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.