some time ago mr brad flowers and i sat down to write a localized rendering of the birth of jesus.
here it is (again, again)
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.
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.
Joe, being eighteen years old, was required to register for the draft. The US was spreading democracy and, apparently, needed his help. There were concerns about security at home and abroad. The war was going badly. The unrest across the country was typified by the violence breaking out on University campuses. This unrest bred fear and fear caused the powers that be to make demands on the people. Liberties needed to be curbed for protection. In this spirit, the President was re-initiating the draft.
Joe traced his family back to Lexington so he made his way there with Mary to take care of some paperwork. They were planning their wedding for later in the summer when they could get the money together. She was over 8 months pregnant now and the long journey along I-75 was made longer with the bathroom, stretch, and rest breaks. For most of the trip Mary sat right next to Joe in the middle of the bench-seat, her legs straddling the stick-shift housing and her painfully swollen feet propped up on the dash.
Finally, late in the night, they made it to Lexington, but the long journey had brought on Mary's labor prematurely. The last part of their trip had been the most exhausting - hours of sitting in traffic while Mary's body shuddered under each heavy contraction. Joe's white-knuckle hold on the steering wheel and his taut, worried face flexing in rhythm with Mary's pain-throws. The city was flooded with people and cars. There was no way to pull over and rest, no place to go once they were part of the gridlock. When they finally made it there, the UK maternity ward was packed to overflowing and they were eventually turned away. Just a few hours later, in the back of Joe's pick-up, on the third level of the parking deck, Mary gave birth. Their tears splashed into the puddles of blood and water mingling in the corrugated troughs of the truck bed. For a moment Joe forgot that this wasn’t his child. He looked on Mary and the baby with a fondness and compassion and love that he could never have willed. In the months and years to come Joe would still find times where he resented Mary, entertaining the thought that she had been with another guy, the father of this child. He was bitter about the talk that went on behind their backs - gossip and slander. But he would always come back to this moment in the truck. The heroism of Mary, the closeness that such a painful experience forges. Out of this dark, solitary pain came a light and companionship that was as warm as skin and as invincible as it was fragile. They padded Joe's toolbox with blankets and lay the baby down.
It was early morning and the sky was turning from black to blue in the pre-dawn light. On the wrong side of town some sanitation workers were doing the rounds. As they wrestled the overstuffed trash bins into lines on the corner of 4th and Chestnut, they noticed someone calling for them. They could barely hear the voice over droning hydraulics and the piercing bleepbleepbleep of the truck. She was standing across the road in an empty lot and as they caught sight of her she seemed to be glowing with the clarity and brilliance of the rising sun.
Without even thinking they clamored and crammed into the cab with the driver - too scared to approach but too enchanted to look away. Three huge men, dwarfing the wretched insides of the garbage truck, startled but fearfully frozen. As they watched they could see she was trying to talk to them. A quivering hand slowly wound down the window.
"Don't be afraid,” she said,
"I want to tell you some wonderful news. A message for everyone: This morning a liberator was born at UK, the one we've been waiting for. The one who will set things right by bringing real justice and love to this city. Here's the proof...you will find a baby wrapped in a blanket, in a brown pickup, in the UK hospital parking deck."
And suddenly she was gone. Just then the radio starts blaring, all static and buzz. After several seconds the white noise gave way to the most wonderful voices - men, women, young, old, black, white, hispanic. They were singing with all the passion, energy, and spirit of a church choir...
"Glory, Glory, Glory,
To God in heaven,
& Peace, Peace, Peace
To the one's He loves on earth"
The radio cut off as quickly as it had come on. The sanitation workers were left staring at an empty lot in the quiet stillness of early morning. For a few minutes, the only thing to move was a piece of trash that skipped along the gutter. After some minutes of silence, Benny, the most outspoken of the men, and the most religious one among them spoke up.
"Let's go to the hospital and see what he Lord is up to!"So they went quickly, after all, they hadn't finished their route and a couple of the men had second jobs to get to later that morning. After walking up several ramps they finally discovered Joe, Mary, and the little one. All three were sound asleep under blankets and jackets in the bed of the pickup. Mary stirred, startled by the three strange men staring at her baby. But soon their warm smiles and fantastic story of what had happened put her at ease and she was comforted by their loving-kindness. After visiting for a while and sharing the story again with Joe and Mary and the others who were coming and going with the hospital staff shift changes, the men returned to the remainder of their route.
Jesus grew up and Mary loved him. She loved him and raised him and it wasn’t easy, her being a teenager and all. Joe struggled to keep things going but between the local ‘God’s Pantry’ and food stamps, they kept food on the table. When Jesus was old enough Joe would take him to the various day-labor sites on the weekends. This allowed Mary to pick up some work as a Wal-Mart ‘Associate.’ Joe was a good learner and could turn his hand to almost anything if someone gave him a chance. Jesus watched him carefully, listened well, stayed out of the way, and eventually learned to help out some – picking up trash, fetching tools, buying cigarettes for the workers. All the people that met him thought Jesus was a “sharp little tack”, and more than one friend of Joe’s remarked Jesus “was something special.”
Mary would tell stories to Jesus when she put him to bed. Stories her Daddy and Granddaddy had told her about the mountains and the first ones that came through Cumberland Gap. She sang some of the songs she remembered and made up the parts she had forgotten. So he grew up and went to school and walked the dirt road from the four-lane to the trailer park every day to catch the bus. As he walked he would go over the stories his Mom had told him and imagine he was a part of the drama, picking up sticks and rocks and discarded cans to engineer the props. A couple of his favorite stories were actually about him. Mary would recount the story of Jesus birth and how they had been driving all day and how Joe had worried about going to war and how amazing it was to see those trash-guys approaching the truck in the half-light of early morning. Jesus loved to hear about the wild preachers that had spectacular things to say about him when he was just a few days old.
A couple of these preachers were Ol’ Simmy and Miss Ann. As Mary would recount it to JC, Ol’ Simmy came bursting into the church whoopin’ and hollerin’ about the time that had come and how he had waited so long for “this chile’.”
He gathered JC in his arms and gazed lovingly at the child. After several minutes he started rocking and groaning, gradually setting a rhythm, swaying to music so one else could hear,
“Ohhh Lord, You’re lettin’ me go
Jus’ like you said,
Jus’ like you said,
I’ve seen the hope, you’ve let me know,
Jus’ like you said,
Jus’ like you said,
There is a light and you’re lettin’ it show,
Jus’ like you said,
Jus’ like you said,
Ohhhhh Lord, You’re lettin’ me go….
Mary always stood and swayed as she told this part to JC and, even as a toddler, he would rock along.
Simmy prayed when he was done singing. In a small storage room at the back of the church he prayed a prayer Mary would never forget.
“This boy’s gonna expose the frauds and lift up the righteous folk. He’s gonna see right through us all. He’s gonna inspire and be despised. He’s gonna break our hearts….he’s even gonna break his momma’s heart.”
Mary never told JC this part. She was afraid it might be true.
Ol’ Simmy had barely said “Amen” when Miss Ann started banging on the closet door with the front legs of her walking frame. Even though he couldn’t actually remember meeting her, JC loved Miss Ann and her renowned commitment to being at the church day in day out. In fact, when her husband had died she started a prayer ministry called “Miss Ann’s Prayer-Line” and spent 8 hours a day praying for everyone and anyone who called or came by the church. The elders of the church eventually set her up with a cot in the coat-room so she could keep an eye on the place 24/7.
When she saw Jesus that day she cried out and hugged Ol’ Simmy. She parked her walker and shuffled over to Mary with arms out to take the child. Continuing her tottering gate, she made it to the front steps and called out at passers by, repeating many of the things Ol’ Simmy had been saying. She spent the next couple of days calling every number she had collected through “Prayer-Line”, leaving messages on answering machines that usually only found their end with the impatient tone of the machine cutting her off.
Jesus loved these stories. He became fascinated with the House of God. He counted the days between their yearly journey to visit the folk in Lexington. His fascination became obsession and he began to believe he ought to be interested in “the Lord”, that somehow he might need to question things relating to God, Life, and even his own family. This worried Mary and Jo so for a time she stopped telling him the bedtime birth-stories and she instead read Psalms from a bible Miss Ann had given her.......