Sister Alma was in her bedroom, turned sideways in front of the full-length mirror, one of the nice oval ones that swiveled and had oak trim and beveled glass.
She was wearing a nightgown and placing one arm above and one arm below her large protrusion.
“It’s gettin’ out there,” she said out loud. “Of course it should be out there,” she thought, “’cause it is 8 ½ months along accordin’ to the good Dr. Fesperman.”
Alma chuckled to herself when she thought about her visits to the doctor’s office during her pregnancy, and how she would always “work a deal” and doc would always “work a barter.” Alma felt like both parties always wound up happy; Dr. Fesperman always had that impish look in his eye as Alma left, and Alma always gave her now “more than ample” tail an extra shake as she went out the door. Alma could hear the doctor cackling as she went down the hall. She thought back to this last visit, when Polie Maxwell was waiting out in the big Buick drinkin’ a Falstaff beer. He lit his dormant cigar as Alma slid in beside him.
“So how’s the Child of the Holy Ghost comin’ along,” he grinned and handed Alma a beer.
“Just fine,” she said, “as is the Holy Virgin Mother. The doctor thinks it is going to be a girl, the way the baby is laying in there. He says it could be anytime.”
Polie Maxwell beamed a giant smile; he had warmed to this fatherhood role since it had become quite apparent that the good gullible folks of Dallas had bought into the Virgin Birth concept, and that nothing was required of him.
“Dr. Fesperman says I am doin’ fine also, though he did say that I had gained a little more weight than he thought was good,” she said.
Ever since the announcement of the Virgin Birth six months ago the faithful had insisted on a weekly “Blessed Child of the Holy Ghost” love offering. This additional stipend allowed Sister Alma to eat even higher on the hog than before; there was a French restaurant in Charlotte that she loved, and Polie carried her over there at least once a week. That tab and her skyrocketing Scotch bill pretty much depleted the baby love offering, but it was replenished like clockwork each week.
Sister Alma reflected on the past six months as Polie Maxwell drove her home. She had been able to do about like before, camp meetings at least twice a week. The crowd had actually increased as news of the “immaculate conception” spread. Alma was even getting some people from across the Catawba River near Charlotte, and others from Lincolnton. Alma had told Dr. Fesperman to spread the word, but she had no idea he would.
That old bird can surprise you,” she chuckled, remembering how he insisted on very thorough breast examinations at each visit.
“You can’t be too thorough,” he always said, “You know I am a Scorpio.” The doctor would say this and give his cackly laugh.
Alma thought of all these things as she gazed at herself in the oval. She was fascinated by her “big bump,” and was beginning to get excited about the imminent birth.
Russ pushed back from the table and rubbed his belly. He had just finished off two fried pies, one peach and one apple. It was late January, so of course the fruit was out of season, but it was dried fruit. Every summer the peaches and apples Sarah didn’t can were dried. The process was not complicated; you peeled and sliced the fruit and then let it dry in the sun over several days. Sarah liked to put a sheet up on top of the low-pitched smokehouse roof and dry them there. Little Lois could handle this, so she would give her a sheet and tell her to spread it out on the smokehouse roof, and then send her up there with buckets of the fruit to spread out in the sun. It was not a hard job, and Little Lois would jump right on it.
That’s how you had fried fruit pies in the middle of the winter. Sarah made them the way Granny had showed her; roll out the dough, cut a circle about six inches across (Luzianne Coffee cans did well) and put the fruit filling on one half of the circle. Then you flipped the empty side over and crimped the edge with a fork. Throw it in the hot lard in a frying pan and there you go. Red liked making them ‘cause Little Lois and Granny, and of course Monk, loved them. She even liked them herself, and always made extra so Monk could carry them to work for lunch.
“Well they say Sister Alma’s baby is ‘bout due,” said Russ looking around the table at the rest of them.
“Well I’ll Swanney,” said Granny. “I jest don’t know what to think of all them goin’s on down there at Dallas. I know Elmer and Bert believe in it so strong, but sometimes I wonder if that woman is just hoo-dooing everybody in the name of the Lord.”
Sarah looked at Granny, and Red’s eyes got kind of big. She had never heard Granny say anything quite like this in referring to Sister Alma. She kind of figgered Granny must have been holding her tongue in deference to Elmer and Bert.
Granny gave a sad sigh, so Sarah said “Now Granny, I know what you are saying but if you say anything like that to them you can’t win – I am sure they are gonna believe what they want.”
“That’s true, what Sarah said, Mom, maybe we just oughta not say too much about it. It would probly hurt their feelins something awful.”
“Reckon y’all are right,” Granny said, letting out another sigh. “You know that ol’ song ‘Farther along we’ll know all about it, farther along we’ll understand why”…..
Russ thought maybe it was a good time for a change of topic. “Well, we need to get some good sleep tonight, for as you know tomorrow is hog-killin’ day. Gonna be a good one for it – high of 35 degrees.
Russ was grinning and looking at Sarah; he knew she would work as hard as anyone else, but he also knew how bad she hated the whole process. Sarah paid him no mind and said not to worry, she would be up early, ready to go.
“Yep, Ellis Clonger is gonna help me with the whole thing, startin’ with puttin’ down that big Poland-China hog. We’re gonna have us some meat this year.”
Russ had done well with this hog, and inexpensively; he had let the hog stay in the woods all fall and it had got big and fat eating chestnuts.
“I got the block and tackle out there ready so we can string him up, and the big wheelbarrow is there to catch the guts when we cut him open. Course that’ll be after he’s scalded and scraped.”
“Are you gonna clean up some innards for chitterlings?” Granny asked, her eyes gleaming behind the thick wire rimmed eyeglasses.
“Sure Granny, we’ll sling you some out and clean ‘em real good – We’ll shoot the hose pipe through ‘em.”
Monk was watching Red as he was talking and noticed that little involuntary gulp she gave. “Member that time at Homecoming at Lander’s Chapel when Preacher Krummitt bit down on a chitlin’ and found three kernels of corn in it?” Russ slapped his thigh and laughed. “You have never seen such spittin’ and carrying on; Burton Payseur said he thought he heard the Preacher say a Sunday school word.”
Sarah bolted from the kitchen and headed for the general direction of the outhouse. Russ grinned at Granny, who was still laughing softly.
“She’ll be better tomorrow night, after it’s all over,” he said, and walked out into the cold air to bring in wood to fill up the box. He heard some hacking and spitting coming from the outhouse. “Some things never change,” he said, grinning, and filled his arms with the red oak pieces.
Elmer was back in front of the long mirror in his bedroom; he was practicing, staring so hard into the reflection like he could see through it.
“Now brothers and sisters in Christ, let us . . . .
“No,” he thought, “that won’t work,” remembering that Christ was out and the Holy Ghost was in.
“We need to constantly remind these people who planted this burgeoning seed in my belly,” Sister Alma had told Elmer.
Having realized his error Elmer began again, “Now Brothers and Sisters in the wonderful spirit of the Duet of the Holy Ghost and Sister Alma, and in honor of the pending birth of the child of the’ Immaculate Conception,’ please now open up your hearts and pocket books to honor the future of the Holy Child. As you know all the monies from these special love offerings are being handled by our esteemed Mayor Polie Maxwell, and will go toward the religious education of this wondrous child of God, who will be born very soon.”
“Like it,” thought Elmer, and decided to go with it verbatim. As Sister Alma had progressed in her holy pregnancy she had decided to delegate some of the duties, like the prayer of preparation for the Love Offering for the Baby of the Holy Ghost. Of course Chief Usher Elmer came to mind first, so Alma counseled with Elmer about his delivery, not to mention Jesus, lay it on heavy with the Holy Ghost, and other such suggestions as she might come up with.
Elmer had gotten off to a kinda rough start in his first attempt several months earlier. When he had gotten up on the stage in front of the throng he had felt his knees start to shake and then his throat dry up.
“Brothers and Sisters,” he had begun with a croak, “let us now turn our attention and bountiful gifts toward the child of the Emancipation Proclamation.” The crowd got deathly quiet and Chief Usher Elmer bolted from the stage. He walked behind the stage where he could be by himself and collect his thoughts.
“God Dern idiot Pasour Rhyne, now he’s got me sayin’ it,” he thought, ruing the day he had met the Larson Savoney nut. Elmer had stayed back there until the camp meeting was over and Sister Alma came back to talk to him. Elmer knew she would.
Alma walked up to Elmer, put her hand under his downcast chin and pulled it level.
“Why Elmer, you gonna let a little stage fright stop you?” she asked, giving him a penetrating stare, one she usually reserved for a healing session.
“I guess I just got scared,” he blubbered. “Ya know, chief ushering is one thing but talking in front of all them people is sumpin’ else. Mebbe you oughta get somebody else, someone who can handle it,” Elmer said.
Alma ramped up the hard look a notch and reached up and put her right hand on Elmer’s left cheek, and slowly and softly caressed the ruddy skin; she moved her hand delicately.
Chief Usher Elmer felt like a hot water faucet had just been plugged into his body; an overpowering warmth coursed through him.
Elmer had never felt a touch so full of love, and he turned to Alma ready for orders.
Sister Alma saw his resolve return. She reached up, pulled Elmer’s head down between her now mountainous breasts, and then gave him a resounding kiss on the cheek.
“You will be fine, Elmer, just practice in front of your tall mirror and you will be fine,” Alma told him.
Chief Usher Elmer took this advice to heart and he came to be at ease in front of the crowd, but he would always run through it in front of the mirror before camp meeting night. Elmer decided he had practiced enough and went out into the kitchen where Bert was sorting through her music.
“Sister Alma wants to kinda change the songs we do to a more upbeat sound,” Bert said, pulling her stocking up above the knee on the tree trunk and tying a knot in it. Bert recited the songs Alma wanted her to play: O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, How Great Thou Art (for healing sessions), For the Beauty of the Earth (Alma felt this a good generic one, no mention of Jesus – don’t need references to any OTHER virgin births-, Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee (another healing night one) and the clincher, from Page 132 of the Methodist Hymnal, Holy Ghost, Dispel Our Sadness.
“This Holy Ghost song is something Sister Alma is particularly partial to,” said Bert. “She says it is a real good tie in to the Virgin Birth and Immaculate Conception. Don’t ya think so, Elmer?” she asked.
“Sure,” Elmer grunted. He was reciting his preparatory prayer in his mind.
“Oh yeah, Elmer, almost forgot, Sister Alma wants to include little Nan in the service in some way; she thinks it will help get people more in the mood to receive the holy baby, if we kind of put a child in the forefront. Dontcha think?”
Elmer was fantasizing about how Sister Alma had pulled his head down and stroked his cheek and kissed him.
“Sure,” he said, “I’ll do whatever she says.” Bert seemed okay with that answer and gathered up her songs and went into the kitchen so she could check them out while she worked on supper.
Elmer went into the living room and noticed the fire was out in the pot-bellied stove. He went out to the back porch where he kept kerosene in a
glass gallon jug and returned with a cupful. He tossed it on the wood and struck a kitchen match against the side of the stove and tossed it inside. The inside of the stove roared to life, and it reminded Oscar of how Roy Clonger had picked up the wrong bottle and put gasoline on embers; it exploded and Roy wound up dying after gettin’ pneumonia.
“Course they were tired, taking care of sick kids, but what a horrible mistake,” he thought, remembering that Roy was Sarah’s brother-in-law.
Elmer sat down in his favorite chair. He liked to think when he was in this chair, especially if he was alone, and he felt like he had some thinkin’ to do.
Elmer started thinking about mistakes, and about fire. “There could be a parallel here,” he thought to himself. The word parallel was one he had learned recently, and he thought this situation might be a pretty good use for it. He had seen it in a book little Nan had gotten from the bookmobile.
First he considered mistakes; he knew he’d done his share. Elmer remembered in particular sellin’ his momma a ham last year. After a few months had gone by he had started feelin’ guilty – real guilty. It was the kind of guilt that would not go away till he did something to make up for it.
“Yep,” he thought, “that was a mistake.” Then he thought about turning around on the heels of selling Granny the ham and giving one to Sister Alma. “Giving Alma the ham was not bad, it was just the circumstances, that was all,” he mulled.
Elmer thought about how helpless he felt around Sister Alma, and how he always did exactly what she said. This scared him a little.
Whenever Elmer did voice the tiniest doubt about Sister Alma, the Virgin Birth, Immaculate Conception, or the great impregnator the Holy Ghost, it made Bert the organist as mad as a wet hen.
“Why what in the world has come over you, Elmer, talkin’ like that. After all Sister Alma has done for you, and for the community. What about Uncle Joe Clemmer, and his miracle cure, and remember how she prayed over Emma’s clubfoot, and made her feel better. It’s like you just ain’t payin’ attention. I declare, Elmer, it is about to the level of blasphemy – – – BLASPHEMY.” Bert was literally screaming when she finished, and Elmer had shut up right fast.
But it was just some of those “cures” that caused doubt to trickle into Elmer’s mind. Everybody had heard that Uncle Joe had spent the two weeks following the “miracle cure” bedbound, and two days afterward Emma had said “seemed like her club foot really hadn’t changed.”
Then Elmer thought about fire, and he thought how kerosene could bring a fire back from nothing. It seemed to him like he was a dying bed of coals, that is until Alma would unleash that penetrating stare, interspersed with all those other attributes she possessed. Then it seemed like he literally roared to life, truly burning with a passion.
As Elmer reflected on this a thought hit him like an ax handle; what if sometime Sister Alma picked up the wrong can, the gas can, and lit his embers. Elmer slumped in his chair as this horrific thought sunk in. At that moment he knew he was totally helpless when it came to Sister Alma; he would do anything she asked.
It was Wednesday, 5:30pm and it was camp meeting night. Sister Alma and Polie Maxwell were sitting at the little table in the makeshift dressing room in the big tent. Polie poured two tumblers full and handed one of them to Sister Alma.
“You sure you oughta be drinkin’ like this honey?” Polie asked as he watched her down the moonshine.
“Oh shut up, and pour me some more,” Alma snapped. Polie Maxwell winced like he had been stabbed but dutifully poured Alma another drink. As he handed it to her he could not help but notice the change in her face over the last couple of months. About three months ago Sister Alma had possessed such a lovely complexion – that glow that many pregnant women get. But Polie noticed that the glow had faded, and now her face looked sallow and very dark circles were under her eyes. And it wasn’t just looks that had changed. Polie Maxwell put the glass in front of Alma and said “Alma, I’ve been knowin’ you a long time, and I mean knowing you – not like we just been sittin’ around playin’ setback. You never used to talk to me like that; what in the world has gotten into you?”
Alma stood up as quickly as her girth would allow and stalked the couple of feet until she was right in front of his honor. Her eyes were blazing like machine guns as she raised her finger, shaking it viciously in front of Polie Maxwell’s nose.
“I’ll tell ya what’s got into me – that little gift you left off in there, unless you’ve dumbed down to the level of the rest of ‘em and believe that the Holy Ghost came in the dead of night and screwed me. You ignorant son of a bitch. Yes Polie, that’s what happened, ol’ Holy Ghost rolled in here and bent me over and the party was on.”
Polie Maxwell had felt the tension building in Alma for the last couple of weeks, but he was in no way prepared for this assault.
Polie turned as if to leave, and Alma grabbed his arm and pulled him back hard, almost making her fall with the effort.
“I’m not finished with your ass, hotshot. You got off so easy, just sittin’ pretty while I still have two camp meetings a week; the way I am, and still workin’ like a dog. And you ain’t doin’ shit, unless drinking beer and counting your lucky stars that I saved your sorry ass is called a job. If I hadn’t come up with the Virgin Birth you would be dead meat – no political career, no daddy-in-law throwin’ money to you, no friggin’ nothing.”
Polie’s jaw started quivering and he bolted from the dressing room just ahead of the heavy glass tumbler that whistled by his head.
Alma collapsed in her chair and downed the rest of the shine. She didn’t feel right, hadn’t for the last day or two. “Guess it’s just part of the birth deal,” she said out loud. Then she again thought about the recently departed mayor, and started to get mad all over again. But she stopped herself when she realized it was almost six o’clock. Chief Usher Elmer would be by in a bit, so she needed to get dressed.
Chief Usher Elmer strode across the gravel parking lot in front of the big tent. Bert was already heading toward the organ with her music, and little Nan was playing with the other kids in the grassy area adjacent to the Holy Tent. He had been stewing a little about Sister Alma, and how she looked and had been acting. He knew how pregnant women could get out of sorts, but somehow Sister Alma’s actions seemed beyond the normal. He thought about this very thing as he approached the tent, then decided to clear his mind of all of it, for he had his preparatory prayer for the Divine Child offering to think about and Sister Alma had asked him to come by a little early. If his memory had served him correctly, and he was sure it did, something a little extra was in store for ol’ Elmer.
He called out “Sister Alma,” as he stopped outside the curtain at the makeshift dressing room.
“Come in,” she caroled, and Elmer entered. Sister Alma was in a sheer shimmering red dressing gown. The light at the mirror was behind her, and Buford could see that she had absolutely – ABSOLUTELY- nothing underneath. Elmer swallowed hard, and was eternally grateful that he did not have a dip of snuff in his mouth.
“Come see me, my precious Chief Usher Elmer,” Alma called, raising her lovely arms toward him. Elmer had no control as he walked like Frankenstein toward her. When he got within a foot she grabbed him by the arms and pulled him close, and gave him a deep kiss on the lips, her tongue darting in. Second time Buford was grateful for not having a dip of snuff in his mouth.
Sister Alma released the big red-faced man and said “Sit down, Elmer, we need to talk.” Elmer sat down as Alma maneuvered unsteadily to the table and brought back two tumblers filled with the Oodley Creek concoction.
“Now Elmer, I am going to call on you to assume another small duty, although it is a very important one. You have noticed, I am sure that with all of my additional weight that I am a little unsteady on my feet,” Alma said, sipping the clear liquid.
Elmer looked at Sister Alma as he downed the shine in one gulp. He saw the lines around her eyes and the very dark circles beneath them; seemed like all of it had appeared over the last couple of months. Elmer thought back to the gasoline and the fire, and the mistake, and resisted his impulse to run out of the dressing room and not stop ‘til he was sitting by the pot-bellied stove in his living room. Instead he said “What can I do to help Sister Alma?”
“Well Elmer,” she said cupping an enormous breast and looking intently at the head usher, I want you to assist me on and off the stage, and stay up there with me at all times.”
Elmer sighed with relief; her buildup had made him think it was going to be some bizarre request. This sounded pretty tame.
“Why sure, Sister Alma, I will be glad to do that. I had noticed you had been a little unsteady on your feet lately,” Elmer said, while wondering if it was the extra weight, or the volume of Oodley Creek Shine and Johnny Walker Red that was causing it.
“Elmer, I will be eternally grateful to you dear. Now go about your Head Usher duties and when you get the crowd in and settled, remember to come back here and assist me onto the stage. And remember, little Nan is going to introduce me tonight. Did she practice her words, Sweet Elmer?” Alma caroled, standing up as Buford did and wrapping her arms around him.
“Ye, yes, Sister Alma, she is ready to go,” Elmer stammered. Alma kissed him again, deeply, thrusting her tongue in his mouth, a long time. She finally pulled away and Elmer left the dressing room. His head was spinning, but it wasn’t from the shine.
As the faithful started to arrive Elmer gathered his little band of ushers down front. There was Joe Beck Clonger, T.G. Preacher Clonger, Pasour Rhyne and a new one, Stan Guess. Stan was an easygoing farmer who lived up above Elmer’s baby brother Russ. Stan had come on to fill in for “Preacher” Clonger while Preacher was serving a two-week suspension. Seems that there was some dispute about a seating arrangement; Ralph Fullbright, or “Half Bright” as they called him, had hopped into a seat that “Preacher” had prepared for Will and Hazel Carter, respected local grocers in High Shoals. When Preacher tried to persuade Half Bright to abdicate the seat, Ralph refused. Preacher picked him up and slung him down the aisle, accompanying the toss with “God damned Son of a Bitch.” Preacher got his moniker honest. Half Bright whined around to Sister Alma and she told Elmer to invoke the two-week suspension. But after Preacher returned, everybody liked the congenial Stan so much that they kept him on. Of course this meant that Pasour Rhyne was not called on as much. So that was the usher core, Hoover Carpenter not showing up very often, Polie Maxwell keeping his stinky ass busy down on Oodley Creek.
Elmer looked over his group, remembering that Stan’s inclusion had actually been a “godsend” as Alma would say, for Bogus Clonger had been appointed Chief Engineer, due to his skill with the lighting, and especially for his work with the spotlight. Yep, Stan worked out fine. Elmer remembered that Russ’ boy Clyde tied sacks for Stan when he was doing combining work, and that Clyde always spoke highly of Stan.
Looking up Elmer saw Russ and Sarah entering the tent, and to his surprise he saw his momma shuffling in, dressed up in the black dress with the crocheted white collar – her favorite. Chief Usher Elmer reckoned that Granny had come to hear little Nan give the night’s introduction of Sister Alma, but he wondered if maybe she wasn’t more than a little curious about the goings on down here. He also thought that maybe it didn’t hurt none that her son was the Chief Usher and her daughter-in-law Sister Alma’s organist. Elmer’s chest puffed out a bit as he considered this possibility.
“Hey Momma,” Elmer said as he got them seated. Granny grinned her toothless grin and said “Well Elmer, I swanney if you don’t look fine. And, I see Bert over there warming up. Where is that little speaker Nan; I must give her a hug.”
“Oh, she’ll be getting’ up there on the stage in a few minutes to do her introduction. I’ll see you later ‘cause it is about time for me to fetch Sister Alma.”
“Whaddayamean fetch Sister Alma?” asked Russ.
“Well Russ, she has gotten so large with the blessed child of the Holy Ghost that she has asked me to assist her on and off the stage, and to be up there while she is onstage, just in case she needs anything.”
“Oh,” said Russ, as he and the redhead exchanged curious looks.
“It’s ‘bout time,” said Elmer. “I will see ya later.”
The last of the faithful were getting to their seats as Bert the Organist started playing “Shall We Gather at the River.” Perfectly on cue Chief Engineer Bogus Clonger dimmed the house lights low.
Little Nan walked up the four steps to the stage alone, and stood in the middle toward the front. When she stopped, her momma, 40A organist Bert, stopped playing and Chief Engineer Bogus hit the spotlight, which he had positioned perfectly to make a bright circle around Little Nan. There was total silence in the tent as Little Nan launched into her introduction. She had totally memorized and had recited it multiple times in front of the Rhode Island Red hens at the chicken house. Her last recitation had been interrupted by the rooster, who loved to sneak up behind her and try to spur her on the leg; however, she had been able to elude him.
She began, “All powerful and mighty Holy Ghost, mate of our own saintly Sister Alma, and father of the child of the virgin birth, the holy babe of Immaculate Conception, we pray and beseech thee to bless this gathering of the faithful and to give Sister Alma strength in these final days of her Holy Gestation.
And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, Sister Alma.” As she said these last words little Nan lifted her arm, extending it toward her daddy, Chief Usher Elmer, and Sister Alma as they ascended the steps.
Bogus shifted the spotlight to Elmer and Sister Alma. Chief Usher Elmer had a stronghold on Alma; she was very unsteady on her feet. Elmer had found her passed out and had quickly patted her face down with water to bring her around.
“I wonder how much more of Oodley Creek she had after I left,” Elmer considered.
Sister Alma was wearing a pure white loose-fitting gown that had tiny little pleats. She had powdered her face profusely in an attempt to hide the wrinkles and the dark circles under her bloodshot eyes. Her hair was more than a bit askew and her lipstick was a lot darker than she had worn in a long time and looked like little Nan may have applied it.
Chief Usher Elmer was aware of how disheveled she looked, but figgered that it was way too late in the game to do anything about it.
“Guess we’ll see how it goes,” he thought to himself as he ushered her to mid-stage.
The crowd thundered applause as the two reached Little Nan, the Bogus driven spotlight hanging on them. When they reached her, Nan gave Sister Alma a hug and curtsied to the crowd. She then skipped off the stage.
The parishioners erupted anew, clapping and shouting. There were some “Hosannas,” and some “Hallelujahs,” and a lot of “Praise the Lords.”
As this subsided Pasour Rhyne ran up on the stage and stood beside Sister Alma, making the Larson-Savoney sign repeatedly and shouting at the top of his lungs – “Divine Intervention, Divine Intervention, Divine Intervention.” Joe Beck and Preacher Clonger pulled him off the stage quickly and sat him down beside his momma and told him to shut the hell up or they would “Kick his fu—- ass.” Apparently this struck a note with him and he quieted down.
Elmer stood beside Sister Alma until the din subsided. Then she said in a low voice, “Go on back to the rear of the stage, I’m okay now.”
Elmer looked at her and doubted her words, but dutifully walked away and stood at the back of the stage, a good twenty feet from Sister Alma.
Total quiet now descended on the group, and Alma moved her eyes slowly from left to right, then back again. As her gaze returned to the center of the group, a beatific smile came to her face. Organist Bert began playing “Just As I Am” slowly and lowly, and perfectly on cue Chief Engineer Bogus Clonger brought up the house lights a little, doused the spotlight, then doused the house lights for five seconds. Then he hit Sister Alma with the spot. She was so ready, beaming, ready to bring the message.
She began. “Oh brothers and sisters in the community of worship in Almighty God, and the Holy Ghost – Know ye of the great divine love and adoration for the Holy Ghost, and the wonderful feeling of eternal gratitude I possess knowing that I, Sister Alma, was chosen from all the women in the world to be the receptive vessel for the immaculately conceived child of the Holy Ghost. She stopped suddenly and gave that hard stare to the audience. Then she screamed, “Can anybody say Amen, can anybody say Amen, can anybody say Hallelujah?”
The throng thundered back, louder than ever. “Amen, hallelujah, amen, hallelujah, amen,” over and over and louder and louder, until Sister Alma, forgetting her condition, tried to do that little fast paced high stepping routine she used to do, circling around the front of the stage. But the weight, and the Johnny Walker Red, and the Oodley Creek shine converged in a momentous trinity and she fell flat on her ample ass. As she did what looked like a gallon of water rushed out from under her dress onto the stage.
Chief Usher Elmer rushed to her side, and B. F. House, local undertaker and ambulance service operator ran up on the stage. He called out to the colored boy he usually kept with him “Deanie, get out there and back the ambulance up to the tent, then bring in the gurney. Her water has broke and we need to get her to Garrison General Hospital as soon as possible.”
“But her doctor is Fesperman in Lincolnton,” Elmer protested.
“No time,” cautioned the undertaker, it’s five miles to Gastonia and fifteen to Lincolnton. Go call Dr. Fesperman and ask him to come over there to Garrison, you know, on Broad Street.” Elmer ran out to go to the pay phone at the Sinclair station at the crossroads. When Deanie returned with the gurney he and B. F. House loaded up the passed-out Sister Alma and pushed her out the rear of the tent to the waiting white ambulance. Chief Engineer Bogus kept the spotlight on the gurney ‘til it passed outside the tent.
The crowd appeared to be in shock. Their leader was gone; a power vacuum. Then striding up to the stage steps came two tall women. It was Winnie and Mary Froneberger, spinster sisters who taught at Costner Elementary School. These two women were not just solid community leaders, they were Rocks; in fact, they had taught many of the younger ones in the throng. Miss Winnie was the more dominant of the two, so she walked up on the stage and immediately went over to Organist Bert and spoke a few sentences to her. Bert, who had been weeping, wiped her tears, nodded in agreement, smiled, and stood up and walked off the stage. Miss Winnie sat down behind the organ and looked out at the confused bunch.
Without saying a word Miss Winnie launched into “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” She banged hard on the organ keys, just the way she hit the piano keys on the old upright on the stage at Costner School. She had a big, wide infectious smile, and you could always see the small tarnish on one of her front teeth where the porcelain had worn a little on the cap.
“She’s the sweetest little rosebud, that Texas ever knew, her eyes they are like diamonds, they sparkle like the dew, you can talk about your Clementine, and sing of Rosa Lee, but the Yellow Rose of Texas is the only gal for me,” she caroled.
Once she came to the end of the song she just started over. She was bellowing out the words, and her sister Miss Mary was standing at the front of the stage; Miss Mary started exhorting the crowd to join in the singing, starting to pump her arms up and down like the bandleader Mitch Miller and flashing that big Thornburg smile.
About halfway through the second round of “Yellow Rose of Texas” the crowd was on their feet, singing boisterously. Even Chief Usher Elmer who would be taxed to carry a tune in a tin tub, was giving it his best.
After the second go round of the song Miss Winnie stopped on the organ, and at Miss Winnie’s urging Chief Engineer Bogus dropped the house lights and hit the
Spotlight on Miss Mary Froneberger who stood stock-still at center stage displaying a mournful countenance.
Everybody around Dallas went to Costner Elementary School, so when they saw that look on Miss Mary’s face they knew what was coming, and as one they jumped to their feet cheering.
Costner Elementary School was the typical red brick school built in the WPA era – classrooms radiating around the central auditorium. Once a week there would be Assembly, led by Miss Winnie, who was the principal. She would bang on the old upright piano and lead the singing, and The Yellow Rose of Texas was one of her favorites. After that Miss Mary would tell the story of “Cousin Orley,” and that is what had the crowd in a tizzy of delightful recollection.
She began, maintaining her mournful countenance. “When I was a little girl, I had a first cousin who lived next door to me. His name was Orley. I liked Orley a lot, and he liked me too!” When Miss Mary said this she dropped her face a little and then looked upward, shyly. It worked well; she captured the little girl look.
“Well Orley was a real good boy,” she said, “and he did well in school and went to church and was just about perfect ‘cept for one thing.” As one the throng shouted out “and what was that Miss Mary?”
Miss Mary did not miss a beat. “Well I’m glad you asked,” and she offered a little girl smile.
“As I said, he was might near perfect but for one fault; he liked to play up around the railroad tracks behind our house up on the ridge. No matter how much his momma told him not to, he would wind up playin’ on those tracks. Well one day ‘bout suppertime Orley’s momma started callin’ for him, over and over, but Orley wouldn’t answer and was nowhere to be seen. Finally she came over to our house and asked me if I would go up and try to find Orley, ‘cause she was cookin’ rice and feared she might scorch it. So knowin’ Orley well, I figgered I would go up the ridge to the train track, ‘cause that’s where he more than likely was.”
The audience was fixed on her every word – spellbound, as transfixed to her as the yellow circle of light was to Miss Mary.
Little Lois was listening with rapt attention, as was Sarah, for Miss Mary had taught Sarah in the first grade also, and the story was alive even back then.
“As I got about halfway up the ridge, I heard the six o’clock train blow its whistle, and felt the vibration in the forest floor as it passed by,” Miss Mary said. “And when I got up to the tracks there was Orley, (a long pause) and over there was Orley, (a long pause) and then way over yonder was Orley.” Miss Mary pointed dramatically in a different direction as she described the locations of the late Orley.
Such a thunder of applause and laughter erupted as she stood there, bowing deeply and beaming that big Froneberger smile.
“Thank you and good night,” Miss Mary said, and she and Miss Winnie walked quietly off the stage.
Russ, Sarah and Little Lois were still laughing, and Granny was commenting on “what a fine tale spinner that Mary is, reminds me of my late husband John David.”
They walked to the car and on the ride home Granny wondered, “How ya reckon that Sister Alma might be, Russ?”
Russ thought for a moment as he motored them down 321 North toward Clonger Dairy Road. “I don’t know, Granny, there’s been a lot of rumors about Sister Alma lately, talk of her drinking a lot. I don’t know, but I swear, she looked drunk tonight,” he said.
“Well I’ll Swanney,” sighed Granny.
“I think maybe she is to be pitied,” added Sarah as they drove past the silos of the dairy and turned onto the washboard red dirt road.
Two days had passed, and Sister Alma was lying in bed on the third floor of Garrison General Hospital on S. Broad Street in Gastonia, N.C. Alma was loosely holding a one and a half day infant girl in her chubby right arm, sort of cradling the baby up against her right side.
Dr. Fesperman was at her bedside. Alma looked at the skinny little girl and watched her; she twitched and shivered, twitched and shivered. “What did you say they called it?” she inquired of the good doctor.
“Fetal Alcohol Syndrome,” replied Dr. Fesperman, giving Sister Alma a wry look. “Maybe you remember my warnings about Johnny Walker and Mr. Oodley?” he said.
“Aw, hush with the sermon; thought you were a doctor, not a preacher. If I want to get chastised that way I’ll go confess to Preacher Krummitt up at Lander’s Chapel,” she said. “Can’t you give her a shot, or something, and straighten her little ass out?” Alma implored.
Dr. Fesperman shook his head and looked dead on at the evangelist. “Alma, I will be totally straight up with you; there ain’t a shot in this world that can help this child, and I’ll tell you the bottom line – I have never seen one of these babies last much longer than a day or two.”
Sister Alma looked at him blankly; no, actually looked right through the doctor as if he weren’t there.
“Okay,” she said, emotionless, “Thank you Doctor.” Dr. Fesperman turned and went out the door. Sister Alma was alone in the room, and she started thinking, thinking about maybe the biggest religious bash ever seen in Dallas. Alma thought in the quiet, very loosely holding the twitching child, until she had it set in her mind.
“It will be fantastic,” she said out loud, and reached back and grabbed one of the pillows under her head and gently, very gently, placed it over the face of the child that she had named Virginia Mary, placed it gently, but very, very firmly, until the child stopped twitching, and then for good measure held the pillow there another five minutes. Then Sister Alma replaced the pillow behind her head and took a nap.
Word spread quickly the next day about the tragic death of the Holy Child Virginia Mary. Of course everyone was very sad about the loss, but they were heartened and encouraged by Alma’s quick recovery. Word was she was already home and doing just fine. Sister Alma had said that the Child had been born with the “shakin’ palsy,” and that apparently her little system, as holy as it was, was not able to overcome this tremendous disadvantage.
The parishioners seemed to be comfortable with this sad explanation, and Dr. Fesperman left well enough alone and had no comment.
Sister Alma put out the word through her parishioners and the local paper, the Gastonia Gazette, that the viewing would be on Saturday evening at Dallas Funeral Home, with the funeral service on Sunday afternoon at Puett’s Chapel United Methodist Church on the Dallas-Cherryville Highway. The location was a no brainer for Alma; it was where Chief Usher Elmer and Organist Bert belonged and attended every Sunday.
Sister Alma had met with B. F. House, owner of the Dallas Funeral Home the day before the viewing to get the logistics and the finances straight. She came to his office on the bottom floor of the Dallas Funeral Home, back in the rear left corner.
B. F. House greeted her and asked her to sit down; he was resplendent in a black suit and starched white shirt and a modest tie – he had overseen a funeral that afternoon.
“B. F., I need to cut to the chase, I have no money but I can pay you after the viewing, for I know there will be a huge love offering and whatever it is will be yours,” Alma said.
B. F. House looked at Alma with his most caring look, the one he saved for his most valued customers and said, “Sister Alma,” his brilliantly white smile beaming, (for he had brand new very expensive false choppers), “you can be at ease at this point. All of the arrangements, including the ambulance ride to Garrison General, have been taken care of – you are not to concern yourself with these mundane things in your time of grief.”
For once in her life Sister Alma was totally flummoxed; she could not believe her ears; moreover, she could not comprehend her good fortune.
Sister Alma stared at B. F. and tried to say “Wh – wh – wh,” but before she could complete the question the door opened and in strode a beaming Polie Maxwell. Alma was overcome with emotion, and rose to meet the Honorable Mayor and share a lengthy embrace. B. F. House, always the polished and savvy gentleman, quietly departed, leaving the two of them in the office.
Sister Alma was sitting quietly, thinking and plotting. Her plan was going to require very careful planning and coordination, but she thought she had all the bases covered. Polie Maxwell’s family had a long-abandoned graveyard way out in the country near Lucia. B. F. House was on board; he didn’t care, as long as he got paid. And Alma knew enough about the undertaker to know that he could keep his mouth shut.
The viewing was at 8 p.m. and it was five already. Alma hurried over to the Dallas Funeral Home to meet local photographer Johnny Kamp. She had already seen him once today, this morning when he had taken several shots of Virginia Mary in her little pink coffin. Now they were meeting so Alma could collect the 8 x 10 photos. Johnny Kamp was waiting inside the funeral home when she got there.
“Here they are Alma, 500 of them, glossy finish. So my deal is a quarter apiece after you sell them right?”
Alma grabbed the 8 x 10’s and looked them over. They were good quality; Johnny did all the work for the Dallas High School annual. He had picked the right one to reproduce, the most angelic one, and true to Alma’s directions had spot shaded around Virginia Mary’s little head to make a hint of a halo.
Alma was satisfied. “Now Johnny, you know I can pay you tomorrow; these things will all be gone tonight, she said.
“No problem” said Johnny. “On the morrow,” he said and went out the door.
Alma walked back to her house. She had to get dressed, and she had to be back at the Dallas Funeral Home at 6:30 to coordinate the next step.
Chief Usher Elmer was dressed in his best suit, and he was checkin’ himself out in the long mirror, and holdin’ his stomach in.
“Looks alright,” he said out loud, and went into the living room where Bert and Little Nan were waiting. Bert was in a loose black dress and Naomi was in her play clothes. They were gonna drop Nan off at Russ and Sarah’s, the idea being that a wake would be a bit much for the little girl; additionally, Russ and Sarah were not going to the viewing – something about having a lot of things to catch up on.
The three trooped outside and got in the car for the short ride to the old house. Granny, Russ, Sarah and Little Lois were sitting on the front porch when they pulled up. The three of them got out and walked up on the pine-floored porch.
They all exchanged hellos, then Elmer said, “Russ, you sure you and Sarah don’t want to come down to little Virginia Mary’s wake; it would be a nice way to convey your sorrow.” Elmer thought a second about “convey,” his new word. Alma had taught it to him and this was the first chance he had had to use it.
“I guess not Elmer” said Russ, his lower lip bulging with a load of snuff. “We just got a lot of things to do; anyway, it will give Lois and Nan a chance to play.” The two girls had already run into the side yard and were halfway up the big China Berry tree.
“Well, you give our heartfelt regards to Sister Alma,” said Granny. Elmer and Bert said they would and left. They got in the car and headed to Dallas. They were going to be early but there was a reason; Sister Alma had asked them to stand beside her in the receiving line. They were very honored and proud.
Chief Engineer Bogus Clonger had enlisted Pasour Rhyne to help him move the big spotlight to the Dallas Funeral Home. After much grunting and cussing they finally got the awkward contraption loaded into the back of Bogus’ blue pickup truck. Well, it was mostly blue; the driver’s side door had a brown exterior due to Bogus’ backer spittin’ out the window. Sister Alma had told the Chief Engineer exactly where to set up the light in the long parlor – the largest room in the funeral home. The spotlight would be all the way at one end and would be directed on the end of the little pink coffin, the end where her angelic head lay. Bogus and Pasour fumbled around and got it set up, then practiced turning it on and off, making sure it was focused exactly on the right spot. Sister Alma had given specific instructions about this; when the crowd had gathered in the room funeral director House would walk over and open the little pink coffin which housed the sanctified daughter of the union of the Holy Ghost and Sister Alma.
Bogus, satisfied he had everything under control, told Pasour Rhyne to return to the room a little before eight.
Pasour wandered out the back door and stood looking over at the FCX Store that backed up to the funeral home. Pasour was very proud of himself; he had been able to hide his fury very well.
“Them two sons o’ bitches that jerked me off the stage, they’ll get it and get it good,” he thought to himself, “but I’ll deal with them later. That Bitch Alma had ‘em do it; ain’t nobody gonna embarrass me like that never, ever again.”
Pasour grinned his crazy grin and thought about his first plan, the one he had shit-canned. He had planned to wait until about eight o’clock, when the crowd would be the biggest, and then pile up the bales of FCX pine straw against the side of the funeral home then the gas, then the match, and what a show it would be. But Pasour had decided that it would not be fair to Blair Falls to burn up his business, so he went to Plan B. Pasour Rhyne grinned his crazy ass gin, gave the Larson Savoney sign to the empty yard, and wandered down Trade Street to Lewis Sumney’s Drugstore; he had an hour to kill.
The eight o’clock hour was nearing as the throng gathered in the big parlor, spilling out into all the other rooms and even onto the wrap-around porch.
Sister Alma was standing by the little pink coffin with Chief Usher Elmer and Organist Bert by her side. Elmer had his hat off and had adopted an appropriately somber expression. Organist Bert was dewy-eyed. Sister Alma’s face was expressionless, but her mind was going a mile a minute, counting up her cut from the pictures – they would clamber to get them once the coffin was opened. Then Alma thought about the new crusades, and how she might be nationally famous once this story hit the papers.
Finally the moment arrived and B. F. shot a glance at Sister Alma. Then Blair motioned toward Chief Engineer Bogus. The lights had been lowered, and as B. F. House lifted the lid of the little pink coffin the brilliant spear of the spotlight focused inside the empty coffin.
The crowd gasped as one. Sister Alma looked into the little pink coffin and turned to the parishioners. “She has ascended into Heaven,” she shouted.
Pasour Rhyne had worked his way through the crowd all the way up to the coffin. He had his hand on the .32 pistol in his pocket and as Alma finished her exclamation Pasour moved to within three feet of the earthly mother of the sanctified child of the Holy Ghost, shouted “You God damned Bitch,” and pumped a bullet into her forehead. Sister Alma fell straight backwards, and as the little pink coffin was on a short table she landed in the coffin sideways, her legs spread unceremoniously up in the air.
Chief Usher Elmer grabbed Pasour Rhyne and disarmed him. Pasour did not struggle, just flashed his goofy grin. In a few moments the police came and took Pasour Rhyne away. Pasour had only one regret as he was led away. The handcuffs kept him from making the Larson Savoney sign.
Pasour Rhyne walked through the dayroom, saying hello to everyone, and flashing the Larson Savoney sign to one and all. About half of them returned the sign, crossing the right arm across the forehead, the left arm across the waist, and wiggling the fingers of the right hand. Pasour swelled with pride when a comrade returned the sign. “It took a while for some of them to come around, but they are starting to understand,” he thought. Pasour wasn’t quite sure what it was he was trying to get them to understand, and for a very good reason; he didn’t understand himself. Every time he tried to sort out just what Larson Savoney stood for he got all confused; he knew it had something to do with meetings down on the South Fork River, that fire played a part, and that doing the sign was important. “You know,” he said out loud, “just ain’t gonna worry about it – it will all be revealed later.”
Pasour Rhyne hummed “Farther Along We’ll Know More About It’ as he found a chair in the dayroom and opened the letter from his mother. It was addressed to:
Western Carolina Center for the Criminally Insane
Morganton, N.C. 28034
Pasour began to read: “Dear Son, I hope you are feeling okay and that they are feeding you good. Things have kind of settled down around here since the judge ruled that you was non compos mentis. Some tent company came and took away the tent – seems Sister Alma was making payments on it. Rumor has it that Paul Ramseur from Stanley might get a good price on the repossessed tent.
Pasour, I just want you to know that we love you no matter what you done, and hope that some day you can return home.
Pasour rubbed the side of his head at the temple, rubbed the baseball sized shaved spot on each side of his head.
This sounded quite curious to Pasour because he did not remember doing anything.
“Oh well,” he considered, “Momma is getting’ on up in age, and a mite forgetful.” This thought somehow made him feel considerable better. Then came another thought. “Seems that’s the way it works, thoughts coming back a little at a time.” But this one made Pasour Rhyne stand up straight, and with a big smile on his face he shouted “DIVINE INTERVENTION.”