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|Publisher:||Whitman, Albert & Company|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||9 - 12 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Mr. Fowler was barking again.
It was loud and frenzied, like you'd get if you teased a bulldog or yanked a Doberman's chain. Mr. Fowler was a large man, and when the spirit moved, he would dance and quiver and get circles of sweat under his arms. If the night was warm and the moon was just right, he would bark.
It wasn't so unusual, really. Mr. Bunn hopped. Mrs. Greeley chirped like a bird. Constance Carpenter, a girl not much older than me, babbled in a language no one had ever heard, except for those of us who showed up every Saturday night at the Church of Consecrated Heaven and Satan's on the Run.
Does that sound crazy to you? It did to me. The whole thing — the barking, the babbling, the hopping, the church itself, if you could call it that — had sprung, fully formed, from Daddy's head into the world. It was as if he had reached inside, grabbed the twisted part, and held it up, writhing and sputtering, for everyone to see. And the people had come.
Of course, they might never have known it was a church if it hadn't been for the sign, made by my father in a fit of holy painting. Put plainly, it was a tent.
Daddy had spotted the tent in a catalog, placed a phone call, and a few weeks later, a truck backed up to our house and unloaded a wooden crate bigger than my room.
Daddy paid the driver with what I later found out was the last of our savings. Then he got a crowbar and a couple of hammers, and the two of us set upon the crate. By the end of the day, using printed instructions and the occasional shouted tip from my little brother, Arnie, we had put up the tent in the empty lot next to our house.
That evening, as the sun set, Daddy called Mama, and the four of us stood at the entrance while he prayed. This wasn't one of your sentence prayers, or even paragraph or chapter. It was a volume prayer, one you could set right up next to A–Z in Collier's Encyclopedia. He prayed us up and down, back and forth, in and out. He started at the beginning, which for him was the typhoid fever that had descended like Moses's locusts one terrible day and carried my big sister, named Sister, off to heaven.
We had lived in North Carolina at the time, in a town called Deep Gap, but I didn't remember any of it since I was barely two years old. Even so, that day was fresh in my mind because Daddy talked about it all the time. He got stuck on that day, in life and in his prayers. Mama told me it nearly killed him. Until finally, one night in the pouring rain, he disappeared and she found him in the cemetery, hugging Sister's grave, trying to climb in.
It was clear that Daddy needed strong medicine, so Mama packed the two of us in the car and drove to Bristol, Tennessee, where a famous traveling preacher named Billy Sunday was saving souls. She found where he was preaching and marched up to the front, dragging Daddy with one hand and me with the other, and she asked for a healing. Billy Sunday prayed over Daddy, and for good measure, he kissed me on top of the head, or so I was told.
Maybe the healing worked. Maybe it was just a band-aid on a gaping wound. Whatever it was, Daddy decided he wanted to live after all. But he didn't want to do it in North Carolina because of all the memories and the pain. He and Mama liked Bristol, so they decided to move there. They found a little wooden house that had a fresh coat of white paint, never mind the crooked floors and leaky roof. It had a kitchen for Mama and bedrooms for them and for me, though I had to share mine with Arnie when he came along a couple of years later.
We started going to a little church down the block, and sometimes during the service Daddy would sweat and mumble, talking to Sister like she was sitting there beside us. The church closed a few years later, but Daddy kept reading the Bible by himself. He would look up, wild-eyed, quoting scripture at us.
Mama would say, "That's fine, dear," but I can tell you it wasn't fine. It was dark and scary, and so was he, like maybe he'd been sucked into that grave after all. He had never beenvery religious, but now he took his Bible everyplace, and Jesus was his best friend.
Daddy worked at the lumber mill for a long time, and people there started calling him "the reverend." They would smile and shake their heads when they said it. In those days everybody went to church, but Daddy was something different, something strange. It made life hard sometimes. People would ask me about him, and I'd just chuckle or change the subject.
It wasn't easy being part of that family. We were an unusual group — odd to look at, odder still in what we did. Mama and Daddy were like the mismatched dishes we ate out of — his chipped and flawed, hers delicate and perfect, nearly weightless, so thin and fine that you could hold it up to the window and light would shine through.
Daddy was big, with ruddy skin, ears that stuck out, and an expression that made you either want to hug him or hit him. Mama was lovely, with white skin and long, black hair, but her rough hands showed that she wasn't afraid to work, and she did plenty of it when Daddy was off in the clouds. I don't know how they met, and they didn't like to talk about it. I do know they were devoted to each other in a way I never understood.
I got to be ten years old, then twelve and thirteen. Arnie made it to third grade, propelled by Mama's casseroles and a spirit that she said could be bottled and sold. He started off little and stayed little, with sandy-blond hair and freckles, and from the beginning, he followed Daddy around like a miniature shadow.
Then one day at the mill, God spoke to Daddy in a buzz saw. A few weeks later he quit his job, ordered the tent, and we had a new life.
Only it wasn't a tent. It was a church. Daddy made that clear from the beginning. A few days after it arrived, when the spirit grabbed him and stuck a paintbrush in his hand, we learned the name, which he said had come to him in a fever dream.
"Satan's on the run!" he told us at breakfast that morning.
"We know, dear," said Mama.
"No, I mean it's the name. That's what we'll call the church."
I must have rolled my eyes, because Mama kicked me under the table. Arnie, meanwhile, was hanging on every word. Within a few weeks he would be cooking up ways to help Daddy and even outdo him, eventually succeeding in a manner that scared the town half to death and nearly ruined everything.
"Wait!" said Daddy. He cocked his head, like he was picking up signals from outer space. "Poor, sweet Sister says she doesn't want to be left out. We also have to name the church after her home."
"Her home?" I asked.
Daddy looked at me like I was slow. "Consecrated heaven," he declared. "The Church of Consecrated Heaven and Satan's on the Run. That's what we'll call it."
He jumped up from breakfast and ran out to the garage, where he kept his paint. Next thing we knew, the church had a name. It was outlined in red to remind us (said Daddy) of Jesus's precious blood.
Soon he was praising the Lord, spouting scripture, and welcoming people into the tent, where they got his version of torture and salvation. Somehow they loved it — not all of them, but enough to fill the offering plates and pay him more than he'd ever made at the lumber mill.
I lived in Daddy's world, but not by choice. Like the tent in summer, it was a hot, stuffy place that threatened to smother you. It was a place where Jesus was king, but Daddy was in charge, a place where the train to heaven had jumped the rails. A place I desperately needed to escape.CHAPTER 2
I'm Nathan Owens. My friends, the few that I made outside the tent flaps, called me Nate. The year was 1927. I was thirteen years old, and I was growing up in pieces. I had big feet, skinny arms, a puny little chest, and a good-sized Adam's apple. My nose was large, and I had squinty, little eyes, or so Arnie told me. He was eight and thought he was thirty.
People said I looked like Daddy, and I guess I did on the outside. The inside was another matter. Maybe inside I was like Mama. Or maybe I was like nobody, an impostor in the family, a stranger in my own body.
This is my story. I'm telling it to knit the parts of me together. I'm not sure where my story came from, but I know it's important, not just because it has the Carter Family in it. I'm in there too. Nate Owens. Living, breathing, breaking free, doing things because I want to, not because I'm told.
Daddy had a story, but it was different from mine. It started in life and flew up to include Jesus and his daddy, then down to my family and most especially to my sister, Sister, rest her soul, then even farther down to the devil, who Daddy had strong feelings about.
"His name is Satan," Daddy told Arnie and me. "A name is a sign of respect, and you need to respect Satan. Be on the lookout, boys."
Daddy's story, the one he built his church on, was a strange stew of Jesus and Satan, fishes and loaves, cornbread and Coca-Cola. It started with Bible verses and slithered through the vilest mayhem you could ever think about, like a slug through garbage. Sin was a big part of it. It's a part of us all, claimed Daddy. He said there was glory too, like when you turned from sin and came forward for baptism in Beaver Creek. Daddy would dunk you for all he was worth. There'd be a splash, and if the sun was just right, Daddy said you could look up at the clouds and see a dove. I'd seen a buzzard, a vulture, maybe a few pigeons, but never a dove.
Daddy's religion was a do-it-yourself affair. He took the parts that suited him and ignored the others, like he was shopping for clothes at J. C. Penney. Adam and Eve? Sure. Resurrection? Bring it on. Sin? Oh my, yes. Forgiveness? Not so fast. Free will? We'll get back to you on that. Science? The purest hogwash.
That was the strangest and most maddening of all. David had a harp. Gideon had a trumpet. The psalmist had songs. But Daddy's religion had no music.
Music, he told us, was Satan's tune. Don't think it. Don't imagine it. And certainly don't do it. Every once in a while, old Mr. Beckham in the third row back would get wound up on Jesus and start whistling weird melodies, sounding halfway between a songbird and a teapot. Daddy would hurry over, grip Mr. Fowler's head like a grapefruit, and squeeze. That usually stopped him.
Daddy hated music. He refused to discuss it and couldn't abide hearing it. When I asked him why, he got a crazy look in his eye. He ranted and raved, and he turned bright red. Then he blinked and his face went slack.
The more he ranted about music, the more I was drawn irresistibly to it. His sermons, combined with Mama's song, pulled me to music like ants to honey. It was sweet. It was forbidden. It contained secrets that I could only imagine and did — endlessly.
One day in the kitchen, I asked Mama why Daddy hated music, and she shook her head. "You know we don't talk about that."
I must have been feeling either brave or stupid, because I said, "You sang. I heard you."
She shot me a look so hot that it burned, like the time I used sunlight and a magnifying glass to kill a bug. I stepped away, scorched, but I didn't forget.
Daddy and I were searching for something, but in different places. He looked in the tent, in the people who were drawn there by color and confusion and certainty. I didn't like it there. Sometimes, when the place was packed and the night was hot, I couldn't breathe. Mama noticed. She'd put her arm around my shoulders, and I'd be okay for a little while.
Mama was always there. She loved Daddy, even if sometimes she had to drag him to places for his own good. She figured that if he wanted to put up a tent and preach, so be it. She greeted people at the door and baked apple pie for fellowship hour. She tried to help Daddy, no matter how odd his plans might seem. His plans were her plans. That's what she told us. Jesus said you can build on rock or sand, and Mama was the rock. I guess I was sand.
We liked Bristol — a town like me. Bristol was divided, smack on the border between Tennessee and Virginia. The border ran down the middle of State Street, so when you crossed the street, you were passing from one state to another, the way I passed from Daddy's world to the real world and back again.
Sometime in the 1800s, an argument had started between the two halves of town. It seemed that the police from one side refused to chase a murderer across the border to the other side, and he got away. It made people bitter for a while, but then the two halves patched things up and had gotten along ever since.
When electric lights came to Bristol, a sign was erected over State Street that was made of metal and light bulbs. At first it said Push — That's Bristol, but no one knew what it meant. So they ran a contest for a new slogan and changed the sign.
Bristol Va. Tenn. A Good Place to Live
Bristol was known for that sign and for other things too. One year, gasoline spilled into Beaver Creek, and the creek caught fire. I guess even water can burn. For some people, I suppose Bristol was also known for Daddy's preaching and for that big tent — flapping in the wind, yellow as an old bruise.
From the beginning, Daddy held services on Saturday night, not Sunday. He said Saturday was the Sabbath, and besides, that was the time he could go toe-to-toe with Satan. He would stand in the pulpit, which he had built out of a wheelbarrow and an orange crate, and tell the people why.
"Saturday night is Satan's time," Daddy bellowed, pointing his finger like a gun. "People drink, dance, play music. They curse and say, 'Go to hell.' I say yes, by God. Every Saturday night we'll go to hell and bring Jesus with us. He's stronger than whiskey and hotter than flames. Satan will feel the heat and take off running. He'll hop and skitter and jump, like he was dancing on coals. Meanwhile here's ol' Jesus, just glowing."
The world was having fun on Saturday night, but we were in Daddy's tent, battling the devil. Daddy loved it. Arnie loved it. Mama put up with it.
Me? I just wanted to get out of there.CHAPTER 3
The stars were spread across the sky like Arnie's jacks on the living room floor, times a billion. Did God play games? Was he up there scattering the stars, then bouncing a ball and scooping them up? You win — here's a happy life. You lose — goodbye, Sister.
My science teacher, Mr. Wafford, said the stars are so far away that the light we see today is from millions of years ago. For all we know, the stars have exploded and we just don't realize it yet. We keep preaching and praying on Saturday night, talking to a God who could be destroying worlds as we speak. It's something to think about.
I was looking at the stars because, inside the tent, healing had broken out. In the middle of his sermon, Daddy had pulled little Jerry Witherspoon from the tenth row, and Jerry had limped forward. He had broken his leg on the school playground, and Daddy proposed to fix it, like Jesus did in the Bible.
Daddy asked the congregation to come forward and help, which meant laying their hands on Jerry. I knew for a fact that when people came forward, Lester Collins laid his hands on Bobbie Jo Bainbridge, and I seriously doubt that any healing happened.
I wasn't in a healing mood, so when the people crowded forward, I sneaked out the back. I made my way across the wet grass to a low stone wall behind the tent, sat down, and gazed at the stars.
It was a warm June night. The crickets were chirping. All around me, little yellow lights flickered on and off. They were lightning bugs. I noticed they flew in a zone, not too low and not too high. They knew what to do and where to do it. It was built into them. I wished I had a zone. I wanted to do things but didn't know what.
I thought about going to the graveyard, across the street from our house. It was an ancient place, called East Hill Cemetery. Generations of Bristol folks were buried there, including Joseph R. Anderson, who founded and named Bristol in 1852. One end of the cemetery was taken up by Confederate and Union soldiers who died in the Civil War.
I think the cemetery was one reason Daddy had picked our house. Death had brought us to Bristol that rainy night when Daddy had latched on to Sister's grave. And someday death, he figured, would take us away. It could happen in an instant, like a blessing, if you just keeled over. Or maybe, if you turned your back on God, you'd be swept away in a holy wind or consumed in a ball of fire. Either way, the cemetery would be right there, waiting.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lord of the Mountain"
Copyright © 2018 Ronald Kidd.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
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