Friday, March 2, 2012

Fiction Friday: Sister Carleen Swanson's Revelation

Friday! It's here and not a moment too soon.  It's been a wild and busy week so to celebrate the end of it, I'm offering up one of my previously published stories here.  This is the the first short fiction I sold which earned me a reasonable amount - in the triple digits - so I'm still rather fond of it.  It dates back to when I lived among some folks with very narrow and tight religious views which I learned often concealed some pretty heavy duty sin!

                                    Sister Carleen Swanson’s Revelation

            She was not his mother or even his stepmother though she loved him like her own. Sister Carleen Swanson was never Brother Charley’s wife but no one within the congregation of the Apostolic Pentecostal Church of the One Lord God knew that. Every God-fearing, Jesus-loving member had taken her at face value as his spouse when she was no more than his significant other or what any Sister would have called his whore. His wife Doris Jane was alive and well in Mississippi. Charley swore on a Bible with his name in gilt letters that it was a lesser sin to cohabitate than to double marry and she never questioned it.                                                        
   Lord, Carleen hadn’t even been Holiness until she met Charley Swanson with his sweet-talking ways and his unusual style. He wore his dark hair combed back into a pompadour style like a Fifties cabaret singer. He could preach the Gospel with fire and such abandon that women lusted after him in shameful secret. Charley – Brother Charley to most could also sing like Elvis, an accomplishment that opened the legs of many a penitent sinner.                                                    

    It had been at a camp meeting that Carleen, bored and just divorced from her third husband found salvation. She had gone with her cousin for entertainment. She was flat broke or she’d been at the mall buying shoes instead of ridiculing Holiness people praising God.             
  It was then that Carleen first saw Brother Charley, sunlight reflecting off his dark hair greased down good with Brylcream. He talked for a few minutes and then he sang. When he sang, he moved in a way that seemed to be pure sin to Carleen because it awakened her desires. The music got both men and women dancing, men on one side of the outdoor church and women on the other. Carleen joined in because it felt good to dance. She ran the aisles with them when someone started sprinting.                                                                                                
       She attracted Brother Charley’s gaze with her long flying blonde hair that was natural, not Miss Clairol. After the service, he introduced himself in the hall where the ladies served ice tea with cookies. They talked and talked. He took her out to dinner and they didn’t return to camp meeting. Instead, they went to a cheap motel, the kind that takes cash and doesn’t want to know your license plate number. He had filled the hungry horniness she’d felt since she found herself single and made her scream when she came.                                     
              Because Brother Charley was a traveling evangelist, he never stayed in one place and he had to leave come morning to go to Shreveport. At Charley’s camper, she met his twelve-year-old son. It was Jimmy who told her that his mother couldn’t travel with them because she was sick. Carleen banged the door of the camping trailer hard and found Charley putting oil in the engine.                             
 “Jimmy says you’re married. He says his mama’s sick. Is that true?”                             
   “Lord, Lord, she’ sick in the head! She’s hooked on meth and can’t get far from her dealer.”                                                                                                                                                   “Can’t you get her into rehab?”                                                                                                          “Jesus, touch her!” Charley waved his hand in exasperation or prayer; she wasn’t sure which. “We don’t hold with no doctoring like that. Our folks don’t go to any doctor but Jesus Christ, praise his Name. If Doris Jane wants, she can go to the Lord at any time to give up that devil’s habit of hers. As long as she won’t, I can’t bring her with me when I go ‘round preachin’. You can come, though. That would be nice.”

            “But you’re married.” Carleen sulked. He was the most fascinating lover ever, all smut and sin between the sheets and holiness outside of bed.                                                            

    “I’m not so married that you cain’t come along with me.  You can be my wife without the wedding, darlin’. No one’ll know the difference. Come on, baby, and move into my camper with me. I need to get to Shreveport in time for supper at the church I’m preaching at.”                         

           Carleen cried and fussed but brought her clothing, most of her shoes, and some other stuff to his camper. She settled in with Charley and mothered Jimmy all she could.  She felt like they were a family.                                                                                                                               

 When Charley suggested that she start wearing dresses with long sleeves, Carleen did.  She bought three or four good church dresses from another Sister at one of the churches they visited. She resisted having her hair knotted and tied up into a tight bun then lacquered in place with hair spray. Carleen’s blonde hair fell down her back in masses of golden curls. If her dresses were a bit tighter than the other ladies were, no one mentioned it. They wouldn’t dare offend a visiting preacher and never one as full of Holy Ghost fire as Brother Charley Swanson.                   

 Carleen played Pentecostal for eight months as Brother Charley’s bride. She sang the old hymns with him to bring the faithful down to the altar to repent the money out of their wallets. She learned the new, Rockabilly style songs that got the church folks running the aisles. Carleen learned how to be invited for dinner without having to ask and how to pray with such power that women wept. It was a dream come true until the day that Brother Charley fell over stone cold dead in the middle of a sermon. It was an aneurysm that killed him but Carleen wondered if it could have been the hand of God.  So did some of the members of the Apostolic Pentecostal Church of The One Lord God but most blamed the devil for striking down such an instrument of Christ.

            The pastor along with the brothers swarmed the fallen evangelist to raise him up from the dead. Their shouted prayers failed to sway God for Charley Swanson didn’t revive. With a great emotional outpouring and many tears, they laid him out in church. His funeral, attended by hundreds, was the next day.                                                                                                          

         Sister Carleen Swanson, though that was not her legal name, had nothing in the world but a thirty-foot trailer that wasn’t half paid for so it was returned to the bank that financed the purchase. She was a long way from home, among strangers but the good folk offered her a place to stay.          
                                                                                                                                                       One couple let her live in the tiny house that had been their own before God provided them with funds to build a beautiful home on a hill. The three-room house was scarcely more than a shack but she had few options. She and Jimmy moved in. Because they had no furniture, the Sisters began arriving with bits and pieces. By suppertime, the house looked like home with a crazy collection of odds and ends from a dozen homes. Carleen had a bed and a triple dresser with a cracked mirror.  Jimmy would sleep in a bunk bed made with hand-me-down sheets and a hand stitched quilt.                                                                                                                      

      There were rugs on the linoleum floors, cheap artwork on the walls, and lots of Home Interior decorations. Kitchen cabinets overflowed with odd, assorted plates, cups, and glassware. She had skillets, pots, and pans. Some of the women brought food to stock her empty larder.     

         Carleen’s conversion now seemed real. She mourned the man who had been her lover as a husband, even as she persuaded herself that she was as Pentecostal as the people who succored her were. She put her hair up into a bun and sprayed it down until it was as hard as a football helmet. She sometimes was the first to begin running at church and she shouted with the other Sisters. And, in the dark watches of the night, she prayed for forgiveness, afraid that God had struck down Charley because of their sin.                                                                            

         She read the Bible all day in every free moment. Carleen dropped to her knees in prayer often, and sometimes prayed aloud in unknown tongues. She taught Jimmy to honor her and suggested he call her Mama.                                                                                           

                    She thought of him as a child but one day as they returned from grocery shopping, he put his head on her knee in the car. He went to sleep in this position and Carleen felt such tenderness she wept. Her tender tears dried up when she noticed the bulge in the front of his black trousers. The child she thought of as her own little boy had a hard-on.                                      

       Horrified, she rebuked the boy for it, but he pretended to wake with confusion.  Two days later, when she hugged him and offered a good night kiss, Jimmy rubbed his erect penis against her and smiled at her with his father’s slow, sweet devil’s grin.                                           

          “Want me to sleep with you now, Carleen?” he asked, his voice oily and old beyond his years.                                                                                
  “No. Lord, rebuke the devil for getting into this child’s mind.” Her voice was too high and she knew it.                                                                                                                         
  Jimmy laughed.                                                                                                                          
         “I turned thirteen the other day. I’m a man now. Reckon I’ll take my daddy’s place with you, whore. You ain’t my Mama and you know it.”                                                                                              
“James Swanson!” Carleen said his name because she couldn’t think of anything else to say.                                                                                                                                            
      “Come on to bed with me and I won’t tell you wasn’t married to my daddy.”                         Jimmy reached out one hand and rubbed her breasts hard, then stuck one hand between her legs.

            Carleen recoiled. She caught sight of her reflection in the living room mirror and stared. For the first time in ten months, she saw herself with unbiased eyes. The stiff, hard hairdo looked terrible and she looked like someone’s grandmother in the shapeless long-sleeved dress washed far too many times. Her skin looked dry and plain without make-up. Lines around her eyes made her look old and she blinked, as if she could erase what she saw.                                                  
  “Jesus Christ!” Her exclamation wasn’t a prayer. “Look at me! Oh, my God.”                
                She forgot Jimmy’s presence until he slipped his hand up her dress to touch her. Carleen slapped his hand down and then smacked him full in the face.                                                
 “Fuck you, you little pervert!” God, it felt good to unleash her rage.                                 
    In the room she rented at the Ramada Inn in Oklahoma City, Carleen washed her hair until it was soft again. She let it air dry into curls that fell down her back. Spritzing herself with a large cloud of Tabu, she pulled on the tight fitting Chic jeans she’d bought and the black tank top that hugged her breasts. With returning skill, she made up her face and smiled at her reflection in the mirror.                                                                                                                                    
   She tossed Sister Swanson’s rags into a pile for the maid to carry away with the trash and pulled new Justin boots onto her feet. Renewed and restored, she headed out to her 1990 Cadillac and drove. Her brand new leather purse contained what remained of Brother Charley’s “rat hole money” – ten thousand dollars in small bills.                                                                                         
“Well, praise the Lord after all!” she said, wiser and richer.                                                    
          Her laughter rang out over May Avenue as she lit a cigarette from the dashboard lighter.

Previous publication “Sister Carleen Swanson’s Revelation”, Dragonfire, Issue 12, December 2005, Nominated in 2006 for Storysouth’s Million Writers Award

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