Charmer Snake

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The revival tent hung damp and dew-dropped in the moonlight. A single string of naked bulbs hung across its length and were powered by a generator whose steady hum was overwhelmed by the sound of 63 singing souls. Paper fans were useless on an evening like this – too cold and humid  for them to do anything but activate lingering coughs. The summer heat brought with it easy insanity – an expected increase in debauchery. But January entered with stealth and robbed the holidays blind, leaving nothing but another year devoid of hope, save for the nights of revival.

Carl and Jed stood behind the tent near the generator, their figures casting long, thin shadows that made ghostly gestures as they tuned their instruments. Beads of nervous sweat gathered on Carl’s forehead as he held his ear close to his guitar, willing from it the eerie sharps and flats that made the backwoods seem all the more sinister. He continued to second-guess the gig, as if he still had the luxury to weigh the pros and cons. Really it was Jed who’d made the decision for them, never passing up the chance to add to the Greely Brothers’ coffer  and  sample the local hooch and hussy.

“…and I have had brothers and sisters tell me that the Lord does not listen, that the Lord does not understand the depth of their souls and the nature of their plight! But do you know what I tell them?! I tell them that the Lord is everywhere, he is in all of us, he knows our pain, he knows our joy…”

“Shit, I gotta piss,” said Jed, and he leaned his upright bass against a tent pole. He wandered a few yards and sighed as a steady stream hissed and wound its way into a creekbed.

Carl had the womanly habit of compiling signs of age, and he studied Jed’s profile in the evening light. He was 31 and Jed 35, and unyielding sunshine from years on the circuit had sculpted deep crow’s feet that only Jed wore well. Since he was a child, Carl had known that his baby face, bright blue eyes and deep farmer’s tan were no match for personality – and Jed was all personality. Six foot two, lanky and pock-marked with a bald patch. Not a handsome man by any means, but every woman he locked eyes with was bewitched by his charm. Once every few months, a mobile library would visit their hometown and brought with it tales of Indians  with rag turbans, whose sensual flutes could coax black-lipped cobras from wicker baskets. Carl saw Jed that way – someone who could produce undeniable appeal.  

He heard a loud and joyous “Amen,” followed by  “What a Friend We Have in Jesus .” The back canvas flap snapped open and Reverend Nash appeared, his pressed white suit soaked under the arms.

“Boys, get on over here!”

Jed zipped and loped to the tent, smirking.

“Ready, my brother?” He slapped Carl on the back.

“Yup.”

“Yeh just never know who’s listenin’, right? Keep the faith.”

Jed had convinced Carl to spend some of the advance they received for the gig on accessories to accompany their dull tweed suits. He sweet-talked the girl in the shop into giving them a discount on two strawboaters and bright red bowties. Carl caught a whiff of Jed as he shook out his pant legs, and wished they’d spent the money on getting the suits cleaned instead. He thought they looked like two dandies playing the boardwalk on Patriot’s day, but Jed insisted that the look was trustworthy and crowd-pleasing.

“…these boys have come all the way from Pratt, Kansas to deliver the Lord’s word to y’all, and let me tell you, I rarely see boys more intent on worshipping the Lord and spreading his good wishes. I hope you will help me in welcoming…the Greely Brothers!”

The crowd produced scattered claps, unsure of the two strangers who intruded upon their collective intimacy. What looked to be the oldest woman in the crowd scowled at them, though Carl knew from experience that a scowl like that was earned, permanent, and not a snub. Jed’s baritone filled the tent.

“Evenin’ folks.”

“Evenin’.”

“I would ask if y’all are keepin’ warm on a night like this, but I can tell that y’all are already keepin’ each other cozy with that sweet cider that Ms. Sally Brown prepared special for this occasion. Praise Sally for her kindness tonight.”

Various displays of appreciation reached Sally Brown’s ears and she smiled and nodded.

“Now I know we don’t look like the usual bunch of guys who speak to ya’ll during this time of renewal.             But let me tell you one thing that does unite us. Folks, do you love Jesus Christ? I’m glad to hear you do, because tonight that’s all me and by brother Carl are here to say…”

Jed began to weave their tale for the audience. His voice unfurled like a silk ribbon, imbued with just the right amount of folksy wit and religious fervor to entrance them. Now he’d tie them in that ribbon, stun them with the Lord’s word, and consume them whole.

“We’d like to begin tonight with a song you may have heard as a lil’ baby when your momma sang it. Please sing along if you ain’t shy.”

 The older crowd jumped awake at the sound of “Jesus Loves Me,” bright-eyed and not entirely sure of their present location. Toddlers bounced to the rhythm their mothers’ knees made as they tapped along.

Each time they played this song Carl did think about their mother, alive and widowed in Pratt. She was long-suffering , but rather than it making her soft as butter, it had made her steely. Jed had always been favored because his jokes and teasing lifted her out of the dark void of her own making. As sweet and earnest as Carl could be, it was never enough to keep her from sleeping through the day or staring for hours at the unlit stovetop with an unpeeled bowl of potatoes in her lap.

They resembled two white taper candles, their erratic heads bobbing like two flames. It didn’t take long for the crowd to embrace them – they had, after all, used the same words. Spoke the same language. Felt the same all-knowing power in the room – a visit from above made special for them. Carl had the idea that the amount of hubris in a town was disproportionate to its size, and he’d seen his theory proven many times over. He wondered how many acts of violence would be committed once parishioners were let loose on an unclean world. He’d seen drunks who attended a revival, been saved from addiction for a brief moment in that white womb, then opened a flask before the final organ notes were played.

While Jed  introduced the next song, Carl looked at him and then the audience to see where his brother’s eye was landing. It didn’t take long to spy a young woman, maybe 17. Her blonde hair was in frizzy finger waves, and needed a trim. She wore a strange grey felt skirt that fell in thick strips around her hips, a tight-fitting floral jacket, and cordovan lace-ups. She looked hungry first, then desperate – it got dangerous when the two were switched. Ashen face, fine cheekbones, lips that had only hours ago been drawn with ruby rouge, then concealed with powder to preserve decorum. Yes, she would the one tonight. There was no doubt. Carl wished he were Catholic when these thoughts came to visit, so he could bless himself and pretend he didn’t hear.

The brothers were used up by evening’s end, red-faced, their fingers aching from the rapid pluck and strum. The audience was like a newborn baby – in need of constant vigilance and using any excuse to cry. Each song needed to inspire, each speech had to hold hearts in its fist. They had worked everyone up into a frothy mass, and expelled them into the cold night air.

“Well boys, I will admit that I was skeptical when Josie told me about y’all and your work…”

Reverend Nash pulled a moist wad of bills from his pocket and fanned out two twenties.

“…what you say we go down and grab some dinner at The Hollyhock?”

***

He knew the girl would show. He’d seen her shake Jed’s hand, and he’d whispered something in her ear. Jed could smell them – starved for attention, promiscuous because there was no good woman to teach them otherwise. Carl himself preferred the company of the ones who could talk, who could string together a series of words to form something that, if not profound, at least made him question himself. Trouble was that women like that needed cultivation, not a fly by night brother act.

The evening had been predictable, with the good Reverend giving an embellished view of his faith. The monologues were full of footnotes and asides. Mostly they addressed the poor and dark, and how the misery was justified, and how so few would be saved. Carl had unearthed this pattern  – the camaraderie ceased outside the tent flap. After steak and peas and ceaseless talk, thank-yous were exchanged and the Reverend turned in for the night.

Jed sat on a piano bench, the blonde rocking back and forth between his knees. He’d introduced her as Thora. While they had abstained in the presence of the Reverend, Jed now had his face in bourbon, while Carl swirled his own glass. He was lonely when Jed tracked and captured a lady for the evening.  As much as Jed was a constant source of frustration and envy, he felt something like love when they practiced in lamplight at roadside motels. They still flipped a coin for who got the bed and bedroll for the night, and still wrestled for the last bite of chicken pot pie or sip of whiskey.

“Excuse me, Mr. Greely?”

At first, Carl thought someone was speaking to his long-dead his father. He turned around to see a man who so resembled a villain that he had to believe he was the contrary. Nature would be too cruel to give a man oiled black hair, pointed mustache and gold-toothed grin,  and all the while point his destiny toward nefarious.

“Yes, sir?”

“Let me buy you another drink. If you don’t mind, there’s some business I would like to discuss. Is your brother available as well?”

Carl turned to the piano and saw an empty glass without its owner. He would have to do this business alone. Seeing that Jed was indisposed had increased his confidence, and he swapped the polite country boy-minstrel act for a more serious performance.

He was Saul Morris, and he had a proposition.

“Have you ever heard of Chautauqua?”

Carl’s eyes widened. Of course he knew. Back in ’16, his family had traveled 20 miles to see the Chautauqua speakers, musicians, and various pieces of rural inspiration. The act was polished and perfect. He’d heard rumors that performers were paid well, but that mattered little. He saw in his future  a newer, bigger tent, gleaming white and wafting in the breeze. He saw a clean suit, a smooth face and a new guitar. He saw Jed smiling, healthy, plump.

“Think of me as a…finder. I scour places like this one for boys like you. I’ve been following you through a few towns now. I like your act – it’s sharp and it’s American and I like the energy you bring to the room.”

“Thank you sir. We’ve been on the circuit goin’ on eight years now – gotta good act.”

“Well, I hope that you are comfortable playing for a mixed audience. Does your catalogue include songs from the common songbook?”

“Yes sir, and original compositions too. And no, no problem with the audience. We play for anyone willin’ to listen.”

 “We’re leaving for Eureka tomorrow on the 9:15 train. I’ll give you cash for your ticket and once we arrive you’ll begin training. After a few weeks, you should be ready for the circuit. There’s a group moving through Fortuna shortly, so you will likely play with them.”

A warmth spread from Carl’s heart to every extremity as they shook hands and tipped hats. He hoped that Saul hadn’t felt him trembling. Jed said it every night, “you never know who’s listenin’.” It had become a mantra repeated daily. Over the years, it had also become a dream in stasis. He wouldn’t be able to tell Jed until early morning. It felt good – a secret for his ears only, even if it was just for a few waking hours.

The motel where they were spending the night was a quarter mile from The Hollyhock, and he thought the walk home would clear the bourbon from his brain. He unknotted the red bow tie and threw it at the darkness.

He had trouble locating his keys as he approached their motel room, but managed to turn the lock. As he opened the door he saw the shadow behind him.

Carl had never felt a fist in his face, but had guessed it was like in the movies he’d seen, where heroes throw rapid punches, fall, bounce back, repeat.  It was more force and pressure than pain, but he still hit the ground hard. His ears rang and his mouth hung open, stunned and slack. The kicks began immediately, from thigh to groin to abdomen until he could no longer gather air. He felt someone rustle his pockets, without sound. Pull his billfold, without sound. Kick, silence. A breeze slid through the pines, then disappeared.

Lying on the motel room carpet,  he saw a carousel of visions. The night’s tent crowd was mouthing psalms, and as they did their mouths grew wider, wider until they jaws dislocated. They had no eyes, and  their faces glowed the color of a fresh bruise.  Bits of the evening  came and went, except each person was an object of terror, every moment was his last. He licked the blood from his lips, swallowed hard, then slept.

“CARL?! AW SHIT, CARL!? WAKE UP BROTHER, WAKE UP, WAKE UP! GET THE FUCK UP, GOD DAMMIT!”

Carl groaned and lifted his head. Blood glued his face to the floor and ripped open his lip as he sat up.

“What is ever-loving Christ happened to you? You got your money on you? Aw shit, you didn’t do nothin’. You got your money? I knew you wouldn’t do nothin’ to piss someone off.”

Jed couldn’t wash his own underclothes, much less mend a broken wing. But he tended, wiping Carl’s face with a warm cloth, fetching a bottle of aspirin from the market, icing his tender jaw. He guessed that someone at The Hollyhock had seen them at dinner with the Reverend and assumed they had their pockets full. Jed was awful sorry, as he was every morning in which he had to face what he had wrought.

It took Carl a full hour to remember Saul, the handshake, the early train. His gut flipped and his breathing grew short.  He wouldn’t tell Jed. Ever. The guilt would drive him places a man has no business going unless he aimed to end his own life. Or was he speaking for himself? It didn’t matter.

Jed picked dry mud from under his shoe and squinted at the late morning sun.

“You know I say it every day, right? That you never know who’s listenin’? Well today I woke up and said ‘y’know what? I don’t matter who’s listenin’.’ We got our songs and our pride. We don’t need no one but us.”

“I know, brother. But ain’t it best to keep the faith?”

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