I was doing it again. Behind my locked bathroom door, I carefully molded Wrigley’s Doublemint gum into the canyon like spaces between my teeth. I wouldn’t dare walk outside with this temporary cosmetic fix, but here, secretly, in the privacy of my bathroom, I could finally smile with confidence at my 16-year-old reflection. This was my oasis of prosthetic joy.
Without the gum, my full smile revealed a generous space in the middle, a missing tooth that never came in on the right, and, to complete this visual trifecta, a defiant, protruding pointy tooth on the left which I thought of as my rebel Southern tooth. A proud made-in-America tooth that didn’t give a damn ’bout what nobody thought of it. Nobody except me.
When I spoke, people often adopted the manner of the deaf, as if they were intensely reading my lips. Comments like “can you floss those things with jumper cables?” had taught me to keep these bright white inner space oddities veiled behind a tight-lipped curtain.
Any hope for the money to fund braces disappeared when Mom and Dad divorced. I constantly wished they would somehow magically grow together, my teeth and my parents.
Annie didn’t mind my picket fence teeth. She reminded me of a royal commissioned portrait that had come to life. She had wispy blonde wings, blue eyes, and was my girlfriend. We finished high school and went to college together in Virginia.
The novelty of just being able to start a car and go somewhere still made my heart skip a beat at age 19. It was practically impossible to be unhappy in my faded red 1966 VW Beetle. The key alone brought me joy. Annie was gazing pensively at the landscape. As a painter, I knew she was looking for trees and clouds to steal and later re-home on canvas. My friends Brad and Mark were in the backseat like bookends as we sputtered into the minuscule town of Cedarville.
Brad was tall with short straight dark hair and had a unique angular grace. I’ve never liked the term “openly gay”. It just sounds like the slutty cousin to open marriage, so I will say that Brad was exclusively gay. A brave accomplishment considering it was 1982 in a tiny conservative Methodist college town.
Mark was tall and unbent and had long straight light brown hair and a patchy beard. I didn’t know if he was humble or just an extremely bright introvert.
Brad often spoke in a parodied southern accent and his voice from the backseat of the Beetle twanged, “Lookee here! Thar’s gonna be a miracle tent healin’ revival!”
I slowed down. A hand-painted sign read “Miracle Tent Healing Revival This Saturday & Sunday. All welcome.” It was Friday and my VW engine idled patiently.
“Do tents need to be healed?” I asked as I rested my chin on the hard black steering wheel.
Brad elaborated, “I got me one that is leakin’ real bad and the good Lord needs to patch it up for me!”
Mark surveyed the field through his glasses. Next to the sign, a man was struggling to get a lawnmower started. He was wearing faded denim overalls and a short sleeved white cotton shirt.
I boldly walked up to the man with my audience of friends in tow.
“What’s wrong with your lawnmower?”
He took a deep breath and combed his fingers through jet black Elvis-y hair, “I don’t know. Was workin’, but it just up’n died on me. I put new gas in it. I changed the spark plug. I checked everythin’ an-it just won’t start.”
I cocked one eyebrow to match my cocky demeanor and said in my deepest voice, “Mind if I take a look at this lawnmower brother?”
He gratefully stepped back and said “Not at all, help yerself.”
Kneeling in front of the lawnmower, I placed both of my hands on top of the engine and closed my eyes tightly and pretended to pray.
I yelled “Heeeeal!” and I pulled my arms off the lawnmower as if a mysterious energy had pushed me back.
Returning from my simulated trance I said confidently to the man, “Give it a pull now. It will start.” In a few minutes we would be driving down the road celebrating my audacious wit and laughing at this poor hayseed’s expense.
The man anchored the mower with his boot and adjusted the slack in the rope. His veiny arms gave it a stout powerful pull. The blades were spinning all right, but only from his Hail Mary yank. This mower’s engine was not going to start. The blades had almost come to a complete stop but then the engine coughed a hopeful puff of white smoke! It hesitated and hacked, sounded like it was going to die, and very slowly barked into a rhythm of high revs spitting out clumps of damp grass from the rapidly spinning blades.
My right hand to the God that I was blaspheming – that lawnmower actually started! Annie opened her eyes wider and moved her head back as if she had been hit with something heavy and soft. Brad’s mouth was agape, covered by both of his hands appearing to sensor an expletive and Mark just smiled poignantly.
I was dumbfounded, just staring at the lawnmower as the man shook my hand. He spoke powerfully over the Briggs & Stratton engine, “My name is Reverend Roy Daniels and I’m gonna be the Preacher conductin’ this tent healin’ revival. I really want y’all to come to it.”
We quickly exchanged nervous glances like little kids next in line to a scary roller coaster. The mower’s engine began to sound like husky loud laughter, effectively eclipsing my irreverence.
He continued resonantly, “People need to hear ‘bout this! They need to know things like this can really happen, and y’all need to come!”
Reverend Roy was radiating an earnest charisma as he studied my eyes. I mumbled a vague numb yes and I realized that he had not let go of my hand. Even with the familiar smells of gasoline and cut grass, I was officially out of my element.
As the sun flirtatiously graced the tops of the Virginia cedar trees we rode past Roy waving to us. The pressure of emotions erupted as soon as the Beetle sputtered over the hill and out of view. I exhaled and said,
Brad’s southern parody voice was in rare form “Oh honey ain’t no WAY you can go back there tomorrah! People gonna be bringin’ their broken lawnmowers, toaster ovens and crap sayin’ things like- ‘We heard you had the GIFT! Please lay hands on all my nonworking appliances.’”
I laughed till I could barely breathe. We were all in stitches that gradually faded into post script sighs with a light cough or two. Now the only sound was the Beetles’ raspy engine. From my rear view mirror, Mark was illuminated by golden sunset light as he reflected, “That was sure somethin’.”
24 hours later we were back in Cedarville and the pleasant muted softness of driving in fresh cut grass reminded me of driving in snow. I parked the Beetle in the shadows of two pick-up trucks. It was a spacious white tent with about fifty people gathered underneath. Rows of white folding chairs faced a stage and a gas generator faithfully hummed about 25 yards away.
This canvas church had a high center pole and raised tight creases that descended and fanned out like spokes to a square wagon wheel. I noticed the stakes were a dingy grey but had fresh sparkly scores on the rounded heads. Recent impacts from a hammer had made someone an unwitting jeweler.
The air was thick with fragrant clouds of ladies’ perfumes that I could almost taste on my tongue. The four of us were walking closer together than we needed to for such vast space. One of the advantages of having a self-conscious mouth is that I had become a fairly good ventriloquist. My lips barely moved as I said, “We are not in Kansas anymore.” just loud enough for my fellow Oz journey friends to hear.
Preacher Roy cleaned up real nice. He had fresh pomade in his hair, a white shirt, red tie, and a plain black blazer with matching black slacks. The family band harmonized well, “Go tell it on the Mountain that Jesus Christ is born…” Roy sat in a folding chair next to a pulpit on a stage made of portable risers. With his bible in his lap he would read, close his eyes tightly and look up, laugh, and say something that I couldn’t hear over the music. He seemed to be sharing an inside joke with the high top of the tent.
The congregation was standing so we stood too. An older woman in a flower print dress was next to us with a little boy by her side. She had her arms extended and lowered them when she noticed us.
“My name’s Doris. This here’s my Grandson little Nate. “
“Nice to meet you both.” I say just loud enough to be heard over the music.
“Y’all here to get saved?”
Brad blinked slowly and said “Saved from what darlin’?”
The song suddenly finished and Reverend Roy set the well-worn Bible on the pulpit. His matching weathered hands took the microphone out of the clip. He gave all of us a warm smile gestured for us to sit and allowed a few seconds of silence to settle.
“I was just readin’ Mathew 7:15 from the good book.”
A woman’s voice behind me supportively hummed “Mmm-Hmm.”
Roy moved his finger across the page, ”Mathew 7:15, ‘Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but are ravenous wolves.’”
I instantly wondered if this had anything to do with my lawnmower stunt.
Preacher Roy paced the stage and began telling us about God, but his Southern drawl divided it into three syllables. His voice would move the pitch up, bend it down then back up again like a hilly country road as he said “Gwaaaaaaahd” with stylized and extended reverence. I kinda liked Roy’s God. His God was feisty and had a mischievous, almost criminal twinkle in his eye.
Next to us, Doris stood up and rocked predictably from side to side making her house dress look like a large slow ringing bell. Little Nate stood by her side, perhaps four years old, with unflinching big bright eyes and blonde hair.
Any of Preacher Roy’s pomade had now been effectively sweated out. He declared, “Lord Halleluiah we got us a revival!” and then his voice abruptly distorted and faded to awkward silence. Two well-traveled black amplifiers sat like ineffective monoliths. Band members began pushing power buttons and adjusting knobs.
That’s when I felt a genuine panic. My ears frantically searched for the sound of the generator. This could be my worst nightmare. If preacher Roy asked me to heal the generator, the entire worship community of Cedarville would quickly discover that I was not the internal combustion engine messiah. But what if I could heal engines? What are the mechanics of a miracle? Perhaps walking on water was originally a childhood dare as Jesus looked down and was as surprised as anyone else.
I was relieved to hear the generator’s faint beacon beyond the tent walls, but even more appeased when Roy did not even inspect the microphone.
He set it confidently down and proudly proclaimed, “The Devil can’t keep me from tellin’ y’all the truth!”
Everyone erupted into praises and clapping hands.
He continued,”The Lord don’t need no E-lec-tricity” He paused reflectively and said, “God IS the power!”
Someone shouted, “Yes he is!”
The amplifiers came back to life with loud pop and hum. Roy picked up the microphone and said defiantly “Now that’s how the Lord works brothers and sisters.”
I kind a liked it when the Lord didn’t want us to have E-lec-tricity. It was more peaceful, but that’s not what this tent revival was all about, and it was about to get even more tenty and revivlier.
An unlikely benefit of this improvisational worship environment is that it was providing exercise for people who didn’t appear to have a regular cardio regimen. Doris raised her arms high as she testified.
“Them doctors from the hospital gave me a bunch a medicine for mah heart, and I… I threw ‘em in the garbage!”
Preacher Roy responded, “The Lord is our healer!” Supportive whispers of “Thank you Jesus” sprinkled throughout the tent.
Doris then lobbed a passionate statement, “And then I told them doctors ta go ta hell!”
Everyone looked to Roy to see how he would handle this pin-less grenade. He ran his fingers through his wet dark hair and the corners of his eyes made kind crow’s feet as he smiled and looked downward.
“Oh sister, I believe…I believe we want everybody to go to heaven. Even them doctors!” Amens filled the tent and Doris began to shake with greater vibration and bounce.
Her grandson’s expression still never changed. Doris quivered into the aisle and began to flail more freely but then her left foot slid out of her house shoe and she rapidly lost balance. She staggered backwards and collided with the center support that kept the entire canvas church erect. The whole tent suddenly listed heavily to the left and in pendulum fashion it rocked powerfully to the right. Now all of us had our eyes heavenward as the tent precariously flirted with collapse. Her right arm locked around the pole as she spiraled and her do-si-do with the tent pole ended. She stood addled in one shoe wonder. Unfortunately the tent still had its own ongoing principles of physics. It yawed heavily to the left, and heaved hard to the right as if we were on a large ship destined for imminent capsize.
The preacher’s hands gripped tighter to the microphone and the music slowly staggered to a stop. The only sound was the generator holding strong. That’s when the canopy abruptly sprung back to center with a sound like a giant sheet being shaken with one loud thunderous snap! Roy seized the moment and shouted, “Glory be to God!”
As the band erupted in song, we all celebrated this literal tent healing moment in our own way. I looked over at Brad and he seemed genuinely happy with his long arms clapping skyward. Annie and Mark exchanged head shaking grins.
Then little Nate brought his granny’s shoe to her and she picked him up. She rocked him from side to side, kissed his cheek, and raised her left hand pointing to the top of the tent victoriously. That’s when the child actually smiled, and in that moment something happened to me.
I smiled publicly.
I smiled without fear.