Start here as you can read this as a stand-alone short story or go to Chapter 1 and begin at the beginning! You choose.
Poisonous red poinsettias and dead white lilies lined the aisles. Children all smiles in hopes of being Good for Santa and getting all the stuff come Christmas morning.
Practice for the Christmas pageants plural was always pleasant. You sat and snacked on chocolates and nuts cracked out of fruit baskets. Playing in the pews waiting for your turn. All of the ages had pageant performances for their classes. The older kids got the more elaborate acting productions, babies got lap-sized plays with fluffy sheep suits and bouncy knees.
Standing in line between some shepherd boys when a church lady snuck by me and whispered. We needed bath towels because shepherds needed head coverings and the stock was threadbare. Our costumes consisted of aged bath robes and towels in desert drab hues used for head coverings for shepherds and wise men. Angels were the only ones in actual costumes, scratchy flammable polyester, a halo of white and gold tinsel woven around a ring of wire.
“Skip next door. See if you can borrow some please.”
I bucked out of the side door of the church. The same door those church ladies tucked out for fried chicken buckets, and church men ducked out early to get to golf games.
I ran across the recently sealed black asphalt parking lot in the dark. Skipped up the short steps to the trailer door. Beyond this thin silver frame lived the Snake Man in his mobile home of many serpents.
Now, as we were of the holiness faith, sometimes you heard talk of snake handling. This is the religious practice of holding poisonous serpents while praying. Without any leather gloves or antivenom on hand, which would be awesome to have just in case the snake you’re holding turns out to be the real devil and gets a fang in. Which happens. Because poisonous, wild snakes are not the type to be manhandled especially when in such a religious fervor.
Curiously, snake handling calls out the sinner. If you are a sinner and you hold one of those snakes in vehemence, then God might just punish you with the deadly bite to prove a point. You are testing the spiritual seas.
Two requirements to ensure your safety. Be pure at heart and be at one with the Holy Spirit. The first one’s easy. The second one requires you to allow a ghost, albeit a holy one, to enter your body.
This possession protects you.
In this case, the Holy Ghost protects you from committing suicide by snake venom in this public display of religious zeal.
Rejoice! knowing you are a chosen one and protected by the Father who is always watching you anyway. Stand up to a serpent stock full of a personal stash of homemade strychnine ready to shoot in your veins.
These snakes are procured just as you would imagine. By going out into the woods and trapping them. The state of Georgia has 46 native species of snakes including six poisonous ones. That’s a lot of slithering for any state, even the South.
Copperheads and cottonmouths.
Three different species of rattlesnakes.
The tail tip curling coral snake, striped and secretive.
I don’t know if the Snake Man had any of these snakes at his place.
The Snake Man didn’t attend church but his entire extended family did. He smiled all the time, and their whole family celebrated Halloween religiously, just as they did the Lord. Good people in my book.
I opened the thin metal screen door, and stepped up into the trailer entry. Me in my Sam and Libby size 6 black patent leathers with a perfectly permanent bow. My feet danced dead in the center of a coiled boa constrictor the color of an orange creamsicle.
I jumped out of the hoop of a squeezing snake and into the trailer. There right in front of me was a cobra stuffed in a striking position sitting at the end of the counter.
The Snake Man came out of the back room and was a raucous of a ruckus. He was always a happy guy when I saw him but this took the cake.
The prank he hoped to pull on someone else, well. Thankfully I’m fond of snakes. It was his pet rats with names and oversized testicles that had me climbing the bookshelves. Mice, rats, squirrels, guinea pigs—all the same Rodentia to me.
My first official pet was a goat, a billy goat. That goat loved to climb just like I did. That climbing led that goat straight to the grinder after one too many car tops got destroyed. Which led to me never eating ground meat.
One Christmas we definitely got Granny’s goat. A couple of the cousins had some co-workers come over dressed as Santa and one elf. Two shades of red and a forest of green felt clothed the dynamic duo. The elf stood out. Gold metal jingle bells twinkled on the toes while his face sported a sharp chin. I recognized him from the local manufacturing company that supplied the town’s acetaminophen habit.
The dudes rang the doorbell. They came bearing a great bag of gifts and holly jolly grins. Granny sat with her own good grin as the pair came bouncing in.
It was her gift that we were all waiting for. It was her gift that the room went silent for. Sitting giddy as a little school girl.
The big box was gifted to her, she ripped away the wrapping paper. Always smiling excited behind her wide eyeglasses. She wanted to shake the box, No! Someone stopped her and helped her unfold the top of the brown box.
The box top opened and a Bahhh! came belting out followed by a baby goat head as it butted its way the rest of the way from the cardboard Christmas egg. Granny got a goat and we got her goat.
We had a lot of fun at Christmas that year, but that’s because it was also very sad. Ain’t had a lot of trouble with SAD.
At least one year we didn’t even decorate a Christmas tree because she was gone so long. Most years though, we went all out. Over the top. It was huge red velvet bows on every porch column and all the perfectly aligned ornaments and the fancy nativity scenes.
We had a tanning bed that was as much a SAD fighting light as you can find. We used it daily during the winter months. It helped me with my breathing problems and skin rashes, most likely by making me sweat to death all winter long and tricking my body into thinking it was hot, humid, and healthy.
Being almost burnt as a white person in the Deep South.
When that stuff didn’t work and Ain’t got truly sad she got sent away. It was always when I was in school. I never did know what happened to cause her to go away. Just I would come home and she would be “Gone for a while.”
Whenever Ain’t got sent away to the local mental health hospital, only a half hour’s drive, we always joked that at least she didn’t get sent to Milledgeville. Because Milledgeville was where they committed people for the long haul. There at Central State Hospital was the largest mental asylum in the world once. For Ain’t she was always better after the winter chill started to fade away with springtime brights.
We visited when she was in there to do family therapy. It was part of the process of returning home for Ain’t. Sitting in the family room with the rest of the inner family circle waiting to speak with the therapist. Eating all the free snacks in the basket. Playing small magnetic board games I kept in my church purse. I had Snakes and Ladders, and Checkers, and a game where you put magnet dresses on the little doll. The miniature games were foldable into a box that contained all the pieces.
Another way we stayed holly jolly was through music. Standing in a church choir during Christmas time was the most magical place to be. You sang a lot during the holidays, both in practice and the real deal. All voices, faint. Silent night, holy night. All was calm and the air sparkled with joyous energy, twinkled with the high notes, hummed low so gently.
My tambourine tinkled along softly.
Shake, shake, shake.
Piano players, ladies saintly serious about their craft especially at Christmas time. Choir members of all ages perched in front of the pews with hymnals in hand.
Being the most religious of religious holidays in the Christian faith, the church was always adorned accordingly. Sprayable pine scenting the air to mask the fake trees standing in corners. All adorned with breathtaking baubles.
Gaudy colored lights flashed all bright.
Like silver apples sitting in golden bowls.
Only meant to be looked at, never touched or talked to.
Fake trees are the best because they are moldable plastic. You can reuse the same trees year after year because they never change. Fake trees aren’t going to spontaneously combust, burning in sacrilege. Churches depend on fake trees in preference to real trees that grow and shed their fir tips and fall apart and die. It’s because fake is cheaper to maintain, leads to a greater return on the investment.
This set the stage for our menagerie of pageant performances. The only fitting menagerie we didn’t have was local livestock for the nativity scene. A couple of goats, some baby lambs, maybe a gently mooing cow all standing outside. That would have livened up those plastic trees some.
Instead what we did have to put the spirit into them was a Pew Running Preacher. He came bounding in whenever we needed a substitute preacher, or when the preacher wanted to get the congregation all riled up.
Church was warm always in the Deep South, even in winter. The summer’s scorched in sizzling humidity, but even in the winter the wood-burned atmosphere got heated.
One particular Sunday service was special with a singing sermon. We also had the Pew Running Preacher visiting for the service. Big shot church singers were selling their cassette tapes and giving out pamphlets about revivals, camp meetings, and concerts. Big crowd, lots of people from out of town.
Pews were full.
The Pew Running Preacher tore up to the front of the crowd. When this staunch Southern preacher started to speak, the hairs on your head stood to attention. You listened and you watched because you wanted to see what he would say and do next.
In between the Fire! and Brimstone! and Hell! and the Holy Ghost! you heard a man speaking in tongues. This speaking in tongues, in an entirely foreign and utterly unknown to anyone language, was as close to an exorcism as I could get.
Ever since I snuck under the dining room table, hiding behind the tail of the tablecloth and secretly watched “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in the cabin-in-the-woods where my parents lived, I loved to get scared. Internal pain I could control because it is all there in my head.
When the Pew Running Preacher got fired up, he started with shouting his message. Sweat dripping, he dropped the black dress coat first.
Ramped back and forth! Hands waved, voice exclaimed!
Moving across the front of the audience in a near jog, loud in his gospel.
Amen! Hallelujah! Praise Jesus!
The crowds in the pew sang back to him. The more the Pew Running Preacher hotfooted, the more the hum of the audience took off. First one black dress shoe, then the other. Then his socks!
The barefoot preacher hoofed it across the carpet, never missing a beat, stomping in praise to lead these bacchanalian believers.
His neck tie would be the last of the clothes to go before the Pew Running Preacher himself took off to running.
This time, not on the carpet.
Not down the aisle.
This is how the Pew Running Preacher got his name.
The Pew Running Preacher took off running across the tops of the pew in the purest crowd dive you have ever seen. The skin on the bottom of his feet tickled the top of the back of the seat where people sat in the pews.
Balancing like a mountain goat ballerina, cloven hoofed and confident. He danced across the cliff peaks of the church pews.
He ran from the front of the church all the way to the back of the church. Everyone even the children and those trying to sneak a snooze moved as the Pew Running Preacher made it all the way to the end of the service without slipping a beat.
That same day when the Pew Running Preacher was done with his running and sweating and preaching, he was standing with the Good Preacher at the door. I was always listening to the preachers and I heard them that day, too. The preachers happened to be discussing the act of handling snakes. “Those preaches that do that are dangerous” from one to the other led me to know we would not be drinking that spiritual strychnine.
The need to draw power out of the high you get from holding an extremely poisonous snake in your bare hands. With just a breath between you and the thing that could kill you. Pushing the thrill too much, too much.