Read The Neon Bible Online

Authors: John Kennedy Toole

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

The Neon Bible (7 page)



Come hear a stirring message each and every



of Memphis, Tennessee



2000 seat tent Empty lot foot Main Street



The stores had signs in their windows too, so it was hard not to know anything about it if you knew how to read. The preacher was mad, and the town knew it. He didn't notice the sign hanging over Main Street. He never looked at the window displays where they had a sign. In the paper a few days later there was a notice that starting March 23 and continuing for two weeks the preacher was holding Bible conferences at the church every night at seven-thirty and all were invited to attend.

I knew no one in the valley was going to go to one of the preacher's Bible conferences when they could go and hear good music and have a better time at a revival. March 23 was about two weeks off, and every day the preacher ran his ad saying that he was going to have Bible experts from all over talk on the Bible and explain the full meaning of the Scriptures. And every day more big posters showed up all over town telling about Bobbie Lee Taylor's great revival.

One day some colored men turned up in the empty lot at the foot of Main and began clearing the stumps. It was right next to the schoolhouse, so Miss Moore, who always liked to take field trips, let us go outside to see what she called the stumps' "root formation." We were watching the colored men for about an hour when the preacher came by and told them to get off the public lands or he'd get the sheriff after them. They got scared and dropped their tools and went off. The preacher looked at our class sitting under the trees for a minute and went off too.

The next day the colored men showed up again, but this time there was a white man with them. The preacher didn't show up, so by the time school was out all the stumps were out and the lot, which was more like a big field, was all cleared and level. Big trucks began to come the days after, all with "Bobbie Lee Taylor, Boy Who Has Seen the Light, Wonder Evangelist!" written on them in yellow letters with a black shadow on one side. The colored men brought poles and big sheets of canvas out of the trucks and began to set up the tent. It went up pretty high and covered almost the whole field when they were finished. The ropes they had tied to pegs in the ground came all the way into the schoolyard it was so big. When it was up a smaller truck came with sawdust to throw on the ground on the inside.

They left it like that for about a week before the chairs came, and every day at lunchtime and when school was out, the boys went into the tent and had fights throwing the sawdust at each other. Some girls came in too, but they were the big ones in Mr. Farney's room who liked to have the big boys throw them down in the sawdust, though they pretended it made them mad.

When school was out I'd go home with the sawdust sticking in my collar and itching me down my back where I couldn't get at it. You could see everyone coming out of the tent -- a few at a time, because most didn't like to leave -- with sawdust in their hair and trying to reach down their backs to scratch. The big girls came out brushing it out of their long hair with their ringers and smoothing the wrinkles out of their skirts. All the way home they got pushed by the big boys, usually one girl between two boys. They would scream and laugh and try to run away, but not too hard.

The twenty-third was almost here. A truck came to the tent with the chairs, the wooden folding kind, and they made so much noise putting them up that Miss Moore couldn't teach the class. From the window we watched them take the chairs off the truck thin as a plank, then flip them open into full chairs.

Bobbie Lee Taylor came in on the twenty-second and talked over the radio and got his picture in the paper. I couldn't see what he looked like from the picture in the paper, because you couldn't make anyone out from those pictures unless it was President Roosevelt or someone else you knew well. They were so dark a person's eyes were big black spots and his hair looked like it met his eyebrows. Everyone looked the same except Roosevelt because his head was wide and Hitler because his hair hung down so you couldn't miss him.

The day of the revival almost everybody left school right after it let out. They were all going and had to get home to get ready. Mother and Aunt Mae hadn't talked about it, so I didn't think we were going. All the way home down Main Street the shops were closing up early. Bobbie Lee Taylor was staying at the hotel, and people were crowded on the street outside trying to get in and out the front door. A big Bobbie Lee Taylor sign was up on the hotel. I heard he was in the fifteen-dollar-a-day room, which was up on the third floor, the top floor of the hotel. They could only rent it when a rich person came through town, like the state senator and the manager of the war plant.

After we finished dinner, we went and sat on the porch. It was nice weather for March, and it seemed like an almost summer night had set in. Down in the valley you didn't get the winds, but up in the hills you knew when March came. That was when the pines whistled in the nice sunny weather and the clay got dry and blew up in tan clouds across the cinders until you'd never know they were there. But when April came and the clay washed down you knew the cinders were there and you were glad to have them so you could walk without sinking over your shoes.

Tonight there were big lights over by the schoolhouse where the tent was. It was the first night, and that meant that almost everyone was going to be there. After a year without one, the people in the valley were hungry for a revival. Cars were moving down Main Street bumper to bumper all the way to the foot of it. I could see the red taillights turning into the schoolyard and stopping and going out. Groups of town people were walking down the streets that led to the tent, stopping to pick up other groups standing under streetlights, and getting larger and larger at every corner the closer they got to the foot of Main. The people from out of the hills were there. You could tell by all the trucks covered with hardened clay that were trying to park along the streets. I thought of how many of those trucks were being driven by women, with most of the men overseas. They drove them pretty well, too, and it made me think of how people can sometimes do things you never would have thought they could.

After a while no more cars and trucks came, and only a few people were walking on the streets. I had never seen the town look so full before, with cars and trucks parked on almost every street except the one to the north where the rich people lived. When they wanted they just put a chain across the street and kept traffic out. It was so quiet in town and in the hills that we could hear the singing from the tent, loud and fast. If you didn't know the song, you couldn't understand what they were saying, but I had heard it before.


"Jesus is my Savior,

Jesus is my guide,

Jesus is my guardian,

Always by my side.

I'll pray, Jesus, pray, Jesus, pray, Jesus, pray.

Oh, Lord, I'll pray, Jesus, pray, Jesus, pray, Jesus, pray."


They repeated this last part over and over, faster every time. When the song was done, everything was quiet again, and I looked over to the preachers. I wondered how he was doing, because it looked like the whole town went to hear Bobbie Lee Taylor. You couldn't tell anything with all the cars parked all over. The ones near his church might be for him or the revival. But they were mostly trucks, and I knew no one was going to come out of the hills, or maybe even from the county seat, just to go to a Bible conference.

Aunt Mae and Mother were talking quietly behind me about Aunt Mae's job in the war plant. Mother asked all the questions, and Aunt Mae was answering about what she was doing and how she was a supervisor now and what good pay she was getting. Mother would say, "Really? Isn't that fine, Mae," and things like that. She was proud of Aunt Mae, and Aunt Mae was too, I think.

Then they started talking about Poppa. Mother said the last letter came from somewhere in Italy. I heard Aunt Mae's rocker just creak for a while, and they were both quiet. Then Aunt Mae said, "That's where the worst fighting is going on, isn't it?" Mother didn't answer, and Aunt Mae rocked slower than she did before.



Bobbie Lee Taylor had been in town for about ten days when Mother decided to go hear him. Aunt Mae said she was tired from the plant and wanted to go to sleep, but Mother was afraid to go down off the hills at night with just me. Finally Aunt Mae said yes, she'd go, so after dinner we all left.

It was April now, but there wasn't any rain yet. The March winds were still in, sweeping out the hills and combing through the pines. The night wasn't bright, because there'd been clouds off and on in the sky during the day and they were staying around for night too. They didn't have enough to start a rain, though. It seemed they could never get together to form one large cloud to do anything.

People were still going to hear Bobbie Lee Taylor, and there were plenty walking down Main Street tonight. Mother didn't know very many people anymore, but Aunt Mae and I did. I saw some of the boys and girls I knew from school and said hello to them, and people said hello to Aunt Mae and nodded at her. They were mostly young and middle-aged, and a few old women from the plant who worked under her.

All along the street trucks were parking in the gutter with women and little children getting out. By the time we got near the foot of Main I was feeling good. I had wanted to come see Bobbie Lee Taylor, but Mother and Aunt Mae waited a long time to make up their minds. Except for the movies, it was one of the few times I got out and went anywhere. Seeing all the people made Mother and Aunt Mae feel good too, and I heard them talking and laughing behind me. We stopped a lot along the way because Mother hadn't been in town for a long time, so she wanted to see what was in the windows.

Outside the tent people were talking in groups, and there was a man selling pop from a stand in the schoolyard. The children who had been in school all day were looking in the schoolhouse windows. I thought that was silly, but then I began to wonder what my room looked like at night, so I went over and looked in and could see the desks from the light of the tent and the rest of the room looking so quiet like you never would imagine a schoolroom could look. Even some of the big boys and girls from Mr. Farney's class looked through the windows to see what his room looked like, and they were telling each other it looked haunted.

We three went into the tent and got a seat up front. The chairs and sawdust made it smell like the lumber company in the county seat. On top of every pole holding up the tent they had strong lights that made it look bright as day in there. About six rows in front of us was the platform. They had big white flowers along the side and on top of the piano.

To the front of it was the kind of stand speechmakers use to put their papers on, except this one had a big black book on it that must have been a Bible.

It got close to seven-thirty, and the people began to come inside. They were still talking in groups when they sat down. The seats began to fill up around us. I saw one or two men, but they were old and held grandchildren on their knees. When I turned around to look, the whole tent was filled, and then Aunt Mae hit me with her elbow. A man was coming onto the platform with a nice suit on. A woman followed him and sat down at the piano. He must have been the man who led the singing. I knew this when he said for us to open tonight with "a good rousing chorus" of some song I never heard of.


"Sinners can be saints if they'll just bear the cross,

Sinners can be saints if they'll just bear the cross,

Sinners can be saints if they'll just bear the cross,

Bear it and reserve your place in heaven.

Bear, bear that cross, bear, bear that cross,

Bear, bear that cross, bear, bear that cross for Jesus."


The man led it loud and the people sang it loud too. He saw they wanted to sing it again, so the woman played the first few bars and everybody sang again. It was an easy song to learn, and I sang it with them the second time. It had a good beat that you could put almost any words to. The woman played it faster the second time, and when it was finished everybody was out of breath and holding on to people they knew and smiling.

Up on the platform the man smiled and held up his hands for everybody to sit down and get quiet. It took a while for people to stop squeaking their chairs, so he waited. When he began to talk again, his face changed and got sad.

"It has been wonderful to be in this town with Bobbie Lee, my friends. So many of you have invited us into your homes to share your humble repasts. God bless all of you, my friends. May the heavens shine down upon you, Christians and sinners alike, for I find it hard to make any distinction. You are all my brothers.

"By now there is no need for me to introduce Bobbie Lee to you all. He has become your friend, your idol, through his own acts. It took no talking on my part to make you love him. Everyone loves a dedicated Christian. Sinners respect one. I hope that by now there is more a feeling of love than respect for this chosen boy. My friends, I may honestly say that I wholeheartedly believe this has come about. But enough from me. Here is
Bobbie Lee."

The middle-aged man went over to the side of the platform and coughed and sat down by the piano. We had to wait a few seconds for Bobbie Lee to come on. Everybody was silent, waiting. They looked straight ahead to the platform.

When he came out you could hear people saying to each other, "Oh, here he is," "Bobbie Lee," "Yes, from Memphis," "Shh, listen." I thought Bobbie Lee would be a boy like they said, but he looked about twenty-five to me. I wondered why he wasn't in the war, being of age. His clothes hung on him because he was pretty skinny. But they were good clothes, a good sport coat and different-colored pants with a wide tie that I could count almost six colors on.

The first thing I noticed about him, even before his clothes and how skinny he was, were his eyes. They were blue, but a kind of blue I never saw before. It was a clear kind of eye that always looked like it was staring into a bright light without having to squint. His cheeks weren't full like a boy's would be, but hung in toward his teeth. You could hardly see his upper lip, not because it was thin, but because he had a long, narrow nose that sort of hung down at the end. He was blond-headed, with his hair combed straight back and hanging on his neck.

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