1. A JOGGING CONTRADICTION
Up this hill and down, and up another hill. Lathered. Rinse. Repeat. I’m tired. It’s so sensuous.
Eliza Evermore enjoyed her life in Colorado Springs. It was inspiring to jog in the breathtaking shadow of Pikes Peak. Olympians trained here. She just plodded along. Sometimes she watched the flyboys marching at the Air Force Academy. She lived in God’s Country, the Evangelical Vatican, where the Chamber of Commerce fretted that the number of local religious organizations had fallen below eighty. She was twenty-three, a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder, and now she breathed in the heady air that accommodated America’s bastion of defense, its capital of religious contemplation, and its Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.
Marijuana was legal, too.
Her three-times-a-week jogs, typically after work, began and ended at the small condo where she lived. The routes varied with her whim, but they began and ended with a level two hundred yards. She always picked up her pace on the home stretch, partly because she prided herself on having a kick left and partly because she always craved a cigarette after exercising.
Yes. The habit had begun with sex.
Once she cooled down, Eliza liked to have a little nibble of chocolate. She liked her edibles, and she could have a nice, luxurious shower before it kicked in. Then she’d turn on the TV, watch Brian Williams, have a glass of wine, and make up her mind about going out to dinner, or fixing something at home, or watching a movie alone with her weed, or seeing what the divergent nightlife of the city had in store for her. She might make love with an adventurous airman, escaped from the barracks, or a budding preacher man, backsliding on account of the Devil’s work.
Eliza knew her way around forgiveness. It was the engine that drove Colorado Springs’ prosperity. She was a counselor. It required compassion and passion. She counseled lots of sinners and had lots of sex. It took them to know them.
She considered her options, lying on the couch on her side, legs folded, enjoying the gathering fog that delightfully blurred her sensibilities. After Brian Williams told her of the day’s crises, she quickly grew tired of Entertainment Tonight. She wound up doing nothing but watching Netflix, hitting the vape, reading Cosmopolitan, and enjoying a light repast of peanut butter, crackers, and Diet Coke. Then she tumbled off to sleep, composing a nice, long prayer and letting Sweet Jesus know all the various and sundry actions for which she needed His divine forgiveness. She prayed well, cultivating that much-admired relationship with her Personal Savior. She awakened the next morning, pure as the driven snow, and went off in her Personal Mazda to do the Lord’s Bidding from nine to five. She had His Support. She had His Forgiveness. Life was but a dream.
2. JUST A JOB
Eliza had taken the last job she’d expected. She’d earned a sociology degree, and when she’d first taken a job as a counselor at Forgiveness, Inc., the outreach arm of Roger Jacklin Ministries, Colorado Springs had seemed hopelessly weird. The state’s second largest city was its bastion of conservatism, and the evangelical impact on its affairs was formal and pervasive, but also superficial. The city had its microbreweries and marijuana dispensaries.
They all had an inordinate amount of parking in the back.
Eliza got a bit weirder herself, and Colorado Springs likewise began to appear normal. This, allegedly, was the real world.
Jacklin himself rarely made an appearance at the office. He spent more than half his time traveling, which was to mean, raising money. Junior ran Forgiveness, Inc., and he was young, handsome, and dynamic, and charismatic would have applied to him even without the religious connotation. He was also a stinker and a rounder and a bullshit artist, which was a necessary component of his line of work, or at least, the way he did it. Eliza had enough sense to keep him at a distance, mainly because Roger Junior treated cocaine as if it were a Holy Sacrament. Get a few snorts in him and he’d speak the Unknown Tongue fluently. It raised his Inner Pentecostal. Eliza didn’t let herself get caught in that trap. She didn’t like Junior when he was amped on blow. He said it intensified his personality. It did. He was an asshole, natural born. Someone else got him his coke. She just picked up a little extra weed because she knew he was going to ask for it. It wasn’t a bad arrangement. Basically, he just paid for all of it, and she got high for free. People thought him fanatical when he was really just compulsive. She thought he really did love Jesus, but the Lord had a lot of questionable affiliations. Junior saw Him in even the most gaudy of earthly pleasures. He had his daddy’s gift of persuasion, though, and she’d let him in her pants the first night they’d gone out together.
No more. Life was too short. If any man was a mortal sin, he was Roger Jacklin, Jr., and not even Eliza felt comfortable pinning on the Lord forgiveness for being with Junior in a biblical sense. He liked candy too much. Nose candy. Eliza didn’t like it at all, but she figured the more he got high on weed and the less he got amped on coke, the more the possibility of a relatively tranquil day at the office. Junior came in late, as usual, breezed by her desk to mention, with a wink, that he had sort of a sweet tooth. She slipped him an innocent, infused knockoff of a Reese’s Cup, and when he said they’d meet later, she knew that meant he was ready for the vacuum-packed kush she had tucked away in her briefcase. Junior stoned was better than Junior coked out of his mind. Anyone not blinded by his religious façade could read Junior like a comic book. Fortunately for him, most read him as religious, and he was religious … about taking drugs. Eliza thought she was part of the solution, not the problem. When her conscience started hurting her, she just nibbled a bit on a would-be Reese’s Cup. It didn’t take much.
Today the office was crowded. Today everyone would receive their marching orders. Junior would be fine. The weed would make him idealistic, warm, nice, even. It was Mark Fifteen Day. When Eliza was high, she always thought to herself that it might one day be a brand-new Lincoln Continental.
And He said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature.
If Junior was cool, which was to say, on weed, he’d let it go there, but if he had gotten into some coke, he’d keep on with old Mark.
He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
And these signs shall follow them that believe. In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues.
They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
Junior wasn’t studying about any strychnine. He thought Jesus was talking about his cocaine and marijuana. Eliza didn’t think any of that. She just thought weed was cool and cocaine wasn’t. Junior wasn’t, either, and he’d be his daddy’s undoing yet. One of the blessings Eliza sought in her prayers was the one about being out of there when the empire crumbled.
3. THE OUTSIDER
Seldom did anyone at Forgiveness, Inc., talk about Johnny Jacklin. He was the missing son. What little talk there was dwelled not on Johnny but on his absence. He was a myth instead of a man.
The myth was sitting in Eliza Evermore’s office and didn’t disappoint. She’d never quite thought of Junior as demonic unstill she saw that his younger brother was angelic. He played serene to Junior’s manic, romantic to his pragmatic, empathic to his fanatical. All this was instantly apparent from the extraordinarily blue eyes. Eliza sensed those eyes told him all about her he wanted to know. It was unnerving. He took her breath away.
“I understand it’s you who keeps this ministry going,” he said, smiling. “I know it’s not my brother. He’s just a show-off.”
Eliza didn’t know what to say. She stared at him, lips parted, wondering what manner of man was this.
“Hi. I’m Eliza Evermore. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
He was in no hurry. He continued to look at her, wearing the expression of a doctor considering an x-ray. It led inevitably to her studying his features, as well. He was dressed informally — a long-sleeved pullover, khakis, sneakers – and held a gray jacket that bore the apparent insignia of a sports team Eliza didn’t recognize. Johnny Jacklin was a missionary, not an evangelist. The word was that he’d no use for the part of the ministry that involved the raising and spending of money, which was virtually all of it. Eliza didn’t know where he was until he was sitting front of her. She’d heard references to Sarajevo, Mumbai, and Bangkok.
Anywhere, it seemed, but here.
“Where are you?” she asked, and when she saw his expression, she thought, Why, he’s here, stupid. “I mean, where is … your ministry? Your … mission.”
“Right now, I guess, I’m between assignments.”
“Well, actually, I do.”
“Oh.” Eliza smiled. She felt incapable of uttering anything mildly intelligent. She wrestled her eyes off him and looked through the plate glass. Everyone was staring. They looked as hypnotized as she must, and they couldn’t even see his eyes.
“Could I, uh, take you to lunch?” Johnny asked.
The question awakened the worldly realm. Were his intentions romantic? They couldn’t possibly be carnal. Yet he was Junior’s brother. All the brothers had in common was that they were easy to read. Junior slithered like a snake. Johnny lorded serenely over his domain. He had the bearing of a lion, not to mention the mane. Johnny could have been a movie star. Junior was just an actor.
All this she knew of him instantly.
“Why, yes, sure, I think so,” Eliza mumbled.
“Great,” he said, getting up. “You know, I can’t remember the last time I had a good, old Wendy’s burger. Do you mind?”
The son of a multimillionaire evangelist, and the brother of a millionaire fraud, drove a rented Toyota Tercel. His father would have been picked up at the airport in a limo. His brother would likely have snorted cocaine in the back, hypothetically having been on an airplane where such behavior was frowned upon.
Johnny Jacklin studied the Wendy’s board as if it were holy writ. He finally ordered a double with cheese, a bowl of chili, and a Coke. Eliza Evermore had some kind of salad that came with packets of croutons and cashews. She drank water. They found a table near the window. It was a lovely day at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
“It’s been so long since I just had a simple cheeseburger,” he said. “On the way from the airport, I saw it sitting here, and it was all I could do to wait. It was too early for lunch, then. I guess it wasn’t open.
“I was tempted to try that Bacon Portobello Burger, but it would have been too much, you know. Just a basic burger — lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cheese – that’s what I wanted.”
Eliza just smiled. The missionary had childlike enthusiasm.
“You’ve been so many places,” she said, finally, “and yet you couldn’t be older than, what, twenty …. eight?”
“I’m thirty-two,” he said. “Basically, I’ve been traveling the world since I got out of college.”
“You went to Stanford. Your brother went to the family school.”
“The family school … that’s funny. You’re right, though,” Johnny said, between spoons of chili. “Rog didn’t really even go to college. They just gave him a diploma. I didn’t want that. I wanted to be educated, not just in the ways of the family ministry.
“I don’t know. Christian Family University might be a decent school if your last name’s not Jacklin. How about you? I didn’t just slander your alma mater, did I?”
“Oh, no,” Eliza said. “I went to CU. Sociology major.”
“And how did you get from there to here?”
“Well,” Eliza said, “I had a lot of experience counseling in the summers. Camps. You know. Youth gatherings. That type of thing.”
“It’s just a job, isn’t it?” Johnny asked. “I mean, it’s one you obviously do well, but it’s not really what you want to do.”
Those piercing eyes. That forthright directness. It could a take a girl’s breath away.
“No,” she said.
“But the money’s good, and my brother likes you, and it’s not like you’re out there, separating old ladies from their money.”
“You said that, not me.”
“Obviously,” he said. “How’s the salad?”
Johnny put the empty cardboard bowl aside and started in on the burger.
“Um, this is so good,” he said. “It’s not that uncommon to find a McDonald’s anywhere in the world, but there aren’t as many Wendy’s. I’m no expert, but I think most Wendy’s are in North America. I never saw one in, you know, China.”
“You’ve been to China?”
“Six months,” he said. “Right after the Philippines and just before Thailand. I’m sort of the Lord’s roving troubadour.”
“I didn’t know you were a musician.”
“I’m not much of one. I play guitar a little. I’m not packing them in at the soccer stadiums. A guitar’s just a good way to break the ice with people, kids, especially.”
Johnny finished his burger and waited for Eliza to get done pushing lettuce around her plate.
“My brother’s an addict,” he said quietly.
She felt exceedingly awkward.
“Uh, I don’t think he is without a genuine aspect,” Eliza said.
“Well, I’m glad you feel that way. I try not to be judgmental. That doesn’t mean I’m not analytical. I am of the opinion that I can trust you.”
He was so direct. She thought, My God, he knows everything about me. From his instincts.
“Don’t be uncomfortable,” he said. “I probably should explain something about myself. I’ve renounced material things. I just take what I need, draw from the ministry’s accounts. The pencil pushers make it work.”
“So … you have … a certain freedom.”
“Yes,” he said. “No one knows what to do with me. My father and I are at, I guess, you’d say, an impasse. I’m ‘admirable.’ I get in his way, but he can’t really do anything about it. He and my brother leave me alone. Occasionally, they send a film crew to follow me around and take footage to help them with their fundraising. I don’t do anything other than what I already do. I won’t let myself be scripted. They can shoot footage, edit what I say, what I do, but, other than that, I try to be true to myself and the Lord.
“I’m not here to tell anyone what to do,” he said. “Again, I try not to be judgmental, Eliza.”
Johnny smiled. Eliza was captivated. She loved him for his innocence. He was as charismatic in his way as his burly, overwhelming father and his compulsive brother. Yet he seemed nothing like either.
Her lunch with Johnny Jacklin left Eliza Evermore in what seemed to her a mild state of hypnosis. She was fascinated. She longed to see him again, but he made no more appearances at the ministry in the next several days. She spent a half hour searching the main frame for contact information. Johnny had no mobile device. She also discovered that he was the Reverend Doctor Roger Jacklin and wife Lucille’s only natural son. Roger Junior had been adopted. Neither bore much resemblance to his parents.
Eliza researched the younger brother, read all his reports from abroad and other epistles from those who worked with him or had been sent to report on his deeds. They all added up to a portrayal of an eccentric dynamo, a man capable of quelling unrest that sometimes placed his life in danger. At the same time, his mission assignments had been mostly of short duration. Either he placed himself in places too hot for him to handle, or he had the effect of heating them. He left in his wake impressive deeds but little in the way of lasting achievement. Everyone missed him, though. Everyone wanted him back.
Fearless and forthright. Always moving. Never content to stay in one place for long. Eliza was infatuated. She thought of him during her daily jogs, often in a sexual sense. He was single. She even gave up smoking for a while. Had Johnny been around, she might not have started back. Junior didn’t help. He’d gotten word of their “date” at Wendy’s. He visited her cubicle to assure Eliza that Johnny wasn’t the saint he claimed.
“Those bright baby blues of his? Little kids are running around with those eyes in villages all over the world! That’s why my brother Johnny Jacklin moves around so much,” Junior said. “I figured that out long ago.”
Eliza didn’t believe him. She just wanted to believe him, which, in turn, was also what Junior wanted. Discrediting his angelic baby brother was a fulltime job. He hoped Eliza would seduce him. God knew he’d spent enough time trying, and only succeeded once.
The following week Johnny called. She was at home. She was high. He was just what she needed.
“Eliza, how are you? I’m calling from Denver. You know, the more I think about it, it’s really impossible to function in the States without a cell phone, you know? Phone booths have disappeared. I thought, abroad, that Internet access was sufficient.”
Johnny was only six years older than Eliza, who could not remember using a pay phone in her entire life. Maybe they still had them in Bangkok.
“It’s … sort of disquieting,” Eliza said. “I sort of understand why I never knew anything about you, Johnny. No one knows where you are. I guess it’s the same, whether it’s Ecuador or Colorado.”
“You’ve been looking me up.”
“No. Not really.”
“Bangkok, I might have mentioned. Quito? I’m pretty sure I didn’t. Ciudad de los Cielos. City of the heavens. It’s more than nine thousand feet above sea level.”
“Well, anyway, I just wanted to know more about you. You interest me, Johnny.”
“No secrets,” he said, “just a world full of people wishing there were. Look, I can’t stay on this phone for long. I’ll be back in, oh, a couple of days, probably. I’d like us to get together again. Just talk.”
“I’d like that.”
“You’re a good person, Eliza. I’ve been praying for you.”
“I’ve been praying for you, too,” she said. “I’ll see you then, whenever then is. Bye, Johnny.”
Eliza had been praying for Johnny. In a way.
5. CONTRARY TO ORDINARY
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, but Eliza had 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 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.
6. A SIGN OF WEAKNESS
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 laughed. “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, 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.”
7. SWEET FREEDOM
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.”
Johnny smiled. “I’m not quite ready to say. You’ll be the first to know.”
“But 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. Again.
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.
8. OH, SWEET WORLD OF SIN
Johnny Jacklin didn’t let the money go to his head. He bided his time. He hired an accountant after rejecting three because he didn’t trust them. He finally turned in the rented Tercel and bought himself a fifteen-year-old Honda after diligently shopping for a week. He gathered up his modest belongings and moved to Denver, where he found a small house in an undistinguished neighborhood. He invested half his money through a stockbroker he’d known at Stanford. Eliza Evermore, his only employee, had nothing to do, but he had the accountant pay her and told her he’d have something for her to do soon.
Roger Junior came to believe his brother was just cashing out, that he’d live a life of leisure on the fifteen million dollars he’d pilfered, to Junior’s way of thinking, from the ministry. Senior wasn’t so sure. For all Johnny’s independence and self-righteousness, the great evangelist would have preferred the loss of Junior had he a choice. He wasn’t particularly close to either of his sons. He regretted it in Johnny’s case.
At last, Johnny formulated his plan. He received no advice, though his father’s associates constantly offered it. The ministry hadn’t even announced Johnny’s departure. He had always been the forgotten brother. His absence wasn’t compelling. Without having him to go on his missions, the ministry quietly went about the business of shutting his missions down. Johnny didn’t know, but he didn’t ask, either. He’d spent his days riding around Denver on his bike and his nights mingling with the people and observing them in bars. He’d even developed a modest taste for beer once he’d determined that it was impossible to develop a rapport with bartenders without giving them some business.
Johnny fashioned his announcement to appear as if it were a wedding announcement:
JOHNNY JACKLIN REQUESTS THE COURTESY OF YOUR PRESENCE
SATURDAY, THE TWENTY-EIGHTH DAY OF NOVEMBER
YEAR OF OUR LORD TWO THOUSAND AND FIFTEEN, SIX O’CLOCK
HOWL AT THE MOON, 1735 NINETEENTH STREET, DENVER.
FREE FOOD! BEVERAGES!
He offered no further details. He chose the Howl at the Moon because he found it a friendly place, and he made sure all the regulars knew the beer would be cold and free, and they wouldn’t have to drink it on an empty stomach. He suspected, correctly, that his vainglorious father would make no appearance at a saloon during business hours, and that his brother would monitor the occasion for the family and probably embarrass himself in the process. He hoped not, but it didn’t particularly matter. Johnny thought himself capable of winning any exchange of unpleasantries with Roger Junior, who had the temper Johnny lacked. At eight years of age, Johnny had learned not to let Junior’s rants bother him, and his disinterest only made Junior madder and ultimately incapacitated him. Nowadays aggravation only led Junior to snort more powder up his nose.
Quietly, Johnny assembled his own band, calling on a guitarist whom he’d met in Brazil and now lived in Nashville. When the club’s management wished to discuss with him the paying of royalties for songs that he’d perform, he asked if it would be necessary for him to pay royalties for songs he himself had written. When they said no, Johnny informed them that, in the name of simplicity, he would only perform his own songs, and the band arrived a week in advance so that they could all practice the resulting set. They practiced on sunny afternoons in Confluence Park, where Cherry Creek joined the South Platte River. The drummer brought a bongo along for the park sessions. They plugged in their instruments for a sound check at two o’clock on the afternoon of the announcement.
Yet no one except Johnny knew what the announcement was. He only told Eliza she’d be pleased. No one except the Denver Freeman’s religion editor knew who he was, but he’d timed everything to allow for a certain shock value. He made sure to follow up the invitations with calls to local media outlets, particularly television and radio. He’d play an opening song, make his announcement, and go back to playing music after announcing that he’d hold a press conference in an hour. This would give the reporters, columnists, and bloggers who were there, drawn as much by free food and booze as by any expectation of newsworthiness, to spread the word for him via Twitter, which would in turn draw others by the time he answered questions.
All this he conjured up himself. He had no talking points, no position papers, no marketing plans or corporate sponsors, just an innate forthrightness and lack of fear for the truth.
In other words, he had no chance. Fortunately, he didn’t care.
It was a cold, brisk day, the wind whipping through the nearby streets of LoDo (Lower Downtown). At the last minute, Johnny decided to open with two songs instead of one. The first was his inspirational “Your Independence Day,” followed by a gospel song, “Come on Down.” He added the latter to give his brother, already working the crowd, agitating against him, a false sense of security. He figured Junior was anticipating the establishment of a new ministry, one with which Jacklin Evangelism International might be forced to compete. He was ashamed of himself for the relish he felt as he sang the final verse of “Come on Down.”
I walked the streets / Of that big city / I saw folks / Wracked with pain / I saw folks / In need of Jesus / They looked weary of raising Cain.
Come on down / To the altar / The Lord will wash your sins away / Come down / Jesus loves you / He is making a new day.
Johnny rolled his guitar around, hanging it across his back, a la Johnny Cash, and addressed the crowd.
“I apologize if a gospel song slowed down the beer drinking,” he said. “I didn’t mean to make anyone feel guilty. I wrote this song after walking the streets of this very city. Just to set the record straight, I didn’t detect any noticeable disparity in the character of those with whom I’ve had a beer or two in this very bar and those who run my father’s ministry.”
Eliza Evermore, sitting at the bar, didn’t know how to take that. Roger Jacklin, Junior, surrounded by a coterie of bodyguards and yes men, knew exactly how to take it, which wasn’t well. He started a commotion. As best Johnny could tell, he was being heckled in the Unknown Tongue. He couldn’t see the audience very well, but he just stood onstage, wearing an amused smirk, as his brother rattled on.
At last he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s my brother, Roger Junior. He’s the reason that, while I’m very religious, I don’t believe in it being overly organized. As Tom T. Hall once wrote, me and Jesus got our own thing going, and, Rog, with respect, we don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.”
Junior had sort of a cartoonish bent. Johnny imagined him charging the bandstand. Lemme at him, lemme at him. A young man in front motioned to Johnny, offering him a beer. “Yeah, sure,” Johnny said, and then he folded his hands and invited Junior to “go ahead and get it out of your system. God loves you.” Once Junior’s private line to Yahweh had been disconnected, apparently, Johnny made his announcement quickly.
“What I’m announcing today is quite simple,” he said. “Several months ago, I informed my father and my brother that I was leaving the family business, which is Jacklin Evangelism International. I do not intend to abandon God’s work. I merely want to leave the confines of the church. Ever since I graduated from college, I’ve been a missionary.
“I want everybody here to have a good time, even if that means you have to watch me try to sing and play guitar. Eat, drink, and be merry. Now, in about an hour, I’ll be glad to discuss my plans with each and every one of you who is interested. First, though, I’ve got to take full advantage of having this band behind me, making me look good. But, first, my announcement. I have decided to run for Governor of the Great State of Colorado, and I’m going to file as a candidate in the Democratic Primary. Now, hit it, boys!”
Johnny’s rendition of “The Paved Road” did not quell the disorder. Offices were called. Camera lights went on, taking background footage of the young missionary with the guitar who was going to run for governor. Tweeters tweeted, and their tweets were retweeted.
Right rev Roger Jacklin has a son who’s a DEMOCRAT! And he’s running for GOVERNOR!
Would-be guv Johnny Jacklin gets heckled by his brother the evangelist.
Johnny Jacklin goes all liberal on the family!
Junior expressed shock that his brother was drinking beer! He found it no less shocking, in fact, more so, apparently, since he had been snorting cocaine himself and looked all the more wild-eyed and fanatical for it. Eliza watched him, jostling about while Johnny sang, and remembered the time Junior told her he could speak in tongues sober but was fluent when he was high. She was as shocked as he was, though, and she knew it was inevitable that Junior would find his way to her, so she told her waiter to save her place, put on her overcoat, and walked outside to smoke. Johnny had told her his decision would please her, and it did.
Meanwhile, CNN and MSNBC were making arrangements to get a feed of the press conference from one of the local TV affiliates. Fox was paralyzed, how to spin it being a matter of intense discussion on a weekend when the bigwigs were mainly seeking a peaceful Thanksgiving weekend away from the political wars. Reporters whose wives were shopping left other bars and converged on Howl at the Moon. The manager passed Johnny a note asking if he’d mind it if they placed their banner behind the podium in the side room where the press conference was scheduled. He glanced at it between songs, caught the manager’s eye, and gave him a thumb’s up.
Johnny glanced at his watch, told the audience he was doing one more song, turned the show over to his backing band, and left the stage. Gustavo Almeida was a breathtaking vocalist, and a decent crowd stayed to watch the rest of the set. Enough followed Johnny to fill the side room to overflowing. Once the door was closed, as was necessary to muffle the sound of the band, Johnny stood up behind the podium.
“If you’ll allow to make a few remarks, I’ll be glad to answer every question you have,” he said. “Why am I running for governor? My whole life has been spent trying to reach out to people. As a missionary, I have tried to bring the word of Christ to people in various parts of the world. I am uncomfortable within the orthodox confines of organized religion. I have been manning the outposts out on the world’s frontiers. Now I have decided I want to cast aside the comfort of the church and witness to people, from a secular vantage point, on the wisdom of Jesus and his teachings. By that, I do not mean that I intend to encourage the growth of Christianity by means of government policy. Not only do I believe in the separation of church and state, but so, too, did Jesus. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the words of the Savior to Pontius Pilate, beginning at John 18:36: ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My Kingdom were of this world, then would My servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews, but now is My Kingdom not from hence.’
“Secondly, why have I decided to run for office as a Democrat? I have never taken undue interest in politics, but what I have mainly been subjected to is the Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln was the greatest Republican. It was he who said, in his First Inaugural Address, what I concluded many years ago was my central political philosophy. ‘We are not enemies, but friends,’ Lincoln said. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’
“I see little semblance of Our Lord’s charity, and Lincoln’s defining spirit, in the Republican Party of today. I suspect that, if Jesus were alive now, the same would happen, and He would be sacrificed by those who, by nature, should have been His greatest allies. I have my difference with both political parties, but I have concluded that what the Republicans believe, and what I believe, are in irrevocable conflict with each other.”
“Okay, questions. The gentleman in the maroon blazer …”
“Reverend Jacklin …”
“Mister is appropriate, or, even better, Johnny. What is your name, sir?”
“Charley Pappas, thedenverbuzz.com. Uh, Johnny, what is your position on whether marijuana should continue to be legal for recreational use in Colorado?”
Even Roger Junior shut up to see what Johnny would say.
“Ever since I got home from Ecuador, that’s been a topic I’ve given a great deal of thought to,” he said. “I haven’t seen any problem with it that can’t be worked out by just a continuing evaluation of the law. I think you could talk to some of the people here, as I have, and at other places here in Denver, in Colorado City, in Boulder, and Vail, and Fort Collins, and Pueblo, and across the state, and what I’ve concluded is that it is probably less harmful than alcohol, that it has a positive effect in terms of reducing crime and corruption, and that its legalization has had no negative effect on the consumption by minors. Every single kid I’ve talked to has told me that the number-one reason kids smoke marijuana is that it is so readily available. They can’t get, say, beer as easily as they can marijuana. No one gets carded for weed. Naturally, since it is now regulated in a fashion similar to alcoholic beverages and cigarettes, it’s harder to get for kids. Will it no longer be a problem? Of course not. But the access teens have to pot is only lessened by legalization. It seems to me this is sort of obvious, and it seems odd to me that that criticism seems so counterintuitive.”
“Could I have a follow up?”
“Sure … Charley.”
“Have you smoked marijuana?”
Johnny laughed. “No, Charley. I’d never had a beer until three weeks ago.”
A TV reporter named Cicely Bray asked if he expected to win.
“Actually, no,” Johnny said. “This is sort of my experiment. I’m going to say what I believe, and I’m not going to go by polls, and, in fact, I’ll commission no polls and hire no image specialists. I’m just going to say what I think, and the opposition will make me look bad by boiling my paragraphs down to sentences, and my sentences down to fragments, in a way that will distort what I say to people who have no more sense than to be affected by that kind of politics.
“I think it’s going to be fun, and it’s going to be moral, and ethical, and godly, but imperfect, and I have no expectation that it’s going to work. I might seem naïve, but I’m not because I know going in they’re going to tear me to shreds. I just think, at this time in America, and in the world, and, most relevantly, in Colorado, it’s time for people to just lay it on the line. Maybe someone like I can win an election ten years from now. I’m going to try. I’d like to believe I have a chance, but getting the message out is what is important. If I win, well, I’ll think, maybe miracles do still happen.”
The next question came from Ann Launceston of the Freeman. She asked him to respond to his brother’s accusation that he had turned to the Devil.
“That’s a pretty strong charge,” Johnny said, and he stared directly at Junior, who stopped rudely working the room to see what he was going to say.
“I, uh, had a dream the other night that probably answers your question, Ann. I dreamed that Rog was here, pretty much just like he is, and while I was making my announcement, he declared me a disgrace and grew so agitated that he pulled out a gun and shot me. Then, before he could be apprehended, he turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.
“The next thing, we were both in the same line, him and me, and he was surprised that, you know, we were headed to the same place, and both of us gradually realized that the line was for hell, not heaven, and Roger Junior turned to me, and said, ‘Well, what do you know, Johnny boy, looks like you’re no better than me,’ and I looked back at him and said, ‘Actually, Rog, you forgot something very important,’ and he said, ‘Yeah? What’s that?’
“And I said, ‘I’m the missionary in the family.’”
Junior tried to rise in outrage, but the laughter drowned him out.