Vic Sizemore's short stories are published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, Silk Road Review, Atticus Review, PANK Magazine Fiction Fix, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Conclave, and elsewhere. Excerpts from his novel, The Calling, are published in Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Prick of the Spindle, Burrow Press Review, and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction, and been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and a Pushcart Prize.
When I was five years old, one of the Elk River-rat boys handed me a brown paper bag and said, “There’s candy in there.” We were behind the small white church parsonage where my family lived. “I’m not lying,” he said. Taking a couple steps back, he said, “Go ahead, get some out.” Two friends behind him grinned at me.
“Throw it down,” my mom yelled behind me. She slammed open the screen door and ran down the concrete steps repeating, “Throw it down.” She yelled, “Now.”
Confused in all the commotion, I froze and held on to the bag. The M-80 firecracker inside exploded and blew out the entire bottom of the bag. I was not hurt, only surprised. The river rats fled laughing out the dirt road between the pine trees and the Pauley’s house toward the riverbank.
From there, my memory skips to mom holding up the brown bag for her friends and talking in serious, pinched tones, the other women shaking their heads, making proclamations. The edges of the jagged blast-hole were charred black. (To this day, I remember who the boy was. Seven years later, I would see that same boy pin a smaller boy down, straddle his chest, pinning down arms with knees, and slap at the younger boy’s face with his erect penis. I was in the new parsonage, looking out the side picture window. They were beside the ballfield that my mom still called “the clearing,” up by the church’s picnic shelter.)
Not long after that incident, my sister, my brother and I traveled with mom to a youth camp where dad was preaching for the week under picnic shelters and beside night campfires. Though we were far too young, they let us join the teen activities. I lived that week to see my team prevail, whether it was a race, Scripture memorization, or a cheering contest.
At the end of the week, as everyone stood in front of their busses to trek back to their home churches, the camp leader called for one more contest: see which team could run around the camp and gather up the largest pile of garbage. He said on your mark, get set, go, and the teens took off for the last contest. I ran for all I was worth, and found myself at the campfire, where the night before a number of teenagers had thrown sticks into the fire as they took turns crying and turning their lives over to the Lord—two girls had clung to one another as they announced their joint call to the foreign mission field.
There I was the next morning, staring at several boxes filled with ripped up cardboard and scrap paper. I’d already seen kids snatching up candy wrappers and scraps—a Coke can was considered a good find. All this garbage would win the game for sure. Visions of being the team hero in the last competition made my spirit soar. Fear washed in and cleansed me of any feelings of triumph. Those boxes were probably being saved for the next week’s campers, and I would fuck it up for them, quench the Holy Spirit—at the time, I knew that if you screwed around with the Holy Spirit, you were treading near the unpardonable sin.
What if instead of winning me a shower of praise, swiping the boxes got me exposed for the bad boy I was? Freud’s take on Hamlet is that conscientiousness is as much about one’s worthiness to act as it is the justification of the act itself. I wondered if this is wrong in some way I could not understand? (My childhood was filled with aha moments in which I realized a new low to my base sinfulness as I endured a good ass whipping.) What if I’m acting in defiance of God’s will? What if I am bad—a worthless, sinning worm—and stealing these boxes will be proof for all to see?
Years later in college I read Flannery O’Conner’s Wise Blood, and identified immediately with poor Hazel Motes as he sees Jesus sneaking around, peeking from behind trees, watching Haze everywhere he goes. Jesus was watching me, and I feared being caught in sin more than I feared snakes and bees—snakes and bees hurt, but having a light turned on my sin, especially if I didn’t even know it was sin, exposed me for the worthless worm that I was before God.
I stood immobilized by fear, and heard kids from another team running up the path. They ran past me, whooped and hollered when they found the boxes, gathered them up and took off down the path. Back at the buses, the camp director heaped praise on those kids while everyone looked on in envy. My face burned with resentment and shame.
During my grade school years, down the river from Elkview in Charleston, and on out into the rest of the big sinful world, the country was falling apart. Jimmy Carter was struggling because Iran was holding fifty-two Americans hostage. Anita Bryant was fighting the good fight against gays who were trying to bully Christians and recruit their children into perversion. The threat of nuclear war with the USSR, and “mutual assured destruction,” loomed as dark as Mordor’s shadow. In church I heard how secular humanists and atheists and evolutionists and gays and abortionists and Hollywood movies and Rock & Roll music and playing cards, and virtually everything else outside the church doors, was part of a conspiracy to drive Christians back into the catacombs.
For me, the danger was closer. I spent my evenings after school riding my bike and playing in the creek and the river, which in some ways was an idyllic childhood. I learned early on however to plot my course and keep a wary eye on my surroundings. Every foray from the house was fraught with dull-eyed bullies. I was more or less successful, ran up and down the paved and dirt roads like other boys, sizing up possible threats—which boys I would fight and which boys I would not. I held my own for the most part.
When I did not hold my own, I slunk home battered and bruised and never mentioned a word of it to mom or dad—it did not seem worth mentioning; it was the price of admission to the world of outdoor play. There was no adult supervision on those riverbanks—Elkview, West Virginia was a lord-of-the-flies world of half-feral boys. Girls did not run those riverbanks at all, and soft boys stayed inside building model cars and watching TV.
My sister, brother and I were allowed to watch few TV shows, as most were tainted with worldliness in some way. We watched The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie. I loved movies. I relished walking into the church sanctuary to discover the reel-to-reel movie projector set up in the center aisle. It meant a brief dark respite from the endless drone of exhortation, admonition and upbraiding—three chapel services a week at school, plus Bible class every day, three more services at church, Sunday school, special meetings, week-long revivals.
One movie I saw in church was about a traveling evangelist called Sheffey. Robert Sheffey was a good evangelist, people got saved when he preached, but I sensed something as I watched. Sheffey fit the most common personality type encountered among Independent Baptist preachers and evangelists: the asshole. While my own father did not fit this mold—boorish, loud, pushy, authoritarian—I knew it well.
In one of a very few scenes I still remember, Sheffey is a family’s guest, and this woman has cooked him a huge meal on a wood-fired iron stove. He asks her if there are potatoes to go with the meat and she apologizes, tells him no, she failed to make potatoes. He prays over the food and thanks God for it, but comments to God, before saying amen, something like, “Even you know meat is better with potatoes. Everyone laughed at that scene. It was a dick thing to say—she had worked hard to prepare him a meal, was feeding him no charge. He wasn’t just an asshole; he was an asshole and a bully.
Jerry Falwell preached at Elkview Baptist Church just one time that I recall. I was in Jr. High school. This time he didn’t have a full choir of students like he did when he held his crusade on the Capital steps in Charleston, but a small man who played an electric piano and sang solos. Like Moody and Sankey, I thought. My dad loved talking about Dwight L. Moody’s sidekick Ira Sankey, who sang sentimental songs to warm up the congregations before Moody preached to them, a singing Sancho Panza to Moody’s Quixote, a Robin to his Batman.
Falwell’s sidekick even used a boy wonder’s name: Robbie, Robbie Hiner. He was a grown man, but he didn’t look like a grown man. He was not feminine but androgynous, as if he had grown up but never actually hit puberty. If I closed his eyes, Hiner’s high voice shifted from a bluegrass tenor to that of a black woman, to a child of indeterminate sex. It was fascinating. Hiner sat down while Falwell preached about the abortionists and homosexuals taking over this once Christian nation, and how he, the fat preacher, with his college, was going to train champions to go out and battle them and win back this nation for Christ. He had set his sights on a mountain in his hometown that he was convinced God wanted to give him.
After the sermon, Hiner sang for the invitation, which was normal. What he sang was unusual. No hymn of invitation like “Just As I Am” or “Almost Persuaded,” so people could do business with the Lord, get saved or rededicated, which was what happened after every other endless sermon I could remember suffering through. This was an anthem of acquisition:
I want that mountain, it belongs to me!
I want that mountain! I want that mountain!
Where the milk and honey flow, where the grapes of Eshcol grow,
I want that mountain! I want that mountain!
The mountain that the Lord has given me.
It was as if the fat preacher’s Ira Sankey had the perfect benediction for this very sermon. It worked. My dad passed around the plates for a love offering. “He comes with no price tag on his service,” dad told the congregation. “Give as the Lord leads.”
After church, people lined up in the vestibule to by records and tapes. I stood there in the vestibule and listened to adults talk excitedly—the fat preacher really had convinced them that they were in on something big that God was doing. They laughed about how, as Hiner sang “I want that mountain,” his pronunciation of want sounded like won’t. People gave their money generously. Falwell moved on to ask for money somewhere else.
Robbie Hiner came back to EBC once more. By this time, Falwell was ladling money out of bigger pots. During his concert, Hiner shared an anecdote about riding in a teenage boy’s car, and he stepped over the line. He said he asked the boy what kind of music he liked, and the boy turned on some Bee Gees for him. Hiner played the intro to “Too Much Heaven” on his electric piano, and sang out with soulful longing,
Nobody gets too much heaven no more
It's much harder to come by
I'm waiting in line
Hiner stopped playing his electric piano when he came to the word line, and he held out the vocal tremolo for long enough to get people laughing. I knew the song even though secular music, particularly Rock & Roll and disco, were forbidden in our house—mom would stride in from the kitchen and switch off the TV if we failed to turn the volume down on the K-Tel Records advertisements, and march right back out, leaving us kids sitting there in fuming silence. I was astonished that Hiner had the balls to play a pop song at all, much less in the church sanctuary. He sang,
Nobody gets too much love anymore
It's as high as a mountain
And harder to climb
He held out the tremolo on climb. His naturally high voice did not go into falsetto. I was astonished that Hiner had the balls to play this song in church, and decided I liked him after all. An entire row of KJV only people from Sissonville rose before Hiner had gotten through that one verse, which was the only one he played, and strode indignantly from the sanctuary. Hiner went into a long and awkward explanation. He was only playing it to get to a larger point he was trying to make, etc. He went back to more southern gospel, and horrid Gaither music, and eventually, in trying to air the awkward out of the room, started telling stories about his experiences with the fat preacher, Falwell himself.
One night Hiner squirted shaving cream into both of Falwell’s suit-coat pockets. After he sang, he sat on the stage behind the fat preacher and waited. Sure enough, Falwell shoved his hand into a pocket, paused, started to turn and look at Hiner, but then kept preaching. He finished the sermon and the invitation with the hand still in his pocket.
That evening after the service, Falwell lunged and grabbed hold of Hiner, wrestled him to the floor, and torqued a painful lesson into the little man’s body. Hiner laughed it off as an example of how the fat preacher was a regular guy, not a stuffy old pastor type, but Vic knew what that was really about. That was big dog making little dog lie on his back and submit. That was a man who was fine dishing it out—and brag about dishing it out—but angry and vengeful when it was his turn to take a spoonful himself. That was the reaction of a bully, plain and simple.
This did not surprise me, or even interest me much. It fit perfectly with what I knew of how males dealt with one another. It made sense in my world, but what I did not understand was that, even though I was quick and athletic, I was no good at this game.
I joined the Marines in part to learn how to fight. It worked to a certain extent—I learned hand-to-hand combat techniques and gained confidence—but the fact is the military is a giant kennel full of bullies. Maybe it has to be this way. Big dog intimidates little dog, little dog rolls over, order is maintained. One gunnery sergeant I had was a large man, and a physical intimidator. Once he walked by as I stood in line outside admin. and he stopped and punched my arm hard enough to jar my neck.
I turned and looked at him, wondering what the fuck.
“How you doing Marine?”
“Good, Gunny,” I said.
His smile was big and friendly. He was friendly, as long as you didn’t piss him off. He walked on.
Two women recently completed Army Ranger training, and the debate over women in combat continues. I wonder how it will work in this world of men where physical intimidation is an accepted tool of control and promotion. Does it take a bully to do the job right in the first place? Do countries at war send their bullies off to meet the bullies of their foes—our blustering Goliath against yours?
My time in the Marines was up not long after I returned from the Gulf War, and I did not let the door hit me on the ass. Nobody begged me to re-up; I was plenty strong and athletic, scored high on the rifle range and in PT tests, but I lacked the inner fight—the willingness to join this world of male egoistic dominance, to buck and shove for my place—that made a good Marine.
In 1998, my wife J. and I bought a coffee shop/café called The Drowsy Poet, which I operated for eight years before going back to teaching. Sometime around 2002, my parents, on one of their visits, took the kids to the Burger King play gym on Timberlake Road for lunch. Falwell and his wife were there eating burgers while their own grandchildren thumped around in the orange and blue tubes overhead.
At some point, up in the play gym, the fat preacher’s pasty fat grandson kicked my son Asher. Asher was around four at this time. He came down crying and told my parents. They did what people do in these situations, suggested it was an accident.
“It was not an accident,” Asher assured them. “It was on purpose.”
Falwell overheard the conversation, and somehow knew it was his grandson who had done the deed. He called the boy down from the play gym and walked him to stand in front of Asher. Towering over Asher, Falwell leaned down and took him by the shoulder. He told Asher that he would give his grandson a whipping right then and there if Asher said it was what he wanted. He asked four-year-old Asher if that was what he wanted, to stand there and watch this massive man slap the boy who had kicked him.
Later that evening, as my dad told me this story, he commented approvingly of Falwell’s handling of the situation. Maybe, being a Baptist preacher himself, he appreciated the fat preacher’s ability to bully people with their own compassion, twist their arms with their own goodness. This kind of bullying does not need to employ physical intimidation, though in this case it did. The fat preacher towered over four-year-old Asher, intimidated the hell out of the boy, and then told him he got to choose whether or not the grandson would get a beating with his, the fat preacher’s, big ham hand. Asher could choose to have justice and feel like an asshole, or he could back down.
Asher shook his head: no, he did not want to see the kid get a beating. After a quick apology, the kid ran happily back off to play.
There is another kind of bully: the moral bully.
To have a successful ministry, any Baptist preacher must be a moral bully. The key to moral bullying is maintaining control of the categories. This is what makes bullies able to come across as gregarious and friendly while at the same time pushing others around. It’s easy to strike a magnanimous pose when you are in total control of the game and the rules by which it’s played.
In The Brothers Karamozov, harsh and judgmental Katerina welcomes the morally compromised Grushenka into her parlor, heaps praise on her beauty, kisses her hand, “the back of it and the palm see, and here, and here, and here again,” making a show of it for poor Alyosha, who reddens in embarrassment. In kissing Grushenka’s hand, Katerina, the upright and moral—and financially secure—woman in the relationship, is trying to trap the fallen woman into doing Katerina’s will out of gratitude. Look how this woman, my moral superior, deigns to kiss my hand, Grushenka should be thinking. She is so kind to stoop to my level. I must try to please her in any way I can.
And everything runs smoothly as long as the tainted woman Grushenka accepts Katerina’s assessment of her and remains in the role of fallen woman. But Grushenka does not do that. She asks for Katerina’s hand, and then refuses to kiss it, saying, “I simply want you to remember that you kissed my hand and I did not kiss yours.” With this, she rejects Katerina’s moral categories, and in so doing, any possible control Katerina, the moral bully, has over her.
What happens when the marginalized and bullied rise up and throw off the oppressor’s definitions, demand their own moral vocabulary? Katerina is outraged that anyone could question her opinions of right and wrong. She calls Grushenka an “insolent creature,” and when Grushenka remains defiant, she yells, “Get out, you filthy slut! Get out of here!”
When their moral categories are rejected bullies are thrown off guard and must resort to a baser kind of bullying. When Hazel Motes sees Jesus sneaking around, peeking from behind trees, he is not afraid of tender Jesus, meek and mild. I was not afraid of Jesus either when as a young boy I stood frozen and let the other team sweep away my winning trash. I could have lived with Jesus watching me. My earliest thoughts of deity were not like Haze’s sneaky, peeking Jesus. They were of God the Father, a giant club-footed ogre, following me around, waiting for the slightest excuse to kick His hard boot into my ass. It didn’t matter if what I pursued was sinful or not. If I loved it and lost myself in it, it was taking the place of God in my life, which made it de facto sin—no surprise, sinful worm that I was.
Throughout my childhood, I dedicated, and rededicated, my life to the Lord too many times to count, but it was never enough for god. God was omnipresent I learned, omniscient and omnipotent. What I learned also was that He was omnipissedoff as well, omnipissedoff at me.
In another scene of the Sheffey movie, the evangelist takes a woman’s husband who is passed-out drunk, puts him in a wheelbarrow full of alcohol, and sets it in the middle of a raging ring of fire. The man awakens and panics because he thinks he is in hell—he repents of his boozing and gets religion of course, and all ends well. Recently my sister shared with me an online meme, a photograph of Jesus, with the caption, “Love me or I’ll set you on fire.”
It took me forty years to come to this realization: though they seemed to be polar opposites at the time, the inside of my church was as full of bullies at the muddy banks of the Elk River. When I stood frozen with fear at that youth camp as a child, I was not primarily afraid of an ass whipping. I was not afraid of peeking Jesus. What I feared was that he was going to run and tattle to his dad, the club-footed ogre. I was ever in danger of an eternal burning ass whipping. No wonder Baptist pulpits are full of moral bullies. Their God is the biggest bully of all.