A number of the men talking in front of the church were dressed as Thorne was dressed. None of them had a woman within arm's reach, and in fact the women were gathered in an entirely separate section of the yard, under the shadow provided by a lopsided eve and the few flimsy branches that hung out over the grass. Children played balancing games on rotten tires beside a department store swing set. The pastor cut through the crowd and unlocked the front door of the house and they followed, in no obvious hurry, into a roughly painted room with pulpy wooden floors and an assortment of secondhand musical instruments leaning in the corner.
A few of the men dragged folding chairs across the sanctuary and picked up guitars. One sat behind an electric piano. Another took up sticks and leaned back behind a beginner's drum set. Thorne had constructed a makeshift pulpit from a podium whose face was still covered with dried wood glue where a company crest had once hung. The dusty arms of a ceiling fan whipped around uncomfortably close to the tallest members' pomaded haircuts.
The snakes were not kept hidden. They hissed and rattled from three wooden lockers in front of the podium and every so often one of them would slip its tongue through the grid of chickenwire on the door, testing the air for whatever it was these people thought they could ignore. The lockers were cinched shut with bailing twine and smelled faintly of compost and the specific sweat that seeps out of a man when he's scared. Jacob kept his fists crossed in front of himself and shuffled sidewise toward the farthest corner of the room. Sadler stood in front and looked over her shoulder and he knew she was asking him if he was okay.
He was not ready for the volume and enthusiasm of the band. The guitars squealed as the amps came on and the drummer rolled his sticks deftly across the skins in front of him. The house moved and shook like a rickety boat as the congregation came together as one body and began to sing and raise their hands and stomp in ill-counted rhythm. A middle-aged woman in a floral dress stood barefoot in front of a microphone and sang
I'm covered by the blood
I'm covered by the blood
Jesus has washed my sins away
I'm covered by the blood of the lamb.
A man with a great belly and legs that tapered impossibly into black high-tops clamored to the wall beside Jacob and leaned against it. “What do you reckon?” he said. His coal black voice cut roughly into the din from the front.
“What do I reckon about what?” Jacob shouted.
The man's beard was flecked with dried mustard and spittle. “You're new here, ain't you?”
Jacob's eyes were wide and concentrated on the back of Sadler's head. He nodded.
“I ain't much for the music myself,” the man said. “I'm here for the copperheads. The rattlers. I catch 'em. Quarter 'em. One of 'em gets fiesty I take him home and spit roast him.” His jowels swung when he talked.
The song ended and the room pulsed with moving bodies and fractured sound shot out toward the walls and windows. Jacob and the fat man stood leaning while Thorne raised his hands for the commotion to go easy and touched a Bible to his shining forehead.
“In some way,” he said, his congregation settling down into three rows of folding chairs, “we are all of us young in the Lord. In the way that a perfect circle can not be drawn by even the steadiest of hands, a perfect knowledge of God's gift is impossible to procure.”
“We want him to believe that we believe in him. We want to be good for him and to do right by his word.”
“Have you been saved?”
Yes, pastor, we've been saved.
“Is there anyone in this room who needs saving?”
A few heads turned to look for Jacob. Thorne stood still and looked directly at him. Sadler did not move. Jacob tried to cave in on himself.