“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.