Elmer looked at himself in the cracked full-length mirror screwed into the front of the bathroom door. He had just pulled on his newest Osh Kosh overalls and had hiked the galluses up over his best white shirt.
Elmer turned sideways and kinda sucked in his belly; “Bet she’ll like this,” he thought. He pulled on his Sunday shoes and got his best hat out of the closet, then went out of the bedroom and walked down the hall to the living room, where Bert, his wife, and little ten year old Nan were waiting.
Bert said “You look nice, Elmer, but we need to go if we’re going to make it to the camp meeting on time. You need to load up those two hams also.” Elmer grunted and went out to the smokehouse and plucked two salt cured hams from the ceiling joists where they were suspended on nails with twine. He looked at the remaining two hams and thought of those Poland-China Hogs they had slaughtered last winter. “Good ones,” he thought to himself, and carried the meat and put it in the trunk of the car.
By this time Bert and Nan had come out of the house and got in the car, Nan in the back seat. Elmer drove around the little circular drive in front of the house and rolled down the hill toward the country road. His house sat up on a pretty knoll, and the land dropped away from it all around, pastures in the front and woods in the back.
“How much you gonna charge Granny Elmer?” Bert asked, surveying Nan in the back seat and wondering if her fingernails were dirty.
“I reckon ‘bout twelve dollars, she is my momma ya know.”
“Guess that’s fair enough,” Bert offered, “since hog meat is a little scarce this year.”
“Sister Alma is gonna take us to ‘Joy and Praise Camp’ this summer if we are all real good,” Nan said. Cousin Helene said Aunt Pearl was gonna let her go too! It’s gonna be up toward the mountains, near Lake Lure, and we can go swimmin’ and everything.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be goin’ Nan. There’s more coming to Sister Alma’s camp meetin’ all the time, so I ‘spect there will be a lot of kids to take, and you know it would be a wonderful, loving Christian atmosphere if Sister Alma is running it,” Bert exclaimed, and told Elmer to quit driving so slow.
“You drive like an old man,” she said. Elmer made no comment and continued to negotiate the old Ford around the curves to Russ and Sarah’s. Russ was Elmer’s baby brother, and Sarah was his redheaded Scotch Irish wife. They lived with Granny, Elmer and Russ’ mother, in the “old house,” the homeplace where the Hoffman clan had been raised. It was an old two-story clapboard house that had never been painted, and had a 5 V tin roof, a well, and an outhouse. There was also a root cellar. Russ and Sarah had one girl, Lois. Lois was Nan’s age.
The old house sat down in a hollow and Elmer slowly negotiated the sharp turn off the country road, up next to the Wild Cherry tree that was so bad to get bag worms. It was six o’clock on a warm July afternoon, and they were all starting to sweat a little bit as they piled out of the car. Elmer, Bert and Nan walked down the little well-worn path to the L shaped porch at the right rear of the house. The open area at the L was where the chickens congregated, so it was totally devoid of grass – you really had to watch your step when you were heading to the porch.
Lois was up in the big Chinaberry tree that covered the chicken yard. She hollered hello and climbed down the tree hanging onto the little pieces of wood her daddy had nailed into the tree, like ladder rungs.
“Hey, Lois, you going to Camp Joy and Praise?” Naomi shouted exuberantly.
“I don’t know for sure, Nan,” Lois said, and changed the subject quickly. “Want a biscuit and molasses? Momma just pulled out some hot biscuits and we got some of Mr. Beam’s molasses, the best around.”
“Sure,” said Nan, and they trooped up onto the porch and into the kitchen where a slender red-haired woman with bright green eyes was placing biscuits on a platter.
“Hey Nan,” said Sarah, and having overheard Lois asked “How about a hot biscuit with butter and molasses; just churned the butter yesterday.” Nan’s eyes got big; like most of the Hoffmans she did not lack for appetite. “Yes ma’am,” Nan cried, and Sarah fixed her up a little plate of butter and molasses and cut open a steaming hot biscuit and laid it beside the sweet stuff.
Elmer opened the screened door for Bert and they entered the kitchen at the same time that Russ walked in from the little room beside the kitchen, which went down a step. It was kind of a small family room, and had a little fireplace in it – a cozy nook.
“How ya’ll doing,” said Russ, grinning his big grin with the perfect teeth. He was in an old pair of overalls and nothing else, having come in from work at Seth Lumber Co., and changed into comfortable duds.
Then Granny, Russ and Elmer’s mother, came in the kitchen from the porch. She had been out scratching in her flowers.
“Hello Elmer, Bert, and look there at little Nan; whatcha doin’ little girl?” Nan grinned at her granny, brown molasses dripping down the right side of her chin.
Granny was the prototype granny of the 1940’s in the country; bent over, toothless, hair skinned back in a tight bun. A pair of very thick silver rimmed spectacles sat on her nose, a testimony to her cataract removal.
“Let’s sit out on the porch,” Granny suggested, and they all left the kitchen, Nan finishing her treat quickly, and found seats on the wooden floored porch. It had cooled down a little in the late afternoon, and the porch faced east.
“Well what are you all doin’ all dressed up in the middle of the week,” asked Russ, giving Sarah a very quick little wink.
“We are goin’ down to the camp meetin’ at Dallas to hear Sister Alma; they say she is going to have a healing service tonight, and I would not want to miss that. Ya know she had one last week and Bogus got up there on the stage – you know he has always been plagued with terrible migraine headaches – and she prayed over him and he said he ain’t had one since,” Bert exclaimed.
Russ chuckled and said, “Maybe he should have got her to restore those four fingers he got caught in the planing machine last March.”
Sarah smiled, but Granny said, “Now Russ, I have heard of such things, and I ain’t sure it is right Godly to poke fun at it.”
“Okay, Mom,” Russ said.
“Elmer, did you bring that ham you were talking about; you know we’re out of meat,” Granny asked.
“Yep, Momma, let me get it out of the trunk,” he said and went to the old Ford, returning with the ham, one of the two he had plucked from the smoke house. Elmer laid it down on the floor of the porch and Granny said, “Lois, get me a butcher knife so’s I can cut a little piece of this to suck on; it looks like a real good one.”
Lois brought the knife and Granny sliced a little chip off the side and popped it in her mouth. “Mm-mm,” Granny said, as she sucked on the salty meat. “That is mighty good ham Elmer, can I offer to pay you?” Granny asked.
“I guess twelve dollars will do it,” Elmer said, and kind of looked over toward the chinaberry tree.
Granny paused a moment, then said, “Lois, get my pocket book out of the wardrobe.”
Lois came back directly with Granny’s pocketbook, and Granny counted out two fives and two ones.
Russ and Sarah exchanged very quick embarrassed glances as Elmer rolled up the money and dropped it in the top pocket of his overalls.
Bert said, “I reckon we oughta get on now; ya’ll come and see us when you can.”
Russ smiled and said, “Okay Bert, we’ll see you soon.”
Elmer looked at Russ a little sheepishly and said, “Bye Russ,” then stooped down to hug his momma. Sarah smiled and said nothing.
“Now Cousin Lois, you be sure and beg your momma and daddy to come to Sister Alma’s Joy and Praise Camp, cause we’re gonna sing songs and swim and everything,” shouted Nan as she trundled off behind her parents to the car.
They got in the old Ford and started up the dusty road out to Highway 321, two miles of red dirt, and then three more to go on the blacktop before they got to Dallas.
Nobody said anything for a while; they just sat on the porch as the afternoon cooled off.
Granny finally said, “Russ, will you hang that ham up down in the smoke house, but cut off a slab first, and we’ll have it at breakfast.”
“Sure, Mom,” said Russ and hoisted the meat up and walked barefoot the thirty feet to the empty smoke house.
The four of them ate supper quietly, with only a scattering of comments, mostly from Lois. She was a good science student and was excited about going into the sixth grade, the first opportunity to use a microscope.
“You know, there are germs everywhere,” Lois pronounced. “Well I guarantee you they are all over that ham.” Russ and Sarah said nothing, just grinned at each other, but Granny spoke up.
“Now youngun, I bet it would take a legion of soldiers to keep you away from that nasty ham tomorrow mornin’ when you got eggs, grits, and your momma’s biscuits together with it.”
They all laughed, and Lois said, “Yes ma’am, you have got me there, so I guess some of them germs must be okay. Anyway, they sure do taste good.”
After supper they all went back out onto the porch and walked around to the front of the house and sat in the little stiff-backed chairs on the front porch. The chairs had comfortable leather laced bottoms, and everybody sat in those except Granny, who had a small rocker out there with a cushion on it.
The house faced due west and looking across the road beyond the broom straw field, the sun was setting quickly.
“I think that would be a pretty spot for a house, don’t you Sarah?” Russ said, pointing beyond the Wild Cherry tree to the broom straw field. The land sloped gently left to right, with the center area being pretty level.
“Well Russ, if we keep selling butter and eggs up on the mill hill at Harden, and you keep workin’, and we save our money, maybe someday we can do that,” Sarah said, with a wistful look in her eye.
“That would be the way to do it alright,” nodded Granny. The air was cooling and it was quiet for a long time. Lightning bugs started to come out, and Lois ran and caught a couple, putting them in a small jar and screwing on the lid.
“Wonder what’s happenin’ at the the camp meeting?” Granny said.
Bert was practicing her songs in her mind; she knew at least three of them: Bringing in the Sheaves, Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb, and the standard end of the night clincher, Just as I am. Sister Alma said Bringing in the Sheaves would strike a chord with the farm community ‘cause harvest time was nearing.
Bert was the organist for the camp meetings, and Elmer served as the head usher; his responsibilities included recruiting other ushers and, at the end of the night, counting the money and making note of the other offerings. Out in the country farm goods and even animals were sometimes brought to the meeting as offerings. In the same vein it was not uncommon to hear about Dr. Fesperman in Lincolnton receiving two laying hens and a hunting dog for delivering one of Adrian Clemmer’s daughters.
Elmer maneuvered the old Ford into the parking area adjacent to the big brown tent; it looked like a circus tent, with poles spaced throughout and staked off with ropes for support. Iron stobs driven into the Gaston County red clay secured the ropes.
There was plenty of parking and it was surely needed; by the time things got hopping ‘bout 7:30 two hundred cars would surround the tent. But now it was just 6:15, and only a smattering of vehicles were present, mostly other ushers.
“Okay, let’s go on in,” said Elmer, “Going to be a big night, and Sister Alma is going to finish it up with a special healing service. I hear that club footed sister-in-law of Stan Glenn is coming and Joe Clonger said Uncle Joe Clemmer might try to make it, if the arthritis ain’t got him so bad.”
“Uncle Joe” Clemmer was not a relative, but everybody called him Uncle Joe. He was so afflicted with severe arthritis that he was bent over at a thirty degree angle and got around with two walking sticks.
The trio got out of the car, Elmer retrieving the ham from the trunk. Nan ran off to play with other “Joy and Praise” recruits, and Bert went over to the side of the stage where the old organ was. It had been donated by Mayor Maxwell, a most devoted attendee.
Elmer carried the ham inside the tent, and noticing that no one else was around, walked around behind the stage to where a little 8’ x 8’ area was cordoned off with curtains. This was Sister Alma’s dressing room, where she would change into the tight sparkly evening gowns she was renowned for.
Elmer stepped outside the little partition and called “Sister Alma.” In a moment the curtain was pulled back by a tall raven-haired woman with bright red nail polish on her fingernails.
“Come in, Elmer, I just got into my dress. If you had been a few minutes earlier you could have hooked it in the back.” Sister Alma was resplendent in a long gown made of a shiny red material with sequins. Although the dress went nearly to her ankles, there was a slit up the left side that went six inches above her knee.
Sister Alma deftly reached behind her neck and quickly unhooked the fastener, pulling the zipper down a few inches.
“Why Elmer, I don’t believe I did get that fastened securely in the back after all; can you take a look at it and fix it?”
Elmer was standing there four feet away from her, trance like, and when she said this he dropped the ham to the sawdust floor and moved toward her. Sister Alma turned around so Elmer could reach the zipper and clasp; he clumsily worked the zipper, exploring with his eyes as far down her back as he could. The clasp took a while, big nervous fingers working with a tiny hook and eye.
Once she felt the clasp engage, Sister Alma turned around to face Elmer quickly, startling him as he saw her low cut dress and magnificent bosom looming only inches away.
“What do you have for me tonight, Elmer?” she asked quietly, putting her hand on his shoulder, then placing her arm around his.
“H-h-ham, I brung you a ham,”Elmer stammered.
“Oh, my,” she exclaimed, “Are you sure? I know meat is hard to come by this year.”
“Not a problem,” Elmer said, “I’ve got a-plenty.”
Elmer hoisted the ham up onto the small table in the enclosure, mumbling something about ushers and pushed his way through the curtain.
Alma chuckled to herself, looking at the fine ham on the table. “Looks as good as the one his brother Theodore brought last week” she thought, and started painting her full lips bright red. “Great with my dazzling blue eyes,” she thought, as she put on the finishing touches looking in the mirror hung from the curtain rod.
Elmer walked out in front of the stage, then stopped to try to collect himself. “I saw halfway down her back,” he thought, as he tried to control his breathing. He fumbled in his pocket for a blood pressure pill; he was sure it must be off the chart.
Elmer stood there a few minutes and surveyed the stream of people entering the tent. He saw a lot of familiar faces, but directed his blue eyes, (Sister Alma had mentioned them last week), to the first two rows to the right of the stage. That’s where he had instructed the usher candidates to assemble.
Ushering at Sister Alma’s event was an honor, and not something to be taken lightly. Elmer puffed up a little bit with the realization that the lovely Sister Alma had entrusted him with this task, and additionally had awarded him the honor of counting the money and accounting for the offerings at the end of the night.
“Quite a responsibility,” he thought to himself soberly, and looked at the usher spot. He immediately noticed Joe Beck Clonger, Bogus Clonger, Preacher Clonger; good God he thought, a bumper Clonger night. They would all do, cause they cleaned up good. He looked on down the line and there was Ralph Fulbright – they called him half bright – and Elmer figgered he would be okay. Ushers didn’t need to talk, only accept offerings.
“Yea,” he thought, “That bunch will be alright.” Then he saw Hoover Carpenter and Pasour Rhyne. “My God,” he uttered under his breath. Hoover hadn’t shaved in 3 days and Elmer knew by his stench he hadn’t bathed in a week. He walked over to Hoover.
“Hoover, I told you they wouldn’t be no way you could usher if you didn’t look respectable and cleaned up.”
Hoover briefly looked at Elmer, then cast his eyes down. Hoover had a lot of trouble looking people in the eye.
“I’m sorry Elmer, Bill Costner has been workin’ the shit out of me at the still over at Oodley Creek, and I just didn’t have time to get cleaned up. But I brought you a quart.”
Hoover managed to make eye contact with Elmer, and he could see this statement had got his attention.
Elmer thought a little, then remembered that Sister Alma had always said that we should help the poor and misguided.
“Okay Hoover, but try to do a little better next time.” Elmer leaned down and picked up a bunch of collection plates, handed one to the approved Hoover, and then passed them out to the ones he had already passed favorable judgment on.
“You can just put it in the back seat of my car,” he told Hoover, and moved on to Pasour Rhyne.
Pasour Rhyne was sitting there, staring off into space, and moving his arms around; first he would put his forearm up against his forehead and cross his other arm across his midsection. Then he would giggle and flash that vacant grin of his. Elmer had seen it before, as everyone else in the Costner Community had. Pasour had a couple of distinctions goin’ for him. The first one was he was a charter member of the Larson-Savoney Society, a secret group that met periodically on the banks of the South Fork River. If you asked him about what they did he would clam up and grin his stupid grin. His second claim, and most important, was he was a certified nut. Papers and all, Pasour had made many trips to the psychiatric ward at Morganton to get his temples shaved and the subsequent electric shock. He would act more normal for a few months, but then he would fall back into doing the weird signs and talking about the Secret Society; then he would shut up when you asked him about it.
His most recent trip to Morganton had been prompted by his burning down Earl Lineberger’s barn. He got to go in a squad car that time. Fortunately Earl was kin, and a good guy, so he did not press charges. Understandably Pasour had never married and lived with his mother.
Elmer looked at Pasour and decided it was too close to another shock treatment to trust him with money. He already had enough ushers anyway. Pasour looked at Elmer, figgering he was not chosen, and slunk off down the aisle to sit with his mother.
The tent was filling rapidly, and Elmer went back over to where Bert was at the organ. As he walked up to her he couldn’t help but notice how her calves came down to her feet, with no slimming at all at the ankles. Bert shared this affliction with her sister Pearl, Theodore’s wife. The young girls called it “cankles,” a combination of calves and ankles. Elmer shivered a bit when he looked at those legs, and immediately his mind raced to a vision of Sister Alma’s slender curvaceous legs. The sound of the organ broke Elmer’s sensual spell, as Bert started in on “Shall We Gather at the River” on the organ.
That music was the signal that Sister Alma was ‘bout ready to start, and as Elmer surveyed the audience he saw that it was close to capacity.
The schedule was that Bert would play through the song once and then pause, with just a few background notes on the old organ, as Sister Alma came out onto the stage.
On perfect cue, Sister Alma appeared; she walked to the edge of the stage, which was four steps up from the seating area, and stood stock still.
Bert was instructed to completely stop playing at the very moment that Alma stopped, staring at the gathering. With no emotion on her face, but displaying her curvaceous body in all her adornment, and pursing her brilliantly red lips, she moved her head slowly 90 degrees to the left, and slowly rotated her beautiful head to the right. The crowd had come to a hushed silence when she had walked out, and watched silently with rapt attention as she completed her 180 degree turn.
Then her head moved back to the front, and she shouted, “Are you ready to praise the Lord?” The parishioners erupted as one, “Yes, Sister Alma,” in a thundering roar, then went quiet.
Sister Alma repeated her 180 degree survey, then fronted them again, and looking upward said in a loud voice, “Are you ready to accept sweet sweet Jesus into your evil hearts?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” they roared, and the cacophony went on for over a minute, until Sister Alma, beaming from the stage held her shapely arms toward the heavens. Quiet again descended.
“Alright, my children, let us raise our voices to the highest in singing, “Shall We Gather at the River.”
Perfectly on cue, Bert roared into the song, singing along as she played. “Shall we gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river, shall we gather at the river, that flows by the throne of God.”
The crowd joined in, even Elmer trying to hum along a little. Elmer had paid attention to the lyrics but the whole thing about gathering at a river that flowed by the throne of God did not make a lot of sense to him. “Well, what if God wasn’t on his throne when everybody gathered; it would sorta be a waste of time,” he thought. Elmer made a mental note to ask Sister Alma about that.
The song was winding down, Sister Alma leading with her sweet soprano voice. As it ended Alma greeted everyone, told them how blessed it was that they were here, and lit into her sermon; it was going to be a short one tonight because it was a healing service. “Shouldn’t bore them too much with biblical shit before a healin’ service,” she had decided, her thought being that she would lose them before the show – and the ensuing collection.
When Bert sounded the last note on the river song Sister Alma stared straight ahead, and said in a low, sultry voice, “Do you love Jesus?” The crowd murmured “Yes, Sister Alma.” Then she licked her gorgeous lips and said, in a louder voice, “Do you love Jesus every day of your life?” “Yes, Sister Alma,” they responded, increasing the volume as she did. Then she twirled 360 degrees and came back to face them, and Bert hit a resounding note on the organ, so well-rehearsed, and Sister Alma screamed out, “Do you love Jesus with every fiber of your being?” At that the entire group erupted, jumping to their feet, their hands held high and waving, shouting, “Yes, yes, yes” to the mountaintops. Pasour Rhyne stood in the aisle repeating over and over the Larson Savoney sign, and Bogus Clonger jumped up and down waving his diminished digits above his head, tobacco juice dripping down the left side of his chin.
When Sister Alma twirled her bounteous bosom swayed a little up and down, and Elmer, the dutiful and observant servant, made note of this; his mind was overwhelmed with two numbers and a letter – 38D. When he had zipped up Sister Alma’s dress, and surreptitiously looked down the back, he had espied her brassiere size.
“My God,” he had thought to himself, “she is so big.” Bert was a big woman in stature, but she wore a 40A bra, more a testimony to her girth than her breast.
Elmer chastised himself for losing his nerve in the dressing room and vowed to himself to be more assertive in the future. “Reckon I had rather be more insertive, than assertive,” he thought to himself, feeling proud of himself for his vocabulary use. Elmer was not educated but he did like words, and phrases. He especially liked the phrase “big ol’ gorgeous titties,” he thought as he watched the twirl.
Elmer’s miscreant musings were interrupted by a commotion at the rear of the tent. A small knot of people was at the back of the aisle, and at the center was a little old man dressed in his best overalls, and a white shirt and a red tie. He wore a new straw hat. Elmer strained to see who it was, but within a few moments it was clear who had entered the arena.
It began as a murmur, but quickly grew into a resounding chant – “Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe.” It was the long awaited arrival of Uncle Joe Clemmer; word had gotten out that he was coming for the cure, but most folks did not believe he would take the plunge into the world of Sister Alma evangelism, for Uncle Joe was a lifelong member of Antioch Lutheran Church in the Costner Community, and they were a right conservative bunch. But after years of suffering, and doctors telling him diagnoses that included “crippling arthritis,” and adding the cautionary words “You will just have to learn to live with it,” Uncle Joe was ready to give something else a shot, a big ol’ religious shot.
Uncle Joe made his way slowly toward the stage; he walked with a cane, or walking stick as most called it, but was also assisted at each side by neighbors, on the right by Cora Reid, an elementary school teacher at Costner, and on the other side by Mary Clonger, wife of Joe Clonger, one of the ushers chosen by Chief Usher Elmer.
The chanting got louder the closer the entourage got to the stage; Sister Alma surveyed the crowd once again: “Boy are they ripe or what,” she mused, licking her pouty lips with a darting pink tongue. Her gaze came back to rest on Uncle Joe Clemmer. As he and his helpers approached the stage Elmer and Joe Beck Clonger came forward to assist, for he would have to be carried up the four steps to the stage. As the two men hoisted Uncle Joe up, two others emerged from the crowd to help; a drunken Hoover Carpenter came stumbling forward and fell on top of Cora Reid, who yelped like she had been stung by a hornet. On the other side Pasour Rhyne ran up, grinning maniacally, and flashing the Larson-Savoney sign repeatedly. Elmer saw him coming; he knew how to handle Pasour. Elmer leaned over, and whispered three very important words into Pasour Rhyne’s ear – “Morganton, electro shock”. Pasour turned stark white, and giving the Larson-Savoney sign one last time, tore off down the aisle like a scalded dog.
Alma adjusted the cleavage on the 38Ds as Elmer and Joe Beck got Uncle Joe Clemmer onto the flat surface of the stage. Sister Alma motioned for Elmer and Joe Beck to depart. Then, staring at the cripple, she said in a loud firm voice, “He won’t need you men anymore.” The helpers departed, and as if on cue the crowd fell quiet; a few moments before the din was riotous, but now there was total quiet.
Alma took one step toward Uncle Joe Clemmer, and stopped. “My Goodness, if it ain’t Uncle Joe” she said, smiling the gorgeous smile with the perfect teeth.
“Well you waited a long time; I heard rumors ‘bout you coming for months, and here you are,” Alma was still twenty feet from the crippled man.
“Uncle Joe, I want you to look at me,” Sister Alma said. Joe was perpetually bent over at a 30 degree angle, but he raised his head as much as he could and managed a gap-toothed grin.
“Come over here to me, Uncle Joe,” Alma said, and as she spoke the words looked out over the crowd and shouted, “Do we have any believers in this sin filled tent tonight?”
“Yes, Sister Alma, Yes,” they screamed, and Alma motioned to 40A Bert, and Bert went into a low, slow rendition of “Just As I Am.”
Uncle Joe Clemmer was inching over on this walking stick. Sister Alma strode over to him and leaned her 5’ 10” frame down to his upward turned face. All Uncle Joe could see was the deep cut cleavage of 38D’s. Alma leaned in closer, almost pressing his face into the abyss, but then turned her head and whispered in his ear “Uncle Joe, how you like these big ol’ titties?”
Uncle Joe jolted like electricity had gone through his body, and stood up straighter than he had in years, although he was still decidedly bent. “Think maybe that shine has kicked in,” Alma thought. Everybody knew Uncle Joe had a taste for it, and Sister Alma had instructed her faithful servant Hoover Carpenter to make sure Uncle Joe had a big long drink of it in the parking lot prior to coming in.
Alma backed up a few feet, skittering backwards on five-inch heels, curvaceous legs flexing.
“How ‘bout you straighten up for Sister Alma,” Alma cajoled. She turned to the crowd and said calmly, “We all try to walk the straight and narrow, right?” The crowd shouted “Yes, Sister Alma.”
“Well, let’s all help Uncle Joe straighten up,” Alma shouted and walked back over to Uncle Joe. The crowd watched as Alma bent deeply over Uncle Joe once again, and could see his head pop up another couple inches. Pasour Rhyne had sufficiently recovered and was back in the tent. Suddenly he ran to the front, faced the group and started shouting, “Go, Uncle Joe, Go, Uncle Joe, Go, Uncle Joe.” The crowd fell in like lemmings, even Uncle Joe spitting the words out as best he could.
Sister Alma leaned in again, and whispered in Uncle Joe’s ear, “How would you like to put your big strong hands around these monsters,” she teased, and this time Uncle Joe popped up a good 6 inches. He was getting pretty close to straight, as Hoover came up to the edge of the stage carrying a glass. Sister Alma walked over, Hoover mumbled something unintelligible, and Alma came back with the glass.
“Brothers and Sisters, Uncle Joe’s throat is probably dry due to all this effort,” she said holding the glass to Uncle Joe’s lips. Uncle Joe drank half the glass in a gulp, thinkin’ it was water. Then he really jerked and stood straight.
Sister Alma saw his movement, and looked at the audience triumphantly and pointed at Uncle Joe Clemmer, shouting “Do you see what can happen if you truly believe?”
“Yes, Sister Alma, Yes,” they screamed. At this point Uncle Joe stood straighter than straight, reared his shoulders back, and started marching across the stage, Sister Alma exulting and walking alongside him, pointing at him in his glorious trek. He walked ten feet, then turned toward the crowd and tossed his walking stick toward them. Pasour Rhyne caught it in the forehead, but recovered quickly and grinned his nutty grin, then stood up and turned around and around, holding the cane in his hands and shouting, “A miracle, a miracle, a miracle.” It was picked up at once, and as Uncle Joe Clemmer continued to prance across the stage, the audience screamed, “Miracle, Miracle, Miracle.”
Sister Alma gave Bert a look and raised her right hand – the signal for a resounding organ moment- daaah- it went on, very loud, for ten seconds, the crowd going nuts, Uncle Joe prancing, and Sister Alma pirouetting on her 5-inch heels and shouting “Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord.”
When the crescendo ended, Sister Alma walked slowly over to Uncle Joe, and put her arm around his boney shoulders, and looked at the followers. They hushed, and she said, “You have seen it, you have seen a hopeless cripple healed by the power of God, so what should you do, for the glory of God, What Should You Do?”
Sister Alma nodded to Bert, and she started in on “Just As I Am,” and then pointed to Elmer, and he motioned for his minions to carry their collection plates through the throng.
The ushers scattered through the crowd, the mill workers and farmers holding out their paper money for collection. The Clonger bunch did fine, but Hoover Carpenter fell down twice; the parishioners were very helpful and picked him up and put back the bounty in the plate.
As Head Usher Elmer watched, for he was the overseer, he felt a pretty strong pang of guilt for ol’ Pasour Rhyne; after all, he did get hit in the head with Uncle Joe’s cane, and he had done a right nice job of getting’ the crowd riled. Elmer caught Passour’s eye, and motioned for him to come forward. Pasour came up kind of sheepishly, but when Buford winked at him and handed him the plate, Pasour grinned that nutty grin, and when Elmerwhispered in his ear, in a weak moment, “Pinch the pot for ten bucks,” Pasour took off runnin’ down the aisle. Buford reflected a moment, and thought “Poor old crazy man, will prob’ly be the biggest day of his life, ‘cept when he burnt down Earl Lineberger’s barn.”
As the ushers returned to Elmer at the front of the stage, Uncle Joe Clemmer was winding down a little, and some of his people came up and got him, and he walked away proud and erect, even doffing his straw hat to the crowd as he exited, letting out a final, “Praise the Lord and Sister Alma.” Sister Alma waved to Uncle Joe and pursed her red lips, expressing a goodbye kiss.
The collection plates were overflowing, and as they came to Head Usher Elmer they dumped them into the tin tub that Sister Alma had provided. Elmer watched as each usher came up and poured the coins and bills into the big tub. Elmer thanked each usher as he left, paying special attention to Hoover, the shine purveyor.
The last to come up was Pasour Rhyne, who in addition to bringing the collection plate was leading a veal calf on a rope. “Crown Radford give us this,” Pasour crowed as he poured the money into the tub.
“Take it out back and tie it to one of the tent stakes,” Head Usher Elmer told him. Pasour turned to make his way out back and fell face first on the sawdust floor. He got up and had greenish looking mire on his forehead – the calf had shit while he was standing there waiting on Pasour. Pasour, ever the goofy showman, was not embarrassed at all, and turned to the crowd and delivered a final Larson-Savoney salute with a shit stained forearm. Pasour headed toward the rear of the tent, leading the veal calf and departing with a crazy giggle.
Bert hit the organ again for ten seconds, and then stopped abruptly. Then Sister Alma held her shapely arms up to the heights, and the audience was silent. Sister Alma smiled a saintly smile, an all-knowing smile and said, “Brothers and Sisters, you have seen the power of the Lord tonight, you have experienced what can happen when you believe – just ask Uncle Joe Clemmer. Ask the man who was healed in your presence, YOUR VERY PRESENCE, this evening. Now I want to send you home singing a song of thanksgiving, a song dedicated to the upcoming harvest, just around the corner.”
With that Bert broke into the prelude to “Bringing in the Sheaves.” Everybody knew the words by heart, and they all were on their feet, belting out the lyrics – “Bringin’ in the sheaves, bringin’ in the sheaves, we shall come rejoicin’, bringin’ in the sheaves.”
Sister Alma led them in two verses and then the organ ceased abruptly. And the lights dimmed and suddenly a spotlight, which Bogus Clonger had been able to rig up at the rear of the tent, burst its bright light onto Sister Alma, encircling her in all her glory.
Sister Alma looked out at the crowd and delivered the Benediction. She always ad libbed this, for she never really knew how things were going to play out.
“Brothers and Sisters in the great family of our powerful God and his only son, Jesus Christ, our Savior, do not forget what has happened in this holy spot tonight. Never, NEVER (she shouted) forget Uncle Joe Clemmer being restored to perfect health, and never forget the love and fellowship we have enjoyed together. Remember we will have our next meeting on Friday night. And may the Lord God Almighty bless and keep you, and make your harvest a great bounty.”
Sister Alma waved to the crowd, and as the lights came up, Bogus cut off the spotlight, and after a two-minute standing ovation, while Sister Alma waved and blew kisses to the crowd, the people started filing out, beaming faces of joy and chatting about the miracle they had beheld.
Chief Usher Elmer looked at the tin tub full of good old Piedmont Lint Head/Dirt farmer money and went to pick up one side.
“This thing is right heavy,” he thought to himself; “lots of quarters in the bottom.” Elmer looked around at the dwindling crowd for a hand; all the ushers had left, even the be-shitted Pasour Rhyne. Then he remembered seeing his brother Theodore come in late. Theodore typically had business to take care of up at Vera Pasour’s house around this hour in Harden, and it had to culminate prior to her brother getting off the second shift.
“Theodore, help me carry this back to Sister Alma’s dressing room; you can help me count it if you want to.”
Theodore grunted and took one side of the tub. He and Elmer usually got along well, but since Elmer had become Chief Usher and Bert the organist, seemed to him that Elmer had gotten a case of the big head.
Plus Elmer thought he had a chance with Sister Alma; but Theodore knew better than that. Theodore was satisfied he would be getting’ some of that soon. “Shit, I know that ham I give her sealed the deal,” he thought, and a smile crossed his lips as they carried the tub into the dressing room.
“Well here it is,” said Elmer, as Alma clucked about the bounty. “Nigger John offered a big bag of fried chicken and chitterlings, but I told him nice like to take it on home; tol’ him to bring you a watermelon when they come in season.”
Sister Alma nodded in agreement. She did not discriminate; she would take gifts from any color or creed – but she did have her limits.
“That’s good, Elmer, ain’t been able to stomach chitlins since that time I found a corn kernel and a butterbean in one. Just gives me the creeps now,” she said.
“Elmer, since it is so late, how ‘bout ya’ll put that tub in the trunk of my car and call it a night,” she said, handing the keys to the black Cadillac to Chief Usher Elmer.
Sister Alma followed the brothers out to the now nearly empty parking lot; when Elmer wasn’t looking she brushed her bounteous breasts against Theodore’s elbow then did the same to Elmer when Theodore didn’t see. Both actions got the desired reaction as the fair-skinned red-headed siblings turned crimson.
After they put the tub in the trunk she told them goodnight and Elmer and Theodore trudged to their cars, off to delight in their individual fantasies.
When they were gone a tall man emerged from the shadows and was greeted with a beautiful smile and a long, deep kiss. It was Polie Maxwell, Mayor of Dallas. He stood 6’3” and the women said he was good lookin’. Bert the organist put him in a league with Ned Cannon, purported to be the handsomest man in Stanley. As they released from the embrace Polie said, “Let’s go get something to eat; I got a quart of shine from Oodley Creek.”
“Let’s go lover “Alma cooed, and grabbed Polie’s tight ass as they got in the car.