I sat there in the car with the gravel dust blowing across
the parking lot and saw the place for what it was, not what it
was right at that moment in the hot sunlight, but for what it
had been maybe twelve or fifteen years before: a real general store
with folks gathered around the lunch counter, a line of people
at the soda fountain, little children ordering ice cream of just about
every flavor you could think of, hard candy by the quarter pound,
moon pies and crackerjack and other things I hadn't thought
about tasting in years. And if I'd closed my eyes I could've seen
what the building had been forty or fifty years before that, back
when I was a young woman: a screen door slamming shut, oil
lamps lit and sputtering black smoke, dusty horses hitched to the
posts out front where the iceman unloaded every Wednesday afternoon, the last stop on his route before he headed up out of
the holler, the bed of his truck an inch deep with cold water.
Back before Carson Chambliss came and took down the advertisements and yanked out the old hitching posts and put up that
now-yellow newspaper in the front windows to keep folks from
looking in. All the way back before him and the deacons had
wheeled out the broken coolers on a dolly, filled the linoleum
with rows of folding chairs and electric floor fans that blew the
heat up in your face. If I'd kept my eyes closed I could've seen
all this lit by the dim light of a memory like a match struck in a
cave where the sun can't reach, but because I stared out through
my windshield and heard the cars and trucks whipping by on
the road behind me, I could see now that it wasn't nothing but a
simple concrete block building, and, except for the sign out by the
road, you couldn't even tell it was a church. And that was exactly
how Carson Chambliss wanted it.
As soon as Pastor Matthews caught cancer and died in 1975, Chambliss moved the church from up the river in Marshall, which ain't nothing but a little speck of town about an hour or so north of Asheville. That's when Chambliss put the sign out on the edge of the parking lot. He said it was a good thing to move like we did because the church in Marshall was just too big to feel the spirit in, and I reckon some folks believed him; I know some of us wanted to. But the truth was that half the people in the congregation left when Pastor Matthews died and there wasn't enough money coming in to keep us in that old building. The bank took it and sold it to a group of Presbyterians, just about all of them from outside Madison County, some of them not even from North Carolina. They've been in that building for ten years, and I reckon they're proud of it. They should be. It was a beautiful building when it was our church, and even though I ain't stepped foot in there since we moved out, I figure it probably still is.
The name of our congregation got changed too, from French Broad Church of Christ to River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following. Under that new sign, right out there by the road, Chambliss lettered the words "Mark 16:17-18" in black paint, and that was just about all he felt led to preach on too, and that's why I had to do what I done. I'd seen enough, too much, and it was my time to go.
I'd seen people I'd known just about my whole life pick up snakes and drink poison, hold fire up to their faces just to see if it would burn them. Holy people too. God-fearing folks that hadn't ever acted like that a day in their lives. But Chambliss convinced them it was safe to challenge the will of God. He made them think it was all right to take that dare if they believed. And just about the whole lot of them said, "Here I am, Lord. Come and take me if you get a mind to it. I'm ready if you are."
And I reckon they were ready, at least I hope so, because I saw a right good many of them get burned up and poisoned, and there wasn't a single one of them that would go see a doctor if they got sick or hurt. That's why the snake bites bothered me the most. Those copperheads and rattlers could only stand so much, especially with the music pounding like it did and all them folks dancing and hollering and falling out on the floor, kicking over chairs and laying their hands on each other. In all that time, right up until what happened with Christopher, the church hadn't ever had but one of them die from that carrying on either, at least only one I know about: Miss Molly Jameson, almost eleven years ago. She was seventy-nine when it happened, two years younger than I am now. I think it might've been a copperhead that got her.
Excerpted from A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash. Copyright © 2012 by Wiley Cash. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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