He came in that summer of dust devils when my father’s eggshell blue Ford wandered late paths too dark to follow. My mother sat in her sewing room, mumbling in long twisted speeches about a “world gone to perdition.” Donald Puckett came walking up our dusty lane one late Sunday evening, past the wisteria and into the dim yellow light thrown by the front porch’s bare bulb.
“Your soul is bent against itself,” he said.
“Who died and made you God?” I asked, looking up from my open Bible which double locked its answers against me.
“I am the the Reverend Donald Puckett who will be the evangelist for the Mt. Holiness brush arbor revival that starts tomorrow night,” he replied, as though that answered my question.
“You ain’t nothing but a kid your ownself.”
“I have been consecrated and burned clean in heaven’s forge. You are only half a day away from lying at the bottom of the river like a rock.”
I opened my mouth, but he had stopped me cold with his clean, hard truth.
* * *
My mother had forgotten that it was her turn. The Missionary Society passed around visiting preachers in the interest of economy, and my mother, lost in her soul’s distraction over my father’s wayward whiskey hours, missed three meetings in a row.
“I am crushed under a heavy load,” she frequently said.
I merely mumbled or fretted my worry rock or went out the back door and into West Flora where the boys at Heap’s garage played cards and listened to Cardinals baseball on a staticky radio.
I was getting up to go inside and pull my mother out to face this new music when my father’s car came sliding up through the foggy orchard road, bringing with it vapors of moonshine and melon vine. My father emerged from the car, his eyes blearied, his lips stuttering for an explanation. What he saw was his own son, Jimmy Dell Chambers, fifteen, and this other creature, who also looked no more than fifteen, although he proclaimed himself to be a steady prophet with a third eye.
“Is this a friend I ain’t met?” my father recovered his voice, losing half a step as his foot pawed the air in search of firm ground.
I opened my mouth to start, but Donald Puckett was equal to his own defense, the tone of his voice two shades past any last doubt he’d already forgotten.
“Glad to meet you, Mr. Chambers,” he said, his hand a quick shadow in the faint light. These were the last words I heard as I passed through the screen door and heard it slam in my wake.
I meant to go to my room and let my parents cobble together a truce long enough to deal with this new wrinkle in their lives, lives already wrestled into a hopeless tangle. But no sooner had I settled into a rump sprung chair and listened to Elvis on my radio as he closed down a ballad with his breathy sigh than I heard laughter from our front porch, first one voice and then two and three, which could only mean that my mother had emerged from her brown study to find a world leavened with good humor. The full-throated laughter which rose on the summer air from that porch was a sound as foreign to our small farm house in that cricket cleaved summer as Latin on the moon.
I wanted to stay where I was, brooding and sullen in that close darkness, but their laughter, however brief and false I may have estimated it, called to my natural blood. I crept down the stairs and heard the Reverend Donald Puckett compliment my mother on the roses growing profusely at the border of the fence.
I heard my mother, so long sunk in bitter reflection, and her voice was almost coy.
“Oh, Carl,” she said in a dismissive way over one of my father’s chance remarks.
A part of me rose up.
“They do not laugh for you, Jimmy Dell,” a voice whispered at one ear. “Your needs have not touched them.”
I turned to go along the darkened hallway, into the kitchen where I eased out the back door and slipped into the cover of second growth walnut and elm behind our barn. I followed the corn rows to a gravel road and then to Solly’s Rock, a spot beside the Green River where some of the older boys like Ronnie Railey and Scottie McClain pulled off naked and swam for long leisurely hours on languorous summer days.
Sitting there on the rock, observing the lights from the barges as they scanned the shore lines, I felt like a someone wrenched in half by all my desperate longings and all of my dismal fears. Now into that devil’s mix of dark doings, here was a boy with an easy laugh and a certainty of manner who brought my parents out of their caves. And I hated him.
* * *
On that first night of the revival, as I sat near the back of the tent erected in a field behind the church, I sensed the skepticism as Donald Puckett marched before the assemblage, his tie pulled askew, sweating himself into a useless fever. I heard the mutterings about me, the judgements that he was too young, that what was needed was a proven product like the Reverend Eldon Buley from Clear Creek. It was like a ripe sweetness in my soul that he who had so easily seduced my parents into a mockery of domestic tranquility had failed so miserably to win these other hearts with his utter certitude.
Back at our house near midnight, I sat upon the swing with my mother while she labored to resurrect his weak spirit.
“Now, you must not see this night as the Lord’s answer, son,” she said in a voice which had counseled me in my earlier years when our hearts were at least within shouting distance.
My father sat upon the top step with my dog Ranger’s head in his lap.
“You can’t soak a bunch of shucks, boy,” he said as he sought to lend his crude support.
The Reverend David Puckett shook his head wearily.
There was a hole in the air just then, a place which begged for my reassurances. But I remained as mute as Ranger. Let him invent his own way to find home. I had reaped half a summer of sorrow simply by waking up every morning, watching the death throes of love between my parents through no fault of my own. I was not cut out to be anybody’s savior.
Later that night, after the house had wound down to a grumble of creakings, I heard the Reverend Donald Puckett praying, importuning the heavens for sweetness and the mercy of long vision. He had the sound of a man as drained as a St. Stephen, flogged and sent out of the city.
On that second night, our new house guest marched about on the platform ten feet tall, his voice riveting and clear. I saw the congregation drawn toward some inexorable new truth they had looked past the night before. Pauline Blair came crying down the middle aisle, flinging herself into the saw dust there next to that makeshift altar, setting off a stampede of troubled souls who had stared too long into the fearful void.
I sat beside Wendy Holbrook and held her hand, but her eyes followed the Reverend Donald Puckett as though he were the puppeteer. Then she turned loose my hand and wandered off up the aisle, a new being now in quest of her best, true self.
By the third night, new cars appeared. Faces not seen since the last county fair popped up in the folding chairs which crawled up the aisle, spilled over into the open meadow beside us. Through it all, I remained aloof and unredeemed.
In my own home, the miracle of transformation was complete. My father began to bathe at six-fifteen. He read the Bible and prayed with the Reverend Donald Puckett until seven. By seven-fifteen, we were pulling into the parking lot of the church and already the steady hum of the multitude promised another night of delirium and miracles flung heavenward like colored rain.
My girlfriend Wendy had by now moved into the front row with a group of enchanted novitiates where they swooned and danced a wild St. Vitus dance of frenzied zealotry. Jonetta, her friend with the red hair, spelled out the truth for me in capital letters one day as I walked home from town.
“Oh, she is just through with you for good,” she said.
I laughed as Jonetta sniffed and rode her bike off down the dusty road, leaving me there with a hundred questions I could barely formulate, which spun my head this way and that in broken, cluttered circles.
Given my growing contempt for David Puckett, with whom I was thrust together daily at meals and in the crowded circumstances of our small farm house, what happened on Friday night defied the longest, hard odds.
I sat on the hood of a green pickup with Milo Strange and Glenn Daughtery. We speculated about the St. Louis Cardinals plunge toward the cellar, Stan Musial in the slump of a lifetime. We deplored the falling corn prices.
Up on the platform, the Reverend David Puckett worked the crowd like a master, mesmerizing them with his high kicks, his homey humor, his flashing eyes, his intense, personal prayers, flinging his arms upward as though in supplication.
Then it happened.
“Jimmy Dell,” a voice came clearly across the open space from the tent toward me.
I glanced up, thinking I was being summoned.
“Jimmy Dell,” the voice came once more.
I stood up. Milo Strange and Glenn Daughtery dissolved into empty shadows as I felt my feet taking me where it was that my soul had always yearned after.
Later I was told, that I walked straight up the sawdust aisle like a man lost in a brain fever, too entranced even to hear the half-words my mother muttered as she pushed out of her row to trail me.
In that thing too nearly like a dream, the Reverend David Puckett touched my shoulder, and I saw sparks fly. I felt a tremor from head to toe, and I began to laugh. In a moment, I was surrounded by other sweating bodies, and in that next space of time, the length of which I cannot judge, I danced and cried and screamed , a creature purged, as I hugged in succession, my mother, my father, and Wendy Holbrook, not to mention other hollow-eyed wraiths who floated up to me in the general conflagration like mystical creatures from out of an angelic choir.
Finally, my father led me on rubber legs out to the car where he laid me down in the back seat. When I came to myself completely and out of that bright, gauzy haze of descended salvation, the car was moving, and I could see the stars scattered across the vast summer sky. Somewhere far away, my mother and father talked and laughed together in that easy manner which was all I knew of love in my formative years, when the bond between them was as true and simple as morning light.
Walking up the steps, my mother reached over to touch my hair.
“Are you okay?”
In my room, pulling off my clothes, I lay exhausted upon the bed and drifted off into a troubled sleep full of dreams where I fled before great purple, turbulent clouds. It seemed much later when I felt a hand upon my shoulder. When an urgent voice whispered in my ear, I came fully awake, sensing rather than seeing the Reverend David Puckett there in the darkness.
“Can I talk to you” he asked, and I could smell the fear on his breath so acrid and fierce that it took an effort not to jump up and run.
In that long second before I answered, I remembered the last improbable evening when he touched me and I shook off a thousand, dark transgressions. I thought of that first night when he peered straight into my soul and saw me lying in the river, where I had no doubt that I may have gone had he not walked up that dusty lane with a flaming sword before him.
There are those moments when you feel your soul grow to fit the world’s misery. I opened my arms to David Puckett and leaned his head against my shoulder.
I told myself all the best stories I could remember about love and sacrifice. At the first hint of morning light, like a mother might do with her youngest who had seen horrible things under the bed., I shook him awake.
“You better get to your room. “
He awakened with a start. Then he looked me deep in the eyes.
“What did I say?”
“You spoke of your Mother and your need to be in the bosom of your family,” I lied.
I thought I saw relief in his eyes. When he spoke, his breath was clean and fresh as the smell of pine.
“I am leaving.”
“You got one more night coming, throngs of people in thrall of your every word.”
“I think it is time.”
“Yeah, you would know that better than me”
He closed the door, and I skimmed the surface of sleep one moment before I plunged in where I dreamed of sun strewn meadows in a fair country.
* * *
A year later, my parents sat together on long evenings in the front porch swing and sang “Was It Tears Or Was It Rain.” They held hands in the twilight and searched each other’s faces with something nearly like renewed wonder. Sometimes as I stood among the people of the church, I heard the Reverend David Puckett’s praises sung as though some renegade angel has flown low and spread redeeming light in that summer past. Maybe he was all of that or merely some lost child from off a carny circuit come to play the rubes a long, hard pull, but, for one week in August, he brought us some species of heaven-spun truth.
Miracles come and go. Miracles are answers, not questions. And however I felt about David Puckett at first sight, I know enough to feel simple gratitude in his wake.