Before I met him, Jessup worked briefly in the summer of 1967 for a traveling preacher. He hired onto a crew with several other laborers who pitched a religious revival tent, and erected a huge metal cross covered with hundreds of 100 watt light bulbs. They located the tent and the cross on the levee beside the Rio Grande River outside of Del Rio, Texas, at a spot a few miles west of town where the Devil’s River emptied whatever water it had left into the Rio Grande. Del Rio translates as, of the river in Spanish.
The preacher bought that small one ring second hand not so big top tent from a third rate circus outfit that broke down and went bankrupt in some godforsaken chicken shit little prairie town out in the middle of nowhere corn country Iowa. The whole enchilada amounted to a half ass wore out, sticky salt water taffy and funnel cake tacky tent pole tabernacle with red, white, and blue stripes and fading gold accents. This well weathered canvas cathedral featured an odd somewhat oblong egg-ish sort of a shape, and must have held the hopes and prayers of more than a hundred and fifty people on a good night.
The workmen assembled a large stage inside at one end of the tent, and down at the other end, two painted elephants decorated the folded back flaps of the main entrance. The pachyderms were pictured standing on their hind legs with front legs pawing up at the air and trunks held high, to where you could almost hear the trumpeting sound excited elephants would make for such a grand event.
Most of the crew dressed as you might expect for laborers in that era, wearing overalls and work boots. Jessup, on the other hand, wore faded bell bottom blue jeans with a handful of rainbow-colored embroidered patches to cover up the holes, and a ragged sleeveless T-shirt with Longhorn Athletic Dept. printed in faded letters across the front.
Jessup’s left arm, the upper arm near his shoulder, had a tattoo of a cross with JESUS on the horizontal bar, and SAVES on the vertical bar, beginning with the oversized middle S in JESUS that protruded above the rest of the word.
His right arm had a round tattoo with a drawing of the happy Buddha in the middle, and the words what goes around comes around encircling the Buddha like a butterfly’s laughter in the late afternoon. On his feet Jessup wore no work boots, only a wayfarer’s huarache sandals, which some of that period referred to as Jerusalem cruisers, the real deal huarache sandals too, with handmade leather uppers and 40,000 mile steel belted radial tire tread soles. Just about any soul would have been proud to walk a mile in those shoes.
Jessup’s lean, but muscular build stretched out over a six foot frame, topped off by a scraggly unkempt beard, and long curly sandy brown hair that cascaded well past his shoulders. He viewed the world through John Lennon sunglasses, spectacles, with round blue lenses. Most people of that time would have called Jessup a hippie.
Near the tent a huge red, white, and blue Old Glory stars and stripes up on a rusty forty foot flag pole waved bravely in the desert river breeze scented with the seductive purple sage and succulent yellow rose of Texas blossoms from the prickly pear cactus growing there along the banks of the Rio Grande. This version of the American flag owned a long and proud history, and had seen better days, showing her age and heavy use, like the tent and the cross.
The foreman of this roving revival operation, a man known as Wendell Chalk, sat on a large round rock made smooth by the river of time, taking generous pulls from a cheap pint of Louisiana voodoo bath tub vodka. The gospel preacher and left hand of God guiding light for this traveling religious enterprise, set upon saving souls and prying loose a few shekels from the true believers for his trouble, could best be described and named as a Bible thumping, piano pounding, front man and backwater evangelist by the name of Reverend Jimmy Sunday. The preacher man strolled across the levee as Wendell slipped the vodka bottle into the hip pocket of his bib overalls.
“You better take it easy on that joy juice, Wendell. We got a show to do tonight,” Jimmy said as his ever present unfiltered Camel cigarette bobbed up and down at the corner of his mouth when he talked.
Jimmy spoke in careening staccato machine gun fire explosions that erupted from his mouth as often as not with a hot volcanic velocity. His mind operated much faster than his mouth, so he pushed the words out in a hurry and they plummeted haphazardly to the ground attempting to take root wherever they landed. The sudden stops and surprising restarts of his patter left those who listened to him slightly off balance, but nonetheless impressed with his facility concerning the spoken word.
“Don’t you worry yourself now preacher man,” said Wendell as he spat toward a lizard three feet away scuttling across the ground, and not that weak ass runny watery gibber gabble spittle neither, the thick sticky spit that stuck to whatever it struck. Upon hitting his reptilian target, Wendell expressed his unbridled glee and cackled, “Bingo,” as the poor lizard desperately searched for his windshield wipers.
“Rejoice friends and neighbors, ‘cause I got the feelin’ there’s gonna be a healin’ here on the big river tonight,” hollered Wendell. The disheveled syllables barely trickled forth from the foreman’s mouth and spilled down onto his whisker stubbled chin like the black market cut-rate gut wrench vodka he so generously imbibed.
Jimmy could tell Wendell had already soaked up a serious snoot full of firewater. Why he was high as a midnight kite in flight, even though the clock hadn’t yet touched the peak of high noon. If the mercury in the thermometer told the truth, didn’t faint from the heat nor drown from the sweat, it must have been pushing a hundred degrees in the shade that day, and there was precious little shade to be had. The calendar identified the day as Sunday, May 28, in the year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and sixty seven, the day before Memorial Day.
Even so, Jimmy, a handsome young man in a well-lit two bit too much paint and spit roadside attraction sort of way, dressed himself in a moth-eaten nearly threadbare three piece black wool suit, a white long sleeve polyester dress shirt bought off the red tag sale rack at J.C. Penney, and a dangerously narrow black tie gathered up underneath his chin like a gallows noose by what most folks called a schoolboy knot back in those days.
Jimmy never wore a hat because he’d have to cover up his beautifully Brylcreemed hair. But the reverend must have missed the part about how just a little dab will do ya, because he put more oil on his hair than what came up out of that famous Spindletop gusher of a well in Beaumont, Texas way back in 1901. Jimmy’s oiled up slicked down hair would shine in the sunlight, and in the moonlight too come to think of it, like he’d been capped off with a Christian crowning glory hallelujah halo on top of his head.
The preacher man fired up another Camel as he sauntered over to where Jessup endeavored to dig a drainage ditch near the banks of the confluence of the two rivers, the Devil’s and the Rio Grande, fire and water come together, you might say.
Henry David Thoreau claimed the word saunter derived from the idle folks who roved about the European countryside in the Middle Ages asking for charity under the pretense of traveling a la sainte terre, to the Holy Land. The children of the day would say, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer, a saunterer, a seeker of the Holy Land.”
I reckon few, if any, of those folks ever sauntered all the way to what Christian folk call the Holy Land, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. But then again, Mister Thoreau would have been the first to say that all land was holy land. “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
Jimmy scanned the Devil’s River, and then the Rio Grande, which has always been challenged to live up to a name that translates into English as Big River. The Rio Grande River boasts of length at least, as it runs nearly two thousand meandering miles from its origins as melting snow up in the mountains of Colorado, to the Texas coast and spills herself into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Rio Grande was also known by the name of Rio Bravo, which translates as Brave River, because many of the people who were brave enough to cross that river became heroes, or dead, or both. If you can face your fears and cross that river, any river, the boon you gain will bring opportunities for great power and wisdom, even everlasting life, whether you cross the Rubicon or the Amazon, the Nile or the Jordan, the Ganges or the Rio Grande. If you live to tell the tale, and share your boon with others after your river crossing, well then so much the better.
“Big river ain’t no big deal, mostly just big talk for such a small sad little piece of water. The man was right who said the Rio Grande is too thin to plow and too thick to drink,” Jimmy said in Jessup’s general direction as he eyed the pitiful water barely dribbling by in the river with a contemptuous grin on his face.
“I think it was Will Rogers who said the Rio Grande was the only river he ever saw that needed irrigation,” Jessup said as he swung a pick ax digging that ditch, and didn’t miss a single stroke, not a beat, as he responded to Jimmy.
“That’s what we have here I reckon, the Devil’s River doing its damnedest to irrigate the Rio Grande.”
“My father once told me that no matter where it starts, how long it takes, or by what path it gets there, each drop of water that falls out of the sky and onto the earth into every creek, stream and river in the world ends up in the ocean sooner or later,” Jessup said as he continued to speak with the same fluid rhythm.
“My daddy served in the merchant marines over in Galveston. He’d come home every few months, stay lickered up for two weeks, beat me and my mom for reasons I’ll never understand, and then leave again. That motherfucker was crazier than a bunkhouse rat, and the only thing he ever told me was to sit down and shut up. I stood up to him and ran away from home when I was sixteen, and I been preachin’ ever since.”
“Siring a child and fathering a child are two entirely different things,” Jessup said as the sweet summer sweat rolled off him, and nearly evaporated before it hit the ground.
“Well buddy, are you doing all right this fine summer day?”
“I just go with the flow, like that river,” Jessup said. His words flowed like the river too, in stark contrast to the sparks and cinders of language that spewed out of Jimmy.
“You’re the new guy, right? What’s your name?”
“Is that something Jessup, or Jessup something?”
“Well, okay then just Jessup, stick around for the show tonight. I may need you. There’s an extra twenty bucks in it for you.”
Jimmy reacted to the word cool with a wince as he stared up at the south Texas sun beating down in all its goodness gracious great big ball of fire magnificence. The preacher man repeated the word to himself in little more than a whisper through a sardonic smile, like he was blowing out the only candle still burning in a way past midnight dark room, “Cool.”
Later that day as the sun dipped low on the horizon and the heat relented somewhat, the faithful gathered to see the preacher man perform his well-rehearsed miracles. The tent fairly glowed, illuminated with bright lights and gleaming expectations filling the eyes of those in attendance, hopeful eyes, prayerful eyes, the very windows to their souls. The women cooled themselves with hand held paper fans in every color of the rainbow, mostly branded with the name of Gasperson’s Del Rio Dry Goods Store, as the men made do with swinging their hats by the brim in front of their flushed cheeks to stir up a breeze.
The wooden folding chairs were divided in two sections with generous aisles on either side of the tent, and the six foot wide main aisle right down the middle between the chairs. The white people, the vast majority of those in attendance being white, sat benevolently in front, and the more moneyed, the closer they were seated to the front, so Jimmy could eyeball them, better evaluate them you might say. The revival also provided small roped off sections toward the left rear of the tent for the brown people, and at the right rear for the black people.
A large and enthusiastic crowd filled the portable pews formed by the folding chairs. They’d come together, congregated you might say, to get a leg up on the afterlife by escaping damnation and seeking salvation in this life. Jimmy could judge the size of their wallets, which in turn would impact his willingness to save their souls, by the clothes they wore, or didn’t, or maybe by how much shoe leather separated the soles of their feet from the dirt underneath their shoes, and whatever demons lurked deep down below that.
Those believing, but unsuspecting worshippers were confirming the notion that religion as a whole seems to have been developed with a two pronged carrot and stick, good cop, bad cop, motivational strategy. The Bible offered up the business plan all neatly laid out with the scary fire and brimstone hell/stick/bad cop damnation part in the Old Testament, and then give them the love and heaven/carrot/good cop salvation routine in the New Testament.
Scare the holy shit out of them first, then save them later on, but only after they’ve accepted their fate, and only want to know what they need to do, or not do, to cheat that fate, kind of like what doctors and lawyers do to separate patients and clients from their money.
The newest thing Jimmy owned was a 1965 model Fender Rhodes Sparkletop suitcase electric piano with the teardrop hammers and germanium transistors. When he was a kid, his mama Raylene worked as a waitress at a dive bar and grill called the Neptune Lounge near the docks in the rough water hardscrabble part of town on the banks of Galveston Bay.
If her husband put out to sea, as often as not Raylene would bring home another man with her late at night after her shift ended when she would put out too, and then Raylene introduced those men to Jimmy the next morning as one of his uncles. Jimmy had a bunch of uncles.
When he was sober enough to stay on his stool, an old one-eyed barfly boozehound bluesman who hung by the handle of Hotfoot Harrell taught Jimmy how to play the piano when the boy couldn’t have been too much more than ten. It always freaked Jimmy out when Hotfoot would stare at him with that one bloodshot good green eye, because his fake glass eye was as blue as the deep blue sea, never bloodshot, and never looking in the same direction as the good green eye.
As the riverfront revival got rolling that evening, Jimmy played the hell out of his nearly new Sparkletop piano with a heavenly zeal, and led those assembled in a crowd favorite of a hymn appropriately entitled, “Shall We Gather at the River.”
If the foreman suffered from a midnight snoot full of old John Barleycorn by noon, then he’d celebrated his way into the wee small hours of inebriated bliss by show time that evening. Wendell waited backstage, dressed in a drab olive green military cap and an army jacket covered in service medals and patches, as he sat way more than comfortably spraddle-legged in a wheelchair airing out his sweaty crotch inside those bib overalls, while explaining to Jessup how this ecclesiastical extravaganza was prepared to go forth and multiply. Wendell spoke slowly in garbled words through a face so rubbery it could not possibly have been further numbed, even with a shot of Novocaine from a dentist’s needle.
“Iss Jesssupp, right?” Wendell asked, as Jessup nodded. “Okay Jesssupp, you roll me out on the stage in the swheelchair. Yousee, I’m a cripple. My legs were injured in, uh, Vietnam, yeah. Thass right, Vietnam. Then Jimmy says some mumbo jumbo abott the Holy Ghoss, I jumpp upp out the swheelchair, and I can walk. Hallelujah, praissse the Lord. That oughta play well with the rubes.”
Wendell slammed another slug off a fresh pint of bad day at black rock back alley vodka, and then tucked it away behind him in the wheelchair. “Okay, s’when the singin’ ends, Misster Jimmy’s gonna do some glorifyin’ and preachifyin’ and s’then you roll me out there. Got itt?”
Jessup looked resplendent, for a hippie anyway, dressed in his best Sunday go to meetin’ bell bottom blue jeans without any holes, and therefore, no need for rainbow patches. He wore an almost new pure white cotton Mexican peasant shirt. Of course, he still shod himself in his trademark huarache sandals, with no socks.
“I’ll roll you up there on stage when we get the cue,” Jessup said to Wendell.
“Friends and neighbors we are gathered here this evening on the shores of time where the Devil’s River, the Devil’s River I said, meets the Rio Grande River.” Jimmy’s oiled up hair shined like a black pearl under those bright lights. “Many of you have asked me why I chose this particular spot, this particular spot. I will seek out the devil wherever he hides and root out his evil. I said root out his evil. Can I get a Praise God?”
“Praise God!” The faithful shouted out in unison, a fine crowd too, there to hear the gospel preached good and proper. You could almost smell the sulfur wafting up off the brimstone as Jimmy stoked the fires of Hell awaiting the wayward souls.
“They’re building a dam, a dam not too far downstream from here. Amistad Dam they named it, which will form Lake Amistad. Amistad means friendship in Spanish, friendship I said. Answer me this people, can you make friends with the devil?”
“No!” The faithful shouted out in response.
“You’ve got the devil’s houses, that’s right I said the devil’s houses, over there across this river people, whether you call them houses of ill repute, brothels, or bordellos it’s all the same thing, the peddling of human flesh for money, for money I tell you. The gospels tell us that Mary Magdalene was a streetwalker, a lady of the evening, a fallen woman, until she was saved by Jesus Christ Our Lord. Close your eyes, bow your heads, and let’s say a silent prayer for those lost souls, lost and wandering souls across this river friends and neighbors.” Jimmy bowed his head for a few moments, but sneaked a peek at the crowd to take their temperature.
His eyes blazed like fiery cauldrons as he continued, “Just as bad in its own way, you’ve got the devil’s music, you heard me I said the devil’s music lurking over there across that river in Mexico. This so called rock & roll they play until all hours of the night on that radio station over there is the devil’s music good people. That’s why we must sing our hymns, loud enough, loud enough I say, to drown out that rock & roll music. Can I get a Save Us Jesus?”
“Save Us Jesus!”
When he preached, Jimmy clutched a bright white handkerchief in his hand that he waved around like he was surrendering, surrendering his soul to Jesus. Jimmy would whip that hankie out of his pocket and pat the glistening sweat from his brow. He’d take that sweat soaked white handkerchief and dry the tears from his eyes. Jimmy cried every chance he got. He could cry on cue. Friends and neighbors, we’re not talking about getting a tad misty eyed and leaking a little bit. Reverend Jimmy Sunday could cry a river.
“We are gathered here on the banks of this river the Sunday before Memorial Day,” Jimmy said to the crowd. “A day when we honor our veterans. Brothers and sisters, tonight we’re gonna try and help one of our brave young military men who served in Vietnam.”
The faithful applauded enthusiastically as Jimmy said, “This brave young soldier has been over there across the big water protecting you and me from the evils of communism. I said evils of communism. Make no mistake, we have to fight the commies over there, or we’ll have to fight ‘em over here. If these commies have their way we won’t be able to practice our religion as we see fit. Why these commies would like to do away with Gawaduh altogether. Do away with Gawaduh?” Jimmy usually pronounced Gawaduh in roughly three syllables, but the number of syllables could vary. “Can you imagine that people, a world without Gawaduh?”
“No!” The faithful worshippers shouted their disapproval of a world without Gawaduh.
“Can I get an A-men?” Jimmy was getting his gospel groove on now.
In Reverend Jimmy Sunday you had a pitch man extraordinaire, so he knew you can’t keep them at a fever pitch the whole night long, or they’ll be too tired to reach for their wallets at the end of the evening. He dialed back on the high hard heater religious fastball, and threw them his best off speed patriotic curve ball with some dutiful, beautiful flag waving thrown in for good measure. He always gave them what they wanted, so that’s what he did that night. Jimmy sold God and country cheap, and the faithful bought shares of stock like the market would always keep going up and to the right, forever and ever, amen.
“While this brave young soldier fought over there in Vietnam to protect our freedom, the commies ambushed him in a devastating attack, a devastating attack from the cowardly enemy left this young man paralyzed. I said paralyzed from the waist down. Tonight, if you’ll pray with me, we’re going to see if we can help this brave young man walk again, help him walk again.” Jimmy could not have anybody falling asleep before the manufactured miracles manifested so he yelled out, “Give me a Praise Gawad people!” This was more of a punchy two syllable Gawad, without the extra duh at the end.
“Praise God!” The crowd yelled as they performed their part of the call and response religious ritual.
The faithful held their collective breath as Jessup rolled Wendell in the wheelchair up the ramp, and onto the stage where Gawad’s humble servant, in the person of one Reverend Jimmy Sunday, stood waiting like an expectant youthful rock of ages. There with Jimmy, prominently displayed, sat three large ornately carved empty wooden chairs, patiently awaiting the arrival of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Jimmy took one look at Wendell and judged him to be completely sloshed. The preacher man kneeled on the stage at Wendell’s eye level in the wheelchair, and asked loudly into the microphone, so everyone in the tent could hear.
“Are you ready, ready to pray with me brother?” Then Jimmy covered the microphone with his palm, put it behind his back and whispered in Wendell’s ear, “You better pray you sorry son of a bitch because if you fuck this up I’m gonna fire your sorry ass.”
“Praise the Lord, Reverend Sunday, Praise the Lord,” Wendell yelled out.
“Dear Lord we ask that you send the Holy Ghost, send the Holy Ghost down here tonight to work with us Lord. Send the Holy Ghost down here to chase out the devil and bring life back into these dead legs.” Jimmy hollered into the microphone as he closed his eyes and prayed loudly so the worshippers gathered there could hear him like the ringing of a church bell in that steeple they remembered as a child.
Jimmy grabbed the foreman’s leg as if to heal him by his touch, as he raised his voice to the point of screaming, and the tears flowed down his face like the River Jordan itself was oozing out of his eyes. “Heal this brave young man. Let the power of the Holy Ghost come into this young man’s legs so he may walk again in your light. Please, can I get a Holy Ghost?”
The money would come later, but the worshippers tithed vocally now as they shouted together. Some of those in attendance felt the Holy Ghost take aholt of them to where they’d hop up out of their chairs and jump around with their arms flailing about like a swarm of angry avenging angel bees had injected the fear of God into their wayward souls by way of the stingers on their tiny honey bee butts.
Jimmy cracked an eye at Wendell to see if he planned to get up out of the wheelchair and walk across the stage. Sure enough, the foreman bolted up out of that wheelchair like he’d sat down on a tack. A sucking gasp escaped from the mouths of the congregation. Wendell staggered a few unsteady steps and reached down to feel his legs.
“I can walk! I can walk!” Wendell screamed out.
Wendell leapt around the stage like a man possessed by spirits. Be they good spirits, evil spirits, or merely rot gut road rut vodka spirits, now who’s to say? Nonetheless, he bounded about hither, thither, and yon like a man on some kind of pious pogo stick. Jimmy scowled and cussed under his breath because Wendell had departed from their gilded grifter’s script.
The spontaneous and exuberant exertion occasioned the vodka to kick into Wendell’s system like a hobnail boot to the groin from a dancing Cossack. His eyes bulged out, right before he blacked out, and fell, not down like you might expect, but sideways, straight up and stiff like a telephone pole snapped at the base by a hurricane wind, hitting the stage floor with a thunderous thunk, kind of bounced a bit, and then he landed on the stage again with a thunkette.
Wendell passed out cold, colder than a Moscow winter. The crowd was stunned. Jessup rushed to pick up Wendell, and gently placed him back in the wheelchair.
“Bless his heart, bless his heart, bless his heart, brothers and sisters,” Jimmy said to his riverside assemblage. “The excitement, the pure rapture, the heavenly joy of being able to walk again, to walk again, think of it people he could walk again, was just too much for him. Let’s sing another hymn.” Jessup wheeled Wendell off stage as Jimmy came over to whisper something in his ear. “Okay Jessup, I want you to bring my shills up on stage one at a time when I’m ready for ‘em. You think you can handle that?”
“No problemo,” Jessup said in fluent Spanish.
Jimmy plopped down on his piano bench and led the worshippers in another hymn entitled, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” When in doubt continue to wave the flag and get them singing. On hot nights like this one, the crew rolled up the sides of the tent to let inside, what little breeze that stirred about, outside. Jimmy saluted the audience with his eyes pointed in the general direction of that big American flag and his tall metal cross, the hundreds of 100 watt light bulbs on the cross shining like stars in the sky above that humble manger in Bethlehem.
While the faithful sang the hymn with Jimmy, Jessup visited backstage with an old blind woman by the name of Eudora Jones — originally from Arkansas she said — that he’d quickly chosen out of the audience. A second shill stood there expectantly, a blank clueless expression on his face, looking all hang dog pathetic with his right arm in a sling, and his left hand scratching his shiftless no account way behind on his child support big hairy ass.
“Hey, I’m next,” shill number two said.
“No, you’re not. Miss Eudora here is next,” Jessup said to the shill in a barking tone with some bite to back it up, so the shill diverted his eyes toward the ground and shuffled off to find a place to hide. “Miss Eudora, tell me what ails you dear?”
“I had a stroke about two years ago while I was hanging laundry out on the clothes line in my back yard, and everything’s been dark as a moonless night every since.”
“Miss Eudora, what was your favorite game when you were a little girl?” Jessup asked as he looked at Miss Eudora and saw his reflection in her sunglasses. Jessup’s smooth flowing speech gave such a comfort to the old woman she relaxed and confided in him.
“I was real good at shootin’ marbles. I guess it was more s’posed to be for boys, but I could whup ‘em all at marbles. Why, I had this big ol’ kindly blue colored shooter what was just pure magic, a big blue magic marble.” A childlike glow swirled across Miss Eudora’s face as she recalled that chalk circle on her street corner playground from so long ago.
“I want you to see that game of marbles in your mind’s eye, Miss Eudora. I want you to see that big ol’ blue magic shooter marble bustin’ into those other marbles, and knockin’ ‘em out of the circle.” You could almost feel the energy coursing from Jessup into Miss Eudora. Soon she began to see flashes of light. Miss Eudora could see her first blurry images by the time Jessup escorted her up on stage alongside the preacher man, just as the “Onward Christian Soldiers” wrapped up their marching hymn.
Jessup surprised Jimmy when he didn’t bring the next shill on stage according to plan. He brought a real blind woman up on stage, a black blind woman. Jimmy could tolerate letting “those people,” brown and black people, and even red people every now and again, sit in the back with their own kind, but he never allowed them to come up on stage. He preferred to perform his practiced miracles with shills who resembled the affluent sheep in the front rows of the flock he hoped to fleece, the white sheep.
Jimmy didn’t write this script, but being a wily old bird, he figured to stick to his strengths, and wing it. He positioned himself behind Miss Eudora Jones and awkwardly placed his hands over her eyes, fumbled his words a bit, but rallied. Like a real pro, Jimmy exhorted, or maybe that should be extorted, the congregation.
“This sister needs to see again, Dear Lord. She wants to see the beauty in this world that you’ve made.” With the shake, rattle, and roll of a first rate snake oil salesman, Jimmy removed his hands from Miss Eudora’s eyes and shouted, “This sister wants to see the light you shine on us every day, Dear Lord. Let there be light.”
Miss Eudora’s vision was still a little bit cloudy at first, but moment by moment the images came into focus. She pushed her sunglasses onto her forehead for a few moments as she blinked her eyes, rubbed them a couple of times, and reached out her hands in front of her like she was touching every color of the rainbow for the very first time.
As her vision cleared, she turned toward Jessup when she heard his voice, as he asked her the only relevant question in her universe. “How ‘bout a game of marbles, Miss Eudora?”
“You’re on!” Miss Eudora yelled as she let go of her white cane which fell to the stage floor. She snatched off her dark glasses and threw them aside like a Hollywood movie star struttin’ her stuff up the red carpet as she flashed a million dollar smile down at the congregation. A bit of a ham, she winked and waved to the crowd which cheered and applauded, everybody laughing and hugging each other. Jessup seemed quite comfortable with the fact that this blind woman could now see, almost as if he expected it.
On the other side of a very dark moon resided one Reverend Jimmy Sunday, more surprised than anyone else under the not so big top tent that evening. But after all, the night was going just swell, so Jimmy reckoned he’d run with it, rejoicing and waving his white handkerchief to the crowd. Sure enough, miracle after miracle, real honest to God miracles, not a shill in the bunch, followed that night, mostly white people miracles, but with the occasional brown people and black people miracles sprinkled in now and again for color, each one more amazing than the last. Jimmy remained completely clueless as to exactly how this flood of swear on a stack of Bibles miracles had come to pass.
But then, towards the end of the evening Jimmy contemplated seriously that maybe he could perform miracles. Why, hadn’t he been going through the motions and practicing at performing miracles for a long time now? Maybe practice does make perfect? In any event, Jimmy long ago hocked his conscience at a pawn shop near a hard luck pool hall on Easy Street in the Upper Ninth Ward down New Orleans way. He felt perfectly comfortable with taking both the credit for the miracles, as well as the cash folding money and spare change flowing into his personally consecrated coffers as the night wore on.
Every saved soul, which apparently included all of them under the tent that night, wanted to shake Jimmy’s right hand just before they left. Those people knew they’d witnessed true miracles, that somehow they’d been touched by the hand of God that evening, not some fake Gawaduh or Gawad mind you, but the real deal honest to God…God.
Jessup witnessed the scene as the last couple to leave came up to shake Jimmy’s hand, jacking his arm up and down like the handle on an old water pump. They’d brought their beautiful, fresh faced sixteen year old daughter with them. The three of them dressed in the clean, sturdy clothes of people who made their living from the land, hardworking, God loving, God fearing people, whom anyone would call the salt of the earth. Mrs. Rayne, a weathered, but still attractive woman in her early forties spoke slowly, and thoughtfully, as if she’d been pondering something that mattered a great deal to her for quite a while.
“Reverend Sunday, may we speak with you for a moment?” Mrs. Rayne asked.
With one more crimp, roll, and flattening of the tube Jimmy squeezed out his last unctuous ounce of charisma like he’d graduated valedictorian from charm school.
“Certainly you may sister, why you remind me of my very own parents, honest folks who worked the land with their hands. I was raised on a small family farm right outside of Waco, not much water, not much land, maybe seventy acres or so, more rocks than dirt, more weeds than crops, more blood, sweat and blisters than anything else, but a blessing all the same.”
“I’m Sarah Rayne. This is my husband, Bob, and our daughter, Bobbie Beth. She wants to be a doctor someday so she can help heal the poor folk down along this river. She’s real smart, but we can’t afford to send her to college. We were praying about this just now and it washed over me like a revelation. Maybe she could help you with your healing. Only for the summer mind you, while she’s out of high school. What you do Reverend Sunday, that’s kind of like doctorin’ ain’t it? You’re doing God’s own doctorin’.” Mrs. Rayne straightened herself a bit as she paused to collect her thoughts, self-consciously brushing at the sleeves of her faded blouse, like somehow that would make it newer and more fashionable.
Jimmy drank in the sight of the young girl, Bobbie Beth Rayne, shy and blushing, but stunningly beautiful in an innocent, country girl sort of way. She had long, gently curling naturally blonde hair with streaks of sunlight shimmering through it. Bobbie Beth stood about five feet six inches tall, weighed slightly less than 110 pounds, and every ounce of it seemed to have been located in exactly the right place, because she filled out that cotton dress to perfection. Jimmy sized up the situation in front of him, and liked his chances.
“She’d be willing to do anything,” Mrs. Rayne said.
“Anything,” Jimmy Sunday said, repeating the word with a Texas twister of a twinkle in his eye. “Well you know it’s a bless-ed coincidence, I say a bless-ed coincidence, Sister Rayne, but I was thinking today, this very morning in fact, that I needed a personal assistant, an executive secretary kind of position. Can you type Bobbie Beth?”
“Over fifty words a minute. I can take dictation and write shorthand too. I’m also good at filing,” Bobbie Beth said with a gush. She offered an unassuming, but confident smile that invited the world to smile back at her.
“Dic-tation, short-hand, well, well, well, let me see now, my goodness. I think this might work out just fine, yes, yes, yes, just fine indeed. I have the perfect position, the perfect position in mind for you, Bobbie Beth.” Jimmy could spread the word of Gawaduh on smoother than warm Velveeta cheese. He paused for a pregnant moment as he mulled over the possibilities and reflected out loud, “Yes indeed, the perfect position.”
Over the next few weeks Reverend Jimmy Sunday and his entourage, which had excluded Wendell Chalk, and included Jessup as well as the beautiful Miss Bobbie Beth Rayne, traveled to each of the larger border towns down along the Rio Grande River. After Del Rio they made their way to Eagle Pass, then Laredo, McAllen, and finally Brownsville. Bobbie Beth’s mama only let her go because she promised to write at least three times a week.
The month of June flew by as if on angel’s wings, and as this God’s own rolling thunder review tent revival journeyed closer and closer to the Gulf of Mexico, the crowds kept getting bigger and bigger, and more enthusiastic, confounding all concerned that such a thing could even be possible. The offering baskets absolutely overflowed with money, like manna that had fallen from Heaven and fortuitously landed in Reverend Jimmy Sunday’s lap.
The preacher man slicked up his sartorial situation too, a sharp dressed man of Gawaduh, looking good and holding forth from his peripatetic pulpit in hand tailored white linen suits, bought on the cheap of course from the sweat shops across the river in Mexico.
He remained almost completely convinced that the miracles were strictly of his own doing. The white faithful started calling Jimmy the Miracle Man. The brown people anointed him El Hombre de los Milagros, and the few black people who attended the revivals named him the Mojo Man. He fancied the sound of that admiration and adulation just fine, like listening to fat spring raindrops falling on a thin tin roof in the late afternoon, the intermittent rhythm of the rain activating the skittering thought patterns in his brain.
Bobbie Beth Rayne revered and idolized the older Jimmy, twenty five years old, a full grown adult, which at sixteen, she certainly was not. Still, this relationship between the two of them showed the earmarks of becoming much more than that of an itinerant evangelist, a modern day motorized circuit rider, and his young starry-eyed assistant.
The Rio Grande River flowed into the Gulf of Mexico at Brownsville, Texas. The brown people called that place the boca chica, the little mouth of the river, because by then the Rio Grande didn’t have that much left to say. After the last show in Brownsville, the faithful worshippers had long since departed. Jimmy, Jessup, and Bobbie Beth gathered around the preacher’s piano as the workmen finished loading the last of the folding chairs and the rest of the revival gear onto the trucks. They planned to wait until daylight the next morning to strike the tent, and then drive on up to Corpus Christi.
Jimmy pulled a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey out of its purple cloth bag with the gold trim. That purple bag was just as fancy, and tasty, as the Crown Royal itself. The preacher man loved those purple and gold bags.
He fired up another unfiltered Camel cigarette, poured himself a stiff shot of whiskey over ice, and stuffed some rolled up cash bundled together by rubber bands into the purple bag. Jimmy tossed the Crown Royal bag full of loot in an old worn brown leather gatemouth satchel with the initials of JSD embossed on the side up near the handle. He offered a glass of Crown Royal over ice to Jessup, who accepted, and to Bobbie Beth, who declined. She continued writing another one of those long letters to her mama, updating her on the spate of soul saving doings and sweet salvation goings on under their revival tent.
Jimmy contemplated his existence, exhausted but exalted, and waxed euphoric as the evening waned. “You know, this thing is getting big, real big. We need to start thinking big too, and skip out on these little jerk water border towns. We’re going up to Corpus Christi next, and then after that Houston…Houston.” Jimmy repeated the word Houston, enjoying the lingering largess of it.
“We’ll go to Houston, and why not San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas after that? Why not…New York City?” Jimmy asked himself, and then paused for a moment because his ideas had soared up too high and mighty for even the grand man himself to comprehend. “We’re gonna need a bigger tent,” he said with a taste of panic in his voice, but quickly straightened his clothes and regained his composure, “or…maybe we’ll get invited into regular churches, and other uptown sorts of places with real class, pipe organs, stained glass, and real class.” Jimmy baptized his dreams with a long sip of his Crown Royal whiskey.
“I’ll go as far as Corpus, but I figure I’ll be partin’ ways with you after that,” Jessup said.
“Aw, come on Jessup. We make a great team, the three of us, you, me, and Bobbie Beth.” Jimmy tinkled the ice cubes in his drink as he tickled the keys on his Sparkletop piano, playing a piddling little classical ditty called Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Jimmy shifted his attentions to Bobbie Beth. “You did great tonight sugar, just great. Come on over here and sit by me.” Bobbie Beth sat down obediently on the piano bench next to the preacher man.
Jimmy hoped to take their relationship past the platonic. He wanted to move from the front seat of your daddy’s stodgy Oldsmobile to the back seat of a hot two tone black and white ‘55 Chevy with red leather tuck and roll pleats. When he climbed into the back seat with Bobbie Beth, Jimmy fully intended to fog up the windows.
“You know,” Jessup said, “if a person’s not real careful, you go to bed one night believing in the power of love, but you wake up the next morning hungry for the love of power.” Jessup finished his Crown Royal and left, leaving Jimmy and Bobbie Beth alone in the big tent.
The concern showed on Bobbie Beth’s face as she watched Jessup walk away. The whole thing overwhelmed this naive country girl. Somehow, she knew Jessup must be a part of the miracles too, but she trusted Jimmy implicitly. She believed in him so much, Jimmy even believed in himself. After all, Reverend Jimmy Sunday was a man of God, or Gawaduh, as the case may be.
Jimmy noticed her frown and said, “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about him sugar. He’s just the hired help. You and me sugar, we’re gonna go all the way. You wanna take a bite of the big apple? Have you ever been to New…York…City?” Jimmy put his hand on Bobbie Beth’s shoulder, and massaged her neck. Then he went back to playing that lilting piece of classical music on the piano, adding a well-timed flourish here and there for effect. The music seemed to help her relax.
Whatever remained of the good place inside Jimmy, felt sure that somehow the love of this young girl had imbued him with a new and miraculous power. Jimmy did want more power, and he wanted more of this young girl too.
“I didn’t know you could play that kind of music. It’s so beautiful. It takes my breath away,” Bobbie Beth said as she gazed into Jimmy’s eyes like the truth lived there.
“The Holy Ghost and the devil struggle inside this piano the same way they struggle inside me,” Jimmy said, confessing. “You know, sometimes I get carried away and say stuff on stage I don’t really mean. The crowd gets me so worked up, and I wanna tell ‘em what they came to hear, and not disappoint ‘em. I’m not sure rock & roll music is all that bad. It’s fun to play and it gets me excited inside. My heart gets to thumping, and my soul gets to jumping.”
“Yeah, I like that kind of music too.”
Jimmy showed off for her, and played a boogie woogie, honky tonk style of deep down in southeast Texas and damn near to the Louisiana state line roadhouse piano, pumping out a few bars of Jerry Lee Lewis. Elvis may have left the building, but the Killer made the scene with his flaming yeller hair, singing the holy hell out of some, “Great Balls of Fire.”
Jimmy leaned over and kissed Bobbie Beth several times on the cheek, and then the ear and the neck. She pulled away smiling, but not really discouraging him, as if to say, no doesn’t really mean no, it just means not now, maybe later. Jimmy returned to playing his piano as he continued, “I like a lot of the new stuff that’s coming out these days too. Have you heard of a group from California called The Doors?” Bobbie Beth nodded her head as Jimmy began to sing, “Light My Fire.”
After he finished playing the song, Jimmy leaned over again to kiss Bobbie Beth. This time she didn’t pull away. She surprised Jimmy, and herself even more, when she passionately kissed him on the lips, holding nothing back.
A couple of days later, after they’d trucked the equipment for the revival from Brownsville up to Corpus Christi, Jimmy and Bobbie Beth drove from their motel over to the pier to say goodbye to Jessup. On the way they passed three tank trucks carrying gasoline with the name HERREN emblazoned in gold letters on the side. The shiny new trucks definitely caught Jimmy’s eye as they thundered by.
Jimmy and Bobbie Beth steered into the gravel sea side parking lot near the entrance to the Corpus Christi Pier and Pavilion in the preacher man’s recently purchased jet black Chevy Corvette convertible, and eased up next to Jessup’s old Ford truck. They got out of the Vette and walked over to the rear of Jessup’s truck as he loaded his gear into the back of his camper.
“Nice ride, cowboy,” Jessup said.
“A ‘65 Sting Ray, cost me nearly three grand: V8, 396 cubic inches, and a Turbo Jet engine with 425 horsepower.”
“I bet those little ponies can run too, huh.”
Right about then, Jimmy noticed a huge oil tanker, a supertanker out in Aransas Bay with the same name, HERREN painted in twenty foot high letters on the side of the ship. Jimmy said the word, “Herren,” out loud, paused and then, “this Herren outfit must be rollin’ in dough.”
“The Herren family owns one of the largest oil refineries in Corpus Christi, over on what they call refinery row,” Jessup said.
“They must have their fingers in a lot of pies.”
“More like tentacles, but yeah, one of the richest families in Texas.”
“Smells like money to me,” Jimmy said as he grinned.
“Yeah, the fumes over on refinery row would make a skid row wino faint like a saint, and bless his mama one last time before he hit the ground.”
“Well, God forgives a lot of transgressions, especially for those who tithe. I wonder where I could meet up with these Herrens?”
“Try the American Opinion Bookstore at the corner of Antelope and Chaparral streets. You ought to be able to find some Herrens in there.”
Jimmy shook his hand, and Bobbie Beth gave Jessup a long hug, followed by a kiss on the cheek, and a playful tug on his beard. That more than cordial goodbye exchange amounted to a little bit too much closeness between Jessup and Bobbie Beth to suit Jimmy, so he eyed the two of them suspiciously. Maybe it was something, maybe nothing.
Behind them the long pier stretched out into the Gulf of Mexico. Going out to the right and left, and also on the far side of the pavilion there were extensions of the pier where people enjoyed the fishing. From the air, the pier looked like a giant wooden cross, something akin to a Celtic cross.
Jessup sucked in a deep breath of the salty ocean air on that late afternoon, as the seagulls screeched and seemed to be inspecting Jimmy’s crew out on the pier while they raised the big American flag, and erected Jimmy’s metal cross covered with hundreds of 100 watt light bulbs.
“You sure you won’t change your mind and stay Jessup?” Jimmy asked.
“Naw, thanks for the offer, I appreciate it, I really do, but I’ve got business to tend to north of here, about a half hour up the road in Pair O’ Dice.”
“Sure, nice little town, with some of the best fishing on the Texas coast. Well, if you change your mind we’ll be right here, every Sunday for almost two months starting this coming weekend, the first Sunday night after the Fourth of July, and wrapping up the Sunday night before Labor Day. Nine Sunday nights in a row you’ll find us preaching the good book to the good people of Corpus Christi. Come by and see us, Jessup. Pair O’ Dice ain’t that far away.”
“It sure was a blessing for the citizens of Corpus Christi to provide us with this facility,” Jimmy said, then winked at Bobbie Beth, and continued with an emphasis on all three of his next words, spacing them out for effect, “free…of…charge.”
As Jessup walked over to climb into the cab of his truck, he held up the index and middle fingers of his right hand into a V to make a sign of the times and said, “Peace.”
The preceding passage was sponsored in part by Gasperson’s Del Rio Dry Goods Store, and includes the full text of Chapter Two in The Gates of Pair O’ Dice.