The Revival at Sulphur Well – A Short Story

Sulphur Well
Southern Fried Gothic

Southern Fried Gothic

By: Jay

I.

It didn’t seem like a year had passed since last years’ revival, but Sister Elvira had finally finished making up all the revival posters. The committee had put her in charge of the whole affair, though Sister Misty had gossiped that Sister Elvira always got picked cause she and Brother Mustang was cheatin’ together. Didn’t matter, no how, since Sister Misty didn’t have the Holy Ghost—everybody in Sandy Ridge knows she been seen at Sparky’s on half-off night. That damn committee lasted forever like all the church committees and Sister Elvira had forgot and left all the fixings from Sav-a-Lot out in the van. When was Randy going to fix that damn alternator?

It was the middle of summer and revival time always meant two things for Sister Elvira: make up the posters and be in charge of the potluck after the revival. Brother Mustang always wanted her to be in charge of the potlucks, cause he said the “devil himself musta taught you how to make ‘em Deviled Eggs, sugarlips.” That thought made Sister Elvira giddy, like when she had had too much coffee in the afternoon. What did it all matter, anyway, if she was in love with Brother Mustang? Didn’t he have the anointin’ of the Holy Ghost? Of course he did, and that was much more than Randy had. Randy was laid off from the Mazda plant.

Luckily, the food was unspoiled, except the milk which had gotten hot– mamma had always said hot milk would give you the runs if you drank it. Sister Elvira loaded the kids up in the old green minivan, trying to remember all the places she would have to stop on the way home. “Shut the hell up and get in!” she screamed, until her two brats settled in.

“Mamma, how come I’m always wearin’ skirts and cain’t cut no hair?” asked Joleen.

“Cause the Bible says women ain’t sposed to, it’s o’ the devil.”

“Where at, momma?” Joleen persisted, seeing her mom’s irritation.

“Dammit, I dunno, Revelations, I think,” Sister Elvira snapped.

Sister Elvira turned up the radio, hoping to drown out the noise of the little imps she hated to call her “kids.” They were imps, and she thought to herself that it might be bad to think of them as “imps,” but they were both short and fat with long teeth. Joleen was eleven and had been born with a hair lip that she constantly searched at with her tongue, as if to find some hidden bit of Kool-Aid or hot dog left over from lunch. She wasn’t bright, but she wasn’t totally stupid, either, she did get second place in that spelling bee in 3rd grade, and Sister Elvira had been convinced all along she had really won, since “Carn-evil” didn’t have no “a” in it. She had seen written on a VHS box at the movie rental back when she was backslid—her “devil days,” she called them.

She turned the radio up even louder to drown out these thoughts. “Was these evil thoughts?” she asked. She knew she had the Holy Ghost’s anointin’ on her, though, cause Brother Mustang had laid his hands on her, and they was no doubt he was a prophet. She couldn’t help thinking about Toby, though, in this questionable fashion. Toby was seven, but still acted like he was two. He was short like she was—really short, and had her pudgy features, even that little bit of fat that hangs over the elbow. Was that normal for a five-year old? He at least had his dad’s eyes. She wondered if the child in her tummy would have the features of Brother Mustang. She had overheard some people at the Chevron say that Brother Mustang only had puffy white preacher hair ‘cause the ones on that religious TV channel did. It didn’t matter to her, since she realized a baby couldn’t have puffy white preacher hair. But what if his eyes were too close together like Brother Mustang’s? The radio broke her train of thought.

“Hey, it’s Doppler Dan with the forecast–looks like rain tonight in the surrounding area, with a good chance of heavy thunderstorms, so stay indoors…”

Rain! Dammit! No doubt about it, this was sent o’ the devil. The revival was gonna happen, no matter what. She stopped the car at the G & K Printing.

“Stay in the damn car, and no, you cain’t have no Candy Orange Slices—I’m just gonna be a minute.” Joleen always wanted them Orange Slices, but ended up smasing ‘em in the floorboard. The print shop was next door to the gas station and she knew this would provoke a cry for them Orange Slices.

The Print Shop stunk. Bad. Once she had overcooked some potato logs in the microwave and thought that the Print Shop smelled kinda like that, and didn’t understand how the four lowlifes that worked there could stand that rank odor. Serves ‘em right, she thought, for being sons of the devil—they needed a good slap of the Holy Ghost on ‘em—that would straighten up. She thought she might pray in tongues to her self and run all the devils out while they were getting her posters.

“Got ‘em all here, Ms. Elvira,” the skinny, teenage clerk said as he tossed a stack of posters on the counter.

“It’s Sister Elvira—that’s my spiritual name, and it’s what I’ll go by, you hear me,” she stated with an air of importance.

“Yeah, whatever. You wanna charge it?” replied the clerk.

“I do, and if you know what’s good for you, you’d come to the revival tonight. The Holy Ghost his-self is gonna make an appearance. The Glory ‘o God is gonna manifest–Brother Mustang done prophesied it,” she glared.

The clerk held back the laughter behind his braces. “Ummm, like, how come you’re getting the posters now if the revival is tonight?” he asked with a smirk.

Sister Evlira was getting hot now—what did this punk know—his daddy was the one that was caught with the Judge Angela on the damn judges’ bench, and he had the nerve to be getting smart with a prophetess. The sweat was running down her temples carrying the mix of salt and hair spray that gave off a strange smell.

“We gonna put ‘em up now, and the Holy Ghost is gonna bring the whole town, if he wants,” she squawked. “We done bought the old Catholic Church on the corner of Elm Street, as the Spirit done told us. Never mind the invitation to the revival, it’s not for those that wanna to run with the devil.” She had never been that bold before and she felt proud. She could feel the electric power of the Spirit running through her. It was that Spirit that had got on her and empowered her to tell that sinner the truth.

She waddled out with the posters in her hand just in time to see Joleen hopping in the van with a pack of Orange Slices from the Sandy Ridge Chevron. Joleen didn’t have no money…

“Dammit, you little hog, I told you no Orange Slices and you done stole ‘em!” she shrieked. “Hurry up and get in and let’s go,” she said hurriedly. “I’ll deal with you later.”

Sister Elvira pulled over on the way home at the four-way and posted the first of the revival posters. It read:

TONIGHT: REVIVAL!

SULPHUR WELL PENTECOSTAL HOLINESS CHURCH

(Now located in old catholic church)

HOLY PROPHET BROTHER MUSTANG

will give

MESSAGES AND WORDS FROM THE LORD ON THE END TIMES AND THE DESTRUCTION OF ALL THE WICKED

COME ONE, COME ALL

SEE THE LORD MANIFEST!

PRAISE AND WORSHIP STARTS AT

7PM

II.

Brother Mustang quickly gulped the last of the Wild Turkey when the last of the cars from the committee drove off. He couldn’t believe how cheap he had bought the building from the Catholic Church that had been shut down. It musta been a judgment from God on them pagans, he thought. They practically had to give the building away, since the city ordinances required that it be condemned. But Brother Mustang promised—on faith—to do repairs and bring the structure up to par. The Church was red brick, but had that old look to it somehow—somehow those Catholic Churches could do that. Brother Mustang was glad that he had easily removed the altar from against that wall and threw it the big gulley behind the “parsonage,” or whatever they called that house behind the Church.

Some church members had suggested to Brother Mustang that he could live in the small parsonage—an idea he almost laughed at. Was a minister of the Lord—a prophet at that—supposed to be holed up in a little shack? No way—the Lord’s anointed was supposed to live in style. He had heard some of them TV preachers say it was a fact that Jesus had rich friends and anyone that was rich and knew Jesus would never have let him live without style.

The neon cross looked good on the wall where that scary crucifix was, he thought. Crucifixes had always scared Brother Mustang, and he remembered back when he was young and had seen a big blue neon cross at a truck stop and said to himself, “If I was ever a minister of God, I’d have one of them in the church, not no gross crucifix.” And no doubt he was a minister now. The next level up, in fact, a prophet, and eventually he would have one of them TV shows, he thought. He would have to start his own satellite network, though, cause not even them TV preachers was real prophets. He wondered if he was one of the last prophets around, since it was the last days. He even wondered if he might be one of the Two Witnesses mentioned in Revelations.

Revelations had always been his favorite book. He remembered being at that revival when he was eleven where his aunt was head pastor. She stopped in the middle of her tongue speaking and the whole church got quiet, and then Sister Hill’s prophecies would come. “Shhhh…Shhhh…” she would say, “he’s a movin’ among us,” as she would sway back and forth. And then it happened—it was the spiritual high point of his life. Sister Hill pointed him out from the stage and in a ghostly, authoritative voice said that the Lord was callin’ him—young Brother Mustang—to the ministry—to be His very own prophet of these last days.

But that was back when he was skinny. And it was back before them four wives—the four horsewomen of the Apocalypse he would call them, half-joking, half serious. Turning 51 was not that bad and he was now a prophet of his own church. It was growing, too: at last year’s revival they had baptized 15 people in the Holy Ghost. Only five of ‘em had kept coming to services, however. But that at least put the church membership up to 66. He had had a dream, too, that the church would grow tremendously in the next year and take over the whole town. He liked the thought of running the whole town, and this dream was no doubt o’ the Holy Ghost. He reclined at his new Mahogany desk and pulled out a Marlboro Light. No one knew he smoked and drank, but he was at least not like them other sinners at the bar that did it every night. As he lit it he thought of the fire of hell. He practiced moderation. True, he told the congregation from the stage that it was wrong—”I don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew and don’t associate with those that do”—but sometimes it was necessary to tell the flock something else. A noble lie, one might say. After all, it was better in the long run to keep ‘yunguns from it, since they was liable to overindulge.

Pastor Mustang reclined in his chair, took out a pen and began to jot down notes for that evenings sermon—this one would have to be the best, since this was the revival’s opening night. What to preach on? Last year’s series of sermons on the Beast of Revelation and the coming Antichrist had pretty well emptied his bank of biblical knowledge. Joshua—that was a book no one preached on very often. He threw his big black Bible (the kind that sits on the family shelf for years collecting dust) on the desk. It landed halfway off, and being leather, it slowly slid off like a square snake and landed open to Joshua 6. Brother Mustang, not being one to pass up the Lord’s signs, determined that the fall of Jericho would be the perfect message for the revival. He would preach how the sinners of Sandy Ridge had constructed for themselves a virtual Jericho, and it was only a matter of time before the Angels of God came and destroyed them in the Apocalypse. As verse 17 said, the “city was doomed to destruction.”

Brother Mustang wouldn’t need notes tonight.

III.

The parking lot was filling fast as the children were running about, some helping take down the last of the Catholic statues of none other than St. Mary. The Marquee read:

SULPHUR WELL PENTECOSTAL HOLINESS CHURCH

TONIGHT: REVIVAL!

“If all prophesy and an unbeliever comes in, he will be convinced by all and the secrets of his heart will be revealed and will worship God and report that God is truly among you” 1 Cor. 14:24-25.

Sister Elvira arrived at 7:14, having taken the majority of the evening pinning up the last of the revival posters. She yanked Joleen up in a hurried fashion, dropping her tambourine and purse.

‘Pick it up!” she snapped to Joleen. “We’re late for the manifestin’ o’ the Lord. You don’t wanna miss that, do you? The praisin’s done started, come on!”

Joleen grabbed the tambourine and Toby’s hand and as they walked in, she realized she had left the Orange Slices in the van. There was no chance she could ask her mom to unlock the van for that. Momma was already mad and was walking in.

The church was now open for business, and Brother Mustang was on stage already in a furious sweat, dancing and twirling in an uneven circle like a whirling dervish. The drums and guitar had been set up behind the podium and were being played by the kind of band that played weddings: skinny, pale and ugly, like some 80’s British pop band with too much white powder. The church, however, was filled to capacity and smelled of a combination of distinctive old-church-smell and body odor. The kids slinked up to the front row where momma was already in the spirit, slamming the tambourine from hand to hand. Joleen thought about how this looked like a TV show she had seen where some voodoo tribe had been dancing around, herky jerky like that, with their eyes all white.

The drum beat continued on and on, like the thump of an approaching war—something like in a fantasy, where trolls would bang on massive drums warning of the impending darkness and death to inevitably follow.

After an unknown ammount of time, perhaps hours, of spinning and twirling in the spirit, the crowd hushed and took their seats to hear Brother Mustang, who was laid out flat on the stage floor. Eventually he arose with the help of the band and gave a menacing look toward the congregation. The crowd tensed. Brother Mustang wiped his sweat soaked face and opened his big black Bible.

“Turn, brothers and sisters, in your Bible to Joshua, chapter 6…”

The sound of thin pages crackling like a fire filled the huge, vaulted ceiling church as Brother Mustang extended one hand out over the congregation with his eyes closed.

“Brothers and sisters, I have a message for you tonight—a message from the Lord…”

For some reason, Joleen couldn’t keep her attention on the preacher, since all his “messages” were the same–judgment and stuff. All Joleen could think about was the Orange Slices in the van.

At that second the loudest peal of thunder Sandy Ridge had ever heard exploded, with a fall of hard rain trailing a few seconds later. Brother Mustang continued to sweat and yell the verses of Joshua 6 out loud, “’It shall come to pass when they make a long blast on the ram’s horn, and when you hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout; then the wall of the city will fall down flat…!’ Brothers and sisters, I wanna ask the Lord right now to give us a sign of his mighty presence among us…”

Everyone sat still with eyes closed and hands extended in the air, waiting for some kind of sign. Joleen thought about the Orange Slices. With head bowed and eyes closed, she looked over at her mom’s Tweety Bird purse lying open on its side; the keys to the van caught her eye.

Everyone sat still, and at that moment there was a faint snap, and the top nail holding the neon cross one the wall behind the band fell out, leaving the cross to swing around upside down, and sway back and forth like a pendulum until it rested facing downwards, still glowing neon blue.

Sighs and gasps could be heard. Brother Mustang held both hands up and exclaimed, “It’s a sign people, a sign…just like I asked, and just like the Israelites outside the city of Jericho. Shout, for the Lord has given you the city! Now the city shall be doomed to destruction, and all who are in it. Flee, brothers and sisters, flee, flee, flee to the sweetness of the Lord!”

Joleen, who had been thinking of Orange Slices had stealthily snatched her mom’s keys and was sliding out of the pew when she heard Brother Mustang say, “flee, flee, to the sweetness…” Joleen stopped and thought for a minute. For the first time in her life she had been surprised by something Brother Mustang had said. Did he know she was thinking about Orange Slices at that very second? Maybe he did have powers. “Well,” she thought to herself, “if that’s a command to get Orange Slices—sweetness, I best do it.”

As Brother Mustang wiped more sweat from his now drenched face, he motioned for the band to start again, then yelling, “we gonna shout it down, brothers and sisters, we gonna shout down the walls of Jericho together in praise and worship!”

As Joleen dashed through the church doors, the vaulted ceiling of the church let out a painful creak. She started to look back, but kept going, thinking how good that sweetness of them Orange Slices would be. She felt rain hit her face as she reached the parking lot—rain that seemed to wash away things. Another peel of thunder let loose.

Joleen fidgeted for the lock and heard screams coming from the church. All she could think of was the Orange Slices. She found them, the plastic crushed and wrapped up, under the back seat. She sat there, still, relishing the Orange Slice in her mouth, chewing too many times as if it were a piece of gum. She looked back to where the church had been. It had completely collapsed.

The next day the Sandy Ridge paper interviewed Joleen. The rest of the town was amazed she had been the only church member to survive the collapse.

The newspaper read:

“GIRL ONLY SURVIVOR OF CHURCH COLLAPSE: SAYS ORANGE SLICES SAVED HER.”

15 Comments on The Revival at Sulphur Well – A Short Story

  1. gobsmacked! I went to one for 4 years. not quite as extravagant, but more authoritative.. Where did this come from? 🙂

  2. a wry commentary on charismatics, backwoods hillbilly’s, and of course, evangelicalism. Funny, but harsh, and also true.

  3. The Revival at Sulphur Well is a sacramental story: Joleen is saved from death–both physical and spiritual–by means of her obsession with Orange Slices, as she admits with the newspaper headline, “SAYS ORANGE SLICES SAVED HER.” Either way, Joleen is saved through something material in a Parker’s Back kind of way. It might seem like goofy sacramentality, but whatever, the Orange Slices take her away from the revival and the horrible fate it invites.

    The following is my favorite moment:

    “Everyone sat still, and at that moment there was a faint snap, and the top nail holding the neon cross one the wall behind the band fell out, leaving the cross to swing around upside down, and sway back and forth like a pendulum until it rested facing downwards, still glowing neon blue.”

    This is probably the most striking image in the story. It’s also the one–alongside Joleen’s thought “about how this looked like a TV show she had seen where some voodoo tribe had been dancing around, herky jerky like that, with their eyes all white”–that makes it clear what spiritual agency is at work in the revival. Now, is the mass death a satanic sacrifice, or is it a divine judgment? The ambiguity makes for good reflection material, and either way, the action of grace in Joleen’s survival is still sacramental.

    I do have criticism about this:

    “The drum beat continued on and on, like the thump of an approaching war—something like in a fantasy, where trolls would bang on massive drums warning of the impending darkness and death to inevitably follow.”

    The sentence here is a bit too expository. Describing the drum beat is a great move, but this description doesn’t seem like one Joleen would give it. The voodoo tribe comparison is anchored to something Joleen actually saw on TV once; the war drum comparison, on the other hand, isn’t anchored in a character’s perspective, or if it is, it isn’t made clear whose it is. Also, I think the Jericho imagery is sufficient to foreshadow the mass deaths about to occur. This war drum imagery is perhaps one foreshadow too many. Furthermore, it lessens the ambiguity of satanic sacrifice or divine judgment, which I think should be there strongly.

    All in all, this is very promising work. Your voice, by and large, is excellent, as is your characterization, especially in so short a story. I’d love to see what you can do with a longer story, provided you have the interest.

    Also –
    Not much chance for survival, if the neon bible is right…

    • This is what I want – real critique. Perfect. Yeah I’m getting bored analyzing others’ narratives and wanting to move towards my own. I need that kind of analysis of things like voice and what makes sense for what character. Yes, the long goal is to write good stories. This site is practice writing, in general. Thanks a ton

    • This was my first attempt at fiction in my late 20s.

    • No problem, Jay. I may be an unemployed deadbeat (for now! Please, God, only for now!), but the whole art shebang is still my domain. If I can give helpful critique and analysis, I am happy to be of service.

      You obviously got the goods. Now you just need to hone your craft through hard work.

  4. I enjoyed the story very much.

  5. superb! reminds me of Flannery and even early Jim Thompson. do more of this…

  6. Awesome. I wonder if it was intentional that the evangelicals had taken over a Catholic church, redesigned it in their own image, only to have the neon cross become inverted and take the form of the sign of the papacy of St Peter. One last sign before the collapse to indicate, in their language, “You done messed up, boy.”

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