Twelve-year-old John Abernathy plucked a rusty nail from between his teeth and jammed it into the corner of a flier. Using a hammer to bang the nail into the side of a splintered telephone pole, he eyed an old woman seated on the steps of a dilapidated cafe.
“You know what I’m hanging up here, lady?”
When the woman did not answer, John spat a mouthful of tobacco into the dirt.
“There’s a tent revival coming to town! Only costs a quarter to go, which is a heck of a deal, cause the Bible says you oughta tithe. I know you’re dirt poor like everybody these days, but I promise it’ll be the best quarter you ever spent!”
Ignoring John, the woman grabbed a rusty Coca-Cola sign from a pile of debris, held it to her heart, and sobbed. Exasperated, John turned his attention to a family of five scouring some weeds for wild berries.
“Y’all are some kind of a sickly looking bunch! I can tell from the way that crippled boy’s legs are twisted up, he’s had polio. Baby looks like it’s starving to death. Mama looks sallower than a lump of hog fat. What y’all need is a good, southern revival to get the spirit of the Lord pumping in your veins!”
“If folks could still afford the circus, you’d do well to join a freak show, son!” called the husband of the woman who looked sallower than hog fat. He was a brawny man - barefoot, shirtless and dressed in a pair of patched-up overalls.
John jerked a nail from his pocket, thrust it into a second corner of the flier and hammered. “How’d you like to see that young’un healed?”
At that the eyes of the sallow-faced mother brightened with hope. A polio stricken boy lying on a mat used a forearm to lift his torso. Even the old woman on the steps of the cafe stopped crying and looked in John’s direction.
“Far as I know, y’all are a bunch of illiterates, so let me read the advertisement to you and see if the name of this evangelist rings a bell."
Glancing at the flier, John smirked at a photograph of a suave Dapper Dan dressed in suspenders and a bowtie.
“Melvin Canup,” he began, his heart filled with hateful glee.
“Lord have mercy, Millie!” The old woman leapt from the steps and ran toward the weeds. “It’s Melvin Canup, that traveling miracle worker who healed five people in Memphis last month!”
“Junie, take the baby!” Millie thrust her bald, muddy-faced offspring into the arms of a girl with buck teeth and hair that fell to the caps of her knees.
“Just imagine it, Ma!” Millie gasped, running to hug her mother. “I heard he keeps a washtub full of Water Moccasins on the stage behind him. Fishes them out and waves them around like licorice sticks, but never gets bit!”
“Y’all remember when he prophesied the stock market crash on the radio?” Junie asked. “How he said calamity would come with the billowing of the dust and the dying of the leaves?”
Millie stepped away from her mother’s embrace and ran to her husband. “Cecil, if anybody can heal our little Jeb, Melvin can!”
Cecil slapped a mosquito on his bare, sunburnt shoulder and used a toe to trace a figure eight in the dirt. “But what if the man isn’t a miracle worker? Maybe he’s just lucky.”
The hope drained from Millie’s face. Cecil looked at her guiltily.
“A quarter’s a lot of money these days. We could eat two or three meals on that.”
“You can’t put no price tag on Jeb’s walking!” Millie sassed.
Cecil looked helplessly at John. “Son, read the rest of the poster. What does it say?”
John cleared his throat, tipped his cap, mustered up his most powerful speaking voice and bellowed, “Melvin Canup, the great evangelist, prophet, healer, and snake charmer will hold tent revivals at the Beulah, Georgia fairgrounds every evening at seven o'clock between January 9th and 16th of 1933. Bring your blind, your deaf, and your lame, as well as a twenty-five cent admission fee.”
The sound of a rumbling motor interrupted John’s proclamation. A shiny, Ford pickup truck sidled up to the weeds and eased to a stop.
“It can’t be!” Milllie gasped.
“What if it is?” mumbled the old woman.
The moment the truck’s driver’s side door flew open, Millie charged down the road like a racehorse fresh from a starting gate and soon found herself in the arms of a handsome young man with suspenders, clean fingernails, and a jaunty straw hat.
“Davy!” she cried. “My son. You’re home!”
“Of course, I came home!” Davy’s cheerful voice cut through the adulations of his kinfolk. “If it hadn’t been for the Depression, Luella and I would have stayed in the city after I finished seminary, and I would have taken a church there. But what with the pastor of Beulah Baptist abandoning his flock because they couldn’t pay him with more than vegetables and an occasional side of meat, the cafe going under from lack of paying customers, and the weather ruining the crops on the farm, I figured I best come home.
“I’ll take the church over, whether they pay me in dollars or dill pickles. Luella and I will help get the farm back up and running. Heck, we’ll at least keep the cafe maintained and looking sharp for when the light shows up at the end of the tunnel - which it will, and sooner than we think!”
The passenger’s side door swung open, and a woman stepped out. From hearing Davy talk, John assumed she was Luella. She looked terribly young, no older than seventeen or eighteen, and a bulge in her gut showed her to be in a family way. Her features were plainer than a dried out hoe cake without syrup. Aside from the baby’s bulge, her body looked thin enough to blow away in the wind. Notwithstanding her plainness, she was anything but ordinary. John could tell from the moment he laid eyes on Luella that she had staged a rebellion against pessimism and despair.
Her dress was cheap-looking and frayed, but clean. She wore tattered shoes, but tapped a cheery beat with her toes as she smiled. Whereas most victims of the Depression smelled like sweat and mud, she smelled like lye soap. Whereas most trudged through life with their heads to their chests, she sprung through it with her chin up. She flashed a set of clean, white teeth, adjusted a bobby pin in her neatly done hair, skipped around the front of the pickup, and wound an arm around her husband’s waist.
“Here she is!” Davy exclaimed. A king, John thought, kissing that vision on the lips. “My sweet wife, Louella!”
After an uncomfortable moment of silence in which Louella cleared her throat and fiddled with Davy’s collar, Millie spoke up, “She’s not from around here, and I don’t know anything about her. But what’s a mama to do once her bull-headed son grows up? I guess I don’t have no choice but to accept her.”
Louella’s chin dipped, and her eyes narrowed angrily. John felt like walloping that grimy-faced Millie upside the head. Davy, the old dunderhead, seemed oblivious.
“Baby’s coming in March,” he said, kissing Louella’s cheek.
Louella stopped fiddling with Davy’s lappelle, crossed her arms and frowned. She continued scowling and shaking her head as Davy and his clan peeled off into a cluster, leaving her isolated in a lonely bubble at the hood of the truck.
“Just before you showed up, Uncle Davy,” Junie exclaimed, pointing at John, “that weird little boy brought the most wonderful news!”
The longer Junie talked about Melvin Canup, the paler Davy grew. Atlast, he stormed to the telephone pole, ripped down the flier, tore it to shreds and yelled, “The luck of that blasphemous con artist has finally run out! He’s come to the wrong town and tangled with the wrong family!”
Davy proceeded to show off his skills as a preacher, turning an upside down trash can lid into a podium and delivering a sermon on the dangers of false prophets to which his family responded with passionate tears, and many supplications of "amen!” and “alleluia!” Only Luella remained unmoved. She kept standing with her arms crossed, kicking up dirt and muttering.
With the family’s opinion of Melvin growing lower every second, John figured he should run. But he made it no further than a couple of strides before Davy grabbed his shirt collar and yelled, “You’re in cahoots with Melvin Canup! Trying to help him swindle my brother-in-law and bring pain to my sister and paralyzed nephew!”
Then a thing happened that drained John’s heart of hate and made it flutter faster than the wings of an anxious hummingbird. Sweet Luella turned to him and said with wide, affectionate eyes, “Why would a good boy like you join forces with such a despicable man?”
Wild horses could not have pulled the truth from John’s lips, but Luella did it with a single question.
“I ran away from home because I got fed up with my ma! I decided to rebel and live a life of crime. Everytime there’s a revival, I go around hanging up posters, convincing folks to come. Melvin pays me to recruit people who are well to pretend they’re sick so he can pull off these fake healing stunts. The prophecy was a bunch of baloney. He started spewing stuff off, and got lucky that some of it fit. As for the snakes, he’s just learned how to hold them. Second he lets his guard down, one will get him for sure.”
“Well!” Luella said, gently clicking her tongue. “You did wrong, but I can tell you’re sorry. Just tell us where your ma lives, and we’ll carry you home.”
“I don’t want to disappoint you, Miss Luella!” John burst into tears. “But I’m so mad at my ma, I’d rather die than go back to her!”
“Well you’ll stay with us until you’re ready to go back!” John scolded. “No way, no how am I letting you roam free to wreak havoc and put yourself in danger!”
John knew he’d been beat, but looking at Luella, he didn’t mind one bit. Spending more time with her would be sweeter than eating a slice of cake straight from heaven’s kitchen.
“I’ll tell you what you will do, though,” Davy boosted himself onto the hood of the truck and gave Luella a kiss which she primly ignored. “You’ll tell Melvin Canup I’m the fake cripple this time. Once I’m on stage, his luck’s gonna run out!”
“They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover!” Melvin Canup leapt up and down as he hollered the words in a thick southern accent.
“I’m drunk on the spirit, and these snakes shall not smite me!” He thrust his hands into a washtub and fished out a pair of Water Moccasins.
The striped, brown and black vipers writhed in Melvin’s hands as he crossed a makeshift stage. Raucous cheers went up from a crowd confined to what looked like a circus tent. Luella, seated toward the back between Millie and Junie, looked on with bemused fascination. She had hardly spoken a word all afternoon, and had turned every thought toward despising her mother-in-law and resenting Davy. Even a spectacle as extreme as a raving con artist handling snakes managed to draw her attention away from her anger only slightly.
“Fat as hogs while the rest of us starve! Wasting money on trash like this!” Millie said of a plump couple fanning themselves with revival bulletins.
“Well we’re spending money on it, ain’t we?” Junie put in as she ate from a bag of Cracker Jacks purchased with some of Davy’s bribery money.
Junie looked sweet with her hair lobbed off at the ears. The girl had generously donated her luscious locks to Millie, who had used them to fashion a wig and fake beard for Davy. Davy had grown up in Beulah, after all, and would be easily recognized.
“You don’t quit eating, you’ll be fatter than they are!” Millie scolded.
Ignoring her mother, Junie shoveled another handful of Cracker Jacks into her mouth.
“Heart of gold,” Davy had said of his mother, “but a little rude. Says whatever comes to her mind. Don’t take it personally. At least you know she doesn’t keep secrets.”
Luella began to regret allowing bitterness to take root in her heart. She fished a New Testament from her purse and searched it for answers.
“You! Long haired, bearded man on crutches, come up to be healed!” Luella had tuned Melvin out for an hour and a half, but those words finally got her attention.
John left the audience and stepped onto the stage. Behind him, tottered Davy - hairier than an Afghan Hound, dressed in a pair of Cecil’s baggy overalls, supporting himself on Jeb’s crutches, and pretending to be confused.
“Pa’s legs got run over by a tractor,” John explained as Davy tottered onto the stage. “Poor bugger can’t walk right no more!”
After five minutes of working the crowd, Melvin laid a hand on Davy’s shoulder and yelled, “Be healed!”
At that, John tore off his wig, ripped off his beard, and threw Jeb’s crutches across the stage.
“Bless my soul!” an old woman screamed. “If it ain’t David Anderson!”
Like cider spilled from a jug, voices poured into the tent. They screamed. They gasped. They jabbered. They wept.
Davy stepped forward and addressed the crowd. “I took this charlatan’s bribe and pretended to be sick so I could expose him as a fraud! He’s nothing but a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Now his luck has run out for good! ”
Before Davy could say another word, Melvin grabbed John by the arm and roped him into a wrestling match. “You no good, backstabbing, fatherless vagabond! I knew I should never have trusted you!”
One moment, Melvin’s brown suspenders merged with John’s checkered shirt. The next, John flung the toe of his boot into Melvin’s leg. Both lost their balance and flew into the tub of snakes.
Luella closed her eyes and screamed. When she opened her eyes, she saw Davy bent over with his arms in the snake tub, trying to fish John and Melvin out. Terrified, she kicked down chairs, stepped on feet, and elbowed people in the sides in a dash to make it to her husband. By the time she reached the stage, Davy had succeeded. John and Melvin lay wet and panting on the ground.
“Did they bite you?” Luella threw herself into her husband’s arms, so sorry for the grudge she had harbored.
“I didn’t get bitten, but Melvin did. Snakes got him three times in the face.”
Abandoned by the ones he had come to con, Melvin writhed and grasped a swollen place on his cheek. Thinking of all the poor, sick people he had misled with false hope, Luella found it hard to feel pity.
“And John?” she asked.
At the sound of John’s name, Davy’s face crumpled like wrinkled paper.
“One got him in the throat,” he said, a tear trickling from his eye. “They get your arm or leg, half the time it isn’t deadly, but with the throat I don’t know. I’m scared he might be a goner.”
Taking a closer look at John, Luella saw a set of reddish fang marks on the boy’s throat. The skin around the wound was swollen and dark.
“You poor, dear boy!” Luella took a cross-legged seat on the ground next to John and cradled his upper body in her arms.
“If it’s my time to die,” John wheezed, tears in his eyes, “at least I’ll fly from this earth in the arms of an angel.”
“I’ll pray for your healing!” Luella wept, her tears mingling with John’s.
As Luella silently prayed, John made a confession.
“My pa killed himself after he lost his store. I blamed my ma because she bellyached and complained. The way I saw it, if she’d been more understanding, Pa wouldn’t have felt like a failure and shot himself. But laying here, dying, I see I was wrong. Ma can’t be blamed for the choice Pa made. She’s not perfect, but neither are any of us. I’d do anything if I could tell her how sorry I am before I die.”
“For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God,” Luella whispered.
“That from the Bible?”
“I read it just now.”
“What do you reckon it means?”
“Anger’s like snake venom, John. It starts small, but it spreads. If we don’t do away with it, it gets worse and worse. Make us do hurtful things. Stops us from doing what’s right. I’ve had anger too, but God has helped me leave it behind.”
After a few seconds, John gasped, grabbed his throat, and sat up like a Jack-in-the-box. “All of a sudden, I can breathe okay again! The bite doesn’t hurt so bad anymore.”
Davy knelt and pried John’s hands from the wound. Two fang prints still marked the boy’s throat, but the color had faded, the swelling had gone down, and the skin on his neck had turned from black to a healthy tan.
Davy laughed and slapped John’s shoulder. “I tell you what son, I thought for sure that bite was worse. Doesn’t look bad at all. Looks like you got the luck Melvin’s lost!”
John smiled at Luella, then glanced up at heaven. “I don’t think luck had anything to do with it.”