The Acts of the Apostles

 
Ratrow Hollow was where old miners went to die. It had been born when the mines were going great guns. It provided a place for the company to dump miners who had lost their value through sickness or injury. Or in the case death, a place to put their families so they would be out of sight of the rest of the camp.  A one lane dirt track wondered aimlessly through the collection of unpainted, rundown shacks, their roofs sagging, their broken windows allowing the ragged curtains to be sucked out onto the siding, dingy rags waving to anyone who might otherwise have missed the desolation. Picket fences with missing slats were falling, or had fallen, to the dirt. Ancient automobiles, some on blocks, some on flats, had weeds growing through the holes in the floorboards and hornets nests hanging from their roofs. They sat in front of the homes, tormenting the residents; a constant reminder of the better times that were long gone, never to be seen again.

It was at the eastern base of Blue Mountain, on the outer fringe of Lacern, Kentucky, out of sight and, as much as they could manage, out of mind for the rest of the town's residents. It wasn't that they were ashamed of the grinding poverty; it frighten them, the way a young man, while tipping a jar of moonshine to his lips, might catch sight of an old drunk lying in the gutter, his pants soaked in urine.  

The Lacern Market, on one side of the road, and the Lacern Garage on the other, served as a gateway to the community. The market was small, but Therman Lacern knew what his customers needed and wanted. Not an inch of space was wasted on items he knew wouldn't sell. Across the street his brother Alvin, whom he hadn't talked to in ten years, fixed the occasional flat, or pumped the occasional 'dollars' worth' of gas, but mostly sat around in the office with whoever stopped by, sipping moonshine when he could get it, Coke when he couldn't, and gave strong, authoritative lectures on subjects he knew little or nothing about.

Churches were scattered liberally throughout the hollow, mostly Baptist, most of them in little better shape than the homes. The biggest church, the original, was the First Baptist. It was an actual church, with a steeple and two stained glass windows, and in the early days it had been packed with devout worshipers. Then the Pentecostal / Holiness movement had swept nearly half of the members out of the Baptists Church. The new congregation met in private homes for a few years, then managed to build their own church, which they called Apostolic. Soon after its completion, a disagreement over some obscure passage concerning the 'thousand year reign of Christ' caused half the congregation to split. They too began to meet in homes, calling themselves The Full Gospel Apostolic Church, implying that the church they'd just left was at least slightly less than full in their adherence to scripture. This kept up until there were over a dozen churches in the small community, none with more than five or six members.

 

Jill Mazingo attended The First Baptist Church. A church should look like a church, not a house or a store or, in one case, a garage. The Pentecostals made her skin crawl. She hated the way they would shout and cry and run around like they were on fire. The Pentecostals would argue that they were on fire. Jill had a past. Everyone knew about it, though no one ever mentioned it, but she felt like those Pentecostal preachers could look into her eyes and see everything she'd ever done. The eyes were not forgiving.        

She stood at the sink and looked out the window at the shed. It leaned precariously toward the Branson house next, as though trying to eaves drop on their conversations. When it fell, and she knew it would fall, it would fall onto the neighbor’s house and might cause the other houses to fall like dominoes. Lonnie had put a couple of boards against it, hoping they would hold it up and he wouldn't have to do anything more about the crisis. Sometimes he and Charlie Branson would sit on the Branson porch for hours, drinking whiskey and speculating on the disaster that loomed above them. “Maybe we should do something,” Lonnie would say. Charlie would say, “Yeah, we probably should,” and they'd both take a drink.

The first shot of pain came while she was standing at the sink wiping a bowl. It was there, like a knife in her side, then it was gone. She whispered, “What on Earth?” and continued wiping. The next one was longer, sharper, and the third brought her to her knees. She dropped the bowl and watched it shatter on the linoleum, grabbing her side as she fell. She knelt there, her breath coming in ragged gasps, sweat pouring from her body. “Oh good Lord,” she cried. She put a hand on the floor to steady herself and felt a sliver stab her palm. She thought she would pass out, but slowly the pain subsided and she got to her feet. Feeling as weak as a child, she stumbled into the living room, pieces of the shattered plate grinding under her shoes. She collapsed on the couch and fell into a troubled sleep.

 

She was awakened hours later by the slamming of a door. She sat up slowly and said, “Frankie?” and was surprised by the weakness in her voice. Then she felt someone kiss her on the check. The smell, a mixture of whiskey, sweat, human waste and several odors she couldn't recognize, told her it was Lonnie. She opened her eyes and smiled up at him, but pushed him away when he tried to bend down for another kiss. “Not til after you've cleaned yourself up,” she said.

“I've missed you,” he said.

“Well I've been right here the whole time you been gone,” she said. She sat up slowly, trying to hide just how hard a task it was. Then she saw his face; it was bruised and bloody, but that wasn't what concerned her. He often came home that way. It was the excitement in his eyes, the way he gestured excitedly, the barely control energy as he paced back and forth around the small room. He had found another mission. She could have vomited on the floor in front of him; he wouldn't have noticed.

“I've only been gone a couple of day,” Lonnie said.

“It's been more than two weeks.”

Lonnie stopped his pacing, looked thoughtful, and said, “Well, you kind of lose track of time when you're, you know.”

“I know. You must be hungry. I'll go put supper on.”

“No hurry. I'm too excited to eat.”

Jill paused, halfway off the couch. “What are you about to get yourself into?”

“I'll have to go talk to the Lord about it,” Lonnie said, and went into the bedroom.

Lonnie didn't pray; he talked to God. Sometime with pleas, sometime with reprimands, but mostly he argued. And he never knelt. “Do you kneel when you're talking to a friend?” he would ask whoever made the mistake of commenting on his praying style, and answer his own question with a resounding, “No.” Today he argued.

Jill could hear him from the kitchen through the paper thin walls. She only heard one side of the conversation of course, like listening in while someone else talked on the phone.

“I'm nothing but a drunk, Lord...I know, I know...But there are plenty of men who could get this done a lot better than I can...Right, I know, but...Well if you know so much,” here he got a little testy, as he often did when talking to God. It was a love-hate relationship. “I'm sorry, go on.” This went on for a long time. “Okay, reckon you know best. Talk to you later.” Lonnie never said, “Amen.” “It's like ending a conversation with, 'I agree with what I just said,” was his reasoning. When others pointed out that Jesus ended his prayers with 'Amen' and that if it was good enough for Jesus it should be good enough for Lonnie Mazingo, Lonnie would reply that Jesus also had long hair and a beard but that doesn't mean we had to do the same. It was said that arguing with Lonnie was like trying to fill a bucket with fog.

As she listened, Jill fried the last of the bacon. She would use the grease, and the last of the milk, to make gravy. She knew when Lonnie was done 'talking' to God, and waited for him to come into the kitchen and reveal God's new purpose for his life. Be he didn't come. Instead she heard him run the water in the bathroom. Later, as she was kneading the biscuit dough, she heard him opening drawers and rummaging through the closet. When he came out, he was dressed in his brown, threadbare suit, the only one he owned. His face was clean and his unruly dark hair was forced into submission by hair tonic. In a half hour the tonic would start to lose its hold, and his cowlicks would start to spring up all over his head.

“How do I look?” he asked.

“Mighty fine,” Jill said. “What's the big plan this time?”

“God wants me to build a church.”

“Seems like God would know that we already got more churches than we know what to do with in this holler.”

“He don't want me to build it in this holler. He wants me to build it in town, or near town. He gave me some leeway on the location.”

Jill turned back to her biscuits, not wanting Lonnie to see the doubtful look on her face. This might be a crazy dream, but it would keep him sober until he woke up. “Supper'll be on in about an hour,” she said.

“I can't stay. Got too much to do.”

Jill turned around to look at him. “Frankie will be home soon. Can't you wait til then?”

Lonnie paused, then shook his head. “The Lord said now. Tell him I'll see him later on tonight.”

I'll tell him no such thing, Jill thought. 'Later on tonight' might be another two weeks, maybe more. She'll tell Frankie his daddy is home when she sees him walking up the road. The boy's had enough disappointment in his life.

 

Lonnie walked out of the house, letting the screen door slam behind him, past the old Chevy that hadn't been started in over four years, and on up the road toward the head of the hollow. In the garage, Alvin Lacern was sitting on the bumper of a nine-teen fifty-one Chevy addressing 'the bench boys'. The boys was a group of men, the youngest being sixty-two, who floated around town sitting on  various benches, the Post Office bench, the drugstore bench, the park bench, talking about the greatness of the old days and the evils of the present. They would sit on a particular bench until ran, or more often bribed away. There were four of them in the garage. Their incentive was whiskey, their rent, rapt attention and agreement to everything Alvin said. “My folks used to own all this land, from the head of the holler on back. Had a nice sawmill going too, ’til those sons of bitches at the mines stole it all.”

The boys knew all this, but would listen and pretend interest as long as the whiskey flowed.

Lonnie stood between him and the bench boys and said, “Alvin, I've got to talk business with you.”

“Five dollars a jug,” Alvin said.

“I need to talk to you in private. And it ain't about whiskey,” Lonnie said, but couldn't take his eyes off the jar of clear liquid in Alvin's hand.

“Oh, Lonnie, hush,” one of the boys said. “You're interrupting a story.”

“You all heard the story a hundred times. The company stole their land. It was them damn Toland boys that done it. There was a sawmill that burned down under mysterious circumstances.” He looked at Alvin with his 'preacher eyes' and said, “Can we talk in your office?”

 

Alvin said, “Have a seat,” and sat down behind his desk. There was nothing he hated worse than Lonnie when he was on his a preacher kick. Anything having to do with religion scared him. His mother had told him almost every day of his life that he was going to burn in the fires of hell if he didn't get right with god, and so far he hadn't. Right now Lonnie had what Alvin called 'Brimstone eyes.'

Lonnie remained standing. “I need that empty lot next to your house,” he said.

“What do you mean, you need it. What do you need it for?”

“A church, of course.”

“You want to buy my lot, the one right next to my house, and build a church house?”

“That's right.”

Alvin had to think about the pros and cons of this proposal. It would stop Flora's constant nagging at him to put in a garden. 'There's a perfectly fine piece of land sitting empty while you spend all your time sitting  on the porch watching the fencepost rot,' she would say.

“How much you offering?” he asked.

“How much you want?”

Alvin had no idea how much he wanted. “A thousand dollars,” he said.

Lonnie said, “I'll talk it over with my partner and get back with you.”

Alvin though Lonnie would leave at this point, but instead he walked to the far corner of the room and began whispering. He came back and said, “Five hundred is the best we can do.”

“Who's we?” Alvin said.

“Me and The Lord. He says I can't go no more than five hundred.”

Alvin leaned back in his chair and rubbed his chin, the way he saw people do in the movies. This was a tough decision, and the money had little to do with it. If he had a church next door Flora would be on him even worse than she was now. She'd start by nagging him into a bath on Saturday night, then drag him out of bed on Sunday morning. “What kind of religion are you?” he said.

“Jesus religion.”

“I know that. Are you a Baptist or holy roller?”

“Baptist.”

Alvin smiled. Flora was Pentecostal. She considered going a Baptist Church to better than nothing, but not by much. She wouldn't make him go, and the Baptist, although they could get worked up pretty good, weren't nearly as noisy as the Holies. “Seven-fifty,” he said.

Lonnie looked offended. “You can't bargain with God. If he says five hundred, it's five hundred.”

Alvin scratched his head. He knew there was something wrong with this logic but he couldn't put his finger on it. “You got the five hundred?” he said.

Lonnie said, “No,” and seemed not the least bothered by this fact.

Alvin said, “I see”, and stood up. He'd gotten used to the idea of having five hundred dollars cash money, and felt poorer now than before Lonnie came in. “If you ever get the money come and see me.”

“How late are you here?”

This stopped Alvin in his tracks. “You thinking you can get the money today?”

“Now would God have told me to offer five hundred dollars if he couldn't come up with it? You think he's a chiseler.”

Alvin looked at his watch and said, “It's already after three.”

Lonnie shrugged and said, “Maybe it'll have to be tomorrow.”

 

It was four o'clock when Lonnie got to town. He walked quickly and with purpose, a sharp contrast to the men who lounged on the benches or moving in and out of the stores. It was a weekday; the few men who could find work were all working, and the many who could not, or chose not to, had no reason to come downtown. There were a few ladies at the fruit stand and dime store.

The only time he deviated from a straight line was to walk around Cooper, the community dog, who lay on the side of the road licking himself. Lonnie gave him a quick nudge to get him moving to a safer place on his way by. Normally he would have stopped to pet him, but he was on a mission for God, and had no time for dogs. Cooper was of medium size, his breed and place of origin a complete mystery to everyone. He'd just appeared in town one day, a half grown pup, and the town had adopted him as their own. He wondered in and out of the stores, getting a bite of something from every store that carried food. He'd been hit by a car a few years back, and though there had been no real damage, the experience has taught him how to cross the street. He would sit on a corner until someone came along. When that person crossed the street, Cooper would walk beside him. If there was a group, he would walk in their midst.

There was another group of old men on the bench in front of the bank. People referred to them as 'the dry bench boys' because they weren't drinkers. The merchants and businessmen did not mind them sitting in front of their businesses. They were church-people, respectful of passersby, soft spoken, and there was never a bottle-shaped brown bag to be seen. As a result they were never given a bribe to move on, and they would have been insulted if anyone had offered.

“Looking good Lonnie,” Jake said. He was the unofficial spokesman for the group. “You off the juice again?”

“Again and forever,” Lonnie said.

Jake said, “Praise the Lord,” which was his standard response to anything anybody said to him.

“Have a seat,” one of the other old men said. Lonnie had forgotten his name. Although many of them had been close friend of his at one time, now he thought of them as a group.

“Can't. Got the Lord's business to attend to,” he said, and walk into the bank.

 

Cliff Toland was behind his desk in his tiny office, wishing the clock would move a little faster so he could go home to Grace and the fried chicken he knew would be waiting for him. He saw Lonnie walk in, look around, and smile when he saw him. The little man walked quickly into the office and sat down in the only empty chair. “Has the Lord blessed you today?” he asked.

“Yes he has,” Cliff said, and though he believed it with all his heart, he wondered if the blessedness of the day was about to come to an end. “Good to see you,” he searched for the right word.

Lonnie decided to help him out. “Sober?”                        

“Yes. What can I do for you?”

“I need to borrow five hundred dollars.”

Cliff frowned. The bank would never, ever, loan money to a man like Lonnie. “Well Lonnie now that might be a problem. Do you have a job?”

“Yes.”

Cliff did not even try to hide his surprise. “Really? Who are you working for?”

“The Lord.”

“Oh, I see. And what's the Lord paying these days.”

“Eternal life.”

Cliff sat back in his chair, thinking of how to refuse the loan without looking like an atheist. “Well, Lonnie, the bank is going to want collateral.”

“My father owns the cattle on a thousand hills,” Lonnie said, and seemed surprised that Cliff didn't know that.

Cliff decided to try another angle. “What do you want the money for?”

“I'm building a church. I need five hundred dollars to buy Alvin Lacern's vacant lot.”

Cliff considered this. He'd just written out a loan for a lot in that area last week. It went for seven-fifty, so the bank had its collateral. On the other hand, Lonnie had zero income. Most of the men around town either had a job or disability from the coal mines, but Lonnie had never worked the mines. His momma would never allow it.

“You have no way of paying the money back,” Grant said.

“That's the Lords problem,” Lonnie said.

“We can't very well set the collection agency on God if we don't get our money, now can we.”

“You think you'll get stiffed by God?” Lonnie said, outraged.

“Well he does work in mysterious ways.”

“But he ain't no deadbeat.” Lonnie stood up as if to go but Cliff waved him back down.

“I tell you what I'm going to do,” Cliff said. “The bank is never going to go for this loan. I will give you a personal loan, out of my pocket. In exchange you will have to sign a paper saying that if you, or the Lord, don't make the payments, the property goes to me. Is that clear?”

“You ought to trust in the Lord,” Lonnie said, calming down.

Cliff did trust in the Lord, it was Lonnie he was skeptical of. What he didn't believe in was letting a good opportunity pass him by. “I'll have the papers ready by noon tomorrow. And we'll leave Him out of the paper work,” he looked toward the ceiling as he said 'Him'. “And the deal is, you pay me back. I don't want to have to come out to your home in a couple of months asking for payment just to be told that I need to take it up with God.”

“That'll be fine. Although why you'd rather trust an unemployed drunk like me instead of your Lord and Savior is beyond me.”       

“I wouldn't know how to file the paperwork,” Cliff said. It was always better to indulge Lonnie than argue.

Lonnie stood up and held out his hand. “We've got a deal then.”

“We've got a deal,” Cliff said, and the two men shook hands.   

 

Brother Hubert Lott was excited. If he worked real hard, they would have the roof shingled by the end of the day. He positioned another shingle and nailed it into place. He was reaching for another when he heard Lonnie let out a loud, “Thank you Jesus.” Hubert had come to learn that this was what Lonnie did instead of cursing whenever he hit his thumb with a hammer. He had not yet made up his mind whether replacing a curse word with a prayer was a good thing, or a sacrilege. Lonnie was useless as a builder, worse than useless, really; every board he cut was too short. For every nail he pounded home three were bent beyond all use. Mending his cuts and sprains and other injuries had taken up a good deal of Hubert's time, time that could have been used for building.

He got up, slowly straitened his aching back and walked over to where Lonnie knelt, holding his thumb. There were half a dozen bent roofing nails scattered around the roof. “Let me take a look,” He said.

Lonnie showed him the thumb and said, “It ain't nothing.”

“The whole nail is gone. You'd better get to the hospital, or at least have Jill take a look at it.”

“The Lord will take care of my thumb. You just get back to work.”

“Have it your way,” Hubert said, and went back to where he'd been working.

Lonnie had approached him soon after he'd gotten the loan for the church.  “I've heard you was a good hand to build,” he'd said.

“I've built some houses,” Hubert had replied. “Ain't none fell down yet.”

So the two had started building the church. That was over a year ago, and today, it would be done, well, the shell, anyway. There was still a lot to do inside.

 

The sun was sinking behind the mountain when Hubert pounded in the last nail. He stood and smiled at Lonnie. “Well, we done it,” he said, then added, “with a lot of help from The Lord, of course. We should pray.”

“Well, that's a fine idea. But let's get off this hot roof first.”

“No, I think we should pray up here, close to God.”

“Go's everywhere,” Lonnie replied. “So, if we were down there in the shade of that oak tree, we would be as close to Him as we are now.”

But Hubert had already started. “Oh Lord,” he said, his eyes closed, his face turned to the sky. “Bless this building, we pray...”

    So Lonnie shrugged and began to pray too, his voice rising above Hubert's. Hubert prayed louder. This went on until Alvin Lacern, watching from his back yard, thought they were about to come to blows.

Then Brother Hubert broke out in tongues.

“What in the world are you doing?” Lonnie shouted.

Hubert opened his eyes and said, “The Holy Ghost just came upon me and I began to speak in tongues.”

“Well stop that jibberish; I'm trying to talk to The Lord.”

“I'm talking in a heavenly tongue. Didn't you know I was Holiness?”

“No, I thought you had more sense. I hope you don't think you're going to be doing the likes of that in my church.”

“Your church? This is God's church.” This stopped Lonnie for a moment. Hubert forged ahead. “God told you to build a church. He didn't say anything about you pastoring it.”

“So that's what you've been up. All this time you been working here, you been planning to steal my church out from under me.”

Hubert was about to reply when a voice from below shouted, “Daddy, you'd better come quick.”

They both looked down. Lonnie's son Frank was on the ground, looking up at them. “Mommie's been taken to the hospital. She's real sick.”

 

  Even though the interior of the church wasn't finished, Lonnie insisted that they hold the funeral there. Hubert gave the eulogy then they all went to the graveside. Lonnie held Frank's hand as they lowered Jill into the grave. When it was all done, the two remained while everyone else made their way down the mountain to their cars.

“You're going to be staying with Ransom and Barlow for a while,” Lonnie said. “I hope you don't mind.”

Frank, who was thirteen, knew what Lonnie had in mind. “You're going to go on a drunk, ain't you?”

Lonnie nodded and said, “I reckon so.”

Frank pulled his hand from Lonnie's and walked down the hill without another word.

 

 

 

THE END

      

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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