I shackled the devil and mankind stuck me in jail.
I swindled nobody and now I can’t get out on bail.
Hell ain’t any kind a place.
It’s suffering and iniquity.
This cell is my taste of it.
Heaven’s a mind that’s free.
He came as a mostly sober street preacher seeking salvation in a white tent. He went there to hear god, because he couldn’t anymore. He went there to walk the way. Now he can’t walk away if he wants to, because Harold Havelock broke his bigtoe at a tent-revival in Providence.
Actually, a gigantic Canadian bloke broke Harold Havelock’s proximal phalanx bone.
Amid the jumble of bodies around him, Harold heard glossolalia, garbled exultancies, speakers with tongues without discernible language, a meaningless cocophany of speech like a slew of zeppelins inside a hangar. Young and old gathered in frenetic dance, as if snakes slithered along their spines, and charmed their movements. Every soul was relatively abistent, yet no less revelatory, revelling in oblivious belief within.
Havelock had no interest in these people. He couldn’t hear god in them anymore and he damn sure couldn’t hear himself think.
Nobody bothered to pray for Harold Havelock’s broken bigtoe. Nobody noticed. Nobody paid attention to Harold. Nobody except for the bone-breaking behemoth dressed in plain, plaid lumberjack duds, a black mop of hair hung over evergreen eyes, who stumbled back upon him with a 1917 trenchboot heel.
That heel hurt Harold like the pentecostal promises of hell.
The blunder looked like any other ‘Fall of Faith’ in the farthest (or furthest) reaches of The Smith Society’s revival tent, staked to the lumpy, loamy soil of Providence, Texas. Harold caught the Canadian Giant by his flannel armpits, and shouted a Damnit. God Damnit. You godfersaken, damn dumb brute...
But, it was no faithfall, just a fall. The brute’s big weight wouldn’t stand for standing on two legs. He tripped on hand-stitched jeans and came barreling down upon Harold Havelock.
Harold propeled the giant forward. They idled like buoys, in the center of a fleshy sea, equally confused as to how heel met toe. You broke my damnt toe, Harold says, bent over to nurse the bruise by holding his hand hard and flat against the foot. He looks up sharply. From the trenchboots to the treetrunk-width legs, and up to the horsey shoulders, the man stands as a primitive statue. High in spirits, and tall as a tree. Harold wonders whether he is willing, or able, to fight a losing battle.
Ya saved me lad, the lumberjack says. His moptopped watermelon face turns protractedly, seed-sized teeth smiling bumblingly, and barrel-paunch brimming with swishy-swashing holy waters.
You broke my damnt toe Harold repeats through the congregational clamoring. He aghs and moans and curses, all hell.
I did what now pal? The Canadian lumberjack looks like a dumbfound babe, stuck in its crib without an axe-pacifier, about to cry from confusion. He holds a hand out, trying to reciprocate. This is not the first time he’s broken a man’s bone.
Harold refuses, swatting the extended help away in blind agony. My toe. My Goddamnt toe. Harold’s jaw contracts as he closes his eyes to the phalangiste pain. His adrenal gland jumpstarts. He bit his tongue, but that doesn’t stop him from cursing.
Suddenly, as scared as a dog that’s accidently bit the back of a feeding hand, the elephantine Canadian picks Havelock up and turns him around, as simply as he would carry a fallen tree through the forest, apologizing all the while for his brawniness.
I. I’m so sorry. Awh. God. Uhsorry. I’ll get you outta here.
He holds Harold like a sack of bark, woodchips and shavings, moving him around waywardly at a full arm’s length, searching as frantically as a tree-felling felon for an exit through the jungle of bodies. He lifts Harold aloft the bobbing ocean of heads, as though he might manage to channel an image through Harold’s weary, watery eyes.
Harold sees Pastor Stockton at the front end of the tent lay healing hands, big as a spider’s web, on an elderly woman’s saggy face. Stockton shakes her, reciting a stream of balderdash, till she buckles on matchstick ankles, then falls facefirst to floor, as a bag of flour flumps. She thrashes about spreadeagled.
Swung left he sees some faith-fallers, women in white dresses, demurely dropping into the christ-like arms of swankily suited men with big ideas, big bowler hats and even bigger grins.
Swung rightward he sees respectable people parked in white, wooden lawnchairs, hands clasped to prayerbooks and laps, surveying this chaotic scene with some transcendent indifference.
Then, as the big Canadian swings Harold back, a sea of people splits like some scene reminiscent of a biblical story, revealing lost shoes and bible spines on the trodden sward, chalk killing the grass, that foot-compacted layer of loam below, crumpled evangelical pamphlets announcing today’s faith-healings.
FREE viewing of: A Reincarnation of The Late Reverend Smith.
(Donations Are Accepted)
The sermon today is dust. From it, to it, and whatall after.
Today the evenagelicals eagerly await Reverend Smith’s second coming, his rebirth. His coffin and purtrefied corpse lay in a pickup truck’s flatbed, covered by an old blanket, and guarded by an angelic, one-eyed catahoula who drools rabies-glop.
Swiftly, and awkwardly, the Canadian lumberjack rushes like a linebacker over twenty yards of parched Earth under the revival tent’s shadow. In five steps, he’s cleared the woods.
Harold is a hay-shook scarecrow in the Canadian’s wood-splitting mitts. He wants to vomit. Even out ahead, Harold Havelock can smell the admixture of sweat and syrup emanating from the Canadian’s greasy neck pores. The commingling miasmas of the enclosed revival tent stultifies Harold to the point of passing out: that is, perhaps, the purpose of the entire venture.
Finally, they fall out of the tent into a clean breeze.
God whistles with the winds, Awh shucks boy, ya done it now.
For Harold, it’s as a drunken decampment from a smoky bar. His sight is hazy. The sun hits him between the eyes. He blinks rapidly. There are a couple of ration-boxes by the tentflap entrance that the Canadian lifts him onto. The boxes look like an imported throne for The Supreme Monkey Monk.
For a moment Harold hears, sees, and speaks no sort of evil. His pinstripe pantlegs dangle wobbly as a doll, one arm thrown over the box by his side.
Gingerly, as gingerly and surgically as any lumberjack who deals with double-handled tree-saws can be careful with human ligaments, the Canadian loosens the strings of Harold Havelock’s left loafer.
Harold gives an excruciating hiss, then bellows a string of strong slurs that slosh together on the end of his tongue, as a glossolalic-like malediction.
Grief almighty! The Canadian exclaims.
Harold dares not look. He stares at a glacier-blue sky with wispy cotton-candy clouds that converge into pillows. The sun paints black pockmarks, and comets, over his closed eyelids. He wishes he would pass out; he should, but his brand of brain-made standards won’t allow any emasculatory embarassment.
The cotton tubesock, strung about his knee by an elastic strap, seeps in blood as the Canadian raises it to a horizontal position. There’s as much blood percolating through that sweaty sock as there was when the Canadian lost his left index finger to a tablesaw accident (sighting an infamous lumbercamp banshee).
The Canadian grimaces generously for Harold as he pulls the heel of the loafer off. Harold vociferates mightily.
Just get it off. Jesus!
Calm down little buddy.
The gentle giant’s voice does not assuage Harold. When the shoe slides off his bigtoe he brays like a donkey in stoccato whoops, exhaling and inhaling, at a rate of forty-two times, for a full, miserable minute, that feels like a forever. Harold’s head is skyward, meditational, but his eyes droop down frightfully, eyeballs scanning the source of this bunion-esque torture. The Canadian strips his cottonsock off in one fluid rip, like a bandage that's coagulated to Harold’s scar-tissue.
What the hell’re ya gonna do.
Harold’s eyes well up, but don’t burst. His big, phlegmatic brain wins again.
The Canadian’s evergreen eye is an inch from the bloodstained flesh of Harold’s bigtoe. Well, he says, touching the torn tissue around the bone that peeps out as an albino prariedog would from a rubified burrow, We’re gonna have to un-break it, eh, yah, mm... Th’only thing to do for you, I’m afraid.
Their eyes level in contest. One time my buddy Roscoe broke his arm in three places fallin from a tree and I reset it for him. The Canadian clamped Harold’s bigtoe between thumb and hand.
You’re sure? Harold wants to buy mercy, but he’s flat-broke.
The giant gave no count-down.
Once Harold Havelock’s bigtoe bone was twisted aright, his scream silenced the jubilant crowd inside that big tent. It was the sound of a plains’ banshee. The sound of a slaughtered goat. The sound of a sinner brought to hell’s gate screaming damnation.
A plum-shaped woman with a sash from her shoulder down to her waist that said Smith Society for Spiritual Enlightenment (though most of the words were invisible), eventually exits the revival tent in a sedate poise. She stands, hands on hips, eyeballing them ruefully.
What kinda blue devilry’s goin on out here?
Harold and the Canadian look at the woman as they might a headmistress, then at each other like guilty schoolboys standing before broken shards of schoolhouse glass, with the splinters of a Louisville slugger strewn betwixt them, on the schoolyard lawn.
Harold’s crooked bigtoe throbs guiltily.
What’s the meanin of this, she asks. Reverend Stockton was in the middle of mending a life-threatening boil from the back of that Bulger boy. You could’a killed 'im. Whatever sins y’all’ve commited... but she does not finish her sentence, instead crossing herself slowly, and searching the sky, for some answers. O-co-lo-bisingi, she says.
Sorry mayam, says the Canadian, bowing, dropping Harold’s leg which convulses madly, like the rapturous congregants inside.
Broke me to bits, Harold says vaguely, lifting his leg horizontally again, in an attempt to reinstate his robust stature upon the ration-box throne; bringing his bigtoe unto his lap, he slathers his thumb in saliva and spreads it onto the drying blood, which wettens to a rosé, and is soon scrubbed away.
You devils, she says, smoothing her cream-colored sash down.
The Canadian lowers his shoulders like a dejected child, chided for forgetting to bring his own pencil and paper to the classroom. Apparently, he knows the woman wearing the swan-white gown, because he begins to grovel hammily on the ground before her feet, as one would an old trystee, gripping at her ankles, pleading at her pudgy cankles shaped like cured salami hung juicily in the window of a meatseller’s shop, restrained diamond-shaped derma nudging out of the white, latticed cotton netting of her stockings. Very reservedly indeed.
The woman looks at Harold’s bloody big toe. She judges it as she would a bruised apple at her local farmer’s market, from a great distance, with disgust tightening her trembling, hairy upper lip.
Rev'rend Stockton should’ve mended that.
By the look on her face, Harold figures her willing to break it again just to give Reverend Stockton the opportunity to amend it.
Mrs. Beverly, forgive me, The Canadian whispers.
Only God can grant forgivenesses, Mista Jacques.
I…didn’t mean to go upset Rev'rend Stockt’n none.
Harold Havelock continues to rub away the blood from his bigtoe, but the blood continues to flow. He needs a bandage. He gazes at Mrs. Beverly’s snowy frock as gauze for his wound, and the ivory crochet hook keeping her hair up in an unkempt, blonde, beehive-bun, as the required suture. He stares at her profile, rosy-cheeked from the heat of the tent and vexation. She would be pretty if the sun wasn’t so deathly bright, and her gown wasn’t white. When stoic, whenever that may be, she seems a ghost revived to keep the peace.
Mrs. Beverly is a walking medical kit, to Harold’s delerium.
And what do you have to say for your soul, young man?
Harold sanguinely sucks the ironlike taste of blood off his thumb, and, staring into her eyes, eyes as black and miniscule as bugs on a white background, says impudently: My soul?
Yes, she reiterates, shooing Jacques away with the knifepoint of her shoes, cloddish shoes the size of a boat for three blind naval-minded mice. What have you to say for your wayward soul?
Hmm, Harold pauses, feigning a serious spiritual thought. Not much I guess. Harold leans back, beholding the bluest sky he’s ever seen, perched as a king upon the wooden, government relief ration-boxes. My soul is free for the-taking, mayam. He twists a metal flask and takes a deep draught of what noxious liquid is left inside. He seems satisfied, much to Mrs. Beverly's chagrin.
Humph Mrs. Beverly humphs, and turns to the tent-flap.
Jacques falls in behind her like a loyal but beat dog.
Next, Harold Havelock considers how he’ll get down on his bum bigtoe, but decides to delve into the ration-boxes first, for canned peaches, and then stare at sky, drink the dregs of his liquor, and shake no tree. His Irish-Caddo complexion burned in the bright sun. He pulled his suspenders from his shoulder, then rubbed his sweaty palms together, as if an alchemic reaction would come.
For all the trouble that Jacques the Canadian caused him, he heard God calling him to act with newfound grace. But, Harold's grace was merely incipient. He didn't act immediately on the idea.
Providence was pleasant that late afternoon. Salvation sounds sprung unto Liquor Lake in the distance, yonder the long lawn of ripe springtime grasses, revelations rippling the lakewater like caste rocks. But the beauty of nature, the great beatitudes, seemed so ambivalent about Harold; reminding him how poor, mournful, meek, thirsty, merciless, dirty-minded, irritable, and shallow he was, in his perpetual state of self-pitying discomfiture. If he couldn't save his soul, he should, at least, try.
Harold gnawed a strand off his shirt, and used it to wrap up his cankerous toe.
On the opposite end of the tent, a catahoula strips the skin off a monstrous chicken bone, and a giant lumberjack unloads the emptied walnut coffin of the recently deceased Reverend James Smith, from the flatbed of the rusty, red pickup truck, chicken feathers bestrewn about as bedding.
Harold hears God whispering confidentially, carry that cross kid. Get down 'n go do sumpin'.
Harold looks down and sees a white cross, a goodlookin crutch. That reassures him. Some unnameable force is following him, watching over him. And once again, he will walk-the-way.