When the Sound of the Grinding is Low

Vic Sizemore

The old preacher is awakened by the voice of the bird. A bobwhite: it sings tirelessly outside his window, bob-bob-white, pitching up on the white. It is five in the morning and not yet light. Zechariah’s been up most of the night, making trips to the toilet, sitting, sitting, squatting beside it holding on to the sink counter, seeking relief from what felt like a baseball trying to rip through his prostate. The pain had subsided and allowed him to doze only an hour ago. Now his feet itch and burn. He is no longer strong enough to do something as simple as untuck the blanket and top sheet from underneath with his feet; in addition to the burning itch, his soles cramp from lack of free movement. Not much to be done about any of it; he’s just old.

He can hear Berna down the hallway in the kitchen, clinking a spoon round and round inside her mug of coffee. Now that their daughter Miriam has moved back out again—she’s cohabitating with yet another man, not a year after that mess with her second husband—their mornings have returned to the quiet routine of breakfast and devotions. Down the hallway, Berna’s spoon clatters into the sink.

He gets up and does a couple deep knee bends with his hand on the bed for balance and releases his morning gas in a long blubbering gust, and walks in place to loosen up and to assess his readiness for the day. His legs are white as moons, the tops of his thighs long ago rubbed hairless and smooth by his slacks. He watches the muscles contract under his loose skin, like pulling on uncooked chicken wings. He was once a thick, strong man. He hasn’t been well. This morning he has eighteen holes to walk with his prodigal son, his youngest, Ricky.

He opens the bedroom door, makes his way down the dark hall to the bright kitchen.

Berna is at the breakfast table, with her hair and makeup already done, in her peach terrycloth robe, Our Daily Bread open on top of her open Bible. She is drinking coffee she makes with a French press and grinder their son Andrew gave her for Christmas. She loves the thing, thinks it shows culture and breeding. She has unconsciously straightened her carriage as she sips her French pressed coffee in the mornings. He laughs to himself at her silliness this late in the game. She is as beautiful as the day he first saw her all those years ago, as small and frail as a little bird in the hand.

His pink grapefruit half is in a cereal bowl at his place-setting beside his granola and a cup of plain vanilla yogurt. His pills and a six ounce jelly jar with orange juice in it are on the placemat beside the grapefruit.

He doesn’t speak to Berna so as not to disturb her morning devotions. He pours himself a cup from the Mr. Coffee she still brews his coffee in. He doesn’t like the French press stuff. Too strong and harsh. Cowboy coffee is what it was called when he was young—funny now, according to Andrew, it’s apparently all the rage (Like eating locally grown turnips and collard greens, which in his day just meant you weren’t rich.) He calls her coffee le mud. It tears his stomach up. He tried it, drank two cups, and spent the rest of Christmas morning sitting on the toilet.

As he pours his coffee, a charley horse knots up in his left calf and he has to abandon the mug at the counter and sit in his chair to stretch.

Berna says, “Still golfing with Ricky today?” She doesn’t look up from Our Daily Bread.

Zechariah broke down and called the boy yesterday, prevailed upon him to play a round. He says, “As far as I know.” Ricky is supposed to swing by at seven so they can ride together. He might, he might not. He’s about as dependable as the bums Zechariah occasionally hires from the mission to do work around the house. He’s found that the same forbearance with which he deals with them is also the best way to handle Ricky.

“Where you going?” She sips her French pressed mud from a mug with a picture of pig students sitting at school desks looking at a pig teacher. It does smell better than his coffee.

“If he shows up.” He stands and gets his coffee, then eases back down. In the light angling down the back hillside, he can see that Berna’s humming bird feeder outside the kitchen window, a clear tube with red plastic flowers where the little birds feed, is empty. A shadowy white tail deer grazes at the back of the yard near the trees. Zechariah takes the steak knife from the table between them and works it around the edge of the grapefruit half, then between the wedges, loosening them for his spoon. He ignores her stare as he salts the fruit.

She shakes her head and looks back down at her Bible.

“Eighteen holes,” he says. “Going to walk it if I can get my feet to cooperate.”

As he eats, gas gathers and shifts in his intestines, beginning to cause discomfort. He’ll have to remember to take his Gas-X if Ricky comes along; otherwise he’ll save the money and get his relief the old fashioned way.

Berna says, “You should have invited Andrew to come.”

“He can’t get away.”

“True,” she says. She asks of Ricky, “Think he’ll show?”

Zechariah shrugs and digs at his grapefruit pulp.

***

At six, Berna leaves in the van to pick up Andrew’s girls for the day. Zechariah puts new strings in his golf cleats and cleans them off with a rag, then walks around the house, stopping at the living room picture window now and again to gaze out as the day dawns on his yard and driveway. He sits on the commode twice, once in the master bathroom and once in the hall bathroom, and has a sputtering bowel movement each time, but the pressure seems to keep building right back up. He is headed back to the hall bathroom when Ricky surprises him at the door.

The boy swings the door open and clatters in, already wearing a worn out pair of golf cleats he’s gotten somewhere. He has a new tattoo (some kind of pagan tribal pattern) on his neck that matches the ones he wears like sleeves down both arms. The metal-rimmed holes in his earlobes are big enough to wedge a dime into, and his black hair is pulled into a ponytail. He wears baggy black cargo shorts and a black t-shirt. The smell of smoke follows him in. He carries a motley array of beat up clubs in a blue vinyl golf bag that is ripped down one side.

“Where are your clubs?” Zechariah asks. He’d bought the boy a nice set of starter clubs two Christmases ago.

“Right here,” Ricky says, holding up the tattered bag.

Zechariah nods slowly and says, “You had breakfast? There’s cereal and granola. Grapefruit if you want. I’m going to make a quick bathroom run before we go. You should too.”

“I’m okay for now,” Ricky says smiling. He looks like a clown from a demon circus, like a devil-worshiping comedian dressed as a bum for a Three-Stooges style golf disaster. He clacks toward the kitchen. “I’ll have some iced tea if you have any.”

“Help yourself,” Zechariah says. Gas pains almost double him over. He hurries down the hall and through his bedroom to the master bathroom.

***

On their way to the first tee from the clubhouse, they approach a well-dressed man at the ball washer, which makes Zechariah even more mindful—and now just downright embarrassed—of how ridiculous Ricky looks.

The man slams the washer up and down as if he were angry with it. When they get to him, he looms over them, six feet four at least. His striped shirt clings to the roll of flesh around his middle. He turns and looks at Zechariah, then at Ricky. He wears a gold necklace, a bracelet on his left wrist, and a fat gold ring with a square black stone on his right hand. On his left hand is his glove. His clubs are Pings. His watch is a Rolex.

Ricky says, “What’s up, dude.” He steps to the ball washer and gets on his toes, like he’s trying to get his testicles into it. He says, “These ball washers aren’t made for short dudes like me, are they?” He chuckles.

The big man straightens his back and looks out over the course.

Zechariah says, “That was crude, Ricky. Crude and just plain silly.”

Ricky says, “So what? It was supposed to be silly.” He keeps chuckling.

“Well it wasn’t funny,” Zechariah says.

Ricky picks up the torn golf bag and says, “It was a little.”

Zechariah smoothes his shirt with a gloved hand and says to the man, “Are you golfing alone this morning?”

The man turns and peers at him as if Zechariah’s just asked him if his wife was fat. “Yes. I am alone this morning,” the big man says. His hair is parted on the side and looks like a politician’s haircut; expensive, but still somehow bad.

Zechariah says, “Would you like to play this round with us?”

The man looks at Ricky for an instant, then says, “Sure. Love to.” He reaches out his hand to shake and says, “Patrick Pence.”

Zechariah shakes his hand—the guy is wearing some powerful cologne.

Ricky and the man shake hands. “Call me Pat,” the man says.

“Nice to meet you, Pat.” Ricky says.

Pat says, “So what do you gentlemen do?”

Zechariah says, “I’m a pastor.”

Pat nods slowly and asks, “Where?”

“Tabernacle Baptist. Just up the road. I’ve just retired.”

Still nodding, Pat says, “I’ve heard you on WJOY.”

Zechariah says, “I hope it’s been a blessing to you.”

Pat looks at Ricky again.

Ricky grins at his ring and watch and says, “What do you do?”

“Right now I’m in insurance.” Pat slides his hand along the hair over his ear. The interstate highway is behind him, crowded with morning rush hour traffic speeding into Charleston from Teays Valley. Over his left shoulder, on the hill, is the State Police Recruit Training Center.

In the other direction, fog rises off the Kanawha River in the distance, and hangs in the hills behind it.

He says, “I was in the ministry myself once. I was a prophet.”

“Is that right?” Zechariah says. A prophet. Pentecostal maybe. The way he flashes his money around, more likely Assemblies of God. Health and Welfare gospel. “When was that?” Zechariah asks.

“A while ago,” Pat says, dismissively. He turns to Ricky and says, “So, what do you do?”

Ricky says, “I’m a musician.”

Pat nods his head as if to say, I should have guessed.

“We’re hot around town right now. Shine Minor. You may have heard of us. Americana, alt-country, roots.”

Ricky is the rhythm guitarist and lead singer in a thoroughly mediocre rock band. He paints and calls himself an artist sometimes too. Sometimes he calls himself a writer, and is supposed to have written a whole book of some sort, except Zechariah has yet to see a single page of printed proof.

Ricky reaches into the pocket on the ripped golf bag and produces a glove, wadded and crinkled like a used tissue from a lady’s purse. He works his hand into it and slams his fist several times into it, apparently getting some satisfaction from the loud thwacking sound. “We have an LP,” Ricky says. “We’re thinking of going to Nashville.”

“Really?” Zechariah says. “Nashville?”

Ricky turns and gives him a proud grin and nods. “Seriously, dude. We’re thinking hard about it.”

“That’s exciting,” Pat says.

Ricky looks at Zechariah and says, “I know worse bands that have made it.”

Zechariah’s feet itch and burn. He walks in place. He suspects that Ricky is a dope head.

Ricky pulls out a wedge and holds it like a baseball bat on his shoulder. Still looking at Zechariah, he says, “Make it or not, I’m taking the left hand path.”

***

There is no one waiting at the tee. The fog rises off the river and hovers over the valley, blindingly white in sunlight slanting in almost horizontally from the east. The sun is still over the Atlantic Ocean. Zechariah’s first drive is straight but only about a hundred feet down the fairway. He stomps his burning feet a few times and moves aside for Pat to tee off.

Pat hooks his drive into the trees. For all his expensive clubs and gear, his play appears to be just like his theology: wild and unrestrained, unsystematic, balls flying off every which way, with about as much purpose and direction as his glossolalia, that nonsense divine language his outfit believes in.

Pat says, “Mind if I take a Mulligan?”

Zechariah says, “Not at all.”

Ricky looks at him.

Pat asks Ricky, “Okay with you?”

“Take as many as you need,” he says. “We’re just knocking balls around.”

His second drive is better. It lands in the rough near where the other ball went into the trees. “Still hooking it,” he says to himself as he slides the club into his bag and tugs at the fingers of his glove.

Ricky steps to the tee. He has a driver now, a three wood, but still holds it like a baseball bat.  Ricky is thirty-two and still rides skateboards in the middle of the afternoon. His childhood pal Jeremy is a trustee at the church now, a chiropractor with a sweet Godly wife who is a stay-at-home mom. They have three boys, all at the accelerated learning center.

By some miracle Ricky’s drive is long and straight. The ball lays just off the green on the left edge of the fairway.

“You golf a lot?” Pat says, looking with his hand cupped over his eyes.

Ricky slides the three wood back into the bag and says, “Almost never.” He slings the ripped bag over his shoulder and saunters off down the middle of the fairway.

Zechariah and Pat wheel their bags down the cart path. Zechariah stops at his short drive and pulls out a wood for another drive. Pat veers to the trees and whacks around with an iron, looking for his lost ball.

***

Because of his feet trouble, Zechariah walks the course with a modified stride, which pulls a kink in his back. He is still suffering from gas cramps. He’s been swinging wide after his balls so he can pass gas without offense, but his back is getting worse, making that less an option. After the front nine, he can barely move. He asks Pat if they can have a Coke or a cup of coffee in the clubhouse—he’s going to see if he can recover enough to play the back nine—and Pat agrees to it.

He and Pat get coffee. Ricky gets a big bottle of pink energy drink with a picture of a lizard on the front, and chugs it down before Zechariah and Pat have finished adding sugar and cream to their coffee.

Pat asks, “How long were you in the ministry?”

“Fifty-four years, all told,” Zechariah says. He still has his first preaching Bible, the old Scofield Reference Bible his dad gave him. Zechariah keeps it displayed on his office shelf at home, the way an old soldier would his first service revolver.

“That’s amazing,” Pat says.

A college-aged girl is working the snack bar. Ricky is engrossed in watching her. He slouches in his chair and flips the empty drink bottle from hand to hand on his lap, his baggy cargo shorts sagging beneath his legs. Strands of hair have come loose from his ponytail and are pasted to the sweaty skin of his tattooed neck.

Pat says, “Quite an achievement.”

Zechariah says, “By the grace of God.”

Pat nods, takes a sip of coffee.  He says, “You want to hear an amazing story?”

The pain in Zechariah’s back is constant and he can barely get a full breath. He knows he can’t walk the back nine. He might be able to do it with a cart; he just needs to rest it a while. He says, “Yeah. Love to.”

Ricky looks around at Pat and nods that he too is up for it.

***

Pat tells them this story:

There was a man who had his own business and he did quite well—over four hundred thousand dollars a year, and that was in the early eighties—pushing half a million towards the end. He married his high school sweetheart and they built a four thousand square-foot house and had three beautiful children. He drove a Mercedes Benz and a BMW motorcycle, and his wife had a Jaguar and a station wagon. They had everything this world had to offer.

But the man wasn’t happy. You see, when this man was a child, a prophet had spoken a word over him in church, had prophesied that he would grow up to be a mighty man of God. It weighed on the man’s conscience that he was not in God’s will. He was miserable. He started doing cocaine and drinking and living in the fast lane. His wife threatened to leave him if he didn’t straighten up.

Then one night, drunk and high on cocaine, the man was driving, and he started praying. He shouted at God and asked what he should do and said, “Give me some kind of sign.”

When the man woke from his coma, his children were eight months older. He had crashed his car over an embankment and hadn’t been found for nine hours. Eight months in a coma was answer enough for him. He sold his business and the house and the expensive cars and entered the ministry. It soon became apparent that he had the gift of evangelism and prophecy. He bought an RV and started traveling the country. His wife home-schooled the children as he spanned the United States preaching and prophesying.

“That’s some story,” Zechariah says. He involuntarily lets out some gas and it makes a short honk on the wooden chair.

Ricky glances at him and smiles. He feels his face flush with embarrassment, and rage at Ricky fills his chest. Ricky looks back at the girl behind the counter. She is dropping frozen hot dogs into a square pot of steaming water.

Zechariah clears his throat and takes a drink of coffee.

Pat waves his hand with the fat ring on it, the hand as wide as a T-bone steak. He says, “There’s more.”

Ten years the man devoted his life to serving God. He preached and prophesied from coast to coast. Many souls were saved, many people broke through, many lives were changed. Then one night, as he was traveling to his next evangelistic crusade, he fell asleep and the RV drove off the road. At Fancy Gap, North Carolina, his RV rolled four times, killing his wife and three children, who were all unbuckled, in the back sleeping on the bed.

Pat says, “That’s how God repaid him. His entire life wasn’t enough. His livelihood, the job he loved. God wanted his family too.”

“That really happen to you, dude?” Ricky asks.

Pat turns to him, his face showing no emotion. He says, “You guessed it. That’s my story.”

Ricky says, “No shit?” He turns quickly to Zechariah and says, “Oops, sorry.” He shakes his head and says, “But you have to admit…”

Pat looks at Zechariah. He says, “What kind of God would do that to a man?”

Zechariah shrugs. He says, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“I’ll tell you what kind of God. A bully. An asshole.” Pat takes another drink of coffee and says, “What I say now is God can go to hell.”

Ricky sits up in his chair and snorts a laugh, looking first at Zechariah, then at Pat, then back at Zechariah, a huge bemused grin on his face.  For the first time all morning he looks like he’s really enjoying himself. He’s waiting for Zechariah’s comeback. He expects this to become quite the theological debate.

Two old men walk into the clubhouse in their sock feet. They shuffle like they’re puttering around their own homes. One calls out to the girl behind the counter and calls her beautiful.

Zechariah starts to lean over and rub his calf, but his back catches and makes him take a sharp breath. “I don’t think I’m up for the back nine,” he says.

***

Berna calls the house. She says, “You’re back early.”

“My back is bothering me. And my feet.” Ricky’s dropped him off and is gone.

“Ah,” she says. “You really should ask Dr. Cobb to refer you.”

Zechariah says. “I threw it out somehow walking the front nine.” He stands at the old phone in the kitchen that still has a cord. Again pain shoots up his back and makes him catch his breath. He winces and says, “I just need to rest my old bones.”

Berna says, “I’m dropping the girls off at Andrew’s around four. I was thinking a rotisserie chicken from Sam’s Club for dinner with some mandarin oranges and cottage cheese. Maybe potato salad.” She says, “There’s leftover spaghetti you can heat up for lunch.”

Potato salad gives him horrible gas. He says, “Could we do coleslaw instead?” After he says it, he thinks, cabbage gives him worse gas than potatoes.

“Sure.” She says, “I’ll be home around five. Don’t fill up on sweets.”

He hangs up the phone and drags his burning feet into the living room. The pain in his back radiates up his spine, giving him a throbbing headache at the base of his skull. He sits on the couch that faces the picture window. Their grandfather clock’s pendulum clicks and clacks beside the fireplace. The face reads eleven-thirty in the morning. The clock was a gift from his congregation at Tabernacle back in 2004, for twenty years of service.

He hasn’t even talked to his old associate, who has stepped in as senior pastor, for almost three full weeks. Big changes over there, and they wasted no time: modernized worship with a rock band and praise choruses that are the theological equivalent of those marshmallow Easter Peeps; small groups they’re calling cell groups; life skills classes on Wednesday nights instead of instruction from the Word. They couldn’t wait for him to go so they could get started disassembling the ministry he’d given his life to building.

Out with the old, in with the new. This life: his Calling. Has it loved him, has it given him anything? It has loved him—loved him with the grasping need of a child that never gives anything back except heartache and embarrassment. Nothing to be done now. He’s old. It’s finished.

The leaves of the big elm in his front yard move in the breeze, making shadows slide back and forth across the hard wood floor. It’s not even noon yet.

Zechariah eases gingerly down onto the couch, and carefully, slowly, pushes off each shoe with the other foot. He can feel the pain in his back like a jagged rock, waiting there for him to make a wrong move so it can gouge at his spine. He presses a throw pillow behind his throbbing head and rubs his burning feet together, and waits for sleep.

#

Vic Sizemore’s short fiction is published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Connecticut Review, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, PANK Magazine, Silk Road Review, Atticus Review, Fiction Fix, and elsewhere. Excerpts from his novel The Calling are published or forthcoming in Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Prick of the Spindle, Rock & Sling and Relief Journal. His fiction has been long listed for the Walker Percy Prize, short listed for the Sherwood Anderson Award and the Editors’ Award at Florida Review, won the New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.