A Hand to the Plow

http://jschumacher.typepad.com/joe/2008/01/hawks-nest.html

Chapter One of my novel The Calling, originally published in Prick of the Spindle as “The Calling.”

 

 

1.

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.

 

2.

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.”

 

3.

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.

 

 

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