Zachariah was born in Harlan County. His wife, Elizabeth, was also born in Harlan County. In fact, her family had been in that county since before the Civil War, which is a long time for a group of people to stay in a place like Harlan. No one in Harlan knew them as Zachariah and Elizabeth; they were Betty and Z.
In addition to picking up a disability check for the coal dust that clouded his lungs, Z performed various services for his neighbors. A sign reading NOTARY hung above the porch. He was an official accredited minister. Z first received the call to full-time ministry sitting at the kitchen table, eating a piece of sausage, and watching preaching through the fuzz of their black and white TV, occasionally reaching across to adjust a knob or tug at the aluminum foil covered rabbit-ear antanae. It was during an impassioned sermon on Moses and the Pharoah and obedience. A commercial with the words 'no hassle' flashed across the screen like a burning bush. He, too, could earn a graduate degree from F.A.I.T.H, the Firsthand Account Institute of THeology in Alamogordo, New Mexico. They didn't care that Z had dropped out of middle school; the institute looks for men with spiritual knowledge, men with pure hearts.
For Z, the duties piled up. He started off as no more than a glorified justice of the peace. He found that when he opened his mouth to bless a young couple, or eulogize a dearly departed, he was filled with a new confidence. He could bring the crowd to tears; he could bring about repentance. People started to look to him. It was only a matter of time before he started official church meetings. He slowly became the Right Apostle Z, shepherd of the flock, The Pillar of Fire Church of Children Marching Toward Zion. (Continue reading....)
With the new demands on his life he made time to do what he called his "priestly duties." He would enter his "holy of holies," which was his fanciful description of Betty's garden. He buried himself to the neck in the rich soil in order to be "brought low," so that he could "seek the face of the Lord." It became his habit to do this in the summers on Friday evenings with the cicadas for company in the warm thick air. He wanted to be prepared to exhort his flock on Saturday (Z's church had their Sabbath meeting on Saturday because that was the day the good Lord decided to take for his rest after making this Earth and that was good enough for them).
Z’s custom started with digging an oblong hole in the tilled ground. He would then lay down and pull the loose soil over himself. Once settled in the fecund stillness Z would pray and sweat furiously. As a rule angels did not show up. He did not have visions, nor did he dream particularly relevant dreams. He slept and slobbered and woke up smelling like compost. But this time in the gray area between prayerfulness and sleep, where all things are possible, Z had a visitor. It was big and blonde and bright like an illustration in a King James Bible. Its’ bulk hovered over the tomato and pepper plants not damaging a leaf. The angel declared that Z would have a son, and that his name would be John:
“Thou shalt have joy and gladness, for many shall rejoice at his birth. He shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And many in the flock shall he turn to the Lord their God. He shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Z rubbed his eyes, trying to wake himself and murmered, "what in the shittin' hell?" And becoming more alarmed he hollered loud enough to wake Betty. Seeing no response from the house he tried to run, but finding himself still buried he urinated and passed out.
The angel, somewhat deflated, sat down, squashing a zucchini, and shook Z to rouse him, "Look, because you can't wake your sorry ass up and see things for how they are, because you don't believe me, you’re gonna be mute until the day the child is born. Then, you’ll believe."
Z laid there the rest of the night too stunned to move and too afraid to attempt to talk. He came to church the next morning half an hour late. He didn't bother to shower. He gesticulated wildly to the audience. He opened his mouth to deliver the words he thought the Lord had given him, but nothing happened. He pulled the chalkboard out of the closet, writing furiously about a vision, a visitation. The people were not surprised knowing that Z often heard from God and that it was usually good. They were surprised when he said he was having a son and that he couldn't talk because of his disbelief. The people laughed uncomfortably waiting for the punch line. They joked about his age and potency.
He never started talking again, though. The punch line was slow in coming. No one really believed until Betty's belly started to extend and stretch the colorful floral fabrics of her favorite muumuus. Betty and Z were relieved and excited. A child, they thought, would make things much better.
About the same time Betty's muumuus started to stretch, another strange occurrence was taking place elsewhere in the southeastern part of the state called Appalachia. There was a girl named Mary. She was engaged Joe a boy from Barbourville who could trace his lineage all the way back to Daniel Boone.
Mary was sitting in the tattered velour lazy boy in the living room/dining room of her parents trailer in Happy, KY. Her mother worked the breakfast shift at the Big Totem diner attached to Harry’s gas and convenience store. Her father was currently staying elsewhere but rumor had it that he found steady work warehousing for a company that bought relics like coal mining tools to sell as art in New York City.
But, back to Mary . . . She was sitting in the Lazy Boy watching the TV and trying to decide if she would go to school that day. She had a bowl of cereal in her lap. Her Coke was on the table next to her chair. Right before the show’s last commercial break the screen went fuzzy. Mary reached over, split the blinds, light pouring through aluminum, to see if something had knocked the satellite off the garage. A voice came from the TV and she let the blinds slap back.
“Mary, wake up. You’re as beautiful as the day you were born. Not a beauty bought at the mall, but from God. There is a spark in you.”
Mary pushed back against the arms of the chair until it reached its maximum recline and tipped. She lay startled with her feet and the footrest pointing toward the ceiling, the remains of her cereal soggy on her chest. She scrambled to her hands and knees staring wildly as the voice started again.
“Mary, relax. This is good news. You are going to have a baby. This child will have your spark and more. He is going to change things.”
“Is this a trick. . . Joe? Momma? I told you I ain’t done it with him yet.”
“Mary, relax. I told you this child would be different. I have also been to visit your relatives Betty and Z. She will have a child as old as she is. Amazing things can happen.”
Mary shrank back sitting on her heels with both hands on her belly, crying and muttering softly: “god, I hope this ain’t a joke,” as the TV flipped back on in time for the weather forecast.
Mary had righted the chair and was sitting in it with her arms pulling her legs up to make a chin rest of her knees when her mother got home early from work.
“What are you doing? Do you think I go to work so you can stay home all day doing nothing?”
“Momma, stop. Things have been weird.”
“Are you on some kind of drugs?”
“No. It’s not. . .it’s just. Well, I think I’m pregnant.”
“What? In my house and me out working everyday. No, that ain’t gonna happen. Get out. Get your crap and get out.”
“Momma, stop. It’s different.”
“It ain’t that different you little tramp. I remember fifteen years ago pretty clear. Believe me, things don’t change that much. Am I stupid or what?”
At that she slammed her bedroom door. She sat on the side of her bed and waited, one hand holding up her head, the other lighting a cigarette. She took deep pulls not bothering to find an ashtray or open her eyes even.
Mary got a ride up to the gas station by the highway. She walked from there up to the main road, her backpack slung across her narrow shoulders. The bottom inch of her tight jeans darkened from dragging the still wet road. The sun was hot after the morning’s storm. Her t-shirt left two inches of her white belly exposed which she unconsciously rubbed with her right hand as she lifted her left, signaling her need for a ride.
Betty was waiting on the porch. She had heard that Mary left home the day before. She had been busy preparing the sleeper sofa, cooking some things that could be heated quickly, and sweeping the beetle carcasses off the indoor\outdoor carpeting on the porch in case Mary stopped by. It had gotten late. Z was already snoring in the back room. The bug zapper had been on for hours. Betty stood in the doorway sipping a glass of freshly brewed sweet tea.
An unknown pickup pulled into the drive. Betty sat down wincing. As the pickup pulled away Betty hollered, “Hey there, you sure are one lucky lady carrying that treasure. Tell me, why am I lucky enough to be visited by the mother of such a treasure. The moment I heard those tires on gravel this little guy started kicking away. You believe what God has for you.”
Mary stayed with Betty and Z for nearly three months before her mother finally called. She apologized and cried and said she loved her no matter what she did. She arrived the next day still wearing her brown apron and bow tie. Her eyeliner was smeared. There was a half a pack of smoldering slender, pink-stained cigarette butts in the ashtray. Mary went home happily.
Now finally it came time for Betty to give birth. She woke Z in the middle of the night with a death grip on the forearm and the rigid but steady words, “Z it is time.” He hopped up silently as usual. The birth went off without a hitch. Both Betty and the baby were radiantly healthy. Their friends and family swarmed into the hospital to congratulate the unlikely new mother and the quiet father, bringing casseroles and smuggling in cigars.When it came time to name the baby there was some confusion. Several people had already begun calling the child Little Z, or Baby Z, or even Z Junior. Betty announced that his name would be John. The collective head turned towards Z. He pulled out his pad and begun to write. As he turned the pad for all to see he surprised everyone including himself by saying in a scratchy voice, “His name is John.