Revival week at Covenant Baptist Church in Compton, South Carolina, was a time of great festivity. Some claimed it rivaled, in spectacle and variety, the state fair in Columbia. Indeed it had gotten to be such a large event, with ever increasing attendance year by year, that the church organizers, ten years before, moved the proceedings from the humble brick confines of Covenant itself to a nearby pasture, where, in a tent as cavernous as the jaws of the whale that held Jonah captive, all the traditional staples of revivalism could breathe and flourish. Fire and brimstone preachers, red-faced and hoarse, sweating and clutching handkerchiefs, were the mainstays, but also present, at one time or another, were snake handlers, fire-eaters, speakers in tongues, and the lame and afflicted who had been healed at previous such gatherings and were back to give witness to their miracles. Modern additions to the roster had been made to interest jaded young people in the event. A Christian rock band, however, had been vetoed by organizers who felt that, regardless of the well meaning message of such groups, the medium was too closely allied with the forces they had gathered to fight, that the very rhythms of rock music had certain predictable influences over the behavior of young people, namely in their legs and hips. Instead a former assistant soundman with a minor country-rock ensemble from the 1970’s had been brought in from Miami to inveigh against modern music and its attendant lifestyle. The highlight of his talk was a demonstration of the way certain famous rock and roll acts implanted satanic messages into their music using a nefarious process called “back masking.” He even found an instance of such duplicity in a song by none other than the Captain and Tennille, whose “Muskrat Love” was surely an invitation to bestiality. And a couple of years later a young actress came to the revival to recreate the story of the woman at the well and to recount her own sad years as a teenage prostitute in New Orleans, Louisiana.
But by far Covenant’s greatest coup, for young and old alike, was the Reverend Benny Troy Hoyt, an eleven-year-old minister from Birmingham, Alabama, who had won national acclaim for the intensity of his sermons. He had traveled and preached throughout the South and was venturing steadily northward following an appearance on the highly rated Manny Miller television talk show out of Chicago, Illinois, on which he claimed to have cured a young girl of the AIDS virus. That appearance made Benny Troy more in demand and, according to his daddy, a minister himself who doubled as Benny Troy’s manager, Benny Troy had been responsible in his three years of preaching for over a hundred thousand conversions nationwide.
“Looks like a little fireball to me,” Maude Hutto observed to her younger sister Lillith as she studied a picture of the junior Reverend Hoyt on the back of a handbill she’d been given that day. She held the handbill in one hand and a spoonful of chocolate ice cream in the other. “Four feet high and bald as a butterbean. Isn’t he precious?”
“Got close-set eyes,” Lillith remarked after he own bite of ice cream. “He’ll be hell for some woman some day with eyes that close. Can’t trust a man whose eyes almost meet. It’s a bad sign.”
“Hush cussing a preacher, and what’s his eyes have to do with anything?”
“See through a man in his eyes.”
Maude made a disdainful face. “Oh my goodness. Well, it’s too bad, isn’t it, that you
couldn’t see through Briscoe in his. That would have saved you five years of grief and a divorce.” Maude watched as Lillith touched the finger where a wedding band had been.
“At least I had a husband,” Lillith remarked quietly, not aware that she was contradicting herself.
Ignoring that remark and still satisfied with her own put down, Maude turned back to the handbill. She’d been given it at the drugstore, where she and Lillith had stopped that afternoon for a box of Epsom salts to soak Lillith’s callus-prone feet. Maude had been standing at a rack of paperback novels looking for a historical romance when someone had touched her arm. She’d turned, expecting her sister, and saw instead a small, slightly hunched, snuff-colored old woman in a white blouse and dark polyester slacks with a sweater tied around her shoulders. “Hon,” the old woman had said in a croaking voice, “reading such trash as that ain’t no good for you. It’ll wind you up in the pits of hell. You ought to be reading this,” and she gave Maude a red, matchbox sized copy of the New Testament and the handbill Maude was now studying. Sitting at the table in her home, she read it through again and tapped it positively. “We’re going,” she announced.
“To what?” Lillith asked, her mouth, like a child’s, ringed with ice cream.
“To this. This revival. We’re going tonight.”
“To that?” Lillith asked with disbelief and anguish in her voice. When Maude nodded, she said, “Just when did you get religion?”
Maude answered in as clear and austere and pious a way as she could manage. “The impulse to be religious has always been there. I just need to get in touch with it again.
Getting back to the church would do me good.” When Lillith arched her dark eyebrows skeptically, Maude said with more force, “Well, it was the way we were raised.”
This didn’t appease Lillith. “I thought we was going to the fish camp tonight.” She referred to the plans they’d made earlier that day to eat at The Admiral’s Fish Camp in Beasley, in lower Compton County, where Lillith could have all the boiled shrimp and hush puppies she craved so unreasonably.
“Your shrimp will wait another night,” Maude replied, reading her sister’s mind. “Little Benny Troy is here tonight, and the spirit is moving me to go see him.”
Lillith cast her a resentful look and scowled at the handbill. “It’s gas. That’s what’s moving you. You know you can’t eat milk products without it bloating you. Besides, he’s probably a crook. Do you know a preacher that ain’t a cook?”
Maude looked again at the boy’s picture. No, he wasn’t “cute” in the usual sense a child could be. He did have those bunched-together eyes Lillith had remarked on which reminded Maude of a gangster, the kind Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney used to play in the movies when she was just a little girl. But the boy had character. She could see that in the serious, adult way he stared from the photograph, the way the photographer’s gray light framed his blunt, plain, smooth features. He knew something, was confident of it, as though, young as he was, he had had some authentic glimpse at the empyrean truth of God. Why, he probably knew the Bible by heart, or big passages of it, and here he was only eleven-years-old. She liked him for that. She liked all children. She considered affection for children a mark of a stable disposition and the sign of a gentle heart. She made a fuss over children in public, pinching their cheeks and cooing
aloud their names and remarking euphorically on their clothes. She loved their pink skin and enormous eyes, their little haircuts and their awkward attempts to express themselves. But they frightened her too with their restlessness, their irritability, their fits, their frankness. In the times she had babysat, she didn’t know what to do with them in moments of crisis when they cried and stamped their little feet and made ugly faces. She would come close to hysterics herself.
Still she liked them, and it was, to some extent, her fondness for them that led her to rent out the front bedroom to that girl, Christine, and her baby, Lorrie. The room had been empty since her and Lillith’s mother had passed, and she’d seen no reason why she shouldn’t make some use of it, so she put an ad in the Compton newspaper announcing its vacancy. It wasn’t a week later that Christine stood at her door, a pink suitcase in one hand and the child, Lorrie, in the other. It had been her inclination to refuse Christine when she had learned she was unmarried, that the daddy had run off to the army and left Christine to raise Lorrie alone. Maude wasn’t sure she wanted such a stigma around her, the possibility that neighbors would find out and point and talk about her like she was running a house for moral reprobates. But Christine seemed modest enough and not a troublemaker, and she felt pity for Lorrie, who was a pretty little thing with her honey-blonde hair, crystal-blue eyes, and peach-bright smile. She gave in and rented the room to Christine. It hadn’t been a mistake either, not so far. Christine wasn’t delinquent in her monthly payments, though she had no job that Maude knew of, and the two of them, mother and child, kept mostly to themselves, cloistered like nuns (which concerned Maude; after all Christine was still young and should have been more outgoing) except when Maude could lure them out to have dinner with her or watch TV.
She regarded the Rev. Benny Troy Hoyt again. “He’s a man and a child all at once,” she commented, hoping Lillith, for whose benefit she had made the statement, would take it as a profound, even cryptic observation.
“More a child than a man though,” Lillith returned. She grimaced wryly. “Children ain’t nothing but trouble. They’re God’s punishment for grown people liking sex so much.”
It angered Maude that Lillith had not appreciated her assessment of the Rev. Hoyt, and in vengeance she sang, which Lillith hated: “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight! Jesus loves the little children of the world!”
Lillith made an even more terrible face than before and grabbed her ears. “I can’t stand your singing! What are you trying to do, drive me nuts?” Then she stood with her bowl to go for more ice cream.
“When did you get religion?” Lillith had asked her. It was not an unfair question and had not bothered her. Indeed Maude pondered it thoughtfully as she dressed for the revival. But the question should not have been when did she get religion but when did she lose it. The both of them, Maude and Lillith, had been raised with religion. Their daddy had warned them early on, “You live in my house and you’ll go to church,” and since no other alternative existed at that time, they did it, they went, and even joined the choir and participated in the Christmas pageant every year until they were both out of their daddy’s house; then they gradually dropped away from attendance, when it was no longer a parental mandate, till they stopped altogether. Lillith just wasn’t interested. Maude claimed church was too political. Church people were always stabbing each other in the backs, sizing up each other’s faith and commitment, and fighting over who would make the potato salad for church functions. She hated politics and used that for her excuse to stop. Then later, when she got sick with cancer, the disease that had stalked her family like a specter and had taken hold of her ovaries before she was forty years old, her indifference to religion turned to resentment. She turned away from it the way most people turn to it when they are sick. Christianity meant immortality, and she didn’t want that. She wanted to be alive right here in this world, not in some place to come of golden walkways and stately mansions. She wanted envy, covetousness, hate, lust, all those emotions religion was supposed to dispel, as well as love and compassion and generosity. To feel such would mean she was alive, not dying, alive and wrestling with the world, still in the thick of things.
But cancer was behind her. She had won that fight. Now the idea of going to church didn’t bother her. It would relieve her lonesomeness to be around other people regularly. After all she had nobody. Her mama and daddy were gone, and Lillith lived in North Carolina and did not visit all that much, which was a bad thing and a good thing at the same time. She would, however, have to choose another church. She couldn’t go back to Mount of Glory. They would talk about her absence there behind her back, point to her, conjecture, and she couldn’t have that. Covenant would be as good as any other. It had a good reputation. People weren’t, according to what she’d heard, stuck up there; they didn’t act like they were already sitting on God’s right hand in heaven. She would see for herself tonight at the revival what kind of people they were and make her decision then. Then another idea hit her. She would ask Christine to go and to bring the baby. Christine needed to be out. She spent too much time isolated for a young woman, even though that was what she seemed to prefer. It was like pulling eyeteeth getting her to have a meal with Maude, and even when she agreed to, she’d sit at the table picking at her food, not saying a word, leaving it to Maude to fill in the silence with wandering chitchat. But Maude would ask her anyway. It would make her something of a missionary, wouldn’t it?
She looked at herself in her vanity mirror and judged herself presentable to the public. She had on a puce, calf-length dress and a nice velvet jacket with white shoes and a long white drop of pearls around her neck. To top it off she sat a nice pillbox hat with a climbing white feather on her head.
“You look like an ostrich,” Lillith pronounced from the door. “Or an old prostitute.”
“Hush!” Maude hissed. She noticed Lillith was still in her jeans and tee shirt. “And why aren’t you dressed?”
“For what? I ain’t going nowhere.”
“You are! You’re going with me!”
“No, I think I’ll stay here and rent a movie. Where’s your card at? They won’t let me rent one without it.”
“I’ve offered to buy your supper at the fish camp. The least you can do is go with me tonight.”
Lillith sulked off, the grown child that she was, and Maude went to Christine’s door. “Hello?” she called as she knocked. She heard a rustling before the door opened. There stood Christine already in her nightgown, very pretty in a shy, indirect way. Sometimes she would even look Maude in the eye when she spoke. Other times, if she were angry, she would scare Maude with her rage.
“Dressed for bed?” Maude asked in a musical voice. “It’s still early!”
Christine stood back to let Maude in and said, eyes averted, “I’ve got a big day ahead of me tomorrow, Miz Hutto.”
“Yes ma’am. Jerry called. He thinks he may be on leave. If he is, he’s coming down from Fayetteville tomorrow to talk.”
Maude stood alarmed. The first thing she thought of was her utility bill and how nice it was to have a partner in payment. “You’re not leaving me, are you?”
“I don’t know yet. We’re going to talk.”
Maude started to ask another question, but there came a loud gurgling behind Christine. Christine stepped aside so that Maude could see Lorrie on the bed in her pajamas in one of those little fits of pleasure in which she would kick her heels wildly, throw her stubby arms over her head, and giggle just to beat the band. Maude watched her with mixed feelings: pity foremost for the poor, illegitimate little thing (the word wedlock almost always flashed in her mind when she saw the child) and, in some dark corner of herself, distaste but some delight too at Lorrie’s joy and energy, so, in what she
thought was the humane and decent thing to do, she went over and gently rubbed Lorrie’s belly so that the little girl’s arms and legs thrashed in even greater frenzy.
“Here,” Christine said behind them, nudging Maude gently aside. “She’ll make herself sick in a fuss like that.” Maude put her hand to her mouth, ashamed, as though she had done something wrong. Then, to cover up her embarrassment, she rushed into her invitation. At its conclusion, Christine shook her head slowly, sadly, and said, “No ma’am. Thank you though. But I need to be here in case Jerry calls. He’s not entirely sure about his leave. He thinks he’s got one. He’s pretty sure he does.”
“Oh that’s a shame!” Maude returned, embarrassed even further by the girl’s rejection of her offer. To cover it she said, “Pretty young thing like you ought not to be so closed in. Why, if I were you, with all that young energy, there’d be no holding me down!”
Christine smiled as though in empathy and nodded at Lorrie. “But I got this child, Miz Hutto. It’s different when you got children.”
Maude, blushing, didn’t push the point any further.
“I will melt in here,” Lillith moaned after they’d taken their places on the bleachers inside the tent. They’d been directed there by a kindly man in a seersucker suit and were among the first to arrive, nearly an hour early, since Lillith couldn’t have stood long on account of her chronically ailing feet. Maude didn’t know why she had accommodated her. Lillith herself certainly wasn’t thoughtful of others. She hadn’t even bothered to change out of the raggedy tee shirt and jeans she’d been wearing all day. “We’re not –
added, “I bet Jesus would let a humble soul like me into the pearly gates before he would the gaudy likes of you. I’m coming to Him just as I am.” In fact Maude sat straighter, proud of each curious glance she earned from her fellow, incoming Comptonites, most of who were dressed casually like Lillith, some, just off the first shift at the cotton mills, in trousers and slacks dotted white with lint. If they looked hard enough at her, Maude would nod at them like a queen conferring recognition on her subjects. Suddenly she saw herself as the standard bearer there, the upholder of a certain dignity, and kept her head somewhat upturned as the tent filled, as Covenant’s minister, a man with the demeanor and energy of a bloodhound, welcomed everyone, as he was followed by a succession of more animated, full-throated preachers who whipped up the crowd with their jumping cadences, as duos and trios and quartets from all over the South delivered their thumping, nasal renditions of songs Maude remembered as girl from revivals past. Then Covenant’s slow speaking minister made his introduction of the Rev. Benny Troy Hoyt. Maude looked at the platform, anxious. Then she saw that everyone else was standing in a loud, excited ovation, and she stood too and got her first look at the Rev. Hoyt. He bounded out of nowhere in a gray, two-piece suit, stood on the edge of the platform smiling and holding up his arms, one small hand gripping a black Bible that looked nearly as big as he was, then hopped down and ran as far from the platform as his microphone would allow. He stood near Maude, close enough for her to see for sure the peculiar eyes Lillith had made fun of.
“He’s a midget,” Lillith hollered beside her, the most energy she had expended her whole visit so far. She hadn’t bothered to stand. “He can’t be no youngun. He’s a
dwarf. A munchkin straight out of Oz.” Maude acted like she didn’t know her and kept applauding along with everyone else.
“Hallelujah!” Rev. Hoyt shouted in a thin but firm voice that sounded like he’d just inhaled helium or were an adult imitating a child’s voice. “I love to hear folks raising up the name of the Lord with proud hearts and strong voices! Keep a-shouting! Keep a-shouting!” The audience obeyed with an even louder surge of their voices and their clapping hands.
“Let the people of Compton, South Carolina, know we’re not worshipping no dead god-ah. No Buddha. No Hare Krishna. No Mohammed-ah. No Rev. Moon-ah. But the one and only true and living God-ah, Jesus Christ of Nazareth-ah. The I am-ah! The Jehovah! The lily of the valley-ah! The bright and morning star-ah! The one what lifted me and you from the mirey clay and set us firm on the rock-ah! Let ‘em know! Shout hallelujah!”
“Hallelujah!” the people cried.
Maude didn’t shout, as she had never been a demonstrative person, but her eyes never left Benny Troy. He stood before her bouncing and gesturing like some sideshow oddity. “This is dark and unbelieving times, my friends,” he went on after the crowd had settled again. “Times of doubt and disease, the AIDS and the Oldtimey’s. It’s a time when folks puts more faith in their television sets and their telephones and their computers and their washer and dryers than they do the words of this holiest of books.” He raised the Bible and it nearly upended him. “They go to liquor and sex and money and possessions trying to make up for what’s right here.” He shook the book, and it shook him. “If they would only realize that and turn to Him, they’d be filled to the brim with the peace and joy that’s the Lord’s bounty.”
“That’s right, little brother!” someone shouted from the bleachers.
“God can do anything! Says so right here! He raised the dead. He healed the lame. He cast the demons into the swine. Ain’t no reason He can’t touch you, every one of you, and fill up what’s empty. He can heal them AIDS, brethren. He can wipe out that Oldtimey’s with a flick of His wrist and give you the memory of an elephant. People have just got to believe in Him!” Calls of “Amen” and “Yes sir” followed his words. Maude sat and wondered what a child of eleven could know about emptiness. He wasn’t even a teenager yet! What could he know about it? The words, the very idea behind them, didn’t suit his little boy lips; it was like someone had cued him what to say, had rehearsed it with him. It rang such a false note to her that she started to reject him right then and there and just turn away. But, then again, he was so sweet-looking, dancing and prancing around in his little suit, saying his piece in that high voice Lillith had described so hatefully, that she forgave him this improbability and listened and was soon touched by his effort. Still, though, after awhile, the monotony of his message – the same song of doom and redemption sung by the preceding preachers – made Maude drift off into daydreams.
Then her attention was brought back to the platform when Benny Troy’s voice turned suddenly deep and unfamiliar and she saw that the boy’s daddy, the senior Rev. Hoyt, had taken a microphone and was addressing the crowd while a three-piece combo, fronted by an electric guitarist, struck up a doleful accompaniment in three-fourths time
behind him. The senior Rev. Hoyt wore a suit like his son’s, was in his middle to late forties, silver-haired, smooth-complexioned, good-looking except for a little paunch, and had a nice, melodic voice. “You know, ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “people have lost their faith in this day and age. There are skeptics all around us. Modern day Pharisees. Why there are some who do not believe that Benny Troy here, all of eleven years old, is actually doing what he is doing, spreading the message of God’s eternal truth. They think he’s too young. They reject the message because of the messenger. What do people have against miracles in this day and age, friends? Why is it hard for them to believe that a God that can part mighty waters and bring the dead to life and speak through a burning bush can set the voice of hope in an eleven year old boy, that Benny Troy here is a living example of what God is capable of when they cast aside their doubt and just believe? Can I get an amen on that?”
“Daddy’s saying what’s true,” Benny Troy picked up from the ground, as though he and his father were a tag team. “People look at me like I’m crazy when I come out and do what I do. Why the folks at the TV station in Chicago stared at me like I’d just walked off a spaceship. They don’t believe in the wondrous ways of the Lord. It was the Lord give me the gift a-preaching. It was Him come to me in a vision and pointed my path for me. I was standing outside in Birmingham in our backyard. I was six years old, brethren, when the sky growed black as night and I shook like a leaf I was so scared, just about to cry, when the blackness opened up into a peaceful golden ring and was Jesus’s face in the middle of it saying, `I give you the gift, Benny Troy. I give you the Word.
Now go and take it to the people. Make the people listen and bring ‘em to me.’ Yes, he did-ah! Said them very words before the ring went black again and the sky cleared and I stood there-ah, His new servant and witness-ah, His messenger with the good news of His second coming-ah! Amen-ah! Amen-ah!”
He had roused the crowd so they stood again and shouted as one. Maude remained seated, debating whether to rise. Had she risen, it would have been more out of conformity than genuine excitement. Old doubts crept in, old skepticism, what the senior Rev. Hoyt had criticized so strongly, the feeling this was all a big put on. She couldn’t swallow her pride and rise with the others nor could she shake the feeling – and didn’t try very hard to – that she towered over all these other people intellectually.
When the ovation cooled, Benny Troy’s daddy spoke next. He told of the Lord’s blessings on the Hoyt family, how the Lord had let them travel all over the country spreading the good news, how He’d brought them many good and close friends during these travels. “And he has granted Benny Troy another gift,” he concluded, “a special insight, a transparent vision, a second sight, so to speak. Benny can look at any of you, lay his hand upon you, and the Lord will give him a look inside of you, like your soul was nothing more than a hospital X-ray. He can see your misery, your loneliness, your want, your doubt, whatever it is that blocks you spiritually and keeps you from a fulfilling relationship with the Lord God Almighty. And then he can recommend a Bible verse for you that you can turn to for comfort and meditation.”
“Oh God,” Lillith moaned aloud upon hearing that, and an old man beside her patted her shoulder and said, “That’s right, sister. Praise his name.”
Maude frowned also and thought to herself, Science fiction, voodoo, hoax, and wondered how much the Hoyts would charge the audience to have such a feat performed in public. Again she thought of sideshows and was more embarrassed than ever to be there among all these dupes.
“This is no gimmick,” the senior Rev. Hoyt continued, again as though reading Maude’s thoughts. “It’s no put on but a true example of the endless, boundless power of the Lord. And to prove it Benny Troy will go to some of you right now and lay hands on you and diagnose, so to speak, what it is that ails you spiritually. Now, please. Don’t be afraid or ashamed if he comes to you. Be happy the Lord is looking through you. We’re brothers and sisters here. No one will laugh at you. We will pray for you.”
Then attention turned back to little Benny Troy, who stood in the middle of the tent quiet and deliberative, staring in front of him like he was meditating. Then he looked up and shouted, “With God all things are possible. The Book says so. Book don’t lie for them that believes. Faith can move a mountain.” He went silent again, like he’d been testing those words before making them public and found them unsatisfactory. Then suddenly he turned and was upon an elderly gentleman not far from Maude on the front row of the bleachers. Benny kept his Bible pressed to his chest with one hand and with the other touched the man’s shoulder and spoke, telling the man that he was old and alone and beset by illness but that the soul was stronger than the body and if he trusted without doubt the Lord Jesus Christ his soul would outlive his flesh and he would be forever young in heaven. Then he named some Bible verses that referred to age and infirmity
and clutched the old man’s shoulder again reassuringly. The man nodded absently but gratefully.
“Wasn’t nothing to that,” Lillith said beside Maude. “Anybody could have looked at that coot and told he was old and sick. He should have smacked him on the head and made him fall backwards like they do on TV. I might like him if he did that.”
Maude was too mortified to reply, too fascinated by the sight of Benny Troy moving along the front row, hunting faces with those close-set eyes, halting at one point in front of an over made teenage girl, whose promiscuity and yearning for peer acceptance he revealed to the crowd before moving on, hunting again, till he stopped at her, Maude, nodded, and said, simply, “Sister.”
Something knotted in Maude’s throat at his address of her, and when he touched her she flinched, afraid of what he might find and reveal. But he did not remove his hand, and a burning chill went through her like an arrow. He pinned his gaze on her, steadfast, penetrating, until all his charm, all the sweetness Maude had found in him earlier was gone, replaced by menace, an intent to do her harm. “Not me,” she would have said had her jaws not been clamped shut by fear and humiliation. “I don’t need your diagnosis. I have the healthiest soul here. I don’t need your cures and recommendations. Not from a child. Go to someone who really needs you.”
She was so lost in her silent defense that she almost didn’t hear his question to her: “What’s your name, sister?” In the void Maude’s silence left, Lillith said, loud enough to be caught by the microphones, “Gaudy Maudie! Call her Gaudy Maudie! Just look at that hat!”
Maude had expected an outbreak of titters and snickers in the tent and was surprised when none followed. She wouldn’t look at anybody else for a moment, not even Benny Troy, and in the terrible silence that hemmed her in from all sides she nodded vaguely and said, almost hoarsely, “Maude…yes.”
Benny Troy nodded in return and applied pressure to her shoulder with his small hand. His fingers bit into her like a weasel’s jaws and held her still with surprising strength, and with corresponding power his small eyes held her attention completely. She should have fought him, squirmed free, gotten up and left, reclaiming the dignity he was stealing from her, but he she couldn’t: Benny Troy had opened his mouth to speak and an odd part of herself wanted to hear what he had to say.
He spoke of Maude’s loneliness, saying she was alone but too proud to seek other people’s company, and that she had turned to food to fill up this emptiness she was feeling. She had given herself over to gluttony, which was a sin in the Lord’s eyes. “And you have come here dressed in a bright and obvious way to draw the attention of others,” he went on. “There’s a sadness in you, sister, a need you cannot fill on your own, a great hole in your heart, but if you lay your pride down and embrace the word of God, proclaim it as true to them around you, acknowledge Christ as your Lord and Savior, as your true and only friend, He will fill you with a joy that surpass all understanding.” He paused, bearing down on Maude with those small, hard eyes. “Do you believe, Maude? Do you believe me?” In her searing humiliation, Maude mumbled something that sounded vaguely affirmative. Benny Troy nodded like he understood her perfectly and made his Bible recommendations to her, but the only thing Maude heard
right then was Lillith, who said, loud enough to be heard by everybody, “Smack her on the head, preacher. Make her go backwards like they do on TV.”
“I didn’t know I was staying with no hermit!” Lillith yelled through Maude’s bedroom door the next night. “Fact of business, I believe I was promised shrimp tonight at the fish camp. Now get up and let’s go. I’m hungry!”
But Maude was up, at her vanity, looking at her face in what stingy blue light twilight afforded her. She was looking at the face the Reverend Benny Troy Hoyt had stared into the night before when he had said, “There’s a sadness in you, sister, a great hole in your heart.” Emptiness he had meant. And pride too. He had remarked on her pride as well, and she owned up to that because pride could be a good thing after all – pride in your bearing, your way of dress, your behavior. Pride was a mark of distinction if you truly had something to be proud of, so she admitted to her pride. But emptiness? Was she empty, hollow, shallow just because she had come to the revival dressed nicely? She had turned the question over in her mind after they had gotten home from the revival the night before, after she had finally fought through the shame Benny Troy had netted her in. At first, when she’d found speech again, she wanted to curse the little preacher for implying such a thing about her. “I’m not shallow,” she had told an indifferent Lillith. “I’m reserved. I’m dignified. I’m a lady.”
“I don’t know,” Lillith had replied, treating it as a joke. “I think the reverend pegged you pretty good.”
“He did not!” Maude had bellowed back. “He was jealous. They all were. The bumpkins.”
“Of what? You?”
“Of my refinement. My intelligence.”
“Honey, how could them people tell if you was smart or not, when all you done was sit there and get embarrassed by some dwarf? Didn’t look too smart to me.”
But Maude had continued to protest to the contrary to Lillith, and, later in bed, to herself. “I’m not shallow or hollow or empty. Proud, yes, but pride is a good thing. I’m dignified and refined. I have led an exemplary life as one could hope under the circumstances. I have made all decisions in my life intelligently. I have been prudent and chaste and considerate of others.” She fought Benny Troy’s “diagnosis” all night, sparred with it until her protests themselves grew hollow, and, sleepless, she let the truth of the boy’s words wash over her and take her with their inevitability. “Yes,” she said aloud. “I am empty. So empty I can almost hear my insides working away.” The evidence stood too solid, too insistent for her to refute it any longer, so she did not. Then she thought of the source of her emptiness, and, being an old maid, her thoughts turned immediately to family, romance, and marriage. She had wanted all of them, she really had, and she had never considered herself too good for a man the way hateful Lillith had insisted. The fact was she had never in her life been approached by a man, as a teenager or as a grown woman. Why not, she was not sure. She was not ugly at all, not a beauty, but certainly not painful to look at. Maybe men could see how smart she was, and maybe that had scared them away from her. Maybe, when she got a little older, her weight had
put them off (although that had never been a problem for other women she knew). Maybe men had mistaken her natural shyness for snobbery. For whatever reason, men didn’t come to her, and she would never have been presumptuous, even in a “liberated” age such as this one, to approach them. (It just wasn’t done!) It didn’t matter after a while. The cancer came and took away from her any possibility of a family, and wasn’t that what marriage was for primarily? It was then she resigned herself to being the confidante of married women and the doting, playful “friend” of their children. That was to be her lot in life obviously, and she owned up to it heroically.
“He knows me,” she said of Benny Troy, her hatred of him melting into tender affection. He had revealed her and told her how to close up the emptiness. “Embrace the word of God as true to all around you and acknowledge Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior,” he’d said. There stood the snag for her in it all. It would be embarrassing to say those things to other people! She was afraid people would think her a fanatic, one of those bug-eyed believers that begged for money on television and picketed outside dirty movies. She didn’t want that. She wanted a simple, dignified fate.
The fish camp sat far back from the highway behind a screen of pines. It was a ranch style building, brick and flat-roofed, and in its outside lights they could see tom turkeys and Chinese ducks and Canadian geese meandering in the dirt-and-gravel parking lot; and Maude picked up peacocks in her headlights, forlorn looking birds dragging their long, spear-like naked tails across the ground. There were only a couple of other cars there at that hour. Maude was disappointed. She wanted as many Comptonites as possible to see the new Maude Hutto, washed clean, revealed, full of love and Christian pride. She had
dressed quite nicely in a blue polyester dress that was only somewhat tight on her and the same nice white shoes she had worn last night, but this time she had crowned the ensemble with a more conservative pillbox hat. She wanted everyone to know what dignity could come with belief in Jesus: that would be, as the preachers called it, her “witness” to the fallen world.
Maude and Lillith took a booth near the back of the restaurant. Their seats, of old pinewood with a very dark finish, were creaky and old and groaned if they moved the slightest bit. The whole place was done in hardwood, as was the tradition of Southern fish camps. It was buffet night, and Lillith went straight to the buffet bar, where she loaded her plate with boiled shrimp and deviled crab and hush puppies. Maude took more delicate portions so as not to seem a glutton. She picked at her food gently while Lillith attacked hers like a Hun, shucking shrimp shells so vehemently many of them ended up on the floor.
“I’m joining Covenant Baptist,” Maude announced timidly, almost afraid she would be heard by her sister. “I spoke to Pastor Davis on the phone. He’s very enthusiastic about it.”
Lillith, her mouth smudged with cocktail sauce, said, “Why? Are you somebody special?”
“No. Just a new sheep in the flock.”
“Well, sheep. Let me tell you something. If you had you a ram to give you an orgasm once in a while, you’d cut out all this nonsense.”
“What nonsense? What do you mean? This is genuine.”
“Yeah. Just like all the other things you’ve joined in your life. You get tired of ‘em after a while and quit going. The book club. The history club. The music club. The garden club. It’s just the same old thing with you.”
Maude sat quietly resentful then scraped her plate with her fork. “Lillith will not spoil my joy,” she promised herself. “Her negative attitude is a test for me, and I will not be defeated.” So she drew in a breath and ate her flounder and scallops with more vigor and relish, as though she were Gabriel wielding a sword against rebel angels. It wasn’t long before she heard a commotion at the door of people entering and looked up with heart-stopping, eye-blurring astonishment to see the Reverend Benny Troy Hoyt, his daddy, his mama, and another little boy coming towards her and Lillith, dressed in their revival best. She checked her watch and saw that, yes, it would be time for the service to let out. Maude smiled as the family passed their booth. The father nodded curtly, and she heard them fill up the creaking, popping booth directly behind them. She told Lillith, who had yet to look up from her plate, who had just come in and sat down behind them.
“You mean they didn’t fall all over you, you being a new sheep and all?” Lillith replied and went right back to her food.
“It’s a sign,” Maude concluded to herself. “The Lord is confirming me, saying, `Yes, Maude. You are my child. You are part of the flock now.’” She fidgeted nervously a second then said, “I’m going to speak to them” and stood before Lillith could make a wisecrack. She walked only a couple of steps before she was staring down at all of them as they studied their menus. They ignored her or were unaware of her presence until she cleared her throat. Then all their menus dropped simultaneously. Now she was left
standing there with their eyes on her. She watched Benny Troy, hoping recognition would light in his face, but it remained blank and unmoved. She almost turned away in embarrassment until she remembered she didn’t have to anymore: they were all related now, bound by love. She introduced herself and reminded them of what had happened at last night’s gathering. “I just wanted to say…how much…Benny Troy’s words meant to me…he was right about me…and his words were a Godsend….”
The senior Rev. Hoyt gave another curt nod, smiled with half his mouth, and said, “Thank you, Maude. Glad to hear it.” He laid his hand on his menu to pick it up.
Maude blushed, feeling inadequate, and made a reflexive response. “And I want to show my appreciation by offering something to your ministry.” She searched her purse, found a twenty dollar bill, and offered it to the senior Rev. Hoyt. “God bless you, Maude,” he said with a third quick nod. Maude watched Benny Troy, disappointed he didn’t recognize her and make fuss over her. (They had such kinship now!) He and the other boy were trading amused glances. She was struck at how plain, how ordinary Benny Troy looked sitting there in the booth. He’d lost the majesty and authority the trappings of the revival had given him. He was just a little boy now, and a very homely one at that. “Benny Troy,” she called in a voice nearing desperation, “I want to thank you for seeing through me last night. I’m going to try to get as close to the Lord as possible.” Benny stared at her a second like she was speaking a foreign language then nodded sharply in imitation of his daddy and said, “Yes ma’am. You do that” and smiled with half his face to complete the mimic.
Maude stood there a moment longer, confused, before turning back to her own booth. Lillith sat there eating flaky peach cobbler and had even brought Maude a dish of it and asked Maude when she was seated again, “How much money did you give that man?”
Maude told her.
“All they’ll do is buy their supper with it. If you was going to give money away like that, you should have give it to me. I need it worse than they do.”
Maude picked at her dessert, distracted, wondering at Benny Troy’s coldness towards her. “I’m his sister now,” she protested to herself. But he sees so many people, another voice added. He’s been all over the country, Maude. “Yes, but I should stand out,” she countered.
“Gaudy Maudie!” another voice put in, hoarse, whispery. She looked up from her cobbler. This voice had come from outside her rather than within. “What did you say?” she asked Lillith, who reached over for a forkful of Maude’s dessert.
“Nothing,” Lillith replied with an ugly wrinkle of her mouth.
“I thought you said something. Something ugly. As usual.”
“You’re hearing things. I’m going for more dessert.” Lillith stood, upsetting her plate and knocking more shrimp hulls to the floor, and went back to the buffet line. At the same time the Rev. and Mrs. Hoyt stood and got in line themselves.
And shortly afterwards it came again. “Gaudy Maudie! Gaudy Maudie!” Those were Lillith’s hateful words, but Lillith was several feet away and would have to have been quite a ventriloquist to throw her voice that far and that clearly. “Gaudy Maudie!” It came from above her. She looked up quickly and saw a small head blur away. It was
that little boy who had come in with the Hoyts. Where had he heard that ugly phrase of Lillith’s? “Little scamp!” she muttered under her breath but checked her anger against her newfound serenity and revised the barb to “Playful thing.” Still she wondered where the boy got the name and was hurt he’d used it against a dignified woman like her. She thought she had made a very gracious presentation to the Hoyts, and had she been the recipient, she would have been quite impressed.
“Gaudy Maudie!” She ignored it this time. It would be undignified to look. Lillith was on the way back to the table and Maude snapped at her. “You’ve made a mess here.”
“They pay people to clean it up,” Lillith returned. She stopped before sitting down, and a smile lifted her mouth. “Somebody’s paging you, Maude.” She nodded over Maude’s head.
Despite herself, Maude glanced behind her and was shocked and saddened to see not only the other boy but Benny Troy himself peering at her over the booth and whispering, “Gaudy Maudie!” His plain face was fixed like a moon over the booth before it disappeared and he and the other boy slid down in their seats snickering.
“Jesus really loves you, doesn’t He?” Lillith said with full mouth and crossed eyes.
“But he revealed me,” Maude thought to herself. “He showed me who I am. He filled me up with true love.” She decided to be staunch. She would ignore the nasty remark. She would eat peach cobbler and praise the name of the Lord. Hallelujah!
Then she felt something like a breeze pass above her, as though some bird had swooped over her. She took it for the ceiling fan, but Lillith looked up at her and burst out laughing. “Somebody’s done borrowed your pillbox, Maude.”
Maude reached up to her head and in shock found that her hat no longer sat there. She heard giggles and someone say, “Catch!” and she turned and saw that Benny Troy and the other child were in the middle of the floor playing with her hat. She stood at once. “Here now!” she hollered so that heads in the camp turned her way. “That doesn’t belong to you!” Benny Troy had the hat and was ready to throw it back to the other boy. Benny grinned so hard at Maude his eyes narrowed. He seemed to be taunting her. Then he pitched the hat to the other boy. Maude grabbed the child, who had tried to sprint away, and shook him roundly. “You little devil!” she said, louder than she meant.
“What’s the matter here, Miz Hutto?” It was Benny Troy’s parents returned, their hands balanced with full plates. The senior Rev. Hoyt stared with a pointed, concerned look on his face. Maude explained and gestured to the anonymous child as proof: he was still clutching her hat.
“Yes ma’am! Yes ma’am!” Rev. Hoyt moaned. He set down his plate and with minimum effort had the hat out of the child’s grip, smoothed it back into shape delicately and lovingly, and handed it to Maude like a boy giving his sweetheart a present. He apologized profusely.
Maude didn’t hear him though. She stood, still dazed, and pointed at Benny Troy. “But he’s a man of God,” she mumbled.
“Yes, ma’am, but he’s a boy too, and he’s tired and irritated, the way a youngun gets. He’s been working hard all week. Preaching really tuckers him out.”
“He had a vision. He said he did.”
Rev. Hoyt took her arm to reassure her further. “But don’t worry, Miz Hutto, preacher or not, he‘s still my boy, and he’s not too good to get his little hind end tanned. Ha! Ha! I’ll take care of him.”
Maude snatched her arm way like the reverend had injured her and pointed again at Benny Troy. “He says he’s a man of God with a vision and all, and this is how he acts! The undignified little scamp!”
Maude drew back some. Her pointing hand spread over her neck in defense. Benny Troy had assumed a stance almost martial. He was pointing back at Maude, his face red as a radish and indescribably ugly. “Quiet, Jezebel! Quiet, Bathe Sheba! Quiet, Salome! You mother of lies. I call on Jesus Christ to cast out the demons that make you run your big mouth!”
Maude veered back further, like she’d been struck, and she kept going back until she stepped in the pile of shrimp hulls her sister had knocked to the floor. Her foot twisted somewhat to the left then to the right, thanks to the shells’ viscosity, and with all the fish camp watching, the world went out from beneath her and she lay straight out on the floor like some large catch just reeled in and left floundering.
“You can’t trust a preacher in a three piece suit, Maude. How many times do I have to tell you?” Lillith asked on the way home from the fish camp. She was driving; Maude was on the passenger’s side, moaning, “But he revealed me, I tell you, he revealed me!”
“Yes ma’am he sure did – as a durn fool.”
But he had, she told herself again as she sat sickened in her seat. He’d come to her like some apostle, like Moses with the tablets, like some little burning bush on feet and showed her her emptiness, and she’d loved him for showing it to her; she loved him with a love that gripped her heart and made her feel like she marched in that long line of religious converts – Paul and Augustine and Charles Colson and Little Richard. That was why she had reached out to him in the fish camp – to requite what he had offered her first, to seal their pact as brother and sister. And what had he done in return? Stolen her hat and called her that distasteful name. Oh there was no greater despair than this! And everyone saw her too when she hit the fish camp floor. They gawked a full minute, like she was some sideshow freak, before Rev. Hoyt and the camp manager came to lift her –with Lillith sitting over her, laughing and saying, “Y’all don’t mind her. She just can’t hold her liquor.” She’d been so ready to love too, to spread love all over the world like a blanket. Now love soured, turned to a black hate. Right then she could have taken Benny Troy into her hands and torn him to pieces like some graven idol.
A strange car sat in Maude’s driveway. Maude didn’t pay it much attention, though, as she strode slowly, funereally towards the front door. Lillith walked ahead of her, saying in mock concern, “Now watch your step, dearie. Don’t fall again, or I will have to get you a walker.” Inside they both stopped in their tracks because Christine stood in the den with a strange young man in a drab olive military uniform. Christine herself was dressed as though to go somewhere, and indeed her pink suitcase stood near her. For one of the few times Maude had known the girl, a smile came to her lips.
“Miz Hutto, this is Jerry. He’s on leave from Fort Bragg. I think I told you about it. We’re going to a motel for a few days to spend some time together and talk things out. I hope that doesn’t bother you, what with you being a born again Christian and everything.”
Lillith harrumphed off to her room, but Maude remained in place, staring at Christine and Jerry, and near Christine’s suitcase sat little Lorrie, playing with wooden blocks. The tableau was complete: man, woman, child. The covenant that had been denied her, the love she could never have. For a moment she was filled with a quiet rage towards them, and she thought of striking out at them, physically even, for their equanimity. But it suddenly did not seem worth the effort. She hadn’t the energy.
Maude shook her head slowly. “No, it doesn’t matter,” she said and turned and left the young people in the living room.
In her bedroom Maude went straight to her vanity and sat, as though to recover from some battle. She took off her hat and sat it down and stared into the mirror. She had left off the light, so she was looking at some apparition of herself, a woman who may or may not have been there. She had been denied all love, all chance for love, even love which transcended the ephemeral. Strangely enough the realization did not hurt her. If anything she found something comforting in it, something almost heroic. “I am resigned to it,” she told her dark reflection. “I’m just like a monk, a nun, any great ascetic. How many people can say that?” She was distinct and dignified: the unloved woman in a world of women all too loved, all too attached, all too domestic.
She swelled up in the vanity’s mirror. Her chest puffed out. Some color returned to her cheeks. She could discern bits of it even in the dark. The only embarrassment which now lingered in her was caused not by the events at the fish camp but by her attempt to fit in, her silly cries for love and acceptance. Who needed them, when one could be unique?
She embraced her emptiness like a child needing affection.