My latest blog post at “Good Letters.”
My latest blog post at “Good Letters.”
Another from The Calling, this excerpt first appeared in Portland Review
It is Andrew’s first day back at school in two full weeks. During Social Studies class, while Mrs. Combs talks about the different kinds of government—absolute monarchy, dictatorship, democracy, communism—Andrew daydreams. He can’t stop thinking about the stupid girl shoes on his feet.
Fuzzy blue on the sides, shiny blue on top, he hates the shoes. He hates his mom for making him wear them to school. He thinks that if somebody calls him a queer like Mr. Cox—who Ronny Stewart said lets other men put their dicks in his butt—Andrew will bust his head; he thinks he’ll get away with it too, this time, because of what happened to James.
Then the Lord impresses a verse of Scripture on his heart, one he’d memorized for AWANA last year while trying to get his Timothy Award: Ask, and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you. What he wants more than anything in the world is to have those blue shoes off his feet and baseball cleats on.
He remembers how Jesus said in Matthew 17:20 that if he has faith the size of a mustard seed he can say to a mountain, Remove from here to yonder place; and it shall remove and nothing shall be impossible to you.
Then the Lord puts a hymn they sing in church into his head—it is a miracle happening, he knows it—and he can see and hear in his mind his dad out beside the pulpit, waving his arms all weird like he’s cursive writing on the air, his voice bellowing it out: Nothing is impossible, when you put your trust in God…Listen to the voice of God to thee, is there anything to hard for me?
Andrew has more than a mustard seed’s worth of faith. He is all faith; that’s how he knows Jesus will do it. Jesus rose Lazarus from the dead, Jesus rose himself from the dead. Andrew doesn’t want a mountain moved. All he wants is his old blue girl shoes to turn into baseball cleats on his feet. Easy for Jesus to do.
Mrs. Combs is now talking about the Magna Carta, which took absolute power away from the king and gave it to regular people. All the kids are tired from just eating lunch. They’re slouched and still, except for Georgie Porgie Shamblin who is against the back wall twirling his hair. There is a pipe behind his head with insulation on it wrapped and hard like a long cast, only yellow not white; Georgie Porgie is digging at it with his pencil and flakes of stuff glisten like fairy dust in the air beside his ear.
“Forty-one of the men aboard signed the Mayflower Compact,” Mrs. Combs says. She says, “A compact is an agreement, or a contract.”
Tall windows go along the whole wall of the classroom. The kindergartners are out on the playground in the bright sunshine. The kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Dye, has on a miniskirt and wobbles silently among the kids on her high heels.
Andrew closes his eyes and starts praying his effectual fervent prayer: Dear heavenly Father, he prays, I come to you today in the name of our savior Jesus Christ, to claim your promise that if I have faith, and ask, You will do what I ask. He prays, Father God, please turn these girl shoes into baseball cleats, and I will not forget to give You the glory for it. In Jesus name, amen.
The day before, after Sunday school and morning worship, Andrew had watched out the front window as Harry Taylor walked across the church parking lot after the rain stopped and knocked on his door.
Andrew opened it and Harry said, “I was thinking we could trade shoes for a while.” He looked down as he talked. He smelled like dog crotch. There was a dirty sweat ring around his neck.
Andrew could see how Harry would be nice to him. Harry’s dad had recently died, except he’d killed himself in jail and was burning in hell now. Andrew’s brother James had been saved, and was in heaven with Jesus. Still, Andrew could see how Harry would be nice.
All the other boys in the neighborhood were being nice to him too since James drowned; Andrew hadn’t been picked on or got in a single fight since that day. It was one more thing, like the sudden absence of James, that made Andrew believe something had shifted in the fundamental order of the universe.
The neighborhood boys, from Harry across the parking lot, to the ones in the row of houses along the riverbank to the bridge—Jimmy Gillenwater, Ronny Stewart, the Jacksons—were dirty, mean boys, on the welfare. They were stupid too, retards, impossible to talk sense to. They were like the Gillenwaters’ pit bull that one time held Andrew at bay across the wide puddle in the dirt road. Andrew kept saying, “Go home, Harley. Go home,” trying to sound mean, but the dog barked at him and stood there smiling with his tongue out, his eyes staring blank like a shark’s, like he didn’t know one damn thing in the world but how to bite somebody.
The Jackson boys always had their heads shaved bald so kids said they had lice. They had Frankenstein foreheads and confused eyes, and if you tackled them or punched them in a fight they didn’t even feel it. Larry Jackson was in Andrew’s class; his brother Robbie was in James’s. Those two boys played outside in the cold without coats on and their arms would be all red and chapped looking but they didn’t even know they were cold. Harry Taylor wasn’t any better: Andrew once saw him wipe out on his bike. The whole side of his leg and his arm were scraped and bleeding. And he just stood there grinning, saying, “Shit,” and “Fuck,” and “It don’t hurt.”
So there stood Harry, ready to trade his baseball cleats for Andrew’s Keds for a while. Andrew wanted those cleats; he’d been asking his mom for baseball cleats for months—he had begged; he’d even cried one night at the dinner table—but she said no. Harry’s cleats were black plastic with a white stripe on them. The left one had a split on the toe that, when Harry stepped down, opened like a puppet mouth and showed his dirty sock.
Andrew said to him, “You want to trade for real? You’re not messing around?”
“For a while, yeah. I mean it,” Harry said. He kicked them off and stood there in his mud-stained socks. He nodded earnestly. There was a scar above his left eyebrow; his eyes were pretty if you looked at them—handsome, not pretty; girls were pretty, boys handsome.
“Okay,” Andrew said. He sat on the front porch beside Harry and put on the cleats while Harry put on his Keds and pulled the laces so tight Andrew thought he might break them or cut off the circulation to his toes.
“We’re going to play Indian ball,” Harry said. “Or a real game if we get enough people.”
“I’ll play,” Andrew said.
So Andrew spent the entire afternoon in the clearing playing ball in the cleats. He hit the ball solid, he stole bases and slid like Pete Rose, he ran down impossible pop flies. Once he heaved the ball from center field all the way overtop of bald-headed Larry Jackson on second to Ronnie Stewart at home plate with only one hop. He lost himself in baseball.
Then his mom called him in to get ready for evening church. He ran in and said, “Can I wear these cleats to night church?”
She frowned at them.
“Please,” he whined. His church shoes were shiny blue and had a squared-off toe and fat heels; kids at church teased him, called them girl shoes.
She sighed and shook her head and left the kitchen, but did not say no, which meant if he didn’t mention it again, just did it, she couldn’t give him a switching—he’d asked; she couldn’t say he didn’t ask. He wolfed down his peanut butter bread and tapped drumbeats on the linoleum kitchen floor with the cleats. If he rolled his feet heel-to-toe he could sound like a bunch of running horses.
The next morning was Andrew’s first day back at school after James drowned. It had taken the men dragging the river four days to find him in a bunch of brush piled against the bridge piling, because the snow melt had the water so high. The funeral had been on the next Saturday, and Andrew had stayed out for a week after that, eating food people brought and watching television. Now he had to go back. It felt like the first day of school all over again, like he’d been gone for a whole summer.
He climbed from the top bunk and stepped down onto James’s bunk, then jumped to the floor. He put on his school clothes and then sat on the floor beside the baseball cleats. He pulled them on and carefully tied the frayed laces. His other brother Ricky was still asleep in his bed; his mouth was open and flat on the mattress like a dog hit on the blacktop. Andrew could smell the number one—Ricky still peed his bed.
Andrew’s mom and Miriam were in the kitchen and didn’t even glance up as he strode in proudly with his cleats clicking across the linoleum.
“You’re up early, Drew,” Miriam said. She had on her denim school culottes and her powder blue Pinewood Bible Camp sweatshirt. She was at the counter packing their lunches. Three bags were lined in front of her, hers, Andrew’s and little Ricky’s.
His mom said, “You can sleep a little longer.” She was still in her nightgown that was thin as a slip. Usually she was up and dressed, with her hair all done and makeup on, even though she never had anywhere to go all day.
“Ricky did number one in his bed again.”
His mom didn’t say anything. She put two pieces of bread in the toaster and stood staring at it. Andrew sat at his place and waited. He swung his leg and clinked his cleat against the aluminum table leg.
The toast popped up. His mom buttered them by rubbing the butter stick right on the bread. She put it them on a white plastic plate with flowers on it and set them in front of Andrew with a jar of grape jelly. She pulled open the drawer and got a spoon and set it by the jelly jar.
He jellied his toast—the jelly was purpler than usual and glistened like slime in the kitchen light. His mom put a cup of milk, a sippy cup with the top off, in front of him and went into the bathroom and shut the door.
There was a hard knock at the front door.
“Get that,” Miriam said.
He said, “Why can’t you?”
“I’m making your lunch.”
He walked to the front door and opened it. It was just getting light outside. Harry Taylor stood at the door, a pink strip of sky above the mountain behind his head. He had on his Keep On Trucking t-shirt with the walking man’s big foot coming forward like it was going to step right off the shirt. The neck was all stretched out already. He had on Andrew’s Keds; they were muddy and wet.
“We have to trade shoes back,” he said.
Andrew said, “It’s just been one day. How ‘bout after school.”
Harry shook his head. “My mom said.” He smelled like dog crotch.
“But you got mine all wet.”
Harry smiled. “Creek last night. Almost caught a duck with my bare hands.” He held out his hands like he was holding a duck. He had a retard smile.
“I’m not trading back till mine are dry,” Andrew said.
“My mom said,” Harry nearly yelled.
“What’s the problem here,” Andrew’s mom said from behind him.
Harry said, “My mom said we had to trade shoes back and Andrew won’t do it.”
His mom looked at the cleats on his feet, then at the muddy Keds. She said, “Andrew, trade Harry back his shoes.”
With the heel of opposite feet Harry pushed his heels out of the Keds, one then the other. He stood flat-footed in his muddy socks. The smell of river mud rose from them and mixed with Harry’s own stink.
“But mom,” Andrew whined. “He got mine all wet and muddy.”
“Obedience,” she said.
He kicked off the cleats and flipped them out onto the porch. Harry picked them up and sat on the steps and put them on.
“You can wear your church shoes to school today.”
“No.” Andrew started crying. “I’ll wear them wet.”
“One day won’t kill you, young man,” she said. He could tell by her tone that the discussion was over. She said, “March up this minute and put on your church shoes.”
As Andrew walked down the hallway of Clay Elementary, even the other sixth graders moved aside and watched him pass, like they were in some kind of spell because it was his first day back, and James wasn’t with him. Some of them glanced down at his blue shoes.
Amber, his dad’s associate pastor’s oldest daughter, was against the wall. She had a fat round face with lots of freckles, and her hair cut short, which made her face look even fatter. She and Andrew hated each other. She’d been around a lot the past two weeks and things with her had gotten back to normal pretty fast.
She smirked at him. He clenched his fists.
Cindy Rogers said, “Hi Andrew.” She reached out to touch his arm, and then pulled her hand back. She was tall and pretty and her mom curled her dark hair every morning and made her walk funny to practice for beauty contests. Kids said she smeared dog poop on her face because she thought it made her skin pretty. That’s why nobody would touch her or they would catch Cindy germs and have to tag them off on somebody else before everybody called shots.
When he saw her reach out, Andrew stepped back and put his hands on his shoulders and said, “Shots.”
“Very mature,” she said. She turned around and walked her funny swaying walk into the classroom. She had to turn sideways to get by Jimmy Gillenwater and Larry Jackson, who were standing talking to Georgie Porgie Shamblin. Georgie had a habit of twisting the hair above his left ear so much that he had a bald spot there. He got out of music class to see the school counselor.
As Cindy passed by Larry, she said, “Move, Frankenstein.”
He called her a bitch but moved and let her pass. Then he turned and looked at Andrew. Ronnie turned his head and looked at Andrew too.
Andrew felt his church shoes heavy on his feet, like those wooden shoes Dutch people wore. He ached to be out of them. He longed to have on baseball cleats.
Amber walked over to Larry and Ronnie—she didn’t even like those retards—and she said, “Andrew is wearing his girl shoes.”
Andrew shouted, “Shut up, pie head.”
She yelled back, “Girl shoes.”
Mr. Cox stepped out of the sixth grade classroom holding a stapler and said, “What’s the problem out here?” He had on parachute pants, all slick with zippers on them, and shoes he called turtles that had Velcro straps instead of laces. His dark hair was cut up over his ears but long in back and he had a big mustache. Ronnie Stewart called those shiny pants Mr. Cox’s queer pants. Ronnie knew about sex. He had, folded up in his shoe, real pictures he’d stolen out of his dad’s magazines. Andrew had seen them in the bathroom.
Mr. Cox said, “Get to your classrooms. Where’s Mrs. Combs?”
“Not here,” Larry said.
“Late,” another kid said.
Mr. Cox shook his head. “Go on,” he said. “Get in there and find your desks, or I’m going to start writing referrals.” When his gaze fell on Andrew, his expression went blank for an instant, then he walked over—with all the kids watching, and Andrew in his girl shoes—and put his hand on Andrew’s shoulder.
He said, “I’m sorry about James, Andrew. I really am.”
Andrew said, “If somebody else calls my shoes queer shoes, I’m going to bust their head open. I don’t care if it is a girl.”
Mr. Cox squeezed his shoulder and then patted. He said, “Go on. Get to class.”
Andrew sat through the morning hating his shoes. He watched Larry Jackson pick a slimy booger and take nearly all of math class, concentrating like someone playing Operation, to wipe it into Cindy Rogers’s curls without her or Mrs. Combs noticing. In Language Arts he doodled on his worksheet; he couldn’t concentrate, the shoes were all he could think about. He pretended to play his recorder in music. They had to sit in chairs around the reading rug for music. He pulled his shoes under the chair so he couldn’t see them. He went to lunch with his fists ready to punch anybody who as much as snickered at them.
Now he is back in the classroom, the Lord has just put the Bible verses in his head and he has just said his effectual fervent prayer for the miracle God has promised him.
He feels a change around his feet and rises close enough to the surface of his daydream to be aware of the classroom around him, but he doesn’t come out of it. He knows the transformation is happening, the miracle he’s asked for. Ronnie Stewart looks at Andrew’s shoes for a long time, and then looks up at Andrew. His face looks surprised. Andrew knows it is happening. He sneers at Ronnie. Ronnie slouches down more and puts his face in his open hand and yawns.
Mrs. Combs says, “So it was the rule of law, not the whims—whatever he decided to do simply because he wanted to and he was king—of some all-powerful King over in England.” Mrs. Combs sits on the edge of her desk in front of the class. She has big fat boobs, and presses the open blue Civics book against them while she talks. “The rule of law is what is important to remember,” she says. On the front of the book there is a big star painted like an American flag.
Andrew dives back into his daydream, sees himself hitting home runs at the little league field beside the junior high. He jogs around the bases in his new cleats and everybody’s mom and dad stand in the bleacher and clap for him. He sees himself at shortstop, diving and snagging line drives because the cleats on his feet have been made by God and give him extra-special traction.
After the game people will gather around him to ask how he did it and he will say I give the glory to God. He does all good things for his children, gives them fish not snakes. Get saved, he will say, get saved all of you.
His spirit soars. He believes with his whole heart, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God has done what he, in all good faith according to God’s promise, has asked. They are brand new, and leather, not like Harry’s cheap old plastic ones.
Mrs. Combs snaps her book closed and stands. Everyone starts sitting up and closing their books and leaning over to shove them into their desks. Mrs. Combs says, “Line up at the door for recess.”
It is time. Andrew closes his Civics book and leans over. He looks at his shoes.
Andrew’s heart jumps up into his throat and he gasps; he feels like he’s falling off a cliff.
Blue shoes. Girl shoes.
Everybody is lining up at the door. Desk legs scrape on the floor, paper rattles in desks. Sneakers squeak. Larry goes to the closet and gets the kickball. Mrs. Combs turns off the light. The wall of windows goes blinding bright, shines on Andrew like a mute accusing stare.
God hates him. God will not answer his prayer.
Andrew pushes himself up from the desk. He stands beside it with his arms hanging. He looks at the blue shoes. They look black in the dark room. Anger rises inside his chest. God has all the power in the world and could do this one little thing for Andrew and won’t.
Andrew’s eyes adjust as he pushes down the urge to cry. Fuck them. Fuck them all to hell. He’ll show them queer girl shoes. Square toes are perfect for kickball. He’ll boot it over the fence into the street. Better yet, he’ll knock the ball down the bank into the river and end the game for good.
He looks out the windows. The playground is empty in bright sunlight. The swings hang still. A jean jacket is balled up beside the monkey bars.
“A Prophet of the Most High” is an excerpt from The Calling. It first appeared in Rock & Sling.
One Sunday afternoon in February, James and Andrew were playing kick-and-get-through on Andrew’s bunk. Andrew reared up and said for James to stop kicking, he heard something. Their neighbor from across the church parking lot Perry Taylor cussing at Timmy Jackson, saying he was going to kill him, was what it turned out to be, but they didn’t know it yet. Andrew’s head was sweaty and even though it was winter, he smelled like outside in the summertime, like dirt and grass.
James didn’t want to stop kicking; he felt he could win the game this time.
The past week James had finished all his AWANA books early, won his Timothy Award, even recited extra Scripture. He could say 1st John all the way through, and the first three chapters of the Gospel of John, and the entire Sermon on the Mount–which he recited for the whole church from beside the pulpit, word-for-word—and a bunch of Psalms and Proverbs, and hundreds of other verses.
That very morning at church, he’d heard an old woman, who smelled like Hall’s cough drops and left the wet rubber things over her shoes all through service, tell his dad that he was precocious; she said he probably knew more of the New Testament than Jack Van Impe, which his dad had already said from the pulpit. His dad had laughed and said, with his hand on James’s head, “It’s clear that the Lord’s hand is on his life.” James had come home and looked up the word precocious. Then he’d looked up aptitude, which was in the definition of precocious.
Because of that, he was feeling especially good this Sunday. He’d been holding his own against Andrew at kick-and-get-through, and usually Andrew kicked his butt hard. The game had gotten so rough they had torn the covers and sheets off the bed and the mattress was starting to slide off the box springs and slope down to the floor.
It was turning out to be a glorious nap time. Some Sundays their mom would storm in with her switch and tan their hides, four or five raging times in one afternoon, like she was waiting outside the door to catch them in willful disobedience. Those days she had prophetic fire in her green eyes—and watch out then, she would tan their hides, use the rod of correction to drive the disobedience far from them, Proverbs twenty two fifteen. Some days her eyes looked dead as peed-on fire pits, and the switchings and paddlings didn’t have any oomph to them, didn’t even hurt.
This was the other kind of Sunday: they could make as much noise as they wanted and she wouldn’t come in once, like she was deaf or knocked out cold.
Andrew had kicked James flush in the ear last game and it was buzzing was why at first he didn’t hear the shouting outside. Plus, he was about to knock Andrew off the bed and win.
So now, when Andrew reared up on his knees and said to stop because he heard something, James didn’t stop. James gave him a good heel kick that grazed his ear and landed solid on his collarbone.
Andrew slapped his feet away and whispered hard, “I’m serious, buttwipe.” His sweaty hair was sticking to his head in front of his ears. His face had three red marks from James’s kicks, and seeing that made James smile.
James still thought that Andrew was trying to trick him so he could lunge and touch the wall and be kicker again. James put his foot on Andrew’s chest and pushed.
Andrew punched a knot in his leg and hissed, “Stop.” When Andrew whispered it was louder than regular talking, so he might as well just talk.
James rubbed his leg and said, “I owe you one for that.”
Andrew tried to punch his leg again, but he jerked it out of the way. Andrew said, “Shut the hell up.”
“Don’t tell me shut up.” James knew that Andrew was jealous of him, like Esau was of Jacob. Andrew was almost twelve and still hadn’t gotten his Timothy Award. He didn’t have a very good memory; he had to go see a math tutor at school. Even Ricky could play guitar better than he could.
Andrew’s eyes widened and he cupped his hand behind his ear. The red splotch on his cheek, James remembered the specific kick that made that one. He smiled to see it.
Andrew said, “Hear that?”
James jumped to the bunk ladder, thinking his mom was coming to switch them was what Andrew was talking about. Andrew’s bed sheets were all on the floor. His hanging gray mattress had stains on it, both done by Andrew, yellow with dark brown edges. The big stain was from number one and the little one was spit up.
James closed his mouth and breathed hard through his nose and listened. Ricky was on his little mattress across the room, doing his beetle bug sleep with his butt in the air and his arms under his body. His mouth sagged open like a retard’s and he was drooling. Above his mattress was a plaque their dad had put up with a saying from that missionary, Jim Elliot, who got speared in the chest by Indians. Black letters on a white background: He is no fool who gives what he can never keep to gain what he can never lose.
Andrew tiptoed to the window and looked out. The window went straight up where the roof sloped down, so it was back from the wall inside a kind of box. It was low so that the windowsill was at their waists. When Andrew pulled the curtain aside, the bright white day flashed and hurt James’s eyes.
Andrew would get worn out good if their mom caught him out of his bed, and his bed all torn apart too. James felt a flutter of joy at the thought of watching it, and turned to let his eyes adjust back to the dark room, so he could see if the doorknob moved, still perched on the bunk ladder, ready to climb to safety.
He looked back at Andrew.
Andrew’s dark form in front of the bright window turned and put his finger to his lips and it looked like his arm fused into his body. James froze in place and listened. Men were shouting at the Taylor’s house. The Taylors lived in a brown house with a rippled metal roof. It was across the church parking lot. Two stories high, with a porch all the way across both levels, like a wooden hotel, except the upstairs porch sagged down so much in front, if you dropped a baseball it would roll right off. The house was shoved back against the hillside below the blacktop road, so that the only thing between the roof and the cars was a leaning guardrail and lots of weeds.
Men were shouting over there alright.
James tippy toed over and stood behind Andrew. He whispered, “What if mom comes?”
Andrew said, “Be quiet.”
James stepped into the window box and shouldered himself a spot so he could see. The paint was all scratched off the windowsill where their dog Barnabas liked to stand with his paws and look out and bark at squirrels. James had to squint till his eyes stopped hurting. They could look straight across the parking lot to the Taylor’s house.
Perry Taylor’s black pickup truck was there, with its rusty bed piled with rusty junk. There was also a red and white racecar with the numbers 442 painted on the side, jacked up with big wheels in back and little ones in front. The church parking lot was dirty tire-packed snow that you could dig up with a stick but not your church shoe heel. It shined like water.
James couldn’t see anybody, only the cars. “Where are they?” he whispered.
Andrew didn’t say anything.
James looked down the dirt road. The yards were melted to patches of snow under trees. Through the bald and black trees on the bank, the river showed all the way to the bridge. Flat white ice chunks flowed along, all broken up; looked like, if they were turned just right they would fit together like puzzle pieces and cover the river again. The ice chunks looked like they were sliding smoothly across the top of the brown water, not floating in it.
Last summer somebody had painted the old iron bridge down at the end of the dirt road light blue. Now it was easy to see it through the trees.
“Look,” Andrew whispered.
James turned back to the Taylors’ leaning house. Perry was striding down the front steps in his steel-toed boots and green work pants, a shotgun hanging loose from his fist like a stick of firewood. He only had on a t-shirt and no jacket. He was a trash man, and he was fat, so the cold didn’t bother him any. That’s what he’d told them one day when Ricky asked him where his coat was.
Another man came from around the racecar. It was Timmy Jackson from down the dirt road. His mom came to church. His dad wasn’t saved and neither was he. James’s dad called them rough customers. Timmy was an ugly man, had shaggy red hair and a big forehead; he always looked like he was trying to figure something out. He had on bell-bottom blue jeans, and had his fingers shoved up high into his jean jacket pockets that were too small for his hands.
The two men met at the bottom of the Taylor’s driveway and stood where the dirt road would be if it wasn’t covered in snow. Timmy took one hand out of a pocket and pointed at Perry and said something. Perry stopped, spread his legs, pulled the gun up and aimed it right at Timmy’s head. His t-shirt was tight on his big belly.
Timmy pulled his the fingers of his other hand out of their pocket and stood with his arms hanging down.
James could feel the cold from the window glass on his face. It fogged with his breathing. He wiped it. Andrew’s nose made a tiny whistle when he breathed in. James said, “Breath through your mouth.” and Andrew was watching the men so hard, he just obeyed James without a word or a hit or anything.
“Think he’ll shoot him?” Andrew said, not whispering anymore.
James said, “I don’t know. Maybe.”
One time his mom had gotten Perry Taylor to drive them to the Kroger in Clendenin, and had paid him twenty dollars for it—twenty dollars for a ten mile ride, and he hadn’t even asked to be paid. (Perry had a big belly but he was as hard as a train car; it hurt to bump against him.) On the trip he’d thrown one of his KOOL cigarette butts out his window and it blew into the truckbed on the cool river wind and got stuck between James’s shoulder and the truckbed. It burned James’s shoulder pretty good, made a black hole in his shirt. Perry didn’t say sorry, but chuckled and said, “That ain’t the worst thing that’ll ever happen to you, boy. I promise you that.” Perry was the kind of man who hurt people on accident and laughed about it.
Another time Perry had left his truck window open, and James and Andrew snatched a crumpled pouch of Red Man from the front seat and ran with it to the riverbank. It was sweet and gooey in their mouths, and made James feel lightheaded and good. It made Andrew barf. But when they came back up, Perry was standing in the parking lot, and he walked over to them, and they were too scared to run. He had out his big pocketknife, held it in front of his fat gut. He said to the two of them, “If I ever catch somebody stealing my chaw, I’m going to cut their hearts out and feed them to the dogs.”
Thing was, James hadn’t been able to tell if he was trying to scare them, which is what it sounded like, or if he was serious, because it was Perry Taylor saying it and not a man from the church.
Staring down at the two men on the bright, icy parking lot, James said, “Oh yeah.” He nodded. “He’ll shoot him alright.”
“Here,” Andrew said, reaching up to unlatch the window. James helped him push it up a crack. Icy cold air came in at their stomachs. They got on their knees and pushed their faces to the cold opening.
Perry Taylor and Timmy Jackson were arguing now, but so low that James couldn’t make out what they were saying. Perry motioned with the gun as he talked. His big arms were stuffed into the t-shirt and were red and splotchy from the cold. His face was red too, glowing hot like a coal stove.
James understood enough to know that the fight had to do with sex. Ronny Stewart brought pictures to school. Naked women with their boobies hanging, spreading their legs to show the hair and floppy skin down at their privates. “Look at that big old pussy,” Ronny would say, or “Wouldn’t you love to fuck that thing?” as he folded open the pages he’d ripped out of magazines. James didn’t understand the stirring it caused all down his body, or the crushing guilt he felt afterward, but he knew satanic power when he saw it.
The two men were just standing there talking now. If Perry didn’t have a gun, it would look normal. It was starting to get boring.
James thought that Timmy Jackson probably took off his clothes with Perry Taylor’s wife, and they probably kissed; he probably put his dick in her pussy. That was fornication. The mouth of a strange woman is a deep pit; he that is abhorred by the Lord shall fall therein. Proverbs twenty two, fourteen. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications…Matthew fifteen, nineteen.
If Timmy Jackson did put his dick in Perry Taylor’s wife, they should both be stoned to death. They didn’t stone people anymore, James thought, at least not in America where people were turning away from God’s laws. Shooting would do. Perry Taylor should shoot them if they were fornicators.
James wanted to see Timmy Jackson get what was coming to him; Be not deceived, God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap. Galations six seven.
He said to Andrew, “He’ll shoot him dead, is what he’ll do.” He turned and looked at the side of Andrew’s face. The red mark from his heel was still there. He said, “He should shoot him too. And his wife.”
“How come?” Andrew asked.
“Because Timmy Jackson fornicated with his wife.”
“How you know?”
“God told me.”
Andrew leaned closer to the window and started chewing on the inside of his lip.
Timmy Jackson was the only one talking now. Calmly, with his hands out, palms up, like he wanted to play firecracker. Perry Taylor was looking at the ground shaking his head slowly.
Andrew said, “Shouldn’t we get mom?”
Perry Taylor had lowered the gun barrel and it now pointed at Timmy Jackson’s belly.
“Shit,” Andrew said. “He’s going to kill him.” He shoved James. “Get mom. Hurry.”
James said, “You get her.”
Behind them, Ricky’s sleep-clotted voice said, “What’re you looking at?”
Andrew said, “Shut up, retard. This is important.”
“What’re you looking at,” Ricky repeated.
Andrew, said, “Shut up,” and gave a half-hearted horse kick behind him that Ricky easily sidestepped so that it only grazed his hip.
Ricky pushed himself between the two of them. “Let me see,” he said. He had a sweaty head and sleep wrinkles all over the side of his face. His breath smelled like the roast beef gravy they had for lunch, only sour.
“You smell like number two, retard.” Andrew said. “Get away.” But he was watching the men, and didn’t shove Ricky out of the window box. He said, “James, go get her.”
Ricky still wore pajama bottoms for naps, and a special big kid diaper that their mom made him wear even though he was eight because sometimes he slept so hard he still did number one in his bed. Something was wrong with him. Except he could play guitar better than James and Andrew somehow, the little retard.
Andrew shouted, “Whoa,” and James looked back at the men.
Perry Taylor swiped down with his gun barrel like he was hoeing a garden and gouged Timmy Jackson’s eye and cheek. Timmy Jackson put his hands over his face and bent over. Perry swiped up under Timmy’s chin and made his head jerk back. He tried to turn away from Perry and keep his hands over his face, but Perry smashed straight down on the back of Timmy’s head with the gun butt like he was digging a post hole. Timmy fell to his knees from that one. He tipped and kept falling like in slow motion, without moving his hands to catch himself, and landed on the side of his head so hard that James heard the thunk of it—like his mom’s knuckle on an unripe watermelon—on the hard ice from across the parking lot.
Timmy lay on his side with his hands over his face. The blood coming through his fingers looked black against the bright snow. Perry’s breath came in white bursts out of his mouth as he grunted and kicked Timmy, who just lay there with his hands over his face. Perry stopped and rested for a second, looking around—Andrew and James both ducked down, then raised slowly and peeked back over the sill; Ricky just stood there staring like a retard—then walked around and started kicking Timmy Jackson in the back with his steel toes, grunting with every kick. Then he stomped down with his boot heel on Timmy’s ear. Timmy slid his hand from his face to up over his ear and Perry stomped his hand.
Then he stopped kicking and aimed the gun straight down at Timmy Jackson. Timmy Jackson didn’t move. He stayed curled up. His hands were all bloody. It dripped on the dirty packed snow.
Andrew was still chewing his lip. Ricky was just staring all wide-eyed.
Andrew whispered, “He killed him.”
Ricky said, “Damn man, he killed him dead.”
“Get mom.” Andrew shoved James toward the door.
Switching or not, James knew he was special, he was chosen of God for a time such as this. It was his time to step up to the plate.
“I’ll do it,” he said. He ran across the room and pulled the door open. The hallway was dark. Miriam’s door was cracked open, and though his eyes weren’t yet adjusted, he saw her form peeking out.
“Perry Taylor killed Timmy Jackson in the parking lot,” he said. “I’m getting mom.” They crossed in the hall as she ran for the boy’s room. He took the stairs three at a time and burst into his parent’s room, yelling, “Mom, you have to come–”
She wasn’t there.
He ran through the living room and jumped over the heater grate into the kitchen.
The plates from Sunday dinner were perched on the strainer where Miriam had stacked them. Beside them the glasses were upside down on a red-brown dish towel. In the light from the window, James could see tiny ants crawling in and out from behind the creased metal strip that fit into the crack where the wall and the countertop came together. The countertop was cream colored with golden squiggly lines all over it so that if you squinted, it looked like brains all smashed together. The ants kept crawling in and out at the metal strip.
Their mom wasn’t in there either.
The bathroom door was open; he ran and looked in there too. He hollered, “Mom, Perry Taylor killed Timmy Jackson.” He ran to the utility room. There were two piles of laundry as high as his waist. He got on his toes and looked out the back door, but couldn’t see, so he opened it. He hollered out into the back yard, “Mom?”
He ran back through the house hollering for his mom, looked in her bedroom again, and then he ran upstairs and checked Miriam’s room. He ran across the hall and looked in his room. Miriam and Andrew and Ricky were at the window.
“What’s going on,” he said.
“Get mom,” Andrew said.
Miriam said, “Hurry, Jamey.” She was crying.
He ran back down the stairs and into the kitchen. He swiped the ants and hefted himself to his knees on the kitchen counter. He leaned over the dinner dishes and looked out the window. He smelled his hand and realized that ants smell like that blue window cleaner when you smash them.
Their dog Barnabas was at the back corner of the new church building, walking toward the river. James knocked on the window and the dog looked back for a second, then turned and disappeared around the building. James saw a flash of Rae Goins’ Jeep go around the corner from the back parking lot.
Rae Goins was the AWANA commander. She could have that position of leadership as a woman and still be biblical because it was only kids she was leading. She walked like a man. Like a man who plays football. Once James saw a pickup truck full of men going hunting drive by him. They were all in coveralls and orange hats. As they went by Rae’s voice came out of one of them. “Hello, James,” it said, and it had scared him. Then he saw it was her, sitting there on the wheel well with her gun between her big spread legs. Something wasn’t right about her, James knew. He saw it now. The filth of iniquity followed her like the dirt cloud around Pig Pen from Peanuts, and he didn’t know why no one else noticed, except that God was opening his eyes to special, spiritual truth.
Rae and his mom had been dearly close friends for years.
The back door opened and his mom came in wearing her gray AWANA jacket, and he knew she’d been out in Rae’s Jeep. He could tell she was in sin by the wide-open fear on her face, like she’d been caught at something. It only lasted an instant, but that was enough. Then she frowned and said, “Young man, what are you doing out of your bed?”
He jumped off the counter and blurted, “Perry Taylor killed Timmy Jackson in front of the church.”
“What are you talking about?” Her face was red from being outside. Her nose was runny. She pulled a balled up tissue out of her jacket pocket and dabbed at it.
“In the front parking lot,” he said. “He killed him with a gun.”
His mom shoved the tissue back into her pocket as she ran for the front door.
He followed her, his heart swelling with the importance of what he was a part of, matters of life and death, and him just ten.
His mom stopped on the front porch and hugged her AWANA jacket around her. James followed her out, saying “He killed him and I came looking for you. That’s only why I came out of my room.”
“Hush,” she said. She stared hard across the parking lot.
A police car was parked over at Perry Taylor’s now, but the lights weren’t flashing. It was Mike Humphrey, the policeman who lived in a trailer beside the high school. He was big as Perry Taylor, except his chest stuck out as far as his belly did. He leaned back when he walked, and always held his thumbs in his gun belt.
Perry Taylor was sitting in the back of the police car. He was crying and rocking back and forth, hitting his head on the back of the driver’s seat. Not hard. The fornicator Timmy was still on the ground, curled up. Officer Humphrey was squatting down with his forearms on his legs, talking to Timmy.
James’s mom said, “Go back in the house.”
James stared at the scene before him and knew the Holy Spirit was sending him a message: he was chosen by God because he was so smart, or made smart by God to do a special work–either way, he was a special, precocious boy, chosen for great things. If they called Jack Van Impe the walking New Testament, they were going to call James the walking Bible .It wasn’t called the King James Bible for nothing, he didn’t think.
He hadn’t forgotten about his mom’s sin either. She’d better watch out, he thought. Their women did change the natural use for that which is against nature…burned in their lust one toward another, Romans one twenty six and twenty seven. James knew things. His heart leapt for joy at the thought of his calling. He was a prophet of God. He had the fire.
“Obedience, young man,” his mom said.
Timmy’s leg moved. He was not dead. Perry Taylor’s wife came out of their house. She was flabby fat and only wore big loose dresses that James once heard his dad say she bought the material for at a tent store. She didn’t wear a coat either. All that fat. It was like having a coat on under her skin. Officer Humphrey stood up and walked over with his chest stuck out and talked to her. She pointed and waved her arm, the bottom part of it hanging down and swinging.
Without looking away from what was going on, James’s mom said, “James, obedience is?”
“Doing what you’re told, when you’re told, with the right heart attitude,” he mumbled as he turned and stepped back into the house. That wasn’t even in the Bible, and she used it like it was. He skipped up the stairs and ran to his bedroom. Andrew and Miriam and Ricky were still at the window, watching Perry Taylor get arrested. An ambulance was there now. Its red lights flashed silently across the white and shiny parking lot.
They all three turned and looked at him.
Andrew said, “Did you find–”
“Did you find mom?” Ricky cut off the end of Andrew’s question.
They stared at him expectantly.
What things the Lord had entrusted to him, to James Samuel Minor. He put out his chest and said, “For he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings…”
“Shut up, showoff,” Miriam said. She turned back to the window.
James raised his voice and continued, “For I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake. Acts nine–.”
“Remember what mom said about being a know-it-all?” Andrew said. He still had the red mark from James’s heel on his cheek.
Ricky said, “Yeah. Shut up, you know-it-all.”
“You shut up,” James said. “You little retard.”
Andrew and Ricky turned away from him too, and looked back out the window where the ambulance lights silently flashed.
A prophet hath no honor in his own country, John four forty four.
They would appreciate him in the fullness of time. They would stand amazed when he told on their mom, exposed her hidden sin.
God called Noah in Genesis six thirteen. He called Abraham in Genesis twelve. Jacob, Genesis twenty eight; Moses, Exodus three; Gideon, Judges six; Samuel, First Samuel three; Elijah, First Kings seventeen. He called Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea. John The Baptist, Jesus, the disciples. Paul. James Jesus’ brother. Charles Spurgeon. Billy Sunday. D.L. Moody. John R. Rice, Dr. Harold Perkins, Zechariah Minor.
And now: James Noel Minor. He would surpass even the great things his dad was out doing this very minute.
The Lord’s hand was on him. He was going to speak the Holy Word of God without fear, not letting any man despise his youth. Righteous anger rose in him—be angry and sin not—at the Devil for the evil he poured on this old world.
James would not neglect the gift that was given him by prophecy, 1st Timothy four twelve through fourteen. He was sure—beyond the shadow of a doubt, he was sure—that God had already made him a better preacher than Charles Spurgeon or Dwight L. Moody. He might be killed or crucified or scourged someday for the name of Christ, Matthew twenty three thirty four. What an old sin-sick world he was called to proclaim the truth to. The others weren’t paying any attention to him. They were watching out the window again.
What a glorious day. He’d been called with a holy calling before the world began, Second Timothy one nine, and soon he would stand before the nations and tell the truth he knew.
Another excerpt from The Calling, “Behold, I Make All Things New” was first published in Relief literary journal.
Berna stood in the church parking lot with her daughter Miriam, silently watching for the school bus. The dirt road ran between the blacktop one above it and a row of houses stretched along the bank of the Elk River. The boys were in the parsonage, in bed, still sleeping she assumed.
At the church, the road, once the train tracks, blended with the dirt parking lot, and then emerged on the other side and rounded a bend, following the curve of the river. Railroad ties were discarded in the Queen Ann’s Lace along its edges, with rusty spikes, chunks of coal, jagged rocks of coke. On hot days, the reek of creosote rose heavy and biting like the stink of a wild animal lurking among the black woodpiles.
The bus turned at the bridge and rocked slowly up the rutted road into the church lot where it turned around every morning. It churned up a cloud of dust that drifted high into the trees. The trees bordered the church and parsonage on the side and the back, blocking the view, but not the muddy stench, of the river.
The bus door squawked open. When Miriam grabbed the rail inside and climbed up, her knobby legs showed halfway to her hip. Her new culottes were already too short. Berna would have to let out the hems.
At the top of the bus steps, Miriam turned around and said, “Tell the boy’s goodbye for me.” She was a frail-looking thing. Her black hair was stringy. It needed a wash.
“Tell Baby Ricky goodbye,” Miriam said, as the bus door squawked closed on her.
Berna watched and could tell the girl was folding one leg under herself as she sat on the second seat back, and though she could only see from the high cheekbone up, Berna could tell Miriam was busy with her binder and books in that fastidious way of hers. As the bus lurched forward, Miriam’s eyes turned and looked down on Berna. The girl’s stringy hair lay flat against her head. The bus turned around in the parking lot and rocked back the way it had come, toward the bridge and the blacktop road.
The blacktop was Route 119, and ran between the river and the jagged hillsides right out of Clay County. On to Charleston, if you rode it long enough. Charleston was a good-sized town. It had an airport.
Berna walked the edge of the lot in front of the church, and then took the bare and packed path that ran diagonally across the side yard between the church and the parsonage.
Inside the old Cape Cod with sloping floors, Berna walked past Zechariah and her bedroom on the right. She heaved herself up the steps. The upstairs room to the left, above the living room, was the boys. The one to the right, above her bedroom, was Miriam’s. She turned into the boys’ room, and discovered that baby Ricky had pulled off his diaper and finger painted the wall beside his crib with his number two. The stink tripped her gag reflex and she covered her mouth with her palm and dry heaved. Andrew and James were rolled up in their bunk beds against the far wall sniggering, and the sound of her gagging made them snort out little laughs.
“You two get out of here,” she said to them.
Ricky was almost twelve months old. He wasn’t talking or walking yet, but he crawled fast as running, pounding his knees across the floor, and he climbed like a monkey up everything he could grab. She believed something was possibly wrong with him mentally.
He sat straight-backed with his fat legs curved in deep wrinkles, proud grin on his number two-smeared face, and he had number two in his wispy baby hair too. He turned his proud smile to what he’d done on the wall. There was a bald strip across the back of his head from the way he lay on his back and turned it from side to side while he slept. The stink was overpowering Berna–she cupped her hand over her nose and mouth.
“But it’s cold out,” Andrew said from the top bunk.
Berna put her hands on her hips and thundered: “Obedience is?”
Andrew and James crawled out of bed and started getting on their Toughskins. They recited together: “Doing what you’re told, when you’re told, with the right heart attitude.”
“Obey,” Berna said, again masking her mouth and nose.
“Yes ma’am,” they both said. They sat on the floor to put on their plastic-soled sneakers and bounded down the steps and through the house and out the back door.
She carried him down the steps, spun on the ball of her foot and carried him through the living room into the kitchen. The heater grate in the doorway from the living room to the kitchen was a hot grill under her foot. To the left of the kitchen was the bathroom. She put Ricky in the tub and ran it half-full. She stepped out and closed the bathroom door, an old paneled one like an outside door.
Zechariah’s black plastic bowl of oatmeal was untouched on the kitchen table; the oatmeal was drying and pulling at the edges, like a brain in the bowl. His coffee mug was gone.
She dragged the bleach jug and the bucket from under the kitchen sink, splashed a blue capful of bleach into the bucket and filled it with hot water. She stood up and looked out the window above the sink. The two older boys were in the back yard under the apple tree, playing with the new puppy. They were taking turns picking it up by the tail. The puppy writhed and snapped. Its mouth made silent yelps. When one or the other let it drop, it ran stumbling, too clumsy to make an escape. They threw apples at it. Andrew yanked it back up and held it upside down by its tail like a shot squirrel.
She stopped at the bathroom door and listened. Ricky was splashing and babbling. She went upstairs and smeared bleach water on the wall. She unhooked the sheet from the crib mattress and pulled the whole mess into a bundle and carried it down. Beside the bathroom off the kitchen was the utility room, the washer and dryer in it about one foot apart, on pieces of torn brown linoleum. The utility room floor was wood and piled with laundry so that the boys had to climb over it to get in and out the back door.
Berna heard a heavy thud from the bathroom. She stood still over the pile and waited.
No scream. No cry.
She dropped the soiled sheets onto a fat pile of laundry and went to the closet under the steps and tugged out fresh ones, heaved herself up to the boys’ room and tossed them into the crib, then headed back down to check on Ricky.
When she opened the bathroom door, he was in the tub, but the mat was sopping wet and water stood in pools beside it. The toilet seat was wet too. Ricky had Zechariah’s toothbrush and was scrubbing his number-two caked hair with it.
Berna knelt on one knee and globbed out some No More Tears shampoo on his head and scrubbed hard. “No,” she said. “No number two.”
Ricky winced and squinted. He started slapping the toothbrush on the water happily. She quickly vomited the oatmeal and flushed it down, then turned to baby Ricky.
She held his head under the faucet and rinsed him. He screamed and squirmed—he was strong—but she held him firm. He writhed and jerked his head up and hit it on the faucet and started crying. She yanked him out of the tub and toweled him dry. Under the faucet, she thumbed the number two off Zechariah’s toothbrush and placed it back in its plastic stand. He stopped crying while she wrapped him in a fresh diaper and pulled on the plastic pants. She pulled blue footy pajamas on him and zipped them and half-carried, half-dragged him by one arm through the house, through the utility room and set him outside the back door and closed it.
She grabbed Zechariah’s bowl and hefted herself onto the counter beside the sink and spooned the pasty cold oatmeal into her mouth as she looked for the boys in the back yard. Andrew and James were playing with Ricky. They dragged him around the yard by the footies in his pajamas. Ricky’s face contorted into silent wailing. The tub water back in the bathroom gurgled down the drain and the heater grate between the kitchen and living room clicked and popped.
From the quiet of the house, Berna watched the boys outside. Andrew and James had made up some kind of a game out of it. They now ran back and forth from the gnarly little apple tree to Ricky, taking turns pulling him by his pajama feet. His legs looked like they were made of rubber and stretched two feet long. The puppy jumped and ran circles and barked and stuck his wagging behind in the air. Ricky did not stop trying to crawl away, and even stopped at times and rolled around to take swats at them. The blows were glancing and weak, and they played on.
Eventually the older boys tired of Ricky and went back to their yellow plastic Tonka trucks. He tried to join them but they slapped him away, so he set out crawling back toward the house. The puppy stumbled after him, and when it caught up, it crouched and lunged repeatedly, nipping Ricky’s face and ears. He tried to turn his head away and put up an arm. The dog was relentless. Andrew and James inadvertently rescued him when they scampered over and started playing with the puppy’s tail again.
Berna had gulped down all the lumps of oatmeal. She eased off the counter. She went to the bathroom and shoved her hand in her mouth and touched her uvula with two fingers and vomited it back up. She flushed and brushed her teeth and walked to the bedroom and sat on the bed. The hamper was stuffed so full the lid would not close. The smell of sour clothes filled the room. The hamper was metal covered in white plastic with violets on it. There was a V shaped rip on the side where the metal showed through. The bed’s headboard was made up of three compartments with two sliding doors, so one compartment was always exposed. The two outer ones were filled with Bibles and commentaries. Zechariah’s new alarm clock was in the center. It didn’t have a normal clock face; it had real numbers that flipped in the middle on a roll like score card numbers. It was 8:33 in the morning.
Berna lay down and stared at the rip in the hamper plastic. The house was silent. She fell asleep.
The front door had slammed. Groggy, Berna looked at the clock: 11:41. She jumped up and looked out the window. Zechariah and his fat assistant pastor Jeff were out at the edge of the church parking lot getting boxes out of the back of Jeff’s car. The car was a black sporty thing, with T-tops and a golden bird on the hood.
Berna ran past a box just inside the front door, through the living room to the kitchen to look out the back window. The yard, apples rotting under the tree. The boys were not there. Behind the yard, the swampy low field, a stand of trees, and a bank dropping to the river.
She ran through the utility room, stumbling across the laundry pile. The stink of number two from Ricky’s sheets was as heavy as fog. She burst out the back door hollering for the boys. The air was cold against her arms and face. She ran to the fence and looked out on the side yard, between the parsonage and the church. One of the Tonka trucks was out there, and beside it, a piece of plywood with dirt and grass piled on top of it.
“Mommy,” James called.
All three boys were against the house. They were digging in the cold dirt, pouring it in dump-truck loads over each other’s head. Ricky was covered in filth. His mouth was muddy and wet. He was babbling to the tune of “Jesus Loves Me,” leaning out and scooping dirt into his lap. Andrew poured a load of grassy dirt down his back.
Berna smacked dirt off James and Andrew and said, “Get to the utility room.”
They bounded for the door.
She brushed Ricky and wiped his face as best she could. She picked him up and hurried inside.
The boys had not stayed in the utility room. They were in the kitchen, bent over shaking like dogs and laughing, and a shower of dirt and pebbles fell from their scalps.
“Stop it,” Berna yelled. “Stand there and don’t move.”
The front door opened and Zechariah stepped in and set a box down beside the one already there. He had on a cardboard cowboy hat. He’d just started wearing glasses, new black-rimmed ones, and he still sometimes looked like a stranger to her. He also had on his bicentennial tie–the number 76 over the American flag–that was almost as wide as Berna’s iron.
Jeff stepped in the door and stacked another box.
Zechariah strutted through the living room in the cowboy hat. The heater grate made a groaning sound when he stepped on it.
Jeff followed him in, also wearing a hat. The heater grate made a sharp fast squeak with Jeff’s weight. He was sloppy and fat. His red and black striped tie was short and also wide as an iron, and under it, his shirt strained between buttons and exposed his t-shirt. The hat rested high on his big head. He’d been an evangelist for six years. Berna had never met a skinny evangelist.
He grinned at Berna and said, “On Sunday we’re not going to be fishers of men.” He waited for a response.
She turned to the refrigerator. What was she doing here? She wasn’t made for this.
Jeff said, “No, not fishers of men. We’re going to be lassoers of men.”
“What we got for lunch?” Zechariah said.
Jeff said, “Here you go, squaw,” and handed her a flat cardboard hat.
“Here’s my little cowpokes,” Zechariah said. He popped smaller red hats out into shape and pressed them onto the boys’ heads.
“We been playing funeral.” Andrew sat on Zechariah’s foot and clung to his leg like a koala bear. Ricky scrambled to get on the other foot, but James pushed him out of the way and sat down. Ricky pulled his hat off and examined it, and tried unsuccessfully to put it back on his head.
“Daddy,” James said.
Zechariah said, “Lunch?”
“Bologna sandwiches,” she said. “Fritos and Pepsi.”
“You don’t happen to have Coke do you?” Jeff asked. “Pepsi’s too sweet for me. If you don’t have Coke, I’ll have sweet tea.” He sat down at the kitchen table. His fat cheeks were splotchy red like someone had been pinching them. He said, “Somebody needs a diaper change.”
Berna set the mayonnaise on the counter hard.
The men both talked, and the boys tried to holler over one another to get Zechariah’s attention. Out of the din came Andrew’s voice: “Daddy,” he said, “we been playing bury the dead dog.”
James said, “We been playing funeral.”
Berna set the bologna beside the mayonnaise on the counter. She said, “It’s self-serve today.” She tromped over the soiled sheets again and out the back door.
She hugged herself in the cold and looked around the yard for the puppy. She ran around and out the gate and across the side yard to the Tonka truck and the plywood. She grabbed the wood and pulled and the mound of grass and dirt tumbled off. The puppy was under it in a shallow hole–it wasn’t moving.
She scooped under the dog’s belly with her right hand and grabbed its snout like a bottle of pop with her left. She blew into the nose and squeezed the body between her body and her arm and blew into the nose again. She ran with the dog around to the back of the house. Grit and dirt from the dog’s face crunched between her teeth. She spit as she ran.
The dog moved. It wasn’t dead. She carried it into the utility room. The men were eating sandwiches and chips. She pulled a towel from under Ricky’s soiled sheets and wrapped the dog and put it in the space between the washer and dryer.
“Rodeo Roundup Sunday doubled the worship attendance for Jim Henderson down at Bible Baptist,” Jeff said. “We’ll top him, with our busses all up and running.” His words were garbled over a mouthful of food.
Berna put her lips around the dog’s nose and blew again.
Jeff said, “I heard they repealed the sodomy law out in California.”
“Because when they knew God,” Zechariah said, “they glorified him not as God, neither were they thankful. For this cause God gave them up to vile affections–”
“God will judge the U.S.A.,” Jeff said. He said, “If God doesn’t judge the U.S.A., He’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Andrew and James hopped around the kitchen in their hats, pretending they were riding horses. Bologna slices, with three holes bitten out of the center like bowling ball finger holes, flopped in their dirty fists. They sang, this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, over and over and held their holy bologna in the air. Ricky sat with his back against the refrigerator, gnawing on a piece of muddy bologna, his hand shoved half in his mouth.
“That’ll preach,” Zechariah said.
“Incorporate it into the bicentennial celebration,” Jeff said around a mouthful of food.
“Call the nation on its birthday to return to the Lord.” Zechariah nodded.
Jeff said, “We should be running two-hundred in Sunday School by then.” The roll of fat above his collar made him move his head all stiff, like he was in a neck brace. His wide tie was striped black, red, white, green, gold–the gospel colors of the little wordless books they used in Children’s Church.
“That’s not out of the question. The Lord could do that.”
“Bless God, if we already have that many kids bussing in every Wednesday night for AWANA, why not?”
James fell and hit his head on the under-sink cabinet door. He screamed, “Andrew pushed me down.”
“Did not,” Andrew shouted him down before he had finished the accusation.
Berna jumped into the kitchen from the utility room, scooped James up and looked at his head. “You’re okay,” she said. “Stop crying.” She turned to Andrew and said between her teeth, “I’ll deal with you later, young man.”
Andrew stared at her, his mouth open.
Ricky pulled to his feet and stretched, reaching for the bologna on the counter. His sagging diaper bulged to the left of the crotch seam in his filthy pajamas.
“Check this out,” Jeff said.
Berna turned and Jeff was holding out his puffy hand, showing her a big round ring.
“Mood ring,” he said. He pulled it off and held it out to her. “It tells you what mood your in.”
“No kidding?” Zechariah pushed his last bite of sandwich into his mouth, chewed on it twice, and drank it down with Pepsi. “Does it work?” He leaned his head in close to Berna’s as he stared at the ring. He smelled like his aftershave. His hair had gone entirely gray in the last seven years. He took off his glasses and squinted down. There was a blaring red indentation dug across the bridge of his nose.
Jeff said, “Try it.” He still held the fat ring out to Berna. The boys tramped and thumped their pretend horses in circles around the kitchen table. Now they were singing, Let the sunshine in, face it with a grin…
She took the ring. It was sticky from Jeff’s sweaty hand. She slid the ring on her finger. Her hand looked like a child’s inside the huge ring. Jeff and Zechariah leaned in to watch it. The ring went from black to blue. Her pale hand trembled, and she pulled off the ring and pressed it into Jeff’s.
“Blue,” Jeff said, leaning back and putting his hands on his fat stomach. He said, “Blue means content and happy.”
Zechariah leaned back also and smiled. “Bern’s a Proverbs 31 wife,” he said.
Andrew and James danced and shouted and held their cowboy hats in the air. They had shifted in mid-song and were now singing, a sunbeam, a sunbeam. Jesus wants me for a sunbeam… Ricky had abandoned his hat on the kitchen floor. He still tried to climb the counter to the bologna. The towel-wrapped puppy was trying to writhe free from between the washer and dryer. His head thumped against the metal and he was starting to whimper.
Having finished lunch, the men walked from the kitchen into the living room where the boxes were stacked beside the door. Zechariah called back to Berna, “Jeff and Sue are coming for dinner tonight dear. I thought you could make your chicken and rice. Say, about five?” He looked at Jeff.
Jeff was halfway out the door. He stopped there and said, “This has the potential to win a lot of souls to the Lord.” He looked over Zechariah’s shoulder at Berna and said, “Don’t let the boys get into these hats.”
The two men stood in the doorway. She waited for Zechariah to tell Jeff not to tell his wife what to do. He didn’t. She almost spoke up herself, said, “I’m not your wife. Don’t go ordering me around like I am.” She didn’t, she didn’t say anything at all. That was usually best.
Jeff said, “We could double our regular attendance in a year–and our offering. We could be running fifteen, maybe more, busses at this rate.”
“Fifteen busses,” Zechariah said.
Jeff said, “We could bus them in from all the way up and down the Elk River.”
They went out, Jeff still jabbering, and the front door closed.
Berna went to the living room window and watched. The men walked at their leisure down the front steps, fat Jeff talking away and waving his arms around. His armpits were dark with sweat. They walked the path across the side yard to the front corner of the church. Zechariah glanced down at the board and the Tonka truck. The two men disappeared around the front of the church.
Berna stood motionless and stared out the window at the spot where they had disappeared around the church. Then she slowly turned her head and looked the other way, down the dirt road. From the living room window, the place where it turned onto the blacktop road was obscured by trees. Just beyond the bridge, there was a yellow watch for falling rocks sign on a pole bent toward the road, where 119 curved around the mountainside going toward Clendenin, and then Charleston, and then anywhere in the world.
The boys’ shouting turned hostile.
“Mommy,” James shouted. He burst into the living room. “Andy broke my hat. He has to give me his.”
“Did not,” Andrew shouted from the kitchen.
“You broke it.” Andrew appeared at the door, and James jumped on him and grabbed the cowboy hat in his fist. Andrew balled his fist up and hit James in the ribs and James buckled and bit Andrew’s ear, and Andrew grabbed a fist-full of hair and pulled, and both boys screamed in rage and pain.
Berna pulled them apart and shoved Andrew into her bedroom, whacking him a glancing blow on the behind. “Do not leave this room,” she shouted. She whacked James on the leg, then dragged him to the stairs and pointed up. “March to your room, young man,” she said, “and do not think about coming out till I tell you.”
He started up the steps, stopped, turned around and cried, “It’s not fair.”
“You want to fight over a hat?” She held up the cardboard hat so both boys could see and crumpled it between her hands.
James cried harder and said, “That’s not fair.”
“Life’s not fair,” Berna said. “Get used to it.”
Glass shattered in the kitchen. Berna pointed again and said, “March.” She ran in and found Ricky sitting in front of Jeff’s broken tea glass, tea spreading on the linoleum like puppy piddle. She grabbed the back of Ricky’s pajamas and lifted him.
“No,” she shouted. Palming the bald strip on the back of his head, she pushed his nose into the spill. “No.”
He didn’t make a sound.
She squeezed his leg and head and pushed his face harder into the floor.
He still didn’t make a sound and he didn’t struggle.
She squeezed and twisted his leg. She pushed her weight on his gritty head. “No,” she said, mashing his face in the tea, “no, no, no.”
Finally, he made a choking grunt. It frightened her. She let up the pressure.
He took a deep breath and let out a siren wail. Little rippling rings moved away from his mouth in the spilled tea. She picked him up and held him to her breasts, smoothing his head with her palm. He buried his wet and filthy face into her neck and emptied his lungs with each bellowing cry.
Berna rocked back and forth on her shins. “It’s okay, baby,” she said. “Mommy’s sorry, but you have to stop making messes.”
For a while, she rocked Ricky as he cried. Tea soaked into the knee of her culottes. The puppy was free of the towel. He had his head inside Ricky’s sheets, snorting and licking and eating Ricky’s number two. His hind end was in the air, and his tail wagged happily.
Ricky settled into whimpering hiccups that convulsed his whole body. Berna’s legs were getting numb or she could have fallen off to sleep right there on her knees.
Her bedroom door clicked shut.
Carrying Ricky, she hurried in. The door to her bedroom was closed.
She opened the door. “James?”
“James, where are you, son?”
She heard giggling from the closet. She stepped softly across the room and listened at the door. Ricky hiccupped in her arm and trembled a long sniveling inhalation. Andrew and James were both inside the closet, shushing each other.
Berna cracked the door open. They had pulled down her blue dress. Andrew was covered and James only had his head stuck under it and the knee of his Toughskins was smooth with ground-in dirt. The two boys did not move.
She eased Ricky to the floor and pushed him gently in. She closed the door and twisted the lock.
“Mommy?” Andrew’s voice said.
James echoed him. “Mommy?”
The knob on the door shook. “Mommy? We came in the closet.”
Then the voices rose to a yell.
“Mommy we got stuck in the closet.”
“We came in the closet and got stuck.”
Berna closed the bedroom door, further muffling their yells. She put on her gray windbreaker that said AWANA in flaming red letters across the back, and went upstairs to Miriam’s bedroom.
She sat on the bed. It was unmade and sunlight through the window made the lumps of the covers look like a raised-up map of a mountain range. The top of the ridges were bright, and shadows fell black in the creases that looked like they had been created by erosion and not a disobedient child. Berna had told the girl twice to make up her bed–direct disobedience. Berna pounded her fist on the bed. Dust motes and particles floated up and twisted in the sunlight.
She could leave. She didn’t have to stay here. The tightness in her chest eased at the thought of escape. A bus ticket back to Ohio–no, she could go where Zechariah would never find her. A plane ticket. She could leave. She could go anywhere.
She leaned over on her elbow and stared at the plaque from VBS–white paper with a child’s writing in black marker, shellacked to a piece of scrap wood. Zechariah had hung it on Miriam’s wall beside the window. The black letters: Only One Life Will Soon Be Past. Only What’s Done For Christ Will Last. Some of the letters were in cursive, some weren’t.
Out the window, she could see the tops of the trees along the Elk River.
The boys had gone silent. It was their naptime and they could nap safely in there.
Miriam would be home at three. Miriam who always acted like the little mother, trying without shame to get Zechariah’s praise and attention. The girl didn’t know how good she had it–she didn’t know that there were worse things than being ignored by your father. That was for damn sure. Anyway, Miriam could take care of the boys–better than Berna could—and they would be better off in the end.
It was settled: she was getting out. The realization that she would be free washed over her like the ministrations of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete come alongside her to give succor, to wake her from this nightmare. She gathered the knowledge of her freedom to herself and breathed. She didn’t have the strength for this and God would forgive her. She tucked her freedom away as her secret treasure, what she would know and Zechariah would find out when the time suited her. She was already free—she had this hope, this evidence of things not seen. She could make a life for herself, a life she chose with full knowledge, not as a scared girl.
The tops of the leaves were dark green, the bottoms lighter. They fluttered in a light breeze. She stared until the leaves blurred and it looked like the trees were covered in tiny fluttering wings. The heater grate clicked and popped downstairs. The neighborhood below the treetops had fallen into bright and motionless afternoon silence–men off to work, kids all in school. Berna could hear the dog’s claws clicking on the kitchen floor downstairs. It was jumping around, playing with something. She fell back on Miriam’s unmade bed and pushed her feet under the covers.
Chapter One of my novel The Calling, originally published in Prick of the Spindle as “The Calling.”
One thing Zechariah Minor was sure of: he loved to play his banjo. When he got going on “Pike County Breakdown” or “Sunny Mountain Chimes,” pushing at the front of the tempo like a coal train barreling into fog—with Ricky’s dad Big Randy on mandolin just barely keeping up—he forgot who he was, he lost himself. It was like God was pouring the music into the top of his open skull, rivers of it from on high, and he was sending it out as fast as he got it, spraying all that goodness in bountiful blessings over the folks in the crowd. Big Randy had told him more than once he was good enough to play Bean Blossom, and Big Randy would know.
What Zechariah didn’t want to do was preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to a world of hell-bound sinners. All he wanted to do was play. But his dad had plans for him. He was taking Zechariah to this pastor’s conference at Pinewood Bible Institute, making him miss the Logan barn dance, where, at sixteen—seventeen in a week—Zechariah was the star musician.
It was the first Friday of September 1954—the year his dad pulled their church out of the Southern Baptist Convention because they had gone soft on Secularism and Modernism. His dad got him up early so they could get haircuts before they left town. They traveled from Logan, where their house sat on a dirt road right beside the church, through Charleston, right by the Capital dome there by the river. After the Capital, they plunged into the steep winding roads of the Appalachian Mountains, roads that must have once been deer or Indian trails that had been widened with dynamite and blacktopped. On one side was a steep drop of craggy rocks and trees down hundreds of feet into the New River Gorge; on the other side was just as steep a cliff, the black rock of the mountain’s innards rising wet and dripping to where the forest floor hung over the top like a bad haircut, the top layer of a cross-section of the mountain, layer on layer, laid down by the receding waters of Noah’s flood. In some places small trees sprouted at precarious angles out over the road, their roots clutching jagged rocks.
Ron the barber had met them early at his shop and shaped up both their crew cuts, and some had gotten in Zechariah’s shirt collar. Sharp bits of hair, and the aftershave Ron had slapped and patted all over him, itched and burned his neck.
His dad’s gray felt hat was on the seat. It was about time for him to start wearing a hat; he was old enough. The 4-door Studebaker’s seat springs were hard and high so that Zechariah had to tense his legs when they went around curves to keep from sliding in his wool slacks and smashing the hat between them. He was wearing his old dress shoes—the ones he’d already handed down to his brother—because somehow they were in better shape than his new ones. They pinched his pinky toes when he pushed his feet against the floorboard.
The hooked choke handle buzzed every time his dad let up on the round clutch pedal, downshifting for hairpin turns and steep grades. The car burned oil and the stink of it mixed with the aftershave. Zechariah’s eyes burned. He was getting a headache.
His dad had said very little on the trip so far. He used silence as well as he did words. Then, finally, he started the conversation Zechariah had been watching for.
He said, “Son, Brother Roloff said that if you had the cure for cancer you’d tell people about it, right?”
“Yes sir,” Zechariah said. No trip with his dad went without a stretch of exhortation.
His dad peered out at the road intensely, shifted, muscled the steering wheel. He had a few straight little pieces of cut hair crisscrossed inside his ear. The road curved out to a short straight stretch. The silver bar down the middle of the front window lined up with the white line on the far edge of the road. The car hood looked like it jutted halfway into the oncoming lane.
“If,” his dad said, “you have a way to keep folks out of hell, and you’re not sharing it, how’s that different?” He put his hand on the gearshift, but didn’t raise his foot to the clutch to shift.
Zechariah said, “None, I guess.” The car climbed winding up a mountainside. Pressure bubbles filled his ears.
“It’s worse. An eternity worse.” His dad’s voice now sounded like it was coming from the other side of a closed door. Zechariah tried to yawn hard and pop his ear bubbles. It didn’t work.
They didn’t talk for a while. His dad shifted down for a climbing curve. The choke handle buzzed.
His dad broke his careful silence. “That Manoni girl you’re sweet on, is she saved?”
“I don’t know.” Shame filled his heart. He knew alright: she was a Papist, a Mariolater; she was headed straight for a hell prepared for the devil and his angels.
They climbed the side of the mountain until Zechariah saw glimpses through the trees of a drop that had to be over a thousand feet. In some spots there was no guardrail between their car and a plunge into the canyon. Only trees.
Zechariah’s dad was always on him to get serious about the Lord’s business, but one other time he’d come down hard on him for not witnessing to the lost. It was two years ago, when his pal Ricky was killed in Korea. His dad had stormed right into his bedroom with the righteous zeal he used in the pulpit and asked, “Was Ricky saved?”
Ricky had been older than Zechariah by almost four years, but they played hillbilly music together, which made the age difference not matter. What Zechariah did know about Ricky was that he had been a swell guitarist, moved it into B natural, B flat, while his brother Little Randy, liked those easy chords. He could sing, Ricky, call out the high lonesome better than Bill Monroe—put a lump in your throat hearing that voice.
He didn’t say I don’t know that time, when his dad stormed in. He said, “I think so. We mostly play gospel music.” Which was true. Something else he knew about Ricky, which he didn’t say to his dad: though he didn’t know if Ricky was saved or not, when they played music together he loved Ricky, loved him like they were blood brothers—or closer even than that somehow—and he knew Ricky, whether he drank a little whiskey or not, had a great big, pure, good soul. He just said, “We mostly play gospel music.”
His dad said, “Playing gospel music doesn’t make you saved any more than wearing feathers in your cap makes you a chicken.” He stood tall in Zechariah’s room, like he was behind his pulpit. He said, “Millions of billions of years in the burning torments of hell, where the worm dieth not.” He shook his head. He said, “D.L. Moody said, ‘People seem to forget that there is no door out of hell.’ What do you think Ricky would say to you now?” His voice went soft for the question, what he did for emphasis when he preached.
Zechariah shrugged. His banjo and mandolin and guitar were stacked in their cases beneath his window. The sock he abused himself into was under his bed.
“I’ll tell you: He would say, ‘Zechariah, we were pals. Why didn’t you tell me? You knew and you didn’t share Christ with me.’” With that, his dad had walked out of the room, closing the door hard, just short of a slam.
His dad hadn’t ever brought up Ricky again, but now he was on Zechariah about Izzy Manoni. He downshifted yet again, and cranked into a hairpin turn. A coal truck loomed around from the other direction. The choke handle buzzed. Both the car and the coal truck looked too wide to pass, and Zechariah held his breath and squeezed in his pee and waited to be crushed, or pushed over the edge of the cliff to fall and watch the rocks below rush up to smash him.
The coal truck passed, its engine grinding down. He breathed out and caught a whiff of the truck’s diesel smoke, and then it was back to the car’s burning oil and Ron’s aftershave. His head throbbed behind his eyes. He was also beginning to feel a little nauseated from all the curves.
“It’s high time you put away childish things and get serious about eternal things.” His dad peeled out his fingers from the wheel, readjusted his grip.
The air bubble in Zechariah’s left ear popped, then the right one popped too. The car engine and road noise came roaring in. His own voice sounded pure and clear in his own ears as he said, “I’d like to play hillbilly music.” It’s all he wanted in the world to do, and he was good—the best in Logan. He’d given up the two-finger claw hammer style everybody around there used. He’d bought finger picks and taught himself Earl Scruggs’s three-finger rollover style. His banjo had such a sweet tone in the high register. He longed for the thing at this minute. His fingers itched to play.
His dad said, “That’s a fine hobby.”
He said, “I’d like to be a recording star, and play Bean Blossom someday.”
But there was one other thing Zechariah was pretty sure of: his love of hillbilly music—all music really; it wasn’t natural how a song would strip him down till he felt his soul was naked—was endangering his immortal soul. He was uneasy about the feeling he got playing music, addicted as he was to it. He was almost sure it wasn’t from God, but a trick of the devil, and here’s why: every time he played and things went really well, the more open he was to temptation afterward.
Izzy Manoni came to see him play every Saturday night at the barn dance. He heard her play Bach at the school talent show, and Rachmaninoff in her parlor one afternoon. She was good. She was Italian, had dark skin, and hair so black it sometimes shimmered blue like a crow’s wing in sunlight. She wore skirts with poodles embroidered on them, and glasses colored to match the scarves around her neck. There in the big barn, she floated among the earthy colors of farm folk and miners like a bright flower on a creek full of brown fallen leaves. When she leaned close to talk to him after shows, her warm mouth always smelled of Wrigley’s mint gum.
The problem was that after those nights playing music, Zechariah was always drained, too emptied out to resist. He would go home from seeing Izzy, lock himself up in his room, dream of taking her out of that poodle skirt, and defile himself into the crusty sock he kept balled up under his bed. The way he undressed her slowly in his imagination, sometimes he didn’t get past her standing there in his bedroom, white underpants and bra almost glowing against her dark skin, before he had to let it go into the sock.
No matter how guilty he felt afterward, or how much he prayed for the Lord to forgive him and strengthen him against temptation, each Saturday night he yielded again, like a soulless dumb animal, sinning against his own body, sinning against that beautiful girl who needed nothing more than to know the Lord.
Music could not be good if it did that to him. Music was his idol, plain and simple.
Over the past two years—almost two-and-a-half—since Ricky died, he’d gone as far as walking the aisle twice to give up hillbilly music for the cause of Christ. Both times he’d chickened out and knelt there praying, Lord, let me play music to your glory.
Then once he’d almost literally put his instruments on a raging bonfire. It had been after his dad’s Sunday night sermon, “Are You an Idolator?” In the sermon his dad had said that idols aren’t just things made of wood and stone that the heathen worship, but anything that you love more than you love God, and that is the very thing God requires of you. He’d said from the pulpit, “Whatever just popped into your head when I said that, that’s your idol. That’s what you have to lay on the altar of sacrifice.”
The invitational hymn that night was “Is Your All on the Altar,” and Norma played it over and over on the organ, while Zechariah’s dad instructed people to take a pencil and a scrap of paper from the deacons who were passing them around. “Write what popped into your head when I told you anything you love more than God is you idol,” he said. “God knows if you’re lying. Write it down.”
Zechariah wrote music on his slip and quickly folded it in half so the word was hidden. The hymn played as his dad talked and people wrote down their idols. Some women were starting to cry.
Zechariah’s mother wasn’t crying. She sat straight and still. He peeked over to see what she’d written. In her neat blocked-in cursive she’d written My Family. On the other side of his mom were his little brother and little sister. Her family was her life. She didn’t have anything else, other than decorating the bulletin board in the foyer and teaching Children’s Church.
After the service, Zechariah’s dad moved everyone to the grass lot across the dirt road. There was a bonfire that two deacons had slipped out early and got blazing. At the fire people took turns standing and testifying, telling what their idol was. The shifting glare and shadow on their faces made it feel like they were there to tell ghost stories. After the people spoke their idols publicly, they tossed the paper in the fire and testified that they were putting it on the altar of sacrifice and rededicating themselves to serving God with their all.
Now, at the fire, his mom was about to collapse. She told of her sinful love of her family and she wept like someone had died.
He didn’t just dream of Izzy in impure ways. He sat in class and had visions of the two of them married, both professional musicians traveling the world—who knows, they might live in New York City. He saw them sitting together at recitals and graduations and weddings and concerts, their very own children so strong and talented like them. He wanted a family with Izzy Manoni.
The Minor house rule on first dates was this: he could take her for a burger and milkshake, but only after she’d accompanied him to church. He’d been to her house just once to listen to her play her piano, but only that. He hadn’t even sat down. He hadn’t figured out how to ask her to church yet. Her family was very Catholic, and he didn’t want her parents to forbid her to see him. He lay at night and fantasized about the two of them together after making love, staying together the whole night, sleeping pressed naked to one another, him still pushed up inside her, so they could start loving each other before they were even fully awake in the morning. This vision worked so powerfully on him that he would have to abuse himself into his sock a second time.
When his mom finally did toss her paper in the fire, Zechariah watched with shame as it browned and curled and flamed to black. He ran across the dirt road and up to his bedroom. He fell to his knees and scooped the sock, the yellowed and crusty evidence of his sin, from under his bed and stuffed it into his banjo case. He carried his banjo and his guitar, and his mandolin under his arms, lumbering down the steps—he would burn them on the bonfire; he would take a step that could not be reversed and trust God to honor it—to the front door of the house. He sat at the foot of the stairs and could hear the congregation singing “I Surrender All,” and he wept just as hard as his mother had, wept until he could only breathe in jerking gasps.
He carried the instruments back up the steps and eventually went back out to where the service was over and everyone was roasting marshmallows, laughing and chatting. Kids were playing tag out in the dark grass lot, their squeals and yelps echoing over the field.
Now, he had just reaffirmed that decision, told his dad all he really wanted to do was play music. Zechariah feared that he had quenched the Spirit for good that night, that his chance to find God’s perfect will was taken from him, but he couldn’t give up his banjo. He looked at his dad now, driving the car, staring straight ahead. His pants had ridden up his leg as he pushed on the gas and clutch through the mountains. His black socks were falling down around his ankles, revealing a section of white hairy calf.
Without looking from the road, he told Zechariah what he really thought of his banjo playing. He said, “Son. Just because you can bat a good ball over at the grass lot doesn’t mean you should be trying out for the Yankees.”
Zechariah slumped into the seat and closed his burning eyes against the headache. The dress shoes pinched his pinky toes.
His dad said, “You need to grow up and get about the Lord’s business,” and that was the end of the conversation.
The sign was a piece of plywood with a 2 by 4 border, painted white with blue lettering: Pinewood Bible Institute; Est. 1952; Harold G. Perkins, President. They turned off the hard top and drove out a road of fresh white gravel that wound through beech and oak and hickory trees and opened onto a clearing at the edge of a pine thicket. The school consisted of a two-story building of unpainted block beside an old farmhouse, fronted by a parking lot of the same white gravel as the road. The parking lot was full of cars.
His dad parked the Studebaker along the edge of the road below the full lot and cut the engine. The hissing roar of insects and birds encircled them in the forest, swept into the car like a wave of pressure that Zechariah could feel against his body as well as in his ears. It was a blank white day and the air at the treetops made small waves, as if Zechariah could also see the insect’s noise rising from the woods.
His dad said, “Is your sword in your suitcase?”
He’d forgotten his Bible at home. His cheeks burned and he didn’t say anything.
“Wait here a second,” his dad said. “I have something for you in back.” He opened his door and stepped out onto the gravel. His shirttail was un-tucked in back, sweaty and wrinkled. He stepped to the back of the car and opened the trunk.
Zechariah thought he might be getting a hat like his dad’s, so he could enter the conference taking it off like a grown man, not show up bare-headed like a boy.
His dad slammed the trunk and came around and slid back in. He had a brown box. “Here,” he said, slapping his palm on the box and then handing it to Zechariah. He said, “Everything you will ever need is in this box, and nothing you need is not in it.”
Zechariah opened it, and inside was a brand new black Bible. He turned the box over and let it fall onto his lap. It was heavy and solid, the spine as tight and square as a block of wood. Zechariah stared at it. He had a perfectly fine Bible at home.
“A new sword,” his dad said. He reached in and snatched his hat off the seat.
“It’s swell.” His Bible at home was brown, and smaller. It had an illustration of a Bible story every so many pages.
His dad slapped his shoulder. “Scofield reference,” he said. “Nineteen seventeen. Better notes.”
“It’s swell,” Zechariah said again, still staring at the huge black Bible. “Thanks, Dad.”
“Let it be a lamp unto your feet and a light unto your path,” His dad said. He got out again and opened the back door. He tucked the back of his shirt in and pulled his suit coat from the back seat and put it on. He leaned in and picked up his own Scofield Reference Bible from the back seat. Zechariah had looked through it before. It had notes in the margins of virtually every page—most pages were crammed full of notes from repeated readings—blue ink, black ink, red ink, thicker black ink. Closed, his dad’s Bible was swollen like it had gotten wet and dried again.
His dad slammed the trunk, shaking the whole car. “Come on,” he said, already walking toward the building, straightening his hat on his head. “Bring your new sword with you.”
Even before his dad opened the double metal doors, Zechariah could hear men’s voices, loud and laughing. Inside, the building wasn’t any cooler than outside, but it was darker. He stood beside a long coat rack with a shelf on top covered in hats. His dad took his hat off and hung it on the end, then rubbed the sides of his crew cut to get the hat line out.
The hall smelled of stale coffee. After his eyes adjusted, Zechariah saw a few gals behind a table serving coffee, but mostly men milling around the wide hallway being overly jovial and loud, like Zechariah knew pastors always were when they got together. They all wore the same uniform he and his dad were wearing: tight crew cuts, gray or black suits, white shirts, tightly cinched ties. Each pastor had his sword–1611, Authorized King James Version–hooked in his paw, or shoved up in his armpit if he was doctoring his coffee.
The coffee table, where the gals were, was down the hallway beside the registration table, across from the world missions map. Zechariah followed his dad down to the registration table. He found his nametag and a blue folder with his name written on the front in black marker.
The gals at the coffee table had on nametags too. They were Pinewood students. One of them smiled at his nametag and said, “Hello there, Zechariah Minor.” She had heavy, low breasts–her nametag said Evangeline Phipps–breasts like an old woman, above a wide white belt. Below the belt, a roll of tummy swelled as if to lend support to the breasts.
Zechariah looked up at her face and his mind went blank for a second before he said, “Hello.” Her face was beautiful. She had a wide white smile and striking blue eyes so big they seemed to push up on her eyebrows. Her blond hair was pulled up in a bun, showing a solid smooth jaw line that tapered perfectly to a button chin. It was a perfect face, Zechariah thought.
She was holding an empty paper cup. “Sanka or regular?” she said, still smiling at him.
“Your first session is about to begin,” his dad said behind him. He turned around and saw his dad leafing through his own folder. “Room 114,” his dad said, pointing back the way they’d come. “Right there. You have Dr. Perkins.” Dr. Perkins was the president and founder of the institute. “He’ll be a real treat for you,” his dad said.
A group of young guys were filing into a room down the hall. Zechariah walked down and stepped into the line behind a guy with a wrinkled suit jacket and pimples on the back of his neck.
According to the sheet in Zechariah’s folder, the session was called “Practical Aspects of Personal Soul Winning,” and was mandatory for all the students of PBI. Zechariah’s dad had signed him up for it. The room was full of rowed wooden chairs facing a small pulpit with a cross on the front. Guys, and a few gals, sat and stood all around, talked to one another, acted corny. Zechariah listened to them and came to understand that one of them had special status—he didn’t seem much older than Zechariah—moved and acted as if he owned the place. Zechariah watched. It was Harold Perkins Jr., the founder’s son. He was a tall kid, already soft in the middle. Zechariah disliked him immediately.
Zechariah sat himself in one of four empty chairs along the back wall. The chair had slats going up the back that knuckled his backbone when he moved. He bent over and untied his shoes. He pulled his heels out and flexed his toes. His pinky toes ached.
The walls were the painted inside of the outer blocks. There were two nine-paned windows in the outer wall, looking out on the pine thicket. In between the windows, pushed against the wall, was an upright piano–not smart, putting the piano against the outer wall, he thought. A block wall at that.
An older guy walked in and straight up to the small pulpit. He was a large man, over six feet tall with wide shoulders that hunched just a little with age. His crew cut was white and his glasses had thick black rims. He stood at the front and without warning started praying in a deep, booming voice. Once during the long prayer, Zechariah became unsure if he had missed the end of the prayer and the beginning of the lecture, because the old guy seemed to have shifted into instructing them, not praying at all, but Zechariah looked up and everyone’s head was still bowed. Then the old guy said, heavenly Father and cleared up Zechariah’s confusion.
When the old guy did finish praying, he stepped to the side of the pulpit, took off his glasses and twirled them in his fingers and launched straight into the lecture. “Twelve practical rules for soul winners,” he said. “Number one: go in pairs. First, it is the pattern set by our Lord when he sent the disciples out in twos. His wisdom in this is evident.”
Guys and gals scrambled to get their notebooks open and start writing. This was Dr. Perkins, Zechariah realized, founder and president of PBI. Zechariah glanced at Perkins’s son. He was taking notes just like the rest of them.
Evangeline, the gal from the coffee table, slipped in the back with her Bible and notebook. She pulled her full dress under her legs as she sat beside Zechariah. Her breasts were like a single mass humping over the wide belt across her lap. Her dress was light purple with strings of darker purple violets and green leaves running vertically.
He pushed his feet back into the tight shoes.
“While one of you witnesses, the other can play with the children, answer the telephone if it rings, and deal with any other distractions.” He put his glasses back on and walked behind the pulpit. “You can switch from house to house if you’d like, one witness at one, the other at the next.” He took the glasses back off and started twirling them again and walked to the other side of the pulpit.
Evangeline sat motionless beside Zechariah as Dr. Perkins went rule by rule through all twelve. Zechariah stared at her hands. Strong hands, long fingers. Her nails were short but neat. He saw her beautiful eyes dart his direction, so he turned and looked ahead.
Zechariah fought sleep but still dozed off a couple of times. Once his head lolled and he jerked it back up in waking, throwing his arms out because he felt he was falling out of the seat. Evangeline acted as if she hadn’t noticed.
“Number twelve,” Dr. Perkins said finally, putting on his glasses, then taking them right back off. “Don’t be offensive.” He said, “John R. Rice says it like this.” He put his glasses on and picked up a piece of paper from the pulpit. He read, “If a person is going to be a soul winner he must not be offensive to the people with whom he talks. It is a definite asset for a soul winner to be careful to bathe often to avoid body odor. Teeth should be brushed, and breath should be tested.”
Some of the guys snickered. Dr. Perkins stopped reading and looked up. The room grew silent. He continued reading: “Carry some mints in your pockets or some good flavored chewing gum which will help keep the breath from being offensive.”
Zechariah thought again of how he could lose himself until it seemed the music was a living thing using him as a tool to get itself into the world. He hadn’t wanted to admit it was like demon possession. The devil disguised as an angel of light. Immediately the Lord brought to his mind where it always led: hiding in his room committing sexual sin into an athletic sock, thinking of Izzy, the only other thing he wanted as much as hillbilly music. The Lord answered his prayer by making the verse, by their fruits ye shall know them, pop into his head.
Please, Lord, Zechariah prayed. I’ll serve you. I won’t take the glory. I’ll give you the glory.
Other sessions were letting out. Guys were starting to mill around outside the door. Evangeline rose from the chair and quietly let herself out.
Dr. Perkins looked over the sheet at the students. He said, “One of the most damaging things in soul winning is the effect of halitosis. By all means a soul winner should watch this carefully.”
Zechariah sat through four personal soul winning sessions on Friday, one church service Friday night, and three more sessions on Saturday. In one, a professor took them over to the old house where they crowded around and listened to him call random people on the phone and witness to them. To one woman he said, “Ma’am, cigarettes won’t send you to hell. They’ll just make you smell like you’ve been there.” The room of students erupted in laughter and the man smirked. Zechariah groaned and looked out the window at the pine forest. Everyone lined up to have a turn calling and witnessing to someone. Zechariah hung back silently and let time run out before his turn came around.
He went to the coffee table between each session and talked to Evangeline. She was a sophomore, studying Bible and music ministry; her parents were missionaries to Burma. That’s where she’d grown up and that’s where she planned to minister after she graduated, Lord willing. She had such a beautiful smile. He could just keep on staring into those deep blue eyes.
Saturday evening, Zechariah’s group, the students, gathered together with his dad’s group, the pastors, for Dr. Perkins’s keynote address. Zechariah sat beside his dad in a wooden slat-backed chair on the left side of the lecture room, three rows from the front, beside an old upright piano against the wall.
At the front of the room, a guy—it was Dr. Perkin’s son, Harold Perkins Jr.—sat at an overhead projector with his suit coat off and his sleeves rolled up. He took off a silver wristwatch and balanced it on his leg. The projector was tilted back on a wooden chair so the display on the wall beside the pulpit was a glowing yellow trapezoid with the wide end up.
As a few more guys found chairs, Zechariah looked around for Evangeline. She finally came in with the gals from the coffee table all of them sitting on the chairs along the back wall. She immediately stood back up and came toward him. He turned around and his heart pounded. There was an empty chair beside him.
Evangeline went to the piano along the wall. She pulled out the bench and tucked her violet dress under her and sat, then twisted her body to look at the pulpit. She glanced at Zechariah and smiled.
Perkins Jr., at the overhead, put a transparency up. It was the number zero. Some guys milled around, most were sitting now. Their talking was a loud rumble. A minute later, Perkins Jr. pulled down the zero and put up the number 900. Dr. Perkins stepped behind the pulpit and pushed his glasses up with a finger and arranged his notes. The overhead guy pulled the 900 down and put up 1,800. Dr. Perkins nodded to Evangeline then sat in a chair on the front row. Evangeline turned around and started playing the hymn “At The Cross.”
Zechariah stared at the back of her. Her mass spread on the piano bench. He remembered sitting in Izzy’s parlor listening to her play what she had down of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. Izzy had been wearing tan Capri slacks, and when she’d sat down her soft hips had spread on the bench like horse-riding pants. Something about seeing here there like that on her piano bench had made his heart race like he’d been down at the field chasing pop flies. Her dad had walked in the front door with a brown briefcase and thick eyebrows that met in the middle and said to him, “Are you banjo boy?”
“I play banjo, yes sir,” Zechariah had said.
Izzy had said, “Papa, he can play anything with strings. He’s a virtuoso.”
Her dad had smiled knowingly at him and nodded. To Izzy, he had said, “This is banjo boy.”
“Papa, stop it.”
Still grinning at Zechariah, her dad had said, “You play banjo?”
“Papa, this is why I don’t have fellows over.”
Her dad had laughed walked through the parlor to the kitchen, saying in a singsong voice, “Oh, banjo boy.”
Izzy had said, “Shut your mouth, papa.”
Just before disappearing into the kitchen, her dad had turned and winked at Zechariah.
Around Logan they used dad or daddy, but papa sounded like the papaw they used for grandfathers. It had struck him as exotic and alluring, her calling her dad papa. That and everything else about her: her wry smile and dark hooded eyes, her colorful clothes, her womanly curves and thin waste; the piano melodies, that seemed to rise inside Zechariah’s chest as much as they entered his ears, coming off the tips of her lovely fingers—she wiggled those fingers and played his soul. Izzy Manoni was an exotic goddess. How he longed to touch her.
To his surprise, Evangeline played well, maybe as well as Izzy, who knew. It was impossible to compare such different styles and difficulty levels; and the piano, not surprisingly, was out of tune. She moved up and down the keys adding effortless flourishes; it was easy to see that she had real talent. Her playing didn’t inspire the lust in him that Izzy’s did; it was a purer, more godly thing.
As if reading his mind, his dad elbowed his arm, leaned toward his ear and said, “That Evangeline can sure tickle the ivories.”
He nodded his head and watched her. She played through several hymns. Perkin’s son at the overhead stared down at his watch, though there was a clock on the wall above the piano. Every minute he took down the number and put up another, every minute the number grew by 900.
A guy got up and led the group in some hymns: “Alas And Did My Savior Bleed,” “Nothing But The Blood of Jesus,” and “Bringing In The Sheaves.” This congregation of pastors belted out the hymns as if they were in a volume contest. He only saw one guy pick up a hymnal. The pastors also seemed to be in a contest to see who could sing all the verses without having to reach under the chair for a hymnal.
The song leader sat, and Dr. Perkins stood back up and turned and said, “I trust you gentlemen have found this time in God’s word to be profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” He took off his glasses. “I cannot imagine,” he said, “a more important theme than the one we’ve dealt with these past two days.”
He picked up his sermon notes, and pulled his Bible from under the pulpit. He said, “No less a preacher than D.L. Moody said that he believe he had done more for Christ through personal soul winning than through all his preaching.”
Dr. Perkins went on to preach about the importance of being a personal soul winner, of leading men to Christ. He said, “The social gospel will land a man straight in the fiery pits of hell, my friend.” The guy at the overhead kept sliding the number up by 900 every minute. Dr. Perkins said, “Vance Havner said, ‘If they had a social gospel in the days of the prodigal son, somebody would have given him a bed and a sandwich and he never would have gone home.’”
The room broke out in laughter.
Zechariah burped into his closed mouth. It tasted like coffee. He started thinking of his friend Ricky. Best guitar player Zechariah had ever known. What did it matter? He’d been dead now going on two years. Burning in hell for those two years most likely–as far as Zechariah knew, he’d never asked the Lord into his heart–crying out in eternal torment.
“We all need to be reminded,” Dr. Perkins said, “of what is on the line here.”
Could it be true that Ricky was burning in hell for all eternity, and there was no getting him out, and he was lost forever? Zechariah silently prayed and asked the Lord to have sent someone, put someone in Ricky’s path in Korea to give a clear presentation of the gospel to him. Please Lord, let someone have done that, he prayed. Please have saved Ricky.
Dr. Perkins preached, “According to Billy Sunday, we need to quit fiddling around with religion and do something to bring this old world to Christ.”
And Izzy Manoni. She needed the Lord. He could win her. They could be soul mates and bedmates. Their marriage bed could be undefiled.
At the one-hour mark, Perkins Jr. put up the number 540,000. Dr. Perkins stepped to the projector. He said, “There are two and a half billion people in the world today. A population explosion. The mortality rate is one point nine, which means one out of every fifty people alive will die this year.” He pulled off his glasses and used them to point at the number on the wall. “There are thirty one million five hundred and thirty six thousand seconds in a year.” He turned and looked out over the congregated pastors and students. “That means, every second, fifteen folks leave this world and go out into eternity, where they have to answer to God about what they have done with His son.”
Dr. Perkins seemed to grow larger as he stood, still pointing with his glasses at the number that swelled upward into the bright trapezoid on the block wall. He said, “How then, shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? How shall they hear? They won’t. Do you hear me, men? They won’t without you and me.”
Evangeline appeared silently at the piano, tucked her dress under her and placed her hands on the keyboard. The overhead guy pulled off the transparency and put up 540,900.
“What Harry has been showing you gentlemen,” Dr. Perkins said. He turned to his boy, said, “Thank you, son, for tallying these numbers and putting this display together.”
Perkins Jr. nodded and waved, not looking up from his watch.
“What Harry has been showing us, is how many souls have gone into eternity while we met here for this final session. The overwhelming majority of them without the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.”
Evangeline started playing “Have Thine Own Way.” Dr. Perkins went on with the invitation. Zechariah prayed, Lord, I’ll marry Izzy and our love will be pure, and I’ll win her to You. Evangeline finished “Have Thine Own Way” and started playing “I Surrender All.” The preachers started singing. Zechariah prayed, I do surrender all, Lord. Use me and Izzy and our music in mighty ways.
Zechariah sat up. He picked his Bible up from under his chair and put it on his lap. Izzy would be his helpmeet. He didn’t have to give up everything he loved in the world to please God—God didn’t want that from him—all he had to do was enjoy what God had given him, give God the glory for it. The weight of conviction lifted. He prayed, Thank you Lord.
Dr. Perkins said, “I want every one of you who has rededicated himself, renewed his commitment to personal soul winning, to stand right now.”
All the guys stood, even Perkins Jr. at the overhead projector. The gals in back stood. Evangeline didn’t stand, but she was playing the piano.
“Every one of you who has said just now, ‘They must hear, Lord send me,’ stand up.”
Zechariah stood too. He had rededicated himself to soul winning. He would start working on Izzy. How good their life was going to be together. How sweet their marriage bed.
His dad stood and put his arm around Zechariah’s shoulder, patted and squeezed.
Zechariah shifted from shoe to tight shoe. He hitched his new Bible against his hip, took up the tenor to his dad’s baritone: All to Jesus I surrender, humbly at his feet I bow. Worldly treasures all forsaken, take me Jesus, take me now.
The two of them leaned back, Zechariah and his dad, and together sang out to beat everybody else in the place. One thing he liked about hearing blood relatives sing together, like him and his dad right at that moment, was how, when they were good, they blended so well that they sounded like one single voice doing two parts. It was settled then: he’d play music for God.
His attention began to shift from his and his dad’s voices to Evangeline’s piano. How she bounced her hands, knocked the music out of that piano; how it rang out so easily to meet the volume of all these bellowing men. Zechariah started thinking of Izzy playing her piano, her hips smushed wide on the bench. His mind wandered to thoughts of them together playing music. Then to her in his bedroom, taking off her clothes. From there he couldn’t stop, he began daydreaming of him and Izzy in bed together, him inside of her, the two of them drowsing, her holding on to him, telling him not to pull it out, they could sleep together like this, two people as one, sleep that way all night, wake up still inside her. His member was so hard in his pants that it hurt.
He stepped out into the aisle, left his dad singing the invitation hymn. Instead of going down front to kneel and pray, he walked to the back of the room. He let himself out and closed the door gently behind him. A couple of guys turned and looked at him, but mostly everyone was singing and listening to Dr. Perkins call out his invitation over them. He hurried down the hallway to the men’s room. The sound of the men singing was muffled in the hallway. When the men’s room door closed behind him, the sound was shut off almost entirely, sounded far, far away. One sink sprouted from the wall with a looped pipe under it, and one urinal beside it went all the way to the floor. The toilet had a wooden stall built around it, with a swinging door and latch hook.
Inside the stall he sat and grabbed his erection to continue with his dream of wedded bliss with Izzy. We’ll be married, he thought, so this isn’t sin. We’ll be married.
The water in the toilet felt twenty degrees colder than the rest of the room, and that cold air on his bare behind and testicles shocked him out of his dream. The Holy Spirit took that opportunity to break temptation’s hold on him, and put Ricky back in his thoughts.
His best pal Ricky was in hell, there was no fooling himself about it. Izzy: he was lusting after her when he should be praying for her soul. All the high emotion of the music, and having thought he’d made a compromise with God that would allow him to keep Izzy and music came crashing in on him. He started crying. He sobbed. Snot slung from his nose. He rolled out toilet paper and blew.
“I’ll get her saved,” he prayed out loud as he wiped his nose. His voice echoed off the tile walls. “I’ll use my music to serve you.” He pushed the toilet paper between his legs into the toilet, and rolled out more. All those numbers on the overhead, what did it mean? All those souls dying and going out into eternity.
Sitting there with his testicles hanging over that freezing cold water, Zechariah had a vision: a meaty mass of human flesh sprang from the earth and rolled like a swollen creek down a mountain crevice—anguished faces, flapping arms and legs, twisting, churning torsos. Then, off a cliff as high as Hawk’s Nest, they hurtled for a brief instant into the sunlight, and then tumbled over themselves, screaming and crying, into the dark and craggy gorge below. Endless bodies continuously tumbling over the edge like a great rushing waterfall; their souls sprayed like spume out into misty air and disappeared into eternity—into eternal torment and flame.
“I’ll play music for you,” he cried. “I’ll be a good husband to her. I’ll get her saved. Let me have this.” He cried and prayed, “Please, God. Let me have this.” Zechariah sobbed and put his face against the cold tile wall above the toilet paper roller. It wasn’t fair. Did it really have to be like this?
For His response the Holy Spirit put Luke 9:62 into Zechariah’s head, what Jesus had to say to those who want to follow him but would hold something back: no man, having put his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God. This was Zechariah’s very own soul hanging in the balance. This is what his mom had understood when she’d given up her family. Of course God will not play second fiddle. It did have to be like this. There was no other way.
Zechariah gave up his willful pride and surrendered to the Lord.
“Here I am, Lord,” his choking voice echoed in the toilet. “Send me, send me.” He had to drop himself into that tumbling mass of humanity and plant his feet firm and cast wide his arms; he had to catch as many as he could. Surely nothing compared to so great a salvation–music or anything else he could possibly do was wood hay and stubble in comparison. He saw it now. He saw it clearly. He could not hold back.
“Forgive me, Lord,” he prayed. “I will be a soul winner. Take my life and let it be…”
The door opened and a man came in. He stood outside the stall and peed hard as a horse into the urinal, and passed gas into his trousers. Zechariah breathed slowly and quietly. The smell of the pink deodorizer puck the man was peeing on came biting into Zechariah’s nostrils. Zechariah had put his hand to the plow, it was finished; he could never look back, not ever. The man snorted and cleared his throat, zipped his trousers and left without washing his hands.
When the man was gone, Zechariah stood in his brother’s tight shoes and pulled up his trousers.
An excerpt from The Calling published in Pithead Chapel.
photograph of Shawnee Golf Course from golfdigest.com