The Wink That Saved Me by Cindy Shearer
The first time I saw the Devil, I was learning to drive Daddy’s new 1940 Ford coupe—still shiny black like a giant beetle. Perched on the edge of the seat, my bare feet barely reaching the pedals, pigtails brushing my shoulders, I was wrestling the big steering wheel as Daddy directed me along the dirt road through Uncle Clarence’s hay fields. It was a blistering July afternoon between dinner and suppertime when most folks were down for a nap or sitting in the shade with wet rags draped around their necks. Air blew through the open windows, warm and dusty, as I bounced along, thrilled to be the one in control, while Daddy sat watching the road from under the brim of his straw fedora, his right arm crooked on top of the door.
I heard it before I saw it: the sputter and clatter overriding the steady hum of the coupe. I took a quick peek out my window and saw Uncle Clarence’s red tractor barreling toward us through the high grass.
“Looks like Clarence found a hand to make hay for him,” Daddy said. He focused on the tractor while I tried to stay in the center of the road. But the thump-thumping grew louder and the tractor grew larger, pulling my eyes against my will. When I looked again, I saw the driver leaning over the side to check the mower. He was dressed like any farm boy in overalls with his shirtsleeves rolled up, except he had what looked to me like goat horns attached to the rim of his Western hat, one on each side. He jerked up in the seat as we passed and glared at us through the windshield without a smile or a wave hello. Daddy stared back and didn’t wave either.
The man’s face was hard, with wide-set burning eyes, a bushy mustache and a scraggly goatee. He reminded me of Cole Younger of the James Gang—not Dennis Morgan, but the real Cole Younger in the newspaper photo Daddy showed me after we watched Bad Men of Missouri. When he fixed me with his angry eyes, I forgot I was driving and the car swerved into the weeds at the edge of the field.
“Watch the road, Emma Jean!” Daddy snapped, grabbing the steering wheel.
After that, I drove straight down the middle all the way back to the highway, where Daddy took over the driving. “Who was that man on the tractor?” I asked, as soon as we were underway again.
“Name’s Sonny Gray—younger brother of that new circuit preacher Mama’s been going on about, like he was the second coming.”
I shuddered, remembering their conversation from the night before. I was still awake on the sleeping porch when Daddy came home from the café. Mama followed him through the porch and they sat on the metal lawn chairs right under my bed while Daddy smoked his cigar.
“I hear Brother Gray has baptized more than 200 this summer already,” Mama said. “Everywhere he goes folks are pouring in to see him. They say he’s the best—
“I threw his brother out of the café tonight,” Daddy interrupted. “He came in staggering drunk and commenced to heckling the McSwain boys, looking for a fight.”
“Well I’ll swanee! Lola told me Brother Gray baptized his brother just a few weeks ago—after he got caught with a band of no account drifters trying to steal a calf out on Wade Leicester’s place.”
Daddy snorted. “I reckon he’ll need more that a dunk in the river to straighten him out. I had to threaten him with the Billy club before he would leave.”
“Oh my word!” Mama clucked her tongue. “Poor Brother Gray must be mighty ashamed to have a brother like that.”
“Maybe the little brother was part of his show,” Daddy said.
“Part of his show!” Mama sounded outraged.
Daddy muttered something that I couldn’t hear and Mama came back inside, letting the screen door slam behind her.
As I watched Daddy driving, cool as a cucumber, I couldn’t imagine him threatening anybody with a Billy club—even though Mama said he had used it a time or two. I didn’t think he would stand a chance against a young, bloodthirsty buck like Sonny Gray. “Is Sonny Gray a bad man, Daddy?” I asked.
Daddy considered a long spell before he answered. “I don’t know if he’s a bad man or not. He’s hot-tempered, for sure. But he’s doing an honest day’s work. That’s more than I can say for his brother.”
I saw Brother Gray for the first time that evening at the gospel meeting. He preached in the arbor where it was a few degrees cooler than in our one-room church and where more people could crowd in to hear him. I sat between Mama and Aunt Lola on a front row bench looking directly up at his face—clean-shaven and more handsome than his brother’s, but with the same wide-set eyes that burned right through me.
After he led us in prayer and we sang a few hymns, he launched into his sermon about the tortures of hell awaiting all the unsaved souls when they die. He worked up such a sweat in his three-piece suit that he had to stop and wipe his face with a handkerchief. As he was folding it, he stopped suddenly and craned his neck, looking high and low, left and right. “Satan is here,” he said. “Right here among us. Can you feel his presence?”
Everybody was still and quiet as a burst of hot wind blew through the arbor. Though I couldn’t see behind me with Mama and Aunt Lola squeezed so close beside me, I knew the Devil had risen from the ground outside the arbor.
Brother Gray gazed over our heads at the back rows. “Satan is here, looking for unsaved souls. You know who you are, and so does he.”
I hid my face against Mama’s shoulder while Satan stalked the center aisle, searching for the damned.
“Come forward all you sinners and repent!” Brother Gray cried, throwing his arms wide. “Confess Jesus Christ as your savior. Be saved from the fires of hell.”
All around the arbor, people rose and shuffled to the front. I worked up the courage to stand, knowing the Devil would spot me when I did, but I figured if I made it into the line with the others, somehow I would be safe. “Sit down, Emma Jean,” Mama whispered, pulling me back onto the bench. Though I begged her with my eyes, she shook her head sternly, and I knew I was doomed. The devil had seen me.
That night I dreamed I was chasing a jackrabbit through the cotton field on the edge of town. When the rabbit disappeared down a hole, I spun around and found the whole town had vanished. There was nothing but cotton balls in every direction. I was running up and down the rows, trying to find my way home, when suddenly a red tractor—twice as big as Uncle Clarence’s—appeared in front of me.
I froze, too scared to move, as it rolled down the row, spitting and sputtering, black smoke belching from the stack. And then I saw the driver. It was the Devil himself, as red as the tractor, with black horns sprouting from his head, Sonny Gray’s angry eyes, and a pitchfork cocked back, ready to spear me through the chest. As he loomed overhead, the cotton field caught fire and burned all around me, but I still couldn’t move.
I woke up screaming. Mama came running out to the porch, wrapped me up in her arms and made me tell her my dream. “The Devil lives in hell, way down underground,” she said, stroking my hair. “He doesn’t come up here and take little girls.”
“Brother Gray said he does, when they die,” I said, wriggling out of her arms. “What if I die before I wake?”
Her eyes turned sad. She had lost two babies before me, so this was a touchy subject. “You’re not going to die. Now lay down and go back to sleep.”
I put my head on the pillow but didn’t close my eyes. “Mama, I want to be baptized.”
“You’re too young, honey. You need to be old enough to understand what sin is and what it means to be saved.”
“I’m almost ten, and I do understand. If I die, the Devil will take me away to hell, unless I’ve been baptized.”
Mama pulled the sheet over me and kissed my forehead. “Don’t think about the Devil anymore, Emma Jean. You’re an innocent child. God won’t let him take you.”
Mama’s assurance was not convincing, but I fell asleep anyway. The next morning, I went to McSwain’s store to see if any new comic books had come in. When I opened the door, Sonny Gray was at the counter buying a pack of cigarettes. He was taller than most men, with grease-smeared, muscled arms, and he leaned on one leg as if he might pull a knife at any moment. He wasn’t wearing a hat, so I had a full view of his unshaved, scowling profile. Little Jimmy McSwain behind the counter was scared of him too; I could tell by the way he kept his head down as he scooped up the coins and dropped them in the cash register. I let the door go, ran into the alley between the store and the café and waited there until I saw him leave the store and swagger down the street in the other direction.
That night, I had the same nightmare. I begged and cried so much, Mama finally agreed to let Brother Gray baptize me at the end of his two-week stay. The next evening at the gospel meeting, I was so relieved I didn’t hear a word of Brother Gray’s sermon about the fires of hell. I was thinking instead about how beautiful heaven must be with streets of gold and angels flying everywhere. I was imagining myself there, sitting on Jesus’s lap, when Mama nudged me to go forward for the confession.
I slipped into the line of converts, and while Brother Gray took each person’s hand and asked them to repent their sins and confess Jesus Christ as their savior, I searched the arbor for any sign of the Devil. All I saw were folks I knew well and a few ordinary-looking strangers, but I figured he was watching invisibly, fuming to himself about all of us sinners who were about to be saved from hell.
Brother Gray stepped in front of me and I gave him my hand. He tucked in his chin, looking down his nose at me in mock surprise, as if my small size amused him. I looked him square in the eyes and answered yes to his questions extra loud, so everybody could hear and nobody could say I was too young to understand what I was doing.
On Brother Gray’s last day with us, Daddy drove us down to the river where the whole town was gathering in the shade of the pecan trees. Daddy said I looked pretty in my new white dress, but he didn’t say a word about the baptism. As soon as we got out of the car, he joined a huddle of men folks at the edge of the grove, while Mama showed me off to all of her friends. I wanted to get back to my thoughts of heaven, but the scene was too lively with people joking and jabbering and kids running around everywhere like they were at a picnic.
When Brother Gray arrived, he led us in a long prayer, which forced everyone to hush up and settle down. Afterward, the bunch of us who were going to be baptized followed him to the gravel beach where we all took off our shoes and socks and waded a few steps into the river.
Brother Gray stood in the middle of the river where the water was over his knees and motioned to us to come to him one at a time. I’d been swimming in that river since I was a baby but never in a Sunday dress with folks singing hymns on the riverbank and a strange man waiting to dunk me. The experience was so peculiar, I might as well have been walking on the moon. By the time I reached him, up to my waist in cold water, I was so dazed, I thought my head might float away like a balloon, until he placed his hand on my head and said the magic words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”
I hated it when he clapped his big hand over my face, but he dipped me into the water and out again so fast I wasn’t even out of breath when he let me go. Everybody was singing “Shall We Gather at the River” as I opened my eyes, hoping to get a glimpse of Jesus descending from the clouds. Instead, I found Brother Gray with his chin tucked again, grinning down at me. Then he winked, and it was like I had stepped off a carnival ride—still dizzy, but everything was suddenly back to normal.
That wink meant he was pulling my leg, just like when Uncle Clarence winked after he told me not to swallow watermelon seeds because the vines would grow out of my ears. That wink meant his baptism wasn’t worth a hill of beans. Daddy was right, Brother Gray was just putting on a show. As soon as he was through making fools of us all, he would collect his pay and go on to the next town. I was so mad I wanted to punch him in the belly as hard as I could.
As I waded back to shore—my dress dripping and clinging to my slip and panties underneath—I was planning to tell everyone that Brother Gray was a fraud. But as soon as I stepped onto the beach, Mama rushed down to hug and kiss me. Seeing her smiling face, beaming with pride, I couldn’t say it. “Now you’re saved!” she cried. “Do you feel any different?”
I hung my head. “I feel more grown up,” I said, and that was the truth.
The next afternoon, Daddy took me on another driving lesson through Uncle Clarence’s hay fields. I had just gotten behind the wheel, when I spotted the tractor in the distance, moving in the same direction we were. When we got a little closer, I saw it was Sonny Gray mowing again. “Well I’ll be darned,” Daddy said. “Clarence said he’s been missing the last three days. Looks like he showed up to finish the job after all.”
Sonny Gray had changed. He was slumped over the wheel like a worn out old man, coughing every few seconds and spitting over his shoulder. I remembered how much he had scared me, how the Devil in my dream had his mean eyes, but there was nothing threatening about him now. Even the goat horns dangling from his hat looked pathetic.
Just like his brother, Sonny Gray was not what he first appeared to be. I was remembering Brother Gray’s wink in the river, how it made me feel like such a fool, when lights went off in my head like fireworks, and suddenly I knew the truth about the Devil. The baptism was only one part of Brother Gray’s joke. The Devil was a joke too! Nobody went to hell when they died, because hell was not a real place. There was no such thing as a big red monster with a pitchfork who tortured people in a fiery prison underground. The Devil was no more real than Santa Claus. I was so tickled, I nearly laughed out loud.
As we came up behind the tractor, I saw it was halfway on the road, mowing the weeds. “Get on around him, Emma Jean,” Daddy said.
I pushed my toes down on the gas pedal, and then a little more, until we were going faster than I had ever dared to go. Daddy put his hand on the dash, but he didn’t say a word. “Whoopee!” I hollered out the window as we whizzed by that slowpoke on the tractor. When I glanced back in the rearview mirror, he was fading away in a cloud of dust.