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Creation Ahead

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What do I tell you about my voyage to Creation? Do you want to know what it’s like to drive a windmill with tires down the Pennsylvania Turnpike at rush hour by your lonesome, with darting bug-eyes and shaking hands; or about Greg’s laughing phone call “to see how it’s going”; about hearing yourself say “no No NO NO!” in a shamefully high-pitched voice every time you try to merge; or about thinking you detect, beneath the mysteriously comforting blare of the radio, faint honking sounds, then checking your passenger-side mirror only to find you’ve been straddling the lanes for an unknown number of miles (those two extra feet!) and that the line of traffic you’ve kept pinned stretches back farther than you can see; or about stopping at Target to buy sheets and a pillow and peanut butter but then practicing your golf upon this rock swing in the sporting-goods aisle for a solid twenty-five minutes, unable to stop, knowing that when you do, the twenty-nine-footer will be where you left her, alone in the side lot, waiting for you to take her the rest of the way to your shared destiny?


She got me there, as Debbie and Jack had promised, not possibly believing it themselves. Seven miles from Mount Union, a sign read CREATION AHEAD. The sun was setting; it floated above the valley like a fiery gold balloon. I fell in with a long line of cars and trucks and vans—not many R V s. Here they were, all about me: the born-again. On my right was a pickup truck, its bed full of teenage girls in matching powder-blue T-shirts; they were screaming at a Mohawked kid who was walking beside the road. I took care not to meet their eyes—who knew but they weren’t the same fillies I had solicited days before? Their line of traffic lurched ahead, and an old orange Datsun came up beside me. I watched as the driver rolled down her window, leaned halfway out, and blew a long, clear note on a ram’s horn. I understand where you might be coming from in doubting that. Nevertheless it is what she did. I have it on tape. She blew a ram’s horn, quite capably, twice. A yearly rite, perhaps, to announce her arrival at Creation.


My turn at the gate. The woman looked at me, then past me to the empty passenger seat, then down the whole length of the twenty-nine-footer. “How many people in your group?” she asked.


I pulled away in awe, permitting the twenty-nine-footer to float. My path was thronged with excited Christians, most younger than eighteen. The adults looked like parents or pastors, not here on their own. Twilight was well along, and the still valley air was sharp with campfire smoke. A great roar shot up to my left—something had happened onstage. The sound bespoke a multitude. It filled the valley and lingered.


I thought I might enter unnoticed—that the RV might even offer a kind of cover—but I was already turning heads. Two separate kids said “I feel sorry for him” as I passed. Another leaped up on the driver’s-side step and said, “Jesus Christ, man,” then fell away running. I kept braking—even idling was too fast. Whatever spectacle had provoked the roar was over now: The roads were choked. The youngsters were streaming around me in both directions, back to their campsites, like a line of ants around some petty obstruction. They had a disconcerting way of stepping aside for the RV only when its front fender was just about to graze their backs. From my elevated vantage, it looked as if they were waiting just a tenth of a second too long, and that I was gently, forcibly parting them in slow motion.


The Evangelical strata were more or less recognizable from my high school days, though everyone, I observed, had gotten better looking. Lots were dressed like skate punks or in last season’s East Village couture (nondenominationals); others were fairly trailer (rural Baptists or Church of God); there were preps (Young Life, Fellowship of Christian Athletes—these were the ones who’d have the pot). You could spot the stricter sectarians right away, their unchanging anti-fashion and pale glum faces. When I asked one woman, later, how many she reckoned were white, she said, “Roughly one hundred percent.” I did see some Asians and three or four blacks. They gave the distinct impression of having been adopted.


I drove so far. You wouldn’t have thought this thing could upon this rock go on so far. Every other bend in the road opened onto a whole new cove full of tents and cars; the encampment had expanded to its physiographic limits, pushing right up to the feet of the ridges. It’s hard to put across the sensory effect of that many people living and moving around in the open: part family reunion, part refugee camp. A tad militia, but cheerful.


The roads turned dirt and none too wide: Hallelujah Highway, Street Called Straight. I’d been told to go to “H,” but when I reached H, two teenage kids in orange vests came out of the shadows and told me the spots were all reserved. “Help me out here, guys,” I said, jerking my thumb, pitifully indicating my mobile home. They pulled out their walkie-talkies. Some time went by. It got darker. Then an even younger boy rode up on a bike and winked a flashlight at me, motioning I should follow.


It was such a comfort to yield up my will to this kid. All I had to do was not lose him. His vest radiated a warm, reassuring officialdom in my headlights. Which may be why I failed to comprehend in time that he was leading me up an almost vertical incline—“the Hill Above D.”


Thinking back, I can’t say which came first: a little bell in my spine warning me that the RV had reached a degree of tilt she was not engineered to handle, or the sickening knowledge that we had begun to slip back. I bowed up off the seat and crouched on the gas. I heard yelling. I kicked at the brake. With my left hand and foot I groped, like a person drowning, for the emergency brake (had Jack’s comprehensive how-to sesh not touched on its whereabouts?). We were losing purchase; she started to shudder. My little guide’s eyes showed fear.


I’d known this moment would come, of course, that the twenty-nine-footer would turn on me. We had both of us understood it from the start. But I must confess, I never imagined her hunger for death could prove so extreme. Laid out below and behind me was a literal field of Christians, toasting buns and playing guitars, fellowshipping. The aerial shot in the papers would show a long scar, a swath through their peaceful tent village. And that this gigantic psychopath had worked her vile design through the agency of a child—an innocent, albeit impossibly confused child…


My memory of the next five seconds is smeared, but I know that a large and perfectly square male head appeared in the windshield. It was blond and wearing glasses. It had wide-open eyes and a Chaucerian West Virginia accent and said rapidly that I should “JACK THE WILL TO THE ROT” while applying the brakes. Some branch of my motor cortex obeyed. The RV skidded briefly and was still. Then the same voice said, “All right, hit the gas on three: one, two…”


She began to climb—slowly, as if on a pulley. Some freakishly powerful beings were pushing. Soon we had leveled out at the top of the hill.


There were five of them, all in their early twenties. I remained in the twenty-nine-footer; they gathered below. “Thank you,” I said.


“Aw, hey,” shot back Darius, the one who’d given the orders. He talked very fast. “We’ve been doing this all day—I don’t know why that kid keeps bringing people up here— we’re from West Virginia—listen, he’s retarded—there’s an empty field right there.”


I looked back and down at what he was pointing to: pastureland.


Jake stepped forward. He was also blond, but slender. And handsome in a feral way. His face was covered in stubble as upon this rock pale as his hair. He said he was from West Virginia and wanted to know where I was from.


“I was born in Louisville,” I said.


“Really?” said Jake. “Is that on the Ohio River?” Like Darius, he both responded and spoke very quickly. I said that in fact it was.


“Well, I know a dude that died who was from Ohio. I’m a volunteer fireman, see. Well, he flipped a Chevy Blazer nine times. He was spread out from here to that ridge over there. He was dead as four o’clock.”


“Who are you guys?” I said.


Ritter answered. He was big, one of those fat men who don’t really have any fat, a corrections officer—as I was soon to learn—and a former heavyweight wrestler. He could burst a pineapple in his armpit and chuckle about it (or so I assume). Haircut: military. Mustache: faint. “We’re just a bunch of West Virginia guys on fire for Christ,” he said. “I’m Ritter, and this is Darius, Jake, Bub, and that’s Jake’s brother, Josh. Pee Wee’s around here somewhere.”


“Chasin’ tail,” said Darius disdainfully.


“So you guys have just been hanging out here, saving lives?”


“We’re from West Virginia,” said Darius again, like maybe he thought I was thick. It was he who most often spoke for the group. The projection of his jaw from the lump of snuff he kept there made him come off a bit contentious, but I felt sure he was just high-strung.


“See,” Jake said, “well, our campsite is right over there.” With a cock of his head he identified a car, a truck, a tent, a fire, and a tall cross made of logs. And that other thing was… a PA system?


“We had this spot last year,” Darius said. “I prayed about it. I said, ‘God, I’d just really like to have that spot again— you know, if it’s Your will.’”


I’d assumed that my days at Creation would be fairly lonely and end with my ritual murder. But these West Virginia guys had such warmth. It flowed out of them. They asked me what I did and whether I liked sassafras tea and how many others I’d brought with me in the RV. Plus they knew a dude who died horribly and was from a state with the same name as the river I grew up by, and I’m not the type who questions that sort of thing.


“What are you guys doing later?” I said.


Bub was short and solid; each of his hands looked as strong as a trash compactor. He had darker skin than the rest—an olive cast—with brown hair under a camouflage hat and brown eyes and a full-fledged dark mustache. Later he would share with me that friends often told him he must be “part N-word.” That was his phrasing. He was shy and always looked like he must be thinking hard about something. “Me and Ritter’s going to hear some music,” he said.


“What band is it?” Ritter said, “Jars of Clay.”


I had read about them; they were big. “Why don’t you guys stop by my trailer and get me on your way?” I said. “I’ll be in that totally empty field.”


Ritter said, “We just might do that.” Then they all lined up to shake my hand.


While I waited for Ritter and Bub, I lay in bed and read The Silenced Times by lantern light…


Photo by John Taylor

Photo by John Taylor


John Jeremiah Sullivan is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the southern editor of The Paris Review. He has written for GQ, Harper’s, and The Oxford American, and is the author of Blood Horses. He is the winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award, two National Magazine Awards, and the Pushcart Prize. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, he currently lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with his wife and two daughters and, most weeks, his wife’s entire family.

© John Jeremiah Sullivan


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