Bible Belter

Bible-Belter-500x500The midday sun has finally emerged from behind the top tier of the Circle Tower in downtown Indianapolis, and gradually, it starts to lift the building’s broad shadow. Sunshine slowly pours into Monument Circle. The old cowboy grins.

Bending forward over the guitar strapped to his torso, the cowboy drags his guitar case onto a newly illuminated patch of brick sidewalk. “I follow the sun,” he says, gruff through a mouth of mangled yellow and brown teeth. “It’s nice in the sun.”

Today the sun, a steaming cup of black coffee and the Doral Ultra Light he’s pulled from his coat pocket are his only sources of warmth. It’s March 22, the second day of spring on the calendar, but a bitter breeze reminds the red-faced man that winter still holds sway. With one callused, wind-burnt hand, he flicks the flint of a lighter while shielding its flame with the other. The temperature flashing on the Emmis Building marquee across the way says 43 degrees, but damned if it doesn’t feel colder to the cowboy. He’s hungry. Hasn’t eaten since early this morning, and he’s fighting a cold. But “as long as the sun’s out,” he says, “I’ll be okay.”

After a couple drags, the cowboy checks his watch. Break’s over. He swipes off the lit end of the cigarette and sticks the remainder back in his pocket. He clears his throat, hocks phlegm from the back of his esophagus and spits the wad onto the sidewalk, smearing and spreading it out with his boot so as not to offend the passersby. He caresses his guitar, checking the tuning of its strings to make sure the cold hasn’t warped them, then looks up at the sky, the sun gleaming on his smudged sunglasses. Pulling a pick out of his hatband, he strums a slightly sour D chord. Then, in a deep, soulful vibrato that should belong to a much bigger man, the cowboy sings. He is Lord, He is Lord, He is risen from the dead …

At that instant, as his distinctive baritone moan sounds strong and true, bouncing off the buildings and filling the Circle, he becomes what he is to most people: an element of the downtown environment almost as familiar as the Monument itself. As the words of the old spiritual spill from his chapped lips and rise into the air, he becomes visible to the people of the city street as the “Christian Cowboy.”

Read the rest at Indianapolis Monthly

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