Part 1—THE CALLING
Zeke Taylor was in the hole. It was not actually a hole, but prison lingo for solitary confinement That was the bad news; the good news was that he had only three days left there, and the even better news was that when he returned to the regular prison population at the Ranlo Prison Facility he was set to be released in another ten days. Solitary had not been so awful bad; Zeke had been there a couple of times before while he was serving out his DUI and probation violation conviction. “Runnin’ my mouth while I was all coked up didn’t help much,” he said out loud; of course it didn’t matter ‘cause there was no one to hear him—the guard showed up like clockwork every hour and he had been by only ten minutes before. Zeke thought back to 9 months before, and the fateful night that set his prison stay in motion. He had been out with his buddies over at the Office Tavern and a “shipment” had come in. One could always tell when coke came into town—–all of a sudden the bar would get real busy and there would more ‘passes” around than in an NFL football game. Before you knew it both the men’s and women’s bathrooms would be packed with hungry, yearning noses, and as the say at Communion, “as these leave may others come to the table to take their places,” and of course they did.
It was after one of those manic marathon nights that Zeke Taylor found himself flying down Franklin Boulevard, going 85 by the speedometer but he was more like 2000 feet in altitude. He had been laughing like hell and singing along to “Freebird” when the blue and white Gastonia police car pulled him over. Feelin’ pretty frisky he had jumped out of the car and shouted “I am an F.B.I. agent”. This salutation earned him a quick set of bracelets behind his back and the following question; “May we search your vehicle?”. Zeke was way beyond caring what he said; he just wanted to be funny. “Sure fellas,” he said grinning, “and while you’re in there see if you can find that lighter of mine that’s been missing for two weeks.” Zeke thought this line was so good that he started laughing so hard that he fell up against the officer who had a hold of him. This gaiety was rewarded with a knee to the groin which sent him to the pavement to reflect on how happy he should be given his situation. After the officer who searched the car brought over a half ounce of pot and a well used little glass pipe Zeke had bought at the Kwik Mart Zeke quieted down considerably, listening to the droning recitation of “you have a right to contact an attorney” etc.
Things only got worse when they got downtown and he blew a .20 on the breathalyzer—-cocaine always making him extremely thirsty. So when they were reciting the charges of speeding, reckless driving, D.U.I., criminal possession of marijuana and paraphernalia, and last but not least violation of probation from a domestic violence conviction six months previous, Zeke was feelin’ pretty low. Plus, by the time he got in a cell the coke high was greatly diminished and he became one depressed little pup.
Three months and two postponements later Zeke was “processing in” to the Ranlo Minimum Security Detention Center, in preparation of serving a six months sentence. Zeke knew it could have been a lot worse; Ranlo was close to home, and he could have been sent down east to Caledonia, a prison that housed a big farm where the inmates had to work. At Ranlo you had to work only four hours a day and had all day Sunday off. But of course Zeke was in trouble quickly and got to spend his first stint in “solitary” for fighting.
Zeke Taylor was making a concerted effort to not dwell on his present situation but to ponder on how he came to be in Ranlo Prison. Whenever Zeke got into these “ponderin” modes he invariably thought of several particular occurrences at at High Shoals High School, where Zeke had experienced a rather brief but very tumultuous two years. He remembered Mr. Costman, the History teacher, who personified the word “thin”——-he was thin in stature, had thinning hair, and liver colored thin lips. But Mr. Costman was pretty bright and loved to use big words. Zeke Taylor recalled one time when he got caught throwing spitballs and his punishment was to write one hundred times “I must not hurl projectiles with prolific velocity”. On another occasion Mr. Costman was going on about Egyptian ruins and introduced the class to the word “scatology” and of course its meaning. Each year then when Ned Costman got to this chapter he braced himself for all the giggles and titters that would ensue. When the din finally died down Zeke had raised his hand. After being recognized by Mr. Costman Zeke had stood up and in his best George Stevens “Kingfish” impersonation rolled his eyes around and said “Well sir, I believes I done deee-cided what I wants to do wif my life—I wants to be one of dem scatologists, cause then you can get into everybody’s shit”. Everyone in the class, with the noted absence of Mr. Ned Costman, heehawed. The less than impressed Mr. Costnan promptly ushered Zeke Taylor to Principal Eldridge’s office and after reciting the problem left Zeke with the towering principal. Principal Charles Eldridge was 6’ 2” tall and weighed every bit of 350 pounds. He wore a starched white shirt everyday and wheezed when he talked. The cause of his labored breathing was nestled in each of the front pockets of his shirt—-he kept a pack of Winston cigarettes in each one all the time.
“Well son, I guess you know what is coming to you,” Principal Eldridge said stopping for a few moments for a coughing fit. Then he lit another Winston from the one smoldering in his giant overflowing ashtray and reached under his desk to pull out a large wooden paddle with holes drilled in it. “Assume the position” he said, Zeke quickly bending over, this not being his first rodeo.
As the guard came and casually looked in at the brooding Zeke Taylor Zeke recollected another trip to Principal Eldridge’s office, this time for telling the truth. Zeke Taylor was a firm believer in telling the truth—-when he felt like it or it was to his advantage. The particular instance he was thinking about was in Edwina Cuntress’ English Class. Her real name was Edwina Countliss but Zeke had bestowed upon her the new moniker, always saying it very fast, leaving her with a bit of a confused look on her face like “did I really hear that?”. Miss Countliss never openly questioned Zeke about this, correctly figgring that there was no way to win.
Mrs. Countliss was a woman in her mid fifties sporting dyed red hair, a “Blanche Dubois” accent that Zeke thought affected, and very glassy eyes furnished by her prescription “nerve pills”. The rumor was that she had a philandering insurance salesman husband who drove her crazy. Mrs. Countliss also had a seven year old adopted son whom she doted on, ad nauseum. In class it was always “Frankie did this” and “Frankie did that”’; Zeke got real tired of hearing ‘bout Frankie real quick. The final straw that sent Zeke Taylor to a return engagement with his chain smoking principal had happened on a winter morning, on Valentine’s Day. “Miss Cuntress” got off on a tangent about St. Valentine’s day and how her son Frankie loved her so much. “Yes class, and I’ll tell you what my sweet little man did for me this morning—–he got up early and fixed his momma breakfast”. This announcement elicited the typical “awwwsssss” from the cadre of Miss Countliss’ pet girl students sitting up at the front of the class, her girls beaming at her adoringly as she continued. Meanwhile Zeke was entertaining his friends by rolling his eyes and sticking his finger down his throat in disgust.
“But the most wonderful thing girls, er class, was what he did with the sausage—he fashioned the sausage pattie into the shape of a heart”. At this point Mrs. Countliss became overcome with emotion and fumbled in her purse for a tissue, three of her pet girls running to her side. Zeke Taylor, at the point of wretching called out “where was the old man this morning, bangin’ his secretary?”. Zeke’s followers loved this comment and laughed raucously. Edwina Countliss stood bolt upright, or at least as erect as a woman having ingested five fifty milligram Darvon could. “Who said that”? she shouted and was quickly supplied with the name “Zeke Taylor” by one of her girls.
“Zeke Taylor”, Mrs. Countliss shrieked, “don’t you have any respect for me?”.
“No, I do not Mrs. Cuntlisss” Zeke said, once again saying her name very quickly. She cocked her head a bit when she heard her name pronounced but quickly moved on. “Come with me to Mr. Eldridge’s office” she screamed, and before the adoring eyes of his gang of followers in the rear of the class Zeke Taylor followed Mrs. Countliss to the Principal’s office. The English teacher barged past the secretary and burst into Principal Eldridge’s smoky office. She quickly blurted out what had transpired, turned on her heel, and threw back over her shoulder “I will not have a student in my class who does not respect me”, slamming the door. Charles Eldridge lifted his tired watery eyes toward Zeke and said “What in the hell did you say that for?”.
“Because it’s the truth; you don’t want me to lie do you?”, Zeke said, using his best sensitive , innocent, bewildered look. “Bend over”, said Charles Eldridge, and that was Zeke Taylor’s last day in English class.
But these episodes did not spell the end of Zeke Taylor’s high school career; it was chronic truancy. Zeke just hated school but couldn’t control himself to stay in until he was sixteen, so he just quit coming and started working with Carroll Hoffer’s fence company. He loved the hard work, digging holes for the chain link fences and stretching the wire. But the truant officer did not admire Zeke’s work nearly as much, so after several sessions with his parents, and an equal number of “official warnings”, the powers that be deemed Zeke to be sent to Jackson Training School for 6 months. Jackson Training School was an assemblage of two story brick buildings just northeast of Charlotte whose state charter used the phrase “for the rehabilitation of wayward youth”. Zeke didn’t much care when he was told where he was going; his only regret was losing his job, but that fear was assuaged by his boss Carroll Hoffer’s words——-“your job will be here when you get back Zeke”. Zeke felt a lot better after hearing this promise, and actually started thinking about the stint as a “six month vacation, a new adventure”.
Zeke did his “time” and when he got out went back with Carroll Hoffer, and that was where he was working when he had his trouble and wound up in the Ranlo Prison.
Zeke jolted awake at the sound of the guard’s hourly footsteps and went back to his pondering. He knew that he had to come up with a new idea, a new direction, or he would wind up back here in the same place or worse. Then he thought about his pal Satch Smith who had shared a story with him before he had come to Ranlo and shivered at the idea he may wind up where Satch had eventually gone—- Central Prison in Raleigh.
Zeke remembered Satch telling about the event that had sent him to his longest trip away from home ever, being convicted of attempted murder. Satch had been in one of the beer joints across the Catawba River in Mecklenburg County. Satch was at “Beatty’s no. 3”, a one story brick building that had the old forties classic extended roof over the front where the gas pumps were. The Beatty Brothers had five of these gas station beer joints around, this one being run by a Beatty brother who had a missing hand, rumor being it was from an electrical accident. What happened was Satch and some linthead from the Ragan Cotton Mill had been playing pool, and the linthead accused Satch of cheating. An argument ensued and a fight and it moved out the back door of the bar to the gravel parking lot.
“That son of a bitch was huge”, Satch had told Zeke, “and he was whippin’ me purty good and I was plenty worried so I pulled out my hawkbill knife, and I had it razor sharp. I gave him three swipes and he just kept coming,” Satch had told him. “That’s when I pulled out that little .22 from my back pocket and shot him twice”.
At this juncture in the telling of the tale Satch Smith paused for a few moments. “And that’s when I vowed to never carry a sharp knife again; if it hada been rusty that fucker woulda felt it and stopped, but that knife bein’ so sharp I am satisfied he didn’t feel shit, and that’s why he just kept comin’ and why I had to shoot his linthead ass”, Satch had said.
Fortunately for Satch the linthead had survived, but on the other side of the coin Satch’s long record combined with cutting and shooting earned him six years in the Raleigh accommodations.
Zeke Taylor shuddered in his solitary cell when he thought about Satch’s fate; he knew damn well he didn’t want to go that route, but the as yet undiscovered key to avoid it was what he was desperately searching for. These thoughts dominated Zeke’s mind for his remaining time in solitary and continued to be with him until he was released.
Zeke Taylor’s long time girlfriend Pepper Boyd was waiting outside the front gate when Zeke was released. Zeke was now 20 years old and Pepper had just turned 18, being a most recent graduate of High Shoals High School. Pepper was a honey blonde with pale blue eyes, tumescent lips, and a killer figure, topped off with a very ample bosom. They had been a pair for four years—-four idyllic years, ‘cept for when Zeke Taylor had to keep her in line. Zeke did not have to administer punishment much, ‘cause Pepper was a quick study; in fact, one black eye when she was sixteen had convinced her—Pepper was IN LOVE. Zeke Taylor had got a virgin.
Pepper was wearing what Zeke had asked for the last time they had talked—push up bra, skimpy blouse with tons of cleavage, short shorts, no panties. Zeke Taylor exhibited remarkable reserve, allowing Pepper to get about fifty yards from the main gate before he told her to pull over in front of the deserted baseball field and they jumped into the back seat and screwed like the most horny maniacs in Gaston County, for that is about what they were. Six months is a long time.
After they got clothed and on the road Zeke Taylor told Pepper Boyd his new game plan, in fact the only real game plan he had ever had. It had come to him only last evening and Pepper’s eyes lit up as Zeke recounted his revelation. He filled Pepper in as they went down into the edge of South Carolina to the “Meadowbrook Supper Club”. The “Meadowbrook” had been the scene of their first date four years ago; they had burgers and beers. Of course they were under the legal drinking age of 18, being 16 and 14 respectively, but the owners of the Meadowbrook never carded anybody. “Brian and Lucille” were an affable couple in their late fifties who always seemed drunk, at least when the High Shoals High kids were there; they served anybody and had the best cheeseburgers around. Clyde Hall’s little brother walked in when he was only twelve and bought a Country Club Malt Liquor, no questions asked.
By the time the couple had arrived at the bar, ordered two long neck PBRs and two cheeseburgers Zeke had divulged the entire plan to Pepper. He had told her about how he could turn his life around, and how it had all come down to one question he had asked himself that last night in prison——–“at what point in my life did I feel the most ‘alive’ and productive, like I was doing something I was really good at, talented at”.
Pepper was listening intently; she truly worshipped Zeke Taylor and always hung on every word he said. “What was it Zeke, what did you come up with?” Pepper asked, draining the last of her PBR. Zeke’s eyes got brighter as he recounted his “defining moment” to his woman.
“You member a coupla years ago when sister Alma had her tent up around Boger City, and how Roger Hayes had gone up there and pretended to be crazy and talked gibberish in front of the crowd, and how Sister Alma ‘cured’ him in front of everybody?” Zeke asked. Pepper nodded and said “and he took you up there didn’t he?” “El correcto,” Zeke said, “and I met her before the service and showed her my spastic walk thing I do so well and she hired me on the spot to appear before her believers. And I did my crazy act and she ‘cured’ me in front of everybody. I swear, that was the most fun I ever had in my life. Well I started thinkin’ ‘bout that the other night and I also started thinking about how much fun sister Alma seemed to be having; then it came to me why everyting that day was so cool, so good——-here is a woman who has got everybody fooled, everybody conned, is having the time of her life and is making a ton of money while she does it”.
Zeke’s voice had gotten louder as he was recounting his experience to Pepper, to the point where he was almost shouting. Brian, the bar owner, even came over to check on him, lurching toward Zeke as he clumsily maneuvered his drunken ass behind the bar. “You alright Zeke?”, Brian asked. Being assured by Zeke that everything was okay the proprietor fixed himself a quick drink and stumbled away.
As Brian departed Zeke got back to the affair at hand. “I knew right then that was my calling, and I knew damn well that if I could get my shit straight I could make it work, and that is exactly what I plan on doing”, Zeke said, looking excitedly at Pepper Boyd. Pepper was excited also. “Well how ya gonna pull it off Zeke?”, she asked, pursing her pretty lips and staring at Zeke with her gorgeous eyes.
“Well I gotta think about that whole thing a little bit, ‘cause I know I can do it but I wish I had somebody to guide me a little, and of course Sister Alma is dead, shot in the forehead by that idiot Pasour Rhyne. And it sure wouldn’t do a damn bit of good to talk to Pasour Rhyne, ‘cause although he was around Sister Alma and the organization for several years I wouldn’t believe anything he said, said Zeke.
A long silence followed Zeke’s statement and then his eyes got lit up again. “Sister Alma’s boyfriend, the mayor, Polie Maxwell is still around ain’t he baby?”, Zeke asked Pepper. Pepper told him that Polie Maxwell was indeed “still around”, but his stature in the town had been considerably diminished by the negative publicity after Sister Alma had been killed. He had indeed fallen on hard times, been voted out of office and was also a victim of failing health. All of these issues combined with some severe business reversals had landed Polie Maxwell in the “County Home”, a facility for the impoverished and destitute elderly.
“My daddy goes over to see him every week, and I can get him to see if Polie Maxwell would be willing for us to come see him”, Pepper said, getting excited about the possibility of her being able to offer some help in Zeke’s ambitious idea. “Baby, that would be fantastic; talk to your daddy and let me know when we can go see him”, Zeke said. As they drank another long neck PBR, or “blue in a bottle” as they called it, their conversation turned to other things, but when Pepper dropped Zeke Taylor off at his parents’ house where he lived in a little garage apartment they agreed that she would call him the next morning after she had talked with her father, hopefully with some good news about the prospective visit to the County Home to see Polie Maxwell.
True to her word Pepper called Zeke at ten o’clock the next morning, assuring him that she had the “full story” on Polie Maxwell and she would share it with him as they rode over to the “County Home”.
Zeke hopped into the car and listened intently as Pepper Boyd told what she had learned about the besmirched mayor. “Well Zeke, you know Polie Maxwell and my daddy have always been buddies, so if anybody knows everything about Polie it is him. Like we were talking about yesterday it is no secret that Polie Maxwell has fallen on rough times, and it goes beyond reputation and finances. Daddy told me that even though Polie is only seventy years old he has severe dementia; daddy said it is very odd, ‘cause he can be very clear thinking one minute and not even know his name the next. Plus he will go off on these long ramblings about things that don’t make a lot of sense. Daddy says that Polie Maxwell has always been real smart, and at one time wanted to be a comedy writer. Guess that might explain some of his mental meanderings”, Pepper concluded. Zeke took it all in. “But we can ask him about Sister Alma, right?”, Zeke asked. “Of course”, said Pepper. “Daddy goes to see Polie every week and he says he is always talkin’ ‘bout her”.
“I remember Polie Maxwell quite well, and I think he may remember me, am purty sure he was up at Boger City at the tent when I made my ‘debut’. I also remember that he loved a drink. Let’s take a lil detour; turn down Cloninger Road and take that first right”, said Zeke’ When they got down to the end of the dirt road Zeke got out and knocked on the door of the tiny tin roofed shack in the clearing. A short grimey man came out on the front porch pulling a game left leg along with him. “Hey Baxter”, said a grinning Zeke Taylor, “ain’t this a hell of a note”. The two of them talked congenially, Zeke asking about Baxter’s leg. “Cut it with a saw, that’s why I do upholstery work now, and of course help ol’ Tom Caster out a little”, he grinned slyly. Zeke told Baxter he was goin’ to see Polie Maxwell and that he needed a quart of shine. Baxter walked back inside and immediately returned with a jar in a paper sack. “Still five dollars?”, Zeke asked, digging for his wallet. “This one’s on me”, said Baxter as he handed Zeke the goods. “Some of Oodley Creek’s finest; made it myself. And tell the Mayor hello for me. Let’s have a drink,” Baxter said, unscrewing the lid of the mason jar and taking a healthy gulp, then handing it to Zeke who followed suit. Zeke then secured the jar, said goodbye to Baxter, and hopped in beside Cinnamon. Zeke offered his woman a drink, which she quickly took and grinned at her as he said “now on to the County Home, and the secrets of the late sister Alma.”
Part 2—THE ANOINTMENT
Zeke and Pepper drove back to the Dallas Crossroads and took a right on the Cherryville highway. Only a half mile on the left was a road that meandered for 200 yards to an old nineteenth century columned two story house—–the “County Home”. They parked in the rutted gravel driveway and walked up the three steps to a wide veranda and entered the building. It was sunny outside so when they walked in it took a while for their eyes to adjust; the two of them just stood inside the door for a minute. As their eyes came around they saw a reception desk about twenty feet inside; seated behind the desk was a lady of about 65 with dyed orange hair dressed in a white uniform with a name tag pinned on her chest proclaiming her to be Vergie Post, R.N. She looked up and said “May I help you?”. The foyer they were in was large, about twenty feet square. The desk was situated in a corner, with tall double French doors flanking it. Zeke and Pepper could hear low murmurings in the background behind the doors. A stairway to the left of the desk had been permanently blocked off.
Cinnamon spoke up as they approached the desk, “Yes ma’am, we are here to see Polie Maxwell, he is a good friend of my father’s”, Pepper said, smiling her sweetest smile, then pursing her pretty lips. “Oh yes”, said Vergie Post R. N.; “just follow me”. They went behind the stodgy nurse, Zeke having been careful to kind of keep the paper sack of shine down low by his leg as Miss Post had perused them briefly before heading to the French doors. But before she reached the doors Vergie Post stopped suddenly and walked back to her desk, returning with a 12 ounce cup.
“Young man, fill up this cup and we’ll be okay,” Nurse Post said, grinning at a wide eyed Zeke Taylor. Zeke was born on a day, but “it wuddn’t yesterday”. Zeke filled her up and Vergie Post sipped on the elixir as she opened the door and led them inside. As they worked their way along the visitors saw that this bottom floor was divided into three large rooms; there was no hall, so you had to walk through one room to get to another. About every ten feet 2x4s had been installed, being attached to the floor and the ceiling, and clothes line wire had been tied to hooks that had been screwed into the lumber. The curious construction provided cubicles of approximately ten feet by ten feet in each room, a modicum of privacy being achieved by assorted blankets and bedspreads being hung on the wires. A single light bulb hanging from the ceiling provided each cubicle with 60 watts of illumination.
As Zeke and Cinnamon walked behind Miss Post they noticed the rancor of dead air and feces, not overpowering, but still very much there. They could not see in most of the areas, but a few had a blanket pulled open a bit, and some of the inhabitants were sitting on the side of their cot and others lying down. “Not so pretty, is it?”, said Vergie Post, sipping on the Oodley Creek. “Here ya go”, she said, “end of the line”. Vergie Post had stopped in front of one of the units; a loud voice was emanating from inside—“Do you believe, do you believe?”, someone was saying over and over, each time followed by a maniacal cackle.
“This is Polie’s place, but you gotta understand that he’s ‘tetched in the head’, not all the time, but plenty of the time, ”Vergie explained as she turned to leave. “Thanks for the shine, sugar,” she said to Zeke as she sauntered away sipping on her cup, giving Zeke a lurid goodbye wink.
Zeke pulled the tattered blanket on the clothes line back and he and Pepper stepped inside the little open topped cubicle. Polie Maxwell was standing in front of them a few feet away with a long boney index finger thrust toward the sky. “Mr. Maxwell, I am Pepper, Harley Boyd’s daughter, and this is my boyfriend Zeke. Could we come in and visit with you for a while?” Pepper asked, pursing her pretty pouty lips together.
“Yes children, come unto me as the children came unto Jesus. Have a seat on the cot while we chat,” Polie said , grinning widely and exposing his vanishing dentition. Pepper and Zeke sat down on the grimy rickety cot that served as Polie Maxwell’s bed. The esteemed former mayor was dressed in a tattered housecoat; it was threadbare and ragged strings hung from the worn sleeves. A colonel’s ball cap, with the “scrambled eggs” on the front, sat cocked on his head. As Zeke Taylor looked at Polie he remembered the last time he had seen him, then a fit well dressed man sporting the raven haired Sister Alma around in a brand new Buick Roadmaster. As Zeke and Pepper watched the old man they soon learned that R.N. Vergie Post’s warning about Polie’s mental meanderings was accurate.
“I was just remembering when back in 1947 I made the trip from Peru to French Polynesia. There were six of us in the craft, including Thor Heyerdahl. I gave ol’ Thor the idea to name it the ‘Kon Tiki’. It took us two days to lash that balsa wood together with jute”, the former mayor proclaimed, looking off into the distance with his watery rheumy eyes. “Yep, it was a hell of a thing”.
Pepper leaned over and whispered into Zeke’s ear “who is this Thor guy?”.
“I think it’s some Norse god who hurls thunderbolts, but ain’t sure baby. Damn, the nurse wuddn’t lying about ol’ Polie wuz she”? Zeke said. As they watched Polie Maxwell they saw his eyes change; the distant look left them and they seemed to clear a bit. He sat down on a straight-backed chair. “Now what has brought you kids here today?”, he asked, looking at the two of them.
“Well Mayor Maxwell, I don’t know if you ‘member me or not but I met you up at Boger City years ago at one of Sister Alma’s revivals. I was one of them that she ‘cured’ that afternoon, along with Roger Hayes,” Zeke said, looking intently at Polie. Polie’s eyes brightened at the mention of Sister Alma. “Oh yes, I do remember you—quite an act you had; how about doing that spastic twitching thing you did for her, just for old times sake.” Without hesitation Zeke got up and lurched around the little cubicle, twitching his ass off.
“Yep”, said Polie, laughing and slapping his knee. “That was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, and that other boy was purty good too. What did you say his name was?”.
“Roger Hayes,” replied Zeke.
“Sure, sure, I remember now, he was the boy that had the encounter with the watermelon up behind the drugstore one hot summer day”, said Polie. “I remember it all now.”
Zeke was amazed at how Polie Maxwell’s mind could change gears, going from nonsense to crystal clarity. He figgered he would be there a while and would have to guide Polie Maxwell back to where he wanted him to go—to talk about Sister Alma. So Zeke gave it another try. “Mr. Maxwell, I came here today to see you because I want to be an evangelist, like Sister Alma was, and I am satisfied you knew her better than anybody, so I want to see if you can give me some insight into how sister Alma’s mind worked, what made her so good, so persuasive, and how she could get people to believe in her,” said Zeke. He hesitated to stop talking, fearing that Polie would go off on another nutty tirade, but Zeke had just run out of breath. His fears were quite justified.
As soon as Zeke Taylor paused in his entreaty Polie Maxwell jumped up from the straight-backed chair, his eyes blazing, thrusting his boney right index finger skyward. “By God, you wanta know about Sister Alma, I’m gonna tell you about Sister Alma. She was the most beautiful and wild seductress ever to grace the bed of Polie Maxwell, and God Damn it I have had a plenty. She was the Exalted and Grand Cuntress of the land of Cunnilingua, and I was the King. She sat on her royal throne in the capital of Cunnilingua, the imperial city of Clitoria,” Polie said, his eyes blazing wildly.
Zeke and Cinnamon looked at each other quizzically as Polie paused for a moment. “What is this country Cunnilingua?” Pepper asked Zeke. Zeke shrugged his shoulders and offered “ I think it is somewhere in Europe , maybe ‘round Lithuania.”
Zeke took the opportunity of Polie Maxwell’s momentary silence to try to get him back on topic.
“Mr. Maxwell,” he said, “I know Sister Alma could almost hypnotize a crowd—and some say she did—-and I know she had her beauty, and I know I ain’t got none of that, but I swear I am sure I can be an evangelist, the same way Sister Alma was. I just need the insight and advice of the man who knew her best.”
Polie Maxwell got up from the chair where he had rested while Zeke had his say and raised his eyes toward the ceiling and put his long arms in front of him and beckoned to Zeke Taylor. “Come to me, my son,” Polie said, looking hard at Zeke. Zeke cautiously walked the few steps to where Polie Maxwell stood in his Colonel’s cap with the scrambled eggs and his threadbare housecoat.
“Kneel down in front of me,” Polie said, and when Zeke hesitated shouted “NOW”. Zeke immediately fell to his knees and Polie quickly reached into his pocket and placed something in his palm. “I now pronounce you to be The Prophet Ezekiel, and the right and true successor to Sister Alma,” he said, and at that point placed his hand on Zeke Taylor’s bowed head. Zeke jumped, quivered, and fell to the floor, as Polie Maxwell hollered and guffawed, slapping his knees. Pepper rushed to the fallen Zeke and helped him to his knees and then back over to the cot. The couple sat silently while Zeke recovered and listened to Polie talk.
“Ya see this thang,” he said holding out a flat round object in his palm about the size of a fifty-cent piece. “It’s got a battery in it and will give out a purty good lil electrical charge, as you just felt Zeke. Sister Alma used it all the time and it brought many a sinner to Jesus.”
Zeke was shaking his head and looking at Polie. “What was that all about Mr. Maxwell,” he asked, still trying to figger out what had happened. “What is all this about making me the successor to Sister Alma—I am confused?”
“Well son,” Polie said, “when you started talking about how you wanted to be an evangelist, and when I remembered how you performed up there at Boger City with Sister Alma, I realized that you were serious and that you had what it took to do it.” Polie had sat down in his chair and was smiling at Zeke and Cinnamon. “You know I have a lot of time on my hands in here, and I can’t tell you how many times I have read the Bible, and with Zeke’s name being what it is, it reminded me of a passage in the second chapter of the Book of Ezekiel, verse 5: “And they , whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, (for they are a rebellious house) yet shall know that there hath been a prophet among them.”
Polie Maxwell paused and looked at the shaken Zeke Taylor, really looked at him hard, but with a reassuring look on his haggard face. “I just needed to get your attention, Ezekiel. A good ol’ electrical zap will do it every time, least that’s what Sister Alma always said. Let me tell you a story ‘bout this little buzzer. Back years ago when the ardent religious fathers of Dallas had built Sister Alma a ‘tabernacle’ down around the Court Square she would hold healing services every Saturday night, just like that one you were in at Boger City”, Polie said, looking dead at Zeke with the penetrating stare he was capable of employing.
“Well it was rumored that Joe Clemmer, or Uncle Joe as he was commonly known, was gonna show up this particular night. The place was packed, ‘cause Uncle Joe was purty much an icon around there, very well respected, and had always claimed that Sister Alma was a fake. Seems that Uncle Joe had a terrible case of arthritis in the back; in fact it was so bad that he walked all bent over. So as the rumor spread that he was coming for the ‘cure’ it of course caused quite a stir around town. I remember the whole night like it was yesterday. Sister Alma had delayed the healing service for a bit, hoping that Uncle Joe was really gonna show, ‘cause she knew if she could do something with him she would have everybody in her back pocket. To kill time she got Chief Usher Buford and his assistants to take up a ‘love offering’—–she felt okay about doing this ‘cause it had been a good three months since the last one. Alma always cautioned about appearing greedy; four love offerings a year was her limit. Anyway, the love offering had been taken up and dumped in the tin tub at the front of the stage. I remember very well the last usher to empty his plate; it was Pasour Rhyne, the crazy son of a bitch that killed my beloved Alma—may he rot in hell”.
Zeke, who had pretty much recovered from his “shock”, and Pepper had been listening intently to Polie Maxwell and were taken aback when he raised his voice in condemning Pasour Rhyne. As they watched the former mayor they saw him get that wild and crazy look in his eyes again. They figgered something was comin’.
Polie Maxwell rose quickly from his straight backed chair and stood bolt upright. He reached into his tattered housecoat and pulled something out, quickly applying it to his upper lip. Polie turned away and then faced Zeke and Pepper quickly, grinning congenially; he was sporting a small mustache.
“Now contestants”, he said , doing his best Alex Trebek inpersonation, “the next category is rhyme time. The $200.00 answer is ‘Fallacious Fellator’. Polie looked at them expectantly and then said “and the question is what is a lying cocksucker?” Polie heehawed and pranced around the tiny cubicle as Zeke Taylor and Cinnamon Boylan stared at each other. After a bit Pepper remembered something her Daddy had told her and leaned closely to Zeke’s ear; “Daddy said he is a big jeopardy fan,” she said. They sat watching Polie pull off and re-apply the mustache. “Now you see it, now you don’t,” Polie said. Zeke looked quizzically at Pepper; Pepper, a frequent watcher of Jeopardy herself, explained that Alex Trebek went back and forth on having a mustache and shaving it off. The couple sat in silence, Zeke figgering that ol’ Polie would have a “clear spell” eventually. After a minute Polie looked at Zeke and said “You are now The Prophet Ezekiel, and that is the name you are to go by from this day forward and if you want my help I am going to tell you the secret of being a successful evangelist”.
Zeke and Cinnamon looked at Polie Maxwell curiously; his eyes had cleared up again, and he was back to his old self. “The secret is sex, hot assed sex appeal, and Zeke, you are a good looking boy and a charmer, and you can pull it off—you will have the women falling all over you and opening up their pocketbooks, and ‘bout anything else they got,” Polie said, grinning knowingly at Zeke. But you need a counterpart to entice the men, and she is sittin’ right beside you.”
Zeke and Pepper stared at each other for a good thirty seconds before they truly realized what Polie Maxwell was saying. Neither of them had ever thought for a minute that Pepper would be involved in the evangelistic endeavor. Finally Zeke broke the silence, looking at the paternalistic former mayor—at least that was the way he was acting at the time.
“Mayor Maxwell, you mean you think Pepper ought to be on the stage with me, preaching and everything?” a slightly confused Zeke asked Polie Maxwell. “Yes son,” Polie replied, his demeanor now becoming absolutely beatific. “Pepper is a smart girl so she could pick up on what to do. She might not have that innate showmanship talent you have but I am sure those behaviors can be learned. And of course her physical attributes are apparent and abundant.” At this Pepper giggled , then pursed those pouty lips, batted her eyelashes and said “Well I guess you might maybe be right about that Mayor Maxwell,” grinning at Polie and thrusting her shoulders back. “34 double D?” Polie queried, giggling at his own naughtiness. “Ya know Alma was a double D; my God they were fantastic!” Polie’s eyes clouded over for a moment and Zeke thought maybe he was gonna go nuts again, but they cleared up quickly as Polie offered “I’ll tell you Ezekiel, you get the one-two punch of y’all workin, and you would be hard to beat. I know I am right; Alma knew that being by herself limited her somewhat, and one time she even tried to get me on the stage but I just couldn’t do it. I been in politics most of my life, and I got no problem talking to a crowd, but all this faith healin’ and praying and everything, I just couldn’t get into it but the two of you could pull it off. Ya just need to get Pepper some long, slinky dresses with a split up the side and a plunging neck line to show them things off and the two of you will be unbeatable.”
Zeke sat contemplating this new wrinkle of Pepper sort of being a partner; at first he didn’t quite know what to think, but the more he sat there and thought about it the more he liked it. Pepper was also in a contemplative mood; she was thinking about the only time she had ever seen Sister Alma in action. It happened when she was sixteen years old and was riding around one night with of a couple of girlfriends drinking beer when they happened to ride by Sister Alma’s “Tabernacle” and on a whim went inside to see what was going on. Pepper remembered seeing the gorgeous, raven haired, bosomy beauty prancing around on the stage in a red sequined tight fitting dress that went to the floor but had a slit up the left side all the way to between her knee and her hip. Pepper recalled how Sister Alma would bound about on the stage, and how her tethered breasts would bounce. She thought about her own endowment, looking down at them, and at that point came to the realization that she could pull it off.
Zeke looked at Cinnamon and gave her his sneaky, sly wink that had made her fall in love and in bed with him when she was only sixteen. “Whaddaya think baby?”, he said, grinning at his woman. “In for a penny, in for a friggin’ kilogram,” she said, smiling the beautiful smile with the tumescent lips framing the perfect teeth. Zeke grabbed Cinnamon’s hand and together they stood; Polie Maxwell stood also and gave both of them a big hug, smiling broadly and placing a hand on each of their heads. Then he solemnly pronounced “Go and sin no more.” Ezekiel and Pepper pulled back the blanket hanging on the wire and exited the cubicle; the last words they heard from Polie Maxwell were “and if you truly believe in the theory of relativity and couch that theory in the space and time continuum”…………. Polie Maxwell’s voice trailed off as they headed out of the large room and passed through the French doors into the vestibule where Vergie Post, R. N., was sitting behind her desk. They stopped there and The Prophet opened the Oodley and filled her cup, placing his hand on her orange hair and saying “Go and sin no more.” Vergie took a long drink, smiled, and said “fat fuckin’ chance of that sugar.”
Six months had passed since The Prophet Ezekiel and Pepper had visited the former mayor Polie Maxwell at the County Home, and it had been two months since they had attended his simple funeral service out at Philadelphia Church, the Lutheran church outside of town where Polie Maxwell had sometimes attended Although his lifestyle typically precluded his being an early riser on Sundays, he was still on the books as a member and entitled to a plot in the large cemetery adjacent to the little country church. The circumstances of the late Mayor’s demise were not widely known, but a trip by the Prophet Ezekiel when he brought along a quart of fresh Oodley Creek greased the wheels and tongue of Nurse Vergie Post and halfway through the second cup of the refreshing elixir The Prophet Ezekiel had the story.
The two of them were in the anteroom at the County Home where Vergie’s desk was; she propped her chubby legs covered with the white stockings up on the desk, grinning at The Prophet as he quickly noted that the Registered Nurse had not bothered to don any underwear. The Prophet quickly averted his eyes and Vergie told the story.
“Well the Mayor was having a really boisterous day—had never seen him so wild. I had gone into his area three times in as many hours to try to quiet him down, but it didn’t seem to do any good. Then on in the afternoon after I had returned from lunch one of the attendants came to me and said that Polie Maxwell was missing, that they had looked all over and could not find him. We continued to search the place and then I noticed that in my absence the locked door that shut off the stairway had been pried open. About that time we heard a big commotion out in the room, the one where Polie’s cubicle was. When we got out there everybody was kinda looking up toward the ceiling. The barricaded stairway led to an open walkway, kind of like you would see in the old westerns in the saloons; there was a railing but it was open above, with a carved post about every ten feet. Rooms that were not used anymore led off the walkway. Perched up on the railing was Polie Maxwell, naked as a jaybird except for his tattered colonel’s cap with the scrambled eggs on the front. He was hollerin’ and laughin’ and shoutin’ some nonsense about his buddy Charles A. Lindbergh and ‘bout how ’The Spirit of Saint Louis’ was about to enter. Polie was hanging on to the post, still balancing on the top of the rail when he lifted his wild eyes toward the ceiling and shouted ‘In comes one spirit and out goes another’, and with that pitched headlong off the railing and landed on the floor. Luckily he did not hit anyone else, but he was quite dead, his broken neck almost completely turned around from the front of his body, but his wild crazy eyes remaining fully open.”
The six months since Zeke, or The Prophet Ezekiel as he was now known, and Pepper had visited the late mayor had been pretty active. The first thing Zeke Taylor did was legally change his name to “The Prophet Ezekiel.” When Zeke had decided to do this he went to see the attorney who had represented him several times, Perry Markis, and got some advice. He found out that it was a pretty simple procedure, not even requiring an attorney, and out of the goodness of his heart Perry Markis gave Zeke the lowdown on how to proceed. Barrister Markis was known to do a lot of pro bono work like this; unfortunately, many times the situation didn’t start out being pro bono, it just wound up that way after the local riffraff wouldn’t pay up. Anyway, Perry Markis told Zeke to “submit a written application, stating your current name, place of birth and residence, as well at the name you would like to adopt and the reason why you are seeking to change your name.” Perry told him to sign and date the document and file it with the Clerk of Court, paying the fee at the time of filing. Then all one had to do was wait to be notified of a hearing date, attend the hearing, and answer any questions that the Judge may have for him. Perry explained that these hearings were typically routine and that it was rare for a judge to have a question; however, when Judge Rockford W. Bulwinkle read the legal name change request before him on the day of Zeke Taylor’s hearing he could not help being a bit curious. Judge Bulwinkle had been on the bench for over thirty years and in that time had presided over a handful of name change petitions, usually having to do with adoptions and such mundane activities, but he had never seen anything quite like the request before him that afternoon in The Gaston County Court House. To add a little further spice in the situation Zeke Taylor had appeared before His Honor several times for a range of infractions; in fact, Judge Bulwinkle was the one who had sentenced Zeke to six months less than a year ago.
“Mr. Taylor”, the Judge boomed, looking over the top of his little reading glasses, a favorite act of intimidation adopted by many of his ilk, “Why is it that you want to change your name to ‘The Prophet Ezekiel?” Zeke calmly stood up and told Judge Bulwinkle how his time in prison had changed his life and that he had decided that he wanted to be an evangelist, that he knew it would be his life’s work, and that his wife, Pepper, was going to assist him in the endeavor. As usual, once Zeke got to talking he would get on a roll, the momentum building, and before you knew it Zeke’s eyes had teared up and he had confessed to Judge Bulwinkle that he owed him a considerable debt for sending him away. “Your honor, I wanta thank you for doin’ what you did, for I was indeed on the wrong path, and my time in prison allowed me to examine myself like never before, and thus come to realize my true destiny.” Having heard that Judge Bulwinkle grinned wryly, shook his head, and pronounced “Petition is approved”.
The Prophet Ezekiel then thanked the Judge, the Prophet’s request to have a word of prayer falling by the wayside as Judge Bulwinkle quickly exited the courtroom, still shaking his head.
Choking back a little disappointment at not being able to lead the courtroom in communication with God, The Prophet Ezekiel quickly recovered, picked up his bona fide legal paperwork and headed home to Pepper Boyd and their single wide trailer that her father had set them up in a few months before they had tied the knot. The Prophet Ezekiel and his woman had never really talked seriously about getting married, but after the meeting with Polie Maxwell and the evangelical decision they began to discuss it and decided that if they were going to present themselves in a proper light they had better get legit. So it came to pass that the couple came to be united in holy matrimony in Pepper’s parents’ back yard one Sunday afternoon. It was a small affair, the two of them agreeing to each invite a couple of friends and leave it at that. The Prophet Ezekiel invited Woodrow Royal, an old run around friend of his and Steve Hall, a fellow he had known since young childhood. Cinnamon invited Elly Brinkman, who had grown up next door to her, and Montana Morton, her best friend in high school. Elly Brinkman was known as the “Widder Brinkman” around town, although she was not yet twenty years old. She had received the moniker because she had refused to even date any guy ever since her husband Dickie had died on the night of their wedding. The nuptials had been prompted by a late period, a diagnosis of pregnancy, a quick visit by her father to her boyfriend Dickie Brinkman’s house, a discussion with him and his parents, and a very quick wedding, like the next day. So after Elly’s Daddy’s visit, and his proclamation that he was sporting a “.32 caliber pistol in the back pocket of my overalls” all of the Brinkman clan quickly agreed that a matrimonial union was the way to go. The elder Brinkman was a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church over around Harden and he was able to secure the church the next afternoon, which fortuitously was a Sunday. The minister of the church was on vacation and this put the group into a panic until someone remembered that the local high school had hired a new teacher and that he was an ordained minister, albeit in the the Baptist Church. Under the extreme circumstances this variation was “overlooked”, and the Right Reverend Tom Boonewas called late Saturday afternoon and after some nominal dickering agreed to perform the service for fifteen dollars. The Reverend Boone had just been hired as a physical education teacher, his large belly and bulbous ass making it hard to believe he had ever done the first pushup; moreover, the popular football coach having left for the big time in a 4A conference and no one else willing to assume the gridiron reins, Tom Boone was offered the job of head football coach. He accepted right away, the extra money looking pretty good since he had just managed to impregnate his “Olive Oyl” lookalike wife. “Thank God for those hormone shots you took”, his wife had exclaimed to Tom. Tom Boone had never coached football in his life; Tom Boone had never played football in his life.
Tom Boone’s ministerial career had gotten off to a less than enthusiastic welcome from the local populace. He had substituted at several Baptist churches the past summer when the regular ministers were on vacation. The flocks had a little difficulty getting accustomed to his strange vocal inflections; the Reverend Boone had a naturally high squeaky voice in normal speech but when he would lead them in prayer he would switch gears, a basso profundo boom emanating from his chubby jowls—it was sorta like going from Mickey Mouse to George Beverly Shea at warp speed.
As the small group gathered in the Boyd backyard that afternoon there was a less than exciting air about. Woodrow Royal had already pinched the Widder Brinkman on her ample ass and had been rewarded with a hard slap. The Widder had pretty much soured on life in general, never being able to get past the death of her husband on their wedding day. After the ceremony the couple had retired to the T&M Motel, up on the hill behind Tommy’s Drive In. Tommy’s was known for delicious sliced BBQs and thick milkshakes; the T&M was known for cheap rates and the availability of prostitutes. It was what the young couple could afford, and after they went in their room and got settled, Elly putting on her new black negligee, Dickie decided he would run out to Don Moose’s to get a coupla half pints of liquor. Don Moose had a single wide trailer out past Philadelphia Lutheran Church, and he sold a variety of alcohol which he bought legally in South Carolina and then re-sold illegally out of his trailer. It was obvious where the half pints came from, for Gaston County was dry and you could not buy half pints anywhere in North Carolina. So instead of going to Charlotte to buy his supplies, Mr. Moose went across the border to Clover, South Carolina, the half pints being a most popular size. Don Moose did a brisk business, especially in the underage male category. The half pints sold very well, Bourbon De Luxe and Popov vodka being the most popular. As Dickie Brinkman, excited newlywed, made his way down Philadelphia Church Road to the bootlegger he was trying to decide which one he wanted, the Bourbon or the Vodka, but once he got inside the trailer and saw the glistening bottles he decided to get one of each, figgering he would kill one of them on the ride back to the T&M.
Dickie Brinkman carried the two bags out to his Kelly Green Mach 1 Mustang and tore out of the rutted driveway, unscrewing the top of the Popov Vodka bottle. Dickie loved to drive fast, and loved to drink fast, and was purty good at both. Two miles down the road the empty Popov bottle was lying in the passenger seat and the Mach 1 was doin’ 110. At least that’s what the N. C. Highway Patrolman estimated his speed when he hit the side of the steel bridge spanning the South Fork River and went airborne, hitting a venerable oak about fifteen feet up before falling back to earth and rolling into the river. So the newlywed widow never got over it and turned bitter and sad—thus Woodrow Royal’s ringing cheeks.
It was time for the wedding and everyone was there except the preacher. Money being a bit tight The Prophet Ezekiel had secured the services of the Reverend Tom Boone, still the cheapest around although inflation had elevated his fee to $20.00. Finally the Reverend motivated his bulbous ass into the Boyd back yard, motioning The Prophet Ezekiel to stand aside for a moment. Once they were alone the Reverend explained that he now required payment in advance, having been burned by the wedding of Dickie brinkman and the very Widder who was standing nearby. Dickie had promised Reverend Boone to bring him the $15.00 the next day, that appointment having been interrupted by the southeast corner of the South Fork River bridge. “One never knows, do one”, Reverend Boone said to The Prophet Ezekiel as he grinned and licked his thick lips, quickly tucking the twenty dollar bill in his size 44 pants pocket.
Reverend Tom Boone began the service, using his normal squeaky Mickey Mouse voice, until the very end, when he called the group to prayer with his deep bass roll, sounding a bit more like a bullfrog than George Beverly Shea. “Dear Eternal Father, giver of all life, to you and your risen son Jesus Christ we offer up our prayers for this young couple, Pepper boyd and The Prophet Ezekiel.”
“The Prophet Ezekiel was watching the Reverend Tom Boone closely, and could almost swear that he saw a little derisive eye roll when the Reverend said the words “The Prophet Ezekiel,” but the former Zeke Taylor had never liked the son of a bitch anyway, so since he couldn’t tell for sure he just let it go Eventually “Froggy Shea” finished, the crowd dispersed, and The Prophet Ezekiel took a quick honeymoon trip to Carolina Beach with his bride, returning the next afternoon—-The Prophet Ezekiel had a lot of work to do.
Since the pivotal meeting with the late Polie Maxwell and the advice that he had imparted to Zeke Taylor and Pepper Boyd, both of the aspiring evangelists had been very busy. After they had left the County home that afternoon Zeke and Pepper had headed to The Meadowbrook Supper Club, where they had gone when Zeke had got out of prison. It was a comfortable place to talk and the food was as good as ever, so they got cheeseburgers and long necked “Blues in a Bottle” and set to planning. It was at this point that Zeke had divulged to Pepper his idea of legally changing his name to “The Prophet Ezekiel”. He also clued Cinnamon in to the plan he had for her, which had been suggested by Polie Maxwell. Zeke Taylor had put a lot of stock into what Polie had told them, and as crazy as he could be Zeke believed that Polie Maxwell was onto something. Polie’s idea that Pepper accompany “The Prophet Ezekiel” in the evangelical endeavor was intriguing to Zeke Taylor and he was very excited about patterning Pepper after the late Sister Alma. “It will work, sugarpie, trust me on this. After we get rolling people will start remembering her because you will remind them of her, at least physically. I know you are not a big talker like I am, but early on you can be more of an ‘eye candy’ attraction. We’ll get you some slinky long dresses with a slit up the thigh and you can play that role until you get more comfortable with the program. Then you can start preaching a little; I know we can make it work.”
As usual Pepper had fallen in lockstep with Zeke’s idea, and for the six months since the County Home visit she had very willingly gone along with Zeke’s leadership, from the legal name change, to the first purchase of an appropriate gown for Pepper; additionally, the newly named “The Prophet Ezekiel” had tied six bed sheets together and suspended them about eight feet in the air in the back yard, supported by saplings The Prophet had cut out of the woods behind their trailer. The Prophet was working every day, really hard, but he spent a couple of hours every night in his “tent”, reading the Bible out loud, shouting out phrases like “Can you feel the spirit,” “Are you gonna let him in your heart,” and “Get down on your knees and pray to God and Jesus Christ to loose the demons from your soul so that you can truly be saved and have everlasting life, which your Lord and Savior died on the cross to give you.”
The Prophet Ezekiel, being the natural showman that he was (as recognized and proclaimed by the late Polie Maxwell), purty much fed on himself during these monologues; he paid attention to the timbre of his voice, and having watched plenty of Sunday morning preachers on television and having heard Sister Alma in person, he had a plethora to emulate and draw from. The Prophet had also grown up listening to the small local radio stations; every Sunday in the a.m. WGAS, “the flagship station of Gaston County,” would turn over its 20,000 watt broadcaster to a bunch of Free Will Baptists from Bessemer City, and The Prophet would tune them in religiously. The Prophet Ezekiel, then known as Zeke Taylor, would really get off on the ministers; he called them “wheezers.” The Prophet really liked their very predictable cadence; he didn’t give a shit about the message, but he got a kick out of the way they delivered it. His favorite by far was Zeno Carpenter, a farmer by trade who hailed from up near Bethel Church. The Prophet had actually met Zeno Carpenter and thought of him as a regular little humble dirt farmer, until he heard his ass on the radio. Zeno had the best and most vibrant voice of the WGAS guest preachers, and his delivery went something like this———-“And you know Jesus loves you, and he is watching over you, and he died for your sins, and there is no hope for you without him, and he died on the cross, and his body was mutilated, and they put him in the tomb, and then they found the rock rolled away, and he was gone, and he was ascended to heaven to forever be on the right hand of the Lord”, and on and on and on and on and on and on and on.
The Prophet called then “wheezers” because every one of them would get into that rhythm and take a huge breath before each phrase, expending so much energy during each recitation that they would have to take another huge breath for the next phrase; their intake of air was so pronounced that it actually sounded like a wheeze, and thus The Prophet’s name for them.
But Zeno Carpenter was the “Wheezer King” and The Prophet hung on his every word and even mimicked Zeno when he was out drinking beer and smoking dope with his buddies when he was a teenager.
The Prophet Ezekiel felt like he had pretty fertile ministerial soil to help him cultivate his nascent evangelism; he had also been working on his praying technique. He had seen and heard many a mediocre sermon saved by a whiz bang ending prayer, so The Prophet paid a lot of attention to this. The Prophet also was tuned in to the necessity of being flexible in delivery and style of praying and knowing when to be benign and when to “call on the Everlasting and Abundant Spirit of Jesus Christ, Our Savior, who bled and died on the cross to save us sorry people, so that we can be in heaven in the by and by.”
The Prophet Ezekiel had written down what he considered “a purty good attempt” at a sort of prayer that one might offer at a gathering of friends or family——the kind of situation where you really did not want to sound too “churchified.” It went like this: “Whether by design or happenstance we are gathered here today. If a supreme being has sheltered us from harm over the last year, more power to Him or Her and we pay homage to He, She, or It. If that not be the case, then we are no worse for the wear, for in reality most of us have no clue as to why we are here and what we are destined to do. But I have faith in the following; we are a group who have love and respect for each other, enjoy each other’s company, and so look forward to seeing each other. To this let us raise our glasses. Salud.”
The Prophet had practiced this prayer a lot out under his sheet tabernacle, and had even used it a couple of times in live settings, and had gotten good reviews. At one gathering where a dog had chased a beloved cat up a tree The Prophet had customized his benign prayer. The gathering was a group of about twenty friends and neighbors and all was going well until the hostess’ grey tabby, Carlton, escaped the house and was chased up a tree by a mixed breed dog named Batman. Carlton the cat was no foreigner to adversity, being a rescue kitty from the mean streets of Orange County, so he knew what to do, the end result being his watching Batman and the gathered crowd from thirty feet up a tulip magnolia tree. The hostess’ sister didn’t help a lot, offering “well I’ve always heard that cats can climb up okay but they have a lot of trouble getting down.” Then someone else chimed in with “Yep, Cindy’s cat stayed up in a tree for three days.” Fortunately the panic stricken owner, a nice retired lady named Roberta, was out of earshot and was spared these dire predictions, and ol’ Carlton decided to come down after only an hour and a half. Well it was getting close to meal time and The Prophet Ezekiel knew that he would be called upon for the blessing, so he decided to “personalize” it a bit and vary his typical generic offering. So when the time came he began plastering his best attempt at a beatific smile on his handsome face and proceeded: “What a wonderful occasion we have today, this gathering of friends, lovers, and family. (His mention of lovers drew a titter from some of the couples who lived together without being married.) As we look about this room (his head rotating as he spoke these words) we realize the abundance of love and respect we share with each other. And finally, I would like to recite a few time honored phrases that I feel appropriate—-Home is the hunter, home from the hill, and the sailor home from the sea”—-(at this point he paused for a good ten seconds, long enough for people to start looking around at each other, wondering about this odd blessing) but then with what The Prophet felt was perfect timing he added “And Carlton the Cat, thank God, is down from the tree.” The Prophet Ezekiel received the response he was looking for, as the entire group erupted in raucous laughter, Roberta laughing the loudest as she cuddled her beloved Carlton.
But although The Prophet was extremely busy practicing prayers and sermon ideas in his tent tabernacle he did not forget the people he had met in prison, some of whom he had become pretty good friends with. He had kept a letter from one of them, a guy named Mikey, that he had received around Christmas after The Prophet had been released. The Prophet had sent Mikey ten dollars for spending money in the prison canteen, and The Prophet had received the following letter: “Hello to my family of friends! Thank you for all you have did for me over the past few years. And a special thanks to the one that has got you all together, doing the wonderful things you all have did for me! I’m blessed to have friend’s like you. The card state’s friend but no, it is FRIENDS! Marry Christmas.”
The Prophet Ezekiel always smiled when he read this letter from Mikey; it made him realize a couple of things; one was that no matter what people had done and how they had wound up they were still human beings and usually would respond well to a little affection and a few bucks, and the other was that Mikey could have stood a little overtime in English class. But The Prophet understood all of this, and even forgave Mikey for sending him a generic letter instead of personalizing it. Mikey had bigger worries, not being eligible for parole for ten years being one of them.
The Prophet also had gotten to where he would fantasize about potential events and how he would handle them, all of these ideas revolving around the time when The Prophet Ezekiel would launch his evangelistic ship. One of these recurring notions involved the Honorable Judge Bulwinkle, the very one who had sentenced The Prophet to prison and had then recently granted him his change of moniker. The Prophet could hold a grudge, and the fact that the Judge had departed the courtroom so abruptly, forestalling the Prophet’s attempt at prayer, had, to put it mildly, stuck in The Prophet Ezekiel’s evangelistic craw. The fantasy was the Judge Bulwinkle would have passed away, and The Prophet would be at his funeral at Christ Episcopal Church, the closest thing to a blue blood country club church that Gastonia had to offer. The eulogy would have been delivered and the attending Rector, although it was not usually done in the Episcopal Church, would have decided that because of the beloved Judge’s stature in the community that he would invite people to stand up and say something about Judge Bulwinkle. Rector William Doub Stinnett would have realized he was taking a little bit of a chance, this type of “communal eulogizing” being more common in a Methodist or Baptist venue, but would have decided to do it anyway. Rector Stinnett would even have thought that it might have a bit of entertainment value, but he would never have admitted that to anyone.
So it came to pass that The Prophet Ezekiel went over this imagined scenario in his mind endlessly and came up with what he felt like would be the perfect eulogy to be delivered if such an eventuality occurred. The Prophet knew exactly what he would do—-he would wait patiently while some of the town fathers spoke grandiloquently of the late Judge Bulwinkle and then he would get the attention of Rector Stinnett and be recognized. First he would stand and look all around the large sanctuary, making eye contact with as many luminaries as possible and then begin to speak.
“Most Revered and Right Rector Stinnett, I thank you from the bottom of my most grateful heart to have this opportunity to speak of our dear departed Judge Rockford Bulwinkle. For those of you who may not know me I am The Prophet Ezekiel, formerly known as Zeke Taylor, but I have shed that name, as a snake sheds its skin, and am now legally The Prophet Ezekiel, our honored departed Judge having presided over the legal procedure. And I am here to tell you of the wisdom of our departed friend, for he played such an important part in my life”. At this point The Prophet imagined that he would again look around at the gathered mourners, nodding and smiling at everyone, but paying special attention to the city powers. Then having assured himself that he most certainly had their undivided attention, he would continue.
“I am satisfied that many of you do not know of me, having never heard of me, but I will tell you one man who knew me, and that would be Judge Rockford Bulwinkle. And he may have known me better than any other man, or maybe I just think so because he had such an influence over me. Please indulge me for a few moments as I relate this story to you”. The Prophet would pause and look over the mourning crowd, numbering at least two hundred. He could tell that his request was indeed rhetorical, for he definitely had their attention.
“Now, my people”, he began. The Prophet Ezekiel totally knew he was going way out on a limb using this verbage, but he had a feeling, and when he got a feeling, the showman came to the forefront and he decided to let it roll. “Let me tell you what our dear departed Judge Bulwinkle did for me, how he saved me, from MYSELF, and how he essentially performed a miracle for this poor lil ol’ country boy from Dallas, North Carolina, zip code 28034. As The Prophet spoke these words he would look around and see that he was making inroads, his dark tan and perfect dentition being a definite plus, for as he surveyed the crowd he could see that the females were riveted on his presence, and many were smiling adoringly.
“Yes, people, I have not been a paradigm of virtue in my life time, this I freely admit. And I have had some scrapes with the authorities, and I will tell you that I appeared before our passed brother Judge on several occasions, and I can elaborate and tell you this—-the Honorable Judge Rockford Bulwinkle ALWAYS, ALWAYS, treated me fairly, and went out of his way to do so”.
As The Prophet repeated ALWAYS twice he would raise his voice to nearly a shout, disturbing the dozing Hub Carpenter on the back aisle. Hub Carpenter would respond with a loud “Amen”, which he always did when roused from a nap. Hub’s enjoinder would be quickly responded to by The Prophet; “Yes brother, say it again”, he would say, to which Hub would shout back “Amen,” even louder, and The Prophet would notice more than a few of the adoring females joining in with a murmur of “amens.” As The Prophet’s eyes would roam the parishioners he would see some of the men starting to nod in agreement. The Prophet Ezekiel knew that this was a huge inroad, for he would be well aware of how staid and conservative this Episcopalian bunch tended to be.
But The Prophet’s eyes would not be the only set scanning the group; Rector William Doub Stinnett would have picked up on the building excitement. Although the good Rector faithfully delivered the kind of benign pabulum characteristic of the Episcopalians, what with all of their readings and Pseudo-Catholic raiment, the Rector did appreciate a good show, and he would feel like he was getting ready to witness one. The tune “Can I get a witness, can I get a witness” would be dancing through his head, this mood being enhanced by the two Double Scotches he downed back in his office just prior to the service. “Oh well,” he would think to himself, “as the old axiom goes, if you find four Episcopalians gathered you are sure to find a fifth.” He would actually chuckle when he thought these words, but would quickly recover and put his gaze back on The Prophet.
“And I can also tell you this, brothers and sisters, the Late Departed Honorable Judge Bulwinkle gave me a new lease on life, and an insight into my destiny, and if you will allow me I will share this story with you”. At this moment The Prophet would pause, purposely, and look around the sanctuary, observing with great pleasure the nods of assurance. The Prophet would continue.
“The beginning of the defining period of my life occurred when he Judge sentenced me to six months in prison, and I am her to tell you it could easily have been twice that much if not for his well known leniency.” The Prophet, in his fantasy, would then recount his time in prison, his “moment of truth” in solitary, and his aspirations, telling the group that he would soon be on the evangelical landscape and to watch out for him “cause I got something to say.” Then as his imaginings came to a close the sanctuary would be filled with “amens” and “God bless yous” and the Right Rector would have a bit of an envious and concerned look on his face.
The Prophet Ezekiel practiced all of his prayers and evangelical “shout outs” and fantasy speeches endlessly in his tent tabernacle. On occasion he would pretend that the small trees outside the tent in his back yard were “the faithful”, and would point at them and exhort them to “come clean to Jesus Christ and the Glorious Gospel and let The Prophet Ezekiel be the Holy Vessel through which you are cleansed and sanctified.”
Eventually he brought Pepper within the fold of his Tent Tabernacle. The Prophet had her dress up in her new slinky dress with red sequins and a long slit up the side of her left leg that ended halfway up her thigh. The beautiful dress was complemented by her gorgeous “blasting blue” eyes and the package was topped off by her bounteous breasts, her gown dipping deep in the front to reveal some serious cleavage. The Prophet Ezekiel brought Cinnamon along slowly, the first few times just having her stand near him and smile while she held a tambourine that he had bought for her. Then he secured a couple of tapes of religious songs, selecting the ole staples “Bringing In The Sheaves”, “Just As I Am”, and “Shall We Gather At The River.” The Prophet remembered that Sister Alma had used these songs on a regular basis and that it had appeared to be very effective. “Just As I Am” and “Shall We Gather At The River” were really good “closers,” saved for the end of the service, when the collection plates would be distributed and a hopefully inspired crowd would open their hearts and wallets to further the nascent evangelistic endeavors of The Prophet and his beautiful mate. “The Sheaves” was more of a seasonal song which he would bring in during the fall harvesting, for Gaston County folk either worked in the fields or the cotton mills or both.
So The Prophet continued to practice his delivery and the many nuances of his glorious trade. To make the scene more realistic he decided to enlarge the tent and give it more height; he accomplished this by substituting taller saplings for the existing supports and stringing together more sheets. Then he got Billie Cline to climb up the big oak tree in the back yard with a come along and a rope tied to the top of the tent. Billie ratcheted the top of the tent up in the air and tied it off, giving The Prophet a circle about 16’ wide in the center of the complex that reached a height of twelve feet at the peak. When the enlargement was finished the tent virtually filled the back yard of the trailer, and amazingly The Prophet noticed a smattering of people dropping by each night, a group that increased until one night he looked up and counted 20 people sitting on the grass or just standing around watching him practice. The Prophet just kept to his regimen, reviewing sermon topics, practicing the favored hymns, showcasing Pepper, and once in a while trying his hand at a prophecy or two. The Prophet was cautious in this endeavor, as he knew that by his name people were going to expect certain things from him, but he didn’t want to rush headlong into it, preferring to be careful. The Prophet Ezekiel had noticed over the past few weeks that Billie Cline’s addled fat sister with orange hair, Helen had had several brushes with near disaster. The Clines lived on Highway 321, known as “Killer 321” by a local newspaperman, and Helen walked back and forth on the side of the road, usually going down to Bill’s Food Center to get candy or going to see her Aunt Lucy who was equally fat and addled. Taking all this into account The Prophet made an announcement at the end of his practice session one night. “Ladies and gentlemen”, he said looking at the roughly 25 potential parishioners milling about, “I have an announcement to make; no, this is actually a prophecy”. At the mention of this magical word all conversation in the makeshift tent venue ceased, all eyes being riveted on The Prophet. The Prophet had summoned the lovely Pepper to his side, where she stood solemnly holding her tambourine.
“As you all know,” he said, “I am The Prophet Ezekiel, that is my legal name, and you also know that I am an ‘evangelist in training’”. A murmur of “yes, we know,” and “please go on,” could be heard through the group.
“Well it is time for my first prophesy: within one week Killer 321 will claim another life”. The group gasped as one, and watched as The Prophet Ezekiel turned quickly and went into his trailer, the lovely Pepper on his heels. Once they were inside The Prophet explained to Pepper that the abrupt departure was for effect and told her what he had noticed about Helen. Pepper wondered out loud if they shouldn’t try to do something to help the poor girl but The Prophet cut her short.
“Pepper,” he said, “everybody and his brother have told that dumb bitch to stay well off the road instead of hugging the shoulder like she does; it just falls on deaf ears. Bottom line, honey, is you just can’t fix stupid”. This explanation satisfied her and she dropped it, Pepper not being the type to ponder things at length. It was kind of like the time that Pepper got the great idea that the local KKK Klavern might be a fertile area for The Prophet to delve into. Although the KKK did have a modest membership in the area The Prophet Ezekiel patiently explained that they were a bit extreme for most people and that it would not be a very wise idea. Pepper quickly agreed, and after thinking about those funny hats they wore decided that abandoning the idea was indeed for the best ‘cause that goofy hat would play hell with her perfectly coiffed hair style.
More and more people started showing up at The Prophet’s nightly practices, which he considered to be a true blessing. The Prophet thought it a great opportunity to showcase his talents in a very low pressure setting. But there was a downside to the burgeoning crowd and it came to light one evening about seven thirty when Doug Huffmeister showed up. Huffmeister was a county building inspector and The Prophet Ezekiel and ‘bout everybody else in construction in Gaston County despised him. The Prophet’s disdain for him revolved around Huffmeister shaking down the fencing company he worked for on a regular basis. Huffmeister would just show up on a job site, sporting his little dinky building inspector badge on his belt and find something wrong with the fence—–either it would be too tall or a few inches over the line or something. Then Doug Huffmeister would say “well you know it’s gotta come down” or some such nonsense. All the contractors in the county knew the routine; an envelope with three twenty dollar bills in it always fomented Huffmeister’s quick departure.
So when The Prophet saw the Inspector he knew what to expect, especially when he saw that Huffmeister had somehow secured an additional badge, so he had one attached to each side of his belt, Gaston County’s fabled spindle emblem emblazoned in the center of the badges. The bobbin represented the textile industry, the largest employer in the area. The Prophet Ezekiel stopped his scripture reading and walked over to where the Inspector was standing with his thumbs stuck under his belt which secured an ample beer belly.
“Whatcha doin’ here Zekey Boy?,” Huffmeister asked, showing a gap toothed grin and gazing at The Prophet through his little piggy eyes.
“Inspector Huffmeister, you need to know that I have legally changed my name to The Prophet Ezekiel and that I am an evangelist in training; you can verify this through county legal records or by calling Judge Bulwinkle, but I require of you that I be addressed by my proper name.” Huffmeister chuckled. “Okay, The Prophet Ezekiel, we got us a little problem here. What we got is what in the building code is called an Assembly Occupancy, and when ya got one of them they’s a bunch of hoops to jump through.” Inspector Huffmeister stopped talking in order to let this very official sounding verbage sink in. The Prophet just looked at the gloating Inspector for a minute and then asked “So what does this Assembly Occupancy involve?”
Inspector Huffmeister started strutting around and looking at everything. “Well you have all these safety precautions involved, like proper exits and handicap accessibility, including ramps and handrails, and ya gotta look at these sheets for what their flame spread index is—–why, I bet they ain’t even got one. I ‘magine a thrown away cigarette could set this place goin’ like a Roman Candle at New Year’s,” Huffmeister said , pulling a Zippo lighter out of his pocket and flicking it for effect.
The Prophet Ezekiel sputtered “But Huffmeister, this whole thing is just temporary, just for practice.” Inspector Huffmeister snorted “temporary, shemporary, tell that to those hundreds of people stacked up like cord wood at the Copacabana fire way back then, tell them those poorly lit and blocked exits were just temporary.” Huffmeister shouted the word “temporary” again and thrust his forefinger into the air. For a fleeting second the Inspector reminded him just a bit of one of his “wheezer” evangelists and he almost admired the fervor in his voice, but this thought passed quickly as The Prophet came back to his senses, realizing that the Inspector was not worried one lick about one single life, but only about an envelope. Then The Prophet knew the only question he needed to ask, the only one that really mattered. He looked at the gloating pot bellied Inspector and said the magic words: “How much?” The Inspector rolled his eyes and said “The Prophet Ezekiel, I am going to be very nice to you because I admire you and what you are trying to do. Ya know I used to be interested in the ministry; in fact I was enrolled in a correspondence divinity school for two years—The Northwestern California School of Divinity, based in Sacramento. Yessir, I loved going to Divinity School and hated having to drop out because it was taking up so much of my time and was negatively affecting my Building Inspector duties. But I still hold a great respect for “the calling,” having been there myself, and that’s why I like and admire your attempt at a career in evangelism. So it will be only five twenties; I will be right here waiting.” And with that the Inspector grinned at The Prophet with his snaggly teeth and gazed with his pig eyes as The Prophet Ezekiel went into his trailer and into the cigar box in his closet where he had been saving up money for another sequined dress for Cinnamon and some hymnals and took out five twenties and put them in an envelope. He then returned to Inspector Huffmeister, who was busying himself thumbing through a North Carolina Building Code Manual that had been in his back pocket. When The Prophet handed him the money he quickly put the envelope inside his coat and only said “Guess you’re okay now for a while The Prophet Ezekiel” and left the back yard. The Prophet was very upset and quietly shooed the remaining onlookers away telling them that he didn’t feel well but they were welcome to return the next evening.
The Prophet Ezekiel was not one to brood and the next day found him full of vigor and ideas as he worked at his fence building job. After all he had already made a “prophecy, so he figgered that maybe he oughta work on the idea of a miracle. The Prophet thought he would proceed cautiously; then one day as he was reading the syndicated pharmacist column in the local newspaper he came across something that might be of use. The column was written by a husband and wife team named Zoe and Terry Greeley, and The Prophet read it religiously. People wrote in with a question about pharmaceuticals and their particular effects in certain situations, and there were also lots of inquiries about the efficacy of home remedies, like things that would help gout or rubbing Vicks Vap-O-Rub on the bottoms of your feet and wearing socks to bed—The Prophet had forgotten what exactly this particular treatment was supposed to cure, but he had seen it in the column a couple of times. Anyway, the question that caught his eye was the following: “Q—Is there any treatment for Peyronie’s disease? I am wondering about effectiveness and side effects”.
Then the following response: “A—Peyronie’s disease is a condition in which scar tissue has formed on the side of the penis. This leads it to bend during erection, a situation that may be painful.” At this juncture The Prophet stopped reading and reflected a moment; he figgered most guys would give their left nut to have this affliction, but then thought that there must be more to the situation, like maybe it bent back at such an angle that you could never even get it in. The Prophet controlled his musings and continued to read the Greeley answer. “Doctors have tried quite a range of oral therapies for Peyronie’s disease”. When The Prophet Ezekiel read this he absolutely heehawed, until he realized by using the term “oral” the pharmacists were speaking of taking pills. “Could have been a great double entendre if they had meant it”, he thought to himself as he continued to read. The pharmacists ended their answer by mentioning some sort of “injectable collagenase enzyme” which the thought of such a thing gave The Prophet a shiver. Apparently the Pharmacy Duet was not too hot on the idea either, mentioning about side effects including “bruising, swelling, and pain at the injection site.” The Prophet chuckled at this, thinking that most guys would welcome the swelling.
This malady intrigued The Prophet in several different ways. For one he enjoyed the humor which he found in it, though realizing that the general populace would not find it as funny as he did. Another thing that grabbed him about it was the potential to somehow incorporate this condition into his idea of performing a miracle, or a cure, if you will. And when word came that morning about ten o’clock that orange haired Helen Cline had been run over and killed the night before right on Killer 321 The Prophet Ezekiel knew it was time to get to the next step, the prophesy having come true. The Prophet figgered that “curing”, or performing a miracle for someone afflicted with a situation as “Peyronie’s” had a couple of things going for it. The sexual aspect would lend itself to people not requiring a couple of things—-first, a visual of the condition, and second, a visual of the cured individual. It seemed like the perfect deal; The Prophet makes a big commotion about some guy having this disease, The Prophet explains it delicately from the pulpit, then prays long and hard for the afflicted one, and a couple of weeks later The Prophet brings the Peyronie’s victim back up and hears that he has been cured, many “Hosannas” and “Praise God”s to follow. “Who in the hell in a crowd is gonna want to see the ‘before’ or the ‘after,” The Prophet Ezekiel thought to himself. The Prophet decided it was a hell of an idea, and he knew who the “victim” would be.
After work that day The Prophet went home, cleaned up, and gathered Pepper and headed over to the Cline house to see and console the family of the dear departed Helen. It was the typical scene of bereavement in the south when someone has died—people coming and going, bringing casseroles and meat loafs and ham biscuits, and of course cakes and pies. This “comfort food” for the family was certainly in abundance in the little frame house nestled alongside Highway 321, and there was quite a crowd in attendance, seeing the family and offering their condolences or generally milling about, inside and outside in the yard. The Prophet Ezekiel and Pepper threaded their way through the group until they reached the living room, where the family was ensconced. Word had spread about the “prophesy” that had come true, and many of the attendees present looked upon The Prophet with awe filled eyes. The Prophet saw this, but did not acknowledge, choosing to work his way to the side of the grief-stricken parents. Gladys and Theodore Cline, parents of the deceased, were sitting beside each other on a ratty sofa with plastic covers over it. As The Prophet looked at this he thought that maybe the Clines had instituted the covering a little late, but suppressed the desire to emit a chuckle. Instead he confronted Glades and Theodore, or “Mutt” and “Coconut,”as they were known in the neighborhood.
Mutt was a tall heavy-set woman who worked third shift at the Mariposa spinning mill in South Gastonia. Coconut loafed around and did an odd job once in a while. His unusual nickname came from his appearance, more specifically his head. He had thinning brown hair and near the top of his forehead were two moles about three inches apart and a little smaller than a dime in size. As The Prophet Ezekiel looked at Mr. Cline it sent him back in time to when his mother would send him out onto the back porch with a coconut, a hammer, a 16-penny nail, a knife, a bowl, and a glass. He would drive the nail into the two dark indentions in the coconut, which closely resembled Mr. Cline’s moles, and drain the milk into the glass. Then he would lay the coconut on the concrete floor and tap on it with the hammer until it cracked in several places. The next task was to separate the white coconut meat from the shell. The outside of the shell had a light wispy hair like covering, not a lot different in appearance to Mr. Cline’s head. Thus the appellation.
As The Prophet approached Mrs. Cline she first grinned at him, showing small snuff stained teeth, and then burst into tears. “Oh my, it is so nice of you to come here; I hear you are going to be an evangelist, and that you prophesied that someone would die on the highway,” Mrs. Cline said, tears streaming down her sallow cheeks and a little drab of snuff spit making its way out of the left side of her mouth.
“That is true, Mrs. Cline, and I have legally changed my name to The Prophet Ezekiel in preparation for this new career, which I will launch soon. And it is also true that I did prophesy that a life would be lost along Highway 321. Of course I had no idea that it would be your dear daughter Helen; if I had had any inkling I surely would have warned you all.” The Prophet was displaying what he liked to call his “omniscient and understanding” smile; it was one he had been working on a lot and he felt like he had it down purty good. He felt even better about his performance when Mrs. Cline launched into an ear shattering wailing, giving The Prophet the opportunity to console her. The Prophet hugged Mrs. Cline and she kissed him on the cheek, depositing a small blob of snuff spittle there. Pepper quickly pulled a tissue from her purse and cleaned up The Prophet; then it was time to see to Mr. Cline.
“It’s just been awawawawawaaawwwwful,” Mr. Cline offered. In addition to having a head that closely resembled a coconut he had been afflicted all his life with a severe stuttering problem.
“I know, Mr. Cline, I know,” The Prophet said, “but it is not for us to know why things turn out the way they do, it is only for us to seek the answer and PRAY FOR FORGIVENESS.” As The Prophet virtually bellowed these last three words the twenty or so people around hushed, exactly the reaction The Prophet desired. At that point The Prophet placed his left hand on Mutt’s frizzy grey hair and his right on the thin hair of Coconut, just above the moles, and said “Would everyone please bow their heads in prayer?”. As one the group bowed their heads and closed their eyes and The Prophet lit into it.
“Dear Lord, he began, “we are gathered here this evening to remember our dear departed friend, daughter, sister, and to honor her for the righteous life she led, and to pray for her soul, for we know she is up in heaven this very moment.” Here several “Praise Gods” and “Amens” were shouted out, and Mutt started wailing a little bit. The Prophet continued. “And Most Holy and Exalted Father, we beseech thee to comfort Helen’s family, and all of her friends who have gathered here to honor her.” More “Amens” and a smattering of “hallelujahs” erupted and The Prophet Ezekiel paused for a moment to respond with “Amen Brothers and Sisters.”
Then he raised his eyes and looked around, knowing full well that most of the people there had already raised theirs and were looking at him. The Prophet had sensed that they would be; he then launched into his climax.
“In closing, our dear Lord, Heavenly Father of our Savior Jesus Christ, we pray for you to help us through these difficult times, and we pray that we may grow in your spirit and wisdom. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
When The Prophet Ezekiel said “Amen” a chorus of amens accompanied him and as he looked at Mutt and Coconut’s tear stained upturned faces he smiled beatifically and hugged them, one arm around each neck.
As their embrace with The Prophet Ezekiel came to a close Mutt and Coconut looked at each other and whispered very quietly for a few seconds and then Mutt grabbed the hands of The Prophet and said “we want you to preach Helen’s funeral; can you see it in your heart to honor us so?” The Prophet Ezekiel was a bit shocked but was able to conceal it, his cool demeanor being from a lot of lessons learned in street fighting and various fracases in which he had been involved. The Prophet had always noticed that the “cool guys,” the ones who could maintain, were the ones who won the day; utilizing that wisdom he again gave his most beatific smile and said, so very graciously, “Of course I will, you all just let me know where and when,” and with that a very buoyant The Prophet Ezekiel made his departure; he needed to talk to the dear departed’s older brother Billie.
The Prophet found Billie Cline in the kitchen, where he had just loaded up a plate with banana pudding, a piece of coconut cake, a fourth of an apple pie, and three Krispy Kreme donuts. “Hey Billie,” The Prophet said, standing by where the hungry boy was seated at the kitchen table. The table had chrome double legs and chrome around the sides; the top was a mingled yellow formica with a section in the middle that could be pulled out.
“Hey Billie,” said The Prophet again, this time more softly, smiling at the gangly gap toothed brother of the deceased. Billie Cline was about 6’ 2”, slender, stooped, and had greasy dirty blonde hair that was always a little long and shaggy; his I. Q. had revealed a score of 85. He gave The Prophet Ezekiel a goofy smile as he looked at him. “Sorry ‘bout your sister, “The Prophet said as Billie ladled cake and banana pudding into his mouth. Billie had a very bad case of acne, which would probably get quite a bit worse considering the sugar he was consuming. Billie gave The Prophet his customary goofy grin and holding up a tablespoonful of banana pudding said “Good shit, ain’t it?”
The Prophet Ezekiel leaned down close to Billie Cline and said “How about I give you a chance to be the center of attention and earn ten dollars on top of that?” Billie looked up quickly and between gulps of dessert managed to get out a muffled “Sure Zeke.” The Prophet quickly told him how he should be addressed from that day forward; “The Prophet Ezekiel is now my legal name and that’s what you need to call me,” The Prophet said. Billie Cline started laughing and almost choked on his coconut cake but managed to get out “you ain’t no damn prophet Zeke—-what you comin’ on with that shit about anyway?” The Prophet was starting to get annoyed; Billie was beginning to test his evangelical patience. The Prophet leaned over closer and whispered into Billie Cline’s waxy blackhead laden ear “Lissen asshole, you wanta be on stage and get ten bucks or not; I can always get somebody else.” This got Willie’s attention and he quickly agreed that he did want the money and his moment in the limelight, so The Prophet suggested they go out on the back porch and discuss the details.
As they stepped outside The Prophet offered Billie Cline one of his Marlboro cigarettes, which he greedily grabbed. “Hey, The Prophet Ezekiel, you ain’t got no dope on ya have ya?” Billie asked. “I don’t do that shit no more you dumbass and don’t ever mention it around me any more,” The Prophet said. Billie Cline hung his head and replied “Okay, The Prophet Ezekiel”. The Prophet then explained to Billie what he had to do to get the money and the fame. Without getting too technical The Prophet explained the Peyronie’s situation that he was supposed to be afflicted with and told him that all he would have to do would be to dress nice, or the best he could, and just stand up at the meeting as The Prophet told the group what was going on and how The Prophet Ezekiel was for his first miracle going to pray non-stop until Billie Cline was cured.
“Now Billie, this problem is supposed to affect your pecker purty drastically, so I want you to stand kinda funny when I introduce you, kinda like you are favoring one side, and maybe even sorta put your hand near your crotch almost like you are gonna grab it, like the black boys do all the time. “You mean like this? asked Willie, as he grabbed his pecker and squeezed it.
“Well, more like you are gettin’ ready to do it, instead of actually doin’ it,” replied The Prophet. Then The Prophet Ezekiel told Billie Cline about how he would appear again just one week later and stand straight and tall and smiling as The Prophet Ezekiel told everybody ‘bout how Billie had been miraculously cured. “And they’ll believe it?” Willie asked dubiously.
“Sure they will, ‘cause I , The Prophet Ezekiel will be tellin’ the story. Trust me Billie; you’ll be famous. It might even get ya some ‘tang,” The Prophet said, smiling broadly as Billie Cline giggled. “Ya think I could show ‘em my trick?” Billie Cline asked. The Prophet immediately knew what Billie was talkin’ about; Billie did not have a whole lot going for him on any level or any strata of humanity, but he did have one talent that he could perform. Billie Cline could pick his nose with his tongue. Virtually everyone knew about this because Billie had done it for years if anybody brought it up. The Prophet himself had seen Billie do it many times; in fact, when he was still known as Zeke Taylor The Prophet used to go through a big production of introducing Billie Cline whenever there was a bunch of guys around. Zeke would always do it the same way; “Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my great honor to introduce to you a man who can do something that no other human being can even attempt, a local man who has grown up here in our community and has occasionally attended our local schools, and is rumored to have gone to that Baptist Church that Morris Hight’s daddy preached at, there on Highway 321, at least once, but whose one outstanding God Given talent will be displayed at this time.” Then the guy known as Zeke Taylor would pause for about ten seconds, for effect, and say “I give to you Billie Cline and his famous tongue up his nose booger pickin’ trick.”
Whatever bunch was present would clap and holler and sometimes chant “Bill-eee, Bill-eee, until Billie Cline stood front and center. Then the show would begin in earnest. First Billie would stick his tongue out and quickly flick the end of his nose; agreed that this preliminary trick was aided by the curved hawkish honker he had, but the act always incited the onlookers to try to touch their nose with their tongue, always unsuccessfully. Billie would then move his tongue all over the end of his nose; anyone who observed Billie Cline always came away talking about how long and thin his tongue was, not at all thick like a human tongue, but more narrow and thin like one would imagine a rat’s tongue to be. So after teasing the crowd for a while Billie would insert his tongue into his right nostril, and then his left, repeatedly, pushing his rat tongue inside each nose hole a good inch and a half. This usually brought quite a varied reaction from the onlookers, from cheers to “oh gross” to just walking away in disgust.
So when Billie Cline inquired about “doin’ his trick” at church The Prophet Ezekiel immediately shouted a resounding “no” and assured Billie that the ten dollars he was going to get would never, ever, be paid if he did it. Billie Cline sheepishly agreed to the terms, mumbling “I was just kiddin’, The Prophet Ezekiel” and trundled back into the kitchen to devour more acne inspiring desserts.
The Prophet stood silently on the little porch and reflected on where he was; he was going to preach. The Prophet smiled a beatific smile, a truly real one, collected his lovely Pepper and headed back to his trailer.
Helen Cline’s funeral wasn’t until Saturday afternoon so The Prophet had a couple days to get prepared. The funeral was going to be at The Plainview Baptist Church just down the road, set back in a grove of pecan trees right off Killer 321 highway. The church was pastored by a mill worker who had been called to the ministry a few years back, Fred Hight. Pastor Hight was known for two things; his mild mannered demeanor in everyday life, and his fiery hell fire and brimstone sermons he delivered every Sunday. Pastor Hight was a widower, and his late wife had left him with two young children when she had passed away nine years before, a boy and a girl who were only a year apart in age. The boy, Morris, maybe because he was mad about his momma dying or maybe because he was being the typical bad, bad, preacher’s son was way more than Pastor Hight could handle. Morris delighted in laying drunk frequently and it was a given he would always attend church every Sunday and always be sloppy drunk. The girl, Lynnette, was 16, one year younger than Morris and every bit as wild as Morris in her own way. Her acts of rebellion included screwing ‘bout every boy in the senior class at Ranlo High School and wearing very, very short skirts with no panties.
When the grief stricken Clines had approached Pastor Hight with their idea of having The Prophet Ezekiel preach Helen’s funeral he understood totally, what with The Prophet sort of having prophesied Helen’s demise, and told them immediately that it would be no problem for him, but that they would have to take it up with the Chief Deacon of the Plainview Baptist Church, Mr. William Hall. Deacon Bill, as he was known locally, had worked all his life at Firestone mill in Gastonia and was very robust; he also tended a very productive two acre garden in his back yard. When the Clines heard what they needed to do they just walked down the gravel drive behind their house to the Hall home, for the Halls had been long time neighbors in the community. The Clines and the Halls did not know each other very well; although the Clines were technically members at Plainview they rarely attended.
Gladys and Theodore Cline were walking up the gravel drive to the home of Deacon Bill Hall and his wife Relemina. The driveway was pretty long and curved around a couple of times before arriving at the brick veneer house with a carport on the right side. The Clines knew the Halls were at home, for they had espied Deacon Bill’s red Ford in the driveway. Relemina, who was darkly complected and rumored to be of French descent from Charleston, South Carolina, did not work “public work”, spending her time housekeeping and tending to the yard and canning and freezing vegetables from Deacon Bill’s big garden. The Clines did notice that the Halls’ boy, Raeford, was there, as his little grey Volkswagen bug was parked off to the right side of the carport, that spot being reserved for the red Ford. They walked up into the carport and knocked on the door and in a few seconds Raeford Hall opened the door; Raeford grinned at them as he was munching on a barbecued chicken leg, the sauce liberally coating his lips. Raeford was a trim fellow, about 5’9” tall and 150 pounds. He was a senior and a good track man at Ranlo High School, where he was on the annual staff; additionally, he contributed occasionally to the local newspaper, sports writing being his forte. “Why hello, Mr. and Mrs. Cline, won’t you come in,” Raeford Hall said. Gladys and Theodore both thought ‘bout how polite and nice Raeford was; of course, if they had been aware of how many times he had screwed their dear departed daughter in the Hall living room when his parents went to the beach each summer they would have been whistling a very different tune. This scenario passed through Raeford’s mind as he ushered the Clines out of the kitchen and into the living room where Bill and Relemina were sitting on the sofa relaxing, the very venue where their son and the late Helen had had their fun.
“Look who is here, folks,” Raeford called to his parents, resuming his attack on the chicken leg. Deacon Bill and Relemina both stood up and embraced Gladys and Theodore Cline, which spawned some “water works” from Gladys and a profound aura of sadness from Theodore. “We are so sorry for your loss; we know the pain must be unbearable,”Deacon Bill pronounced, utilizing a low comforting tone of voice which he usually reserved for Official Board meetings. “Is there anything at all we can do for you?” At this point Relemina Hall embraced Gladys once again, the motion fomenting another loud sob from Mrs. Cline and a “for real “ tear traveling down the right side of Relemina’s face; the drop left a little track in Mrs. Hall’s makeup.
After a moment Coconut composed himself enough to get down to business. “Well Deacon Hall, we wanted to ask a favor of you. We know you are the head of the Official Board of Plainview Baptist and we want to have our baby Helen’s funeral there this Saturday. The Deacon adopted his most thoughtful pose and said “Why Theodore, seeing as how you all are members in good standing I see no impediment to your having the funeral there. Why would you even ask the question?” Deacon Bill asked.
Theodore Cline looked a little sheepish as he said, “Well Deacon Hall, we want to bring in a different preacher to officiate; now of course we have already talked to Pastor Fred Hight about this and that is why we are here; Pastor Hight said the final approval would be up to you.” Deacon Bill crossed his muscular wiry arms and smiled at Theodore Cline. “Of course that will be fine, Mr. Cline; by the way, who is the guest minister?”.
“The Prophet Ezekiel,” answered Coconut. “He is a family friend and is sort of an evangelist in training”.
Deacon Bill shook his head and said “I don’t rightly know that name”. “Well he used to be known as Zeke Taylor, but he went before Judge Bulwinkle and got his name changed all legal and proper and I swear he prayed the sweetest prayer I ever heard over at our house last night”, said Coconut.
Deacon Bill nodded. ”Of course, I know him; and you have my blessing—-we will be in attendance at the funeral”. At that the Clines departed, and both of them noticed that Raeford Hall had looked so dewy eyed and sad as he closed the kitchen door behind them.
“He is an awfully sweet and sentimental boy” said Gladys, as Coconut nodded tearfully. Inside the kitchen door Raeford Hall wiped away the moisture from his face, and brightened up as he realized he had several months before his parents’ annual beach trip to recruit Helen’s replacement.
It was Saturday morning, 10:00 a.m. and The Prophet Ezekiel was reviewing his notes on what was going to happen at Helen Cline’s funeral, which was slated for 2:00 p. m. at Plainview Baptist Church. The Clines had told him that all was well with the Official Board as far as The Prophet preaching the funeral. He had not expected any problem from Deacon Bill Hall, and had even solidified the situation by posing a question to the Deacon—would the Deacon consider asking his son, Raeford, the leader of the Royal Ambassadors, the young men’s group in the Baptist denomination, if Raeford could gather some of the RAs, as they were called, to act as a sort of color guard during the half hour of viewing the body prior to the funeral. The Prophet Ezekiel explained to the Deacon that although the RAs did not have uniforms, if they all wore black slacks, short sleeved white shirts, and simple black ties that it would all look very official; The Prophet suggested that there be four of them, two standing behind the casket and one at each end. Deacon Bill Hall quickly agreed to this and assured The Prophet Ezekiel that he and his “boy” would take care of it. Deacon Bill was satisfied this would not be a problem, for although he and his seventeen year old son did not always see eye to eye, the “boy” owed him one big time.
The Deacon had rescued his wild ass twice in the last six months; the first episode was when Raeford and his best friend Dean Norman got drunk and ran away in Norman’s old pick up truck, the idea being to move to Charleston, South Carolina and work on a fishing boat. When they sobered up a little and ran out of money and gas in Columbia the Deacon had wired them thirty dollars to get them back home. But the biggest deal Raeford had pulled was only two months previously when Raeford and his crazy “girl friend of the month”, a hot little thing named Cassandra Davis decided to run off and get married. When THEY sobered up and found out her parents would have to sign for her the Deacon and Relemina had actually driven to Clover, South Carolina and escorted them back, the Deacon driving Raeford’s old Toyota with the kids in the back and Relemina driving the family car. Deacon Bill Hall gave the kids “almighty hell” on the way back; he thought he actually approached the intensity of some of Pastor Fred Hight’s wild sermons at Plainview. So when Deacon Bill Hall brought the subject up to his “boy” Raeford he immediately agreed and promised that he and three RAs he would recruit would be on site at 1:30 p.m. at the moment Helen Cline’s casket would be opened for viewing.
Raeford Hall knew right away who he could count on for the “color guard”; he quickly called Danny Motes, who lived down the road near Bill’s Food Center, Kenny Harris, whose dad owned Bill’s Food Center, and Calvin Cooley, a bully who lived across the road from Raeford. He included Calvin Cooley in the group because he knew if he didn’t there would hell to pay and Raeford would more than likely get his ass whipped. After the phone calls Raeford reflected on things and figgered that he had done a purty good job; he thought it especially appropriate that Kenny Harris be included ‘cause poor Helen Cline had been squashed right in front of Bill’s Food Center, of course standing on the edge of the shoulder like always. Raeford felt like he had done a good job so he put the funeral out of his mind for the moment; he had more important things to attend to, like seeing how many Country Club Malt Liquors he could drink that Friday night at the Meadowbrook Supper Club.
It was high noon the day of the funeral and The Prophet Ezekiel was having a little trouble getting started on what he was gonna say at Helen Cline’s funeral. The first thing he thought of was recounting all the positive things in Helen’s life, but coming up with positives about Helen exhausted even the fertile and creative mind of The Prophet Ezekiel. The Prophet had read that it was helpful to chat informally with the bereaved family to get ideas, things like sweet memories or little meaningful interchanges between the dear departed and her loved ones, but after spending an hour with Mutt and Coconut just that morning The Prophet felt a bit nonplussed. For example, when he had asked Mutt Cline what she was most proud of Helen for she had pondered for a moment and replied, “Well, she got out of the ninth grade after only two years; it took Billie three.” The Prophet had then looked at Coconut, who was nodding and smiling broadly. When The Prophet had asked if there was anything else they could think of and Mutt said, “and she never got pregnant, not even once.” This comment set Coconut to nodding and smiling once again and made The Prophet think it might be time to go, but as he was rising to leave Coconut’s eyes lit up and he said, “and I never saw her pick her nose with her tongue, never even saw her make the attempt—–but I’m sure she coulda done it if she had really wanted to.” Coconut then nodded and smiled at The Prophet Ezekiel and The Prophet thanked the Clines effusively and departed.
When The Prophet Ezekiel got home to the single wide he went right away into his little study and took out his King James Version Bible he had received when he had been promoted to the Primary Class in church and started reading the New Testament. The Prophet had decided that he was pretty much a New Testament man; he felt like it would make him come across a little more progressive than the average pastor, for example, Pastor Fred Hight, in whose church The Prophet was going to preach Helen Cline’s funeral, his very first. As he opened the New Testament he read on the first page: THE NEW TESTAMENT of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, translated out of the original Greek.” The Prophet had never known a Greek but of course had read about them and their place in history; in fact, one of his favorite jokes prior to his decision to be an evangelist was to start up a conversation about famous Greeks, mention some names like Demosthenes, Socrates, Herodotus, and Plato and then announce “and of course the most famous Greek was the philosopher Testicles.” He always got a good response for this one, for the typical group he was in front of had no idea who those other Greeks were, but they had heard of testicles. The Prophet chuckled a little as he started into reading “The Gospel According to St. Matthew”. As The Prophet lit into chapter one he got tired real quick of all the “begetting”, but hung in there, and he felt like it got more interesting after Jesus was born and they got going on ol’ King Herod and The Three Wise Men and such. The Prophet thought it odd how Matthew apparently got into the warp speed and took Jesus from a baby to a grown man in going from Chapter 2 to 3. And The Prophet was purty interested there in Chapter 4; there was a bunch going on in there, what with the Devil tempting Jesus and Jesus startin’ to preach and all. The Prophet also liked the story ‘bout Jesus seeing Simon Peter and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea and Jesus telling them to “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” This struck a chord with The Prophet; he remembered when they learned a little song about that one time in Vacation Bible School: “I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men. I will make you fishers of men if you follow me. If you follow me, if you follow me. I will make you fishers of men if you follow me.” The Prophet chuckled a bit thinking of this little song; it took him way back to sky blue days when there were no problems and you went to Vacation Bible School every summer and made all those neat posters and things and on Friday night all the parents came and “looked and ooooohed and aaaaahhhhed” over all the stuff their particular lil punkin had accomplished. And then they would all have supper in the Educational Building, topped off by multiple flavors of homemade ice cream.
Then The Prophet Ezekiel read Chapter 4, verse 24, and it seemed like it just fit into his plan to be an evangelist: “And His fame went throughout all Syria and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatic and those that had the palsy; and he healed them”. The Prophet thought about the time he had seen a woman with palsy; everybody called it the “shakin’” palsy. The occasion had been the graduation ceremony from Costner Elementary School when his sister Gail had finished the eighth grade. There was a rather plain, homely girl in her class named Faye Doxey; Faye and her brother Ray and her parents lived down the road from the Taylors in a shotgun rental house. The Prophet remembered that he had seen Mr. Doxey; he was a tall angular man who dressed in old suits, always wore a hat and had big yellow teeth. Mr. Doxey drove an ancient car; it seemed like his clothes and automobile matched in that they both looked about thirty years old. There was a rumor that Mr. Doxey had been a successful salesman until something bad had happened.
But he had never seen Mrs. Doxey, and once he saw her he would never forget her. The graduation program was about to begin when Mr. Doxey came into the auditorium escorting his wife. The daughter, Faye, immediately rushed from her seat, grinning widely. The Prophet recalled that Faye Doxey had short, straight chopped off hair and that she was wearing bright red lipstick. It was the same color that her mother was wearing on her face—literally. Apparently Mr. Doxey had allowed his wife to apply her own lipstick and it was all over her face, but admittedly a good portion did wind up on her mouth. The poor woman was all aquiver, Mr. Doxey assisting her along and smiling, showing his giant yellow teeth. The Prophet remembered the look of joy and pride on the young Doxey girl’s face as she rushed to meet her mother and father and help them get seated. She sat on the stage and beamed at her mother during the entire program; the kind and courteous country folk gathered in the Costner Elementary School graciously did not stare at the poor woman; if they had they would have seen a woman of about fifty swaddled in an old beaver coat that was losing pretty large patches of fur, a woman who shook at times mildly and at other times more violently, her yellow toothed husband holding her tightly all the while.
The Prophet Ezekiel then continued into the Fifth Chapter of Matthew and it was there that his blue eyes lit up, and there that he beamed his broad beatific smile; it was there that he found the inspiration for his sermon for Helen Cline’s funeral.
Raeford had told the Royal Ambassadors to meet at the little vestibule at the entry to Plainview Baptist Church; the vestibule served as the location where whoever was handing out bulletins would be stationed and where prior to the service one of the church fathers would pull on the rope which ascended through the ceiling to the church bell, alerting everyone that it was time for the show to begin. Raeford looked at the worn rope and remembered how his Deacon Daddy had let him ring the bell on many occasions. Of course the bell would not be ringing today, what with the somber occasion of Helen Cline’s funeral and all. The three Royal Ambassador invitees were in attendance; Danny Motes and Kenny Harris were dressed exactly like Raeford had suggested, and Calvin Cooley had done ‘bout as good as he could, though his white shirt could have been cleaner. The Cooley family was not known for its excessive hygiene; most of the neighborhood women blamed it on the abrupt departure of Elvira Cooley after a steamy liaison with a midget from the county fair last fall. If you wanted your ass beat right quick just mention the words “dwarf” or “midget around ol’ Calvin Cooley. Raeford Hall ignored the slovenly bully and went over the pertinent facts, where they would be stationed in relation to the casket, where they would be seated in the front row when Blair House of The Dallas Funeral Home and his boys would wheel ol’ Helen’s casket in, and how the Royal Ambassador Color Guard was not to assume their positions until the funeral director had opened the lid of the casket. It was precisely 1:25 when the long black Cadillac hearse pulled into the gravel parking lot of Plainview Baptist Church and Blair and three of his nattily dressed associates emerged from the vehicle. Blair opened the rear of the hearse and pulled out Helen’s casket, the spring loaded cart under the casket jumping into place, and proceeded to roll Helen in the front door of Plainview. Earlier they had placed a large spray of gladiolus at each end of where the casket would rest; the four of them pushed the box to the proper location between the flower stands, and then sticking strictly to the funeral script the handsome silver haired funeral director opened the end lid of Helen Cline’s casket and turned to the audience and nodded to where Raeford Hall and the Royal ambassador Color guard sat on the front row, ready to spring into action. When Blair nodded to Raeford he also smiled, flashing his beautiful false teeth recently purchased in Anderson, South Carolina at The Tooth Emporium, one of those places where they pulled your teeth and fitted you with a full set of dentures all on the same day. There was a big color billboard on Interstate 85 at the Anderson exit extolling the virtues of The Tooth Emporium; it showed three septuagenarians’ faces side by side, their jaws and cheeks slack with the absence of teeth, and next to it the same three smiling broadly with a new set of choppers. Raeford Hall was heartened to see Blair’s new teeth, for what with the newness of the dentures and everything Blair had forgotten to insert them a couple of times before he left home. But he had ‘em in today and was lookin’ good; most women thought Blair handsome and he had a reputation of being a ladies’ man.
So on cue Raeford, Danny, Kenny, and Calvin walked to the now opened casket, their heads slightly downcast in respect to the late Helen Cline, and assumed their positions. They all followed the plan Raeford had given them perfectly: Calvin at the head of the casket, Kenny at the foot, and Raeford and Danny standing behind. Raeford had wanted things to look very professional, what with him being head of the Royal Ambassadors and all, and it came off perfectly. Just as Raeford had told them to do, the four Royal Ambassadors assumed their positions, holding the downcast, solemn look, and then, as one, quickly raised their heads and assumed a sort of military parade rest pose. They got it purty good; at least it was probably the most organized endeavor that had ever been carried out at a funeral at Plainview Baptist Church. At that point Blair House, the funeral director, who had remained standing a short distance away, motioned to the funeral attendees that it was time to parade by the casket to show their final tribute to the dear departed Helen Cline. The crowd came row by row, kinda like parishioners do at Communion, and the first group was walking by and stopping and looking at Helen——-one of her aunts even smiled down at her and pinched her dead chubby cheek—–when a guy came racing, or rather staggering, up the main aisle and positioned himself right beside Calvin Cooley at the head of the casket. The boy was dressed in a madres short sleeved shirt and white Bermuda shorts and was wearing flip flops. He sort of rolled to a stop there and just stood grinning a goofy grin at the crowd; it was Morris Hight, and he was being true to the form he assumed every time he darkened the door of his daddy’s church, which was being shit faced, knee walking drunk, having already killed one of two half pints of Popov Vodka he had bought that morning down at Mr. Moose’s trailer. Raeford Hall was aghast; Morris Hight had called him the day before going on about how since his daddy was the resident preacher he should be allowed to be in the Royal Ambassador Color Guard. Raeford had very calmly and logically explained to Morris, who was drunk when he called Raeford, that the Color Guard had already been chosen; Raeford exhibited great reserve in dealing with Morris Hight, especially since Morris was not even a member of the Royal Ambassadors, and had even egged them in a meeting room during one of their weekly gatherings, bursting in the door, throwing eggs, and scampering around like Ernest T. Bass did on that episode of Andy Griffith where Barney and Andy attempted to “civilize” the mountain boy and they all went to the party at the Mayberry “high society” lady’s house and Ernest T. Bass uttered his most famous greeting—-“How do you do Mrs. Wiley”, and met Rowmena, and Mrs. Wiley thought he was from backbay Boston, and then it all fell apart and Ernest T. and Rowmena started leap frogging over bushes.
Raeford Hall could not believe his eyes, but yet he could; Morris and his sister Leeanne seemed to try to do anything and everything in their power to embarrass their minister father, who was sitting quietly near the front of the church and at that very moment shaking his head sadly as he watched the antics of his only son. Then as if it had been choreographed Leeanne Hight, who was seated at her customary spot on the back row, gave out a cackle and pointed at her brother. Leeanne was also ripped, having killed a half pint of Bourbon De Luxe and smoked half a joint with her boyfriend Harry McAbee, who was sitting beside her. Leeanne had on a skirt that struck her at mid-thigh when she was standing; she was pantiless, Harry’s hand being out of sight far up the skirt. Raeford knew there was nothing to do but tough it out and try to maintain decorum with the Royal Ambassador Color Guard unit. Everyone was being okay with the exception of Calvin Cooley, who had hollered and waved at Leeanne Hight when she had giggled. Of course Morris Hight had to “cut a shine” as the old phrase went; the first thing he did was walk around and bend down and kiss ol’ Helen on her forehead, blubbering “no more quarter stuff,” referring to the very credible rumor that that was what could get you some “affection” from the departed. All of the Color Guard had heard this; in fact every last one of them had participated in the exchange, but they managed to keep a straight face. Mercifully, Morris went back to his previous spot and by the time the thirty minute viewing period was getting close to being over Morris had tired out a little, sitting cross-legged at the head of Helen’s casket next to Calvin Cooley, and then had just fallen over on his side and begun snoring loudly. Blair House, standing at his post nearby, walked over and tenderly picked up the pickled wannabe Royal Ambassador and carried him out the side door of the church. Then, as it was two o’clock and the viewing period was over Blair falls walked over and closed the casket lid over Helen Cline. On cue, as orchestrated by the funeral director, The Prophet Ezekiel entered from the rear of the church and walked to the communion rail where Teener Cline’s casket lay. At this moment Blair Houser nodded lightly to Raeford Hall and the Royal Ambassador Color Guard, minus the already departed uninvited Morris Hight, and they took their seats. The Prophet looked over to Frances Hayes, the long time organist at Plainview Baptist Church and raised his right hand slightly and she began a soft rendition of “Just As I Am”. Then the double doors leading in from the vestibule where the church bell was were opened wide, each door held by one of Blair House’s associates, and Helen’s family entered. Gladys and Theodore led the family in to the church, Gladys having the assistance of a strong arm of one of Blair’s boys on her right side. Behind Mutt and Coconut Billie Cline walked, cleaned up about as well as could be expected. He had his usual goofy-ass look on his face and once in a while would flick his rat-like tongue out. After Billie there was an entourage of aunts and uncles and cousins who followed Mutt and Coconut. They were all seated on the first two pews on the right-hand side of the church.
Everyone was standing in respect for Helen’s family, for after The Prophet had motioned to the organist he had slowly and solemnly lifted his upturned palms waist high. Blair House and Associates got everybody seated and after Blair had nodded to The Prophet the former Zeke Taylor lowered his hands and all took their seats. The Prophet Ezekiel then addressed the flock.
Using his best wry smile of resignation and acceptance The Prophet Ezekiel said “Please let us pray: Dear Omniscient and Omnipotent God in Heaven, we beseech ye to bless this gathering congregated here today to honor the life of Helen Cline, a child who has been tragically taken from us. We will miss her sweet smile and we reflect upon her life as one ended too soon but one she spent thinking of others first, over herself, especially her parents, Gladys and Theodore, solid citizens of our community and proud parents of Helen”. At this point Gladys, who had been sniffling quietly, let out a plaintive wail and just kept on getting’ it for a good ten seconds, followed by hollers of “Oh my poor baby, oh my precious lil redhead.” The Prophet slowly walked the five feet to the first pew, and smiling his best consoling and beatific smile leaned over and put his arms around Gladys Cline. Almost immediately she was comforted and within twenty seconds The Prophet was able to pull away and resume his former position, and it was not a second too soon because the mixed aroma of Railroad Mills snuff and way too much Gardenia perfume had just about stifled him.
The Prophet Ezekiel returned to the front to face the crowd and spoke. “I am The Prophet Ezekiel,” he said, watching the group very closely as he spoke these words, thinking that maybe there might be some smirks, but everyone looked attentive and tuned in to his speech as he went on to explain how he had come to be the officiating pastor and how gracious Rev. Fred Hight and Deacon William Hall had been in allowing him to be there today. The Prophet then proceeded; “I am going to read from Ezekiel 3:12,” he said, moving to behind the lectern and picking up his Bible. “Then the spirit took me up, and I heard behind me a voice of a great rushing, saying BLESSED be the Glory of the Lord from his place.” The Prophet Ezekiel paused to look at the audience, gauging them, before he raised his voice almost to a shout and repeated the last part of the scripture; “blessed be the glory of the Lord from his place”. At the end of this sentence The Prophet definitely had EVERYONE’S attention, and he looked at them solemnly.
The Prophet then took his planned fifteen second pause and allowed a light smile to appear on his face. “Brothers and Sisters in Christ,” he said, “in times such as these it is very difficult to feel ‘blessed’, like I just read about in the Scripture. But I want all of you to relax a moment and reflect on how ‘blessed’ we are. Oh yes, we are gathered here to honor and grieve for Helen Cline, a sweet and joyful girl who has been ripped from our lives by a horrible accident, but we need to expand our thinking and emotions beyond this very sad moment, this very, very sad moment when we pay tribute to and say goodbye to Helen Cline. I beseech you to think of the times when you were with Teener and passed the time of day with her in joy and in love.” The Prophet paused a moment as Raeford Hall fidgeted and coughed, looking more than a bit uncomfortable, no doubt memories of a quarter’s worth of Helen’s “joy” wafting through his mind. The Prophet smiled reassuringly at Raeford and continued. “I want everyone to think about a joyful moment with Helen, and I want everyone to think about it silently, and I want you to do it for a full minute, beginning now.”
The Prophet Ezekiel then began walking around, up and down the narrow aisles of Plainview Baptist Church, catching the eye of many of the group, and when he did smiling his beatific smile and giving his reassuring nod. After a while he walked back up to the lectern and resumed.
“Yes, today I am speaking of being blessed, and particularly of how blessed we all were to have known Helen Cline. But when we truly think about being blessed, even at this time of immeasurable sorrow, I think we should gain perspective and should in this moment of honoring our dear departed Helen make mention of the words of Jesus, from The Sermon On The Mount, from St. Matthew chapter 5, verses 1-11: ‘And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him; and he opened his mouth and taught them, saying Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted”. The Prophet stopped for a moment and walked over to Gladys and Theodore and said “Remember this passage, my children, Matthew, Chapter 5, verse 4, and remember it well, and let it comfort you: Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted”. The Prophet looked at them unsmiling, but displaying his most earnest look, and walked back to the lectern, but not before letting his eyes scan the crowd, now a very “into the moment” crowd.
When The Prophet got back behind the lectern and looked at Gladys and Theodore he could see that their sniveling, whiney, crying demeanor had been replaced by a calmness, maybe even a look of hope. As The Prophet Ezekiel quickly assessed the group again he thought he saw some other similar looks—–“I believe I got ‘em thinkin’ a little,” he said to himself.
The Prophet Ezekiel continued. “Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful; for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God.” He stopped and walked away from the lectern to stand in front of the Cline family. He then repeated Matthew, Chapter 5, verse 8; “Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God, and then as he stood there in front of the Clines he smiled his most beatific smile and said “Gladys, Theodore, Billie, all of us know that Helen was pure in heart, and therefore all of us are satisfied that Helen in this very moment is seeing God. Although her corporeal body is still with us, we know that her soul has gone on to be with Jesus Christ our Heavenly Father.” The Prophet got resigned smiles from the Cline parents after this speech; when he glanced at their son Billie grinned at him and flicked his rat tongue up to touch the end of his nose. The Prophet then read through verse eleven and again mentioned that these verses were referred to as The Beatitudes and that they were spoken at The Sermon On The Mount.
The Prophet Ezekiel then asked everyone present to bow their heads in prayer, and he took off on his denouement: “O Gracious and Merciful Father, we all are resigned to the fact that we cannot possibly understand all of thy works, why some things happen while others don’t, why some prayers are answered and others go unheeded, why some people prosper, and others, who try just as hard, fall by the wayside, and why one of our loveliest jewels, Helen Cline, has been plucked from our presence. Dear God we can only take solace in knowing that she is with You now and will remain so forever. Amen”.
As the congregation raised their heads The Pophet looked over to organist Frances Hayes, nodding, and she broke into the old song of encouragement “Farther Along”. “Please now stand and sing along with me the first and fouth verses. Gladys Cline tells me that it was Helen’s favorite,” he said smiling warmly at Mrs. Cline as her head bobbed up and down in agreement. “Number 235 in the Baptist Hymnal”, The Prophet announced, and then began the song in his rich baritione.
“Templed and tried, we’re oft made to wonder,
Why should it be thus all the day long;
While there are others living about us,
Never molested, though in the wrong”.
The congregation sang along with The Prophet Ezekiel; then they followed his lead when he stepped up the volume on the refrain.
“Farther along we’ll know more about it,
Farther along we’ll understand why,
Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine,
We’ll understand it all by and by”.
Then as he began the fourth verse, as they had rehearsed, Blair House and his associates came to the front and positioned the coffin enclosing the body of Helen Cline, turning it ninety degrees, and started to slowly roll it down the aisle toward the rear of the church. As one the Royal Ambassador Color Guard placed their hands over their hearts and followed lil’ Helen’s pink casket down the aisle.
“Often when death has taken our loved ones,
Leaving our home so lone and so drear,
Then do we wonder why others prosper,
Living so wicked year after year.”,
they sang, then as the entourage exited the sanctuary the rest of the mourners followed, beginning with the family and then the ensuing rows from front to back, all heading out to the graveside service. The Prophet Ezekiel stood watching from his place at the front of the church. He felt very, very, good with his performance, and he was well satisfied that this event would be a springboard for his evangelistic career. As he started down the aisle something caught his eye to his right and he stopped and turned to see Morris Hight standing in the side door, the door Blair had carried him out earlier. Morris was holding a half empty pint of Bourbon De Luxe in his hand and tears were streaming down his cheeks. The Prophet Ezekiel walked over to Morris and hugged him, then plucked the bottle from his hand and killed it in three seconds, putting his arm around the besotted Morris Hight and escorting him to the graveside.
The Prophet Ezekiel pulled up in front of the Meadowbrook Supper Club down in the edge of South Carolina at 2:00 p.m., the appointed time he and Bill Ramseur had agreed upon. The Prophet walked into the familiar bar side, where all the booths and stools were; the left side of the building was totally open with tables and chairs set around. It was here that the former Zeke Taylor had spent many a Saturday drinkin’ PBRs with his buddies. But that seemed a hundred years ago to The Prophet as he walked in the door and espied bill Ramseur in a booth to the right; The Prophet’s drinking days were purty much behind, although he would have a touch once in a while. He walked over and extended his hand to Bill Ramseur, who stood up from the booth grinning broadly. They sat down and Bill Ramseur nodded toward the longneck PBR sitting in front of The Prophet; “On me,” he said, taking a long pull from the tall brown bottle in front of him. “So how have you been, The Prophet Ezekiel,” asked Bill Ramseur, the hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth. The Prophet looked a little surprised at the way he had been addressed but recovered quickly and said “So I guess you are up to date on where I am in my journey?” The Prophet said, Bill nodding in agreement.
“I must say I think you thought things out right well, especially for a newcomer of your age. You are light years ahead of where I was in my early twenties; I was still whoring and drinking, and then got married to that slut from High Shoals. Course that didn’t last so awful long, not after I found her in bed with Reverend Theophilus Rhyne that day I came home from work early. Anyway, the mental anguish and turmoil fomented my conversion to Christianity and the acceptance of our Lord Jesus Christ as my own very personal savior,”Ramseur said.
“Amen, Brother Ramseur,”The Prophet said, tipping up the PBR. “As you aware, The Prophet Ezekiel, that was when I got involved with the Pentecostal Holiness Church, and after serving a brief apprenticeship at the Lucia Holiness Tabernacle up near Lincolnton, only a year, I struck out with my new wife, whom I met at the church, traveling North and South Carolina spreading the Gospel. We started out just pulling up in little towns and preachin’ and singin’ on the street corner. I could play chords on a guitar and Eileen would bang on her tambourine and I would preach and we would sing old Gospel songs. Then when I commenced preachin’ Eileen would set the tambourine down in front of me and before you knew it quarters and fifty cent pieces and sometimes a little green would accumulate. We got to where we could stay in a room and have enough to eat on what we made, and then as time went on we were able to stay in an inexpensive motel some and put away some money. When I ran into a traveling evangelist down in Cheraw, South Carolina, who was fixin’ to retire I reckon the stars were aligned and the price he wanted for his tent was reasonable; he even financed some of it and let me pay that part over a year. Yep, Eileen and I have been all over the southeast and the tent is not leakin’ a drop right now, and we can go over there and turn the garden hose on it to prove it. Now I’ll tell you, the Prophet Ezekiel, it has got a few patches on it, but that is it. I have it set up on a field there on the Dallas-Stanley Highway right across from the Ramseur homeplace, where my mama still lives. Ya know she doesn’t go along with my Pentecostal Holiness approach, being a life long Lutheran and all, but every year she has allowed me to come set up my tent for a week. It was kinda funny, ‘cause she never came to a service, but she was good enough to let me set up there. And I have talked to her, and she is willing to let you do the same thing, set up there for a week a year at no cost.”
The Prophet Ezekiel had been listening intently to Reverend Bill Ramseur; he trusted him, knowing the family and always having heard good things about him, even from people who weren’t too crazy about Pentecostal Holiness Evangelists. The former Zeke Taylor had even played high school football against Reverend Bill Ramseur’s younger brother, Mike.
Brian and Lucille, the owners, walked over to say hello to them. It was early, so they could still talk pretty well; The Prophet Ezekiel ordered two more long neck PBRs for them.
“Well, Bill,” The Prophet said, “I think your price you had mentioned when we talked on the phone of $800.00 is fair, considering it will hold a hundred people, but I wonder if you might think about maybe looking at things like the minister who sold it to you did”.
“You mean financing a bit of it?”, Reverend Ramseur asked, grinning at The Prophet.
“Exactly”, said The Prophet, “and I will tell you that my wife Cinnamon and I have seven hundred dollars in our savings jar at home, so if you can give us a year to pay you the other hundred I’d say we have a deal.” Reverend Bill Ramseur put on a big smile and took down half of the PBR that Brian had delivered; “I will agree to that, but I do want you to go over there to where the tent is set up across from my mama’s house and let me turn the hose pipe on it. I would feel better about the transaction that way. Plus I have talked to mama, and she is willing to let you keep the tent on that site for a full six weeks, just to get you off to a good start; now mind you, after this six week period it will go back to just one week a year, understood?” Reverend Ramseur said, looking straight at The Prophet Ezekiel and not smiling. The Prophet understood the gravity of the situation and put out his hand, Reverend Ramseur quickly extending his, and the two evangelists had a deal.
The Prophet Ezekiel followed Reverend Ramseur to the Stanley Highway where his tent was set up. It was the standard light brown canvas type, essentially a greatly reduced version of a circus tent. Reverend Ramseur turned on the spigot and shot water all over the tent from one end to the other, repeating the process several times as The Prophet walked around inside looking for leaks. Satisfied that the tent was leak free, The Prophet drove the short distance to his trailer, secured the $700.00 that he and Pepper had saved, and hurried back to the tent, where Reverend Ramseur was waiting with two papers, one a bill of sale and the other a promissory note for $100.00, due in full in one year’s time, and just like that The Prophet Ezekiel had a tent. Reverend Ramseur told The Prophet that he would throw in the small generator which provided the limited lighting inside the tent as a gesture of good will, and made The Prophet promise him that he would let him know when the first service would be. With that The Prophet Ezekiel drove back home to tell Pepper that everything was set, they had a tent, and it was time to get the show on the road.
The next week The Prophet Ezekiel spent every evening over at the tent, rehearsing singing and preaching and securing folding chairs from various places. Blair House even let The Prophet have fifteen chairs that were kind of tattered but still workable. They managed to pull together another thirty-five chairs of different types to give them a total of fifty seats. When the two of them had gotten all of the chairs properly assembled in the tent The Prophet stood back and looked at the assemblage with an amused smile; it was quite a diverse assortment of seating, ranging from an old recliner to abandoned dining room chairs, and even one yellow plastic covered chrome legged kitchen table chair that Paul Ramseur’s aunt, Wendell, had donated. The Prophet had set the time for the first preaching—one week from the day he had purchased the tent. He felt like that would give them enough time to polish up the program. And just like when he was preaching under the sheets in his back yard people started coming and hanging around, more every night until Monday night, two days before the first service, The Prophet counted thirty people inside the tent. As he stood watching the group, a rather rotund figure in suspenders sporting two badges hanging on his belt, sheltered by his ample belly, caught The Prophet’s eye. It was Inspector Huffmeister, the building inspector, come no doubt to relieve The Prophet of some cash.
“Good evening, The Prophet Ezekiel,” Inspector Huffmeister said, grinning and exposing his snaggly teeth and squinting at The Prophet through his piggy red rimmed eyes. “Looks like the evangelistic world is smiling on you The Prophet Ezekiel. I hear you bought this tent and are gonna be here for six weeks. Is that right?” Huffmeister asked. “That is true, Inspector Huffmeister, and what can I do for you?” The Prophet Ezekiel said.
“Well, things have changed; this here tent is a lot different from those ragged sheets you had tied together over behind your trailer. What you got here is a much more permanent situation,” the Inspector said, surveying the inside of the tent. “But it will only be here for six weeks,” The Prophet offered. Inspector Huffmeister stuck his chubby thumbs inside his pants, right where his two building inspector badges hung and said “It’s all relative my Prophet, it is all relative. Surely you will agree that a real canvas tent is certainly more of a permanent structure, and I am sure that you would also agree that having this tent out here with room for parking and everything sorta shoots this whole situation into more of a public structure. Why what in the world you gonna do if somebody wants to go to the bathroom?” The Prophet Ezekiel was dumbfounded; for once the inspector had said something that actually made sense. “Well I guess I kinda overlooked that,” The Prophet said. “Well, I understand that, you bein’ new in the business and all, and I myself have been known to overlook things, you know what I mean, The Prophet Ezekiel?” The Prophet understood totally. “But Inspector Huffmeister,” The Prophet protested, “I just gave my last dime to Reverend Ramseur to buy this tent. I don’t have a cent.” “I figgered that, The Prophet Ezekiel, so I am gonna do you a huge favor. I will give you three days of services to get a Porta Pottie here and bring me an envelope with five twenties in it”. Huffmeister eyed The Prophet and grinned again; The Prophet Ezekiel, knowing he was had, nodded in agreement. “I would suggest one of them ‘love offerings,” Inspector Huffmeister threw over his shoulder as he swaggered from the tent. The Prophet knew he had his work cut out for him, but he felt strong, and having gained confidence from his successful debut at Teener Cline’s funeral, he was satisfied he would prevail.
The lanky man with the big brown teeth knocked on the door, and after hearing “come in” walked inside the office of Dr. Charlie Glenn, Chief of the Psychiatry Department for the Western North Carolina Center for the Criminally Insane. “Please be seated,” Dr. Glenn said, smiling benevolently and motioning toward a small wing backed chair that faced Dr. Glenn’s large mahogany desk. Pasour Rhyne nodded solemnly and took his seat, then lifted his eyes to face the man who held his fate in his hands. Pasour Rhyne had been in the institution for eight years, and this was the second time Dr. Charlie Glenn had called him in. The word in the wards was there was never good news for you the first time Dr. Glenn talked to you, but the release rate was over fifty percent on the second trip.
Dr. Charlie Glenn continued to smile at Pasour Rhyne and began. “Mr. Rhyne, I understand that you have been here at our center for eight years now, is that correct?”. “Yes, Dr. Glenn, eight years,” Pasour replied. “And according to the documents I am looking at this very moment I see that you have spent your entire tenure here and have accrued no disciplinary infractions.” “I have no recollection of any,” Pasour Rhyne said, looking blankly at the Doctor. “And I also understand that you have undergone thirteen rounds of electro-shock therapy, and that you say that you feel fine presently and that you have absolutely no recollection of murdering a female evangelist by the name of Sister Alma in Dallas, North Carolina some eight years ago, correct?” When Dr. Glenn mentioned the name of Sister Alma Pasour Rhyne shuddered inwardly but was able to keep his totally calm outward composure. “No, Dr. Glenn I don’t remember that name and certainly do not recollect doing anything like that to anyone,” Pasour said, changing his blank look to a more earnest one.
“Well, Mr. Rhyne, I have been in this field for over thirty years, and I have seen this sort of occurrence a couple of times, and mind you, it is rare. But electro-shock therapy works differently with each individual and according to the cases I have been around and involved with the total loss of memory of the incident is a very good sign of recovery, a very good sign,” stated Dr. Charlie Glenn, picking his lit cigar up out of the ash tray on his desk and puffing on it vigorously. Pasour Rhyne noticed the little burn holes in the Doctor’s starched white shirt. Shooting for his very best plaintive look Pasour asked, “Well, what does this mean, Dr. Glenn?”
“What it means, Mr. Rhyne, is that I have something for you,” said Dr. Charlie Glenn, opening the drawer in front of his ample round belly and withdrawing an envelope with the address of the center in the upper left. Pasour noticed that it was addressed to him.
Pasour opened the envelope and read the following: “Dear Mr. Rhyne: After an extensive evaluation of your situation and your progress the Psychiatric Team of the Western Carolina Center for the Criminally Insane have concluded that the treatments you have received in your time here have cured you of any mental illness. I, Dr. Charlie Glenn, Chief of Psychiatry, concur with this conclusion and I hereby deem that you, Pasour Rhyne, are fit to return to society.” It was signed by Dr. Charlie Glenn, and in the envelope was a one way ticket to Gastonia, North Carolina.
Pasour had sort of expected this to happen, and after the way Dr. Glenn was talking before he had handed him the envelope it was all he could do to contain himself; however, he had maintained his composure and his nonplussed demeanor while he read the letter, allowing himself to smile gently as he finished.
“Thank you Dr. Glenn, so much,” Pasour Rhyne said, maintaining the benign smile. Dr. Charley Glenn beamed at Pasour Rhyne and re-lighted his Havatampa Nugget cigar. Victories were few and far between at the Western Carolina Center, and Dr. Glenn was reveling in this one; he was satisfied that he and his team had brought a disturbed, pitiful human being back to a point where he could re-enter society and have some level of productivity. He stood up, holding his smile and extending his arm across the desk to shake hands with the murderer. Pasour Rhyne rose and walked to the front of the desk and shook hands with Dr. Charlie Glenn.
“Thank you Doctor, for all you have done for me,” Pasour said, and let a little tear roll down his cheek. “Good luck to you Mr. Rhyne, and let us hear from you. You probably would prefer not to come back and visit,” he chuckled as he clapped Pasour Rhyne on the shoulder. “That would be true, Dr. Glenn, that would be very true,” said Pasour Rhyne, his purplish lips skimming back to expose his large brown teeth. Pasour Rhyne then left the Doctor’s office, and as he went out the door and got into the hall muttered to himself “No recollection of shooting her, what a friggin’ joke; why, if she walked up to me again I would let her have it one more time—pow, right between the eyes.” Pasour Rhyne giggled quietly as he walked back to his room to prepare for his trip home.
Pasour Rhyne’s bus trip the next day to Gastonia was uneventful; Pasour had called his half-witted cousin Johnny Ray and told him to meet him at the Trailways Station. Johnny Ray was glad to pick him up; he did not work, had absolutely nothing to do, and welcomed any kind of deviation from his dull norm. Johnny Ray got a government check every month, the product of a nasty motorcycle accident in which a portion of his frontal lobe was removed by a telephone pole.
“So ya okay now, Pasour?” Johnny Ray asked as they drove down Highway 321 toward Dallas. They would take a left when they got to the Dallas Crossroads and head down the Cherryville Highway, then take another left onto White and Jenkins road when they got to the Costner Community. That was where Pasour Rhyne had gone to elementary school until he was in the fourth grade, when the Principal had met with his mother and explained that the school was just not equipped to deal with a boy of Pasour’s age who still “soiled” his pants. Thereafter Pasour had remained at home, doing whatever. Pasour’s nonagenarian mother still lived in the old two-story clapboard siding house with the tin roof that Pasour had grown up in. She had been very excited to hear that her “boy” was coming home when Pasour had called her right after he hung up with Johnny Ray, and she assured him that he would be very welcome both at home and re-entering into the community. Pasour knew his momma would want to see him, but he was not too certain how the rest of the people would feel. Pasour figgered he would just have to wait and see.
“Yep, Johnny Ray, the head knocker psychiatrist up there says I am completely cured, so I guess I’ll just have to take his word on it,” Pasour said, as he grinned, pulling his purplish livery lips back over his brown teeth. “So what have I missed, anything exciting?” Pasour asked.
JohnnyRay pondered a moment and brightened up as he remembered something. “Well, they’s a new evangelist in town; he goes by the name of The Prophet Ezekiel and tonight is his first night in his new tent over there on the Stanley highway ‘bout halfway ‘tween Dallas and Stanley. I went over there one night last week and watched him and his wife practice—-you know she helps him by singing and playing the tambourine and such,” he said.
Pasour Rhyne had cringed inside when Johnny Ray had said the word “evangelist” but he had hidden the reaction. Pasour had become a master of hiding his true feelings, as evidenced by his performance up at the Western Carolina Center for the Criminally Insane.
“Who is this ‘The Prophet Ezekiel?’” Pasour asked. Johnny Ray giggled and said “tain’t nobody but ol’ Zeke Taylor from up around Spencer Mountain. He got religion when he was away at the Ranlo Prison Camp and decided he wuz gonna become an evangelist and got ol’ Judge Bulwinkle to legally change his name to The Prophet Ezekiel.” Johnny Ray filled Pasour Rhyne in on the whole story, from The Prophet Ezekiel preaching under his sheet tent behind his single wide trailer to his buying Reverend Paul Ramseur’s old tent. He even told Pasour about how Helen Cline had got run over in front of Bill’s Food Center, and that her parents had gotten special permission from Reverend Fred Hight and Deacon William Hall to let “The Prophet Ezekiel” preach Helen’s funeral. Johnny Ray told all about the color guard there at Plainview Baptist Church and what a great talk The Prophet Ezekiel had given at the funeral.
“He even had a conversion right there at the graveside service just when they were getting’ ready to lower Helen Cline down into the ground; Morris Hight had been standing there beside The Prophet Ezekiel, kinda weepy but quiet like, when he started hollerin’ ‘help me, help me’ at the top of his lungs. Well The Prophet Ezekiel sprung into action and grabbed ol’ Morris around the shoulder with one arm and slapped his free hand up on Morris’ forehead and looked him dead in the eye and said ‘do you believe son, do you believe in Jesus Christ, your only savior, the Son of God who died for all our sins; do you accept Jesus Christ into your heart and soul and do you vow to follow him and his teachings from this day forward?’. Ol’ Morris Hight took to cryin’ and sayin’ ‘oh yes, oh yes, The Prophet Ezekiel’. Pasour, I wuz standing right there across from them when it happened, and I can tell you I ain’t never seen nothin’ like it in my entire life. Why, when Morris said he accepted Jesus everybody there at the graveside commenced to clapping, even Blair House’s men, and I swear I saw a tear slide down ol’ Blair’s cheek. You oughta see them purty new teeth Blair has got; come all the way from Anderson, South Carolina.
Pasour Rhyne had been listening intently to Johnny Ray’s rambling monologue. “What does this woman look like,” Pasour asked, getting an uneasy feeling inside even as he asked the question. “Why, hell, she’s purty and wears tight shiney dresses and jumps around; she kinda reminds me of Sister Alma,” Johnny Ray said, immediately regretting bringing up the name of the late evangelist. But Johnny Ray’s regret increased ten fold as he watched his cousin’s eyes get big and his jaws tighten.
“Why did you have to mention that sorry bitch’s name?” Pasour shouted as he grabbed Johnny Ray by the shoulder, nearly causing the truck to run off the road. Pasour caught himself and released JohnnyRay, apologizing profusely. “Johnny Ray, I ain’t got no idea what got into me; I am so sorry.”
“Don’t worry, Pasour, I’m alright”, Johnny Ray said, but he was still shaken by Pasour’s outburst. Pasour was quiet for a few miles and then said “Johnny Ray, how ‘bout you come get me tonight and we ride over to see The Prophet Ezekiel’s Revival.” Johnny Ray looked at his cousin, who was now smiling broadly. “Well I guess I can; I’ll be by at seven o’clock,” Johnny Ray said as they pulled up to the old clapboard house that had never been painted. Pasour Rhyne took his bag and got out of the truck and walked up to the L shaped side porch where his 94 year old mother waited to greet him, grinning her toothless grin. Johnny Ray waved to both of them as he got back on to the road, wondering a little if Pasour Rhyne had really gotten “the cure”.
It was opening night at “The Prophet Ezekiel Crusade” in the tent on the Dallas-Stanley Highway. The Prophet, after the visit form Inspector Huffmeister, felt a bit under the gun, but as he stood outside smoking a cigarette, a Lucky Strike straight drive, his fears started to vanish. The service was to commence at 7:30, and at 7:00 p. m. he counted twelve cars in the gravel lot, causing him to wonder if they would have enough chairs. “If there is a really big crowd that friggin’ Huffmeister will probably show up and cause a problem,” he thought to himself, but then dismissed that as paranoia, realizing that Huffmeister was all about money, and as long as The Prophet Ezekiel could come up with it he would be okay.
The Prophet Ezekiel felt good; the rehearsals had gone well; Pepper was getting into the swing of things shaking her tambourine and jiggling around in her plum colored sequined outfit with the slit on the side that went ten inches past her knee. The Prophet chuckled to himself as the thought struck him that his bride was about as sexy as the late Sister Alma had been. He thought a bit about his and Pepper’s trip to see Polie Maxwell and how Polie had come to his end. But he mostly remembered Polie Maxwell’s effusive goings on about his never ending love for Sister Alma. The Prophet could understand that kind of emotion; he realized that his feelings for his beautiful wife Pepper pretty much coincided with the way the late Polie had spoken of the late Alma. As The Prophet thought about these things he stepped around to the back of the tent and “while nobody was looking” pulled a thin flask from inside his suitcoat pocket, unscrewed the top and took three good drinks of Oodley Creek moonshine that Tom Costner had given him just this afternoon. Tom was a “rounder Bill”, bootlegger and entrepreneur, and he had always liked the former Zeke Taylor. Tom, always a well-spoken critter, had said “Good luck in your endeavor,” and grinned at The Prophet as he handed him a quart mason jar of the best shine in Gaston County.
The Prophet stuck his flask back inside his coat and walked back to the front of the tent. He stationed himself at the entrance and greeted people as they came in. “Hello, Buford, hello Bert,” he said, smiling beatifically as he acknowledged the Chief Usher and organist for the late Sister Alma. “I swear, that is surely funny that those two would show up”, The Prophet thought to himself. “I will take that as a good sign”. As The Prophet greeted a few other people his ear was tuned to the music coming from the phonograph inside the tent; Cinnamon had selected “How Great Thou Art” by the famous George Beverly Shea. The Prophet loved that song, and it didn’t hurt that Mr. Shea was associated with Dr. Billy Graham. Of course Dr. Graham was a very famous evangelist, and was a North Carolina boy.
“Yep, Pepper has come a long way om the last coupla weeks,”The Prophet Ezekiel surmised as he stood there in front of the tent. She had become much more at ease in front of people, and he could tell that she was being well received. Her Sister Alma-esque burgeoning breasts were also a sizeable asset; her outfit tonight with a plunging neckline was sure to be an attention getter.
“Hello Johnn Ray,”The Prophet said as the slight, grinning little fellow walked by. The Prophet noticed a man with him that he did not recognize; of course, there was not much to recognize, for he was wearing sunglasses, a Dallas High School Yellow Jackets baseball cap and a long coat. The man had his hands deep in the coat pockets. As the two walked by The Prophet Ezekiel burst into a broad smile as Blair House came striding toward him. “Thank you for coming Mr. Houser, and thank you so much for those donated chairs,” The Prophet said.
Blair was not all dressed up like usual, but was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, a smart black hat with a small red feather sitting atop his silver hair. “We were out riding horses earlier and cut it short so we could come out and see you,” the genial undertaker said. Then, motioning toward the two people with him he said, “The Prophet Ezekiel, this is Sloan and Mae, two charter members of the Gaston County Horsemen’s Association.” The Prophet looked at the two: Sloan was a slender strong looking man with brawny forearms, and Mae was a busty redhead with slightly askew red hair, a good-sized rear, and a very red face. The Prophet noticed a couple of pieces of straw clinging to Mae’s riding breeches. The two smiled and went on in the tent with the President of the Horsemen’s Association.
Pasour Rhyne and Johnny Ray took a seat, Pasour on the yellow kitchen chair that Reverend Ramseur’s aunt had donated and Johnny Ray sprawled out in the tattered recliner. Johnny Ray wanted to give himself a little distance from his cousin; Pasour had been acting a little strange ever since he had picked him up. First of all Pasour had snapped “None of you damn business” when Johnny Ray had asked about his unusual attire. Then Pasour had been quiet for the whole ride, just sitting there silently behind those dark shades and fidgeting with something in his coat pocket. Johnny Ray did not inquire any further.
Pasour Rhyne sat quietly on his yellow plastic chrome chair and listened to George Beverly Shea bellow out “How great thou are, Then sings my soul, my savior God to thee, how Great Thou Art, How Great Thou Art. Pasour loved how ol’ George would spread out the last four words of the song at the end. “Kinda funny, the last four words is the title of the song,” Pasour thought to himself, giggling inside.
Then he reached inside his right coat pocket and fingered the snub-nosed thirtyeight caliber pistol he had retrieved from the woodshed at his house. Of course it was not the gun that had been used to shoot sister Alma, that weapon being somewhere deep in the evidence room of the Gaston County Sheriff’s Department, or in some Deputy’s gun collection. This pistol was one he had cleaned and oiled heavily and wrapped up in a very oily rag the day before he murdered the evangelist. He remembered that he had chuckled to himself those years ago as he had hidden the pistol. “Ya always gotta have backup,” he had said aloud, and cackled after he had said it. Pasour Rhyne had remembered exactly where ha had hidden it, so he had no problem going straight to the gun; he had wiped it off real good and carried it way back into the woods and fired the .38. The gun had worked fine so Pasour was all set.
Ever since that Dumbass Johnny Ray had said that the new evangelist’s woman reminded him of Sister Alma Pasour Rhyne had been obsessing on two women: Sister Alma and whoever this Pepper woman was. Pasour remembered how Sister Alma had been so disrespectful of him, and the more he thought about it he began fantasizing about this Pepper girl, and everytime he would think of her her face would be fuzzy, just enough out of focus to keep one from seeing exactly what she looked like. But the Pepper body was not difficult; the Pepper body in Pasour Rhyne’s mind was identical to Sister Alma’s——the great breasts, the sequined dress with the slit halfway up the left leg. Pasour Rhyne had spent the rest of the afternoon pondering and fantasizing, trying to get the girl’s face to come clear, but to no avail. He merely mumbled politely when his old mother would ask him a question. Finally the old lady gave up trying to talk to her son; she knew that sometimes he could get in some odd moods. So when he went back into his room and emerged in his outfit and announced that he was going somewhere with Johnny Ray she didn’t think much of it; she just stood in the doorway shaking her head slowly as the two of them departed.
The Prophet Ezekiel was standing on the little raised platform inside the tent looking out at the crowd; he swelled with pride as he noticed that every last seat was taken, even the old tattered recliner. As it was time for the show to begin he clapped his hands together to get everyone’s attention. When they quietened he smiled his most beatific smile and began.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let me welcome you to our gathering, on behalf of myself and my lovely wife Peppper.” At this cue the luscious Pepper came from the rear of the little stage to stand beside The Prophet Ezekiel, grabbing his right hand with her left. “I, The Prophet Ezekiel, take great pride in the opportunity to be here tonight to serve you all in the name of Jesus Christ. It has been a long and arduous journey to get where we are; now please bow your heads: Dear Wondrous, omniscient, and all-powerful God in heaven, we beseech you to bless this gathering of Christians, and we know that none of this would be possible were it not for your overflowing grace and forgiveness.”
“The first thing I would like to do this evening is to call brother Billie Cline to the stage.” Billie Cline had been standing off to the side of the stage; he was all dressed up, wearing the same outfit he had worn to Helen’s funeral. Willie ambled up onto the stage and stood beside the Prophet Ezekiel.
“Most of you if not all will remember when I announced that brother Cline had been suffering from the debilitating disease called Peyronie’s and that I would make the curing of that disease my first miracle. The time of revelation has come and tonight I ask you, brother Billie Cline, are you indeed cured?” Billie Cline was beaming broadly from all the attention but managed to break forth with “yes The Prophet Ezekiel, I am satisfied that I am completely cured.” At this point the crowd erupted in applause, hosannas and praise Gods, and The Prophet Ezekiel grabbed Billie Cline and hugged him and then shook his hand vigorously, slipping him the cash in the handshake. The celebration went on for a good minute but The Prophet Ezekiel brought it to a close after Billie Cline leaned over and asked him if he could do his nose trick; The Prophet just shook his head no, motioned to Billie to exit stage left, and the talented one departed, flicking his rat like tongue.
Pasour Rhyne looked around, his eyes shielded by his sunglasses; everyone had bowed their heads and closed their eyes, but his remained wide open, fixated on the face of Cinnamon. As The Prophet prayed Pasour Rhyne saw the haziness which had covered Cinnamon’s face start to break up a little around the edges.
“And I want to testify in front of everyone here tonight how grateful I am to have been delivered from my evil ways, the drinking, the cursing, the sinning. And Lord, I want everyone to know I gave all of that up that wonderful night in prison when I accepted Your Son, Jesus Christ, as my personal Savior,” The Prophet Ezekiel prayed.
Pasour Rhyne continued to stare at Pepper, and the face became clearer, the haze was disappearing until he could see her face totally——the face of Sister Alma. Pasour Rhyne shuddered; he had a feeling that it would turn out this way. So as The Prophet Ezekiel droned on Pasour Rhyne pulled the pistol out of his pocket, stood up, and raised it toward Pepper, who was only ten feet away. Then Pasour Rhyne’s liver colored lips drew back, showing his giant brown teeth, and with a shout of “I knew it was you bitch” he pulled the trigger.
Cliff and Cleff Carpenter were standing outside Plainview Baptist Church. They were two of only a handful of people remaining at the church. The Dallas Funeral Home limousine had already departed, bearing the bereaved survivors, Blair House himself behind the wheel.
“Well what did ya think of that?” Cleff said, “it just beats anything I have ever seen,” “Yep Cliff, you are right about that.” They were talking about how The Prophet Ezekiel had just concluded not only preaching his wife’s funeral but also presiding over the graveside service.
“I halfway expected to see him jump in there with a shovel and start filling up the grave”, Cliff chuckled, but caught himself and quickly said “no disrespect intended”. The two diminutive men were twins and stood only 5’2” tall. They turned as one when they noticed that someone had come into their midst. Bothe of them smiled as they recognized Pastor Hight’s son Morris. Morris was turning up a half pint bottle of bootleg Bourbon De Luxe and crying, tears running down his face. Apparently Morris had heard their conversation, for he blubbered “That ain’t all The Prophet Ezekiel did, you just ain’t heard the whole story”.
“What you talkin’ bout boy?” asked Cleff. “Well I was right there when ol’ Pasour Rhyne shot Pepper right between the eyes, so I saw The Prophet Ezekiel run to her side,” said Morris. “He held her in his arms and felt for a pulse, but it was obvious she was gone He then placed her body on the stage and looked at Pasour Rhyne, who was standing there screaming ‘help me, help me.’ He had dropped the pistol and was just standing there quivering. That was when The Prophet Ezekiel walked over to the man who had just killed his wife and put his arms around him and said ‘Are you ready to accept Jesus Christ into your heart, to give up all of your evil ways, and to praise Almighty God from this day forward?’”
‘Yes, The Prophet Ezekiel, oh yes, yes, yes,’ Pasour Rhyne cried, and that’s how The Prophet Ezekiel saved the man who had just shot his wife. And that’s why you saw that man in shackles at the service; The Prophet Ezekiel had made a special request that Pasour Rhyne be allowed to attend.”
The twins looked at each other as Morris Hight meandered away, draining the bottle and opening a fresh one from his hip pocket.
“Damned if that don’t take the cake,” Cleff said as the two men walked to their cars. “Bout the wildest thing that’s happened around here since that Methodist preacher turned himself into a woman by getting’ that operation.”
“You are right about that,” said Cliff, “but you know there was one good thing about that sex change thing.”
“And what was that,” Cleff bit, knowing a little about his twin’s sense of humor.
“Well since his name was Ronnie he didn’t have to change his name—-ya know that name will work for either sex,” Cliff said, chuckling.
“Truly a blessing, brother,” said Cleff, “truly a blessing”.