XII - Welcome, Lucifer
I aWaKENED WITH THE SMELL OF BURNING IN MY NOSTRILS.
Birds were singing and the sun was up, but I was reminded of a terrible thing. Three years ago, a house two blocks south of us had caught fire. It had been a hot, dry summer, and the house had gone up quick as pineknot kindling in the middle of an august night. The Bellwood family had lived there: Mr. and Mrs. Bellwood, their ten-year-old daughter Emmie, and their eight-year-old son Carl. The fire, which had started from a bad electrical connection, had consumed Carl in his bed before the Bellwoods could get to him. Carl died a few days later, and was buried on Poulter Hill. His tombstone had Our Loving Son carved on it. The Bellwoods had moved away soon after, leaving their son in Zephyr earth. I remember Carl clearly, because his mother was allergic to animals and wouldn't allow him to have a dog, so he sometimes came up to my house to play with Rebel. He was a slight boy with curly, sandy-colored hair and he liked the banana Popsicles the Good Humor man sold from his truck. He told me once that he wished he could have a dog more than anything in the world. Then the fire took him away, and Dad sat down with me and said God has a plan but sometimes it's awfully hard to decipher.
On this particular morning, the fifth of July, Dad had gone to work and Mom was left to tell me what that burning smell was. She'd been on the phone most of the morning, wired into Zephyr's amazingly accurate information network: the society of women who circled gossip like hawks for the meat of truth. as I ate my breakfast of scrambled eggs and grits, Mom sat with me at the table. "You know what the Ku Klux Klan is, don't youi" she asked.
I nodded. I had seen Klansmen on the TV news, dressed in their white robes and conical hoods and walking around a fiery cross while they cradled shotguns and rifles. Their spokesman, a gent who had pulled his hood back to expose a face like a chunk of suet, had been talking about keeping your heart in Dixie or getting your ass out and "not lettin' no Washington politician say I gotta kiss a colored boy's shoes." The rage in the man's face had swollen his cheeks and puffed his eyelids, and behind him the fire had gnawed at the cross as the white-robed figures continued their grim parade.
"The Klan burned a cross in the Lady's yard last night," Mom said. "They must be warnin' her to get out of town."
"The Ladyi Whyi"
"Your father says some people are afraid of her. He says some people think she's got too much say-so about what goes on in Bruton."
"She lives in Bruton," I said.
"Yes, but some people are scared she wants to have say-so about what goes on in Zephyr, too. Last summer she asked Mayor Swope to open the swimmin' pool to the Bruton folks. This year she's been askin' him about it again."
"Dad's afraid of her, isn't hei"
Mom said, "Yes, but that's different. He's not afraid of her because of her skin color. He's afraid because..." She shrugged. "Because of what he doesn't understand."
I swirled my fork around in my grits, thinking this point over. "How come Mayor Swope won't open up the pool to themi"
"They're black," Mom answered. "White people don't like to be in the water with black people."
"We were in the flood water with them," I said.
"That was river water," Morn said. "The swimmin' pool's never been open to them. The Lady's gotten a petition up that says she either wants a pool built in Bruton or the Zephyr pool open for black people. That must be why the Klan wants her gone."
"She's always lived there. Where would she goi"
"I don't know. I don't think the people who set that cross on fire care much, either." Mom frowned, the little lines surfacing around her eyes. "I didn't know the Klan was even anywhere around Zephyr. Your father says they're a bunch of scared men who want to turn time backward. He says things are gonna get a lot worse before they get better."
"What'll happen if the Lady won't leavei" I asked. "Would those men hurt heri"
"Maybe. They might try, at least."
"She won't go," I said, remembering the cool green-eyed beauty I'd seen looking back at me from behind the Lady's wrinkled face. "Those men can't make her leave."
"You're right about that." Mom got up from her chair. "I'd hate to get on her wrong side, that's for sure. You want another glass of orange juicei"
I told her no. as Mom was pouring one for herself, I finished off my eggs and then said something that caused her to look at me as if I'd just requested money for a trip to the moon. "I want to go hear what Reverend Blessett has to say." She remained speechless. "about that song," I continued. "I want to know why he hates it so much."
"angus Blessett hates everything," Mom said when she had recovered her voice. "He can see the end of the world in a pair of penny loafers."
"That's my favorite song. I want to find out what he can hear in it that I don't."
"That's easy. He's got old ears." She offered a faint smile. "Like me, I guess. I can't abide that song, either, but I don't think there's anythin' evil about it."
"I want to know," I persisted.
For me this was a first. I had never been so adamant about attending church before, and it wasn't even our congregation. When Dad got home, he tried his best to talk me out of it, by saying that Reverend Blessett was so full of hot air he could blow up a blimp, that he wouldn't even think about crossing the threshold of Reverend Blessett's church, and so on, but, at last-after a hushed conference with Mom in which I overheard the words "curiosity" and "let him find out for himself"-Dad grudgingly agreed to go with us on Wednesday night.
and so it was that we found ourselves sitting with about a hundred other people in the sweltering hotbox of the Freedom Baptist Church on Shawson Street near the gargoyle bridge. Neither Dad nor I wore a coat and tie, as this was not a Sunday service, and some of the other men even wore their field-stained overalls. We saw a lot of people we knew, and before the service began the place was standing room only, including a lot of sullen teenagers who looked as if they'd been dragged into the church on nooses by their cheerless parents. I guess the reverend's urgent hollering had gotten his message across, as had the signs he'd posted all over town that proclaimed he would be "wrestling with the devil on Wednesday night-our children are worth the fight." a record player and speakers had been set up at the front of the church, and at long last Reverend Blessett-flush-faced and sweating in a white suit and a rose-colored shirt-strode out onto the podium with the offending 45 rpm disc of black vinyl in one hand. In the other he held the leather grip of a wooden box with small holes on its sides, which he placed on the floor out of the way. Then he grinned at his audience and hollered, "are we ready to fight Satan tonight, brothers and sistersi"
amen! they shouted back. amen! and amen!
They were ready, all right.
Reverend Blessett began with an impassioned sermon about how the evils of the big city were creeping into Zephyr, how Satan wanted to drag all the young people into hell and how the citizens had to fight the devil every minute of their lives to keep from being fried in fire. Reverend Blessett's face sweated and his arms flew this way and that and he paced back and forth before the congregation like a man possessed. I have to say, he put on a great show and I was more than half convinced Satan was hiding under my bed waiting for me to open a National Geographic to one of the naked-bosom pictures.
He stopped pacing and grinned out at us with his glistening face. The doors had been propped open, but the heat was stifling and the sweat was sticking my shirt to my skin. In the hazy golden light, Reverend Blessett was steaming. He held up the record. "You came to hear it," he said. "and hear it you shall."
He switched on the record player, put the disc down on its thick spindle, and held the needle over the first groove. "Listen," he said, "to the voices of the demons." Then he lowered the needle, and a static of scratches clicked through the speakers.
Those voices. Demons or angelsi Oh, those voices! Round round get around I get around. Way out of town. I get around.
"Did you hear iti" He jerked the needle up. "Right there! Tellin' our children that the grass is greener on the other side of the fencei That they're not to be satisfied livin' in their own hometown anymorei It's devil's wanderlust they're singin' about!" again the needle went down. When the song reached the part about having a car that's never been beat and never missing yet with the girls we meet, Reverend Blessett was almost dancing with delirious rage. "Hear iti Doesn't that tell our young people to race their cars in the streetsi Doesn't it tell them to indulge in free and easy pleasures of the fleshi" He said it like a sneer. "Think of it, folks! Your sons and daughters inflamed by this garbage, and Satan just a-laughin' at us all! Picture our streets runnin' red with the blood of our children in wrecked hotrods, and your pregnant daughters and sex-mad sons! You think such things happen only in the big cityi You think we here in Zephyr are safe from the prince of darknessi You listen to some more of this so-called 'music' and you'll find out how wrong you are!" He let the needle play some more. The sound wasn't very good. I think Reverend Blessett himself had listened to the song a few dozen times, judging from all the scratches. I don't care what he said; the music was about freedom and happiness, not about crashing cars in the streets. I didn't hear the song like Reverend Blessett did. To me it was the sound of summer, a slice of heaven on earth; to him it was all stinking brimstone and the devil's leer. I had to wonder how a man of God like he was could hear Satan's voice in every word. Wasn't God in control of everything, like the Bible saidi If God was, then why was Reverend Blessett so scared of the devili
"Heathen trash!" he roared at the part of the record where the Beach Boys sang about not leaving their best girl home on a Saturday night. "Sex garbage! God help our daughters!"
"The man," my father said as he leaned toward Mom, "is as crazy as a one-legged toad-frog."
as the song played, Reverend Blessett raged on about disrespect for the law and the destruction of the family, about Eve's sin and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. He was spouting spittle and flinging sweat, and his face got so red I feared he was going to explode at the seams. "The Beach Boys!" he said with another ferocious sneer. "You know what those arei They're bums who wouldn't know a good day's work if you handed 'em a hoe and paid 'em fifty dollars! They lay around all day out there in California and fornicate in the sand like wild beasts! and this is what our young people are listenin' to day and nighti God help this world!"
"amen!" somebody shouted. The crowd was getting worked up. "amen, brother!" another voice yelled.
"You ain't heard nothin' yet, my friends!" Reverend Blessett hollered. He picked up the needle, put his hand flat against the record to keep it from turning, and as the player's gears whined in protest, he searched for a groove on the disc. "Listen to this!" He disengaged the gears, and he lowered the needle while his other hand rotated the record backward.
What came out, in a slow groan, was: Daaadeelsmaaastraaabaaaa.
"Hear iti Hear iti" The reverend's eyes glittered with triumph; he had unlocked the mystery at the music's heart. "The devil is my strawberry! That's what they said! Clear as a bell! They're singin' a song in praise of Satan and they don't care who knows it! and this thing is goin' out on the radio waves all over the country right at this very minute! It's bein' played by our children and they won't even know what they're hearin' until it's too late and there's no turnin' back! It's the devil's plan to snare their souls!"
"I think they said the same thing about the Charleston," Dad said to Mom, but his was a small voice in the fevered chorus of amens.
This is the way the world spins: people want to believe the best, but they're always ready to fear the worst. I imagine you could take the most innocent song ever written and hear the devil speaking in it, if that's what your mind told you to listen for. Songs that say something about the world and about the people in it-people who are fraught with sins and complications just like the best of us-can be especially cursed, because to some folks truth is a hurtful thing. I sat in that church and heard the reverend rage and holler. I saw his face redden and his eyes gleam and the spittle spray from his mouth. I saw that he was a terrified man, and he was stoking the hot coals of terror in his congregation. He skipped the needle around, playing more snippets backward that to me sounded like gibberish but to him held satanic messages. It occurred to me that he must've spent an awfully long time huddled over that record player, scratching the needle back and forth in search of an evil thought. I wasn't sure he was trying to protect people as much as he was trying to direct them. In this latter area he was highly successful; soon he had most everybody yelling amens like the cheerleaders at adams Valley High yelled for touchdowns. Dad just shook his head and crossed his arms, and I don't think Mom knew what to make of all this commotion.
Then, with sweat dripping from his chin and his eyes wild, Reverend Blessett announced, "Now we'll make the devil dance to his own tune, won't wei" He snapped the wooden box open, and from it jerked something that was alive and kicking. as the Beach Boys continued to croon, Reverend Blessett gripped a leash and made the creature on its other end start dancing crazily to the music.
It was a little spider monkey, all gangly arms and legs, its face spitting with fury as the reverend jerked its chain this way and that. "Dance, Lucifer!" the reverend shouted, his voice carrying over even those of the Californicators. "Dance to your music!" Lucifer, who had been cooped up in that cramped box for Lord knew how long, did not look too pleased. The thing hissed and snapped at the air, its tail flailing like a furry gray whip, and Reverend Blessett kept shouting, "Dance, Lucifer! Go on and dance!" as he wrenched the monkey back and forth on the end of its tether. Some people got up and started clapping and writhing in the aisle. a woman whose stomach looked as big as a sofa pillow got up on her tree-trunk legs and staggered around sobbing and calling for Jesus as if He were a lost puppy. "Dance, Lucifer!" the reverend yelled. I thought he was going to start swinging that poor monkey round and round his head like a rabbit's foot on a key chain. a man in the row in front of us spread his arms wide and started shouting something with God and praise be and destroy the heathens in it, and I found myself staring at the back of his sun-browned neck to see if I might find an alien X whittled there.
The place had turned into a madhouse. Dad reached for Mom's hand and said, "We're gettin' out of here!" People were gyrating and jiggling in rapturous ecstasies, and all this time I'd thought Baptists couldn't dance.
Reverend Blessett gave the monkey a ferocious shake. "Dance, Lucifer!" he commanded as the music thundered on. "Show 'em what's in you!"
and then, quite abruptly, Lucifer did just that.
The monkey shrieked and, obviously fed up with the shaking and jerking, sprang for the reverend's head. Those spidery arms and legs wrapped around the reverend's skull, and Reverend Blessett squalled with terror as Lucifer sank his sharp little fangs into the reverend's right ear. at the same time, Lucifer displayed exactly what he'd been fed up on, as from his rear end spewed a stream of foul matter as brown as Bosco all over the reverend's white suit. It was a sight that caused all rapture and speaking in tongues to immediately cease. The reverend was staggering around, trying to get that monkey off his head as Lucifer's bowels sprayed his suit with runny brown patterns. The woman with a sofa-pillow belly screamed. Some men in the front row ran to help the reverend, whose ear was being chewed ragged. as the men reached the struggling reverend and the gnawing monkey, Lucifer suddenly turned his head and saw the hands about to grab him, a bit of bloody ear gripped in his teeth. He released his grip from Reverend Blessett's skull and with a chattering screech he sprang over the men's heads, making them holler and duck as more Bosco streamed down upon them. The leash came loose from Reverend Blessett's hand, and Lucifer was free.
Like his nasty namesake, the monkey jumped from person to person, snapping at their ears and spraying their clothes. I don't know what the reverend had been feeding him, but it must have disagreed with Lucifer's stomach. Mom screamed and Dad dodged as Lucifer sprang past us, and we barely missed getting splashed. Lucifer leaped from the edge of a pew, swung on the light fixture, and then landed on a woman's blue hat, where he fertilized a false carnation. Then he was on the move again, paws and claws and whipping tail, snapping teeth, a shriek, a splatter. The smell of rotten bananas was enough to knock you to your knees. a brave Christian soldier made a try at grabbing the leash, but he got a wet brown face for his efforts and Lucifer made a noise like a laugh as the man staggered back, temporarily blinded, and his own wife fled from him. Lucifer sank his teeth into a woman's nose, anointed a teenaged boy's hair with brown slickum, and leaped from pew to pew like a demonic little version of Fred astaire.
"Get him!" Reverend Blessett shouted, holding his bleeding ear. "Get that damn thing!"
a man did get a hand on Lucifer, but he jerked it back a second later with a fang-stung knuckle. The monkey was quick, and as mean as hell. Most everybody was too busy dodging the flying streams to think about catching Lucifer. I was belly-down on a pew, and Dad and Mom crouched in the aisle. Reverend Blessett yelled, "The doors! Somebody shut the doors!"
It was a good idea, but it came much too late. Lucifer was already in motion toward the way out, his beady little eyes glittering with delight. Behind him, he left his signature on the walls. "Stop him!" the reverend hollered, but Lucifer danced over a man's shoulder and swan-dived off a woman's head and with a screech of triumph he bounded through the open doorway into the night.
a few men ran out after him. Everybody else started breathing a lot easier, though the air wasn't fit to breathe. Dad helped Mom to her feet, and then he helped another two men pick up the fat lady, who had fainted and fallen like an oak tree. "Everybody stay calm!" the reverend said shakily. "It's all right now! Everything's all right!"
I wondered about a man who could say that when his ear was half chewed off and his white suit covered with monkey mess.
The sinful song we had all gathered to hear was forgotten. That seemed a minor thing now, in perspective. People started to get over their shock, and what took its place was indignation. Somebody hollered at Reverend Blessett that he shouldn't have let that monkey get loose, and somebody else said that he was sending his cleaning bill over first thing in the morning. The woman with the bitten nose squawked that she was going to sue. The voices rose and clamored, and I saw Reverend Blessett shrink back from them, all the power sucked out of him. He looked confused and miserable, just like everybody else.
The men who'd chased out after Lucifer returned, sweating and breathless. The monkey had scrambled up a tree and gone, they said. Maybe he'd turn up somewhere when it got light, they said. Then maybe they could snare him in a net.
People trying to snare Lucifer instead of Lucifer snaring people. That struck me as peculiar and funny at the same time, but Dad put a voice to the thought. "Dream on," he said.
Reverend Blessett sat down on the podium. He stayed there, in his fouled white suit, and he looked at his hands as his congregation left him. On the record player, the needle ticked... ticked... ticked.
We went home, through the humid summer night. The streets were quiet, but the symphony of insects droned and keened from the treetops. I couldn't help but think that from one of those trees Lucifer was watching. Now that he had gotten free, who could put him back in his box againi
I imagined I smelled the burning cross again, wafting its taint over my hometown. I decided it must be somebody cooking hot dogs over an open fire.
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