As the pearly-white '58 Cadillac limousine, sparkling from its showroom wax job, its sharp rear fins jutting up like the tail of a Martian spacecraft, pulled up to the entranceway of the Tutwiler Hotel in downtown Birmingham, an elderly black doorman in a dark red uniform and cap was already coming down the marbled steps, eager to find out just who was riding in the rear seat of that spiffy automobile. Having worked for over twenty years at the Tutwiler – the finest hotel in Alabama – he was accustomed to celebrities, but he knew from a quick appraisal of that Caddy that behind those tinted rear windows was American sugar. He noticed the shining chrome hood ornament in the shape of clasped, praying hands. He reached the sidewalk and thrust out his frail hand to let the passenger out.
But the door fairly burst open before he could get a grip on it, and from the Caddy uncoiled a giant of a man in a bright yellow suit, spotless white shirt, and white silk tie; the man rose to a height well over six feet, his chest expanding like a yellow wall.
"Fine afternoon, isn't it?" the man boomed. At the crest of his high forehead was a curly mass of gray-flecked blond hair; he had the kind of handsome, square face that made him look like a human nutcracker, ready to burst walnuts between perfect white teeth.
"Yessir, sure is," the doorman said, nodding his gray-wooled head, aware that pedestrians on the Twentieth Street sidewalk were turning to gawk, caught by the sound of power in the man's voice.
Realizing he was the center of attention, the man beamed like sunlight on a July Sunday; he said, "Just take it around the corner and park it," addressing the Caddy's driver, a young man in a seersucker suit, and the long sleek car pulled away from the curb like a stretching lion.
"Yessir, nice afternoon," the doorman said, his eyes still jangling from that glowing suit.
The man grinned and thrust a hand into his inside coat pocket; the doorman grinned too – American sugar! – and reached out with the obligatory "Thankee, sir!" already on his lips. Paper was put into his palm, and then the giant man had taken two long steps and was moving up the marbled stairs like a golden locomotive. The doorman stepped back a pace, as if scorched by energy. When he looked at what he held gripped in his hand, he saw a small pamphlet titled Sin Destroyed the Roman Empire; across the title page was a signature in red ink: J.J. Falconer.
In the dimly lit, luxurious leather-and-wood interior of the Tutwiler, Jimmy Jed Falconer was met by a young gray-suited lawyer named Henry Bragg. They stood at the center of the large lobby, shaking hands and talking about general things – the state of the weather, farm economics, and what the Crimson Tide was likely to do next season.
"Everything ready up there, Henry?" Falconer asked.
"Yes sir. We're expecting Forrest any minute now."
"Lemonade?" Falconer lifted his thick blond brows.
"Yes sir, Mr. Falconer," Henry said. "I've already ordered it."
They entered the elevator and the coffee-colored woman sitting on a stool inside smiled politely and turned a brass lever to take them to the fifth floor.
"Didn't bring the wife and son with you this time?" Henry asked, pushing his black horn-rimmed glasses back onto his nose. He had graduated from the University of Alabama Law School only last year, and still wore the brutal white-walled haircut of his Delta Kappa Epsilon days; but he was a smart young man with alert blue eyes that rarely missed a trick, and he was pleased that J.J. Falconer remembered him from the work his firm had done last spring.
"Nope. Camille and Wayne stayed home, mindin' the store. I'll tell you, keepin' up with that Wayne is a full-time job in itself." He laughed, a bark of muted trumpets. "Boy can run a bloodhound ragged."
The fifth-floor suite, with windows overlooking Twentieth Street, was decked out like an office, containing a few desks, telephones, and filing cabinets. There was a reception area set apart from the workspace, containing comfortable easy chairs, a coffee table, and a long beige sofa framed by brass lamps. An easel had been set up facing the sofa, and on the wall hung a large framed Confederate flag.
A stocky man with thinning brown hair, wearing a pale blue short-sleeved shirt with G.H. monogrammed on the breast pocket, looked up from the paperwork strewn across one of the desks, smiled, and rose to his feet as the other two men entered.
Falconer gripped his hand and shook it. "Good to see you, George. How's the family?"
"Doing just fine. Camille and Wayne?"
"One's prettier than ever, the other's growin' like a wild weed. Now I see who the hard worker is in this organization." He slapped George Hodges on the back and slid a sidelong glance at Henry, whose smile slipped a fraction. "What do you have for me?"
Hodges offered him a couple of manila folders. "Tentative budget. Contribution records as of March thirty-first. Also a list of contributors through the last three years. Cash flow's thirty percent ahead of where we were this time last April."
Falconer shrugged out of his coat and sat down heavily on the sofa, then began reading the organizational reports. "I see we had a sizable donation from Peterson Construction by last April, and the April before that too; but they're not on the sheet this year. What happened?" He looked up squarely at his business manager.
"We've contacted them twice, took old man Peterson to lunch last week," Hodges explained while he sharpened a pencil. "Seems his son is in a stronger position this year, and the kid thinks tent revivals are . . . well, old-fashioned. The company needs a tax writeoff, but . . ."
"Uh-huh. Well, it appears to me that we've been barking up the wrong tree then, doesn't it? The Lord loves a cheerful giver, but He'll take it any way He can get it if it helps spread the Word." He smiled, and the others did too. "Seems we should've been talking to Peterson Junior. I'll remember to give him a personal call. George, you get his home phone number for me, will you?"
"Mr. Falconer," Bragg said as he sat down in one of the chairs, "it seems to me that – just maybe – Peterson has a point."
Hodges tensed and turned to stare; Falconer's head slowly rose from the file he was reading, his blue-green eyes glittering.
Bragg shrugged uneasily, realizing from the sudden chill that he'd stepped through the ice. "I just . . . meant to point out that in my research I've found most of the successful evangelists have made the transition from radio and tent revivals to television. I think television will prove itself to be a great social force in the next ten years, and I think you'd be wise to – "
Falconer laughed abruptly. "Listen to the young scholar, George!" he whooped. "Well, I can tell I don't have to worry about how slick your brain gears are, do I?" He leaned forward on the sofa, his face suddenly losing its grin, his eyes fixing in a hard stare. "Henry, I want to tell you something. My daddy was a dirt-poor Baptist preacher. Do you know what dirt-poor means, Henry?" His mouth crooked in a savage grin for a few seconds. "You come from a fine old Montgomery family, and I don't think you understand what it means to be hungry. My momma worried herself into an old woman at twenty-five. We were on the road most of the time, just like tramps. They were hard days, Henry. The Depression, nobody could get a job 'cause everything was closed down, all across the South." He stared up at the Confederate flag for a few seconds, his eyes dark.
"Anyway, somebody saw us on the road and gave us a beat-up old tent to live in. For us it was a mansion, Henry. We pitched camp on the roadside, and my daddy made a cross out of boards and nailed up a sign on a tree that said: >rev falconer's tent revivals nightly! everybody welcome! He preached for the tramps who came along that road, heading for Birmingham to find work. He was a good minister too, but something about being under that tent put brimstone and fire in his soul; he scared Satan out of more men and women than Hell could hold. People praised God and talked in tongues, and demons came spilling out right there like black bile. By the time my daddy died, the Lord's work was more than he could handle; hundreds of people were seeking him out day and night. So I stepped in to help, and I've been there ever since."
Falconer leveled his gaze at Bragg. "I used to do a radio show, about ten years or so back. Well, those were fine, but what about the people who don't have radios? What about those who don't own television sets? Don't they deserve to be touched, too? You know how many people lifted their hands to Jesus last summer, Henry? At least fifty a night, five nights a week May through August! Isn't that right, George?"
"Sure is, J.J."
"You're a bright young man," Falconer said to the lawyer. "I think what's in the back of your mind is the idea of expansion. Is that so? Breaking out of the regional circuit and going nationwide? That's fine; ideas like that are what I pay you for. Oh, it'll happen all right, praise the Lord, but I've got sawdust in my blood!" He grinned. "With Jesus in your heart and your blood full of sawdust, boy, you can lick Satan with one hand tied behind your back!"
There was a knock at the door, and a porter came in wheeling a cart with Dixie cups and a pitcher of cold lemonade, compliments of the management. The porter poured them all a drink and left the room clutching a religious pamphlet.
Falconer took a cooling sip. "Now that hits the spot dead-center," he said. "Seems Mr Forrest forgot about us, didn't he?"
"I spoke to him this morning, J.J.," Hodges said. "He told me there was an afternoon meeting he might get hung up in, but he'd be here as soon as he could."
Falconer grunted and picked up an Alabama Baptist newspaper.
Hodges opened a folder and sorted through a stack of letters and petitions – "fan letters to God," J.J. called them – sent from people all over the state, asking for the Falconer Crusade to visit their particular towns this summer. "Petition from Grove Hill's signed by over a hundred people," he told Falconer. "Most of them sent in contributions, too."
"The Lord's at work," Falconer commented, paging through the paper.
"An interesting letter here, too." Hodges spread it out on the blotter before him; there were a couple of stains on the lined paper that looked like tobacco juice. "Sent from a town called Hawthorne. . . ."
Falconer looked up. "It's not but fifteen miles or so away from Fayette, probably less than ten from my front door, as the crow flies. What about it?"
"Letter's from a man named Lee Sayre," Hodges continued. "Seems the town's been without a minister since the first of February, and the men have been taking turns reading a Bible lesson on Sunday mornings to the congregation. When did we last schedule a revival near your hometown, J.J.?"
"Four years or more, I suppose." Falconer frowned. "Without a minister, huh? They must be starving for real leadership by now. Does he say what happened?"
"Yes, says the man took ill and had to leave town for his health. Anyway, Sayre says he came to the Falconer revival in Tuscaloosa last year, and he's asking if we might get to Hawthorne this summer."
"Hawthorne's almost at my front door," he mused. "Folks would come in from Oakman, Patton Junction, Berry, a dozen other little towns. Maybe it's time for a homecoming, huh? Mark it down, George, and let's try to find a place in the schedule."
The door opened and a thin, middle-aged man in a baggy brown suit entered the room smiling nervously. He carried a bulging briefcase in one hand and an artist's portfolio clasped beneath the other arm. "Sorry I'm late," he said. "Meeting at the office went about an hour – "
"Close that door and cut the breeze." Falconer waved him in and rose to his feet. "Let's see what you ad boys have for us this year."
Forrest fumbled his way to the easel, set his briefcase on the floor, and then put the portfolio up on the easel where everyone could see it. There were faint dark circles beneath his arms. "Warm outside this afternoon, isn't it? Going to be a hot summer, probably. Can I . . . uh. . . ?" he motioned toward the lemonade cart, and when Falconer nodded he gratefully poured himself a cup. "I think you'll like what we've done this year, J.J."
Forrest laid his half-empty cup on the coffee table, then took a deep breath and opened the portfolio, spreading three poster mockups. Hand-inked letters proclaimed: >TONIGHT! ONE NIGHT ONLY! SEE AND HEAR JIMMY JED FALCONER, AND GET CLOSE TO god! Beneath the lettering was a glossy photograph of Falconer, standing on a podium with his arms uplifted in a powerful gesture of appeal.
The second poster showed Falconer standing before a bookcase, framed on one side by an American flag and on the other by the flag of the Confederacy; he was thrusting a Bible toward the camera, a broad smile on his face. The lettering was simply blocked, and said: >the south's greatest evangelist, jimmy jed falconer! one night only! come and get close to god!
The third was all picture, with Falconer raising his arms and gaze upward in an expression of calm peace. White letters were superimposed at the bottom, and said: >one night only! see and hear jimmy jed falconer and get close to god! Falconer stepped toward the easel. "That picture is just fine," he said. "Yes, I like that one. I surely do! Knocks ten years off my age with that lighting, doesn't it?"
Forrest smiled and nodded. He brought out a briar pipe and tobacco pouch, fumbling to fill one from the other He got it lit after two tries and puffed smoke into the room. "Glad you like that one," he said, relieved.
"But," Falconer said quietly, "I like the message and the lettering on the middle poster the best."
"Oh, we can put them together any way you want. No problem."
Falconer stepped forward until his face was only a few inches from the photographed Falconer face. "That's what I want. This picture speaks. I want five thousand of these printed up, but with that other message and lettering. I want them by the end of this month."
Forrest cleared his throat. "Well . . . that's rushing things a bit, I guess. But we'll handle it, no problem."
"Fine." Beaming, Falconer turned from the poster and took the pipe from between Forrest's teeth, pulling it away like lollipop from a baby. "I cannot abide lateness, Mr. Forrest. And I have told you again and again how I hate the stink of the Devil's weed." Something bright and sharp flashed behind his gaze. Forrest's struggling smile hung crookedly from the man's face as Falconer submerged the pipe in the cup of lemonade. There was a tiny hiss as the tobacco was extinguished. "Bad for your health," Falconer said quietly, as if speaking to a retarded child. "Good for the Devil." He left the offending pipe in the Dixie cup, clapped Forrest on the shoulder, and stepped back so he could admire the poster again.
One of the telephones rang. Hodges picked it up, said, "Falconer Crusade. Oh. Hi there, Cammy, how are you . . . sure, just a minute." He held the receiver out for Falconer. "J.J.? It's Camille."
"Tell her I'll get back to her, George."
"She sounds awfully excited about something."
Falconer paused, then reached the phone with two long strides. "Hey hon. What can I do for you?" He watched as Forrest put the posters away and took the dripping pipe from the cup. "What's that? Hon, the connection's bad. Say that again now, I can hardly hear you." His broad face slackened. "Toby? When? Hurt bad? Well, I told you that dog was goin' to get hit chasin' cars! All right now, don't get all excited . . . just get Wayne to help you, and the both of you pick Toby up, put him in the station wagon, and drive to Dr. Considine's. He's the best vet in Fayette County, and he won't charge you . . ." He stopped speaking and listened instead. His mouth slowly opened, closed, opened again like a fish gasping for breath. "What?" he whispered, in a voice so fragile the other three men in the room looked at each other with amazed expressions: they'd never heard J.J. Falconer when he wasn't booming with good cheer.
"No," he whispered. "No, Cammy, that can't be. You're wrong." He listened, his face slowly going pale. "Cammy . . . I don't . . . know what to do. . . . Are you sure?" He glanced quickly up at the others, his beefy hand about to crunch the receiver in two. "Is Wayne there with you? All right, now listen to me carefully. I don't care, just listen! Get that dog to the vet and have it checked over real good. Don't talk to anybody but Dr. Considine, and tell him I asked that he keep this to himself until I speak to him. Got that? Calm down, now! I'll be home in a couple of hours, I'm leavin' as fast as I can. Are you sure about this?" He paused, exhaled a long sigh, and then said, "All right. Love you, hon. 'Bye." And hung up the receiver.
"Anything wrong, J.J.?" Hodges asked.
"Toby," Falconer said softly, staring out the window at the surrounding city, golden afternoon light splashed across his face. "My bird dog. Hit by a truck on the highway. …"
"Sorry to hear about that," Forrest offered. "Good dogs are hard to . ."
Falconer turned to face them. He was grinning triumphantly, his face a bright beet-red. He clenched his fists and thrust them toward the ceiling. "Gentlemen," he said in a voice choked with emotion. "God works in mighty mysterious ways!"
Heat lay pressed close to the earth as John Creekmore drove away from the house on a Saturday morning in late July. Already the sun was a red ball of misery perched atop the eastern hills. As he drove toward the highway, heading for his job at Lee Sayre's hardware and feed store, a maelstrom of dust boiled up in the Olds's wake, hanging in brown sheets and slowly drifting toward the field of dry brown cornstalks.
There had been no rain since the second week of June. It was a time, John knew, of making do or doing without. His credit was getting pretty thin at the grocery store, and last week Sayre had told him that if business didn't pick up – which it wasn't likely to, being so late in the summer and so stifling hot – he'd have to let John go until the autumn. He was digging into the emergency money to get his family by, as were most of the valley's farmers. Perhaps the most contented creatures in the Hawthorne valley were the local hogs, who got to eat a great deal of the corn crop; happy also was the man from Birmingham who bought dry corncobs at dirt-cheap prices, turning them into pipes to be sold at drug stores.
There was the Crafts Fair, held in Fayette in August, to look forward to now. Ramona's needlepoint pictures sold well. John remembered a woman buying one of Ramona's pieces and saying it looked like something "Grandma Moses" might've done; he didn't know who "Grandma Moses" was, but he figured that was a compliment because the woman had cheerfully parted with five dollars.
Morning heat waves shimmered across the highway, making Hawthorne float like a mirage about to vanish. He shifted uneasily in his seat as he passed the still-vacant, rapidly deteriorating Booker house; it had a reputation, John knew, and nobody in his right mind would want to live there. Only when he had passed the vine-and-weed-grown structure did he permit himself to think about that awful day in April when he'd seen Billy's schoolbooks lying on the front steps. The boy still had occasional nightmares, but he never explained them and John didn't want to know, anyway. Something in Billy's face had changed since that day; his eyes were troubled, and locked behind them was a secret that John found himself afraid of. More than anything, John wished there was a real minister in town, someone who could fathom this change Billy was going through; the whole town was in dire need of a preacher: Saturday nights were getting wilder, bad words brewed into fights, and there'd even been a shooting over in Dusktown. Sheriff Bromley was a good, hard-working man, but Hawthorne was about to slip from his control; what the town needed now, John knew, was a strong man of God.
He had wanted to be a minister himself, a long time ago, but the farming heritage of his family had rooted him to the earth instead.
At a tent revival one hot August night, he'd watched his father spasm and roll in the sawdust as people screamed in strange tongues and others shouted hallelujahs; the unnerving sight of the lanky red-haired man with his face contorted, veins jutting out from the bullneck, had stayed with John all his life. John feared the blue evening twilight, when – his father had said – God's Eye roamed the world like a burning sun, in search of the sinners who would die that night. It was understood that Life was a gift from the Lord, but Death was Satan's touch in this perfect world; when a man died spiritually and turned away from God, physical death was sure to follow, and the pit of Hell yawned for his soul.
His father had been a good family man, but privately John was told that all women, like Eve, were cunning and deceitful – except for his mother, who was the finest woman God had ever created - and he was to beware of them at all times. They had strange beliefs, could be swayed by money and pretty clothes, and they bled once a month to atone for the Original Sin.
But, at a barn dance when he was twenty, John Creekmore had looked across at the line of local girls waiting to be asked to dance, and his heart had grown wings. The tawny-skinned girl was wearing a white dress with white honeysuckle blossoms braided into her long, shining russet hair; their eyes had met and held for a few seconds before she'd looked away and trembled like a skittish colt. He'd watched her dance with a boy whose clodhoppers kept coming down on her feet like mules' hooves, but she only smiled through the pain and lifted her white hem so it wouldn't get dirty. Rosin leapt from the fiddlers' bows, dusting the tobacco-stained air, as the dancers stomped and spun and bits of hay drifted down from the loft like confetti. When the girl and her partner had circled close enough, John Creekmore had stepped between them and taken her hands, spinning away with her so smoothly Old Mule Hoof grabbed for empty air, then scowled and kicked at a clump of hay since John was twice his size. She had smiled, shyly, but with true good humor in her sparkling hazel eyes, and after the dance was over John asked if he might come see her some evening.
At first, he'd never heard of Rebekah Fairmountain, Ramona's mother. Later, he dismissed the tales he heard as idle gossip. He refused to listen to any more wild stories and married Ramona; then it was too late, and he turned alternately to moonshine and the Bible. He could never say, though, that he hadn't been warned about how things were; he remembered several times even Ramona trying to tell him things he couldn't stand to hear. He clung to the Bible, to the memory of his father once telling him no good man would ever turn tail and run from a woman, and to God. And life, like the seasons, went on. There'd been two blessings: the birth of Billy, and the fact that Rebekah Fairmountain, as tough as kudzu vine and alone since the death of Ramona's father, had moved to a house fifty miles away, on land with a better consistency of clay for her pottery.
A man John had never seen before – city man, he guessed, from the looks of the clothes – was nailing up a poster on a telephone pole near Lee Sayre's store. John slowed the Olds and gawked. The poster showed a righteous-looking man lifting his arms to Heaven, and read: >the south's greatest evangelist, jimmy jed falconer! one night only! come and get close to god! Beneath that, in smaller letters, was: >and witness the god- given healing gifts of little wayne falconer!
John's heart thumped. Praise the Lord! he thought. His prayers had been answered. He'd heard of Jimmy Jed Falconer before, and the tent revivals that had saved hundreds of sinners; he'd always wanted to go, but they'd always been too far away before. "Hey, mister!" he called out. The man turned around, his sunburned face bright red against the whiteness of his sodden shirt. "When's that preacher speakin'? And where's he gonna be?"
"Wednesday night, seven o'clock," the man replied; he motioned with his hammer in the direction of Kyle Field. "Right over there, fella."
John grinned. "Thanks! Thanks a lot!"
"Sure thing. Be there, will you? And bring the family."
"You can count on it!" John waved, his spirits buoyed by the idea of taking Billy to hear an evangelist who would really put the fear of the Lord back into Hawthorne, and drove on to work.
Standing on the porch in the Wednesday evening twilight, Billy itched in a dark gray suit that was at least a size too small; his wrists jutted out from the coat, and the necktie his father had insisted he wear was about to choke the breath out of him. He'd accompanied his daddy to Peel's barbershop just that afternoon for a severe haircut that had seemingly lowered his ears by two inches. The front was pomaded enough to withstand a windstorm, but a disobedient curly cowlick had already popped up in the back; he smelled strongly of Vitalis, an aroma he loved.
Though the suit made him feel as if bumblebees were crawling over him, he was excited and eager about the tent revival; he didn't fully understand what went on at one, except that it was a lot like church, but people had been talking about it for several days, planning what to wear and who to sit with. As he and his father had passed Kyle Field that afternoon, Billy had seen the huge tent being staked down by the workmen, and a truck filled with sawdust to be used for covering the ground had rolled up into the grass like an enormous beetle. The tent, crisp-looking, brown and peaked at the center, took up almost the entire softball field, its folds stirring in the dusty breeze as another truck with a heavy-duty electric winch played out thick black cables. Billy had wanted to stay and watch, because he'd never seen such activity in Hawthorne before, but John had hurried him on; driving back home, they'd both glanced silently at the ruin of the Booker house, and Billy had squeezed his eyes shut.
A white full moon was rising in the darkening sky, and Billy watched with fascination as a long beam of light swept in a slow circle from the direction of Kyle Field. He heard his parents' voices from within the house and almost flinched, but then he realized they weren't arguing; everything had been fine today, since his mother had agreed to go to the tent revival with them. But when she'd at first refused to go, John had made the flimsy walls tremble with his shouts of indignation. The fighting had gone on for two days, usually with Ramona coldly silent and John circling her, trying to bait her into anger. But now, Billy thought, they were all going to the tent revival together, like a real family.
In another few minutes, John and Ramona came out on the porch. He was wearing an old brown suit and a black bow tie on a slightly yellowed dress shirt. His face and hair were freshly scrubbed. He carried his Bible pressed to his side.
She wore a dark blue dress and a white shawl around her shoulders; her hair had been brushed until it shone and was allowed to tumble freely down to the middle of her back. It was not for the evangelist, or to placate John, that she'd decided to go, but because she'd been in the house so long; she wanted to see people – not that people would be overjoyed, she knew, to see her.
Tonight, she decided, she would make herself be very strong. If she happened to see the black aura, she would quickly look away; but she probably wouldn't see it, and everything would be just fine.
"Ready, bubber?" John asked his son. "Let's go, then!"
They got into the car and drove away from the house. Won't see it tonight, Ramona thought, her palms suddenly perspiring; no, probably won't see it at all. . . .
Cars and pickup trucks were parked in rows all around the huge peaked tent, and there was a line of cars waiting to turn in beneath a long banner that read >REVIVAL TONIGHT! EVERYBODY WELCOME! Men with flashlights were waving the vehicles into parking places, and John saw that school buses had brought whole loads of people. A gleaming silver Airstream trailer sat just behind the tent, separated from the parking lot by sawhorses. The air was filled with dust and voices, and John heard the banner crackle above them as he pulled the car onto the field.
A man with a flashlight peered into the window and.grinned. "Evenin' folks. Just pull on over to the right and follow the man who directs you over there." He held up a bucket that was filling up with change. "Quarter to park, please."
"Quarter? But . . . this is a public field, ain't it?"
The man shook his bucket so the coins jingled. "Not tonight, fella."
John found lint and fifteen cents in his pockets. Ramona opened her change purse, took out a dime, and gave it to him. They drove on, following the impatient swing of flashlights. They had to park at the far edge of the field, between two school buses; by the time they'd walked the fifty yards to the tent's entranceway their carefully prepared clothes were scaled with dust. John took Billy's hand as they stepped across the threshold.
The interior held more people than John had ever seen gathered together in his life, and still the folks were coming in, rapidly filling up the wooden folding chairs that faced a large raised platform. Golden light streamed from shaded bulbs hanging in rows from the tent's high ceiling. Over the excited but restrained murmur of voices, a church organ played "The Old Rugged Cross" through two mighty speakers, one on each side of the platform. An American flag and the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy were suspended above the platform, the Old Glory just slightly higher than its rival. A bow-tied usher in a white coat came back to help them find a seat, and John said they wanted to sit as close to the front as they could.
As they walked along the narrow aisle, John was uneasily aware of the stares that were directed toward Ramona. Whispers skittered back and forth, and a whole row of elderly matrons who comprised the Dorcas Society stopped their sewing to stare and gossip. John felt his face redden and wished he'd never insisted she come with them; he'd never expected her to give in, anyway. He glanced back at Ramona and saw she was walking with her spine stiff and straight. He found three chairs together – not nearly as close to the platform as he'd wanted to get, but he couldn't take the gauntlet of stares and whispers any longer – and he said to the usher, "Right here's fine."
At five minutes before seven there wasn't enough room in the tent for a thin stick. The air was heavy and humid, though the ushers had rolled up the tent's sides so a breeze could circulate; paper fans rustled like hummingbirds' wings. The organ played "In the Garden" and then, promptly at seven, a dark-haired man in a blue suit came out from behind a curtain at the right of the platform and climbed several steps up to it, where a podium and microphone had been set up. He tapped the mike to make sure it was working and then surveyed the crowd with a gleeful, toothy smile. "How do!" he said loudly. He introduced himself as Archie Kane, minister of the Freewill Baptist Church in Fayette, and talked about how glad he was to see such a good response, as a choir in yellow robes assembled on the platform behind him. Billy, who'd been growing a little restless in the stifling heat, was excited again because he liked music.
Kane led the choir and assembly in several hymns, then a long rambling prayer punctuated by people calling out hallelujahs. Kane grinned, dabbed at his sweating face with a handkerchief, and said, "Brothers and sisters, I suppose those who know me have enough of me on Sunday mornin's! So . . . there's a gentleman I want to introduce to you right now!" Whoops and hollers spread over the crowd. "A fine gentleman and a man of God, born right here in Fayette Cbunty! I expect you already know his name and love him like I do, but I'm gonna say it anyway: the South's greatest evangelist, Jimmy Jed FALCONER!"
There was an explosion of clapping and cheering, and people leaped to their feet. A fat man with a sweat-soaked plaid shirt rose up just in front of Billy, obscuring his view, but then John was rising to his feet with the rest of them and had swept Billy up high so he could see the man in the bright yellow suit who bounded to the platform.
Jimmy Jed Falconer grinned and raised his arms, and suddenly a huge poster began unrolling down the backdrop behind him, a black-and-white Jimmy Jed Falconer in almost the same pose the real one held. Across the poster's top was the large red legend: THE FALCONER CRUSADE.
Falconer waited for the applause and whooping to die down, then stepped quickly to the microphone and said in a polished, booming voice, "Do you want to know how God speaks, neighbors?" Before anyone could answer, he'd pulled a pistol out of his coat, aimed it upward, and fired: crack! Women screamed, and men were startled. "That's how He speaks!" Falconer thundered. "The Lord speaks like a gun, and you don't know when you're going to hear Him or what He's going to say, but you'd sure better be on His right side when He does His talkin'!"
Billy watched the blue haze of gunsmoke waft upward, but he couldn't see a bullethole. Blank he thought.
Falconer set the pistol atop the podium, then swept his intense blue-green gaze across the audience like the searchlight that still pierced the sky outside. Billy thought that the evangelist looked directly at him for a second, and a fearful thrill coursed through him. "Let's pray," Falconer whispered.
As the prayer went on, Ramona opened her eyes and lifted her head. She looked first at her son, his head bowed and eyes squeezed tightly shut, then directed her gaze across the tent to a small, frail-looking boy she'd noticed even before Archie Kane had started speaking. Her heart was pounding. Enveloping the child was a shiny, purplish black cocoon of malignant light that pulsated like a diseased heart. The child's head was bowed, his hands clasped tightly in prayer; he sat between his mother and father, two thin figures who had dressed in the pitiful rags of their Sunday best. As Ramona watched, the young mother placed her hand on the child's shoulder and gently squeezed. Her face was gaunt, pale, grasping at the last straw of hope. Tears burned in Ramona's eyes; the little boy was dying from some sickness, and would be dead soon: in a week, a day, several hours – she had no way of knowing when, but the black aura was clinging greedily to him, the sure harbinger of death that she had feared seeing in this crowded tent. She lowered her head, wondering as always when she saw it: What should I do?
And the awful answer, as always: There is nothing you can do.
"Amen," Jimmy Jed Falconer said. The congregation looked up, ready for an explosion of fire and brimstone.
But he began softly, by whispering, "Sin."
The sound of his voice made Billy tremble. John leaned forward slightly in his seat, his eyes wide and entranced; Ramona saw the dying child rest his head against his mother's shoulder.
"Sin," Falconer repeated, gripping the podium. "What do you think of it? What do you think is a sin? Somethin' you're not supposed to do or say or think?" He closed his eyes for a second. "Oh Lord God, sin . . . it's an evil that gets in the blood, gets in our hearts and minds and . . . corrupts, decays, makes rotten . . ."
He looked across the congregation, bright beads of sweat shining on his face. Then, in an instant, his placid expression changed; his lips curled, his eyes widened, and he growled, "SINNNNNN. . . . Can you smell it can you feel it can you see it? Do you know, neighbors, when you've sinned? I'll tell you what sin is, neighbors, pure and simple: it's walking away from God's light, that's what it is!" His ruddy face rippled with emotion, his voice taking the place of the silent organ, flowing up and down the scales. He pointed into the audience, at no one in particular, yet at everyone. "Have you ever stepped out of the light," he whispered, "and found yourself in a dark place?"
Billy tensed, sat bolt upright.
"I mean a darrrrrk place," the evangelist said, his voice deep and gravelly. "I mean a place so dark and Evil you can't find your way out. Answer for yourselves: have you been there?"
Yes, Billy thought. And it's still in my head, it comes to me at night when I try to sleep. . . .
"No matter where the place is – the poolhall, the gamblin' room, the shothouse, or the moonshine still – there's hope, neighbors. Or it might be even darker than that: it might be the Room of Lust, or Envy, or Adultery. If you're in one of those dark places, then you're a guest of Satan!"
Billy's eyes widened, his heart thumping. The last nightmare he'd had, several nights before, streaked through his mind: in it he'd sat up in his bed and seen the black mountain of coal slithering toward him through the hallway, and then the awful white hand had plunged out and grasped Billy's sheet . . . slowly, slowly pulling it off and to the floor.
"SATAN'S GOT YOU!" Falconer roared, the veins of his neck bulging. "That cloven-hoofed, horned, fork-tongued Devil has got you right in his clawwwwws" – he lifted his right hand into the air, contorting it into a claw and twisting as if ripping flesh from the bone – "and he's gonna squeeze you and mold you and make you like he isssss! . . . And if you're a guest in Satan's house and you like the dark, evil place, then you don't belong here tonight!" The evangelist's eyes glowed like spirit lamps, and now he lifted the microphone off its stand and paced the platform with nervous, electric energy. "Do you like the house of Satan? Do you like bein' in that darrrk place, with him for company?" He stopped pacing, flailed the air with his fists, and raised his voice to a volume that almost blew out the speakers. "Well, I'm here to tell you there's HOPE! You can BREAK OUT of Satan's house! You can FIGHT that silver-tongued Devil and WIN, yes, WIN! 'Cause there's nowhere so dark – not poolhall nor brothel nor Room of Adultery – where you can't find the Light of Jeeeesus! Nosir! It might be just one little candle, but it's there, neighbor! And if you follow that light it'll get bigger and brighter, and it'll sure enough lead you right out of that dark place! The light of Jeeeesus will save you from sin and corruption and the everlastin' burning fire of the PIT!" He stabbed his forefinger downward, and someone sitting behind Billy yelped, "Amen!"
Falconer grinned. He clapped his hands together like a second gunshot, and shouted, "Glory be to God, 'cause there's power in the blood!" He lifted his head upward like a dog baying toward the moon. "Praise be the Light! Praise be the Redemption of the Sinnnnner!" Then he was right at the edge of the platform, falling down on his knees with his hands tightly clasped. He whispered, "And do you know how to find that Light, neighbors? Do you know how to renounce your sins and get out of that dark place? You've got to confess those sins!" He leaped up, bounding across the platform. His face streamed with sweat. "Confess! Give it all up to Jeeeesus! You've got to lay that darrrrk place out for the Lord to see!"
Confess? Billy thought, his heart hammering. Is that what I have to do to get it out of me? Around him people were crying and moaning; his daddy's head was bowed in prayer, his momma was staring straight at the evangelist with a glazed look in her eyes. Confess? Billy asked himself, feeling a shiver of terror; if he didn't confess, how would he ever escape the dark place?
"Confess! Confess! Confess!" Falconer was shouting, pointing his finger at random into the congregation. A heavy-hipped woman in a print dress stood up and began shaking, strange gurglings coming out of her mouth as her eyes rolled back in her head. She lifted her fleshy arms, crying out, "Praise God!" through the gibberish. Then a crewcut man in overalls rose to his feet and began jumping as if buck dancing, his boots stirring up clouds of sawdust. "CONFESS! CONFESS!" the evangelist roared. "Get out of that dark, dark place in your soul! Lay it out for the Lord!" He paced the platform, raising people from their seats with broad sweeps of his arms, as if they were attached to him on strings. John stood up and pulled Billy with him. "Glory be to God!" John shouted.
Falconer clutched at the microphone. "Is the Spirit with us tonight, neighbors?"
"Are we gonna lay it all out for the Lord tonight?"
Organ chords crashed through the speakers. The choir began to sing "Love Lifted Me," and Falconer returned the microphone to its cradle, then clapped in rhythm to the music until everyone in the tent was clapping and singing. The golden light was full of sawdust, the air heavy and sweat-drenched. As the collection plate passed Billy, he saw it was filled with dollar bills.
When the offering was over and the plates had been taken up, Falconer shed his yellow coat and turned his blazing smile on full wattage. His shirt stuck to his back and ample belly. "Folks," he said, "maybe you didn't come here tonight just to hear me preach. Maybe you have other needs that have to be met. Right now I want to introduce somebody who's real close to my heart. You might've heard about this young man. Folks, here's my son - Little Wayne Falconer!"
There were loud whoops and hollers, and a small figure in a bright yellow suit ran up the steps to the platform, throwing himself into his father's arms. The evangelist caught him, and grinning, held him high. Billy craned his neck to get a good look. The little boy in Falconer's arms had a mass of curly red hair, and his smile was even more incandescent than his father's. Staring at him as the people in the audience shouted and applauded, Billy felt a strange stirring in the pit of his stomach. The boy's gaze swept the crowd and seemingly lingered on him for a few seconds. Billy had the sudden urge to race forward to that stage and touch that boy.
"Wayne?" the evangelist asked. "Do you feel the Presence in this tent tonight?"
A silence fell. "Yes, Daddy," the little boy said into the microphone.
"Do you hear the Presence callin' on you to do miracles?"
"Miracles!" Falconer shouted to the congregation. "You heard me right! The Lord has seen fit to work through my son! This boy has a power in him that'll shake you to your shoes, neighbors!" He lifted the boy as high as he could, and Wayne beamed. Again, Billy felt drawn toward that boy. "Are there those here tonight in need of healing?"
"Yes!" many in the audience cried out. Ramona saw that the young woman with the dying child – purplish black cocoon writhing, pulsating, sending out oily tendrils – had raised both arms, tears rolling down her face. The child clung around her neck, while the father whispered to him and smoothed his hair.
"Wayne, is the Presence gonna work through you tonight?"
The little boy's eyes glowed with inner fire. He nodded.
Falconer set his son down, then handed the microphone to Wayne. Then he lifted his arms and shouted to the audience, "DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?"
The tent was filled with clamorous shouts and cries, and already people were rising from their seats to approach the platform. Electricity sparked in the air. Beside Billy, John was dazed and weak with excitement.
Wayne Falconer took a stance like a fighting rooster at the platform's edge. His jaw was set and determined, though his eyes flickered nervously back and forth across the tent. "Who needs a miracle here tonight?" he called out, in a voice that carried almost as much power as his father's.
People started pushing forward, many of them weeping. Ramona watched the couple with the dying child stand up and get in the line that was forming along the aisle. "Come on!" Wayne shouted. "Don't be afraid!" He glanced back at his father for reassurance, then stretched out his hand for the first person in line, an elderly man in a red checked shirt. "Let the Lord work His miracles!"
The man gripped Wayne's hand. "What's your sickness, brother?" Wayne asked, and put the microphone to the man's lips.
"My stomach's got pains . . . my joints, oh Lord God they're always achin', and I can't sleep at night . . . I'm sick . . ."
Wayne placed his hand on the man's brown, creased forehead and closed his eyes tightly. "Satan's causin' this sufferin'!" he cried out. "Satan's in you, 'cause people with God in their souls don't get sick!" He'clamped his small hand to the man's head. "Come out, Satan of pain and sickness! I command you to come . . . out!" He trembled like a live wire, and the man's legs sagged. An usher stepped forward to help him away, but then the elderly man was dancing in a circle, his arms uplifted and a wide grin on his face. "Walk the way of God!" Wayne shouted.
The line kept moving forward, full of people whose knees were aching, whose hearing was deteriorating, who were short of breath. Wayne healed them all, commanding the Satan of bad knees, bad hearing, and shortness of breath to leave their bodies. Behind him, Falconer smiled proudly and urged people to come up.
Ramona saw the couple with the child reach the platform. Wayne thrust the microphone to the woman's lips.
"Donnie's so weak," she said in an emotion-laden voice. "Something's wrong with his blood, the doctors say." She sobbed brokenly. "Oh God sweet Jesus we're poor sinners, and we had to give up one baby 'cause there weren't no food. God's punishin' me 'cause I went and sold our little baby to a man in Fayette. . . ."
Wayne gripped the boy's head. The child began crying weakly. "Satan's in this boy's blood! I command you, Satan – come out!" The child jerked and wailed. "He won't need a doctor again!" Wayne said. "He's healed!"
Ramona reached for Billy's hand. She clenched it tightly, her insides trembling. The black aura around that child had gotten deeper and stronger. Now the parents were grinning and sobbing, hugging the little boy between them. The black aura swelled. She stared at Wayne Falconer, her eyes widening. "No," she whispered. "No, it's not true. …"
And to her horror, she saw an aged woman leaning on a cane stagger forward. The black aura clung to this woman too. The woman spoke into the microphone about her heart pains, and she said she was taking medicine but needed a miracle.
"Throw away that medicine, sister!" Wayne crowed as she was helped away by an usher. "You're healed, you won't need it!"
The black aura pulsated around her.
"No!" Ramona said, and started to rise to her feet. "It's not – " But then Billy pulled free from her and was running up the aisle. She shouted, "Billy!" but John's hand closed on her arm. "Leave him be!" he said. "He knows what he's doing – finally!"
When Billy reached the front, a grinning usher swept him up so he could speak into the microphone. Up close, the young evangelist – about his own age, Billy realized – had eyes that glinted like chips of blue ice. Wayne started to reach out for him, then stopped; the power of his grin seemed to falter, and there was a hint of confusion in his eyes. Billy could feel the hair at the back of his neck standing on end.
"Sin!" Billy wailed. Suddenly he was crying, unable to hold it in any longer. "I've sinned, I've been in the dark place and I need to confess!"
Wayne paused, his hand out toward the other boy. Suddenly he trembled, and his hand closed into a fist. He stepped back from the edge of the platform as his father quickly brushed past him and took the microphone. Falconer helped Billy up. "Confess it, son!" Falconer told him, putting the microphone to his lips as Wayne watched.
"I went into the dark place!" The loudness of his voice through the speakers startled him. He was crackling with electricity, and he could feel Wayne Falconer's stare on him. Everyone was watching him. "I … I saw Evil! It was in the basement, and …"
Ramona suddenly rose to her feet.
". . . it crawled up out of the coal pile and it . . . it looked like Will Booker, but its face was so white you could almost see right through it!" Tears rolled down Billy's cheeks. The audience was silent. "It spoke to me . . . and said for me to tell people . . . where he was. …"
"Billy!" John Creekmore shouted, breaking the awful silence. He stood up, gripping the chair before him, his face agonized.
"I sinned by going into the dark place!" Billy cried out. He turned to reach for Falconer's hand, but the evangelist's eyes were ticking back and forth. Falconer had sensed the gathering explosion, had seen the poisonous looks on the faces of the crowd.
And from the rear of the tent came a voice: "Demon!"
Someone else – Ralph Leighton's voice, John realized - shouted, "The boy's cursed, just like his mother! We all knew it, didn't we?"
"He's got the dark seed in him!"
"Like his mother, the Hawthorne witch!"
The tent erupted with ugly shouts. On the platform Billy felt a wave of hatred and fear crash over him. He stood stunned.
"He's a child of the witch!" Leighton shouted, from the rear of the tent. "His mother's Ramona Creekmore, and they don't belong in here!"
J.J. Falconer had sweat on his face. He sensed their mood, and he knew also what he had to do. He gripped Billy by the scruff of the neck. "Demon, do you say?" he crowed. "Are this boy and his mother pawns in the hand of Satan?" The name Ramona Creekmore had struck an alarm bell of recognition in him: Ramona Creekmore, the Hawthorne Valley witch, the woman who supposedly spoke with the dead and weaved evil spells. And this was her son? His showmanship went into high gear "We'll drag the Devil right out of this boy tonight! We'll pull out Old Scratch, a-kickin' and – "
Then there was utter silence. Ramona Creekmore was walking along the aisle, looking to neither right nor left. She said in a soft but commanding voice. "Take your hand off my son."
Falconer released his grip, his eyes narrowing.
Ramona helped Billy down. Behind Falconer she saw Wayne's frightened face, and something inside her twisted. Then she turned to face the mob. "You scared sheep!" she said, in a voice that carried to the back of the tent. "Nobody's been healed here tonight! People who think they're sick are being told they're well, but those in real need are being doomed by false hope!" Her heart pounded. "It's akin to murder, what these two are doing!"
"Shut your damned mouth!" a woman shouted. It was the young mother, still clutching her child.
Ramona turned toward Falconer. "Murder," she said, her eyes flashing. "Because deep in your hearts, you know what you're doing is wrong." She looked at the boy, who trembled and stepped back under her gaze.
The evangelist roared, "Do you know what the Unpardonable Sin is? It's seeing the Lord's Power and calling it the Devil's Work! You're lost to the Lord, woman!" A cheer went up. "You're lost!" he bellowed.
Before the ushers rushed them out of the tent, Billy looked over his shoulder. Behind the yellow-suited man, the boy in yellow stood rigid and frozen, his mouth half open. Their gazes met and locked. Billy felt righteous hatred, bitter and hot, flowing from that boy.
Then they were out in the field, and the ushers warned them not to come back.
They waited for over ten minutes, but John never came out. The congregation began singing in loud, loud voices. When Falconer's voice boomed out, Billy felt his mother tremble. She took his hand and they began to walk into the darkness toward home.
"Billy? Son, wake up! Wake up, now!" He sat up in the darkness, rubbing his eyes. He could make out a vague figure standing over his bed, and he recognized his daddy's voice. Billy had cried himself to sleep a few hours earlier, when his mother had told him that John was upset at them and might not come home for a while. Billy was puzzled, and didn't understand what had gone wrong. The power of that young evangelist had drawn him to the stage, but when he'd confessed his sin everything had gone bad. Now, at least, his daddy had come home.
"I'm sorry," Billy said. "I didn't mean to – "
"Shhhh. We have to be quiet. We don't want your mother to hear, do we?"
"She's alseep," John said. "We don't want to wake her up. This is just something between us two men. I want you to put on your shoes. No need to change clothes, your pajamas'll do just fine. There's something I want to show you. Hurry now, and be real quiet."
There was something harsh about his father's voice, but Billy put on his shoes as the man asked.
"Come on," John said. "We're going out for a walk. Just the two of us."
"Can't I turn on a light?"
"No. Open the front door for your daddy now, and remember to be quiet."
Out in the humid night, crickets hummed in the woods. Billy followed his father's shape in the darkness. They walked down the driveway and toward the main road. When Billy tried to take his father's hand, John drew away and walked a little faster. He's still mad at me, Billy thought.
"Didn't I do right?" Billy asked – the same question he'd repeatedly asked his mother on that long walk home. "I wanted to confess my sin, like that preacher said to."
"You did fine." John slowed his pace. They were walking alongside the main road now, in the opposite direction from Hawthorne. "Just fine."
"But then how come everybody got mad?" His father looked a lot taller than usual. "How come you wouldn't go home with us?"
"I had my reasons."
They walked on a bit further The night sky was ablaze with stars. Billy was still sleepy, and he was puzzled as to where his father was taking him. John had started walking a few paces ahead of Billy, a little more out into the road. "Daddy?" Billy said. "When that boy looked at me, I . . . felt somethin' funny inside me."
"Funny? Like how?"
"I don't know. I thought about it all the way home, and I told Momma about it too. It was kinda like the time I went into the Booker house. I didn't really want to, but I felt like I had to. When 1 saw that boy's face, I felt like I had to go up there, to be close to him. Why was that, Daddy?"
"I don't know."
"Momma says it was because he's …" He paused, trying to recall the word. "Charis . . . charismatic. Somethin' like that."
John was silent for a moment. Then he abruptly stopped, his face lifted toward the darkness. Billy had never remembered him looking so big.
John said quietly, "Let's cross the road here. What I want to show you is on the other side."
Billy followed his father. His eyes had began to droop, and he yawned.
The concrete trembled beneath his feet.
And from around a wooded curve thirty feet away came the dazzling headlights of a huge tractor-trailer rig, its high exhaust pipe spouting smoke, its diesel engine roaring.
Billy, caught in the center of the highway, was blinded and dazed; his legs were leaden, and he saw his father's shape before him in the headlights.
Except it was no longer John Creekmore. It was a huge, massive beast of some kind – a seven-foot-tall, hulking monster. Its head swiveled, its sunken eyes burning dark red; Billy saw it looked like a wild boar, and the beast grinned as it whirled into dark mist before the headlights of the speeding truck.
The driver, who hadn't slept for over twenty-four hours, only vaguely saw something dark in front of the truck. Then there was a boy in pajamas standing rooted in the middle of the road. With a cry of alarm, he hit the emergency brake and wildly swerved.
"Billy!" It was Ramona's voice, calling from the distance.
The clarity of it snapped Billy into action; he leaped toward the roadside, losing one shoe, and tumbled down into a ditch as the truck's wheels crushed past only inches away from him. He could feel the hot blast of the truck's exhaust scorching his back, and then his face was pressed into dirt and weeds.
The truck screeched to a stop, leaving rubber for fifty feet. "You little fool!" the driver shouted. "What the hell's wrong with you, boy?"
Billy didn't answer. He lay curled up in the ditch, shaking, until his mother found him. "It was Daddy," he whispered brokenly, as the truck driver continued to yell. "It was Daddy, but it wasn't Daddy. He wanted me to die, Momma. He wanted me to get run over!"
Ramona held him while he sobbed, and told the driver to go on. Lord God! she thought. Has it started already? She stared into the darkness, knowing what had to be done to protect her son's life.READ MORE >>