My mother and father got married and divorced twice before I got through fourth grade. The second divorce was final. Those times were confusing. They were both Gemini.
Shortly after their final divorce, Dad moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, and continued his amazing small-market radio career with WCLE, owned by Hoskins and Sharp Insurance Agency.
My mother, on the other hand, was not as fortunate. She was a brilliant woman. She had great credentials and degrees from Peabody College and did some pretty heady, faith-based writing. She was looking for a teaching job. They were few and far between in the '50s. We lived with her mother, my grandmother, Miz Lena, for a while.
Mom finally landed a job in a spot-in-the-road town, just south of Columbia.
It was one of those little country towns that was so small, Mr Jenkins, a local World War I hero, used to say, "The 'Welcome To' and the 'Come Back Again' signs is back to back." There was one church, First Church of Christ, with Reverend Riley Wright at the helm. Everybody around there called him Preacher Man.
He was a short man. I doubt he stood more than 5-and-a-half-feet tall. Of course, I was just a little boy, so he was plenty tall to me. His face was worn and red-flushed. Puffy eyes. When I looked up at him, his extra-thick bifocals magnified the red lines in his eyes. If you didn't know he was a man of the cloth, you'd swear he'd been on a bender.
Preacher Man had wavy white hair, parted almost down the middle and faint blond streaks still left at his temples. He combed it back and tucked it behind his big ears. He was buck-toothed. When he smiled, which was often, from my elevation, all I saw were his two, slightly nicotine-stained, front teeth.
He wore a pressed jacket, hand-ironed by Ms. Swann's maid. You could see the seared image of the pointed iron around the lapels. Always a white starched shirt and a bow tie. He usually wore his cane straw hat with a pigeon feather stuck in the band.
There were a lot of pigeons around the church. Preacher Man fed them table scraps out of the back kitchen door of his adjoined living quarters behind the church. Preacher Man loved his pigeons.
What he lacked in physical stature was made up for with his stiff, straight-up walk and a commanding and confident voice. It was raspy, but strong. If you saw him at a distance talking with someone, you could hear his part of the conversation clear as a bell. At the end of each of his spoken sentences, he'd whistle. Just a little whistle. Almost like a whisper. During his Sunday hellfire-and-brimstone sermons, his whistles would bounce off the church walls. It was hypnotizing.
Preacher Man saw me coming up the sidewalk and called me over. He looked down at me and said, "Boy, I was speaking to the Lord about you this mornin', and then he whisper-whistled, "sssssrt." He continued, "The Lord''s likin' what he's seein', boy, Ssssrt. He says for you to keep up the good work. Ssssrt."
He'd say things like that, with his arm stretched out and his hand on my shoulder. If he got up close to me, I could smell a hint of church wine on his breath.
As far as I knew, Preacher Man was the only one in town talking with the Almighty about me on a fairly regular basis. It was like receiving a daily bulletin from God. I always appreciated hearing from the Lord via one of his appointed messengers.
Back then, I was an enterprising little guy. I chopped kindling and brought in coal for almost all the elderly ladies within three miles of downtown. There were many war widows living out their last days in the same little town from which they had come into the world. Not only did I do countless chores for them, but I guess you could say I kept them company.
Most every one of them seemed to enjoy my sitting with them for a while. They almost always dished up a slice of pie or cake for me, accompanied with an ice-cold glass of milk.
Then, we'd huddle up in the kitchen or drawing room and discuss the most interesting of topics. Many of the ladies were retired schoolteachers. We'd look through scrapbooks, play checkers, sing songs and laugh about nothing in particular.
I thought, "Old people sure do like to laugh." Sometimes I'd do my impressions of famous people for them. James Cagney was my best. "Yeah, yeah see, you dirty rat!" I did a pretty good Jerry Lewis, too.
Aside from working for the widows, I did some sweeping and raking up for Preacher Man. It usually entailed me sweeping off the church front porch, down the steps and then the cracked sidewalk, all the way up to the street.
The sidewalk was bordered on both sides by beautiful 25-foot magnolia trees. In the spring and summer months, the trees would blossom and the blooms would eventually fall to the ground. At the hottest time of a late spring or a summer day, I'd run to the church and lie on my back halfway down the sidewalk in the middle of the magnolias and breathe in the perfume of Mother Nature.
On Sundays and funeral days, Preacher Man would reach up and pull down on a thick brown rope and ring the church bell in the steeple. You could hear it all the way down to Cathy's Creek. If they ever had a church bell ringing contest, Preacher Man would have taken home a trophy. He was one of God's musicians. The way he played the bell made me want to go to church.
One day, Preacher Man saw me next door, out in the back of Ms. Swann's house and stepped over the hedge and yelled out for me to come over to him. He was smiling, but I sensed that something wasn't right. As I got closer to him, he began quoting Scriptures. The only thing I understood was one of the Ten Commandments. "Thou shall not steal."
He told me, "Boy, if God sees you stealin', he'll take somethin' away from yuh." I said, "Yes, sir." He said, "The Lord told me you was stealin' and cheatin' on trick-or-treat night last week. You got somethin' to say 'bout that, son?"
He was referring to my Halloween costume trick. Not really a trick. I had bought four or five Lone Ranger masks. There was the traditional black one and other colors like red and blue. There may have been a purple one as well.
I always saved my Halloween candy and sold it back to kids at school. I thought I could at least triple my gross income if I hit every house three or four times wearing different-colored masks.
At the time, I thought I had come up with the perfect business plan. I truly didn't think of it as corrupt. Maybe a little sneaky. I swear I didn't think I was sinning. Somebody had reported my misdeeds to Preacher Man.
Preacher Man continued, "Son, the Good Lord is a forgivin' man, as long as he knows yer sorry for what you done." I felt bad and so ashamed of myself. I cried a little. He told me that it was too late for crying and that I had better look out for God's reprimand. He said, "If I was you, boy, I'd start prayin" for his forgiveness. You never can tell about him. The Lord works in mysterious ways."
My dad had come over from Cleveland that last Christmas with bicycles for me and my two brothers. Gary and Ricky got smaller Schwinn bikes. I got a black three-speed, one of those bikes that every kid dreams of. Because it came from my dad, it was extra-special to me. I washed my bike almost every day. Next to my dog, Prince, my bike was my favorite possession.
Shortly after Preacher Man's talk with me, my bike came up missing. Someone had stolen it! I looked everywhere for it. I was devastated. A couple of weeks went by. My bike had vanished. I was a sinner and on foot again.
I was in Preacher Man's kitchen, getting ready to haul out the trash, which mainly consisted of Mogen David wine bottles. Whatever communion wine, or what Preacher Man called "the blood of Christ," was left over from church services ended up back in his kitchen and was completely consumed by him.
Preacher Man asked me if I'd been praying for forgiveness. I told him continuously. He had me kneel with him and led us in prayer. He asked the Lord if he could do him a personal favor and "help this poor boy find his bike." Preacher Man wrapped up his prayer vouching to God for my true remorse. He said to me, "Let's just see how forgiving the Lord's gonna be."
The next day, Preacher Man asked me to sweep up the aisles in the church. He said, "Start in the back and sweep it up to the front, boy." I was head down into it. As I got to the front, close to the reverend's podium at the front of the small stage, I looked up. There in the back where the choir sang, propped up next to a chair, was my beautiful bike! I couldn't believe it!
I ran to the back to tell Preacher Man that his prayer for me had been answered. He said, "I know, boy, the Lord told me, just before you come in. He also told me to tell you that yer gonna be workin' here at the church for free for a while until yer caught up for all that stolen Halloween candy."
That was fine with me. The Lord had forgiven me. I had my bike back. We were square.
As the years have moved on, I've realized that Preacher Man had something to do with the disappearance of my bike. That's OK with me. I learned a valuable lesson. And I truly believe that the Lord works in mysterious ways. Sometimes, with an accomplice.
Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tenn. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.