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by Mark Spencer

The Reverend Elvis L. Haywood sits on the edge of his ragged winged-back chair, studying the techniques of a Las Vegas faith healer on cable TV and stroking his one-eyed cat.

The chair used to be white, has turned yellow with age, and has frayed arms. Its wings are huge. The cat’s right pupil looks kind of pink today instead of milky white, a hopeful sign that Haywood’s prayers are working.

Last Sunday Haywood gave a sermon on signs. He tried out his new technique of emphasizing important words. “The Lord directs our lives with signs,” he pronounced. “We just have to know how to read them as we drive down the highway of life.” He waved his fist. “Now I’m not talking about old wives’ tales, like a bird flying into a window pane and killing itself and that supposedly meaning somebody in the house is destined to die soon.”

He paused the way he had practiced. “So what am I talking about?” A rhetorical question, of course, but the Wilmers’ boy raised his hand as if he had an answer. The boy is twelve and not bright. His mother pulled his arm down. “Well, guilt can be a sign.”

Then after another pause, nodding his head, he said softly, “Yes. Guilt. Guilt... is God’s sign to us that we shouldn’t be stealing paper clips from our offices or looking with lust at our neighbor’s wife or copying answers off our classmates.”

The entire congregation looked bored — the Oswalds, the Wilmers, the Picks, old Mrs. Foster, old Miss Groseclose.

“Our car not starting could be a sign that we should not take a trip.” Laura Oswald yawned. The Picks’ younger boy, who must be fourteen or fifteen — an age when the devil often commences work on a child — loudly passed gas and hid his giggles behind a hymnal. Miss Groseclose yawned.

The Las Vegas faith healer on the TV has people shouting and screaming and convulsing. She’s an ugly wizened woman in a white choir robe. It looks as though she painted her high stiff black hair and then coated it with shellac. Her thick eyebrows arch demonically. What really amazes him is that her teeth are bad, not crooked but spaced and yellow. You’d expect a Las Vegas faith healer who makes frequent cable TV appearances to go to the trouble of having her teeth fixed. The bad teeth contradict the fancy hair, making it difficult for Haywood to decide whether she’s a fake.

Evoking God’s help in healing the people lined up on her stage, she shrieks like a banshee and knocks the hell out of the faithful, her palm smashing into their foreheads. Haywood is reminded of the kung-fu movies he sometimes watches late at night; if her aim was low and she smashed some poor cripple’s nose, she’d probably send bone chips into the person’s brain. As it is, Haywood cringes at the way she rears back and slams foreheads with her open hand, the fingers splayed wide — a loud pop of flesh, the neck snapping back, a couple of muscle-bound goons in dark suits catching the limp body. Then the flutter of eyelids and the discovery that a leg, spine, eye, or major internal organ works again. Praise Jesus! Praise Jesus!

Haywood has a satellite dish outside his small clapboard house. He lives on the fringe of his small town where it peters out with a short string of shotgun shacks and beat-up mobile homes. His neighbors’ places, unpainted and the yards cluttered with rusty cars on concrete blocks, contrast with his tidy flower beds and weedless lawn.

Years ago, in the back, he built a brick barbecue pit. Then he wrote a letter to Jimmy Carter, inviting the president to his Sunday service, to be followed by a barbecue. Haywood was certain Carter would come. He had dreamed vividly about the president sitting on a lawn chair out back with a paper plate heaped with baked beans and potato salad. But Carter wrote back saying he was busy.

Haywood has had other vivid dreams about famous people eating in his backyard, and he has written to them all. In his dreams, Loretta Lynn ate chicken wings; Oral Roberts ate shrimp; Ollie North had steak, rare and bloody; Dan Quayle nibbled a banana. But the famous people are always too busy to come hear Haywood preach and eat his food. Ronald Reagan never even wrote back.

The Las Vegas faith healer is saying good-bye to the TV audience. Haywood thinks snidely that she probably heads for the casinos after her shows, but he admits he might be simply jealous. Like Mr. Wilmers. Haywood has been counseling Mr. and Mrs. Wilmers for six months. Mrs. Wilmers went to the junior college in Portsmouth a couple of years ago and now makes more money as a nurse than her husband does working their farm. In addition to saying he thought his wife had turned cold and probably wanted to have sex with doctors, Wilmers bitterly confessed that he felt God let his wife make more money because God liked her better.

Haywood assured Wilmers that God is just, has a plan, knows what He’s doing.

But sometimes Haywood wonders himself about the Almighty’s agenda: blesses some gaudy phony with her own TV revival show but... His spine shivers with fear. Then his face burns with anger. Well, blazes, he’ll go ahead and think it — God kung fu kicks the living daylights out of a decent, hard-working man dedicated to preaching the Word and abiding by His edicts — gives him poverty, a wife who dies young, rejected invitations...

Haywood hangs his head in shame and says a quick prayer asking for forgiveness. Who is he to question God’s ways?

He gets up and switches the TV to a home-improvement show on which carpenters are shoring up the walls of an old farm house.

Haywood sits back down in his winged-back chair and strokes the cat’s head, studies the cat’s blind eye again. Yes, it’s turned pinkish. A sign. But of what? He practices his faith-healing techniques on small animals — he loves animals and is certain they have souls, despite what some other preachers say.

He has healed only one human being: his son-in-law. Earl had stomach cancer a year ago, which is now in total remission. Haywood hates Earl, who married his daughter Anita when she was fourteen. Earl is a boozer and a whoremonger and an idiot. Haywood would like to see him dead.

A commotion erupts outside. A car with a bad muffler rumbles in the driveway. The collie with the broken back and the terrier with the gum disease both bark. The hamster with emotional problems bangs its head against its cage.

A fat girl heaves herself out from under the steering wheel and lumbers toward the front door, as Haywood watches from a chink in the living-room curtains.

Haywood is impeccably dressed: polished black winged-tip shoes, black suspenders, white shirt, narrow black tie. But his collar and shirt cuffs are a bit frayed, and the pants are shiny from wear. The soles of the bright shoes are worn smooth. In the small mirror by the front door, he glances at his thin face, lines etched deep on either side of his nose and across his forehead. His salt-and-pepper hair is slicked back behind his ears like wings.

He opens the door. “May I help you?”

The fat girl stares wide-eyed at him, her small mouth open, her yellow teeth leaning every which way. She’s wearing a man’s flannel shirt with a pack of Marlboros in the breast pocket.

After what seems a long time, she finally blinks and says, “You’re the only one that can help me.”

“Why, child —”

“You’ve got to.”

“Well, yes, child. Yes. Sure, I will.” He spreads his arms as if to embrace her. He feels the Holy Spirit stir inside him, swell with power. But the girl has turned and is lumbering back toward her car. “Wait! Wait!” he shouts.

She stops, hangs her head. “I don’t know.” She turns around. “You know, I don’t even go to your church. Or any church.” She looks at her beat-up car. “But I heard about that guy you cured of cancer.”

“Oh.” He waves his hand meaninglessly, looks up at the gray sky.

“Help me.” She takes a step toward him. “Make it go away.”

He studies her, her limp hair, her rough complexion. “Make what... go away?” he asks in a hushed voice. “Cancer?”

She puts her hand on her stomach. “No.” Her face scrunches up and turns red. She pats her stomach, her black eyes shining, and says, “It.”

Haywood jumps back from the girl as if from a striking snake, knows the anguish of his hamster, sees the spaced, yellow teeth — the hideous grin — of the Las Vegas faith healer.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Spencer

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