By Lee Matthew Goldberg
Rockabilly music about the Holy Ghost pumps through the windows of the Salvation Gateway Fellowship Church, a small, red shack with a giant neon cross on the roof, its buzzy light flickering in the dawn. Nestled between two deflated hills in the Missouri Ozarks, this wonky, stitched-together building is the only beacon for miles. The surrounding landscape provides enough acoustics for God to hear if he wanted, but God hasn’t cared to listen to the town of Salvation in a long time, at least not the same God one would expect to cup a hand around his ear and listen for praises.
Dusty roads petering off into swells of dirt have led a dozen cars toward Preacher Earley and his snake-handling show. For over half a century, the Earley clan has performed these rituals in their Pentecostal church. Beginning with Preacher Earley’s father Cy Sr., and the man’s unwavering belief in the taming of serpents, the Earleys have shocked and awed the local folk and proven their speck of a town could be touched by a greater power since neither father nor son had ever been bitten before. Unfortunately, Cy Sr. died of untreated gangrene in his foot in the 1970s, wholeheartedly convinced that he’d be protected from above even after his toes turned black and yellow and began to fall off. Cy Jr. has been running the circus ever since, now an elderly man with a cane and a slipped capital femoral epiphysis, which causes immense pain and his knees to wobble and knock together.
Much like the son took over from the father, the rickety church welcomes the children of those who first came to see Cy Earley Sr., even though the population of Salvation has dwindled. The allure of a burgeoning meth trade and even the group of isolated people living beyond the lone mountain have also begun to siphon some of the regulars. The Gateway Fellowship adheres to strict dress codes such as uncut hair, ankle-length dresses and no cosmetics for women; and short hair and short-sleeved shirts for the men. Tobacco and alcohol are frowned upon, an antithesis to the “Meth-ers” and the bacchanal nature of the people beyond the mountain.
Still, on Sundays especially, the little outhouse with the neon cross roars. Jasper with his long, calloused fingers is a whiz at bass guitar and Ike’s been playing banjo ever since he was big enough to pick one up. Mose with his missing teeth reaches a heavenly sound on the harmonica and Mary Lou bangs the keys of the piano like she’s trying to release the spirit from within. But they are all just backups to Preacher Earley, the true master of ceremonies.
So it’s on the cycle of April’s full moon that Moon parks his pickup truck in the dusty lot and hops out. In a different life, his chiseled good looks may have led him down a path as a model, but in this one, he has a higher calling. He’s let his mane of hair grow wild, the scruff on his face hasn’t been shaved in weeks, and dirt has been trapped under his fingernails for even longer. He wears a loose shirt, seemingly homemade, which exposes a thick tuft of chest hairs; but his eyes are his greatest gift, a smoldering green with the ability to make someone feel special, and wanted, and drawn to him. Once in St. Louis while he was up on a soapbox spouting about the ills of capitalism, a woman thought he was Jim Morrison, risen from the dead. She was so convinced that she wept when he told her he wasn’t and that his name was Moon. When she asked if it was his first or last name, he replied: “it’s the only one that matters.” He told her the past never had to exist if you didn’t want it to and that he’d been reborn with a sole moniker and she could as well. The next day he gave her a new name and she found herself leaving behind all of her possessions and traveling with him, not the first to become spellbound and far from the last.
The morning of this cycle, Moon had received a message while he was hanging upside-down nude. Just the words Salvation Gateway Fellowship floating behind his irises—he knew what it meant. So he immediately came to stalk the church, making a snake-like sound with his tongue as he enters. The inside is erupting in a din of sounds; the noodling notes causing him to tap his foot. Amaleen, a middle-aged woman who looks as if she’s swallowing her top lip, has a microphone in her hands, her throaty voice singing about the “Holy Ghost’s Power.” Two-dozen hard scrabbled townies raise their palms to the ceiling and spin around in a trance. On shaking legs, Preacher Earley pivots from side-to-side. He wears coke-bottle glasses an inch thick, his comb-over pasted down on the left side of his head with spit. He holds a pit viper snake in his hands, purely in his element, a smile so wide his molars show.
“You’re gonna die in the flesh!” he shouts. “This flesh is gonna go back in the earth!”
Amen. C’mon, preach now, rumbles the parishioners, the ones whose eyes haven’t receded yet in their skulls, or collapsed to the floor in dizzy exhaustion.
Moon watches the snake curl around Preacher Earley’s arm, his eyes blazing.
“But that spirit you got gon’ stick around through Armageddon! Till the end of time!” Preacher Earley declares.
Jangling a tin bucket, a cross-eyed woman weaves between the parishioners. She stops in front of Moon.
“Save your soul?” she asks, her cross-eyes only looking at her nose. Moon stares her down until she moves on.
“Now I can help y’all pray right if you’re willing to give!” Preacher Earley proclaims. “But ya gotta really give and feed this church.”
Moon raises his eyebrow, skeptical. Sticking out his tongue, he hisses at the snake. The snake becomes aware of Moon, as if understanding. It lunges at Preacher Earley, sinking its teeth into his cheek.
Preacher Earley lets out a cry, his knees giving up the fight as he crumbles. Foaming at the mouth, he shakes as blood oozes from the bite.
The parishioners are all caught up in the spirit, oblivious.
Moon calmly backs out of the church.
The snake slithers through the crowd toward the exit too.
Later, the congregation has gathered outside as Preacher Earley is being led on a gurney into an ambulance. The onlookers are wailing, lost in their grief. The cross-eyed woman sits shell-shocked on the curb.
Moon goes over to two teenagers. He wears a Polaroid camera around his neck. The boy and girl hang back from everyone else, close to one another as if a magnetic energy connects them. They rest their heads on each other’s shoulders in mourning.
The boy is slim, his arms like broomsticks hanging out of his short-sleeved shirt. He’s got a few hairs for a mustache that looks like it started sprouting yesterday. His hair is haphazardly cut in a bowl shape, the sides shorn and prickly.
The girl has a sucked-down lollypop on her ring finger, her mouth purpling from the grape taste. Yellow bangs cover her eyes, leaving just two black dots peering through. She wears a baby blue, floor-length dress that only allows her hands to breathe, everything else hidden.
“Terrible shame,” Moon says. His voice has a laconic Southern sway to it like it could rock you to sleep.
Sniffling, the teenagers both nod.
“Preacher Earley was so kind,” the girl says. “He used to make a quarter appear behind my ear when I was little.”
“Makes you wonder where the Holy Spirit was to protect him?”
The boy and girl look up confused.
“Luke 10:19 says, ‘I give unto you power to tread on serpents and nothing shall by any means hurt you.’” Moon says, shaking his head. “But I certainly didn’t see that power earlier. Just the good preacher’s eyes bulging out of his sockets as the venom got him.”
The boy lets out a heartbreaking gasp.
“Just makes me question is all…”
“Question what?” the boy asks.
Moon leans in close, moving in for the kill. “The good book mostly. Definitely not god, never god, but I question if we’re interpreting Him the right way. If He truly is who we believe Him to be.”
Moon puts his arm around both, breaking them up.
“Now my momma used to say food is the best remedy for tragedy. Why don’t I buy you both some breakfast at the Limbo Diner?”
The girl looks at the boy for approval. “My stomach is grumbling?” she says.
“Their peach pancakes are out of this world,” Moon replies.
“Pardon, but who are you, sir?” the boy asks.
“You can call me Moon, just like that luminous pearl hanging in the night sky.”
Moon lets go to take a Polaroid of each of them.
“What you do that for?” the boy asks.
Moon waves the pictures until they develop.
“See how sad you are in those pictures? I guarantee you’ll never be that sad again now that you’ve met me.”
Moon pats his pickup truck that idles behind them.
“Come, y’all can jump in the back and let the wind dry your tears.”
“You don’t look familiar,” the boy says. “You from around these parts?”
“No, but I’ve been in the area for about three hundred and sixty-five cycles. Or a year as you might call it. Long enough to know I’ll be staying.”
The boy and girl still hang back uncertain.
“We better get a move on,” Moon says, with a shuffle. “Come noon those pancakes’ll all be gone.”
The girl shrugs and climbs into the back. The boy hesitates, but he doesn’t want to let her go by herself, and he doesn’t want her to think he’s scared and not a man. He’s eighteen now and he figures it’s time to stop being so afraid of everything. Finally, he climbs in the truck beside her.
Moon goes to the driver’s side door and catches a glimpse of the ambulance as its siren blares. He faces the Mountain in the distance and gives it a sly grin.
“But are either of these the one we’ve truly been waiting for?” he asks, his voice barely a whisper as he thinks his thoughts out loud. “The one who will help take us beyond our wildest dreams?”
Moon jumps in the pickup and revs it up. In the back, the teenagers huddle as they drive away down the dusty road until the Gateway Fellowship becomes nothing more than a blip along the horizon.
Two parishioners, Jasper and Mary Lou watch them go. Jasper works on chewing off a hangnail.
“Who’d those two head off with?” Jasper asks.
Mary Lou shields her eyes from the sun and frowns.
“One of them people o’er the mountain. The devil in his flesh.”
They watch as Moon’s pickup gets smaller and smaller until a swell of dirt blocks it from sight.
Lee Matthew Goldberg is the author of Slow Down, The Mentor, and The Desire Card with two other books coming out in 2020. He lives in NYC. Follow him at Leematthewgoldberg.com and @LeeMatthewG
Photo Credit: mrjo_7 / Adobe Stock