by Nick Young
He was a man of the Revealed Word; so Elijah Crimmins put his face to the world. At forty-one, imposing of stature, with a thick mane of prematurely silver hair and a compelling presence, he had built his reputation righteously toiling in the Lord’s vineyards. Now, as evening drew down, with the day’s heat lingering, he made preparations for the final night of his Salvation Hallelujah! crusade.
“Sonny,” he called out to one of the two hired roustabouts lolling and smoking just outside the tent entrance, his voice burred from the strain of preaching, “you and Beau see to the guy ropes all around. I want them snugged up real good and tight.”
“You got it, Reverend,” the young man drawled, flicking his cigarette butt to arc like an orange firefly into the gloaming.
The preacher let his eyes roam over the interior of the capacious tent. On the hard, bare ground were dozens of folding chairs that soon would groan and sway with the exclamations of the faithful. The chairs were arrayed in rows and ranks before the stage, rough-planked, where his wife sat rehearsing a hymn on a small organ, its maple finish dulled and marred with age.
“That C-sharp, Constance…,” he said, his voice edged with annoyance.
“Your ear doesn’t lie, husband. It is flat, and I will be sure not to steer near it come the service,” she answered without looking his way. He watched her play for a moment. Five years his junior, she was a plain-looking country woman, bordering on homely—lusterless dishwater hair gathered like a nervous bird’s nest at the back of her head, angular face devoid of makeup, sallow beneath the bare light bulbs strung above the stage, lips pallid. She rocked her thin frame slowly to the music in a formless cotton dress of pale pink, a tired sateen bow drooping at the center of her flat chest. Elijah Crimmins regarded her with neither love nor even fondness. Rather, she was in his eyes a prop, suited to her role.
Outside, the crickets and katydids had begun raising their voices, a chorused accompaniment to the sultriness of the hour. Late-July nights were ever thus where Brother Crimmins had pitched his canvas, a campground enwrapped in the serpentine bight of the Mississippi a handful of miles north of Cairo. The sprawling field with its withered grass trampled flat in the powdery dust by the crowds of seekers, was familiar territory to the preacher. For each of the previous eleven summers he had made it a regular stop crusading through the tip of Indiana, far southern Illinois, into Missouri and back around to Tennessee before winding up at home in Kentucky by the time of the first leaves turning.
It was the Lord’s work, but the Lord’s work was not easy, taxing the body, mind, and spirit. Yet, there was bounty in return—souls saved, collection buckets brimming, and…diversion.
Through the years Elijah Crimmins had become a practiced hand at the business of salvation, though he had no notion of such a future as a young boy in western Kentucky. His consciousness was demarcated by the environs of the family farm—a meager patch of sorghum and a few head of weary livestock that managed to sustain him, his parents, and two younger sisters. What learning he had came with a dozen other children in the single room of a red brick schoolhouse down a winding dirt road a half-mile away. The Sabbath was given over mornings and afternoons to the Gospel Tabernacle which sat on the edge of the nearby village, small and defiant, a bulwark against those who flouted the Commandments. And while his mother saw to it that she and the children attended faithfully—“Daddy wasn’t much for the pews”—Elijah averred that the impression all the churching had on him was minimal.
He would come to say that the moment his life changed, or as he would have it, “the Savior took a-hold of my soul,” was the August night in 1926 when, at sixteen, at the insistence of his mother, he was packed up with his sisters in the back of the family’s rusting pickup and driven twenty miles to Cadiz. There, at the Trigg County fairgrounds, they joined with a throng of other country folk at the tent revival of Brother Harlan Westover.
“He come from way yonder in West Virginia,” Elijah’s mother had said. “A right powerful preacher, they say. Heals them that’s sickly, too.”
The night was brutally hot. The men bore it stoically while their womenfolk strove for relief with the cheap paper fans Brother Harlan’s female assistants distributed with a smile and a “may the good Lord bless ye.”
The big tent filled quickly, and it took but a short time for the proceedings to unfold. With a rousing crescendo of chords pounded out on an ancient upright piano and a flourish of tambourines, the evangelist bounded onto the stage. In his upraised right hand he clutched a Bible as if brandishing a torch and launched into a raucous preachment, praising Jesus and lashing out at sinners.
Elijah, who had evinced little enthusiasm for the trip, found himself immediately transfixed, marveling at Brother Harlan as he paced the stage like a caged lion, his sweat-streaked face replete with makeup beneath a shoe polish-black pompadour. The black suit coat he wore he soon enough tore off in a spasm of haranguing those who were unwashed in the blood, warning of everlasting hellfire.
For the better part of an hour, Brother Harlan whipped up the crowd as children squirmed, the women fanned themselves with increasing urgency, and the men loosened their shirt collars to ease the stifling discomfort.
Then, with the assembled raised to a proper frenzy as he moved into his peroration, the preacher exhorted those with infirmities to come forward for healing and salvation. And this a few did, some lame of limb, others with tear-stained faces.
With a swift round of laying on of the hands and a final supplication to the Almighty, the piano struck a brisk, thunderous finale as the evangelist’s youthful assistants moved among the crowd with wicker baskets to gather in donations.
Afterward, Elijah’s mother spoke excitedly of feeling the hand of the Holy Ghost upon her, while his daddy declared himself more revived by the jug of corn liquor tucked beneath the front seat of the truck. On the way home, as his sisters slept, Elijah jostled along in the bed of the old Chevrolet, eyeing the rind of ivory crescent moon that hung in the northwest firmament. His mind was suffused with what he had been a part of. He was gripped, not by Brother Harlan’s message, his apocalyptic admonitions, but rather the spectacle of it all, how the theatrics played out beneath the overspreading canvas, simmering in the summer heat, with the childlike yearning of those who sought a balm for their souls. Elijah marveled at the effect it had, most especially on the young women, who seemed in ecstatic thrall to the middle-aged preacher. It was a temptation of the flesh that thrilled the boy, though beyond his articulation.
Then and there the course of his life was set.
The oppressive air crackled with electricity as Brother Crimmins prowled the stage, worn Bible open in his left hand as he raised his right high above his head in a quivering fist before slashing it down with an accusatory finger at the upturned faces before him.
“Lust!” he thundered. “‘The lust of the flesh’ John the Apostle warns in Chapter Two, Verse Two, and the ‘lust of the eyes!’” His white shirt, soaked through with sweat, clung to his lean torso as his gaze swept the front row of the crowd, coming to rest on a woman of no more than twenty, raven-haired, of slatternly mien, who opened her cherry-red mouth just enough to free her tongue, slowly to lick away the perspiration glistening just above her upper lip. The preacher missed nothing as her hand glided across the thin cotton of her flower print dress, nudging the vee wider at her ripe breasts. In the same motion, she reclined, allowing her smooth pearlescent legs a moment’s splay for his benefit. For the briefest instant their eyes met before he turned away, inflamed, and renewed his exhortations. He wheeled, he cajoled, he brought his simple flock to a fever pitch as he broke into a spasmodic dance across the wooden planking and, casting his eyes upward, fell to speaking in tongues:
“Sa la tan bah ma me lo san bah!”
This was too much for some. One very heavy woman struggled up from her seat on the center aisle panting, cried out, fell to the ground, rolling on her back, shaking as if in a fit of epilepsy, and lay, fleshy arms outstretched to the heavens.
The minutes that followed were well-orchestrated by the evangelist. With the crowd at the height of its exultations, Elijah commenced to call on those who would be saved to come forward, “receive Jesus and lay up your soul’s eternity in Heaven tomorrow with your generosity tonight.” And with that, Sonny and Beau began circulating with tin pails in hand.
“Hallelujah, Jesus!” Elijah sang out over and over as the faithful emptied their pockets and purses. He chanced a quick look the young woman’s way. Her gaze did not waver as her tongue found her lips again.
The last echoes of the revival had died away. Now there was only the steady thrum of crickets in the night that remained caught between the starlit sky and the ancient earth which yet rippled with heat, unrelieved by a stirring breath of air.
Elijah Crimmins sat alone inside the tent, drinking from a pint bottle of rye whiskey that he kept in a worn leather satchel at the rear of the stage. He had dispatched Sonny and Beau to stand watch outside the small camper trailer he and Constance traveled in while she saw to the bookkeeping, toting up the night’s take and laying aside what was needed for expenses. The preacher relished this solitary time. He did not mind the oppressive air, for it kept alive the fevered passions of the revival and his mastery over the poor rubes whose souls ached with such yearning and who so easily parted with their hard-earned coins and dollar bills. And he insisted that he be left alone for another reason, one understood with stoic acceptance by his wife. Elijah Crimmins could breathe righteous fire as he inveighed against carnality while commanding his stage but did not refuse himself its pleasures when the hosannas ceased.
He arched his back and drank again; the warmth of the liquor invigorated him, teased his senses. He raised a crumpled handkerchief to daub the sweat on his brow and around his neck. From over his shoulder, he heard the tent flap open. There was no need for him to turn. He knew it was the young woman in the print dress, now barefoot, her face flushed with the heat of the night. His mouth bore the hint of a smile.
“What is it you want, my child?” he asked lubriciously. Walking toward him, she replied in kind.
“Why, Reverend, I come to be saved.”
The sun had not crept full over the horizon when Sheriff Ervin Cupper stood outside the tent tapping the ash from a half-smoked Tiparillo. Eyeing the sky, he knew the dawn would bring no relief from the sweltering weather. He also knew he had on his hands a crime unlike any other in his thirty-odd years of police work.
“Well?” he asked at the approach of his deputy.
“Woman in the camper, the preacher’s wife?” Billy Lapham answered, his mouth dry, face chalky in the early light. “Throat cut.”
“Small safe jacked open—most likely a crowbar. A few papers but no money. Reckon whoever done the killin’ took what they was.”
“Big crowds all the weekend,” said Sheriff Cupper, figuring in his head. “Wouldn’t surprise me if it were near to a thousand dollars, mebbe more.”
“What about in there, Ervin?” the deputy asked, cocking a thumb toward the inside of the tent, his voice drawn tense. The sheriff pulled one last time on his cigar and dropped it to the trampled grass, crushing it with his shoe heel. He leveled his gaze at Lapham.
“How long you been with me, Billy?”
“‘bout a year, year-and-a-half, I reckon.”
“And how many dead bodies you seen?”
“Before now? Today? Just Steve Piper after he hit that big buck on his Indian. He was pretty messed up, for sure.”
“Well,” Cupper drawled, “I guaran-damn-tee you ain’t never seen what you’re about to lay your eyes on.” With that, he pushed open the tent flap, and the two men entered. The air was close, clinging to them like damp cotton. “Over here, in front of the stage,” the sheriff motioned.
“Oh my-Jesus-fucking-Christ!” Billy Lapham muttered, his face twisted with the horror before him. There, in the garish wash of light cast down by the incandescent bulbs dangling above lay the mutilated remains of Elijah Crimmins. Naked, save for his trousers pulled down around one ankle, his legs and arms were splayed in crude, macabre fashion—swastika-like—in the bloody dust and sere grass. Eyes wide, the preacher’s face was etched with an agony neither of the men who stood over him could begin to fathom.
“MyGodmyGodmyGod,” the deputy mumbled, gorge rising, “what’s been done to him…the way he’s been cut…”
“Mmm,” replied Sheriff Cupper matter-of-factly, his eyes fixed on the evangelist’s fish-belly pale skin and its grievous wound, “the way you’d nut a hog.”
“God-damn,” Billy Lapham rasped, a mixture of wonderment and loathing, “And they did that with it?”
“They did that,” echoed the sheriff.
By the right hand of Elijah Crimmins lay his Bible, opened to John Chapter Two, scripture now stained and defiled.
High above in the eastern sky, suffused with the amber glow of the new day, a red-tailed hawk keened as it spiraled down towards its prey.
About Nick Young
Nick Young is a retired award-winning CBS News Correspondent. His writing has appeared in more than two dozen publications including the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Unconventional Courier, Fiction on the Web, Bookends Review, The Nonconformist Magazine, Sandpiper, San Antonio Review, Flyover Magazine, Pigeon Review, The Best of CaféLit 11, and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies.