The Preacher Man

by Kimberli McWhirter

It’s not much of a town. Not many would dispute my word on that. Hardly qualifies as a wide spot in the road. But it’s home. Got some good people, some bad ones, some sittin’ on the fence ones, depending on who’s watching. And it’s pretty enough, in the way things usually are, if you take them as they come. This morning, for instance. I stand in the open doorway of my kitchen, take a sip from my last clean coffee cup, and listen to the muffled quiet. I watch the early morning shadows scroll past the stone face of the church steeple on the other side of Front Street. Mark the passing time with my eyes as the shadows move across the small horizon to dance between the rusted braces of the water tower, its honeyed silhouette looming over our town square.

Even the birdsong and the few cars on the road are muted. And yet. Do I? Yes. Yes, I believe I do. Hear him, that is. Never fails. Like clockwork every Saturday morning, if clockwork were an aggravating pain in my ass. I shake my head and turn away from the doorway, as if that will help.

The sound of him still carries though, even through the thick walls of old clapboard. The preacher man. His voice drifts over the train tracks at the end of our street, across the neighbors’ rooftops, around the corners and eaves of my house. Loud enough to let me know he’s there, but not loud enough to let me make out the words.

Doesn’t matter. The words, I mean. They rarely change from Saturday to Saturday. He preaches the same messages that cover his beat-up black Chevrolet in silvered letter tiles. The kinds of tiles you still see on tin mailboxes along the two-lanes. "Rapture Near” is spelled out on his left back bumper. “Get Saved Now” is unevenly flattened against the middle of the passenger door. “Repent—the End Is Here” arcs across the driver’s side.

Some days, when the preacher is out of gas money, right before his army disability check comes in, he walks the bypass, out there by those tin mailboxes. From one end of town to the other, down to the abandoned yarn mill, past the empty Jones’ Store building, out to the new Dollar General and back again. He carries a white flag over his shoulder, a blue cross stitched onto the upper corner, and a well-worn leather Bible tucked tight against his chest. As drivers pass him on the road, he raises the Bible above his head, maybe in greeting, maybe in warning, probably both. I make sure to give a nod along with my wave, wanting him to know I got the message. After all, he knows my mama. Wouldn’t do for the wrong word to get back to her.

But most days? Most days, he and his black Chevy make slow circles of each small parking lot in town, accompanied by the music of the Kingsmen Quartet blaring from the eight-track stereo mounted on his dashboard. The old group, with Frank and Eldridge, back when Jerry Redd sang tenor. None of that new stuff. Unless it’s a Saturday, of course. On Saturdays, the preacher man pulls his car sideways across the empty parking spots at the far edge of the IGA parking lot. Under the twist of the old pecan tree, near that little strip of grass. You know. Where the hot dog truck sets up during Strawberry Festival.

From his trunk, he lifts out a pair of mismatched speakers and plugs them into a series of orange extension cords that trail along the edge of the broken pavement to an outlet, behind the neon-green Sun Drop machine. The one right next to the entrance of the store. No one inside says anything unless the cord begins to snake across the sidewalk. Even then, the young assistant manager moves it back against the wall with a silent wave.

The preacher man doesn’t notice as he paces back and forth in the shade of the pecan tree’s heavy limbs. The underarms of his plaid dress shirt, neatly tucked and buttoned right up to the neck, darken with sweat as he pumps his bare fists into the air to emphasize his passion for the words. Every now and then, he wipes the damp sheen from his face and neck with a ragged dishtowel, never stopping his sermon, never loosening the tight collar of his shirt.

“Brothers and sisters, hear me! I’m speaking to the wicked now—amen—fire and brimstone and burning wind—amen—will be the portion of your cup if you do not repent—amen! Repent now, I say, or reap what you have sown!” He punctuates the last word by jabbing his finger at the lot of empty cars.

I often wonder if he honestly thinks he gets many converts this way. Does Miss Ruth look up from her shopping list, adjust her trifocals and think, “I accept Christ as my Lord and Savior?” Does Mr. Gerald nod along to the “amens” while loading Sunday supper into the backseat of his car, after checking each bag to make sure he remembered the eggs?

A time or two, I’ve seen a few of them “up-to-no-goods” standing nearby in the empty parking spaces. Man-boys with shirt sleeves rolled up so you can see their farmer’s tans, chain smoking cigarettes and grinding the butts into the hot asphalt with the heels of their scuffed work boots. Their eyes dart hard between the preacher man and the parking lot. I’ve yet to figure out if they’re weighing his witness or just how much meanness they could get away with if nobody was looking. Or maybe it’s because they know the preacher man can still give as good as he gets, when push comes to shove. Talk about all hell breaking loose. Just you try and stop a sinner when the holiness is rolling out of him.

On other days? Well, on other days, when he is off his medication. Those days, he finds his way to the very center of town—where our one stoplight is—and unfolds an aluminum lawn chair on the red brick sidewalk. He pauses to turn up the collar of the same dress plaid he preaches in, and unbuttons the shirt to his waist. He shifts the chair about until it’s level, places his foot on the woven seat, adjusts the gold rings on his fingers, spreads his arms wide…and sings. In a glorious, golden baritone. Elvis songs. Only Elvis songs.

Are you lonesome tonight?
Do you miss me tonight?
Are you sorry we drifted apart?

I swear. If you closed your eyes, you could almost imagine the King himself—of Rock and Roll, not the Other One—right there in front of you.

“Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

“Always on My Mind.”

“Don’t Be Cruel.”

The preacher man sings each ballad slowly, tenderly. One after another. Sings until Miss Maudie, at the First Citizens Bank on the corner, or Mr. Robert, over at the Auto Body and Repair across the street, gives the family a call, and they come to gently take him home.

So pretty much a pain in everybody’s ass, if truth be told.

As the morning mist starts to thin out and the last echoes of the preacher’s sermon fade on the cool of the rising breeze, I shift myself to lean the curve of my back against the kitchen door. Looking down at the splay of grounds at the bottom of my coffee cup, I think on the now-emptiness of its portion. Of my own. On reaping and sowing and burning winds. On the loneliness of dirty dishes piled in the sink that aren’t going to wash themselves. And the quiet.

I check my watch.

The preacher man must’ve packed up early today. Unusual. But Mama did say he’d been feeling poorly a few days ago. I’ll take what I can get. I sigh, roll my head from side to side, feel my shoulders start to loosen, then drop. Close my eyes and embrace the stillness of the morning given back to me.

Brrr—iing! Brr-iing! Brr-iing! I jump at the sudden loudness of my wall phone in the empty house.

“Hello? Yes, ma’am, it’s my Saturday. No, no bother. Never a bother. Them McDaniel boys again? I would think they’d know better by now, too, Miss Maudie. Yes, ma’am, I know right where he is. I’ll be down there in a minute.” I hang up the phone and grab the car keys off of the kitchen table, their jagged edges cutting deep into the palm of my fisted hand.

In the car, I jam the key into the ignition and crank the engine. It sputters, then dies. I crank it again, my foot hard on the gas pedal. Nothing now. I press my forehead against the slick coolness of the steering wheel and take a deep breath.

“Lord. Sometimes. Just sometimes. I miss Elvis.” I say this softly to no one who listens. I push the car door open and begin to run.

Kimberli McWhirter is a semi-retired educator and self-proclaimed hermit who likes to think, read, write, and think some more—especially when she forgets what she was originally thinking about—that always requires additional effort. She lives near Asheville with multiple large and small creatures, some of which are her own, and hangs out with her children because she likes them.