Big Top Salvation

              Dry grass crunched under Ronnie’s feet as he got out of his old, beat up car. The dark was chilly but the light from the big tent looked warm and inviting, the thick canvas only opening at the entrance to let the sheen spill out before it. “The gates of heaven itself,” he thought to himself, and strode towards the light.

           Streams of people were walking around him and the mild claustrophobia was already setting in, the shoulders of the people around him jostling him uncomfortably. He was swept up in the sea of souls searching for salvation as they surged for the entrance together, a hive-mind of biblical proportions that caught everyone who stepped into it in the swell. The dry vegetation and late-autumn dandelions were stamped to the dust from whence they came, and Ronnie felt every bit of it under his feet as he held back, fighting the tide as much as his wiry strength would let him. Overhead the stars shone and God looked down, disappointed in his children but willing to hear their prayers for forgiveness and awaiting their calls.

           At the tent-flaps he finally managed to step off to the side to get a moment to himself. As the herd moved forward, accepting pamphlets and shaking the hands of middle-aged devotees set to welcome them at the gates, Ronnie stood away in fear. That first step had always been the hardest, the gates to salvation. There had been many attempts to cure him of his affliction. He had tried doctors first, looking for a pill or a setting that would make it all go away. The affliction was real, he felt it inside, and there was no way to get it out of him. The doctors had shaken their heads, most telling him that it was not an affliction at all but he knew better. Ronnie had felt it.

           The mind-doctors, the shrinks with their nice houses and their forty-dollar haircuts, those had been no help either. Sitting in their cushy chairs as he sat on their stiff, scratchy couches, taking notes, and all of them agreed with the doctors. Of the three he had visited there had been a couple that were particularly obnoxious and dumb, set in the way of the hippie and the whiner, and they had begged him to just give up his morals and take their view. “There’s nothing wrong, nothing at all,” one had said, “and you don’t need to feel like this. You can be happy.”

           “Ah, horseshit,” Ronnie had spit back at the man. “There’s plenty wrong. I got my code, ya see? I figure it’s just something wrong in my brain and I can fix it. The doctors, they don’t know much about it other than they can’t seem to get it out with pills and shots. Wish they’d have vaccinated me when I was a young’un, that might’ve blocked it before I could git infected.”

           “Ronnie,” the therapist had stated again, “it’s not a thing to feel afraid of. There is literally. Nothing. Wrong. Not a damned thing.”

           He had let the quack bring up his childhood, looking for early signs or for abuse, anything to indicate nature or nurture, but Ronnie knew. It had been from birth, an infection that he had felt his entire life. He could not remember a time when he had not felt…. wrong, and the doctors spit up from hell were not going to change his mind. He had tried medicine in his twenties. He had tried the “psycho-cologists” in his thirties. After that he had merely decided to get married, that a wife would help and would ground him, give him perspective.

           Now, in his sixties, he finally had no other choice. He had to return to his god.

“You alright there, mister?” a squeaky voice from behind him asked. He turned to find the most bizarre woman he had seen in all his years. She was short. Not like any of the teeny people he had seen on the TV, but closer to five foot tall than not. Her bright, graying-blonde hair was massive in its’ tangle of curls and spread from a part down the middle of her hair to tumble off to the sides. He red eye-glasses were bright but not thick and may have just been reading glasses. A little pouch of chub hung out under her breasts, but she was far from fat. She was far from ugly but she looked off somehow. The strangest part of her costume, however, was the bright Christmas sweater she wore to shield against the cold. A navy blue affair with white patches to represent snow surrounded a display of the Christmas creche, the wise men and shepherds gathered around the bright mother and father that stood above their child. The little Jesus somehow seemed possessed, it’s bugged out eyes visible even as tiny as they were, and he looked terrified.

Right there with ya, kid,” Ronnie thought to himself. Out loud he said, “No ma’am, I’m here for the revival meeting.” His voice was shaky, his eyes watering. “I come to see the good reverend, see if he can show me to Jesus.”

Her face lit up and without warning she leapt at him, throwing her arms around his neck. He could smell the overly strong scent of baby powder and vanilla lotion covering thinly veiling the mothball haze her sweater was emitting. “Praise Christ!” she cried, holding him tight. “Praise him, sir! You’re more than welcome here.” She leaned back but did not release him. She looked him straight in the face, joyous. “All lookin’ fer Christ are welcome here honey.”

The hug had felt good, perhaps the first real love he had felt in her life. It was intriguing. Ronnie had never felt love like that, at least not without fighting to earn it. His daddy, his mother, none of his family had ever loved him fully and instantly like that.

“I….I’m afflicted,” he said.

Her face opened into blank shock. “With what?” she asked.

“I’d rather not say,” he replied softly, hanging his head and pulling away from her. She looked at him for a moment, wary. “It’s n-n-not catching,” he stuttered, suddenly defensive. “I’m afflicted with a terror of a spiritual nature, something in my bones.”

“Ah,” she said, the smile returning, “then the Rev can fix you right up. He specializes in stuff like that, and I know he’ll be able to help ya. Reverend Baker isn’t just a preacher-man.”

“He’s not?” Ronnie asked, confused.

“Nah, far from just a simple talker. The Rev talks a good talk, and mayhap that’ll be all you’ll need, but the Rev also walks the walk. He’s a preachin’ man, a helpin’ man, and a healin’ man.”

A healer!” Ronnie thought. “A preachin’ healer, at last.

“Come in, hurry,” she said, and linked her arm through his own. “Come and sit down, the show’s about to start and you don’t wanna miss it. Whatever the Rev has in store tonight, I’m sure we can get you up front and he can help.” She led him forward, into the tent, where the singing had already begun. “The Rev can cure what ails ya, honey.” He did not struggle, but let himself be led forward into the light. It washed over him and already he felt the elation, the electric charge in the air that could only come from true belief. Hundreds of those gathered.

There was no more room to sit except the front, reserved for those helping with the gathering. Dozens were massed in the back, delight in the eyes of some and the shadow of naked fear in others. Some, he saw, were stone-faced and clearly not there of their own volition.

“Now you come sit with Patty,” she said. “That’s me, by the way. Patty Hatcher.”

“Ronnie Bahler,” he replied. “Pleased to meetcher, ma’am.” He reached up and tipped his straw hat with one hand.

“Ronnie Bahler, really?” she asked. “Ronnie Bahler of ‘Bahler Antiques’, that Ronnie?”

“The one and the same,” he chuckled. His mustache twitched in embarrassed pleasure. “Though I must admit, it’s more of a junk shop than an antiquities store.”

“Nonsense,” she exclaimed, turning to face him. “Everyone’s got their ministry. A plan for everyone.”

Looking around, he spotted a corner towards the back that had some standing room left. He unlinked from her arm and began mumbling an excuse, a reason to slink off to a retreat and hide in his shame while he awaited the healing light of Jesus.

“Now none o’ that, you just wait right here,” she said. Patty took off towards the front, performing the light jog that only mothers and crazy cat women could execute with any grace, and headed for the front of the congregation. Ronnie stood in her wake, right at the front of the aisle as though a groom waiting to walk to his bride. She was speaking to someone up front in the volunteers’ seats. It was a young man, a kid no older than twenty and who would struggle to weigh a buck seventy-five soaking wet. He smiled wide and nodded, then got up to follow her back down to where Ronnie waited.

“All set,” she said, breathless from her brief jog. The young man strode up beside her.

“What’s all set?” Ronnie asked her.

“Now don’t you fuss,” the kid chimed in. “You’re sittin’ up front with miss Hatcher.”

“Huh?” Ronnie asked. “Oh no, no I don’t want to put anyone out.”

“You ain’t,” the kid said, a wide smile on his face. “We want you up there. Whatever you need, Jesus and the Rev are here for you and so are we. You get on up there with Patty now. Sing your heart out and bathe in the light of Christ, brother.”

His eyes watering, Ronnie allowed himself to be lead forward. As the crowd began to surge in song he felt himself afloat in their love, in the light. He had not felt this kind of feeling since he was a child, when his mother would take him to their little church in Amber Grove nigh on sixty years prior. His heart swelled with joy and hope, the thought that he might – at last – be freed of his horrid nature and be cleansed in the House of God.

He sat in the hard chair, holding back the tears streaming down his face, and accepted a large cup of punch that was placed in his hand by an unknown member of the volunteer staff. He smiled wide and took a large swig, emptying over half the cup, and eased back to comfort.

“Now you wait here,” Patty said, “I’ll join you in a sec.” She took off for the back of the tent and disappeared behind a flap. Ronnie sat, listening to the music. There was no organ, no leader of the large choir, yet they carried their tune in time as though thoroughly practiced. It occurred to him that they probably were. This was the final night of a full revival weekend, the ending service of celebration in light of the successfully packed weekend. Behind him a small group of children crooned along with their mother, off to the side the young man who had given up his seat sang out from the diaphragm, his melodic voice carrying the tune with the practice of a lifelong choir boy.

He wanted to sing out, to join the chorus, but his fear hung heavy over him. His jacket hung heavy over him, the weight of his flask of liquid courage in his inner front pocket calling to him. Ronnie was unsure if he would be able to confess, to relinquish himself to the higher powers, without a little. But just a little.

Looking both ways carefully, he saw that no one was watching. Everyone was lit up with the excitement of the moment, caught up in song and love and Christ. Quickly he extracted his large, silver flask, and filled his cup up with the rum contained within as he used his sport-coat as a shield to hide his mild misdeed. The clear liquid mixed with the punch and hid neatly within it, the pink color thinning only slightly as the level rose. He filled it too far, nearly to the brim, and had to lift it quickly to his lips to take a large swig. Burning flew down his throat, mixing with the taste of pink lemonade, and washed down his throat. He felt himself grow red and felt his inhibitions begin to fade nearly instantly. Just the knowledge that he would be a bit drunk, be a bit more open and accepting, helped him get in the mood completely. He began to belt out with the rest of them

O brothers, let’s go down

Let’s go down, come on down

Come on brothers, let’s go down

Down in the river to pray

It was off-key, it was raucous, and it was perfect. He faded into the voices and became one with them, lost in it. For a few, precious minutes he ceased to be sick, old Ronnie Bahler and was just a member of the congregation.

The singing mixed with cheers and clapping, shouts of “Hallelujah”, as the Rev walked in through the back flap of the church. The lights went out before Ronnie could get a good look at him, a set of lights illuminating the stage. He could see the dark shape of the man headed for the steps, ascending them. As he stepped into the light the music was lost completely, the hoots and hollers deafening around him as the man came into full view.

There was no beating around the bush, the guy was stunning. Not just stunning, magnetic. His smile shone out from under his bright blue eyes, his face pale and freckled but not awkward and taught. A shock of red hair was visible under the hat. The short-sleeved clergy shirt was buttoned all the way up, the clerical collar fastened perfectly around the man’s muscular neck. Emerging from the sleeves were thick arms, equally as toned, that led down to large hands. His height was impressive, surpassing six feet with plenty more to go. All around him was an air of joy, of faith and the happiness that his demeanor promised to the crowd. The man held up his hands and the crowd quieted nigh-on instantaneously. The Shepherd to his flock, they saw him as their conduit to salvation and he commanded that level of love and respect from them.

“Folks,” he began, “ladies and gentlemen of Christ.” Small cries of joy elicited from the crowd, sporadically popping up. “Today, my friends, we close our service weekend.” Ronnie tipped his cup to his lips, chugging all of the mixture within and refilling in the darkness with the whole of the contents of his flask. He felt the twinge of his affliction and needed to tamp it down, to fully receive the Word of God. “We have sung together. We’ve laughed, cried, and been reborn together. The disposition of the Lord is sweet, and he has welcomed us into his arms together. And we won’t go alone!” At this another spurt of excitement and exclamations.

“Folks, tonight we have one more task. Tonight we have a mission, a path from God we must follow to completion.” He was burning bright in the spotlights, sweat beading on his forehead as he raised his hands above him. “Tonight,” he cried out, shocking the crowd into a stunned silence. He paused here, allowing the crowd to move to the edge of their seats. “Tonight we save the weary!” Applause at this. “Tonight we call down the Lord for the sick!” A surge began to ripple through them. “Tonight,” he cried, his voice rasping, “we save the damned and we heal the afflicted!” Ronnie’s heart surged as the Rev looked upward as though into the face of Christ himself. The crowd lost it at this and began to scream together, to cry out and beg for his touch.

Ronnie joined them, throwing back all of the contents of his cup and casting it to the floor. Most of the congregation was on it’s feet and he stood to join them, his hands extended as he bellowed. “Save me, Lord! Take away my afflictions and my wicked nature,” he shouted at the Revered.

“My name,” cried the preacher-man, “is Reverend Thomas Baker, and I am here to lead you to the bosom of Christ.” The crowd quieted, letting him speak. “Now Miss Hatcher,” he continued, “has brought a poor soul to my attention.” At this Ronnie froze, suddenly nervous and a little sick. The rum sloshed in him, rolling around in his empty stomach, and he worried that he knew what was coming.

“My friends,” the Rev continued, “a man is here tonight that needs our help. He needs our support, and the love of the Lambs of God. This man here, this poor soul steeped in pain, needs us to support him tonight. He needs us,” the Rev croaked as the volume of his voice climbed once more, “to bring him to the light!” The crowd, once again, roared in support.

Ronnie felt hands grip his arms as Patty and another volunteer woman began leading him forward. He struggled for a moment, but Patty turned to look him full in the face and he was once again awash in the loving support she had shown him from the first instant, and he nervously acquiesced to their pull and allowed himself to be led towards the stairs to his right. One grip released and Patty herself led him onstage. The lights were harsh as he stepped into them, blinding in their brilliance. He could no longer see the crowd, now only aware of their presence because of the noise they made. The Rev stood in the center of the stage, his hand outstretched to the poor soul approaching him.

Ronnie was wobbly on his feet and staggered forward, scared to death. He looked up, letting his quickly doubling vision focus on Reverend Thomas Baker’s face, and began to move forward. Patty released him and allowed him to move on his own. His stumbling, awkward steps led him to the center of the stage. Baker took his hand, holding it aloft, and reached with his other to take the mic from it’s stand. He turned to look at Ronnie, then embraced him. A flush ran up Ronnie’s neck that had nothing to do with the alcohol coursing through his veins, and he reached up to grip the man in a bear hug. He buried his head in his shoulder and began to weep, the tears finally streaming down his face.

The Rev held him for a moment, letting him cry as the crowd cheered them on. Standing in the spotlight, the two of them alone, felt like a moment of near-triumph. Ronnie was close, and he had the love and support of not only Christ but this charismatic, gorgeous young individual as well to push him through to salvation. Baker moved him back, his hands on his shoulders to straighten him, and then pulled the microphone to his lips.

“Sir,” he said, “tell us what afflicts your soul. Tell us what the devil has done to you.”

“Uh…” Ronnie croaked. He hesitated then finally spat it out. “I am,” he said, “and always have been attracted to men.” At this the roaring ceased. He heard Patty gasp behind him. “Since I was a boy,” he continued, “the devil been in me. I’ve felt it and I knew it was wrong. I knew somethin’ was uncouth about me, about what I felt. I’m here tonight,” he said as he raised his face to meet the Reverend’s, “to ask you to help release me from this that I might walk with Christ.”

The crowd stayed silent. Baker looked on at him, his smile holding steady as Ronnie nervously awaited the response. Patty breathed hard behind him, and he could feel her discomfort. The Reverend looked back at her, nodded, then turned his head to address the crowd.

“That,” Baker said, “is somethin’ deep inside. Somethin’ hard to get out, ‘specially after a lifetime of livin’ in sin. But that, my friend, is a thing that I think we can help with.” The crowd cheered at this, and Ronnie felt his heart break. He buried his face in his hands and began weeping again, his veins burning with alcohol and faith, and he cried there. He cried in front of them all, blubbering and sputtering his thanks and his proclamations of love and faith.

Thomas Baker signaled to several waiting offstage and three men came to join Patty as they circled around behind him. They gripped Ronnie’s arms and legs, lifted him off the ground as he cried. His head swirled and his stomach lurched, his affliction making it’s rebellion known to him as they lifted him into the air and held him high. They lowered him to the ground as Baker walked to stand beside him, taking the back of Ronnie’s head in his massive hand.

“Son,” he said quietly into the mic, “brother-in-Christ. Tonight I swear by the love I feel for everyone in this tent that we’re gonna get this outta you. We’re gonna purge this affliction from your soul and rend you in two, separating the sick from the saved. Tonight, my friend, we’re gonna cast us a demon back down to hell!”

Ronnie felt the lurch in his stomach as the Rev placed his hand over it, working the skin and muscle beneath as he shouted praises to God. He shouted his love and begged for Ronnie’s forgiveness, and the drunken man joined him. Patty stood beside him, spouting gibberish as she allowed the Holy Spirit to take hold of her. She placed her hands on either side of his face, squeezing him tightly and causing the spinning he felt in his head to intensify as she began to move it from left to right. Seasick and drunk on joy as well as the rum, he lolled back and forth with her in the embrace of the small group onstage. Heat swelled over him.

The nauseating performance continued for a full ten minutes, the Rev shouting and roaring over him as the giant’s hand worked over Ronnie’s middle. The group around him rubbed his muscles and Patty cried out in the tongue of the angels, the crowd silent in rapture as they watched. The demon was working it’s way up out of the guts, into the higher stomach and eventually into Ronnie’s esophagus. He could feel it working it’s way out, feel his affliction fighting for it’s place in his life and knowing that God would not let it stay. He felt it reach the back of his throat, felt a burn as the heat of the foul creature struggled to stay down. At last it knew it could not cling to him anymore and burst forth.

Ronnie vomited rum and pink lemonade all over himself, all over the arm of the Rev, and all over the hands of those around him. The only one to escape was Patty, her hands still clinging to the side of his face. She aimed him away from herself, forced him to purge forward and down his old but crisp three-piece suit. He was awash in demon-bile but free, feelings of exodus and salvation frying his swaying brain. The group released him as the Rev stopped shouting, stood. They all ran for towels but Baker simply stood there, gazing down at Ronnie with a look of pure awe. Finally he raised his microphone again.

“This man,” he whispered into it, “is free.”

The crowd roared, the demon purged and the performance at a close. There were more to come but Ronnie had been freed. Reverend Thomas Baker stood there before them all, liquor vomit running down his arm. A look of joy and pride shone forth from his face.

The meeting went on like this. After the towels had been brought out and the stage cleaned along with the Rev and his volunteers there were several more healings. An old woman was given the gift of no longer requiring a cane to walk, a small boy with brain cancer was smacked in the head and pronounced cured by the congregation, and many others. It was a parade of sickness, of destitution, and of pain. None, however, were as intense and zealous as Ronnie’s healing. He stood off to the side with Patty Hatcher, wearing a thin t-shirt and a freely-given pair of jeans that he had been handed after washing himself off outside. He watched the ceremony and when Baker called for all to pray he fell prostrate before the stage and cried again, listening to the words of the stark young man that saved him from his horrors.

After the meeting was over Patty offered to take him backstage. “The Rev wants to chat with ya a spell,” she said, smiling at him. She once again linked her arm in his and led him out behind the tent, the designated “backstage” area. She deposited him before Baker and turned back to the tent, disappearing into it after flashing the men one last smile. Baker was wiping the sweat from his face with a fresh towel, the last of many he had used that night, and was glowing in the dark with religious fervor.

“Incredible crowd tonight,” he said to Ronnie. “The love was here tonight.”

“It was and then some,” Ronnie said, his pointed mustache twitching in delight.

“You feel any different?” The Rev asked, a look of genuine concern on his face.

“Rev,” Ronnie said, “I feel like a million bucks. If I had it I’d donate it to you.”

“We could use it, sadly,” the Rev said. “We’re headed to Oklahoma next. You know, where that tornado hit yesterday? We’ve already signed up to help with the relief and a million bucks could really help some folks.”

Ronnie shuffled awkwardly. “Rev,” he said at last, “I wish I had somethin’ to give. You know I do, Lord knows I’m grateful to both Him and you for your help but I got nothin’ but the store.”

“No,” Baker said with a smile, “I was just thinkin’ out loud. I wasn’t askin’ for nothin’. I don’t want anything but for you to live your life and go with Christ.”

“You,” Ronnie said, “you’re the genuine article. Lotta preacher-men aren’t. They crooked, somethin’ about the power over a crowd goes to their head. You are a different sort.”

“Brother,” Baker said, “I’m just a tool of the Lord.” He held out a card to Ronnie Bahler and it was gladly accepted. “My number,” he told Ronnie, “in case a strappin’ man such as yourself is overcome with the urge to help others while we’re in Oklahoma. The site is only a couple of hours away, and I could always use a friend.”

“A friend?” asked Ronnie.

“A friend, yes,” replied the Rev. “Look, the volunteers are staying in the Embassy down in OKC but I’m staying in a smaller place off the highway. Cheaper and closer to the site so I can be there first thing in the mornin’ and leave last in the evenin’ without having to drive too far. If you feel the urge,” he said as he looked Ronnie in the eye, “come on down and give me a call.”

Ronnie smiled as he looked down at the card. He felt a hand clasp his shoulder as the Rev walked by him towards the tent flap. The heat of the man’s hand was inviting, warm, and loving. Then it was gone and the man disappeared back into the house of worship. Ronnie smiled.

Mayhap the urge will strike,” he thought to himself. “Mayhap.

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