“I can smell ants, Mr. Bailey,” I said, wiping hot tears from my dirty little face.
“’lawsy, shore ya can,” he replied. Spit, thud, bump; Mr. Bailey punctuated nearly every sentence with a spit of tobacco. Each bulls-eye bumped the spit can against the porch rail, then the aroma of his tobacco puffed out of the can for a few seconds.
“Ma don’t believe me. She said there’s no such thing as a feller that can smell ants,” I said.
“Well now, don’t be too hard on ‘er. It ain’t likely she’s played in the dirt as much as you. Women folk cain’t smell nothing but hard work,” he said.
Mr. Bailey lived down the road from us and his old house was on the creek. The summer of my tenth year his wife passed away. Ma sent me down to visit him every afternoon that summer with a jar of sweet tea and leftover cornbread. I hated it at first. He just sat on the porch in that dilapidated old rocking chair and stared into space. One day he seemed to snap out of it and took me fishing. Every day we fished, picked dewberries, and worked in his garden.
“Any news ‘o yer Pa?” he asked. My Pa was off fighting the northern aggression.
“Ma had a letter this week; no chance of him comin’ home anytime soon. We wait and wait for them letters but when they come they make Ma cry. Then I wish it hadn’t ‘o never come.”
“Well, now.” Spit, thud, bump, puff.
Rain began to pelt the tin roof of his little shack. We sat in silence on the front porch, eating dewberries from a broken tea cup. After awhile it died down to a drizzle.
“Don’t you love that smell, Mr. Bailey? That sweet, fresh smell after it rains?”
“Yep, shore do. But it’s just the smell ‘o wet dirt. Makes me think ‘o the Holy Ghost.” Spit, thud, bump, puff.
“The what?” I knew it had something to do with church. I’d heard the expression ‘Holy Ghost’ when the traveling preacher would come around, which wasn’t too often.
“Well, ya know we wuz a formed out 'o the dirt. God made Adam from the dirt ‘o the ground. We’s just dirt, boy, and we stink to the Lord. We’s a powerful stink to the Most High, and there ain’t nothin’ we can do about it.” Spit, thud, bump, puff.
I began to wonder if Ma ought to make me take a bath more often.
“Nothin’ we can do about it, nothin’ at all?” I asked.
“Now ya know I’m a talkin’ about our sin, boy, the bad things we do from the time we first is born. That’s what stinks. God saw we was poorly in bein’ able to be good, so he sent his son, Jesus, to come on down here and die for our sins. He paid for ‘em, paid for ‘em all; washed us from our sin in his own blood.” Mr. Bailey’s eyes teared up, but he was smiling.
“When we tells the Lord that we agree with Him about our stink, and ask for His forgiveness, then He washes us up inside for good and all and forever. Then He rains in us with the Holy Ghost which makes us smell sweet to the Lord; like wet dirt after a rain.” Spit, thud, bump, puff.
It didn’t quite sink in that day, but after that Mr. Bailey talked often about the Lord Jesus and the Holy Ghost. I ran to him the day we got the word that Pa had been killed in a place called Gettysburgh. He cried too. I don’t remember exactly when, but some time after that I did ask Jesus into my heart.
A few years later Mr. Bailey married my Ma. He was a site older than her, but they were happy. He lived long enough to see me make a Preacher.
I still go to the old shack by the creek to study my Bible and pray, and get up my sermons. That old spit can still sits on the front porch. My wife tells me that the folks whisper behind my back; sayin' that I preach up a storm about the demon liquour, but I never say a word about tobacco. Well, now, I can’t preach a sermon on the Holy Ghost without smelling wet dirt, tobacco, and ants.
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