by Joe Samuel Starnes

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On a bus outside Vegas, a washed-up gambler meets a strange preacher

As the bus rolls away from the Las Vegas strip, Timber Goodman screws his eyes shut and tries to keep his stomach from lurching. He came to Vegas in hopes of jump-starting his fading broadcasting career, but he leaves hung over and dead broke. Beside him sits a preacher in cowboy boots, whose only luggage is a Bible, a bottle of bourbon, and a razor-sharp bowie knife. This is Ezekiel Blizzard Jr., a disgraced man of God who’s got a tale to tell—and doesn’t care if Timber’s listening. As Zeke’s story winds on, Timber finds himself enraptured.
In this sweeping novel of the American South, Joe Samuel Starnes explores the gritty side of faith and shows that all it takes to save a wandering man is another lost soul.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781453220856
Publisher: Road
Publication date: 07/08/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 507,506
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Joe Samuel Starnes is an American writer. His work has appeared in various publications including the New York Times and the Washington Post. Starnes published his first book, Calling, in 2005. He received a fellowship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2006 and has taught writing courses at Rowan University, Widener University, and Saint Joseph’s University. 

Read an Excerpt


A Novel

By Joe Samuel Starnes

Copyright © 2005 Joe Samuel Starnes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-2085-6



Timber goodman hung his head. He was tired of looking through the dusty Greyhound bus window at the northeast reaches of the Mojave Desert, fifty miles from Las Vegas and all the money he'd lost. Everything in the early Sunday morning sun had seemed small and tacky, even the huge hotels that glowed at night, the strip so glittering that it had made his heart leap up when he pulled into town a few days before, only to turn his stomach as he took one last glimpse before heading back home through the hulking red and brown Nevada mountains that dwarfed the Crystal City in the light of day.

The sun was searing but dimmed by the tinted windows of the bus. Timber tried to sleep but was too hungover to get comfortable and his head hurt too much to read, so he just sat with his eyes closed, trying not to listen to the hum of the big engine and trying not to feel the steady vibration of the radials running along the hot asphalt of the road beneath his seat. The smells of coffee spilled on worn nylon carpet and bare feet and exhaust fumes and the sharp blue water in the bus toilet mingled and swirled in the dry air in the back of the Greyhound cabin. His mouth was dry and sour but it would be hours before he would have a chance to get something to drink.

He opened his eyes when the bus slowed down and pulled into the Valley of Fire Motel & Casino, a stop smack in the middle of nowhere. Close to his window he saw a lone man waiting to board, a real shitkicker in cowboy boots carrying a suitcase and a briefcase that must have belonged to someone during World War II. He was tall and thin, dressed in a dingy white dress shirt and a tattered blue suit missing a button, his slacks wrinkled and dirty like maybe he had slept in the desert in his clothes. He was sunburned and had greasy hair and scratches on his face, a gauze bandage taped clumsily on the left side of his neck.

Timber—the nickname came from his trademark deep-voiced shout of "Timmmm–berrrrrr!" when belittling fallen politicians on his past morning radio shows—leaned back in his seat and resumed his Louis L'Amour paperback and cursed riding the bus with rednecks, freaks, mumbling old people, Mexicans and assorted speakers of other languages. There had been a time in his late twenties when he was damn near a celebrity and flew first class when he traveled to Vegas for broadcasting conventions. He'd had a morning drive-time slot on Houston's biggest country station in the oil boom days, a time when people threw $100 bills around Texas like floppy tortillas. It had been more than twenty years; it seemed like another lifetime.

The ride back to South Dakota would take at least twenty-four hours. The bus was less than half full with most passengers spaced far from others. Timber, a heavy man with long legs and thick forearms, had been thrilled to find a row near the back of the bus that was empty all the way across. He hated it when someone sat beside him and he had to withdraw into a single seat, competing for the armrest. He had a bad ankle that he liked to stretch out, sometimes into the adjoining seat, flexing it often to try to keep it loose. Timber scratched his grizzled beard and ran his hand through his collar-length graying brown hair, a Kris Kristofferson-like style he had worn since the seventies.

The man with the worn luggage climbed onto the bus and was surveying the seats from the front. Timber hoped the man wouldn't sit close to him. At least he could sit across the aisle in one of the open seats and not in the next seat. The man stood up stiff as a board and lurched forward when the bus driver dropped the big silver bullet into gear and pulled off. Timber could see that the man had a light mustache, the skimpy kind that a high school boy might keep in hopes that it will start growing and fill in any day.

The man stopped about halfway down the aisle. He stared at the seats in the back of the bus, his face scrunched up like he was trying to read a name on a weathered gravestone. He didn't blink. He had wrinkles around his eyes like an old dirt farmer and loose skin below his jawbone—a look like he'd weathered fast but at one time had been fat and happy with fleshy jowls. He appeared to be scowling, with his teeth clenched and his lips pulled tight in one corner, but as he got closer, Timber saw he had a curious welcoming expression: half smirk, half smile. The scratches on his face looked fresh and he had a small blue bruise on his left cheek. His pupils were abnormally large and the color around them was a fierce pale blue, almost silver; his right eye was severely bloodshot, as though he'd been poked.

Timber had a lifelong habit of imagining what people he encountered were like at home, listening to the radio; he visualized the man tuning in to the farm and ranch report, the most followed news in Pierre, or the sports updates. This man would lie in a single bed with dingy sheets late into the morning listening to the radio and nursing a hangover and sometimes wounds from a bar fight, half dressed in his clothes from the night before; at night, he would tune into a country station and sip liquor while driving around in an old pickup truck listening to country songs about either drinking and cheating or love of family and freedom and God.

The man inched closer and Timber opened the book again, pretending to read. Timber watched from the corner of his eye as the man stopped at his row and set his briefcase down into a seat across the aisle. He lifted the battered blue hard-shell suitcase into the rack above the seats, jamming it onto the narrow shelf. It barely fit, wedged in as though it were a steel spike driven into a block of wood. The man stood for several long moments, nervously staring at the suitcase in the rack. He tapped it with his hand to make sure it wouldn't budge. Timber could see bruises and scrapes on his knuckles and his right wrist, a black fingernail on his left hand.

The man sat down in the opposite window seat and held his briefcase flat on his lap, sitting stock still. Timber stole glances at the man, guessing him to be just out of prison, a problem gambler and drinker. Timber figured he could relate to him about the gambling and drinking troubles but he was reluctant to talk to strangers on the bus, particularly the characters that boarded outside of Las Vegas. He imagined he and the man shared woman problems too; the wounds indicated he was most likely an angry drunk.

After a long spell the man moved, setting the briefcase on the aisle seat next to him. He clicked the two metal latches, opening the briefcase to reveal its contents: a black leather New King James Holy Bible, a liter of Jim Beam and a foot-long hunting knife of the sort Jim Bowie had died with at the Alamo. Timber stifled a laugh, letting out a little grunt he had intended to be inaudible. The man's eyes went straight to him and he had a slight smile on his face, as though he had been addressed.

"Hello there, my brother," the man said, his voice hoarse, a strong Southern voice with a hick twang. "How're you doin'?"

Timber nodded, avoiding eye contact. He looked down at his book and pretended to read again. He cursed himself for getting caught spying on the man. He was afraid he might not be able to shake him.

The man lifted the large bottle of bourbon from the briefcase.

"It's dry out there today. Hard to believe that we had a big thunderstorm here last night. The desert just soaks that rain up."

The man pointed to him with the top of the almost full bottle.

"Would you like a snort?"

Timber didn't answer.

"You sure?"

Timber shook his head without looking, turning a page as though he were reading.

"Well … all right, then," the man said.

He watched from the corner of his eye as the man uncapped the Jim Beam and took a pull. Before he recapped it, he held it across the aisle toward Timber and tipped it slightly, again offering him a drink with the gesture. Timber got a whiff of the red liquor but again shook his head without looking up from his book.

"That's all right, boy, it's still a little early," he said in a friendly voice. "You lemmee know if you want a snort later."

The man recapped the bourbon and put it into the open briefcase. He picked up the knife and examined the worn sheath where the name ZEKE had been pounded into the dark leather in block letters. He fingered the indentations in the cowhide. He then slid the knife out of the cover and wet his index finger on his tongue. He slowly ran his finger down the blade, glinted from the muted sunlight shining through the dark glass bus windows.

"Boy, this is some knife. It'll cut. It'll saw. It'll do 'bout anything you want. Good Christian men like Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett knew what they was doing with these knives."

The man put the knife back into the leather sheath and lifted the Bible from the briefcase. He closed it, clicking the latches. He put the briefcase under the window seat and moved over one seat closer to Timber but still across the aisle. He crossed his right leg over his left and turned to face him, his hand with the Bible resting on his knee.

"How you doing today, brother?"

Timber ignored him, hoping maybe he'd go look for another person for conversation. Timber calculated that it would take eight hours to get to Salt Lake City where he would change buses. He had never run into anybody like this back in the days when he flew on an airplane.

"Yes, my brother, that's fine," the man said. "Keep reading your book. I'm the Reverend Ezekiel Blizzard Jr., by the way, but you can call me Zeke. And don't let nobody tell you I ain't a preacher no more, just 'cause I'm out here rambling 'round the desert with a knife and a bottle of liquor. I am washed in the blood of the lamb."

Timber watched the preacher stretch out his arm and look at his watch, a weathered silver Timex that slid from under the cuff of the worn blue suit jacket.

"Son, we've got a long way to go. I want you to hear my story. It's all about how I got off on the wrong track, how I got lost from God's word right here."

He held the Bible in his right hand and slapped it with his left like a quarterback does a football.

"I think my story will do you some good, son. If you got ears, you're gonna hear my story …

"My story starts way before I ended up out here in the desert," the preacher continued, as though starting a sermon. "It starts back home. Home is Georgia. I lived just a few hours outside Atlanta … By the way, where you from, boy?"

Timber knew he was going to have to either answer or move. He wanted desperately to find a seat near someone quiet and sink down into his book until he got home to his dingy one-room apartment, but he was hesitant to be rude. Maybe the preacher would get off somewhere soon.

"Louisiana," Timber said without looking at him, still pretending to read.

"A coonass Cajun? I didn't take you for a Southerner at all, boy."

"It has been a long time," Timber said, still not looking up. "I've lived all over the Midwest and West since I left back in the early eighties."

"You don't sound like you from Lose-ee-anna."

"Yeah. Well, I've worked in radio a long time and that causes you to lose your accent— 'specially when you are not in the South."

The way 'specially came out of his own mouth echoed in Timber's head, the old drawl of home coming back up in his tongue.

"Well, I'll be," the preacher said. "We got that in common too. I was on the radio a few years myself. I wasn't a deejay. I had my own gospel hour. People all over North Georgia tuned in to hear me. I set 'em straight every Sunday."

Timber imagined the preacher on the air, his voice worked up to a fever pitch about Jesus and the Devil and the never-ending struggle for rural men's troubled, no good, sinful souls. Timber hoped now that they had spoken, he could go back to his book, eventually drift into a nap, and that would be the end of it. He knew he was only kidding himself.

"But I fell … I fell hard," the preacher said. "I lost my radio show, my church, my wife, my kids, my money, my house, my car, my dog—my soul. You name it, I done lost it. I did everything wrong I could do wrong. Cheating, stealing, conniving, lying, womanizing, drinking, drugging, gambling. I don't think Moses made but one or two rules that I didn't break. I was on the highway to hell in a hand basket, boy, I'm telling you what."

The preacher's voice had the rhythmic, evenly measured sentences with the dramatic flourishes Timber was accustomed to from Baptist ministers back home. Timber had grown up in a Baptist church, and one of his first jobs in radio had been to run the soundboard on Sunday, playing gospel music and monitoring the levels while preachers and their flocks from all along the pockmarked asphalt roads winding along the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans came into the studio to preach and sing. It had been a long time since he'd heard the passionate voice of a Southern Baptist minister.

"Coming out here to Las Vegas didn't do me no good at first," the preacher continued. "It is sumpin' else. All the sins of man packed into one long flat street. It ain't no coincidence that Caesar's Palace was one of the first big hotels on the strip. You know, Christians blame the Jews and forget it was the Romans who nailed Jesus to the cross. I figure that hotel was one way Satan honored the Roman Empire for what they done to his adversary."

The preacher shook his head in a slow side-to-side motion, smiling like he'd heard a good joke.

"D'ya ever see on TV when old Evel Knievel jumped his motorsickle over the fountains at Caesar's? That sumbitch was sure 'nuff crazy. One of the first things I did in Vegas was to go over there and walk off that jump, replay it in my mind. You know Jesus was on his side when he flew 123 feet in the air, bounced on the asphalt like a basketball and lived to tell about it.

"Nowadays, Vegas has got everything: Hollywood, New York, Paris, Venice It-lee, pirate ships, the South Pacific, desert palaces and medieval castles. All right there in one spot! Ain't no reason to travel the country or see the rest of the world—all the original stuff is old—you can see anything you want, brand new in Las Vegas right today."

Timber couldn't help but chuckle. Vegas was something else. He'd been going out there for a long time. He winced, guessing at how much money he'd gambled away over the years, 'specially this last trip. The money lost on baseball (goddamn the Astros' bullpen!) and blackjack over the weekend was a fortune considering he earned only $16,500 a year—before taxes. He'd made five times that much money in Houston in 1979. He'd gone to Vegas this time to scout out a new job at the broadcasting convention, but instead the trip turned into a drunken gambling binge that hung over his conscience like a black thundercloud. He'd won $1,000 the first night but lost it all the next night. The final night had been a disaster, money pouring out of his wallet like it was a bucket with a hole in it. A touch of nausea came over him when he pictured his next credit card bill.

The shifting gears of the bus along the highway roused Timber from his troubles. The bus was quiet except for the preacher's continuing monologue. Timber looked out the window to see the beginning of a jagged outcropping of rocks and, in the far distance, snowcapped mountains. The bus sped on toward Salt Lake City. Timber rested the book in his lap and looked at the preacher.

"You may wonder how I got the money to afford Vegas," the preacher said, his eyes intense, the pupils still large, an angry look with the one bloodshot. "I had all the money one man could ever need. But I'll tell you all that soon enough."

Timber glanced at the hard-shell blue suitcase above the seats.

"Yeah, boy," the preacher said, reaching over his head and thumping the case with his left hand.

"I had cold hard cash all packed in there with my clothes. It don't take up as much space as you'd think when it's fifties and hundreds. But there ain't no more money there now. I'll tell you what I got in there soon enough … but I ain't to that part of the story yet. My hour has not yet come."

The preacher continued, leaning closer to Timber and making direct eye contact, his voice dropping to an impassioned whisper.

"I will tell you this: women love the money. It don't matter who they are. They love it and will do anything for it." He winked at Timber. "Yes, son, I guarantee you that they will … If I'm lyin' I'm dyin'."

He turned his head to look down the aisle and then behind him as if to see if anyone was listening. The rest of the bus was quiet as a tomb except for the constant thrum of the engine. He turned back to Timber, his pupils round as saucers, a sly smile on his scratched face.


Excerpted from Calling by Joe Samuel Starnes. Copyright © 2005 Joe Samuel Starnes. Excerpted by permission of
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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