Snake Oil on Snow Cones is a novel-length work I'm currently shopping to literary agents. The story is about Callie Wind who was adopted as a homeless teenager by a lecherous hell-fire minister and now harbors deep disdain for all things religious. Which is why she’s finding it nearly impossible to forgive her own daughter for becoming a television evangelist.
Callie runs a little amusement park and frequently argues with her dead father in the years her daughter is off getting famous. She’s so busy she fails to notice that her best friend may be a figment, or that an undocumented immigrant who works at the park is deeply in love with her. Now the prodigal daughter has returned with plans to build what is essentially a self-memorializing shrine smack in the middle of her mother’s property. Never mind that Callie’s employees will be evicted or that everything she has built and treasures will be destroyed. Callie must stand against her daughter’s checkbook and shady tactics, aided by her love-struck employee and the ethereal best friend. Ultimately, a mother’s joy, a daughter’s soul, and a good man’s heart all hinge on a question of long-overdue forgiveness.
Snake Oil on Snow Cones, is a darkly comic 89,000-word work of women’s fiction with elements of magical realism. The story is set in a southwest Texas amusement park over a thirty year period starting in the 1970’s. Snake Oil on Snow Cones will appeal to fans of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
The Reverend Enoch Sadler had been dead more than half Callie’s life, though they still argued from time to time. There was a certain ugly allure to it, like staring at a splattered armadillo in a rearview mirror or picking at a blackhead during geometry class. Thus, now and again, and especially in the years since her daughter left town, she’d visit him out in the barn.
Today Callie picnicked upon a bench seat she’d dragged from his Chevy pickup twenty years earlier so she’d always have a place to sit if a quarrel happened to break out. She was well aware the reverend—who also happened to be her adoptive father— would have considered wicked her impertinent sideways glances, the slow grind of her jaw as she chewed watermelon, and the relaxed space between her knees as she reclined on the seat. Indeed, the reverend’s embalmed stare seemed to convey his own scorn right back at her.
Between bites of her melon Callie leafed through an old catalogue and made occasional remarks to the reverend. Every few minutes her pet bull, BEEFO, softened her mood by affectionately sniffing the back of her head. She’d respond each time by stroking his glossy snout or wriggling a finger deep in his ear canals, resulting in moans and grunts of pure pleasure from the friendly giant.
“Ticket sales are down,” she said absently as she picked a seed out of the watermelon and gently shooed BEEFO from reaching over her shoulder to lick the bowl. “Just too humid for this early in the year.”
Callie flipped a page in the catalogue to the section on evening dresses, and it was here that she paused. It was a dress of a particular blue shade that held her gaze and caused her lips to part, a dress that she desperately wished didn’t mean so very much.
“Almost time to circle you around that damn cross again,” she murmured to the reverend. Callie finally glanced at him, loathing his pursed, bluish lips and an arched eyebrow he’d always reserved for the judgement of heathens.
She sighed and held the bowl over her shoulder for BEEFO to gulp, seeds and all.
After lunch, Callie ventured from the barn to stroll about her amusement park. It wasn’t long before she was joined on the path by her best friend and head chef, Toribio. The two ambled at an accustomed pace, the only communication coming from head nods to point out something of interest or a shared smile now and then.
Most of their walk was pleasant enough, but at one point they came upon one of the many unique challenges of their business, whereupon Callie did as she did hundreds of times daily. She delegated.
With a wry smile toward Toribio she pulled a walkie-talkie from the back pocket of her jeans and pressed the transmit button. “Cleft, there’s a paint job over by The Wigwam.” She then jammed the radio back into her pocket and moved on with Toribio, fully confident the matter would be handled.
Cleft Hawley was currently holding his head under a water fountain on the opposite end of the park, despite a line of children and parents waiting behind him. He shook his head upon standing, spraying those behind him before keying the two-way radio.
“Say again. The transmission cut out.”
In truth, Cleft just didn’t want to handle a “paint job” today. A “painting” meant another kid had just eaten a Cheesy Frontier Dog just before riding a roller coaster. Said child was likely now crying as a parent dabbed a messy little mouth. Most significantly, it meant somewhere by the Wigwam there was a steaming puddle Callie was insisting he go clean up.
Callie didn’t answer, not that Cleft was actually expecting her to. He thought about asking her to clarify once more, but he knew she’d make him scrape out the grease traps at The Wagon Wheel if he did. He set off for a little tool shed decorated to look like a beaver mound at the south end of the park.
All employees at New Frontier Fun Land wore some type of theme costume bearing remote ties to the American Frontier. Some wore buckskin and leather hats. Some wore cowboy outfits or settler skirts; a few wore Indian dress, generally with a mismatched and under-researched collage of as many as half a dozen different cultural tribes.
Not Cleft; Cleft wore brown Levi’s and a blue mechanic’s shirt with his name stenciled above the left pocket. Cleft rolled up the sleeves on his shirt to show off his upper arms, still blessed with the girth of an anaconda even twenty years after his last football game. His hair was thick and light with just a hint of red, and furrows in his face earned with time and sun added a rugged quality to his appearance. He was simply a large, striking man, someone female visitors noticed and male guests envied. Once upon a time he’d been a hero under football stadium lights, and once upon another time he’d been a lawman. Now…well now he was Head Maintenance Technician at the New Frontiers Funland Amusement Park, and he was reasonably accepting of that fact except, of course, for “painted” walkways.
Cleft nearly stepped on a glob of nacho cheese sauce on the path near the shed. He’d seen it two hours earlier—hadn’t cleaned it—waiting for Callie to tell him to. The cheese was still melted, a testament to the unseasonable heat burning the very oxygen from the amusement park. Cleft wondered for the thousandth time why anyone would torture their loved ones by bringing them to this hellhole lava pit to eat pig food, take rides monitored by high school dropouts on meth, and make paint spills for him to clean.
Cleft dragged the beaver mound tool shed door open and plowed the furrow under the door’s edge just a bit deeper. He had to duck under the frame to enter. Inside he filled a coffee can with cat litter and slung the flat-blade shovel and push broom over one shoulder. Finally, he hooked a bottle of antibacterial spray onto a belt loop before heading toward The Wigwam.
Cleft noticed that Frontier Keith, the park mascot statue, was missing his index finger again as he passed the ticket booth near the entrance. It had probably been broken off by one of the soldiers from nearby Ft. Klinston, many of whom were disappointed to learn that New Frontiers Funland was not, in fact, a brothel upon arriving on their first day of base liberty. Thus, Frontier Keith routinely required a new coon-skin cap tail and/or index finger. Cleft had gotten quite good at repairing the statue with a combination of duct tape, wood putty and Magic Marker.
All amusement parks have a smell, generally some mix of popcorn and cooking meats, caramelized sugar, body odor, chlorine and wet mops. New Frontiers Fun Land had all those smells, and added wafts of wet poultry, manure from grain fed cattle, and brackish ponds from nearby Salted Springs.
It was more carnival than amusement park, alley cat as to puma when compared to Six Flags, but it was also five hours closer and seventy percent cheaper for the locals and soldiers’ families. The rides creaked but most worked most days, and though the park was slightly shabby and weedy during the day, it held a romantic charm at night.
Cleft arrived at The Wigwam to find the “paint” cooking into the path. Families were busy avoiding the mess, pretending not to notice so their children wouldn’t call attention to it. One man barked at an eight-year-old who was about to blithely skip into it. Two teenage boys were laughing and pointing at it. Whatever child had created the mess was long gone.
Cleft eyed the puddle for a moment before going into action. He could smell it from ten feet away. The heat shimmers above it seemed as thick as stew.
Cleft always gagged at paint jobs, and no amount of practice, mentholated rub shoved up his nose, or clothes pins used to pinch off his nostrils had done much to change this over the years. It was all he could do to scoop, cover, and disinfect without losing his own lunch. Cleft knew that today’s temperature and the fact that he’d just eaten a “Pig in a Papoose” himself were a dangerous combination.
But Cleft also knew he would get it done. Finally he willed himself to take his traditional preparatory three deep breaths, walk forward and allow the shovel to slip off his shoulder as the opening attack on the spilled paint.
He was too concentrated on not retching to reflect about how significantly his life plan had changed.
Judge Richard Pastal hadn’t seen Sophie Wind since she’d roared out of Salted Springs eleven years earlier. She hadn’t been THE Sophie Wind back then, and he appeared nervous with flushed cheeks and a glisten on his forehead.
He’d worn his nicest felt western hat, a choice he usually reserved for election seasons. He wiped the brim as if giving it a good wax as he waited outside her dressing room for their meeting.
“Judge Pastal,” Sophie called to him from a makeup chair as her assistant opened the door. Pastal donned the hat, and then grabbed it back off his head as he entered.
“Hello, Sophie—Ms. Wind, or…”
“Sophie is fine, Judge,” she replied.
“Fine, fine. Thank you for seeing me.”
The room was suddenly quiet as Judge Pastal stared at the woman in slack-jawed testimony that Sophie had only grown more alluring since he last saw her. Certainly, if one looked too hard one might find a nose slightly too long, a chin quite pointed, or a rear-end flat as a legal pad. Yet, Sophie Wind was a woman desired in as many ways as a woman can be, beginning with the eyes, lagoon-blue much like her mother’s with lavender flecks that seemed to dance like flakes in a snow globe when she smiled. Actors, politicians, athletes, and just plain folk adored her, dreamed of her, invested in her—and it all started with those eyes.
“I only have a few minutes,” she told Judge Pastal as the man awkwardly sat in an overstuffed loveseat behind her. “I’m preparing for a Wind Gathering.”
“I heard,” he said. “I’ve looked forward to seeing you work your magic.”
He laughed, but she didn’t, and he glanced at the door as she glanced at her assistant. When he looked back at her, those eyes were staring at him from the reflection in her makeup mirror, demanding that he get to the damn point.
Sophie was already in her famous dress and matching satin pumps. All that was left was a little touch up on her makeup and she’d be out with her audience. Her assistant had allowed Judge Pastal eight minutes.
“Well, it’s like I was mentioning on the phone…”
“I seriously doubt I can help you, Judge,” said Sophie as the assistant applied a dab beneath her eyes.
Her voice held a slight Texas twang, just enough to delight a listener’s ear, though now it was imbued with a sense of authority and sophistication she’d learned and refined along her path.
“I have a real issue with going back to that place,” she said.
“It’s your home, and your home needs you,” he replied.
Pastal took full note when the assistant squinted at her watch. He changed his tack when Sophie didn’t answer.
“Sophie, it’s just so great to see you. I know you had no intention of ever coming back to Salted Springs, but I think you’ll agree this is important. We’ve lost out on so much, but this time I think it’s our turn.”
“That town had its opportunity forty years ago when it could have told Reverend Sadler to go to hell.”
“Cleft is still there, Sophie. I’m sure he’d like to see…
“Judge, I really have to…”
Another pivot. “It’s big, Sophie. It’s the biggest thing that’s ever come along to Salted Springs. Hell, it could be the biggest thing to ever happen in Texas.”
That gave her pause. She slowly swiveled in her chair and gave him two more minutes with a simple arch of an exquisite brow.
“They want to put a telescope up, Sophie. But not just any telescope. It’s three-hundred-ten inches…”
“Long or wide?” she asked with only a hint of amusement at his enthusiasm.
“I…I don’t know, but they say it’s one of the biggest of its kind.”
“Who are ‘they?’”
“NASA, University of Texas, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, Wal-Mart’s even kicking in. It’s huge!”
“Judge, what is it? What are you talking about?”
He punched his own thigh in frustration and mumbled, “Slow down, Richard,” before taking a deep breath and trying again.
“Some people came to meet with us, the county commissioners, just before the last regular public meeting. They call it…hold on,” and here he had to refer to a stack of documents he pulled from a brand new burgundy briefcase.
“They call it the Super Nuclear Activated Kinesis Extruder and it’s administered out of the Office of Internal Logistics. It will do so much more than look at space. The whole thing will be hooked up to a huge magnet, a semi-conductor. They’ll build an oval tube in the ground around all of Salted Springs, and the magnet in the tube will be so powerful it will be able to send beams of light from space, into the telescope, and send the light particles crashing into each other at the speed of light. They’re going to make a huge crash, Sophie.”
“So, it’s a weapon?”
“No” said Judge Pastal. “It’s absolutely not a weapon. I assure you…they assured me.”
“Oh,” said Sophie. “And what happens when all these things crash going so fast?”
“Everything. Anything, they say. They’ll be able to say what caused the universe to start, be able to make computers work even better, speed up travel, look backward in time, maybe even forward, and solve problems like…um, diseases and such. For goodness sakes, Sophie, if this thing works, they say there isn’t much they won’t be able to do with it. It’s amazing, and Salted Springs could be where it all happens.”
Sophie Wind was no fool. She had little faith in anyone or any agency being able to solve as many challenges as he’d described simply by crashing molecules into one another. But she was intrigued. Judge Pastal was a prolific businessman, but she’d never considered him a big dreamer. If he was this excited, perhaps all the agencies he’d mentioned really were interested in this project. And if that were true, it really was huge.
Sophie Wind liked huge, so when her assistant moved forward to remind her of her waiting audience she politely asked her to hold.
“What do they want?” she asked.
“Access to Salted Springs if we win.”
“Win? What are we supposed to win?”
“Salted Springs is one of a few locations in the United States that fit all their needs in terms of terrain, low smog levels, property values, and small population.”
“Will the residents have to leave?”
“Most of them, probably, or at least everyone in the trailer park. The telescope itself will go up right where Callie’s restaurant sits, and…”
Sophie laughed out loud at that.
“Ah, so I guess she wasn’t at that county commissioner’s meeting?”
“She was absent for that particular meeting.”
“Do you think you can get my mother to move?”
“Not so far,” conceded Judge Pastal.
“Which is why you want me? Judge, I don’t own the land. My mother does, and I bet a presidential decree wouldn’t make her budge without a fight.”
“No, no, no. A fight is the one thing we have to avoid. I want your help to sweet-talk your mother into putting Salted Springs on the map. The folks from the Office of Internal Logistics will be coming back in less than a month to check progress, support of the township, take soil samples, and such. If anybody can get this done, it’s you, Sophie.”
Sophie dabbed lipstick onto a napkin and stared off past Judge Pastal all the way back to Salted Springs. She considered the irony that it had to be the one place on Earth she’d planned to never revisit.
“It’s about legacy, Sophie. Great legacy. I…I don’t have one yet. I want one, and I need your help to do it.”
“Biggest telescope in the world, huh?” said Sophie, and Judge Pastal smiled.
Callie was but a teenager on her third day of homelessness the night she met the Reverend Enoch Sadler. Even then she was wise enough to know that the most menacing of carnival perils has always been other people’s germs—roller-coaster frames missing a few rivets and drunk ride operators notwithstanding.
“I could just tear off the parts that touched their mouth,” said Callie as she eyed a half-eaten funnel cake on a picnic table not six feet away. She spoke in whispers to four merrily decorated ponies tethered and waiting to be led into the ride tent for their evening trudge with sticky, mane-yanking children. Callie stood in shadows, rubbing muzzles, eyeing the pastry, deciding.
“Ya’ll are decorated so pretty,” she murmured as one of the ponies stomped a pixie-sized hoof painted emerald green.
“One time I won the ‘prettiest decorated cash register’ for a Valentine’s Day contest at the five-and-dime where I worked.”
Another pony tried to remove the red top-hat strapped between its ears by rubbing a tent post.
“Won a bar of chocolate,” she added, even as she ventured two tentative steps toward the picnic table.
“Stop that, wicked child,” hissed an elderly woman just as Callie finally reached for the pastry. Callie jerked her hand back in shame.
“Leave that poor girl be,” said an aged man who walked up beside the woman.
The old 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.
“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 the crone, who was rewarded with a gentle nod from the man before he turned abruptly toward a crowd of carnival-goers.
“Read your Bible,” snarled the old woman.
“Do unto others…stuff like that?” replied Callie. The woman scowled and seemed about to respond when the man called over his shoulder.
“A plague of sinners awaits!” he boomed. Callie thought he sounded delighted at this prospect. The man held a pious finger heavenward, blustering his way through arm-in-arm couples and roving bands of teens as if parting a sea on the will of God.
Callie felt momentary appreciation for the first kind words she’d heard in days, glimpsing just enough hope in the man’s faith and gumption to forgo the humiliating meal and follow.
The reverend was dressed entirely in black except for scuffed tan boots. He 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 corn dog vendor turned down his transistor radio out of respect.
“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 the old woman.
“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 who happened to be 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 the old woman. 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, took 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 the old woman 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!”
“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,” she 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 collected earlier.
“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.
The reverend stepped past her and smote the cowboy’s shoulder with his cane. The brawny youth scrambled 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. Enoch Sadler stared at her as a bearded albino lady and dwarfed lizard man strolled by arm in arm. The old woman cleared her throat as if to break his reverie.
“Enoch…reverend, we must be going,” said the old woman.
“But be ye doers of the word, and not just hearers, Evangeline,” 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, yet knowing the last few days of living meal-to-meal and makeshift beds had to end. Reverend Sadler 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 that night. She’d known even as they hopped over furrows and corn roots that she had no plan and that the decision to go with this strange pair was fraught. But she also knew that her life no longer had anything to do with chocolate prizes or painted ponies, and it sure as hell couldn’t involve half-eaten funnel cakes.
Before Toribio Lasoya left Mexico for the third and final time, he had never imagined working as a chef in a carnival or falling in love. Even on that day, as he panted broiling air just north of the Rio Grande and stared at a man who’d just tried to crush him with a roofless Chevy pickup, Toribio had no idea how significantly his life was about to change. The man was now crumpled under a large agave with a cactus thorn spiked through one cheek, bleeding here and there and floundering like an overturned tortoise.
“Oh gawdang…that is just…oh sombitch,” moaned the dazed man, barely comprehensible due to his impaled mouth and bloody nostrils.
Heat shimmered to the horizon, and Toribio reckoned they were at least four miles from water. He desperately wanted to head north toward the bus arranged to take him to a cook job in Austin, but leaving the man meant he would die.
In other parts of the world men were fighting in an Asian jungle, the Beatles were disbanding, and the U.S. was still high from winning the space race. Here, though, in this sweltering Texas canyon, the world consisted of two enemies and a sun that could destroy them both.
Thirty seconds earlier the wounded man had been steadily gaining on Toribio, despite the quarry’s jackrabbit-like scurrying. Toribio could hear Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring from an eight-track, and he was terrified the maniac would run him down at any moment.
The driver stood up in the open-air truck, joyfully whooping and ramping rabbit holes while yelling, “Get back across that river you wetback sombitch!”
Just then a locust crashed into the fanatic’s eyeball, resulting in a catastrophic loss of control. A frantic Toribio glanced back to see the man fly over the top of his windshield as the truck vaulted sideways off a red ant mound.
Toribio ran on for another fifty feet but then turned and took stock. The driver’s head was bleeding and his left leg was backward from the knee down. The truck’s radiator was leaking and the chassis was shaped like a Z. “Pioneer Days Carnival & Sideshows” was stenciled on the driver’s door, the logo now deeply creased.
Toribio sighed as he tore strips from a dirty shirt to make bandages. The fractured leg was a problem because there was no way he could carry the injured man for miles in the heat. The desert vegetation simply didn’t provide straight branches that would act as a splint.
Toribio finally spied a shotgun mounted in a rack in the truck.
“No!” said the man. His eyes grew wide as Toribio retrieved the gun, but then, “Oh,” upon realizing he planned to fashion a brace. Toribio ejected all the shells and knelt beside him.
“Ready?” he asked. The man nodded, and Toribio yanked the mangled leg straight.
The broken man grunted valiantly as Toribio aligned his leg with the gun stock. However, his grit turned to a profane run-on when the ad hoc medic yanked the cactus spike out of his face and shoved in a grimy sock to plug the hole.
“Sorry about my potty mouth,” muttered the man once Toribio helped him to a wobbly stand. “Been working on my cursin’, but that hurt worse than a goat head coming out a pecker.”
Toribio all but dragged the shuffling, grunting man through miles of dust devils, knowing with each step that his bus had not waited.
The radio in Reverend Enoch Sadler’s truck was tuned to a sermon being transmitted from Tulsa. Callie spent the ride wedged in the cab between the reverend and the sour woman, desperately wanting to reach forward and turn up the volume so she wouldn’t feel the need to fill the awkwardness. She’d made a decision to travel toward whereabouts unknown, and her knees were touching the legs of two people she’d just met. She was, to say the least, having doubts.
“Where’s your kin?” asked Reverend Sadler.
Callie’s eyes filled as she watched the passing fields and wished she had the courage to ask the reverend about where they were going. Reverend Sadler shifted gears and then used his right thumb to rub at a crack in the dashboard as if he could buff it right out. Evangeline sat as far to the right as the truck door allowed.
Callie remembered that “soybeans,” had always been her father’s answer to her question, “What are they growing?” She’d eventually come to realize that often-as-not he had no idea what was growing in the rows of fields they passed crisscrossing Texas on his sales trips. It became their private joke. It didn’t matter if the field was producing corn or cotton; her father would answer “soybeans,” and Callie would giggle before turning back to the mesmerizing miles of crops, oil pumps and windmills.
“My dad’s funeral was eight months ago,” Callie finally answered.
“God rest his soul,” said the reverend.
“God rest him,” agreed Evangeline, though she kept her gaze firmly on the passing fields.
“His wife took up with my manager from the Winn’s Five & Dime right before Easter,” Callie continued.
“And then he gave me a razor wrapped in a shoebox for my birthday. Told me it was ‘for shaving those sexy legs of mine.’”
“Lustful pagan,” murmured the reverend.
“And ever since my stepmom was mad at me every minute of the day.”
Reverend Sadler shook his head. Evangeline turned to give Callie a second look, and then returned her attention outside the truck.
“Last month my manager told me he had to let me go at the store. And then last week my stepmom told me ‘crazies aren’t welcome.’ That it was ‘time to hit the road.’”
Callie noticed a sign announcing their arrival in the township of Salted Springs, and a few minutes later they turned onto a dirt road. Evangeline lumbered out to open a cattle gate as their journey came to an end.
“Ma’am, I’d be happy to open that for you,” offered Callie. Evangeline ignored her and nearly slipped in a mud puddle trying to pull the rusty gate latch sideways.
“Sir, I can open that gate for your wife,” said Callie.
“Evangeline is not my bride,” he responded. “She is of my flock. And you are our guest.”
Evangeline was finally able to pull the gate open wide and allow the man to drive through. She tried gamely to scrape mud off her boots before climbing back into the cab, all the while refusing to even look at Callie or the reverend. Callie could not recall having ever felt so claustrophobic, and she began to consider springing from the truck and running out to a highway to thumb a ride if they stopped at another cattle gate. Moments later, however, some of her anxiety ebbed as she finally spotted the destination.
A wooden church and large wooden cross made up the center of a wagon-wheel layout of seventeen brown homes. A pond, a magnificent willow shading the church, and a robust community garden contributed a quaint appeal. Callie’s mouth tingled as she smelled baking bread.
“Welcome, child,” said Reverend Sadler.
“What are your plans?” asked Evangeline.
Callie had none.
“Thanks,” croaked the injured man when Toribio had finally deposited him in a wheelchair after their trek through the desert.
Toribio had drug the man to a small clinic between a Safeway and a Dairy Queen. Now he stood at the edge of the parking lot, wondering if he could survive another march through the sand and cactus.
It was just too hot. Toribio had no desire to see how the crazy driver would fare, but he didn’t have anywhere else to go until things cooled off. The waiting room was as good a place to wait until dark as any. At least there was air conditioning.
“May I help you?” asked a receptionist as he ventured back inside.
“I’m just going to wait in here for my friend.”
“He’s in X-Ray, but I’ll let you in to visit as soon as the doctor allows.”
Two hours passed. Toribio got up so often to drink from the fountain that the receptionist finally offered him a paper cup. He guiltily used the restroom, combed dust from a handlebar mustache reminiscent of Pancho Villa’s, and read a Sports Illustrated. He wished he had a little money so he could wander down to the Dairy Queen.
“You can go back and see him now,” said the receptionist finally.
Toribio felt the receptionist would be hurt if she knew he’d lied about being the patient’s friend. He also harbored concern that she’d call the law if she got suspicious. It seemed both polite and prudent to just go visit the patient.
Toribio found the injured man moaning with casts on one arm and one leg. His head was wrapped, as were his ribs. A doctor was suturing the hole in his cheek.
“Sir, can you tell me again how this happened?” asked the doctor. She posed the question as if she didn’t really believe the first version he’d told her.
“Was like I told you,” the injured man began, although because of the anesthetic and swelling it came out sounding like, “Duzz ike I dold ooh.”
The doctor nodded and looped the next stitch.
“Was chasing some Mexican who’d…um…attacked some women…trying to ravage them I’d guess. Was doing my best to bring him to justice when the bastard jumped out in front of me and made me wreck.”
The doctor looked over her shoulder at Toribio. The injured man followed her gaze.
“But that’s him!” blurted the man.
“Him?” said the doctor. “I thought he was the one who saved your life. The nurse said you two are friends.”
“Well…” replied the man.
The room went silent. The man looked away from Toribio and stared at the cast on his leg. Toribio nervously and inexplicably pulled a tongue depressor from a glass canister, realized he should not have, and shyly handed it over to the physician. Her gaze went back and forth between the men like a detective waiting for one of two crooks to fess up.
“Doesn’t add up,” she said finally. “I’ve warned you about this border guard nonsense before, Mr. Clanton.”
“Piss on a pinecone, Doc. He was invadin’ American soil. It’s my duty.”
“It isn’t your duty, and this is the fourth time I’ve put a cast on you or stitches in you in the last three months.”
“How bad was your truck wrecked?” she asked.
She turned to Toribio. “Sir, how badly was his truck wrecked?”
Toribio gave a sympathetic shrug.
“Well, back-flippin’-dog, doc! Whatcha asking him for?”
“Mr. Clanton, you need to find a new hobby. You’ve got liability in your blood.”
With that the doctor left the room.
“Don’t leave like that,” he yelled after her. “Ain’t either got whatcha-call-it liabil-ny in my blood.”
Toribio felt flat-footed. He wondered if he could now leave without hurting the receptionist’s feelings or raising suspicions.
“I ain’t never done no liba-linny in my life!”
The man looked at Toribio who shrugged again.
“Well, if that ain’t just an outhouse in the kitchen.”
Toribio nodded, if only to be agreeable. An awkward silence followed, during which the injured man stared at the X-rays of his fractures.
“She makes a good point, I guess,” said the injured man.
Toribio looked confused.
“That girl doctor. If I’m bein’ honest, gotta admit she makes a good point.”
Toribio nodded and slowly reached for the door handle.
“I mean, truth be told, you might have saved my life.”
Toribio shoved one hand in a pocket and scratched his neck with the other.
“Probably did,” the man acknowledged quietly. “Probably did.”
The man motioned toward the wheelchair in a corner. Toribio obligingly moved it closer to the bed.
“I called me a ride after I got out of the X-ray machine,” said the man, indicating a phone on a bedside table. “I best get out there. She sure as hell won’t wait on me very long.”
The man tried to get up, but the pain and casts forced him back to the bed. Toribio stepped forward to help him, and the two grunted and groaned until they had him back into the wheelchair.
Toribio wheeled the man outside where a red and white VW van bearing the same logo of Pioneer Days Carnival & Sideshows as the wrecked truck sat idling. A portly woman with a bored expression sat in the driver’s seat filing the longest fingernails Toribio had ever seen. She glanced with dramatic disdain at the injured man before returning to her filing.
“Can we give you a lift?” the injured man asked.
Toribio considered that this gringo was loco, but he looked out at the distance and realized he was still too exhausted to resume his journey on foot.
“I owe you one, mister,” the injured man conceded. “Truth is, I owe you big, and I’m real sorry for—for the way I treated you.”
The man extended his one good hand in apology.
Truly, a ride to anywhere sounded reasonable to Toribio. He nodded a yes and shook the man’s hand.
“This is Malga,” said the man as Toribio crawled into the side of the van. “And I’m Errol—Errol Clanton.”
Toribio nodded greetings to the severe-looking woman as she drove them away, and then he fell instantly asleep. He barely cared if they drove him to jail or back to the border. Thus, he was surprised to see he had arrived at an amusement park of some sort when he awoke later. The smells from the food vendors made his salivary glands hurt, and the colored lights reminded him of stars reflecting off the lake back home.
Errol handed him a five-dollar bill as he reached to shake Toribio’s hand again.
“I thank you for saving my life, not that I actually deserved it, I suppose.” he said. “I shouldn’t have done what I did. I just get to being stupid sometimes, mostly when I’m drinking alone. For that I’m real sorry.”
Okay,” replied Toribio.
“You working?” asked Errol. His question was punctuated by a chirping bell announcing a prize-winner on the midway somewhere behind him.
“Missed my ride.”
“Well, I know what a kick in the peanuts that can be. You’re welcome to jump on board here if you like. The pay’s not much, but the food’s free and we travel all across the country. If not, good luck to you.”
Malga wheeled Errol toward an entrance marked “Employees Only,” and Errol waved over his shoulder as the door shut behind them. A plaster statue of an American-style mountain man propped next to the ticket booth entrance seemed to beckon for Toribio to enter.
“Ironía,” Toribio muttered as he finger-combed his hair and walked through the entrance to begin the next part of his life.
Toribio celebrated his arrival at the carnival with two hot dogs and a Dr. Pepper. His five dollar reward gone, and his appetite tamed, he went in search of the man who’d of late tried to destroy him but had more recently invited him to stay. He found Errol thirty minutes later sitting in a tiny clown car with the casted leg hanging from the passenger window and his head poking out the driver’s side. A short job interview commenced.
“Can you cook?” slurred Errol as he took a long pull from a label-less bottle of brown liquor.
“Yes,” replied Toribio.
“I gotta do something with Malga. She’s got no will power. Eating two hamburgers out of every three she cooks.”
Errol glanced around as if worried Malga might overhear his plans. “Maybe put her in the Buckskin Fine Apparel Outlet. They could use some lifting help over there.”
Toribio raised an eyebrow and nodded his head in acknowledgement that Malga would, indeed, be an asset to any team needing help lifting things.
“Anyway, you’re hired,” said Errol as he took another slug and the two shook hands for the third time that day. Toribio felt relieved that he’d secured temporary employment to hold him over until he could arrange a new bus.
“Come on, I’ll show you around,” said his new boss.
Errol took off in the little car without looking to see if Toribio followed. Toribio was forced into a fast walk-skip-walk to keep up as Errol drove and drank merrily along.
“I used to be a sideshow attraction before I got into untrepiner-n’,” he yelled out to Toribio over the whine of the tiny, un-baffled clown car engine. Carnival employees stepped off the path as he careened along. None of them was surprised. Customers were also forced to move, but most laughed and seemed to think it all part of the ambiance.
“The World’s Thinnest Man, Husband to the World’s Fattest Woman.” Errol nodded sagely, evidently remembering the fine times.
“I married up real good.” He smirked and used the fingers on his bottle-holding hand to make air quotes as he told the story. “At least until my wife had what she called a ‘stomach stapler thingy’ during a ‘vacation’ to Florida.”
Toribio was momentarily distracted by a man on stilts blowing fire from his mouth, but Errol didn’t even seem to notice.
“Shrank to a size fourteen in six months,” Errol said morosely before taking another pull from the bottle.
Toribio dodged a cotton candy cart pulling into his path. He nodded a hello to Malga who was sweeping the entryway for a tent boasting pictures of an all-seeing eye and a crystal ball.
“Mind the pony droppings,” Errol yelled out, suddenly cheerful again. He turned the car sharply and circled the droppings twice while using the bottom of his bottle to point it out to Malga. Toribio thought she might attack him with her broom.
“Anyway, I started eating to swallow my depression,” Errol continued. “One day me and the little woman was standing there being not real skinny and not real fat. This kid points at my belly and yells to his mother, “Look mommy, his wife made him pregnant like daddy made you pregnant.”
Errol stopped the car to stare out over the hood as if reliving that nightmarish moment.
“Heard she was in nursin’-assistant school.”
Toribio noted that Errol still had the belly, though his arms were as thin as kitchen chair legs. He was balding on top, but his hair fell down past his shoulder blades forcing him to tie it back with a brown bandana.
“Left me all this in the divorce, though,” Errol said brightening once again. Toribio suddenly understood that “all this” meant the carnival.
The two had halted next to the King Ranch Lariat Game in which contestants were given three small hoops of thin rope in exchange for fifty cents. A few customers were tossing the “lariats” toward rows of fake cattle horns, trying to win an assortment of prizes.
Dusk had descended, and colorful lights came on.
“I love to look at the carousel at night,” said Errol, who seemed to brighten even as did the lights.
Toribio was reminded of a fiesta back home.
“I despise going into that town,” said Evangeline the morning after Callie had ridden with her and Reverend Sadler into the little community of Salted Springs. Evangeline had seemed furious with Enoch Sadler’s suggestion that she take Callie to buy new clothes. Callie stood on a wooden porch off to the side as Evangeline and Reverend Sadler discussed who would take her into the despicable town, neither seeming to notice or care that she was standing well within earshot.
“I will take her,” Reverend Sadler said as if volunteering for a dangerous mission behind enemy lines.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Enoch. She’ll need lady items.”
That settled it, and Callie soon found herself back in the old pickup truck with the taciturn Evangeline. She suspected the old woman was taking her to some distant place to abandon her.
The morning went uncomfortably. Evangeline purchased Callie two dresses, both tan and ankle length, a comb, toothbrush and undergarments, and a pocket Bible which Evangeline insisted Callie carry at all times. At mid-morning they visited a diner where the older woman ordered one egg and one piece of toast, which she split in half and shared. Callie was allowed her own glass of water. Following the silent meal the two climbed back in the truck to head home, but were blocked from leaving the parking lot by a column of colorful trailers from the Pioneer Days Carnival & Sideshows.
“You’d think one of these heathens would have the manners to let us out,” said Evangeline. The line of trailers seemed to go on for blocks. And then, as if Evangeline’s words had made it happen, one of the trucks slowed to allow them through.
It was Toribio of all people who motioned them through from a truck hauling four ride cars and a gear box for the Tilt-A-Whirl ride. Callie had no way of knowing Toribio’s name then, but what both she and Evangeline could clearly discern was the man’s jaw-dropped awe of the beautiful girl sitting in the passenger seat. Callie met his gaze, and then looked away quickly; though not before noticing the man’s kind eyes.
“Womanizing hobo,” muttered Evangeline as she worked against a sticky clutch to drive through the gap Toribio had created.
Reverend Enoch Sadler assembled his congregation for a special service a week to the day after Callie’s arrival in his community. Evangeline had stood with arms folded and lips pursed as she listened to his fiery oratory. It had rained just a few minutes earlier, and the resultant mud and humidity seemed only to add to her irritation.
“…and as we’ve read,” Enoch preached from the front steps of his church, “God will strike down and condemn to the fires of hell all infidels, journalists…”
“Enoch wants you to go stand on that step below him,” Evangeline whispered to a bewildered Callie.
“… actors—except, of course, for Nativity scene and Civil War re-enactors—and anyone unduly afflicted with any of the seven deadly sins.”
“…particularly lust and sloth.”
“Get on up there, child,” insisted Evangeline.
“They are destined to an eternity bereft of salvation, spent burning over and over again, their flesh continually boiling away, only to re-grow and begin to burn again.”
Callie scratched her nape and imagined flesh boiling.
“Demons will ravage them with cat wicks the girth of a tree branch, and other condemned will scratch out their eyes and bite their flesh.”
“Oh my,” whispered Callie.
“Satan will eat the most savory delicacies in front of the condemned, drink of the coldest streams as screams stifle in their scorched throats, mocking them for having neglected to accept the Lord as their Savior.”
“Amen,” answered many.
“We must save them, my children, those who had once been left out of the kingdom of heaven, especially when it is through no fault of their own. We must bring them into the flock and save them from eternal torture.”
“Callie-child, step forward,” Reverend Sadler said. He held out his hand to her. She looked up at him and then out into the crowd, mortified that she was suddenly the center of attention.
“Come,” he said again, and she was compelled to ascend the two porch steps to be at his side.
“This heathen child of God—we’ll not turn her away as did her family.”
“Oh my…” said Evangeline. Enoch lay hands upon Callie’s head.
“Let it be known to all men and be heard by the Heavenly Ghost…”
“It’s not right…” Evangeline said under her breath.
“…that henceforth this sinful waif is to be known as my daughter and heir…”
“No, no, no,” whispered Evangeline…
“…for Callie is to be saved from the hell pit for which she was otherwise doomed!”
“What?” asked Callie. “I mean…what?”
“There is His sign that what we do this evening is glorious!” screeched Reverend Sadler. His flock followed his finger pointed toward the sky behind them. Murmurs and gasps rose from the crowd as all beheld a rainbow arcing over the horizon.
“God’s promise is a blessing on this deed,” the old minister croaked as he looked into the face of his new daughter.
Callie flashed to a memory when she asked her father what God’s face looked like. He’d smiled while pointing at a sunset. Now she looked out at the applause and listened to halleluiahs from the little crowd. She noticed with dread the terse expression of Evangeline. She also noted the face of Enoch Sadler, with his maniacal eyebrows and his teeth the palette of river pebbles.
Callie turned toward the brilliant hues formed from the rainbow and setting sun, hoping like hell that her father had been right.
Life was good for Toribio during the traveling carnival days, long before he and Callie ever met, and even longer before he’d ever considered giving up a dream of travel. Errol taught him how to do maintenance on the rides, and Toribio also learned how to work the many contests on the midway. Errol seemed appreciative that Toribio was charming and funny around customers, and Toribio was grateful for the opportunities he was afforded.
Over an eighteen month period the carnival took Toribio to small towns throughout Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. He loved watching the terrain transform from one region to the next, and he realized that he was finally getting to live his fantasy.
For Toribio had not left Mexico for the sole purpose of finding work in America. He dreamed the dream of a wanderer, wanting to see all the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. One normally does not associate undocumented immigrants with leisurely travel, but Toribio Lasoya had seen much of this world already. He’d stowed away on a cruise ship once and had traveled through Greece, Turkey and southern Italy. He’d made friends with a long haul trucker who took him straight north from Brownsville up through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and both Dakotas, though he hopped off just before the Canadian border. He’d hiked California and worked as a bike messenger in San Francisco, posed as a Navajo to sell turquoise in New Mexico, pumped gas and changed tires in New Orleans, and toiled on a shrimp boat in Corpus Christi.
South America had never presented an obstacle for him. His Portuguese was passable in Brazil, and he was almost certain he’d venture back to Venezuela where he’d worked for nearly two years as a firefighter. The only place crossed off the list was Chile. It was there he’d possibly fathered a child before being chased away at shotgun point by the woman’s brothers. For the last few years, though, he’d been satisfied traveling, meeting new people, and painting what he saw.
Toribio’s art was extraordinary and hung in various places of honor including two multi-million dollar homes and a Manhattan art dealership where his true identity was a source of bewilderment. One of his portraits hung in the home of a Major in the Mexican army who had taken a fancy to both Toribio and his art. Toribio was able to beg off any more pressing advances by making a gift of the painting he’d done of the Major in full uniform. He’d deserted the army the very same night.
On this day the troupe drove into a valley deep in the Ozark Mountains. The narrow highway meandered under trees on both sides with branches above forming a lush tunnel all about them. Free food, free travel, and amusing people all about him; Toribio felt happy imagining that he’d never stop.
“You have failed me as a daughter,” Reverend Sadler decreed one sweltering afternoon as Callie massaged his feet under the willow. He’d caught her casting longing glances toward the coolness of the pond, and his irritation spewed out as her kneading slowed and sapped. It had been a hard year-and-a-half since the adoption, and she had no desire to make it harder this day.
“I’m sorry, Father,” she replied, forcing her attention back to his bunions and pressing his heels with every muscle in her grip.
“What must I do to rid you of your wicked and lustful thoughts?” he demanded.
“No, sir, I wasn’t thinking sinfully. I was merely admiring the water, and…”
“How dare you correct your father? Do you think I don’t see your desires? Do you think God can’t see your aching desire to return to your sinful ways?”
“No, sir. I know you see my soul, but please don’t thrash me…”
“Heathen! Make bare your hip this very moment so as to purge your heathen-ness in baring yourself as Eve had been bare to God.”
A thrashing came, this time from a frayed riding crop applied smartly to her right hip. She sobbed and begged forgiveness and accepted that this was her life. Struggles and indignities? Of course, but most days she was able to find some peace in the hardship of this mortal life, having learned that she was earning an eternal life of bliss.
Thus it was with puzzlement when Callie began noticing certain un-pious behaviors in her adoptive father. They were small issues at first: catching a lustful smile when another man’s wife bent from the waist; purchasing a gold-plated crucifix to replace his handmade wooden one; taking the Lord’s name in vain when one of the milk cows kicked his hip.
Most concerning, however, was the fact that her whippings seemed to come more frequently and for increasingly unjust reasons. This was especially confusing in that she was the only “child” in the community who ever seemed to incur his wrath or warrant his patriarchal attention.
And then one day it all became painfully, poignantly clear.
“Sinful,” he would later call her act of walking into his bedroom. But there she saw him, his pants at mid-calf. He was gazing at a Polaroid of her wading in the pond with her skirt hiked to her thighs. Reverend Sadler didn’t see her at first, his lids half closed as he whispered, “God be praised,” over and over.
Enoch startled at Callie’s tiny sob. He toppled his chair and spilled his seed all at once which, at least in Callie’s memory, hissed and steamed as it burned a hole through the dusty floorboards straight down to hell.
Callie had expected to be chastised, but neither spoke as she walked back out of the room and went to cry in the vegetable garden.
Reverend Sadler retreated to his barn for three hours the following day. He took a pitcher of water and half a loaf of bread in with him. The congregants milled about and cast curious glances during their chores. Even Callie wondered what the old man was up to in there. They could hear him banging and sawing, but no one could guess.
Reverend Sadler fell prostrate on the hay-covered floor midway through the morning. Three cows non-judgmentally chewed their cud, though several hens clucked in reproving tones at the man’s grovel.
“Lord, I cannot look upon her face without feeling at once alive and woeful.”
He grasped at straw and mournfully rubbed handfuls over his face and neck.
“Please, I beg You, allow this toil, this toiling mindfulness of You, to rid me of this cursed covet.”
He finally emerged just before noon wearing a torn woolen robe and leather sandals. He shouldered a crucifix well over twice his body length and so wide at the cross that he was standing on his toes to keep the lower edge out of the dust.
This was unfortunate, for when he took his first, triumphant step the lower edge of the cross dipped back down into the dirt causing him to lurch forward as the cross braked to an immediate halt. Everyone who was outside at the time stood in awed silence.
Enoch pivoted the cross back into the barn, and there he took up his handsaw once again and lopped off six inches from the lower end. Evidently choosing to overlook the imbalance he’d just created, Reverend Sadler once again hoisted the crux over his shoulder.
“What are you doing, pastor?” asked one of the braver congregants.
“I am a sinner,” announced the reverend. “And as such, I must cleanse my soul. This march will commence from the center of my sin, and will only finish when I’ve arrived at the bend in the river where we undertake summer baptisms. Once there, I shall ritually cleanse myself of my own lustful thoughts by immersing once more into those holy waters.”
“But, reverend, that part of the river’s over a mile away.”
Enoch Sadler smiled sagely.
“I shall succeed in this pilgrimage, for God gives me the strength of ten men,” he announced prophetically.
With that he resumed his trek to the river. His beginning strides conveyed an image of strong, heroic leader for his flock. Within fifty feet, however, his breath was coming in gulps. Ten yards later he stumbled.
Enoch panted and stared off in the direction of the river as all eyes watched. Callie smirked behind a gardening glove.
“We are all sinners,” he announced once his breath had returned. “You—me—all of us.”
“I know my sins,” he said, growing more confident. “Have you acknowledged your own?”
He stared at them one by one, demanding with his glare that they confront their sins.
“The river beckons. We shall each shoulder this cross as did our Savior, handing it off in turn to the next sinner until we reach our destination and once again wash the sin from our souls.”
Murmurs and sideways glances indicated no one understood exactly what he was asking of them.
He grimaced in frustration and tried again. “We’re all going to take turns carrying this down to the river. Everybody is going to get baptized again once we get there.”
Everyone nodded, although no one appeared terribly keen on the idea.
“It’s over a hundred degrees,” called out one.
“Not even a Sunday,” said another.
“Everyone participates” declared Reverend Sadler. “I’ve already taken my turn, so who is next? Callie-girl; you certainly carry the burden of many sins. Let us start with you.”
The Reverend Enoch Sadler and Callie tried very hard to avoid each other thereafter in a community with a population of eighty-seven. Callie often found herself looking out past the limits of the little community, beyond the road that had brought her to this place, horizon-wishing with every passing moment.
The little enclave of Reverend Sadler’s founding was intended to be an “oasis of propriety and decency in a desert of sin and debauchery.” Contact with the adjacent town of Salted Springs was limited. Once a month Enoch Sadler allowed trading of their produce for Salted Springs’ mercantile goods. The barters occurred from pickup trucks backed tail-bed to tail-bed at the town limit line. Reverend Sadler and his followers lived on their own harvests, ignored all media, and traveled nowhere on vacations.
Though it could be said that the women of the congregation were somewhat lacking in grace, independence, and life skills, it could just as easily be said that the men who came to court them were homely, disabled and stupid. To refer to most men from Reverend Sadler’s flock as strongest or smartest was analogous to awarding a trophy for “Guy with Most Skin” in a leper colony.
Sundays and Wednesdays were devoted to worship. The other five days of the week were spent working around the house and garden, tending to the brood of children from the congregation, and praying at every opportunity.
Which all served to bore Callie terribly. She wanted to be “good.” Good as defined by Evangeline, which meant nothing colorful or entertaining was allowed; good as defined by Enoch, which meant even her thoughts were a source of sin. Part of her felt she owed these people too much to stray from their beliefs; the other part felt like a lassoed mustang.
Callie found herself doing things she hadn’t even thought about in a long time. She actually flipped through the pages of a Sears & Roebucks in the waiting room of a doctor’s office in Uvalde when one of the children from the congregation had his tonsils removed. She often lapsed into thoughts of pretty hats and heeled shoes. One night she had a dream in which a former beau from high school pleasantly ravaged her, a sin so startling she awoke and immediately rose to shower.
Callie first met Angela a few nights after the dream while taking nine children from the community to play by the pond.
“Hello,” said Angela, a pretty girl with dirty-blonde hair. Angela wore a light yellow cotton skirt which didn’t even cover her knees. Daisies and a purple feather adorned her hair, and hoop earrings dangled halfway down her neck. Angela seemed to skip everywhere and laugh at everything. She always seemed to arrive from whereabouts unknown within minutes of Callie’s arrival with the children.
Angela became the first real friend Callie had had since her days at the Winn’s Five & Dime. Callie wasn’t close to any women in the church. She’d yet to speak on any subject other than fall canning, God’s grace, or proper colors for linens to be used in dressmaking since the night she met Enoch and Evangeline.
One afternoon Angela and Callie laughed at the children spinning to get dizzy-drunk in a patch of clover.
“I brought you something,” said Angela as the children fell down giggling.
“Boys, please don’t take Jeremiah’s frog,” Callie called out to a few of the boys. She turned to see that Angela had produced a Sears & Roebucks catalogue. The catalogue was over two years old and had blue-ink scribbles on some of the pages.
“I was reading one just the other day,” she informed Angela in amazement. “It even had blue scribbles in it, just like this one.”
Time with Angela became the most hopeful part of Callie’s life. She daydreamed of visits with her while hanging laundry or weeding. Callie became flushed on days when she could take the herd of children on a walk around the pond. She often pushed the limits of acceptable time away from the congregation to eke out just a few more minutes with her friend. One magnificent day she kicked off her shoes to mimic Angela, and they ran together through a meadow while the surprised children watched.
Callie could only peruse the gowns and perfumes advertised in her catalogue on Wednesday nights. Wednesdays and Sundays were the only nights Enoch ever went to sleep early. Sermons tended to exhaust him.
She couldn’t, however, bring herself to look at the catalogue on Sundays. She just couldn’t. So she waited for Wednesdays with great anticipation, her breath quickening in anticipation of the moment when she would sneak out to the barn and flip through the pages. Her pulse quickened as if meeting an illicit lover out in that barn, but it was just a moisture-cracked catalogue that made Callie feel so happy.
One night, Evangeline told Reverend Sadler about Callie’s Wednesday night trips to the barn. Evangeline suspected Callie was meeting a man. Reverend Sadler snuck into the barn undetected and watched as Callie’s lips grew rosier with each flip of the page. He grew agitated as her hand gently stroked her own cheek. Finally he could stand it no more.
“Harlot,” he bellowed as he jumped from cover behind the compost bin. He ripped the magazine from her fingers and shoved her into a pile of hay.
“What are you doing?” Callie cried as Reverend Sadler used her candle to ignite the catalogue.
Callie saw it then, that look she’d seen in her stepmother’s boyfriend. Reverend Sadler’s eyes were locked onto her, almost as if he were looking through her whole body. His neck reddened and his breathing intensified. His hands gripped and released. He grunted like a rutting stag.
Callie frantically looked around for something heavy she’d use to strike him when he advanced. Her friend Angela was nowhere to be seen.
“Enoch, you’ll stop this now,” Evangeline said from the barn door. Reverend Sadler jerked as if startled from hypnosis. He looked over his shoulder at Evangeline and back to Callie.
“Stay there on the ground with the animals, because you’re acting like a heathen animal,” he growled.
“What gives you the right?” screamed Callie.
“How dare you ask that,” Reverend Sadler yelled back. “God gives me the right in all things, you wanton child! I am your father, and His commandment is that you honor me.”
He left her there in enveloping darkness as Evangeline indignantly marched him back to the house. Callie pulled handfuls of straw to hide her neck and face, just as she’d once hidden under the blanket as her father rid her room of all things scary.
“He wants me,” Callie whispered.
“He does,” replied Angela who sat serenely on a log bench. Callie paced beside the pond.
“I have to leave.”
Angela’s fingers were stained pink from pomegranate pulp, and she offered a handful to Callie with one of her glorious smiles.
Callie had a way of looking sideways from dark-blue eyes. It was a look of too many unsure days, despite being barely old enough to vote.
“I don’t know. It was so scary before, and…”
“I brought you something!” Angela said so sprightly that Callie tittered.
Angela spent a moment searching the pockets of her blouse and jeans before remembering a small bag on the ground behind her.
“Here it is!” she announced as she handed the bag to Callie.
“Money?” said Callie as she peeked in the bag.
“Ninety-four dollars; enough for a bus ticket and a motel for a night or two.”
“Oh, Angela, I…”
“There’s a little makeup kit in there, too. We’ll need to get you fixed up a bit before you go.”
“But, I can’t…”
“Oh goodness, sweetie, you have to. I also got you this.”
Angela produced a slightly charred Sears and Roebucks catalogue. “Saved it from burning all the way to ash. I know how much you like it.”
Callie cried and gave her friend a hug so tight she worried she might break her. When they separated, Angela wiped away Callie’s tears and the two laughed out loud.
“Let’s see how pretty we can make you today.”
Angela gave Callie a little makeover right there on the log bench next to the pond. She wove daisies into Callie’s pony tail, explaining that this was what one did on May Day. All the while she told stories about dancing around May Poles in Europe and of her great loves and her life’s joys.
Callie shyly peeked in the compact mirror after Angela finished. She saw for the first time since her father died that she was lovely. She saw other things, too. Callie realized with a tiny gulp that she really was leaving. She saw that she had no means or real skill in this world, but that she would be able to find a way without selling herself or giving in to a hypocrite.
With that realization, Callie squared her shoulders and walked to noon service to pick a fight.
Things took a scary turn for Toribio in his second autumn with Errol’s carnival. It all happened as the troupe was setting up for a three-day peach festival near Fredericksburg, Texas. Toribio was enjoying the cooler weather and looking forward to the jubilee. The day was perfect for the labor of setting up the cables, tents and rides, and he was in fine spirits.
One of the newer workers, a wiry fellow by the name of So-So who sported a mullet haircut and multiple homemade tattoos was the cause of the drama to come. Toribio hadn’t particularly trusted So-So, but Errol hired him based on the man’s experience.
“He’s like a bone-in-fied electrician,” said Errol in defense of his new hire. “Says on his application he’s installed drive-up malt shop menus…and even a neon sign for Stuckey’s!”
“But…” began Toribio.
“Look, you can’t get that kind of electrical-ness savvy just anywhere, amigo, but here he is working for us now.”
Toribio held his opinion, bleakly sure that So-So would likely show his true colors at some point. It took less than a week.
“Picked her up in town last night,” said a hung-over but otherwise giddy So-So to Errol and Toribio on his first Saturday morning as part of the carnival crew. The three of them stared at a cherry-red Corvair So-So had driven onto the lot just a few minutes earlier.
“Where were you last night?” demanded Errol.
“Told you. Walked into town and had me a time. Whoodog what a time! Hotties, tequila, and got myself this here little present for myself.”
“Well, I hope you ain’t too hung over, ‘cause you’ve got around thirty burned out bulbs to replace all over the show. Best get on it.”
“Yes, sir, boss-man,” said So-So.
“Best cram that sarcastic tone back down your throat before I shove it up your butt-crack,” warned Errol. He seemed to be regretting his hiring decision.
So-So bristled but turned to his duties. Toribio squinted inside the Corvair to see if the ignition key hole looked damaged.
“Whoodog time, my butt,” muttered Errol.
Two sheriff deputies arrived just before lunch, and it took them all of thirty seconds to spot the Corvair in the gravel parking lot.
“Who owns this car?” asked one of the deputies of Toribio. Toribio was using every ounce of discipline to keep from running from two uniformed lawmen. He very much wanted to cooperate. With no ado he gave a head-nod in the direction of So-So who was ratcheting a cable line taut over by the kiddie rides. The two officers thanked him and began making their ominous way toward their suspect.
So-So saw them thirty feet out, and they gained another five steps as he jumped from the line and stumbled in a mad dash to get away. He was in handcuffs in less time than it took Malga to finish a hot dog.
So-So didn’t go peacefully. He kicked, dragged his knees, and said awful things about the lawmen’s mothers.
“I just borrowed it!” he screamed. “Why don’t you go fight some real crime instead of picking on the working man?”
The deputies remained professional and knew nothing but trouble would come from answering.
“There’s one right there!” So-So yelled and pointed with his nose and toes in Toribio’s direction. “He’s as illegal as they come. No papers or nothing. How come you ain’t going after the real criminal around here?”
The deputies paused and looked back over their shoulders at Toribio, who once more felt like running. He smiled awkwardly and shook his head.
“This fellows as legal as they come, officers,” said Errol who stepped between the deputies and Toribio. “He’s straight up American, like purple waving grain, sea to shiny sea kind of American. Don’t you let that catfish-hemorrhoid fool you.”
Errol’s kind gesture might still not have saved Toribio from a mad dash or a resigned trip back to the border. It was evident that the two deputies were considering their next move, but So-So made up their minds for them when he kicked the shin of the officer on his left.
Which is when the full attention of the two lawmen was re-directed back on the man they’d come to find in the first place. So-So was wrestled into the police car, and all thoughts of running an identity check on Toribio were forgotten. Errol and Toribio could hear So-So screaming profanities as the police car drove away in a trail of white dust.
“Thanks,” said Toribio.
“I still owe you,” said Errol in all sincerity. “Guess I always will.”
“May Day,” sneered Reverend Enoch Sadler from his wooden box. This was still during a time when his congregation listened raptly to all he had to say.
“Right now in the world there are those celebrating spring with music…merry-making…sinful foolishness. But not here! In this community we strive for reverence. Grave, grave reverence.”
Reverend Sadler paused to look out on his flock. Satisfied with their level of gravity, he launched into his sermon.
“We read in Hebrews 11:30 that Joshua planned to assault the Canaanites with sword and fire, but that God told him to trust in a different tactic. Amen!”
“Amen!” answered Evangeline. Others in the congregation answered as well, though Evangeline was by far the most animated.
Reverend Sadler raised a hand scythe used for cutting corn stalks at the word “sword.” The congregants stood nearly motionless, as if mired in spiritual spackle.
“God told Joshua that the walls of Jericho would come tumbling down and lay open the land He had promised. But only if they were to march around the solid walls whilst blowing upon their mighty ram horns. God be praised!”
“Hallelujah!” shouted Evangeline. Her voice warbled from the passion of a Holy Spirit passing through her bony frame.
“Today we use our horns to tumble the walls of Satan,” continued the reverend. “This is a blessed thing we do. For Satan is here! Make no mistake. He is here to tempt us, to lead us from Salvation and directly into his sin-infested heart.”
The reverend handed the scythe to Evangeline so he could descend from his pulpit to stand amongst his followers.
“So we take up the horn and march against the leftist circle of Satan, against the hedonism of pagan rituals. We move as the hands of the clock, as did Joshua and his mighty army moved. Every step of every circuit of every day brings us that much closer to the right hand of God. Amen!”
With that he blew a kazoo-like note on a hollowed-out deer antler to begin the march, which was about the same moment Callie arrived.
“Be brave,” encouraged Angela who was standing just behind Callie.
Reverend Sadler stepped out of the vanguard as if to meet the challenge. The others turned to stare, evidently astonished at Callie’s makeup.
“Keep marching,” admonished Evangeline to trudging congregants who had slowed to watch the show. The pace picked back up, though all eyes shifted hard to the right. Soon Enoch and Callie glared at one another inside a circling, gawking herd.
Callie’s daisy-laced hair was pulled back into a chestnut ponytail. A few strands had slipped out of the rubber band to fall across one of her eyes. The scowl left Reverend Sadler’s face. He seemed to soften for just a moment, as if he might forgive her.
But he didn’t.
“Harlot!” he cried.
For several seconds, Callie almost allowed herself to be cowed. She could still wipe off the makeup, still apologize for her behavior, still smile.
But she didn’t.
It wasn’t Enoch Sadler’s bullying and hypocrisy that bolstered her resolve, but his thumb-length nose punctuated with a burgundy mole just left of the tip. She hated that mole. She’d fantasized many times about snipping it off with garden shears, and within the darkened bubble of that thought, she committed.
One of the women tittered and was shushed.
“Vex your tongue, you misbehaving ingrate!” yelled Evangeline.
“Shut up, you old biddy,” Callie shouted back.
For several moments the only sound was Enoch’s heavy breathing and the shuffling of the congregant’s feet around the cross. Callie began marching around the cross as wellonly counter clockwiseto a chorus of gasps from the group and a growl of rage from Enoch.
“You were a sinful harlot when I found you, and you will always be a harlot,” he cried.
“What does it say about you that you pleasure yourself from pictures of your own daughter?” she demanded back.
“His adopted daughter!” shrieked Evangeline.
Enoch stomped the ground until the heel popped off one of his boots.
“Go cut me a switch! Cut it as a whip and make bare your hip so that all can see how trollops are to be treated!”
Callie did just that. She marched right up to the old willow tree near the cross. She cut Enoch’s switch, and then she cut one for herself as well.
“The sermon is over and the lesson hath begun,” Reverend Sadler announced triumphantly.
“You don’t have to do this,” Angela said to Callie. “You could just leave.”
“He deserves a whipping,” said Callie.
“Don’t take him a switch, then. Just swat him and run.”
“He was decent enough to feed me when I was hungry. Now I’m disgracing him.” She paused as if momentarily considering Angela’s suggestion, but then, “He gets his own switch.”
“Mend her wicked ways once and for all, Enoch,” screeched Evangeline.
“I shall, sister. I shall.”
Enoch had taken off his jacket and was rolling up his sleeves as Callie returned. He tilted his head and knitted his brow when he spied the two switches, and his face turned ginger as he took one from her. He hesitated, seeing she had pulled her whip back behind her shoulder.
Enoch came down with the switch, catching her on the left hip.
Callie retaliated by lashing him across the neck.
A general moan rippled through the congregation.
“You ungrateful…” started Evangeline, who was so appalled she couldn’t finish the sentence. Callie didn’t answer her, waiting in a fencer’s stance for the next thrust from Enoch.
Enoch’s face turned Passover blood red, and he delivered a series of lashes to her buttocks, torso and shoulders. She matched him stroke for stroke. The two fought a vicious duel across the front lawn, down into the pond, through the hanging linen, around a water hand-pump, and back up onto the grassy mound where the old wooden cross was planted.
Both grew weary, and the action paused. For several seconds the combatants just panted and stared at one another. Finally Enoch threw down his switch at the foot of the cross and pointed a gnarled finger at Callie’s face.
“I am God’s messenger. What you have done to me this day, you have done unto Him.”
“You’ve damned yourself, harlot,” said Evangeline.
“Indeed,” said Enoch. “I condemn thee straight to hell!”
Callie replied by whacking him once more across the face.
“Cut two switches and be ready when I get there, you son of a bitch.”
And with that, Callie collected her Sears and Roebucks catalogue and walked out of her old life forever.