This the fifth installment of a story, preceded, in chronological order, by “A Jogging Contradiction,” “The Good One,” “Contrary to Ordinary,” and “Backsliding.”
Surprise was Johnny Jacklin’s preferred mode of operation. He called Eliza at the Forgiveness, Inc., office, and asked if she was up for a nice drive and maybe a hike. She was, and he said to meet him out front of Grace Towers in an hour. Getting away wasn’t a problem. She just told a couple co-workers Johnny needed her assistance. They were the ones she thought least likely to gossip and, specifically, tell Roger Junior. She wasn’t overly concerned. She just wanted to get out of the building before he got wind of it.
Johnny pulled up in his little, red, rented Tercel. As she walked up, he got out, walked around the car, and opened the door for her. His travels hadn’t cost him his manners. Compared to an older brother who had mainly lived stateside, all the missionary work must have enhanced Johnny’s courtly demeanor. He’d seated her at Wendy’s.
“Where we going?”
“A journey of discovery,” Johnny said. “I have been testing my faith, Eliza. First I spent time amid the people, and now I’m going to test my faith amid nature. We’re going to Florissant.”
“Oh, to the west. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.”
“I recognize the name,” she said.
“First we’ll have to let you change clothes. Show me how to get to your place.”
He waited in the car. She returned wearing khaki trousers, hiking boots, and a Colorado Buffaloes sweatshirt. She carried a windbreaker. It was a warm day, but it might be a good bit less so at higher elevations.
They turned west on U.S. Twenty-Four.
“My brother and my father believe the biblically literal nonsense that the earth is six thousand years old,” Johnny said. “We’re going to go look at petrified wood, ancient redwood trees that are thirty-four million years old. I expect it will only heighten my spiritual awareness.
“Have you been there before?”
“Never. Basically, I just want to go see something beautiful I’ve never seen, and I thought it would be a nice excursion and an opportunity for us to talk. I like you, Eliza.”
If, as Roger Junior claimed, Johnny wanted to seduce her, he was certainly off to an unusual start.
“I like you, too. Where have you been?”
“I’ve been in Denver, investigating how America has changed while I’ve been away. You can’t see America on TV. You have to mingle with the people, warts exposed, secrets unhidden. It’s what Jesus did.”
“And how has America changed?”
“It’s less bigoted but more greedy, fatter but less generous, more self-indulgent, less charitable, more irrational, less respectful of institutions, more self-indulgent, less, uh, committed to the common good. More cynical. Less faithful. I’m sure I could go on with a little more thought.”
“That’s okay. I get the point. You’ve been mingling with the little people.”
“Don’t you see, Eliza? We’re losing these people with a message that has been gradually eroding for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Quite literally, we go to war over the Prince of Peace. My brother is perfectly symbolic of the general decline, a charlatan perpetuated by the prevailing rationalizations. He hides behind the Word. I’ve never fought with him. I’ve just turned a blind eye, content to try to be righteous personally as long as the environs of my work weren’t compromised. What I see is that we’re losing. The people, whether they’re really conscious of it or not, see right through the religious façade.”
“God’s love is not a façade. Organized religion, almost all of it, is a façade and a den of superstition.”
“You intend to fix this?”
“No man is up to that task,” Johnny said, glancing at her, eyes twinkling, “but I’ve just about decided to try.”
It took time to consider. For ten miles or so, they rode in silence, taking in the scenery.
Eliza thought, he doesn’t want to seduce me. He wants to use me against his brother. This is no more than court intrigue. He’s no different. He’s just not on drugs.
Johnny could read her mind. She was becoming convinced of it.
“It’s not that I want control of the ministry,” he said. “I haven’t changed my mind about earthly possessions and material things. I want to break free, cash out, and use the money to establish a forum for the message I want to disseminate, a message of love, forgiveness, peace, the words Jesus actually dedicated His life to spreading.
“God, in His infinite wisdom, cannot possibly demand of His subjects that they exhibit virtues that He himself eschews. Praise God, they all say. God doesn’t need praise. He demands no hosannas. God wants us to heed an example against which the Church, whatever its form, stands in the way. Praising God is no more than a way to raise money and build empires to God that do not actually include or consider Him.”
They reached the monument park. Johnny paid six dollars in fees to the ranger at his guardhouse. They drove past what looked like a replica of a pioneer settlement, the Hornbek Homestead. The terrain wasn’t mountainous: full of lovely meadows, not jagged peaks. Farther along the road were two hiking trails, one of a mile and another half as long. Johnny and Eliza parked and took the shorter, wooded Ponderosa Trail, which took them past trunks of petrified redwoods. They could have jogged it, though Eliza wouldn’t have worn her boots. They stopped to talk.
“So what,” Eliza asked, “have you concluded?”
“What? About fossilized butterflies and rock tree trunks?”
“Isn’t that what we came for?”
“No, not exactly. It was kind of my cockamamie way of making my case to you.”
“I want you to work for me. You are a realist. I am a dreamer.”
“I’m only just barely a believer,” Eliza said.
“Do you think I’m crazy?”
“I think you’re … like … Don Quixote.”
“He was delusional …”
“I don’t think you’re delusional,” she said. “I think you love lost causes, though.”
“What you said, that you’re just barely a believer. By that, do you mean you are agnostic?”
“No,” she said. “I’m a Christian. I’m not a particularly obedient one. I pray. I ask for forgiveness. But, when I went to work at Forgiveness Inc., it was just because I needed a job. I thought it might, you know, make me a better person. It hasn’t. It’s still just a job. I’m still good at it, though.”
“What I want to know,” Johnny said, “is if you believe in me.”
“I believe you’re genuine,” she said. “I don’t believe you’re a hypocrite, which separates you from Junior. I just don’t know if I’m up to the task of saving the world. I’ll be lucky if I get myself saved, and, you know, Johnny, I don’t want to be a hypocrite, too. Well, not any more than I already am.”
“You’re not. You will be, though, if you keep hanging around with my brother.”
Again, they sat in silence. Johnny changed the subject.
“In Denver, I just walked among the people. Nobody knew me,” he said. “I watched the Rockies play the Cincinnati Reds. I sat in bars. Let my beard grow. Spent the night in a shelter. I browsed in a marijuana shop.”
“No. Didn’t drink in the bars, either. I just watched people. And talked to them.”
Johnny got up quietly, and they started walking again, as if, by some quiet consensus, they had together concluded it was time to move along.
They were back in Colorado Springs in time to watch the sun set over Pikes Peak from Eliza’s condo. They had no physical excuse for being tired. Perhaps it was just the burden of earnest conversation. They talked about ordering out for Chinese but did nothing about it. Eliza asked if Johnny minded her smoking.
“There won’t be any smell,” she said. “I’ve got an e-cigarette.”
“No,” he said. “Go ahead. I thought you smoked.”
“Is there a smell in the den?”
“Yes. The smell of air freshener.”
What does he not know? Wonder if he knows this is really a vape? Wonder if he knows I need a buzz?
“I noticed people were smoking those in the streets of Denver,” Johnny said. “I guess, what? You can smoke them in places where cigarettes aren’t allowed?”
“That’s right, but I don’t know how long that lasts. They’re starting to ban e-cigarettes in public places. These aren’t as bad for you, anyway.”
“It’s kind of funny, when you think about it,” Johnny said. “Marijuana’s legal.”
Eliza was hesitant to say anything. She wanted to say, Marijuana’s not as bad for you, but she couldn’t decide whether or not Johnny knew all that, anyway, whether he was naïve or knowledgeable, whether he bought the charade of her smoking an electronic cigarette right now. She had come to expect him to know more than he was saying. She thought of the movie Being There. Johnny Jacklin was no Chauncey Gardiner, but he had that timbre in his voice that led listeners to believe he knew more than he was saying. Eliza’s imagination ran wild as marijuana, sanitized for her protection by the vape, stimulated her. She began laughing. Johnny looked at her as if to wonder if his remark that marijuana legalization was funny was getting some kind of delayed response.
“I was just thinking,” Eliza said, “I thought you might like a glass of wine, but then, I thought, well, maybe you’d like bottled water, and you could turn it into wine.
“Yes, I get it,” Johnny said.
“I wonder, when He made the water into wine, how many vintages Jesus considered. I mean, did He turn the water into a local vintage, or, being the Son of God, was He already aware of more modern techniques? And did word get around about how great Jesus’s wine was, and did the locals say to each other, ‘Have you tried Jesus’s water wine?’”
“That’s funny, Eliza. Tell me, did you grow up going to church?”
“When I was a child, yeah, I went, I was, a Presbyterian.”
“Well, then, I guess Jesus’s vintage of wine was predestined.”
Eliza looked at him, thinking.
“It’s a joke,” he said.
“Oh. Yeah.” She laughe. “That’s really good, actually.”
“Thank you,” he said. “One more thing to ask forgiveness for.”
“Come here, Johnny. There’s room here on this little love seat.”
She saw a trace of longing in those eyes now. Perhaps there was something to what Junior said. Eliza hoped so. Johnny moved slowly, shoulders slumping a bit, reluctant. He sat down.
“Eliza, I’m still not …”
“Shut up,” she said, and kissed him, and his eyes gaped, and, as her hands wandered, she realized the shock was not in response to the kiss, and her tongue mingling with his, no, not directly, but rather a reflection of his arousal. He was not frigid, and he was not homosexual. He was, however, righteous, and resistant. He tried to hold himself in check.
“No, wait,” he said, and wriggled, but she had crossed his Rubicon. He fought her, and then his eyes rolled back a little, and he just completely relaxed. His head fell back, breaking free of her kiss, tongues loosed and slippery.
Johnny had spent himself. His chest rose and fell. She felt the pumping. His eyes darkened in embarrassment. She moved away. For Johnny, it had obviously been a while, and he had lost control. She waited for him to get his breath back, half expecting him to get up and run out of her condo, forever, even.
But then Eliza started laughing again, and when his facial expression became irritated, she tried to cheer him up.
“Oh, Johnny, we have now established something very important,” she said.
He didn’t say anything, but his eyes were at least whimsical again.
“You’re definitely not the Second Coming,” she said. “You are definitely very, very human.”
Thanks for reading my short fiction here. I write about other subjects at montedutton.com, and I’d like for you to read my books, which are available here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1