• David Lane Williams

First Chapter of Snake Oil on Snow Cones

As always, sorry for the formatting glitches. Word docs don't always translate well here. Happy reading.

Callie had always been one to sit on the front row, raise her hand, volunteer to feed the class bunny over winter break, and share what needed sharing, whether that be scratch paper or a pair of dry socks. Her favorite teacher, Mrs. Temple, taught tenth-grade typing and shorthand. Mrs. Temple was the sort to lay an embroidered pillowcase over the hands of any girl glancing at her keyboard or to apply a strip of masking tape over the lips of those caught chatting during dictation exercises. She was a geyser of business-skills wisdom, which she generally dispensed over the clacking of two-dozen IBM Selectrics during speed drills.

“Easter gloves should be worn for job interviews, but they must be doffed for the practical assessment phase.”

“Home row is more than a starting place for one’s fingertips; home row is a metaphor for life!”

“Always think germs in the workplace, ladies. The most dangerous of perils has always been germs—drunken train conductors and atomic bombs notwithstanding.”

Which was the very advice on Callie’s mind not three weeks after her final class with Mrs. Temple, as the teenager stared at a half-eaten funnel cake abandoned on a picnic table. “Maybe I could just tear off the parts that touched their mouth,” she whispered to four merrily decorated ponies tethered and waiting to be led into the ride pavilion for their evening trudge with sticky, mane-yanking children.

Callie stood in shadows created by the tents of a carnival newly arrived in town, distractedly rubbing pony muzzles, eyeing the pastry, deciding. She was too thin, brand new to life “on the road,” and absolutely dithering over whether to heed Mrs. Temple’s guidance or to shove a pastry down her gullet.

“Y’all’s costumes are so pretty,” she murmured as one of the ponies stomped a pixie-sized hoof painted emerald green. “One time on Valentine’s Day I won the ‘prettiest decorated cash register’ prize over at the Five-and-Dime.”

Another pony tried to remove the red top-hat strapped between its ears by rubbing a tent post. “Won a jumbo-size chocolate bar,” Callie added, even as she ventured two tentative steps toward the picnic table.

Callie slowly reached for the pastry just as an elderly woman with a graying bun the size of an eight-quart stew pot piled tightly atop her head hissed, “Stop that, wicked child.” Callie jerked her hand back in shame and turned toward the ponies as if she had somewhere to go. The crone scowled and followed Callie into the shadows, raising a finger as if she had more to say until another voice stopped her advance.

“Evangeline, leave that poor young lady be,” said an aged man who walked up beside the woman. The man peered down kindly at Callie who shivered despite the late afternoon swelter. He looked at the discarded funnel cake, then heavenward, then back at Callie. Her linen dress of pastel pink called attention to the bones of her sternum, in stark contrast to the old woman’s dress covering from just below the chin all the way down to the caliche dust at her feet. Callie suddenly wished she was wearing something, anything that covered at least her shoulders and knees.

The man was dressed in a black knee-length coat—an odd choice for the heat—a flat-brimmed straw hat, a white collar yellowing along the neckline, and scuffed tan boots. “Who provideth the raven for his food?” he asked, and when Callie gave a slight shrug, he answered his own question. “The Lord Almighty provides when we are hungry.”

“Job 38:41,” said Evangeline, who was rewarded with a gentle nod from the man before he turned abruptly toward a crowd of carnival-goers. Callie was startled by how quickly he’d left her alone with the old woman, who was now staring at her in a most vulturine manner.

“Read your Bible,” snarled Evangeline.

“Do unto others…stuff like that?” replied Callie. The crone scowled and seemed about to respond when the man called back over his shoulder.

“A plague of sinners awaits!”

Callie thought he sounded delighted at this prospect as she watched him wade into the throng. He stabbed a pious finger skyward, blustering his way through arm-in-arm couples and roving bands of teens as if parting a sea on the will of God. Soon the finger was all she could see of him. Evangeline huffed as if punctuating the encounter with Callie as she turned to follow.

Callie felt momentary appreciation for the old man. He’d uttered the first kind words she’d heard in days, and he’d stepped in to defend her when no one would have expected him to do so. A blend of gratitude, curiosity, and desperation produced just enough hope in the man’s faith and gumption for her to forgo the humiliating meal and follow as well.

The reverend strode to the center of the carnival and overturned a wooden crate as his pulpit, rising to speak amid the dissonance of diesel generators and carousel medleys. A nearby corndog vendor turned down his transistor radio and propped one foot on a pickle barrel to listen.

“Ye, who are slaves of Satan,” he called out to those few who formed about his dais.

“Is this a sideshow?” whispered a woman. Callie slipped through toward the front, nibbling her nails to nubs as she watched the prophetic man challenge the small crowd.

“You’re damned to an eternity of hellfire burning your flesh to bone, of horned beasts ravaging your loins…”

“Enoch, my gracious,” said Evangeline.

“Say there, pastor,” protested a strapping man in overalls still dusty from the fields. “Mind the children and lady-folk,” as he moved protectively in front of his wife, a buxom woman wearing a neck-less t-shirt emblazoned with the glittery words, “Feeling Groovy.”

“And you, you craven mule, who calls himself a man but allows his woman to show her cleavage in public like a harlot!”

Callie pulled the neck of her dress up.

“Now hold on a minute, reverend…”

“…and then change to demure attire on Sunday morning as if she can somehow avoid the mighty smiting that is God’s wrath…”

“Now, I told you that was enough, you son of a bitch!”

“He is offering you salvation!” screeched Evangeline. She bumped past Callie who was now tugging the dress hem down below her knees. “Your soul demands attention.”

“You’d best tell that old man to shut his damn mouth in front of my wife, or…”

The reverend pointed directly at the man, so there would be no mistaking who he was condemning. “Damn, you, lying sinner of Beelzebub, for sending your trollop…”

At which point the man boxed the reverend’s ear and punched his mouth.

“Don’t hurt him!” blurted Callie.

“Jeremiah twenty-two, verse nineteen!” the old man yelled out through bloody gums just before a third blow. He punctuated this argument with, “He shall be buried with the burial of an ass!” index finger raised to the heavens.

The farmer, clearly confounded by the verse, spun his wife and left in a huff. The crowd drifted away. The minister dabbed a knuckle at his split lip and stared after their shrugging backs with a look of triumph.

“I am the Reverend Enoch Sadler!” he called out. “Shirk God’s word, but it is his mercy you have forsaken.”

“Why must you taunt them so?’ asked Evangeline as she tended a swelling knot above his left eye.

“Because they’ll now spend the afternoon less entranced by the blasphemous entertainment and more mindful of the wrath of God. Carnival-mongering on a Sunday…a SIN!”

“Enoch, enough!”

“And you’d do well to reserve your reproof for Satan himself, for Eve brought sin unto man. I’ll not have a sister of my flock pretending any judgment for Adam. I’ll not have it!”

“I’m sorry, reverend,” Evangeline replied quickly. “Shall I get you some ice?”

He ran a hand through hair slicked back with Brylcreem before standing up and dusting off his trousers.

“Reverend Sadler?” said Callie, holding out a wad of napkins she’d pilfered from a soda stand.

“What is it?” he growled, even as he took the napkins and cleaned his mouth.

“I…I was pulled by your words. They were holy words, and…”

“Hey, girl,” called a drunken ranch hand standing near a peanut vendor a few yards away. “Get done with that old fart and come give me a diddle. I got a week’s pay burning a hole in my pocket.”

Lights from the rides reflected in Enoch Sadler’s grackle eyes making them appear aflame. Callie’s own eyes flooded.

“I’m not a…I…,” she stammered.

“Be gone, you willful piglet,” cried the minister. “Or I shall call upon The Almighty to strike you down!”

“Yes, sir,” whimpered Callie, who turned in shame even as the reverend stepped past her and smote the cowboy’s shoulder with his cane. The brawny youth stumbled away, and once more Callie felt a sense of gratitude and respite in having been defended.

“Not you, child,” the reverend said, speaking to her as if she were an injured fawn. In that moment it was as if he were seeing her for the first time, and what began as a paternal smile morphed into an enchantment mesmerizing enough that he never noticed as a bearded albino lady and dwarfed lizard man strolled by arm in arm. The minister’s eyes paused on her Goldilocks’ lips and then moved on to her endearingly tapered ears which seemed to move in the direction of a diving roller coaster off in the distance. He sighed ever so quietly.

Evangeline cleared her throat as if to break his reverie. “Enoch…reverend, we must be going.”

“But be ye doers of the word, and not just hearers,” he responded.

Callie caught a whiff of grilling hamburgers and desperately hoped this holy man and the sullen Evangeline would buy one for her.

“James 1:22,” Evangeline acknowledged.

“Indeed, sister. Let us return to the church with our guest,” he announced.

Callie looked longingly over her shoulder at the hamburger vendor, and the reverend followed her gaze.

“Pigswill made by faithless sinners is not for you. Fresh bread and stew await.” He nodded decisively and strode from the rabble toward a single-cab pickup parked across the hay field. Evangeline scowled and followed.

Callie ultimately followed as well. She’d known even as they hopped over furrows and corn roots that Mrs. Temple would not have approved her decision to go with this strange pair. But she also knew her life no longer had anything to do with chocolate prizes or Easter gloves, and it sure as hell couldn’t involve half-eaten funnel cake dipped in germs.