Preacher Man

By REBECCA D. ELSWICK

FICTION FINALIST

That was the summer I fell in love. 1977—the hottest summer in 50 years. The heat lay in our holler like somebody had left open a window in hell. Days were so long, the sun never really set, only napped a few hours before waking up full of red-hot fury. At night the darkness wasn’t true, not the black of a winter’s night, but rather faded like the negative of an old photograph.

Folks did the best they could to bear up. In our holler, most houses didn’t have air conditioning, or they were like ours and only had one window unit. Ours was in the living room and it made more noise than cool air. Every night I dunked my head under water, and then I stood in front of the air conditioner so I could go to bed with cold, wet hair. My mother worried I was going to freeze my brain, but I told her I would rather freeze it than fry it. At night, we opened all the windows. I slept with a box fan propped up in my window, hoping it would catch a cool breeze and pass it over me, but mostly, I lay real still and tried to go to sleep before my hair dried and that little bit of coolness disappeared.

Sundays were the worst. There was no air conditioning in our church and our preacher didn’t wear a watch. Of course, I had to dress up, and no amount of baby powder kept my chunky thighs from rubbing together. At least my mother didn’t make me wear pantyhose, but she insisted I wear a slip under the loose polyester dresses she made me. I have to admit, it came in handy. If I pressed it between my thighs, it would soak up the sweat before it ran down my legs.

On Sunday, July the 3rd, I walked into the church vestibule and found the girls in my Sunday school class crowded around the bulletin board. Like me, they were trussed in red, white, and blue dresses. That summer everybody had a renewed sense of patriotism, a residual from the previous year’s 4th of July bicentennial celebrations. Even the men sported red and blue ties with their white dress shirts.

I elbowed my way to the front of the crowd, and there I saw what they were whispering about. It was the poster for the upcoming tent revival—or, as I saw it, the highlight of the summer for church-going Baptists, and I understood right away why the girls were staring and whispering. Blonde and tan, he smiled at us with an Ultra Brite commercial smile—the Reverend Jackson Scope from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Angie elbowed me and whispered, “Wonder if he’s married?”

Margie snorted. “Don’t matter if he’s married or not, he’s too old for us.”

The chime sounded, signaling it was time for Sunday school, so with one last look, I turned away and followed the girls upstairs to our Sunday school room. There were five of us in the 15- to 18-year old class. I was the pudgy one. My mother liked to say I just hadn’t lost my baby fat. I figured that made me the world’s only 15-year-old baby who could polish off two helpings of spaghetti, half a dozen rolls, and a pint of chocolate ice cream at one sitting.

Margie was the smart one. She was 16 and had an attitude, mostly because she knew she was the smart one. Angie was the good one. She was 15 and actually read the Bible and studied our Sunday school lesson like we were supposed to, and she volunteered at the nursing home, reading books to the old people. Poor old Lisa was the ugly one, even my mother said so, only she added ‘bless her little heart’ when she said it. Lisa had a horse face and about a million teeth that stuck out in every direction. Her flaming orange hair didn’t help matters. Lisa was 16.

And then there was Sarah Anne. She was the pretty one, and the oldest—almost eighteen. Tall and thin, with long black hair and a perfect face, she looked like she stepped off the cover of Seventeen magazine. I swear everything about her was perfect—perfect skin; perfect teeth; perfect little upturned nose; and most perfect of all, her big sapphire blue eyes. She even had the perfect disposition, sweet and real shy, and as bad as I wanted to, I couldn’t hate her. Her father had died a year ago, and that left Sarah Anne and her mother with no other family. There was no way I could hate a half-orphan, no matter how pretty she was.

Margie didn’t waste any time asking our Sunday school teacher about the tent revival, intending to work up to questioning her about Reverend Jackson Scope. But our teacher didn’t know anything about the preacher; instead, she talked about the revival’s special music group, the Starling Family. She said their picture was on the tent revival poster, but I didn’t remember it. The only thing I saw on that poster was the Reverend Jackson Scope’s handsome face.

After Sunday school, we trooped down to the sanctuary. Sarah Anne went to sit with her mother, while Angie, Lisa, Margie, and I hurried to a pew near the back of the church. We didn’t dare sit too close to the last pew, which belonged to a slouch of teenage boys, or we would risk being teased by one half of the congregation and condemned by the other half.

Our pastor was Timothy Walker, but everybody called him Preacher Tim. He stepped up to the pulpit, welcomed everyone, and did the opening prayer, before he turned the service over to the song leader. We were singing “I’ll Fly Away” when Mrs. Justus and her two old-maid daughters came in, carrying their funeral home fans. They were always late. Always. They crowded into the pew in front of us. Lisa elbowed me and whispered in my ear. “They have on matching dresses.”

Lisa was right. The three of them wore sleeveless white polyester dresses that were the same color as their stark white skin. Mrs. Justus had a rope of red, white, and blue chunky beads around her neck. As she sang, the beads rolled from side to side on her bosom like a ship on the ocean.

The song part of the service ended, and Preacher Tim didn’t waste any time. He launched into talking about the tent revival. Margie looked at Lisa, and Angie looked at me. The four of us sat up straight and tuned in. First, Preacher Tim told us everything we already knew, how all the Baptist churches in our county were coming together to pitch a giant tent on Baker’s Knoll for the annual revival. It would take place the last two weeks of July and services would begin every evening at 7:00.

I felt sweat trickle down my back and I squirmed. I thought, get to the Reverend Jackson Scope. Everybody knew that a serious revival had to have a special preacher, and he had to be from some place away from here. It helped if said preacher had special attributes like last year’s evangelist who had memorized the entire New Testament. That man would stand in front of the crowd without a Bible in his hands and look up at the tent top like he was going to find the verses there. Then he would cast his gaze back down on the crowd and spout Bible verses like Mt Vesuvius. My dad was still talking about him.

Preacher Tim liked to talk about blessings, so he ran off the revival road and hit the dirt going on about God’s blessings. It was so hot in the church; I shut off all my body parts, willing myself into a coma-like state. That was how I endured the heat until church was over. I was well into my semiconscious state when Preacher Tim said, “We are blessed to have Jackson Scope to lead our upcoming revival. A young man and dynamic preacher, Brother Jackson will be staying in our church apartment while he’s here, and I’m sure he would appreciate a supper invite or two. Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention.” Preacher Tim paused and surveyed the crowded church. He chuckled. “You young ladies who aren’t spoken for might like to know there’s no Mrs. Scope.”

A titter of high-pitched laughter rippled through the church. I could tell which girls had seen the poster by the way their funeral home fans picked up speed until some of them looked like they were going faster than the speed of sound. In the pew in front of me, Mrs. Justus elbowed the daughter next to her. Annie Justus was at least 40 years old and, as far as anybody knew, she had never even had a boyfriend. Lisa snickered and pointed at the back of their pew, but she covered it with her other hand so I was the only one who saw it. I ducked my chin and tried not to smile, and then Mrs. Justus upstretched her arm to fan her face. The fat on her arm swayed back and forth like a glob of bread dough on a stick. A sour spoiled milk odor spilled into our pew, making me swallow hard and wrinkle my nose. Angie covered her nose with her hand and Lisa coughed. It was that time in the service when most people’s deodorant ran out, and all sorts of odious smells were picked up by the funeral fans the church women were waving.

Preacher Tim went on with his sermon without another mention of the Reverend Jackson Scope. When the service was over, I followed the slow mass of parishioners making their way through the vestibule. While I waited my turn to shake hands with Preacher Tim, I got a chance to study Reverend Jackson Scope’s picture. I decided I would find a way to get that poster, even if I had to steal it. It didn’t matter that stealing from a church was probably a double sin because I was falling hard for the Reverend Jackson Scope. The word worship was beginning to take on a whole new meaning.

***

The days crept by and the sun baked our holler until it was a well-done brown. No matter how much the cicadas called for rain, there was precious little. The Saturday before the revival was to begin, my dad went with a group of men to pitch the tent. He came home after dark drenched in sweat and full of information—mainly, that the Reverend Jackson Scope had indeed arrived, and he had come by to watch the men putting up the tent. I listened, hanging onto every word, and when he finished, I flew to the phone and called Angie, who called Lisa, who called Sarah Anne, who called Margie. Then Margie called me to make sure Sarah Anne had told her everything. That night we all dreamed about the Reverend Jackson Scope, who we now knew was six feet tall and had a deep booming voice, but none of us was prepared for what happened the next morning.

***

I was the first one of our Sunday school group to arrive, so I eased into the vestibule and studied the Reverend Jackson Scope’s picture on the bulletin board. I couldn’t believe that tonight I was actually going to see him in the flesh. I had the outfits I was going to wear all planned out because I knew my parents never missed a night of the tent revival.

“I’m wearing my new dress tonight,” Margie said. She rushed up to the bulletin board with Angie and Lisa.

“Well, he’s coming to my house tomorrow for dinner,” Lisa said. “How do you like that?”

The chime for Sunday school sounded, and I followed the girls upstairs. We found Sarah Anne, wide-eyed and pale, sitting at the table, her Sunday school book spread out before her. The Reverend Jackson Scope was having dinner at their house on Tuesday before the service. According to her, the women of the church were signing up to prepare his dinner each night of the revival.

All through Sunday school, I agonized. Would my mother volunteer? I didn’t know which was worse—the thought of eating in front of him or not getting the chance to. I decided to find my mother before church started and ask her, so as soon as Sunday school ended, I hurried down to the sanctuary. I spotted her and a group of people standing near the front of the church and hurried toward them.

“Hey, Mom,” I said. She turned around and slipped her arm around my waist, drawing me closer to the group.

“This is my daughter, Emily,” she said. A group of women turned around and glared at me like I was interrupting something important. I looked past them and saw why—the Reverend Jackson Scope, himself.

“Hello, Miss Emily,” he said, extending his hand. His eyes—his amazing blue eyes—touched my face. My mother poked me in the ribs and hissed, “Shake his hand.”

His touch jolted me back to reality. I tried to say hello, but nothing came out of my mouth except a puff of air. It didn’t matter, though, because Sarah Anne and her mother walked up, and he dropped my hand and turned to them.

The rest of the service was a blur. I sat in my usual pew with Lisa, Angie, and Margie, who were jealous because I got to shake his hand and they didn’t. Even though he stood up and faced the congregation when Preacher Tim introduced him, he sat back down so all I could see was the back of his head. After church, there were so many people crowded around him, I couldn’t even see him. All I could do was go home and wait for the tent revival to start.

 ***

My parents knew the first night of a revival is always the most crowded, so we got there half an hour early. The seats were already filling up, so I hurried to find Margie and Lisa before my parents made me sit with them. They weren’t hard to find. Lisa’s flaming orange hair stood out like a peacock in a hen house. They were sitting near the front, facing the stage. The scent of sawdust, spread under the folding chairs, tickled my nose and I sneezed. Sweat was already pouring down my back, and I pushed my damp hair off my forehead. I squeezed past the people in the row and sat down between Margie and Lisa.

“Did you find out?” Lisa said.

“Find out what?” I asked.

“When is the preacher man coming to your house for dinner?”

“Preacher man?”

Lisa giggled. “Yeah, that’s what my dad called him.”

“Well, whatever you call him, he’s not coming to my house. My mother said the list was filled up by the time she got to it.”

Margie said, “Sorry, Emily.”

I have always loved going to the tent revival, even though I would never admit it to my parents. The main reason was because it didn’t feel like church, but it was more than that. There was something magical about the sounds of chirping insects, the smell of sawdust, and the murky glow of the bare light bulbs strung along the top of the tent. The shadows moving against the tent made me feel like I was sitting underwater.

When the service started, I was swept away by the Reverend Jackson Scope’s sermon. What he said, I had not a clue, but I was carried along in a cloud of righteous ecstasy by the sound of his voice. I stopped feeling the heat pressing down on me. His voice was a cooling balm that made me feel like I could take flight and soar into the night up, up, up, until I landed in heaven.

For two weeks, I was a Bible-toting, model teenage Christian. Every night, Reverend Jackson Scope won souls to Christ, and every night I wished I wasn’t already baptized so I could be one of the sinners who walked into his outstretched arms. I knew that a transformation of epic proportions was happening, and I would never be the same. By the last night of the revival, I was so enthused by the Reverend Jackson Scope’s sermons that I was ready for the rapture.

On the Sunday morning after the revival ended, I took my seat in Sunday school beside Lisa. I was in a foul mood. The church was already sweltering, and I was grieving the loss of the Reverend Jackson Scope. Lisa was grinning her ‘I know something and you don’t’ grin, but I ignored her. Sarah Anne slide into the chair next to Lisa and said, “Did you tell her?”

“Tell me what?” I said.

“Guess who’s preaching the service today?” Lisa asked.

“Who?”

“Preacher man.”

I looked at Sarah Anne, who nodded her head, yes. “Why?” I asked.

“Because Preacher Tim hurt his back, and Reverend Scope agreed to stay and conduct the service,” Sarah Anne said.

It was true. Not only did Reverend Jackson Scope preach that Sunday, he decided to stay until Preacher Tim, who had to have surgery, got back on his feet. It wasn’t long before the gossip started flying because Reverend Scope was seen every evening coming or going at Sarah Anne’s house, and he had been seen sitting on the front porch with Sarah Anne’s mother.

I even heard my parents, who discouraged gossip, talking about it. Fortunately, they didn’t know I was listening.

“She’s a young, attractive widow,” Mother said.

“And he’s not married,” Father said.

“How old would you say he is?” Mother asked.

That was exactly what I wanted to know, so I held my breath and strained to hear.

“Preacher Tim said he’s 31,” father said.

“Now, I’d say Connie’s about 38 or 39, but then, she sure don’t look it,” mother said. “She’s a beautiful woman. That’s where Sarah Anne gets her looks.”

What really told the tale was the way Sarah Anne started acting. She clammed up and wouldn’t say a word about her mother and Reverend Jackson Scope. It wasn’t like I didn’t try, and so did Lisa, Angie, and Margie. We tried everything, but she refused to talk. The gossip at church reached a fever pitch when Preacher Tim came back to take over the pulpit, but the Reverend Jackson Scope stayed on.

Summer was ending, but the heat remained unbearable. I still looked at the Reverend Jackson Scope like he walked on water, but then, so did most of the female congregation, even if he made no secret about spending every evening at Sarah Anne’s house. August ended, but nothing changed. It was taken as fact that the only reason he hadn’t returned to his home in South Carolina was because the Reverend Jackson Scope had fallen in love with Sarah Anne’s mother. It was obvious to the church ladies, who made such predictions, that he was waiting for Sarah Anne to leave for college before he asked her mother to marry him.

On Sunday, September 5th, Sarah Anne wasn’t in Sunday school. Margie said that she was probably packing, since she was leaving the next day for Emory and Henry College. After Sunday school, I made my way back to the sanctuary with Lisa, Angie, and Margie. As usual, I looked at the front of the church for the Reverend Jackson Scope. When he wasn’t preaching, he sat in the second pew on the right side. There he was, sitting in his usual spot, only this time, he wasn’t alone.

Preacher Tim took the pulpit. As usual, he welcomed any visitors before making the church announcements. At first, I wasn’t sure I heard right, but Margie grabbed my hand and squeezed it so hard; I knew she had heard it too. A special announcement…

“Now, don’t be shy,” Preacher Tim said. “Stand up and let the church welcome the new Mrs. Jackson Scope.”

All eyes were on the front of the church. Reverend Jackson Scope stood and extended his hand to his bride. Dressed all in white, Sarah Anne stood and took her husband’s hand.

***

On the way home, I expected my parents to talk about what had happened, but when my mother said, ‘Well, now we know why he didn’t leave,’ my father cleared his throat and glanced at me in the rearview mirror before saying, ‘Now mother, let’s not gossip.’

I spent the day in my room, refusing to eat dinner. When it came time to get ready for the evening service, I had my argument prepared, but my mother didn’t challenge me when I told her I didn’t feel like going to church. I stayed in my room until I heard the car pull out of the driveway, and then I lifted the mattress and pulled out the revival poster I had stashed there. The Reverend Jackson Scope smiled up at me.

I carried the poster to the edge of our backyard, where I sat down and arranged my legs Indian fashion. A distant streetlight cast an eerie glow over the yard and the cicadas trilled their night song. I was already sticky with sweat, the humid night filling every pore of my skin. I felt like I was sitting under the revival tent, and a tear slipped down my cheek. I closed my eyes and tried to remember the Reverend Jackson Scopes’ sermons, but I couldn’t conjure one single word. Instead, I remembered how my heart raced and my skin tingled when I was near him—how my throat went dry and I couldn’t speak in his presence. I saw him, Bible in hand, standing before the crowd, and I recalled how I swayed in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Only it wasn’t the Holy Spirit. My religious fervor had been nothing but a silly teenager’s first love.

I pulled a box of matches out of my pocket and struck one against the side of the box. It flared into a band of garish light, the smell of sulfur burning my nose. I held it aloft and took one last look at the Reverend Jackson Scope. He and his new bride were leaving tomorrow for Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and I hoped I never saw them again.

I lay the poster on the ground and dropped the match on top of it. The flame took hold and spread, curling the edges toward the center until the poster was nothing but a handful of blackened ash. I sat there for a long time, listening to the night. When I stood and turned to leave, I looked up at the star-filled night and knew the girl who stood under the stars was not the same person who had sat under a revival tent and dreamed of love.

 

Rebecca D. Elswick is the daughter and granddaughter of coal miners. She has a master’s degree in education from East Tennessee State University. Elswick is director of the Writing Center at the Appalachian School of Law and is a teacher consultant for the University of Virginia Wise Appalachian Writing Project. Elswick’s award-winning writing has appeared in many publications and her debut novel, Mama’s Shoes, was published as the result of her winning a contest in Writer’s Digest Magazine; it was awarded the Writer’s Digest Mark of Quality. She and her husband reside in Big Rock, Virginia. They have three children and, at last count, five dogs.


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