through the couple of onlookers still left and marches inside Haney's.  Duncan Haney, his bulk roused from Daddy's table, blocks her entrance.  I, of course, creep to the door so I can hear.  Duncan Haney is blinking his soggy red eyes and holding up his hands.  To me he looks like a gigantic baby in search of a cow-sized teat.

"Now Mary, you know we don't allow no women in here."

Mother places her hands on her hips and rises on her toes to get closer to his face.  "I don't care much what you do and don't allow, Duncan Haney.  That there's my husband and if you don't move some, I guess I'll have to move you myself."  She taps her right foot a few times as she does when impatient with me.  Haney shrugs his side of beef shoulders and steps aside.  Daddy doesn't blink.  He sits there and stares at the short jugs of liquor on the table.  Mother snaps up one of those jugs and hurls it to the floor.  It explodes and splashes spots of whiskey up onto her frock.  Daddy looks up at her, blinks a few times, and smiles like he's just recognized a long-lost friend.  Duncan Haney waddles off behind the bar.

"I don't know what's wrong with you, Harley” Mother says.  “And right now I don't care.  All I want is for you to come home with me and Right, cause we going home and we ain't coming back.  If you ain't home by tomorrow, we'll be heading down to Heber Springs.  My Cousin Leona'll be glad to have us.  It's up to you.  We'll be waiting."

Head up high, she walks back to the door.  Without even looking down she snags my shirt and pulls me hard all the way back home, my questions and complain'ts ignored yet again.    

It's night and we're all in our nightshirts.  I'm climbing onto their lumpy tick mattress to listen to Daddy's storiesBible stories about sinners who became glorious men of God or holy warriors who died slaughtering heathens in the loving name of Jesus.  I’m stretching out between them, my body siphoning warmth from theirs, my head nearly buried beneath pillows.  I’m imagining myself the hero of each and every tale and I'm falling asleep to his voice, not because of boredom but because of the soothing music in his cadences.

Then it’s October, 1939.  We've been collecting orange and yellow leaves from a nearby stand of maples and are sitting on our tiny, sagging porch to watch the sunset and talk.  By the time the full moon shines bright enough to cast shadows, our conversation turns to family historywild tentmeetings my parents and grandparents presided over in the past.  Daddy squats as he talks, his massive shoulders hunched, moonlight behind him raising a glow from his body.  Mother is sitting on the porch floor with me, our legs crossed injun-style.

"...yessir, I was some kind of preacher in them days," he is saying.  "ain't that right, Mary?"  Mother reaches out to squeeze his hand.

"That's right, Right.  Your Daddy could preach a meeting that would make your hair stand on end, your eyes fill with tears, and your heart sing like a birdall at once.  You should’ve seen your Daddy, specially the first time my Daddy let him run the show.  It was one of our biggest meetings ever, down on the east bank of Franklin River.  Over three hundred people was there and your Daddy baptized half of them hisself, spent about three hours in that water."

"Was the water cold?”

"Not much," Mother answers.  "It was a beautiful day.  Not too cold, not too windy, just right.  You know them kind of dayseverything on earth seems good, righteous, filled with life.  The river even sparkled like a green silk ribbon."

"My hindend did catch a chill, though," Daddy says and winks.  We’re all laughing.

"Now, Harley," Mother says.  "Let me tell this."  Daddy straightens out his legs and sits on the floor with us. 

"Anyway.  Everbody in that crowd was struck.  I recall one woman in particlar.  She was a skinny old thing with about a half-dozen young'uns, some hanging off her neck and some on her arms and knees.  Your Daddy thundered out scripture and her eyes started flickering, her mouth started smiling, and her whole body, with all them kids hanging on her, straightened up and was strong.  She looked like she could’ve lifted a thousand pounds of kids.  It was just that kind of day for preaching."

Daddy is rocking back and resting on his elbows.  "Sometimes, Right," he says, "you look at a crowd of folks and see nothing but heads.  But other times you see just one thingthe spirit of Jesus.  Their bodies don't matter no more.  What you see then is Jesus Christ, the spirit of Jesus Christ in man.  And they see it in a preacher too, don't you doubt it."

Mother adds, "It was your grandaddy they come to see, but your Daddy sure stole the show.  He got hisself up and started in like he was the only preacher left on earth.  He shook and rolled on the ground, pounded his fists aginst his head..."  She leans over and whispers in my ear.  "Looked like the picture of Moses to me.  Like a young strapping Moses.  Only no beard." 

Daddy hears her.  "You didn't know you had ole Moses for a Daddy, did you boy?"

"No sir."

"I ain't kidding now, " says Mother.  "He did conjure visions of Moses that day.  Or at least John Baptist.  The crowd heaved and tossed, women was crying, and men was on their knees in shame for their sins.  Even my Daddy and Mama was fit to be tied."  She pauses, thinking to herself.  "That's when I knew I'd have your Daddy for a husband, Right.  He was the most beautiful and righteous man on earth that day."  She wipes at her eyes, her expression suddenly comic.  "...But the corker came at the end." 

"Just when the folks was wore out and ready to bust from rapture, your Daddy got aholt of a hammer and some eightpenny nails left from building the platform."  Mother is standing and raising both arms above her head.  "He held them up so the folks could get a good look, closed his eyes and whispered a prayer, then opened his eyes and slowly, yelling REDEMPTION! with each stroke of the hammer, nailed his own left hand right to that wooden stand."  She mimics hammering her left hand to the side of the house.  "Right to it!" she screeches.  "The blood ran off the stand and people was pushing to get a closer look — for a minute I thought the whole riverbank'd just explode.  Then your Daddy stopped hammering, gazed out at them people and smiled the most angelic, most calm smile anybody'd ever seen on a man's face. 

"Then a silence.  A silence like you hear in the woods at night after something big’s been kilt.  It lasted a few long breaths, and then a man, a tall bearded man, started shaking and screaming the tongue.  Then other folks started in.  And more.  Pretty soon everbody was shaking and jigging and screamingI mean screaming, like every little piece of evil in them was being tore out by the root."  Mother's chest swole at the memory.  "They let loose like that till they had nothing left.  Dozens just dropped where they stood.  I know, I done it too.  The riverbank looked like a battlefield when your Daddy finally passed outmen and women and babies stretched out everywhere, twitching like fish.  And your Daddy out cold with one hand still nailed to that stand."  She dabs at the sweat running down her temples.  "My, my, Right.  There won't never be another preacher like your Daddy.  Never." 

Then Daddy sits up straight, holds up his open left hand (which still bore a small dot of a scar in its palm) and says, "Unless, acourse, we make Right a preacher."

I am falling asleep to the low murmurings of Daddy and Mother deciding the new course of my life and theirs.  Mother laughed at the idea of my becoming a child preacher, but Daddy said she should hear him out.  There I am being tucked into bed without a round of stories as they talk well into the night.

The next morning Daddy picks me up and sets me on his knees.  He stares into my eyes as if he's looking for something.

"I see the mark in you, boy.  The mark of Baby Jesus Crucified."

Mother cleans the table and says nothing.  Daddy sticks out his right thumb and presses it to my forehead, hard, like he's branding his thumbprint on my skin.  He squeezes my head between his mighty hands and digs in until I cry.  For the first time since his drunken spell, I'm afraid of him.  Yet as soon as I began to whimper, he puts me down and kisses the spot on my forehead.

"Preachers give marks too, Right.  I just give you mine."

Daddy decided I would learn the basics of preaching in the same way he hadby doing it in front of living, breathing sinners.  In preparation he ordered me to memorize verses from the Bible through sheer word-by-word repetition.  The first passage I could recite all the way through was Revelations 19:11"And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it He should smite the nations: and He shall rule them with a rod of iron: and He treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of almighty God."  Catchy, isn't it?  Daddy had me yell it as loud as I could, while Mother stood by sighing and rolling her eyes.  Daddy taught me to point my right hand at the folks with an "accusing finger" on key words like mouth, sword, and smite, my left hand above my head, small fist clenched.

By early 1940, I was preaching regularly to the townsfolk of Nodd.  Every Sunday morning we'd haul buckets of cold water from the well, heat it over a fire in grandaddy’s old baptizing cauldron, scrub ourselves immaculate, and dressed in our least threadbare clothes, we'd march into the town square like we owned it, placing a wooden apple crate right in front of the statue of Luther Canfield.

Canfield was the most famous man Nodd ever produced at that time.  Canfield had been a Major General in Longstreet’s First Corps and was one of the few men of Nodd who reached rank or were slain in battle.  The story goes that he assumed command of Hood’s Alabama Brigade when Hood was wounded at Little Round Top, but was dropped himself as he bravely led a charge.  Modern historians, on the other hand, say he was drunk and alone rode his horse directly into opposing fire while waving his bottle of hooch and yelling obscenities concerning the mother of Abraham Lincoln.  Whatever the truth, Luther Canfield is a deity in Nodd.  His birthday, the fourteenth of June, is celebrated in nearly the same way as Christmas: presents are exchanged, feuds are halted, and mass goodwill prevails.  I recall Daddy pointing to Canfield's ugly, twisted stone face and saying, "Right, one day I'll make you as famous as ole Luther himself."

There I am, up on that crate and yelling, "STOP all ye SINNERS and LISTEN!!"  Right from the start no one dares walk past.  Daddy is correct about that.  "Anybody who don't stop looks like they trying to hide some kind of deviltry," he assures Mother and me.  "And if it's one thing honest folk fear, it's suspicion that they hiding deviltry.  You mark me now."  We marked him and he is spot-on.  They stop dead, turn, and surrender their undivided attention.  I'm not seeing any "spirit of Christ in man."  All I see, all I will really ever see, are heads.  But I love those heads.  I take to those heads like a fly to pigshit.  Those heads are power.  Those heads are glory.  Those heads are cash money.

The Hollands had covered the well with a wooden lid, but years of weather rotted it soft.  From my ditch I imagine a hideous yellow demon slowly lifting the wood and peering out.  He smiles a mouthful of needles.  I launch from a squat, whoop a warwhoop, and crash upon the wood.  It gives and I'm falling through.  Sometimes, in dreams, I still fall like thatslow and calm, falling into and becoming darkness. 

Coming back to the world sometime later, I open my eyes to a void that seems alive in its weight and depth, as if resting on my skin.  My entire backside is wet, and I am sitting in some kind of stinking goo.  I try raising my hands to my face, but a sharp pain in my left arm cries no.  I scream and kick, my screams thin and hollow.  After a while, I realize a fit isn't going to save me, so I hush myself until the fear passes.  I realize I can see, as the hole I made crashing through the lid is allowing fain't light to filter down.  What it reveals makes me feel stupid and lucky.   I reckon I fell thirty feet or so, missing entire the scattering of debris mining the pit: old wood housing exposed nails, twisted pieces of metal, animal bones.  The several inches of mud I sank into saved my life.  And the more I see, the less afraid I am.  I know Daddy and Mother will come there for a look.  My only real problem is passing time until rescue.  So I decide, for the first time since Daddy started me preaching, for the first time in my life really, to talk directly to Jesus, to beg a sign of Him, to see if He will, if He can answer.  I want so much to believe I'm special, very special, a chosen one among all God's children.  That I will be the one who will lead the Great Crusade Against Satan.  That Jesus sits at the right hand of God and I will one day sit at the right hand of Jesus.  Mother tells me a lot like that, sometimes scaring me so bad I can't sleep for the nightmares.  But I want it all to be true, for then surely Jesus will answer me.

I’m telling Him I don't blame Him for letting me fall in the well.  I thank Him for letting me survive the fall.  I say, "Baby Jesus Crucified, I will be Your slave, Your servant against Satan.  Tell me You want that.  Tell me You want me."  I tell Baby Jesus Crucified everything I think to tell Him; I ask every question I think to ask Him.  I promise Him my soul, my parents' souls, the souls of my future wife and children, and the souls of all King generations thereafter.  I talk and talk until I'm tired of talking.  Baby Jesus Crucified says nothing.  I keep talking, but more nothing.  It’s making me angry and I finally tire of the game.   I actually curse Him.  I blaspheme.  "You're nothing," I yell.  "You can't even talk!"  And He still doesn't.  And no lightning from the sky flashes to burn me.  No yellow demon in the darkness lurks to take me the rest of the way to Hell.  I smile.  I know in that moment, somehow, that I'm wasting breath.  Just as there is no child-eating beast in the darkness, so is there no child-loving watcher beyond the heavens.  I have no words to say all that, but I do know the shape of the idea makes me feel good, fills me with a frightening power.  I feel at that moment, dare I say, godlike.  I laugh aloud, listening to my voice echo up the shaft louder than any voice of Jesus.

The small pool of light bathing me vanishes.

"You down there Righteous King?"  It's Cooter Holland, Grotey's oldest son.


We got a rope.  Hold on."

I hear more voices.  One is Mother crying and howling.  Another is Daddy calming her.  The light disappears again.  Daddy says, "Boy, you all right?"

"Yes, Daddy.  I hurt my arm, but I'm okay."

"We sending Cooter down to get you.  Sit tight."

There’s Cooter Holland coming down through the hole.  He's completely trussed with rope and, like a big spider trying to steady itself against the mudshaft walls, he occasionally swings wild, windmilling his arms and kicking his legs.  He lands next to me with a squish.  "Right," he says, twisting his neck and body to check behind himself.  "Lock your arms around my neck and hold on."  I tell him my arm hurts too bad to use.  He sighs and glances up at the circle of light.  He bends, wraps his arms around my waist and yells "Pull!"  Up we go, dragging and flapping against the pockmarked and eroded walls.

Over the well's lip, there’s Daddy and Grotey Holland and two of Holland’s men, still gripping the rope in their hands. They’re watching Mother thrash on the ground and praise Jesus.  It's a sight.  In a blink she goes slack and doesn't move.  Daddy unwinds me from Cooter's grip and the rope and carries me to her.  He nudges her shoulder with his boot.  "Look, Mary.  They up."  She pops from the ground, grabs me away from Daddy and smothers me in her breast.  "Thank Jeeezus!" she is crying.  "Thank Jeeezus!"  Poor Cooter collapses to the ground in silence, relief smearing itself across his face like apple butter.

Daddy and Grotey Holland pry me loose again, this time from Mother.  Ole Grotey, for all the bad things said about him in the county, seems nice enough.  He's tall as Daddy, but considerably wider.  His neck bears the weight of the largest skull on a natural man I’ve ever seen. Still, he's graceful in his bulk.  He doesn't lumber like Duncan Haney when he walks; he sort of floats, a fat man who knows how to dance.  On that day he is wearing the cleanest pair of work overalls I've ever seen cover a man's body.  There isn't so much as a food stain.  All the men I've known in my life are usually, for the most part, filthy.  Grotey shines like he just rose drip-dry from a wash tub.  He wipes some mud from my shoulder and looks me over.  "Anything but your arm hurt?"  His jaw works a large plug of chew.  Mother snatches me back and glares at him.  Grotey smiles at her and tells Daddy he'll be glad to pay for any doctor bills and he'll see his boys seal up the well for good.  "That's fine, Grotey," Daddy says as he bends my arm gently and tells me to wiggle my fingers.  "Don't look like anything's broke."  Mother pulls me tight to her breast again and pokes a finger at Holland.

"You going to stay away from me and mine, mister.  You know why my baby fell in your well?  Cause you a heathen.  You a fetch dog.  Satan wants my boy and it's a fetch dog like you'll serve him up."  Daddy's look tells me he's just about aggravated.  He steps forward and lays a hand on her shoulder.

"Now, Mary.  That ain't no way to talk.  If you expect Grotey here to ever gain faith, why, we got to act Christian."  Mother sniffles, squeezing me and rocking.

Ole Grotey releases a thick stream of tobacco juice and repeats he'll pay for any doctor bills.  "Were you scared, boy?" he asks me.  "What did you do down there all afternoon?"

"Talked to Baby Jesus Crucified."

"Amen," Mother spits through her blubbering.

"Baby Jesus, eh?" Grotey giggles.  "And what did Baby Jesus have to say?" 

I look him straight in the eye and say, "Baby Jesus Crucified told me he'd curse the man who owned that well."  Grotey pshaws and sucks his plug.  Mother cackles and sets me on my feet, her brown eyes glowing with fervor.

"That's it for you, Grotey Holland," she gloats, her voice reverting to a whisper.  "The Lord God Amighty is coming for you.  My boy's a prophet and he done talked to Jeeezus!"

She’s skinny as a wraith, eyes shining.  "Now don't you worry, son," she says as she wipes her eyes with the back of her hand.  "I'm crying tears of joy.  I never thought things would go this way, get this good.  Not long ago I thought maybe we'd seen the last of happy times.  I was so afraid, Right.  I kept hearing a voice that said...it said...well, I don't know."  She turns away.  I’m hugging her, which brings back her smile.  "But I know now we're going to make it.  I can feel it, Right. Here."  She presses her palm against her breast.  "I know it.  You're a miracle, son.  A living, breathing miracle.  Don't ever forget that."  She brushes a lock of hair from my forehead and touches my shoulders.  She looks desperate.  "Don't ever forget that, Right.  You'll never go hungry as long as you remember your blessing, your annointing.  Never forget that Jesus talked to you and saved you from the pit.  Say you won't forget, son.  Say it now."  I’m kissing her warm cheek.  "I won't forget, Mother.  Jesus saved me.  I won't forget, not as long as I live."

 It’s November 12th, 1940.  A cold and beautiful day in Arkansas.  Reverend Brown's tent, all braced and pegged and fully erect, is an inspiration, a green canvas Camelot.  I walk around the tent many times that morning.  It's still possible to make out the pain't shadow of "Palmer and Billhardt Side Show" that Rev. Brown had attempted to erase from its front.  Daddy and Mother find the tent glorious as well, figuring we can stuff nearly two-hundred people inside.  I follow Mother as she paces the rows of wooden fold-up chairs.  She is mumbling to herself about miracles and faith and money and damnation.  A large white banner strung across the far inside wall pronounces, "There Shall Be Weeping And Wailing And Gnashing Of Teeth."  I like the sound of that.

Folks begin arriving around four that afternoon, pulling into the meeting field in their wagons and beat-to-hell trucks, two or three whole families stuffed into each.  As I've said, a cold day, but as the tent fills the air grows warm.  All the men are talking, stomping their boots on the ground and rubbing their hands together.  The women are pulling tight their coats and wraps around bony shoulders and saying nothing. 

At five-thirty, with the tent full and people murmuring for action, Daddy and I take our seats.  We’re sitting at the front, a bit left of the stage and facing the crowd.  There’s Mother entering the tent from behind them in a deliberate march up the middle aisle.  She grips Grandaddy’s large black Bible like she’s afraid it’ll sprout wings and fly away.  Folks are whispering behind their hands, some pointing as she passes.  On reaching the stage she steps up, approaches the podium, turns to the crowd, and slams down Grandaddy’s Bible with a CRACK!  All muttering and whispering cease.  Folks lean forward in their seats, craning their necks for a better view.  Mother wears a white linen dress that covers her body from neck to ankles.  She dives right into her testimony, shaking her head, face ablaze, her black hair snapping like a whip.

"Jesus is HERE today, bothers and sisters," she shrieks.  "Jesus the man and Jesus The Lord!"  Jesus, Jesus, repeat some in the crowd.  "Yes, Jesus THE MAN and Jesus THE LORD.  And you know he ain't like ANY other man, brothers and sisters.  NO.  Jesus is MAN made DEE-VINE, made HOLY.  In JESUS there is no temptation, no BETRAYAL, no heartache or loneliness.  In JESUS there is only PERFECT, PERFECT LOVE."

Most of the men there must find Mother a temptation.  She's gorgeous in her rapture: whirling, sweating, kicking up her legs and gyrating her slender hips.  But the words she spews!  Fornication is her lesson, the evil and sickness of fornication.  She bellows and huffs and dances.  "And the DEVIL, friends.  THE DEVIL SATAN is here too.  He's here and he hides.  He’s here and he hides in the house of JESUS.  He's here and he hides in a set of britches.  He’s here and he hides in EVERY set of britches IN THE HOUSE OF JESUS!"  The women raise their arms and shout, "Hallelujah!"  The men hunch their shoulders and stare to the ground.

After a good thirty minutes Mother is drenched in sweat and dropping with a groan to the stage floor.  She punches her clenched fist above her head and grunts her final epithet to the aroused women:  "SANCTITY OR FIRE!  SANCTITY OR FIRE!  SANCTITY OR FIRE!"  The women are so worked up they're standing on their chairs, squealing and jabbing their fists at Heaven.  One woman trips her sickeningly fat husband, pulls off his boot, and wallops him repeatedly with it.  He does nothing but wrap his dimpled arms around his head. Guilty as charged, I guess.

Mother finally motions for the women to fall back, to calm themselves and take their seats.  She staggers toward us.  Daddy offers his hand and guides her to a chair next to me.  She is panting and smiling, wiping the sweat from her face with a white handkerchief Daddy produces from his trouser pocket.  He steps away from us and is gripping the podium.  Singing loud and clear, he leads the crowd in a rousing rendition of "Jesus Saved Me From Myself."  Mother reaches beneath her chair for two wooden tambourines and we’re pounding them to beat the devil.  There’s everybody waving their arms in the air and singing the chorus over and over:        

Then Jesus saved me from myself
When at His Blessed Feet in shame I knelt
Now I'm a Christian and can walk in His Light
And never fear Satan on a dark night.

Daddy, splendid and fierce in his new shiny black preaching suit, lets them sing until he readies his box of liquor bottles.  That done, he testifies in detail of his many battles with the demon whiskey.  And just when the Amens start coming slower and some of the folks up front seem about to nod off, he bellows and dances:  "YES MY FRIENDS!  I'M DRUNK RIGHT NOW!  DRUNK AS A MAN CAN BE.  YOU ALL KNOW I BEEN DRUNK ON WHISKEY BEFORE.  WELL NOW I'M DRUNK ON JEE-SUS!!  BROTHERS AND SISTERS!! DRUNK ON THE WINE OF SALVATION!!  DRUNK ON THE MOONSHINE OF HIS RIGHTEOUS LOVE!!  DRUNK ON GOD!!  DRUNK ON JEE-SUS!!  DRUNK ON GOD!!  DRUNK ON JEE-SUS!!"  He repeats those last two until the crowd joins in: DRUNK ON GOD!!  DRUNK ON JEE-SUS!!  He is running to the box of bottles, snatching up as many as he can hold and punctuating the rhythm of the chant by snapping one bottle after another to the floor.  Daddy breaks at least two dozen bottles that way, offering the empty box to the folks who rush forward to dance and shake among the flying shards.

Several minutes into Daddy's dance, a couple up front pass out, the pair of them falling into and flailing on the glass.  Daddy leaps at them, conjuring with his arms and jigging about their bodies.  They stop moving and Daddy drops his voice, calming, bringing the crowd back from the edge of uncontrollable rapture.

"We all love Jesus."

We all love Jesus.

"And Jesus loves us." 

And Jesus loves us. 

As the chant's volume increases, he gestures for them to sit.  He kneels next to the couple on the floor and helps them rise.  They turn to the crowd and reveal no cuts at all on their faces and hands.  The folks fall silent as Daddy escorts the couple to their seats.  Then he’s bounding back to the stage and calling for the cauldron.  It's time.

I stand and feel the weight of many eyes.  I see, especially in the eyes of the few children present, a kind of hesitant fearthe fear one sees in a person holding an animal that is known to be harmless but still has teeth and claws.  Centering the cauldron onstage and seeing the glass shards swept away, Daddy steps forward and lifts his hands.

"Friends, neighbors, brothers and sisters.  We have a special treat for y'all tonight.  Something priceless.  A child, one of Lord Jesus' own sweet lambs.  But this child is different, brothers and sisters."  Then the Amens begin again.  "This child is a prophet."  Amen.  "This child has been chosen by Lord Jesus Hisself to spread The Word, The Gospel, The Good News."  Praise Be.  "Before your eyes I'm agoin to baptize this lamb, this chosen one, this PROPHET in the sight of GOD!"  Amen.  "And what you will see, what you will see then, friends..."  Oh Yes.  "...is a holy warrior, a baby boy with blessed fists of righteousness.  And those tiny fists are clean, tough as steel..."  Holy God.  "...and aching to give the DEVIL SATAN a deadly BLACK EYE!!"  Daddy takes a long bow and motions for me to come forward.  The folks murmur as I touch Daddy's hand.  Most have heard me preach prepared texts on the radio program or on the town square, and I’m wondering if they really believe I'm a prophet.  Mostly, I’m wondering how they'd react if they knew I wasn't.  Yet they believe.  Oh, how they believe.

Daddy gives another long bow and looks down at me.  He winks, crouches at my side, nabs me by the belt and front of my shirt and is lifting me above his head.  The folks sit open-mouthed, hands gripping their kneecaps.  Daddy bellows, "I BAPTIZE THEE IN THE NAME OF BABY JESUS CRUCIFIED."  He lowers me headfirst into the cauldron.  I flounder, but his huge hands drive me under.  His muffled voice praises Christ and curses Satan.  Just when I'm about to pass out, he yanks me from the tub and is hoisting me above his head once more.  "Brothers and sisters, BEHOLD.  A NEW PROPHET.  THE CHILD MIRACLE. THE REVEREND RIGHTEOUS ROLAND KING!!"  An eruption of deafening applause and whistles follows as Daddy sets me on my feet and leaves me dripping and alone onstage.

There I am, wiping the soaking hair from my eyes, shaking the loose water from my body and taking my first look at a real congregation.  If I'm nervous, I'm too fired up to notice, a voice in my mind insisting that this was what I had been born to do.  It isn't the voice of God.  It's the voice a gambler hears when he shows four aces, the voice a “widow-skinner” hears when a woman proclaims her love.  I’m raising my left hand over my head, pointing at those sinners with my right, and preaching at them like I’ve been at it for twenty years:

"Brothers and sisters, like my Mama and Daddy said, there's a DEVIL here among us.  You might think he's many devilslust, drink, thieverybut those devils are really ONE devil.  THE DEVIL SATAN!! And the DEVIL SATAN wants you, friends."  Amen.  "YES.  He wants YOU to boil with HIM in the BURNING LAKE OF FIRE!"  Praise Be.  "As the Good Book says, 'The fearful and unbelieving, and the abominable and the whoremongers, and the sorcerers and idolaters, and ALL LIARS, shall have THEIR PART in the lake which BURNETH with FIRE and BRIMSTONE!!'"  Oh yes, Amen.  "And YOU..."  I’m pointing at several people right up front.  "...I know about YOU..."  They’re bowing their heads.  Yes Yes Lord.  "...Though I'm only a child, an innocent lamb, I know YOUR SIN!!"

SIN, they roar.

"SIN, brothers and sisters, is everywhere and in EVERY THING.  Sin HIDES in the fields where you men WORK.  Sin HIDES in the kitchens where you women COOK.  Sin hides in your BEDS, your WAGONS, your BARNS, even in the pockets of your CLOTHES."  Amen.  "Sin is in the WATER you DRINK and the FOOD you EAT.  The heathen eats food, does he not?"

He eats, they say back.

"The whoremaster drinks of the rivers and lakes, does he not?"

He drinks.

"That's RIGHT, friends.  He eats and drinks and grows strong.  He GROWS STRONG and so does SATAN.  SATAN grows strong and JESUS DESPAIRS."  Jesus Jesus.  "Why does JESUS DESPAIR?  Because SIN hides most of all in YOU!"  Lord Lord.  "Jesus preached more about HELL than did Moses, David, Isaiah, or John.  To JESUS, HELL is a FACT.  A horrible FACT.  Believe THAT.  If you say 'I do not believe in Hell,' then my brother and sister, I pity you.  I pity you because there will be NOTHING for YOU in the next life."  Nothing Nothing.  "Nothing but WEEPING, WAILING, and the GNASHING of TEETH!  You will cry aloud in AGONY, but it will be TOO LATE!  Do you hear me?  TOO LATE!!  SAVE YOURSELVES NOW, brothers and sisters.  SAAAVE yourself and your loved ones NOW.  As the Book says, 'He who KEEPETH HIMSELF, the Wicked One DOTH NOT TOUCH."

I go on like that for nearly an hour.  To tell the truth, I don't know where it's all coming from.  In my zeal I completely scrap the prepared text Mother had me memorize.  I'm stringing together everything I can think of — no matter how nonsensicaland, somehow, it's working.

I point at people who catch my eye and kick up my feet.  I cry and dive to the floor.  Every time I check the crowd, I see them spellbound, stuck to their chairs as if chained in.  Daddy is beaming from his perch behind me, and Mother, all thoughts of directing me forgotten, slides from her chair.  She rolls on her back, waving her arms and thrusting her hips in a most unladylike fashion.  On my knees, I clasp my hands together and stare imploringly at the crowd.  I’m whining like a beat dog, tears welling in my eyes.

"Please, friends.  Please help me spread The Word.  When you stand before the bucket, give all you cangive MORE than you can.  Give till it hurts like a bad tooth, till your pockets are empty."  I’m pointing at the middle aisle.  "Form a line, come up and give.  Those who spare more than a dollar will receive a special blessing.  Form a line, come up and give."

I know that every woman I meet loves to pinch my rosy cheeks and ruffle my blond curls, so I pander to them.  "A kiss from the Child Miracle is a step toward Heaven!"  They’re forming a line and filling the bucket.  Daddy helps Mother off the floor and they stumble forward to work the line.  Some of the ladies I kiss and touch fall to their knees to writhe and spit the tongue.  "Alashamba," one hoots in her fit.  "Babalanda cosicosota!  Comoko danda tulanda!"  There’s Daddy grinning, dripping sweat and letting go a PRAISE JEE-SUS!! at every fool who empties his or her purse.  Mother hugs and kisses me violently and I, at that moment, do believe I'm doing something good for us all.


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