The Mercy Troupers: A Short Story by Rose Deniz
“I’m with Jesus,” was spelled out in sequins on a t-shirt tight enough to show she’d graduated from training bra to underwire. Across the field, her mother Orlie’s unisex tee said, “Me, too!”
Caramel and Orlie wore jeans with rhinestone appliqués and boleros they knit themselves instead of long cotton skirts and peasant blouses like the other converts. Preacher Hayden had no official dress code, but he didn’t like tank tops and cut-off shorts because they “put lecherous thoughts into the minds of unsaved people who don’t know the body is God’s vessel.”
They were camped this weekend in Shelter, Oklahoma. The preacher said the sharp blue sky was “the Lord’s way of reminding us He’s still watching over us.” Not too long ago there was so much rain no one could leave their RV’s without cursing the God that protected them.
Preacher Hayden handed Caramel a stack of invitations to Old Testament night bound together with rubber bands and told her to hand them out to people on the street and stuff them into mailboxes. She heard him yell as she walked off, “Remember, last time we were in Shelter there were eight converts!”
Caramel made a stop at her RV to pick up her backpack and ran into James, Preacher Hayden’s nephew. He was on his way to give the preacher his sermon notes and asked her where she was heading.
“Away, into town, probably. Want to come?”
The last time they went evangelizing they ended up at a diner drinking coffee and eating hamburgers.
“Not this time,” he said.
She watched him run off, looking too clean-cut for Shelter or any scruffy RV park in his crisp white polo shirt. The RV he shared with Preacher Hayden was across from hers, parked with thirty other RVs that sat on platforms hooked up to gas lines.
“It’s probably illegal to camp here,” Orlie had whispered to Caramel when they arrived in Shelter, “but Hayden’ll take care of it.”
Depending on where Preacher Hayden decided to travel during the school year, Caramel and James were new students in small towns with names like Apple Creek and Sheridan Falls in states like Wyoming or South Dakota. If they had to pick up and move in the middle of making micrographs of anthropods in biology or charting the mating habits of bats, Orlie home-schooled them and then supplemented their textbooks with discussions on creationism.
“You should have a well-rounded education,” she said.
When Preacher Hayden gathered everyone around him outside until dawn, Caramel slipped away at some point during the night.
“Go back to the RV and read the Bible,” Orlie said, and Caramel would leave her mother invoking the Holy Spirit while Preacher Hayden cast away the sins of his followers.
Orlie had been snooping one night and found Caramel’s battered copy of Dark Angels, the Francesca Lia Block book she never returned to a public library in Idaho.
“Pardon my French, Caramel Berkstrand, but what in God’s name are you doing with this?”
“It’s not mine,” Caramel said when she saw the book raised above Orlie’s head. “I found it outside another RV and thought I should take it away before one of the little kids saw it.”
“And what were you planning to do with it?”
“Throw it away,” Caramel said, “Once we leave this site.”
Orlie said, “I’ll do it for you,” and dumped it in a municipal trash bin.
Since then Orlie checked Caramel’s Bible study notes every night, but didn’t know Caramel kept a journal where she wrote about James and drew pictures of the campsites and towns they visited.
James said prayer this morning, she wrote in her journal. He says he wants to be an engineer, but I think he has the hands of an artist, curved nails and tapered fingers.
Underneath a photo from the Grand Canyon she wrote, The Preacher wants me to be an example of piety, that’s what he told Mom, but I can hardly get the words out. I can tell I’m sweating, staining my shirt when it’s my turn to lead prayer.
“You’re one of the chosen,” Preacher Hayden had said to her in Aberdeen, South Dakota after she led group prayer, “but you need to put more power into your voice.”
Caramel knew her voice didn’t carry like James’s or the preacher’s. “Do you like leading prayer?” Caramel had asked James after a youth group Bible study.
James laughed. “Of course, I’ve been doing it since I was six.”
“I’m no good at it.”
James looked around, kept his voice low. “My uncle is just misunderstood. After the Baptists excommunicated him, he’s done all he can to build this community.”
“I know,” Caramel said.
James was always willing to talk to Caramel about anything. He was one of the few people who admitted getting tired of new towns and schools and talking about Jesus to people on the street.
“You just have to relax,” he said. “If you mean it, it’ll come through you.”
But Caramel didn’t know if she meant it. When she tried to talk to her mother about Preacher Hayden, Orlie just shushed her. “The other path we were taking? It was taking us away from God. Preacher Hayden saved us,” she said. “Remember that.”
Orlie was a lapsed Pentecostal and blamed Caramel’s father for making her stray. They were supposed to travel together, camp and photograph the scenery, but when Caramel was born, he left the two of them in the Ozarks with half a tank of gas and never came back.
Caramel imagined her father lived somewhere in a cabin all by himself, missing her and writing her letters that he never had the courage to send, but Orlie assured her he was too self-centered for that.
“He only had one thing in mind, and that was to impregnate me and leave us all by ourselves,” she said. “Preacher Hayden’s all we’ve got now, so don’t lose sight of what he’s given us.”
Caramel disagreed with Orlie that Preacher Hayden was her father now, and father of everybody in his flock. She told James she wondered what it would be like to stay in one place for a while again. She imagined living in Hamburg, Pennsylvania, or Providence, Rhode Island. James said he wondered about wild open pastures in Montana or maybe living on a dairy farm in Iowa.
Under inky stars at a campground in Arcadia, Louisiana, Caramel and James talked about going to San Francisco together.
“Or how about Bemidji, Minnesota?” James said. “We could rent a small cabin with a wood stove and defrost our tap water.”
That was the night James kissed her. They were back behind the RV’s away from everyone else. Caramel had tried to arrange her hands and mouth to fit his while shutting out thoughts of punishment for lust, one of the seven deadly sins.
She pushed him away. “We’re not supposed to do this, and someone might find out,” she said, but kissed him again anyway. She could smell a faint trace of cologne and wondered if it belonged to the preacher.
“Mom thinks no matter what route we’d taken, we’d have found Preacher Hayden,” Caramel said. “She told me it’s because I have a good sense of direction.”
James pulled her closer. “You always know where your heart is leading you.”
When Caramel was in junior high, she and Orlie lived in Portland. Orlie would come home smelling like bacon grease from the diner she worked at to find Caramel asleep in front of the TV.
“I’m tired of paying rent,” Orlie said at the end of the school year. “Let’s get on the road for awhile.” She bartered her mother’s heirloom jewelry for an old red Toyota truck and attached it to an RV.
“Let’s head as south as we can go, maybe Mexico.” She encouraged Caramel to paint or write about their new life. She could enter her work into contests that might earn them some money.
“You’re talented, you know,” Orlie said while flipping the turn signal to pull into a Big Boy for lunch, “not like me who can’t write a poem to save my life.”
When the Toyota wasn’t broken down, it clunked along at a top speed of 50 miles an hour. Orlie got ornery the longer they drove, getting out to kick the tires or cuss at the truck. She threatened to make them live in places like Reno, but said, “I won’t work the casinos. They’re immoral.”
“I shouldn’t have read The Bean Trees,” Caramel thought, imagining their life on the road would be companionable and free instead of being stuck in places like Santa Alma, Arizona where they had the Toyota’s spark plugs replaced for the third time.
It was just about when they crossed the Texas state line that the Toyota started to sputter again and they had to pull over. Irate, Orlie stormed down the road in open-toed sandals a half-mile before turning back.
“It’s a sign from God!” Orlie said when she saw a convoy of RV’s careening toward them. A halo of dust surrounded the caravan and Orlie started jumping up and down, waving her arms in a big swoop like the RV’s were airplanes from above.
The very first RV that stopped belonged to Preacher Hayden, and it was cool and sleek against the heat. Painted in red and blue letters along the side were The Mercy Troupers and Orlie let out a yelp. The preacher stepped out of his RV in his pressed cargo pants and said, “Sandra, can you take a look?”
A woman jumped out of the RV in a long skirt and rushed over to the hood of the truck, cranked it open and checked the fluids. While the line of RV’s idled, she did a quick jump-start and it came back to life.
“We’re used to this sort of thing,” Preacher Hayden said, “Another lost RV joining the fold,” he chuckled.
They followed the caravan five miles or so down the road to a campground in Burleson, Texas, and that night Caramel met James. In Preacher Hayden’s RV, James’s mother Sharon said she was going back to Toledo with her younger kids, but James would stay.
Preacher Hayden handed his maroon Bible with gold lettering to James and asked him to read Psalm 106:3 while they ate a lemon tart. His voice hovered over the table and Caramel listened to him stress “come to my aid when you save them,” before handing the Bible back to the preacher.
“Now onto their souls,” Caramel thought while looking at her mother.
“My dreams keep me prisoner at night,” Orlie confessed to Preacher Hayden, who said, “They always do, until we find our way back again.”
Orlie’s shorts were day-glo white in the dusk as she stepped out of the RV that first night in Texas. Caramel and James trailed after her and discovered they were the same age, ready to start high school but not knowing where or when that would be. They joined the rest of The Mercy Troupers forming a circle.
A hot pink sunset cascaded over the horizon as Preacher Hayden led them in song and prayer. James held her hand. Even though Caramel didn’t know the words, she found the rhythm as the group started to move in a circle.
Preacher Hayden told Orlie to “let your tears fall and your heart open in prayer.” Caramel knew they wouldn’t be heading to Mexico anymore.
Sharon left The Mercy Troupers a few weeks later en route to Arizona. Orlie said, “What a shame.” She was now head secretary to Preacher Hayden. “Too bad that Sharon couldn’t keep all of her kids with her here.” Sharon’s husband had forbidden her to leave James with Preacher Hayden, but she had anyway.
“Maybe she’s better off with them at home,” Caramel replied, but Orlie didn’t see it that way.
“Just watch, she’ll be back. There’s nothing stronger than our relationship with Jesus,” she said, but Caramel thought Orlie had feelings for Preacher Hayden, not Jesus.
She’d been coming home late at night after meeting with Preacher Hayden smelling like his musky deodorant mingling with her magnolia perfume. Her unofficial job had become to protect the preacher from the advances of women in community college campuses, abandoned outdoor cinemas in the desert, and American Legion parking lots.
“I’m not the only one who thinks he’s a very handsome and desirable man,” she said. Orlie thought Preacher Hayden would marry her.
James told Caramel otherwise. “He’s engaged to someone from Georgia. We’re supposed to keep it a secret.” When Orlie found out, Preacher Hayden had already convinced her that she had an addiction to men.
By the time they got to Shelter, Oklahoma, Orlie had stopped meeting with Preacher Hayden in private and was making her own plans. She said to Caramel, “Let’s start our own ministry.”
Caramel thought about James, and how they were planning to leave together when they turned 18 the next year.
“We can do this ourselves,” Orlie said. “We know what to do, and we’ve certainly rounded up our fair share of converts, no thanks to Hayden.” She ran it by a few new people listening to a retelling of Cain and Abel in full costume that night and came back to tell Caramel they could leave in the morning before anyone realized they’re gone.
Orlie linked arms with Caramel during prayer. When Preacher Hayden called them to offer their sins to the fire and become cleansed, Orlie nudged Caramel to throw dust into the fire like she was doing, too, “so everything would look normal.”
Caramel hoped she could tell James before it was too late. Maybe he would beg her to stay. Or maybe James could come with them. Preacher Hayden’s murmurs of “Praise be, praise be, praise be” crowded out her hopes. Orlie was already tugging on her arm for them to go.
Artist and writer Rose Deniz lives outside of Istanbul, Turkey, where she is curator of Art is Dialogue. Originally from Wisconsin, she holds an MFA in Painting from Cranbrook Academy of Art (2004). Her main website is here, and you can follow her on Twitter here.