Sweet Freedom

 

The Reverend Roger Jacklin, Junior. (Monte Dutton sketch)
The Reverend Roger Jacklin, Junior. (Monte Dutton sketch)

             This is the sixth installment in this short story, preceded, from beginning to here, by “A Jogging Contradiction,” “The Good One,” “Contrary to Ordinary,” “Backsliding,” and “A Sign of Weakness.”

Eliza Evermore was highly distressed to see Johnny Jacklin headed toward her office. The gray suit looked good on him. He’d cut his hair. That could only mean that he was going to see his father, and now, quite possibly, Johnny was going to ask her to go with him. Her luck, Roger Junior would be there, too. No good could come from this, at least from Eliza’s point of view.

“You’ve got to go with me,” Johnny said, “because you’re going with me. I’m going to leave the ministry, and I need to be upfront about the fact that I’m hiring you to assist me.”

“In what?”

Johnny smiled. “I’m not quite ready to say. You’ll be the first to know.”

“But not today.”

“Not today.”

“What if they don’t let you?”

“What?” Oh, he’d heard her.

“What if they say, no way, Jose, you were born into this family, and this is the family business, and you’re going stay right where you are, and you’ll like it?”

“I almost wish Father would say that. He might, actually. Doesn’t matter. As Kristofferson wrote, ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’”

“So you’d leave with nothing?”

“I’d threaten to. It might change my plans, or, at least, slow them down.”

Johnny pulled up a chair, faced Eliza, and took her hands. “Let’s pray,” he said. “Nothing verbal. I want to pray with you, not at you. I’ll just silently pray for a moment, and you do the same.”

“How will you know when I’m finished?”

“I’ll feel it,” he said.

He did. Or he must have. She felt him. It was … electric. No getting around it. She felt his presence, driving out her doubts. Their interlocked hands relaxed at the same time.

Johnny smiled broadly. He was gorgeous. He might have had a halo. He really did have an aura. She’d seen it the first time they’d met.

“I’ll see you up on the tenth floor in thirty minutes,” he said, and walked out, leaving her breathless.

When Eliza got her breath back, her anxiety returned, and, for anxiety, it occurred to her that she did not want to go face The Reverend Doctor Roger Jacklin sober. She wished she had Johnny’s faith and confidence, but she didn’t. He moved her, but she couldn’t herself move. She retired for a few moments to the third-floor balcony, there to enjoy relaxing vapors.

What are they going to do? Fire me?

Hap-py. Hap-py. Not pair-uh-noid. Pair-uh-noid. I always have these words in my mind when I’m buzzed. I’ve got to be cool. Act like I know what I’m doing. Just smile, preferably not too stupidly. And be quiet. It’s going to be cool. I’m cool. I’m all right. I can do this.

Eliza didn’t want to be late, but didn’t want to be early, either. When she exited the elevator, she looked at her watch and stood outside, loitering, for a minute. With a minute to go before ten o’clock, on the tenth floor, she walked into the reception area and said she was there for a meeting with The Reverend Doctor Jacklin. The receptionist insisted on accompanying her into the conference room. Doctor Jacklin was there with the official right-hand man, Roger Junior, and the man on whom he really relied, Reverend Arthur Cuningham, whom Eliza thought absurdly Scottish. It was fun to hear him talk, though. In obeyance to the truth, Cuningham was sitting on Senior’s right and Junior on his left. She started to one side of the long oak table, reasoning that sitting across from Johnny would provide balance, but Johnny caught her eye and motioned for her to sit alongside him. Roger Senior smiled broadly because, at that moment, he was sure what Johnny was going to tell him was that he was marrying Eliza, and that made Senior very happy. Roger Junior looked jealous, but, then again, he always looked jealous because he always was. Of something. His brother. His father. Cocaine was his instrument of greed.

A coffee pot and a platter of pastries were on the table. Eliza needed coffee in the worst way and helped herself to a cup. One of the rolls was pretty scrumptious, too.

“What have you to tell us, son?” Senior had the voice of a Shakespearean actor. Eliza tried to think of whom he reminded her, but she lost that train of thought before she could narrow the candidates. Perhaps she doth vape too much.

“Father, ever since I was a boy, you’ve told me that this ministry belonged to all of us. All of us had a share, and that share depended on how much diligence we devoted to the Lord,” Johnny said. “I have devoted my life to turning people’s lives to Christ, and this … crusade of mine has taken me to most every corner of the globe. Now it’s time for me to move on.”

Senior continued to smile, anticipating, So, I’ve decided to settle down, and I want to take this woman, Eliza Evermore, as my wedded wife, and come back home to Colorado, and …

It wasn’t what Johnny said.

“As you know, Father, I’ve never had much stomach for the meat and potatoes of the ministry. I’ve thrived on individual contact, on trying to save people, and improve their lives, and prepare them for the Kingdom of Heaven. I’ve decided it’s time for me to move on.”

Roger Senior was still smiling but starting to feel uncomfortable. Junior tilted his head and stared at Johnny out of the top of his eyes, looking as condescending as possible for a man who didn’t wear glasses. Cuningham studied Johnny without expression. Eliza was thinking hap-py, hap-py, hap-py and trying to figure out whether she wished she was straight or stoned and thinking there wasn’t much use in being in-between.

“I’ve decided to make a clean break,” Johnny said. “It’s time for me to make it on my own, Father. I want to leave the family ministry, and go out on my own, and I wanted to talk to you, and Junior, and Reverend Cuningham, and tell you that I want to … take my share, whatever it is, with me.”

“You wouldn’t last ten minutes on your own, Johnny,” Junior said. His nostrils twitched a little. His upper lip was sweaty. Eliza could tell she wasn’t the only one who’d needed a little something extra to face the meeting.

Senior glared at his elder son and motioned for him to be quiet with a raise of his left hand. The patriarch, the time-honored evangelist, the counselor to presidents and industrialists and generals, took his time considering what he wanted to say.

“Johnny, son, that share in the ministry is predicated on your participation in it. Your worth is considerable because your life is immersed in the ministry. You have no value if you are not within it.”

Johnny smiled. “That’s a bit of a change of policy, Father.”

“Don’t you call our father a swindler!” Junior yelled, wide-eyed.

Johnny didn’t raise his voice. “I didn’t, Rog. I don’t know where you got that.”

“You’ll get nothing,” Junior said. He shifted his gaze to Eliza. “And, by the way, why are you here?”

She was taken aback and didn’t know if she could speak. She thought of Porky Pig. Uh, bee, uh, bee, uh … That’s all, folks!

Hap-py. Hap-py. Not pair-uh-noid, pair-uh-noid.

“Eliza is going to join me,” Johnny said.

“Join you in what?” Senior asked.

“Yeah, what?” chimed Junior.

“Lut’s conshider this, sohn,” said Cuningham.

Johnny ignored the others and addressed his father, whose gaze he hadn’t averted.

“I’m not quite ready to say, Father. I haven’t fully decided. As much as I hate to admit it, I guess it’s … got … something to do with how much money I have to invest in my new … project.”

Senior studied him. Johnny continued to smile, boyish, wholesome, direct, and relaxed. Eliza felt she had been cast in a movie without seeing a script. She wanted to think this would have been a good day to give up marijuana, but what she knew was that it couldn’t possibly have occurred. A crutch? She needed one.

“Arthur,” Senior said at last, “go get Warren. Johnny, you stay here. Junior, Miss, uh …”

“Evermore.” It was the only word she spoke.

“Miss Evermore, go back to your desk. Junior, you can go, too.”

“I don’t want to go.”

“Okay. Arthur, when you go to get Warren, get security, too.”

Junior got up. Before leaving, he glared at Johnny and said, “You did this to me.”

Johnny hadn’t a clue what this was, but, later that afternoon, he walked out of his father’s empire with fifteen million dollars in his back pocket, or, at least, being readied to find its electronic way into a bank account he hadn’t bothered yet to open.

              Where do you think Johnny Jacklin and Eliza Evermore are headed? One more installment should wrap this story up. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and I hope it’s made it tempting to read one of my books, particularly the two novels, which are available here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

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