Miracle Night

WEDNESDAY NIGHT WAS MIRACLE NIGHT at the Rock Harbor House of Prayer.  It came the first Wednesday of every month, and flocks of faithful followed it, driving upwards of a hundred miles through thickets of mesquite and creosote that hadn’t smelled of rain since January.  Constable Faron Cummings sat out front in his squad car, sweating out the July heat and sipping vodka from a coffee cup as he watched the faithful file through the double front doors.  Tonight’s looked even more desperate than last month’s.  He remembered thinking then that a collection of creatures more in need of the hand of God could never be assembled under one roof.  But this bunch seemed to have been predestined to prove him wrong.  This month Brother Alvin had guaranteed a major miracle.
            As to what a major miracle might consist of, Constable Cummings had no clue.  He hunkered down, listening to the hollow sound of doves calling out for each other, and for the death of the sun, and watched the Southwest Texas sky fade the color of blood.  He hoped for both their sakes—three of their sakes, counting Sister Barbara—that Brother Alvin could come up with some fireworks.  Judging by their faces, the faithful had come expecting something Biblical.  Eyes dry and wide as the rolling hills west of town, and as full of heat-wave mirages and thirst, they swarmed out of their rattle-trap cars and descended on the broken-down old bingo hall that Mr. Alvin Bromwell had rented six months back—and that “Brother Alvin” had rechristened the Rock Harbor House of Prayer.
            “Miracles,” he remembered Alvin saying once as Sister Barbara counted out the night’s take, “are the province of the poor, and the domain of the disconsolate.”  The Constable took a long swig from his coffee cup.  Miracles, as far as he could see, were the province of the mob and the domain of the desperate, and it was a damn good thing for Mr. Alvin Bromwell—whose rap sheet included two convictions for petty larceny and a warrant for fraud—that “Brother Alvin” skimmed the security cut straight off the top.
            The opening chords of “Shall We Gather at the River” quavered down the front steps and sent Constable Cummings to the trunk of the squad car for his fifth of vodka.  There wasn’t a creek that ran water for miles.  But the music grew, drowning out the sunset sound of doves and drawing in the waverers on the promise of heavenly waters.  The Constable set the coffee cup next to the gas can and poured, trying to fit enough vodka into the big white mug to see him through two hours of singing, praying, weeping, and the laying-on of hands, followed by a general dunking in the Baptismal tent out back.  He filled the cup all the way to the rim.
            Once the last of the stragglers was swallowed up into the singing inside, the Constable stepped off the crumbling asphalt into the drought-blasted grass he could feel crunch beneath his boots.  He climbed the stairs slowly and clasped Brother Alvin’s hand.  There were no bones in it—anyway, none he could feel, just flesh in layer upon layer under folds of damp skin.
            “Brother Cummings!” Alvin shouted.  “May Jesus bless and touch you!  May He lay healing hands upon you!”
            “I ain’t your brother.  And I done been touched enough.”
            “All right then, Constable!” Alvin said, dropping the shout down to a whisper.  “They seem a little restless.”
            “Seem a lot restless to me.”  Around the smell of sweat and fresh-laid sawdust, the Constable caught an acrid whiff of mob that made his heart beat faster.  “Been a long time since we had ourselves a lynching.”
            “It’s this heat!  I’ve never felt such heat!”
            “It’s that major miracle you promised.  You’d best light this old bingo hall up like a roman candle.  Or else that flock in there is liable to light it for you.”
            “What the hell do you think I’m paying you for?” Alvin hissed.  “Just go easy on that coffee, Constable.  Keep your mouth shut, and your eyes open.  You hear?”
            The Constable looked away into the Rock Harbor House of Prayer.  Sister Barbara sat up front at a water-stained cabinet grand piano, staring ecstasy into the flock from beneath a jet black beehive.  Sister Barbara was the kind of showman he guessed Moses must have been—the brains behind the outfit, to Alvin’s brass.  She sang louder and stronger, lifting up her voice but keeping her head on a level, making eye contact, and molding the seething crowd into a congregation. 
            Just then the Constable felt Brother Alvin reach out and latch onto a straggler.  But there was something funny about it—not so much in the reaching, or the latching, as in the less than jowl-to-jowl stretch of Alvin’s smile.  The Constable turned and saw a woman in a red velvet dress.  A Mexican woman, with breasts like cantaloupes.  Not much more than a hundred pounds of her, but all on the balls of her feet, and her face thrown out like a fist.
            “Magdalena,” the Constable said.  “What are you doing here?”
            “Alguien me dijó, va a occurir un milagro.”
            “You know this . . . woman?” Alvin said.
            “She’s a local,” the Constable said.  He noticed Alvin hadn’t called her “sister.” 
            “Then I’ll leave her to you.”
            “Alguien me dijó,” she said again, “va a occurir un milagro.”
            “Ain’t no miracle in there,” the Constable said.  He looked over his shoulder at the pent-up frenzied faces of Brother Alvin’s faithful, white as their idea of Jesus.  He looked back into Magdalena’s face that was calm and brown.  “Not for you.”
            “Es para ella,” she said.  “Para Angelina.”
            The Constable’s eyes slid onto a figure that separated itself from the darkness behind Magdalena.  He looked down into the girl’s face for as long as he could stand it.  Something, if God knew what the doctors didn’t, had gone wrong when that face was made.  The fingermarks were in it—as though the shaping hand had squeezed too hard.  It took a second look to notice, but it grew on you.  And the figure even more than the face.  She was built like Magdalena.  Hija del Diablo, the locals called her.  Devil’s daughter.  Couldn’t go to school, couldn’t even talk—anyway, not in words.  She was always slipping out any door or window that wasn’t padlocked and taking off her clothes, turning the office of Constable into the twenty-four hour job of tracking her down and taking her home.  Then Magdalena would clean her up and put the clothes back on her, the whole time whispering, “Angelina, mi vida, Angelina.”
            “Magdalena,” the Constable said, “go on home.”  He reached for Magdalena’s arm, determined to drag her out to the squad car, if need be, and haul her and Angelina back to the rickety shack the two of them shared on the wrong side of the tracks.
            But just then Sister Barbara drew “Shall We Gather at the River” to a close.  A silence settled over the congregation.  In the quiet, Magdalena pushed her way past the Constable and into Rock Harbor House of Prayer.  She forced a spot on the back bench for herself and Angelina as the flock divided into restlessness.  They jostled as much for air as sitting room, along wooden pews that opened only onto the center aisle.  Alvin had nailed the benches to the walls.  The bodies of the faithful couldn’t be packed in any tighter, and every window in the house was painted shut.
            Brother Alvin stood up front behind the pulpit.  Sweat bearded his chin and cheeks, trickling down over folds of flesh onto his black bow tie.  Behind him, high up on the wall, hung a three-by-five foot Jesus bleeding blood-red velveteen onto a three-by-five foot velveteen cross.  Ranged about the whitewashed walls were the same old pictures of the same tired miracles, immortalized in oil—Jesus at Cana changing water into wine, Jesus walking toward a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.   The Constable had seen too much of human misery to believe that people had it in them to be healed.  As far as he could see, the Apocalypse would be a mercy killing. 
            Sister Barbara let the restlessness draw out into silence beneath Brother Alvin’s bowed head.  The only sounds were the labored breathing of the flock, the shuffle of feet in sawdust, and the creak of benches straining under the weight of too many desperate souls.  Magdalena’s dress shone out from among the rest of the congregation like a ruby on the shores of a lake of salt.  It had been her prom dress.  The Constable remembered Magdalena in it, all those years ago.  She’d had to push her way into the cafetorium, too—a teenage jezebel in a cut and patterned curtain.  Beside her, Angelina was in constant motion.  She swiveled toward the door every couple of seconds or so, and seeing the Constable watching, locked her eyes on his.  
            “Welcome!” Alvin shouted, snapping his head up and sweeping his arms out wide so that drops of sweat showered the congregation.  “Welcome, brothers and sisters!  May Jesus bless and touch us!  May He lay healing hands upon us!”
            Sister Barbara’s beehive dipped.
            “Amen!” the Constable yelled.  He took a long, bitter swig out of his coffee cup.
            “Heavenly Father!  These brothers and sisters have come unto Your house, bearing heaviness in their hearts and affliction in their limbs!  They have come seeking the touch of Jesus Christ!  May He lay healing hands upon us!  May He be with us here at the Rock Harbor House of Prayer tonight!”
            “Amen!” Faron called out, as Sister Barbara’s beehive dipped.
            Then Brother Alvin pulled a rattlesnake out of the pulpit.  It was a monster diamondback, seven feet from tongue to button.  The congregation sucked in a collective gasp as Alvin held the snake up high, one hand clamped tight behind the wedge-shaped head and the other cupped beneath its belly.  The old diamondback writhed and coiled, looping itself around Alvin’s arms and trying to twist its tail into his bowtie.  Black reptile eyes burned twin tunnels in the air over the congregation.  But it never once rattled.  Remembering what his granddaddy had said about the snake that never sang being the one that struck, the Constable eased a hand onto his pistol grip.
            “And they shall handle the serpents,” Alvin stage-whispered, strong enough to carry the length and breadth of the congregation, “and drink the poisons, and remain unharmed.”  Then he uncupped his hand from underneath the rattlesnake’s belly and snuggled it in his arms like a lover.
            The Constable looked at the faithful with their heads bowed low and their eyes rolling up onto the rattler.  He looked at Magdalena’s head that was bowed lower still, at Angelina’s body that waved and darted like the snake.  He thought about the times, after he had tracked Angelina down and dragged her home again, that he had stayed all night with Magdalena.  He remembered the salt-sweet savor of the hollow between her breasts, the soft swell of her belly, the musky smell of her damp sheets.
            “Jesus wept!” Alvin shouted.  His voice was big and deep, filled with something that wasn’t faith exactly, but what the Constable could only call rapture.  Sweat ran down across the rapture on Alvin’s face until it seemed as though he, too, was weeping.  “Why?”
            “Amen!” a voice choked out from the back of the congregation, at the same time ecstatic and half-dead.
            “Amen!” shouted the congregation in a single, raptured voice.
            “May Jesus bless and touch us!  May He lay healing hands upon us!” Alvin shouted.
            The Constable looked deep into the face of the girl sitting next to Magdalena.  All he saw was fingermarks.  Hadn’t Jesus laid His hands upon enough?
            “And now, if you will, turn in your hymnals to page 323 and join with Sister Barbara in singing ‘Power in the Blood!’”
            The beehive dipped as she struck the opening chord, then canted slowly and dramatically back.  Barbara’s voice, deep as Alvin’s and every bit as strong, was swallowed up as the faithful stood and joined in the hymn.
            There is power, power, wonderworking power, in the Blood of the Lamb.
            The Constable’s head was full of blood and the power in it.  His forebears had come from the South Carolina low country, where bearded oaks were kissed by the salt-sweet breeze from the sea.  The Constable’s grandfather had told him the story.  He remembered the big Navy Colt his grandaddy had carried, and the white felt hat the old man had worn cocked low over one eye.  “My daddy,” the old man had said, “your great-grandaddy, Jefferson Davis Cummings, shotgunned a man on his wedding day on the front steps of the Beaufort Baptist Church.  Then he scooped up the dead man’s bride and rode hell-for-leather west, Gone To Texas.  He lit out of Carolina with a lynch mob at his heels, swam the horse across the Savannah River bride and all, and rode across four states into what he prayed would be the Promised Land.  His mount dropped dead in a mesquite bottom, deep in the Southwest Texas brush.  Jeff Davis took this as a sign his prayer had been answered, took the dead man’s bride as his own, and took over as Constable in a little ranch town on the rail head.  There has been a Constable Cummings here in Carlotta ever since.”
            Constable Faron Cummings stood in the doorway of the Rock Harbor House of Prayer and looked again at Angelina.  Seeing those fingermarks, he couldn’t help but remember on through the rest of the story.  The bride Jefferson Davis Cummings had killed a man for, and carried off to Texas, had been his own niece.  The Constable drained his coffee cup at the thought of it.  But Angelina was smiling, and the look of her was something joyful.  She had her eyes on the Constable, and her hands up behind her back, fumbling with buttons.  He remembered other stories his grandfather had told him about tracking rustlers to hideouts in the brush, and using that well-oiled Navy Colt to gun them down.  Feeling the pistol grip slick with sweat against his palm, he wondered what one of those bigger, bolder forebears would do right now.
            The final chord of “Power in the Blood” died and the benches creaked as the faithful sank back onto them.  Brother Alvin started shouting out the sermon.  The message was all about major miracles.  He started with the really big ones—the Creation, the Flood, the Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea—then worked his way up to Jesus and the Apostles.  The rapture in Alvin’s voice gathered momentum.  The sweat poured down his face.  As he moved on to the miracles he had personally performed, Alvin gently stroked the rattler that was draped around his shoulders.
            “And only during this past week,” Alvin shouted, “one of our sisters down in Corpus Christi came to us with her baby daughter!”  Us, the Constable thought.  Him and God.  “The child was afflicted with a navel that had been improperly formed and the child’s belly was swollen up three times the normal size!  The doctors told our sister they would have to cut that tiny baby with their scalpels!  Brothers and sisters, is there anything in this vale of tears that is any sharper?  But we prayed over it.  We handled the serpent, and laid our hands upon that baby, and in that space of time the baby’s belly became unharmed!”
            “Amen!” the congregation shouted.
            “And we visited on that same afternoon in Corpus Christi, a sister whose only boy had been struck dumb at birth!”  The Constable saw Magdalena’s shoulders tighten.  “So severely afflicted was the child that he lay on a cot foaming and twitching, unable to speak a single word!  The doctors called that boy a hopeless epileptic, and said they needed to cut out half his brain!  But we prayed over him.  We handled the serpent, and laid our hands upon that boy, and in the course of that afternoon the boy rose up and spoke the name of Jesus Christ!”
            “And now, brothers and sisters, we ask you to give!  Give freely so that you may receive freely!  Give freely so that the healing waters may flow freely here tonight!”  The Constable watched the faithful dig deep into their purses, pockets, wallets.  He saw Magdalena reach inside her dress, into the warm wet space between red velvet and smooth brown skin.  Seeing it, he remembered that first night seventeen years ago when Magdalena had slipped away from the high school prom she’d had to push her way into, and slid into his squad car, and he had pulled that velvet dress over her head.  “You have only to give to receive!  Is there some particular miracle you have brought here in your hearts?  Some special aching-place where you need for Jesus to direct His healing touch?”
            Magdalena’s arm shot up like the discharge of a well-oiled Navy Colt.  Next to her, the result of that first night they had spent together sat fumbling with buttons and smiling into the Constable’s eyes.  He felt the coffee cup rise to his mouth as dry of vodka as his veins felt dry of blood.   What would Magdalena say? 
            But just then Sister Barbara started the collection plate across the front of the congregation and the Constable listened as the miracle requests passed along the front bench with it.  “My arthritis, Jesus,” they said.  “It’s a cancer, Jesus.  Jesus, my back.  My legs, Jesus.  My job.”  Me, me, me, my, my, my.  The same old song as always, from the same miserable mouths.  He watched Alvin stroke the rattler’s belly as it writhed and twisted against his shoulders.  He watched Angelina in the back row, and thought about how her body—so much like Magdalena’s body—writhed and twisted against the bench the way it had against the back seat of his squad car the night before, naked in the dark beneath his naked body, before he took her back to Magdalena’s.  Angelina, mi vida, Angelina.  How much did Magdalena know? 
            In a little while, he knew, Magdalena would drop her hand, place a folded banknote on the damp mound in the tray, ask for a miracle.  Then would come confessions.  But he wouldn’t wait to hear or feel them.  As the plate brushed the soft curve of Magdalena’s belly, Constable Faron Cummings stepped outside and shut the double front doors.  He sniffed the air as he walked downstairs, hoping for a breeze to stir the scrub brush and mesquite with the promise of an evening thundershower.  But the night was dead, the only sound the crunch of grass he could feel deep in his bones that seemed never to have known the touch of water.
            He opened the trunk of the squad car and pulled out the gas can.  Then he took the handle off the jack, and walked back across the drought-blasted grass.  The plastic gas can sloshed and knocked heavily against his leg.  The jack handle, a hollow steel tube about three feet long, felt cool and smooth in his hand.  He made his way around the old wooden bingo hall, splashing gas onto the weather-beaten boards at the base of the walls.  He felt the can get lighter as he worked his way back around to the front steps and the smell of the fumes was strong enough to make his head feel as light as the nearly empty can.  Even his feet felt light in his boots as he climbed the steps and wedged the metal jack handle through the handles on the double front doors. 
            Inside, they had started singing again.  It sounded to the Constable like a reprise of “Power in the Blood.”  He struck a match and tossed it into the trail of gas he’d left around the walls.  He heard the flames whoosh into life, then start to roar.  Then he tipped up the gas can and felt the liquid flow across his skin cool as the Savannah River as he sat down against the double front doors and struck another match.






Administration Building
by Richard Stepehns