Son of a Preacher Man
by Vic Sizemore
Caleb Campbell decides to get victory over the sin of homosexuality once and for all. It is the second week of September, Spiritual Emphasis Week at Pinewood University. On Friday morning Caleb takes the opportunity to make a new start. For the first time in his life, Caleb openly confesses his sinful attraction to men, speaks the truth of it out into the air. He goes down during the invitation after chapel service, confesses, repents, and prays with an RA for the Lord’s forgiveness and healing. He only confesses the attraction; he does not say anything about the gay porn hidden, of all places, under his mattress in his dorm room.
Caleb struggles all day with how to dispose of the porn, worries that now, after he’s rededicated his life to the Lord, his RA will find the magazines in a room inspection—confessing the attraction gets you prayed with; having the porn gets you kicked out—and he decides in the cafeteria while getting himself a sugar cone of mint chocolate chip, that he will find a secluded place and he will burn the porn. A sacrifice to the Lord, an act of worship and surrender.
Caleb is a senior. He left Kansas City right after high school at the behest of his deeply concerned parents. He came to Meadow Green to study music at PU—according to Chancellor Perkins, the fastest-growing Evangelical University on the planet—but more importantly, to escape a deepening homosexual flirtation with the second chair cello—Caleb was first chair—in his high school chamber orchestra, one which he couldn’t get disentangled from even after graduation, even though nothing sexual ever happened.
He arrived in West Virginia three years ago only to find that God had played a dirty trick on him: John Kinder, the roommate he’d been assigned, was a tall effeminate Brad Pitt lookalike. He looked so much like the movie star that people commented on it everywhere they went. John acted like he didn’t care, but Caleb has noticed that John apes Pitt’s fashion. If Pitt has a beard on the cover of Us magazine, John grows one; if Brad’s head is shaved on the cover of People, John shaves his head.
As freshmen the two quickly became inseparable, the way freshmen new from home do. Early on they used to wrap themselves in towels and go together down to the hall bathroom for showers. Caleb is embarrassed to think back at how obvious it must have been. Some lacrosse players on the hall started calling the two fags. One of them once threw punches that snapped so close to Caleb’s face that he smelled barbecue potato chips on the guy’s fingers. The guy said, “There. Like that, fag.” His friends laughed. Caleb and John stood silently and waited to be allowed to go on to their room. They stopped going to the shower together.
So John’s struggles are the same as Caleb’s. Just last month John went to D.C. and applied for work as a model. He came back and told Caleb he couldn’t take the secular atmosphere. He’d spent the day walking around in his underwear in front of a bunch of fags, he told Caleb. Later in the cafeteria, John told a girl friend of theirs that he couldn’t do the job because he couldn’t work in such a sinful environment.
Spring semester of last year in a hotel room in Baltimore, Caleb and John had both been weak to temptation. And being in a strange town, in a strange room, it felt almost like God would give them a pass just that once. At least that’s how Caleb had felt as it happened.
They were traveling with the Pinewood singing group called Sounds of the Mountain, a kind of Contemporary Christian cover band. This trip they were doing P&W as a backup act to Jimmy Lucas, Pinewood’s campus pastor who also traveled and sang—though not so well as he thought he did; sometimes he’d come in on a note so flat it was like fingernails on a chalkboard as he bent the note till he found the right spot. Caleb stood behind the man on the stage in those moments and swore that he couldn’t be a part of it anymore, he was quitting.
Sounds of the Mountain didn’t travel with Jimmy Lucas all the time. Lucas had his own band called G1, which stood for God First, but he needed more for this conference. He was doing the music for a weekend seminar run by the all-star duo of Bill Hybels and John Maxwell, and his band was in disarray: both his drummer and his bassist had quit. The conference cost was seven hundred dollars, which Caleb and John would get for free, plus meals and lodging. Caleb stood in on bass—those praise and worship songs were as simple as nursery rhymes—and he and John harmonized with Lucas on a really old song called “Daystar (Shine Down On Me),” which sounded okay when Jimmy could keep the melody and not trail off to follow Caleb or John’s part. They got to where they simply harmonized with one another in rehearsal and letting Jimmy Lucas’s voice go wherever it happened to go.
They performed the song to several hundred pastors on the first day of the conference, and it was passable. Most of those pastors out there were used to some pretty bad volunteer special music in their home churches, so they were probably impressed. Then John Maxwell sat on a stool and told the story about how when he was a young pastor how he went around offering successful pastors one hundred dollars to tell him what they did, and how, after one such meeting he sat in his car and cried on his steering wheel and begged God to make him a success.
Bill Hybels talked about having a personal vision.
During an intermission, Jimmy Lucas found Caleb and John at the water fountain outside the men’s room and told them that Maxwell and Hybels had liked their singing and that they had been invited along to dinner with the two famous men that night. Caleb had his own personal vision of having a music ministry; he’d felt inspired by the session and had gone down and spoken briefly to Mr. Hybels, told him he had a vision, asked where he should begin in realizing it. Hybels told him, “I don’t have time to get into it all right here.” There was a line of people behind Caleb, waiting to shake the man’s hand. He said, “Start by going back to the table and getting my book Holy Discontent: Fueling the Fire That Ignites Personal Vision.” Caleb did, and now he could peruse it in their down time and discuss it with the man himself over dinner. This could be his shot at the big time, Caleb thought: Hybels had counseled Bill Clinton back in the day; he had connections.
In their hotel room later, Caleb and John were getting changed for dinner. The room was typical Holiday Inn Express: entertainment center, desk, chair, one free-standing lamp, reading lamps on the bedside tables, wide flat window with the blackout curtains pulled closed, heating unit on the wall. Two beds both with horrible dull-golden covers.
Caleb stood in his underwear at the closet, unzipping his garment bag. John grabbed him from behind and slung him onto a bed. They hadn’t even opened the television cabinet yet. Before he could get up, John was straddling his stomach. John was in his underwear too, blue and green plaid boxers, tented with John’s erection the center pole aimed at Caleb’s chin.
“Let’s wrestle,” John said. He had reapplied his deodorant. It was caked in his armpit hair, and was so strong the thick odor felt like a blanket over Caleb’s mouth and nose.
Caleb squirmed to get out from under John, but John was bigger and stronger. He spread his weight on Caleb, got him in a headlock and rolled with him. Caleb wrapped his legs around John’s torso like a child on dad’s leg.
Caleb said into John’s body, “Your deodorant is choking me.”
John said, “You’re strong for a little guy.”
Caleb could feel John’s erection against the inside of his thigh. He had an erection too, and he ground it against John’s body. They both knew that’s what this was about. Caleb was a virgin. Here he was at the point of giving in, letting it happen—his heart pounding, his breath catching in his throat; he wanted this more than anything, he loved John, let this happen, let it happen. When John pushed Caleb’s head down, he decided he was going to do it, this was it. He was breathing so hard he was light headed
A hard knock on the door.
They disentangled. Caleb rolled away from John as John bounced himself off the mattress.
Another hard knock.
John called out, “Just a sec.” He hurried to the bathroom, running his fingers through his hair. Closing the door, he hollered, “Caleb, can you get that?”
Caleb slid into a pair of jeans and a plain white V-neck, calling back, “Sure.” He took a few deep breaths as he stepped barefoot across the carpet to the door—the door was bar-locked, which John must have done before grabbing him. He pulled the door open.
It was the campus pastor Jimmy Lucas. Jimmy was a bodybuilder, and his suit coat was wide across his shoulders and chest. The kind of perfect fit you only get by spending a lot of money. His dark hair was short and carefully gelled and tousled. He stepped into the room and said, “They liked the song so much, they want us to do it again before the conference is over. I thought we could go back over to the church and run through it a couple of times before dinner.”
He looked around the room, and then he looked at Caleb, who was still catching his breath. Caleb could see in the big mirror by the sink that his face was flushed.
Caleb said, “Sounds good. We’re just getting changed.” He could still smell John’s deodorant. It was on his arms.
“That what you’re wearing?” Jimmy said, looking at Caleb’s white t-shirt.
“Oh, no,” Caleb said. “I just threw this on to knock around in till dinner.”
A knowing grin passed over Jimmy Lucas’s face. Caleb saw it, and in a horror-filled instant realized that Jimmy knew what was going on. But then the grin was gone just as fast and Caleb wasn’t sure he did know. He wouldn’t smile if he knew. He would have them expelled.
Jimmy said, “You two are going to like this restaurant. You like Thai food?”
Caleb didn’t know if he did or not. He liked Chinese. He said, “Love it.”
Jimmy went and sat on the bed where Caleb and John had just been wrestling. He said, “Get dressed.” He said, “Where’s John,” looking toward the bathroom.
Caleb said, “I think he’s taking a shower or something.”
Jimmy Lucas nodded. He crossed his legs and looked for a long instant at Caleb. Caleb turned to the closet and started fiddling with his hanging clothes.
Lucas said, “Last time, John Maxwell picked up the tab for the entire table.”
So the moment had passed, and Jimmy Lucas had saved them, because they both had surely given in to their sinful desires. Caleb and John never spoke of what almost happened. Caleb silently prayed and asked forgiveness, and he assumed John did the same. They drifted apart after that, don’t speak much, don’t hang out like they used to. They will eat together if they happen to be in the cafeteria at the same time, but they don’t plan it.
John doesn’t know about Caleb’s porn, and it’s a good thing because of how Caleb has modified it.
It’s after curfew, and Caleb is taking a chance being out. He sneaks from the dorm and to the edge of campus that borders the train tracks overlooking George’s Crossing Road. A train is stopped on the tracks, blocking his path. The dark cars stretch on to what looks like eternity to his left and to his right. The coal car he stands before is black and filthy, with massive growths of rust, like a spreading skin disease. Graffiti on the side in bright red and orange letters that are puffed out like balloons, says Life is but a Dream. The balloon letters of the word dream are twice as big as the other letters and are connected to form one big blimp word. It looks as if it is moored down by some invisible line but ready to break free and float away. The letters have curved number signs on them that make them look like they really are round and reflecting light.
Caleb crawls under the coal car, across the gravel and rough wood. The evening is cooling and the hard iron track is cold on his palm. The space under the coal car smells of oil and creosote, the gravel pieces are large and sharp under his hands and knees. His porn is in a bag, stuffed into the waistband of his jeans. He could die doing this, he thinks. If the train starts, he could be cut in half. They would find him dead with this smut. His parents would have to be told. He shivers and crawls on.
On the other side of the train, Caleb brushes himself off and side-steps down the weedy and trash-cluttered hillside into the orange glow of streetlights and stores and the flashing blare of car headlights on George’s Crossing Road. He walks in the light and noise as if nothing unusual is going on, and no one gives him a second glance. He walks across the tundra of parking lot at Walmart, past the McDonald’s: the smell of frying food permeates the air; cars are lined up from the drive through all the way around into the side parking lot. He goes inside and buys a small blue Bic lighter for ninety nine cents. The bag checker is a woman with blue eye shadow and a bad perm that is curly on the ends but going flat near her head. She smiles at him. Her teeth are bad. Caleb hikes along the front of the building, around the bleak cinderblock side, where there is no activity at all, to the back service drive. He can hear the noise on the other side, but he is utterly alone back here.
He stops beside a green dumpster that says cardboard only on the side but has a sudsy rust-colored fluid oozing from beneath it out across the service drive that reeks of rancid meat and rotting vegetables. With a wildly pounding heart, he burns the magazine. On some of the most hardcore pictures he has taped cut-out heads of himself and his roommate John. The heads are a tad too big, the faces gazing out in off-kilter directions. They don’t match the body positions quite right, and look more like bobble head dolls—albeit dolls with amazing, fit men’s bodies—having sex.
The flames shift and twist from blue to green to yellow as they chew at the slick, inky pages. Caleb weeps over the burning porn, leans into the smoke so that he can’t smell the dumpster anymore. He prays fervently, asks again for forgiveness, and asks the Lord to give him strength. He makes sure his and John’s faces are burned beyond recognition—his paranoia is such; he thinks someone might find this and come looking for him up on campus like a private detective and his secret would be out, the evidence there in the photographs.
He would die of embarrassment. It would kill his parents, especially his dad. Well, no worries, he tells himself. It’s taken care of, and he is committed to living a life pure and chaste before the Lord. Even if he’s caught now, he’s just out after curfew. Not such a big deal. A small fine, nothing more. He stands and walks away from the smoldering magazine. He feels free and as he walks back across the parking lot, passing the McDonald’s, he sings a praise and worship chorus softly, enjoying the rich tone of his own voice: “We exalt Thee, we exalt Thee, We exalt Thee, oh Lord…”
Caleb laughs, basks in the weightlessness he feels after having the heavy burden of sin and guilt lifted, keeps singing “We exalt thee.” He is embarked on a new and victorious life in Christ. He will sing for Jesus. He will witness to the lost. He will win souls to the Lord.
The parking lot is full of cars. A red sports car of some kind pulls into a spot and is aimed right at Caleb. A guy gets out and looks at him, smiles. He turns and sidles between two cars that are idling in the drive through line. He has on Gap skinny jeans, and a blue Abercrombie t-shirt. He’s muscular and fit. At the door he glances back at Caleb and smiles again. Caleb nods.
Caleb gets to the busy intersection and stands waiting for his light. Up the hill, the rusty train is heavy on the track, looks like it has not moved in years. The taste of the burning magazine coats his throat and nostrils. He needs a Coke. He turns and makes his way back across the McDonald’s lot to get one. Heading for the door, he thinks he’ll also sit down and have a cone of vanilla before sneaking back into the dorm.
Vic Sizemore‘s fiction is published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, Silk Road Review, Atticus Review, PANK Magazine, and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best American Nonrequired Reading. “Son of a Preacher Man” is the opening pages of Sizemore’s novel Seekers.