“Mississippi,” Part IV, a short story

Brad-Dourif-in-Wise-Blood-001

Brad Dourif in Director John Huston’s Wise Blood

As the television preacher wrapped up his sermon the scene changed to people inside a church singing “The Old Rugged Cross.” Whenever he heard the song, it never failed to draw Caleb back into his childhood and all those Sundays when the preacher finished and led the congregation in an “invitation” song, where the members were invited to walk to the front of the auditorium and ask to be baptized, or ask forgiveness for public sin. Sometimes it was “Rugged Cross,” but usually it was “Just as I Am”—all six verses, with the occasional verse almost whispered. There was something about the power of two-hundred voices whispering that seemed like it could explode the stained glass windows. It was a sound designed to prick the hardest heart. Sometimes, if the preacher wasn’t satisfied with the response—especially if there was no response—he would interrupt the song leader between verses: “I know there’s at least one person in this audience with a heavy heart this morning, someone who needs to come forward and ask for forgiveness. I wouldn’t feel right leaving here this morning without singing at least one more verse of that sweet old song.”

Caleb could remember singing “Just as I Am” for twenty or thirty minutes some Sundays, with the preacher keeping time softly on the worn leather of his Bible. Once they’d had a week long Gospel meeting where the visiting preacher held his Bible over his head during the invitation, the text held open facing the audience, as if the words could reach out and pull the repentant soul forward. Caleb had stood in the audience that day, eleven or twelve years old, more or less innocent of anything but ordinary, everyday sins, fighting with himself not to answer the preacher’s call. There was no good reason to go forward, but the weight of the words were like a magnet.

“Just as I am, without one plea,

but that Thy blood was shed for me,

and that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,

Oh Lamb of God I come, I come.”

Verse after verse, and sometimes they’d sing the last verse over and over, or sometimes just start the song again. Every few minutes the preacher would break in to preach a little more.

Caleb broke. He’d worked his way to the end of the pew, not caring if he stepped on anyone’s feet or tangled their legs, and stumbled down the aisle as everyone looked up from their song books, relieved, Caleb knew, that someone had finally given in and they could go home soon. He walked down the aisle, all the long way to the front, into the arms of the preacher, crying like a little boy more scared than hurt who can’t stop once he starts. Hubert and his mother had followed Caleb to the front and sat one on each side while the preacher kneeled before him and listened to his teary confession. Caleb blurted something about wanting to rededicate his life and show others Jesus through his life, and he had cried through the preacher’s speech about “tender hearts” and the prayer that followed, but when he sneaked a look at his father’s face during the prayer, Hubert stared down at him with a look of suspicion that asked “What did you do to have to come down here and cause me to have to follow you?”

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