THE WAGES OF MERCY
A Short Story
By Jon Gregory
These were especially depressing times to be a sinner. In the Oklahoma hamlets, and even in Oklahoma City, the one thing everybody had plenty of was dust. Red dirt was swept into towns by wind that lifted poorly tilled topsoil, leaving the land behind parched and stripped. Wind made a desert out of land that stretched like a billiard table all the way to Saskatchewan. Dry, red dust rose as high as squinting eyes could see, blocking sunlight but mixing torturingly with the heat.
It turned once-fertile farm country into a wasteland.
Hardworking, virtuous folk were hurting enough. But it was really hard for a sinner to find good diversion. Most of what there was to do didn't have much kick to it. There was the local picture show, where shoot-'em-ups and sometimes more sophisticated Hollywood fare were featured. In the fall there was high school football. Most houses had a radio by now. Newspapers occasionally carried accounts of bloody shootouts between lawmen and bandits, between details about the Legislature's latest follies and advice for the lovelorn. On Saturday night there was bootleg whiskey. For those who could afford children, or the condoms the druggists discreetly sold -- and for some who could afford neither -- there was sex. Married or illicit, it was somehow always furtive.
This was summer in 1936, when the faith healer came to town for a tent revival.
It was late afternoon on a Saturday, at the nicest motor court in town. The faith healer was walking back to his cabin, coming from a diner with a couple of hamburgers and some french-fried potatoes in a sack. He was passing by the gas pumps, beside the motor court, where a thin, sunburned man in khakis and a t-shirt would fill your tank. Travelers from the Ozarks were there, on the way to Pike's Peak.
The man of the family, a short, snappy Rotarian in a white summer suit, looked around at a dim afternoon sky almost crimson with dust.
"What is this, the end of the world or something?" the Rotarian asked the attendant, who silently filled their tank. He was daydreaming of somewhere else.
"I think we may stay at this motor court," the Rotarian said. "Don't think I want to drive through this after dark. Anything for folks to do in this town at night?"
"Not much," the sunburned man slowly replied. "There's the picture show. Oh, yeah, there's the tent revival. Feller says he can heal sick folks. Lotta bullcrap if you ask me."
The faith healer was still within earshot. "Oh, ye of little faith," he said as he walked on to his cabin.
That summer was the worst in anybody's memory, so the town was ripe for Christian revival. A couple of lonely freethinkers blamed their ills on bankers and politicians, but the devout knew their famine was of the spirit.
And so, the contrite crowded into a big tent on the edge of town, forsaking the latest Hollywood horse opera to toss their loose change into the collection plate. Salvation, it seemed, was no more costly than a theater ticket, and it might be good for eternity.
Matthew John Solomon was not the only faith healer, but he was the best. He worked miracles as far south as Brownsville, Texas, as far north as the Dakotas, as far west as Los Angeles and as far east as Tennessee. He left an Oklahoma farm at 17 to follow the call. At 35, he was king of the traveling prairie evangelists. Some Presbyterians called him a charlatan, no better than a peddler of snake oil. But when he came around, town drunks swore off liquor for as long as a week, and cruel husbands thought twice before raising a fist against their wives.
At an hour when card games, and what few brothels were around, were starting to liven up, Solomon was alone in his cabin, contemplating his future.
He had finished the next-to-last sermon of his revival in Pallequah, Oklahoma, curing the fake mute who was his plant in the congregation that evening.
Solomon was tired of the road. He was thinking of using the money he'd stashed in assorted banks to set up a permanent, respectable church in the Southern Rockies.
It had been a good 18 years, getting through to people who otherwise dozed through the monotones of conventional preachers. But he was tired, and bored. And he had long lived in fear of exposure.
What he could see ahead on the current road, if his luck held out, was more time spent in motor courts. Surely a temple was the next step: donations mailed to a central office, and perhaps even broadcasts.
And no more faith healing. I've outgrown it, he told himself.
Solomon went to the mirror. He was beginning to go gray at the temples. Why spend more years going from town to town, waiting for the day that some disgruntled "gimp" would threaten blackmail, or just go to the local Gazette and tell all?
Resolving that tomorrow night's "healing" would be his last, Solomon decided to break the news to Tiny, his manager. Tiny was supposed to be there soon with something to drink.
One thing the road hadn't taken from Solomon was his health. He was still built much like the boxing champs he had idolized in his youth. He'd spent a lot of time working out during the long afternoons. He hadn't been seriously ill since childhood. All the more reason to get out of this now, live a more settled life, perhaps get married. There were plenty of women on the road, but he was also tired of sneaking around.
There was a knock at the door. Solomon knew it was Tiny with the whiskey.
Solomon was a moderate drinker, but Tiny drank very hard -- so hard at one time, he drank himself out of a newspaper career in Kansas City. He'd become more discreet since getting into the revival business, but he was still apt to go on serious weekend benders.
After Solomon opened the door, he could see it was one of those nights.
"Greetings!" Tiny, an immense man with an ironic nickname, weaved into the room and parked his disheveled, obese frame into the chair next to the bed. Solomon sat on the bed.
"Well, another night, another few hundred suckers," Tiny said. He cradled two sacks, one with the fifth bottle he was drinking from, the other an unopened pint for Solomon. He held out the smaller package.
"Nectar of the pagan gods," he said. Solomon, unlike many other preachers, could appreciate irreverence. He smiled as he took the bag and opened his bottle. The first sip went down fiery and sweet.
Tiny took a big swig from his bottle, then searched his trouser pocket for a King Edward. For an educated man, Tiny had a curiously plebian habit -- he ate cigars. He didn't just chew them. He literally ingested several a day. Solomon wondered what his insides would look like if they opened him up after he was dead.
Tiny found his cigar, but set it on the bedside table before starting it. He pulled a wrinkled handkerchief from a back pocket and blew his nose. He had caught a summer cold.
"Nothing like a snort to make you forget about a cold," he said.
"As much as you put away, you can forget about a lot," Solomon remarked.
Tiny, with bloated red face, smirked. "Save the preaching for the sharecroppers. It may have some effect on them."
Solomon could see that this wasn't the night to tell Tiny about his plans. Tomorrow he would propose a new direction.
That night Solomon slept fitfully. The searching eyes of the blind and the twisted limbs of the crippled came to him in the dark, begging for help he could not give. He had seen them after countless sermons.
Waking in a sweat, he saw a pillar of light at the foot of the bed.
The light spoke gently. It called itself Jehovah, and told Solomon that it forgave him for his dishonesty and knew the guilt he had suffered.
You sincerely want to heal the sick, it said. So, I give you the power to cure with the touch of your hand. You will have this power for one day only. It will be gone at midnight, so use it generously. The light disappeared.
Solomon slept no more that night. He had seen the face of God.
He had forgotten the speech he had planned to make to Tiny. As they ate lunch at the diner, Solomon watched the community's few prosperous families, who came after church for Sunday chicken.
Tiny, normally a gargantuan eater, was working slowly on pork chops and mashed potatoes. He was a little queasy after a night of whiskey. He paused to talk business.
"The guy will be wearing blue denim overalls," he said. "An Okie type." He sniffled, nursing a low-grade hangover on top of his cold. "He's gonna have a red bandana around his neck, and he'll walk on two canes."
Tiny noticed that Solomon wasn't really listening. "Hey, wake up," he said. "What's wrong with you?"
Solomon touched the first person he had touched since last night, fearing that his revelation had indeed been only a dream.
Tiny pulled away. "What the hell's wrong with you?" he said. "Are you turning queer on me or something?"
"How's your cold?" Solomon asked.
Tiny sniffed through clear nostils and swallowed with a clear throat.
"Well, I do feel a lot better, since you mention it," he replied. He noticed that his hangover was gone, too. "May just have been hay fever after all. All this dust, you know."
Solomon knew what he needed to know.
During his sermon, Solomon saw more maimed and disfigured bodies than he had ever seen under a tent. It was as if all the arthritics and blind men who had followed him all these years finally caught up with him that night.
Among them he spotted his "plant," the two-caned cripple in overalls. He was there for money, as all the others had been. Tonight, for one night only, Solomon would touch only those who had come for help.
"And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will, be thou clean," Solomon thundered. "And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
"When the even was come, they brought unto him any that were possessed with devils; and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick; That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses."
Solomon gazed out at the congregation of a few hundred. "And now I ask you all to come forth," he shouted. "All the maimed, twisted bodies racked with pain, all the blind, the mute, the incurably ill. Tonight the Holy Spirit shall know no limits. Come forth, and be healed!"
In front, Tiny sprang to his overburdened feet. He saw impending doom. Waddling toward the pulpit ahead of the surging crowd of crutches, canes and dark eyeglasses, he grabbed Solomon's arm.
"What the hell are you doing? This will ruin us! You've been overcome by the Spirit, boy -- overcome, see? Collapse! Fall down, now!"
"I have the power now," Solomon replied calmly. "I cured your cold today. Please stand aside. Don't interfere."
Tiny was soon engulfed in a writhing mass of the sick. He pushed his way out of the scene. This is the end, he thought.
One by one the ailing climbed onto the pulpit with the help of the abled-bodied. The first was a bald man wearing sunglasses. He tapped a cane before him as he walked.
"I'm blind, Brother Matthew. Can you heal me?"
"Have faith, brother, and do not despair," Solomon said. "Our Lord can restore the gift of sight." He removed the man's dark glasses and enclosed his hands over moist, unseeing eyes. Then he pulled his hands away.
The bald man looked around in wonderment of all he could suddenly see. Whimpering, he tossed his cane aside and groped around, touching everything and everyone around him like a toddler. People embraced him and wept.
A middle-aged woman -- the blind man's wife -- pushed her way to the front. She faced her ecstatic husband, who had not been able to see her for half their married life.
She grabbed her husband's shirt and blurted, "Is it true, Ezra?"
He looked lingeringly at his wife through eyes clouded only by tears, and then embraced her.
Onlookers cried, "Praise God!" and "It's a miracle!" A bigger mob soon formed before Solomon. Tiny, who had been moving toward an exit, thought at first that the Okies were ready to send out for tar and feathers. Hearing the pious fervor, he drifted back and sat, watching the stricken and deformed being healed one after another.
"Holy shit. He can really do it." Tiny's imagination conjured up majestic temples, coast-to-coast radio broadcasts, and enormous stacks of money.
On they came. One hour passed, then two. Solomon was still healing the sick, with minimal effort.
There were no clocks in the tent, but in the town a few chimed. It was midnight. At that moment, beneath the red dust in the Oklahoma night, in a tent on a barren plain, Solomon was healing a woman hopelessly crippled by polio.
He became conscious of a sore throat. His nose began to run from a summer cold.
As Solomon drew his hands away from the woman's useless legs, his own wilted beneath him. He fell as the woman awkwardly drew herself erect on the first strong legs she had known in many years.
But she screamed as she saw the fallen Solomon's face assume the horrible scars of a burn victim he had healed earlier. Soon his eyes did not see, and he began coughing like the tubercular man who was healed just after eleven o'clock. Boils, arthritis and assorted cancers set in.
A few were still in line as Solomon fell. They came forth subbornly and began to grasp weakly at the figure before them, which was gradually losing definition as a human body. In time, the police arrived to save what was left of him.
The next morning, a new wind from the east blew into Pallequah, carrying away the apocalyptic red dust that had shrouded the area for so long. People went to work in the fields, opened shops and loitered in front of domino halls under the first azure sky they had seen in weeks.
The faith healer was taken to an Oklahoma City hospital, where he lingered for three days as a testament to the wages of mercy.
Copyright 2007, by Jon Gregory. Written in 1998. Published in The DFW Poetry Review.