From the opposite side of the field, Rainbow sat with her head cocked, listening to the shouts coming from the swimming hole beyond the trees. Her rust-colored coat blended with the reddish dirt. The shimmering heat made her appear to bend and move. Rainbow came here to lie under the shade of the wall when she got tired of chasing rats in the junkyard. When the kid found her resting there, he decided it would be a good position for a summer vacation church. And like that the two most important things in his life were united.
“It means give praise and thanks to the creator,” said the boy. “Jesus decreed the kingdom of God belongs to children, so why should we have to go to some grown-up church?” He stretched his arms up to the sky, as if reaching out for rain in the dry Mississippi heat and began his chant. “We will rejoice, oh yes we will.” He said it over and over again, starting slow then increasing in speed and pitch. Standing on his makeshift pulpit, he hopped from his left leg to his right leg.
The girls laughed and copied him — left leg, then right. Mandy-May wobbled and nearly fell to the ground. This made her sister enjoy the game even more. They jumped about in the sun and listened to the older boy chanting his chant.
The crack of a rifle from back on the junkyard interrupted proceedings and sent Rainbow running for cover behind the old wall. Uncle Steve must have arrived with his hunting gear. He sure loved to hunt even though he said all the good deer in Panther Swamp had been snatched by out-of-towners with fancy equipment. There was only boar left in the woods, and scrawny ones at that. The kid was no expert on these matters, but he knew to steer clear of any Bryce family member who brought guns or bottles to the house. Steve usually brought both.
The kid grabbed Rainbow by the collar and made the dog follow. Her advanced age had made her a lot less mean than the other Bryce dogs, who barked at anything near the junkyard in return for hambones and meat scraps.
If Steve was over, there might be a meal. So long as the kid fished out enough working batteries and auto parts from the duds that found their way to the Bryce yard, he could do as he please during vacation. But, his parents, who were often out all day, didn’t leave much food in the house.
He and Rainbow walked over the stream, through the hole in the chain-link fence and past row upon row of stripped-out pickups. Some of them were twice as old as the kid, maybe even three times. What more could a young boy want to inherit?
When he got back from his ‘sermon’, his momma asked him where he’d been. The kid said ‘around’ which passed for an answer at his house. The way people talked around the city was imprecise, and people asked few questions. That’s why the kid was called ‘the kid’. He had no brothers and sisters, so it didn’t matter what his name was or wasn’t. Fact was he came from the Bryce clan. They were known well enough around the swamp to make him the least important of all of them.
There was no food and Uncle Steve and his daddy had already geared up and gone into the woods. The kid didn’t like deer meat but ate what he was given. Sometimes there was beans or a stew too. Without a store nearby, the only other source of food was from other locals. Janice, the pastor’s daughter, brought candies and chips when she was able to sneak out and ride the two miles to the junkyard after dark.
The kid went to the garage, where he slept during the hot summers. Although he’d never had his own room in the house, he liked the garage and knew every inch of it. The mattress in there was mostly fine, and Rainbow could stay in the garage but not the house. The kid set down a dish of water he’d made from an old hub cap and ruffled the fur on her head. While he talked about how he planned to leave town and spread the word of the Gospel, the dog drank her water and listened. He recited verses from the Bible under the bright strip light.
While he waited for the hunters to return, the kid reordered the displays of bolts and screws and old car badges. He liked engines enough, but it wasn’t his passion, not like his daddy, who looked through black and white automobile magazines and pressed his ear to the hood of twenty-year-old trucks to hear them tick over. With no sound but the evening song of the crickets, he hummed some of the songs they sang at church and admired his treasures.
“Sunday’s a long way away,” said the kid to Rainbow, who was curled up on the mattress. He studied the stack of posters he’d given out at the swimming hole. They read ‘Panther Swamp Summer Church. 4 pm service, behind the Bryce Junkyard.’ He’d added a note about free drinks at the bottom. Should he have changed junkyard to ‘automobile reclamation’ like his daddy always told folks in Yazoo? On Sunday, when the family wore their good clothes and rode in the good truck to town, he would tell the Pastor about his new church.
To his mind, the kid had already completed his mission of building a church from scratch — one where he could attend every day and where he wasn’t shoved to the back and told to be quiet. He had made his leaflets, painted a sign, and created a pulpit of sorts. Some of the children who came past his property to get to the swimming hole listened while he chanted and practised his moves, leaping around like he was preaching to thousands, feeding off their enthusiasm and fervor.
As he turned the pages of the Book of Matthew, a line caught his attention as if it spoke his name. It said ‘From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise.’ The kid read it again, then read it aloud to Rainbow. He stood up and delivered the line as he’d seen Pastor Michael do in the Baptist church on Sundays. The other children might not go back to swimming so quickly if he could use this book to tell them they were calling the shots now.
This truly was a moment to rejoice for the kid. He had seen the path ahead. He took a glass bottle of root beer from the corner of the garage. It felt cold to the touch and he pressed it to his cheek. Before he pried the top off, he held it up to the strip light and observed the reds and browns dance in the bottle. He took a plastic cup from one of the shelves, blew off the dust and poured himself a cup.
For the next hour, he sat cross-legged on the mattress with a pencil and paper in hand, writing out any passages he thought he could apply to his radical new philosophy that children should teach themselves about the Bible. He took a sip of root beer each time he found something worth noting down. When his hunger overpowered his concentration, the kid took the push bike that leant on the far wall and lifted Rainbow into the fraying basket. They rode to the dumpsters at the end of the lot where richer folks threw their trash. In one of the dumpsters, the kid found two pizza boxes with all the crusts still intact. He tucked the boxes under his arm and rode home with Rainbow in the basket. When he got back, there was so much to study.
The screeching sound of the metal door being hauled up broke the kid’s concentration. Silhouettes of the boy’s father and Uncle Steve blocked the fading light from outside. His father propped two guns against the wall and helped his brother lower the carcass from his shoulders to the ground.
“Not much eatin’. Maybe something for the hounds,” he said. “At least with this son’bitch gone the deer got a chance.” He looked down at the scruffy grey coyote on the concrete floor and prodded it with a boot. “You don’t mind if we leave this son’bitch here do you, boy?”
The kid went over and inspected the animal. How was he supposed to sleep with a stinking dead coyote in his room? What if anyone came over? “Alright then,” he replied, not wanting to ruin their moment of glory. Steve nodded righteously and they headed through the front door to get cleaned up. Rainbow eyed the corpse, too afraid to go over and take a proper look. The kid went back to writing his manifesto and left the garage door open to let the cooling air in, and the smell of dead coyote out.
A while later, as the kid was thinking of going to sleep and picking up his church business in the morning, he heard the unmistakable sound of Janice’s ten-speed bicycle making tracks up the dirt path toward the garage. Every time she rode it, he wanted to ask her if he could swap it for the ladies bicycle in the garage. But he didn’t.
“Hey, you there?” she whispered. She knew he was because she could see the light peeking out onto the drive from under the retractable door. Janice didn’t wait for an answer and hauled the door up herself. She stood for a moment, her shoulder-length hair lit up by the moon.
“Shh,” he said. “Don’t want my folks coming out here raising up trouble. You know they tell your daddy ‘most everything.” He helped her in with the bike and explained that the dead coyote in the corner was nothing to be afraid of. The kid went over and stroked Rainbow. “This one’s just lazy.”
Janice took out some donuts from her bag. They were stale, but they ate some and finished the root beer. As they ate, the kid closed his eyes and waited for the rush of sugar to wake him up. Janice was a year older than him, and probably just came over because her parents told her not to mix with the junkyard family.
The kid didn’t mind, he was pleased to have someone to talk to apart from his old dog and the broken vehicles. He was old enough to know he found her attractive, but not old enough to do anything about it. If he knew, his daddy would have made jokes about him being a lapdog for another girl in the neighborhood. He wrote some of her homework, fixed up her bike real nice, and showed off his little auto-part trophies and displays.
Janice said there was not much news from the city. There never was when school was out. So, the kid told her about his creation, and how he ran his church for the kids. She sat and smoked the cigarette the kid had found in a pack left in an old paint tin on his shelf. She listened while he talked, blowing the smoke under the garage door.
“Three ideas,” he said, “for the Panther Swamp Church.” The kid looked around as if to check for intruders. “No adults, period,” he said, “and no clever twisting of the Bible’s words. We just read.” He paused, waiting to see if Janice had any input, but she listened, seemingly impressed with his plan. “Three — we get other kids to join us so we got a voice, not just suffering the consequences of all these other folks(') sins.”
Janice looked into her empty cup and smiled. “You should think of a better name,” she said. “But, that aside, I’d like to help.” She reached for the Bible and turned to the Book of Peter. She read aloud, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”
The kid looked back at the preacher’s daughter with a mixture of admiration and awe. The others at the swimming hole liked his offer of free coke, and there was always enough ‘spiritual milk’ in the garage to go around.
Over the next few days, the numbers at his church grew. Janice distributed fliers and told the kids to be careful not to let their parents know. Turning it into some kind of secret club was fun, even if it got the kids’ attention for only half an hour. The free coke and ice they hauled down to the wall each day helped.
The kid never made his services sound like lectures. He asked questions and had a quote ready for every answer. He spoke with assurance, not authority and gave increasingly confident performances. The weather remained hot, and by the end of the week, numbers increased to twelve. The others, who had ignored the kid throughout the school year as a junkyard Bryce, took to his readings. Their parents didn’t mind them being ‘around’, and there was little entertainment other than swimming. They joined in with whoops and hollers of ‘we will rejoice,’ while the kid preacher danced his stomping dance on the palettes. Afterwards, they tossed their empty cups and plunged themselves back into the cool waters of the swimming hole.
It was the Sunday service in Yazoo before anyone over the age of eighteen knew about the new preacher in town. Jeremy Gates was yammering a little too loudly about free drinks and Bible dancing. His momma overheard. She was a curious type, but, she said at least it was better than throwing rocks as the abandoned houses.
The service went slow and the searing August sun burned down with fire and brimstone on the usually cool wooden church building. Most of the congregation didn’t have much desire to sing and clap and shout their amens. They near melted into their chairs that day.
When it finished, the kid asked Pastor Michael a bunch of questions. How did you know if you had what it takes to preach? How old was old enough? Did he have any advice? The preacher seemed uncomfortable and irritable as though he just wanted to get back to his air-conditioned apartment in town.
“It ain’t a choice, young’un. You’ve got to know the Good Book inside out, apply the teachings.” He looked down at the kid and put on his most godly voice. “Preaching to a congregation is a calling, but you also need the authority of the Lord. Otherwise, y’all just have a cult is all.”
This wasn’t the answer the kid had hoped for. He respected the pastor but wondered who it was that had the divine authority to interpret and share the text. Were licences earned like high school diplomas? He stared at the pastor’s motorcycle boots and nodded gravely.
Out in the truck, his momma and daddy looked mighty uncomfortable in their Sunday suits. “Where you been, boy? This truck’s a God damn oven.” The kid apologised and told them he’d been conversing with the pastor about how to best serve God. His daddy told him fixing cars was easier than righting sins. At least motor vehicles didn’t talk back. His momma laughed and touched his daddy’s arm but the kid didn’t see anything funny.
The next Monday, the kid read the congregation Ephesians 2, verses 8 and 9: For by grace are ye saved through faith … not of works. On Tuesday, nearly twenty kids heard him quote the Book of James, saying by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. “This book’s full of contradictions that dumb adults don’t notice,” he said to much applause and laughter.
Some of them started to call it the Church of Rainbow, because of the colorful posters on the wall and the dog that now sat on the podium with its owner. “The youth of Mississippi deserve a voice. We will rejoice, oh yes, rejoice!”
As the kid lay on the mattress in the garage, writing down some phrases for what would be his penultimate sermon at his summer church, he heard raised voices coming from the stoop. Rainbow stirred from her new sleeping spot where the coyote carcass had once lay. “What’s he done now?” said the voices, “. . . well, that ain’t right . . . yes, sir, I’ll tell him.” Through the crack under the retractable door, the kid saw a pair of motorcycle boots walking back up the drive and a four-cylinder engine fire into life and drive into the night. Who had told him? Surely it couldn’t be Janice. The kid thought about taking the bike and running from the impending beating, but he had nowhere to go. Besides, who would look after Rainbow if he wasn’t there to feed her pizza crusts and donuts?
After it was over, his back burned hot. That was where the studded belt had done most of the damage. His hands and arms screamed with the pain of a hundred blows and the humiliation too. Penance for his sins, his daddy said. Rainbow had tried to intervene, but after a few blows she cowered in the corner too. Screws and bolts and miscellaneous auto-parts had flown off the shelves and clattered onto the floor. Later on, the kid replayed the one-sided shouting match about cults and respecting the Baptist way and knowing his place, and decided that he wouldn’t need a sermon tomorrow after all.
There weren’t as many children at the swimming hole the next day. Pastor Michael had visited them too. The Monson twins came, and the other few that turned up were high-schoolers. Janice wasn’t there. The kid did not wear his best shirt that day, nor did he wear any shirt. He showed the wounds that his father and by proxy the entire congregation of the Yazoo Baptist Church had inflicted. Angry red sores and welts on his scrawny back. Bright indigo bruises on his forearms, and a black eye — all the colors of the spectrum.
“This is what becomes of those who seek change,” he said. “Even though we are the owners of this good kingdom.” The teenagers watched from a distance, not wanting to appear official members of the congregation. The kid continued. “We might be going back to school next week, to learn how to stand in line to become good citizens, but we have a voice, same as every other person in this country.” He raised his arms into the crucifix position and held the pose. The older boys had seen enough to mark him down as crazy — the junkyard preacher. As they pedalled off on their bicycles, the kid shouted after them. “And that voice says rejoice. Yes it does.”
Beyond the cracked sidewalk, and the telephone pole with layers of flyers in a rainbow of colors, there stood a ten-foot-high concrete block wall, caked with dozens of coats of paint. The one word, Rejoice, which had taken three weeks to paint, and which filled the wall, had been covered. Its red and gold letters were masked by fliers for the Yazoo Baptist Church, which boasted of community spirit and free music. The pulpit was smashed apart and in front of the small shrine, lay the lifeless rust-colored carcass of a dead dog. Her head was flat and broken. She lay stiller than the coyote carcass that got ground up and fed to the Pit bulls.
Although Janice had betrayed his trust, the kid still loved her. He didn’t know what romantic love felt like, but he loved her like Jesus loved his people. If Pastor Michael could stoop to such depths as to crush the life out of an old dog, then no one was free and clear from needing guidance.
One of his great loves had consumed the other. The Lord had given him so much, but had also taken away. This was the God of contradiction. This was the same God that forbade people to kill, but in Exodus 32, instructed ‘put a sword by the side of every man.’
The kid was certain that he had loved Rainbow. That dog had kept him company through hours sifting through jagged metal, looking for working batteries and salvage. She kept him company writing papers in the garage. She suffered the same hot summers and the cold winters. She rejoiced in the creation of her own church, and danced and barked along with the congregation. It was over for the kid — the junkyard, the church, the whole place. When he was old enough to fix engines and spread the word of the Gospel, he’d do it far away from there. He would get a dog, a loyal friend, and he would use a new name. ‘The kid’ could stay back in Yazoo, Mississippi.