god tales

 

Tablo reader up chevron

In Jesus I Trust

I

 

Before he could walk or talk, PR Freeman’s mother had him tattooed.

Bonnie had given him the name Pat Robertson at birth, as a sign of her devotion to the aged televangelist who had been the guiding star of her young adult life, but still worried that this might not be enough to guard him from the evils of the world. So she decided on a tattoo as a protective talisman. Her original plan had been for it to say “In Jesus I Trust,” but given the limited amount of workable skin on an infant, the ink artist convinced her the letters would be too small to read and would distort badly as PR grew in stature. In the end, she decided on just the four letter “IJIT,” reminding herself that everyone who mattered would know what they stood for.

“Make them fancy,” she pleaded, “since they are only four of them. I want Jesus to be proud every time he sees them and be reminded of how I sealed my boy in his name.”

“Where do you want them?” the artist asked, pausing with the gun in his hand. “His back has the most room to work with, but it won’t be visible to most folks. Does this Jesus of yours have x-ray vision?”

“He ain’t Super Man! He’s the Lord, the Son of God!”

“Oh,” mumbled the artist, “in that case, I guess he’ll be able to see the letters wherever they are. But what about other folks?”

“What do you recommend?” Bonnie asked, clearly trying to recover from her earlier irritation.

“Upper arm is always a good choice,” he offered. “Just above the sleeve line.”

“Then that’s where we’ll put them,” pronounced Bonnie. “That way everyone will see that he has been sealed in Jesus and know they’re wasting their time trying to hurt him.”

With that decision made, the ink artist put headphones on (to drown out PR’s constant screaming), cranked up the volume on his boom box, and set to work. When he was finished, PR’s tiny arm, bloody and swollen and starting to bruise, bore this magical design:

Bonnie was so proud, and relieved, she dropped to her knees, waving her arms over her head in wide arcs, and began loudly giving thanks to Jesus and God the Father right there in the tattoo parlor. When she finally ceased her prayer, the owner handed her a bill. She rose to her feet, extended her hand to him, told him she thanked him and God thanked him and would bless him for his generosity, picked up PR, and walked out of the shop, never looking back.

 

II

 

PR’s favorite bar has been closed by the city, so he is forced to frequent establishments where he is not well known. Consequently, other customers, being unfamiliar with him, and still in that state of friendly inebriation that loosens the tongue but has not yet dampened the mind, will from time to time try to strike up conversations with him. Regulars at his old bar would have known better, but the Rainbow Tap House patrons that morning have not been forewarned. So, when an older man whose tank top shows off well-muscled and brightly colored sleeves sits down on the stool next to PR to admire the design on his arm, no one knows to get ready for trouble.

“I’ve seen more ink in my lifetime than most newspaper editors, son, but I don’t recall ever seeing any quite like that. What is it?”

“Shove off, Faggot,” PR mutters without looking up.

“No need to be testy. Just asking about your ink. Are those letters?”

“Yeah, they’re letters. Now beat it.”

“The design is so intricate, and the workmanship looks first rate, but they’re so distorted I can’t make out what they are. Maybe a “J” and a “T.” How long have you had this?

“It says IJIT, and I’ve had it my whole life. My Mama had me sealed in the name of Jesus right after I was born,” growls PR, clearly growing more agitated.

“Sealed in the name of Jesus? With a tattoo? On a baby? That’s some crazy ass shit. Is your mother some kind of religious fanatic?”

PR springs up and twists to his left without a word or a warning, driving his fist into the cheek and nose of his interlocutor. An audible crunching sound accompanies flying blood droplets that land on the bar where the curious man had been leaning. More stunned than injured, he shakes off the blow, grins, grabs a handful of dark, lank hair and slams PR’s face down onto the bar.

“I guess your mother was too busy sucking up to Jesus to teach you any manners, son,” the older man whispers into PR’s ear. “But just so you’ll know next time, when a man asks about your ink, the polite thing to do is answer his questions.”

“Nobody calls my Mama crazy.” PR spits out the words, along with a glob of bloody saliva and part of a tooth. As he does so, he grabs his beer mug and swings it in a wild sweeping arc against the side of the man’s head, opening a gash just above his eye.

But before either man can make another move toward the other, a loud blast shakes the bar and pungent smoke fills the already hazy room. Startled back to their senses, both turn to see the bartender leveling a double-barrel shotgun at them.

“It’s only bird seed, but unless you boys want to be picking it out of your hide with tweezers, you’ll both sit down and behave yourselves until the cops get here. And you,” he says, pointing the gun at PR, “are going to jail. I know that much for sure.”

PR would have been charged with Public Intoxication, only a Class C misdemeanor, and gotten off with a fine and probation, but Alfonso took the damage to his nose personally and pressed charges for battery, a Class A misdemeanor, so PR is probably facing jail time. On the advice of his public defender, PR accepts a plea bargain and receives thirty days in county jail, of which he will serve only fourteen before being released due to overcrowding.

On his first night behind bars, PR tries to stay awake and watch his cellmate, lest he be subjected to some unpleasant initiation ritual as “fresh meat,” the designation assigned to him by the other residents as he was led to his cell. Despite his good intentions, though, he drifts off to sleep after only an hour or so, and dreams.

 

III

 

Standing on the edge of a numberless crowd, PR sees that everyone but him is gazing toward a raised stage at the front of the arena. Swaying slowly from side to side, they chant in hushed, syncopated tones, “Caruso, Caruso,” followed by a silent interval of equal length. Thousands of pairs of unblinking eyes are fixed on a single illuminated spot on the otherwise dark stage, in which a high-backed upholstered armchair can be seen. But since the chair’s back is toward the audience, PR cannot tell if it is empty or occupied.

Using the side aisle, he begins walking toward the stage to get a better look at the chair, the chants of “Caruso, Caruso” growing louder and more insistent with every step he takes. As he reaches the end of the aisle, the arena floor slants downward steeply, making it impossible to see anything on the raised platform now looming some twenty feet above him. And in place of conventional stairs leading up onto either end of the stage, there is only a narrow iron ladder, suspended from some unseen point in the darkness high above the proscenium.

Grasping the rungs, some too hot to grip more than momentarily and others so cold that his sweating palms stick to them, PR begins to climb up toward the stage. Behind him, the mindless crowd keeps up its chanting of “Caruso, Caruso,” punctuated by a lone, familiar voice filling the brief silent spaces in the rhythm with its own cry of “PR . . . Freeman.” Pausing about halfway up the ladder, PR looks back over his shoulder and sees his mother in the crowd. She waves a tattered remnant of cheap cloth back and forth, as if it were a pom-pom, to accentuate her contrapuntal cheers of “PR . . . Freeman.”

As he continues climbing, he hears a faint metallic clank each time he lurches upward past an iron rung. Noticing for the first time a cold, unfamiliar weight pressing against his groin, PR turns slightly, one hand frozen to the rung above him, reaches into the waistband of his pants, and draws out a pistol. Even in the dim light, he recognizes it as his mother’s Beretta 92, the one some guy named Vinnie had given her years ago for self-defense. Swaying on the ladder, trying to ignore the wave of panic starting to roll over him, PR shoves the pistol back into his waistband as far as he can, till its grip is no longer visible.

When he has finally climbed high enough to peep over the edge of the stage, the chair is still there and still illuminated from above by a single spot with a pink gel. But now, underneath it, he sees the backs of a pair of expensive shoes. Gold shoes. No, more like gold lamè slippers. And above them, bare ankles protruding from the neatly turned cuffs of what can only be white lamè trousers.

The gradual crescendo of an orchestral accompaniment joins the “Caruso” chant, drowning out his mother’s voice. The music swells, then stops abruptly, the final note’s echo returning from the arena’s unseen back wall like the last rumble of thunder from a storm that has already passed by. In the silence, PR scrambles the rest of the way up onto the stage, where he sees that the chair is now flanked on either side by dozens of tall, dark-haired men in identical dark suits and sunglasses, each with his left hand raised to his ear and his right hand reaching inside his suit jacket, and all looking directly at him. Before he can stand, though, a trumpet fanfare sounds from somewhere, and the gold lamè slippers and the bare ankles protruding from those neatly turned cuffs begin to move under the chair. A head emerges from behind the high back of the chair, a head possessing a youthful, vigorous, deeply tanned face, framed by wings of wavy, prematurely white hair sweeping back to join in the back in what sixty years earlier would have been called a “duck tail.” But PR can see bobby pins holding the wings in place. He also notices that the suit has been specially tailored to conceal a not inconsiderable middle-age paunch. And he is jarred by the sight of bushy black eyebrows perched just beneath the impeccable white mane.

When the fanfare dies, PR can hear the chants of “Caruso, Caruso” once again, but this time they are coming from only one side of the arena. The other side joins in with a perfectly timed response: “Delacruz, Delacruz.” The not-quite-angelic being finally turns to face the throng and acknowledge their adoration, gesturing for them first to increase in volume, then to cease entirely. Into the silence, he speaks forth a single word, “Gracias.” On hearing this, the throng erupts in applause, while a dark-suited row of stern and implacable faces steps forward toward PR. Two of them take hold of either arm and hoist him to his feet, while a third begins to frisk him. Retrieving the pistol from within PR’s underwear, this third man turns and shows it first to the man in the white lamè suit, then to the assembled masses, who cry out in unison, “Asesino.”

 

IV

 

Parked in the alley behind the jail, Bonnie sits in what was once a 1971 yellow AMC Hornet, now the sole surviving member of its species. She leaves the motor running, afraid to turn it off, lest the starter never crank again. She has not visited PR during the two weeks of his incarceration, but, as his emergency contact, she received a call last night, informing her of his early release and encouraging her to be there in the morning to pick him up. The caller also suggested she bring a set of clean clothes since the pants and shirt he had been wearing when arrested had been disposed of rather than laundered. A little after nine, the windowless, heavy steel door in the otherwise unbroken cinder block wall opens. PR slouches out and slips into the passenger’s seat of the running car, and they drive off without exchanging words or looks.

Finally, Bonnie breaks the silence.

“Did you meet any interesting people in jail?”

“My cellmate was a Rhodes Scholar.”

“How nice . . .”

“What the fuck kinda question is that? You leave me in there for two weeks and then you wanna know if I made any new friends?”

“I thought you might need some time to think about what you did . . . and . . .”

“And what? Repent? That’s your answer for everything. Just tell God you’re sorry and it will all go away!”

“You know the Lord is quick to forgive, Pat. Forgive those who trust in Jesus.”

“How could I forget? You had it tattooed on my body when I was six months old!”

“The world is such a sinful and dangerous place, and I knew I couldn’t protect you all by myself, just a woman alone. So I had to do something. That’s when he spoke to me and told me to seal you in the name of Jesus.”

“Some quack televangelist who makes a living off fools like you says something about being sealed in the Lord, and you take your baby to a tattoo parlor and have him scarred for life with this?”

PR rolls up the sleeve of his t-shirt, calling as his witness to testify against his mother the four letters, now distended to the point of near-illegibility after twenty-five years.

“But I did it for you! I had you sealed in the name of Jesus! Your eternal soul belongs to God and nothing can tear you from his grasp.”

“And for that I suppose I do have you to thank. After all, a bargain is a bargain, regardless of how stupid or gullible the people are who make it. Somehow you persuaded this God of yours to give me a fire-proof ‘get out of jail free’ card, so I guess the very least I can do is make good use of it. Make hay, as they say, whether the sun is shining or not.”

“Oh Pat, I pray you wouldn’t talk that way. Your Heavenly Father will never turn his back on you, but He still gets angry when you sin.”

“My name is PR, and I don’t have a father, heavenly or otherwise. I barely have a mother. Why don’t you make yourself useful and drive me somewhere I can get a drink. There’s a court order banning me from The Rainbow Tap House, so I gotta find someplace new.”

Mother and son drive on in silence toward the part of town most likely to offer a bar open at this hour on a Sunday morning.

“Head toward the airport,” PR growls. “There should be some places out there.”

Realizing Bonnie is his only source of money, PR knows he will have to persuade her to finance the bender he is bent on. Flattery won’t work, so he chooses the old reliable, Jesus.

“Ya know what I missed most while I was locked up, Mama?”

“I’m almost afraid to hear.”

“Witnessing to the lost about our Lord and Savior.”

“Are you joshing me, boy?”

“No. I swear.”

“Seems like there would have been plenty of men in jail with you who need to hear about Jesus.”

“Just about everybody, but it didn’t feel right. They all knew what I was in there for, so they wouldn’t have believed me.”

Bonnie starts to mention—not for the first time—that Paul and Silas spent time in jail, but PR cuts her off, not wanting her to steal his thunder.

“I’m no Paul or Silas,” he continues. “I can’t talk about God when I’m behind bars. My faith just isn’t strong enough to convince people. But in the right kind of place, where everyone else is down and out but I’m there voluntarily because I want to witness to them, I bet I could snatch a few from Hell’s fires and win them over to God’s side.”

Bonnie is so moved by her son’s earnest desire to spread the gospel, she whispers a prayer of thanks—not to God, but to Pat Robertson, for it was he who told her to have him “sealed in Jesus.” Her devotions are interrupted when PR blurts out,

“There’s the place! It’s perfect! Surely the Lord has led me to this den of iniquity so that I might deliver His word to the sinners within.”

An incompetent driver at best, Bonnie avoids freeways religiously, a habit that turns out to be fortunate on this occasion, because the dilapidated strip club, nee Sonny’s Family Buffet, is visible only from the feeder road.

“That titty bar?” she asks, a note of skepticism evident in her voice.

“Don’t call it that, Mama. It’s a ‘Gentlemen’s Club,’ only these particular ‘gentlemen’ are caught in Satan’s net. They burn with lust for the temptations of the flesh, not knowing that they are damning their eternal souls. They need to hear the gospel, and they can only hear it from someone like me.”

Without a word, Bonnie slows almost to a stop, pulls into the parking lot, puts the car in “park,” and turns to face PR. In the morning light, he can see the losing battle her once-fiery hair is waging against the ashes of age and feels a twinge of sadness.

“Such a fine boy you are, finally accepting God’s plan for your life. If you weren’t ‘sealed in Jesus’ I’d worry about sending you into a place like this. But I know that Jesus will be right beside you all the time.”

As PR opens the car door and slides out, he is confident the seed he has planted has already taken root.

“Wait, Pat. You’ll need some money . . . for cab fare home.”

“I’m also really hungry, Mama. They probably have a buffet in there.”

“I cashed my check last night, so all I have are hundreds and a few ones.”

“That’ll do,” PR assures her as he takes the whole stack of bills from her hand and shuts the car door. “Jesus can come along, but he’ll have to buy his own drinks and lap dances.”

As the lack of cars in the parking lot suggests, the place is empty. No customers, no dancers on stage, no music. Just a lone bartender, head down, staring at his phone.

“We’re closed.”

PR plops down on a stool and lays a hundred dollar bill on the bar.

“Tequila shots. And keep ‘em coming.”

Looking up from his phone with an unmistakable ‘I am pissed, so watch your step’ expression, the bartender growls at PR, “I’ll knock a dollar off each shot if you’ll pour ‘em yourself and leave me alone.”

“Deal. But what if I pour ‘em long?”

“I figure you’ll finish off that whole bottle, and that’s sixteen shots. So pour ‘em any way you want, just don’t bug me.”

“Got any limes?”

“In the back. Knife’s in the sink. Cut your own.”

“Hey, Mack, is this always a self-service bar? Should I strip and do my own dancing?”

“Name’s not Mack, and if you keep up the chatter you can forget the discount.”

When PR has drunk through all his mother’s money, the bartender asks if he should call him a cab, but PR declines, having nowhere in particular to go and no means of paying for getting there. So, he asks for a large to-go coffee, on the house, and wobbles out the door.

 

V

 

Between the undulations in his gait and the uncertainty of the sidewalk, PR is lucky he doesn’t knock the young woman over completely. Still, he jostles her so roughly, she drops into the classic Krav Maga 360 Defense position. When she realizes her assailant is no more than a hapless young barfly, she goes on the offense—for Jesus.

“I can tell by your appearance and by the way you have been passing your time on this Sabbath morning that you are a lost soul desperately in need of Jesus our Savior.” Her words flow with the smoothness of repeated practice and the calmness of unshakable conviction. “Let me tell you about how Jesus died to save you from your sins, and how today can be the day of your rebirth.”

Caught off guard, PR takes a moment to marshal his reluctant powers of concentration, stands up straight, and manages a passable imitation of facing the young woman squarely. He fixes her with a stare that isn’t half as withering as he believes it to be and injects what he hopes is a haughty tone into his voice.

“I’ll have you know I was sealed in the blood of Jesus before I could walk or talk. Therefore, I cannot be lost, unless Jesus and God were to renege on their end of the bargain, and that is inconceivable. In Jesus I Trust and no other, so I can never stumble.”

At this point, PR’s plan is to roll up his t-shirt sleeve in order to give her a peek at his bona fides, but before he can remember which arm bears the tattoo, she runs forward and leaps into his arms sobbing.

“For years I have prayed that God would send me a hero for a husband, a strong pillar to lean on when my faith falters. And now, in the fullness of His time and in this unlikeliest of places, God has answered my prayers. Tell me what you are called so I may praise God for you by name.”

Still under the influence of the tequila, and now battered by the young woman’s irrepressible volubility and use of the word “husband,” all PR can think to do is answer truthfully.

“My Mama named me Pat Robertson, after the televangelist, on account of she loved his preaching so much and sent him most of her money so he would tell God to bless her. But I hate that name.”

“What shall I call you, then?”

“This girl has lost more than a few light bulbs from the load,” PR mutters under his breath. “If you have to call me anything, call me PR. And I’m no one’s husband, leastwise yours!”

“Whatever you wish. Just know that I will never put asunder what God has joined.”

“What about you? You got a name, I suppose.”

“It’s Caterina. Caterina Caruso.”

Noticing for the first time how attractive she is, PR decides it won’t hurt to make a little effort.

“If she wants to play wife to my husband, I might end up on the receiving end of some connubial cwtch.”

“And do you live around here, Caterina Caruso?”

“Oh no, we live north of the city. I just came down here to do some street witnessing before the crusade.”

“We? You got a boyfriend or something?”

“Silly boy. I live with my parents.”

PR had known this type of girl in high school. CTs they called them. Flash their perfectly straight, white, orthodontured teeth at you. Laugh at your jokes. Make up cutesy nicknames for you. But you never get in their pants. PR couldn’t stand this kind of girl back then, but now his motto is “any port in a storm,” and Caterina looks like a port worth docking in.

“What crusade was that you mentioned?” PR asks.

“God’s holy and anointed messenger Caruso Delacruz is preaching the gospel to lost sinners and bringing words of encouragement straight from God for the faithful at the convention center this afternoon and tonight.” Caterina speaks as if testifying, rather than just answering a simple question.

“Wait a minute.” PR draws in a breath so sharply he begins to cough. “Caruso Delacruz?” he manages to squawk. “Does he wear gold lamè slippers and a white lamè suit?”

“You’ve seen him! Isn’t he just amazing? Where were you? Did you hear him preach?”

“I really couldn’t hear him over the chanting of the crowd,” PR mumbles, half distracted. “Do they always go on like that, chanting his name like he’s just one notch below Jesus himself?”

“Some of the faithful believe he is Jesus, come back in the flesh to inaugurate the reign of God here on Earth. That’s why we call him The Master.” A faraway, dreamy look comes over Caterina’s face, and she speaks as if she is no longer aware of PR’s presence or her surroundings.

A bit of quick reckoning tells PR his only chance of completing his conquest is to bring her back to Earth and get her mind off this Caruso guy.

“Hey, your Hubby is hungry, but I’m fresh out of cash. How ‘bout we go grab a bite and talk about our honeymoon plans.”

Glancing at her watch then rolling her eyes upward, Caterina calculates how much time they have before the rally starts.

“We have time for lunch, but no honeymoon for you until we make it official in the eyes of God. Jesus said fornicators go to Hell. Matthew 5:28.”

“So, do you have a bus schedule?”

“Silly boy. Who needs a bus schedule?” Caterina scoffs. “My car is parked right around the corner. You don’t think I’d be in this part of town on foot, do you?”

“You have wheels? Sweet!” Then to himself, “This day might not be a total loss after all.”

 

VI

 

Pulling onto the freeway and heading toward the center of town, Caterina asks, “What kind of food are you hungry for?”

“I could eat anything,” PR replies. “I’m not picky.” He catches himself just before making a disparaging comment about jail food. He isn’t sure yet how Caterina might react to that information, although most good girls he has known always have the hots for bad boys.

“We may not find much open near the convention center on a Sunday, but I know a great little dive in Midtown if you like soul food,” Caterina offers.

“Typical,” thinks PR. “Rich little white girl from the burbs thinks she’s having a multicultural experience by eating soul food.” But to her, he says only, “Love it. Maybe they’ll have pork belly like my dear Mama used to cook.”

“She doesn’t cook for you anymore?” Caterina asks innocently, not seeing PR roll his eyes.

“She isn’t with us anymore,” PR says softly, looking down, with just the perfect catch in his voice. “She went to be with the Lord. Not a day goes by that I don’t get down on my knees to thank Jesus for giving me such a saint for a Mama . . . and for hearing my prayers and taking her pain away before she passed.”

“My poor brave boy. How you have suffered,” Caterina croons. “But don’t you worry. Jesus picked me especially for you, and once we’re married, I’ll make you forget all about . . . well, not your Mama . . . that wouldn’t be right. Let’s just say no husband of mine will ever suffer.”

PR weighs these words carefully, thinking they can’t really be as sexually charged as they sound. He turns in his seat to look at Caterina and shakes his head.

“She looks all sweet and innocent, but looks can be deceiving, especially with women. They’re all temptresses. Like Eve. Just like in those stories Mama told me growing up. Temptresses—and ball busters—every one of them.”

“So, I got a question, Cate. You don’t mind if I call you Cate, do you? It’s kind of a coincidence you being a Caruso and this preacher you like so much being a Caruso too, don’t you think?”

“Not a coincidence at all. He’s my uncle Vincenzo. My father’s older brother.”

“But Caruso is his first name. His last name is Delacruz. How does that work if he and your father are brothers?”

“Uncle Vincenzo should have been the one to take over the family business, but when he was a young man he felt called by God to preach. So, he changed his surname to Delacruz to appeal more to Hispanics. But he kept Caruso as his given name because he liked the way it sounds, especially when the crowds cheer for him.”

After lunch, Caterina drives them to the convention center. She pulls into valet parking and gets out, arching one eyebrow at the slender boy of no more than seventeen sprinting toward them.

“If you take special care of my car, there’ll be a little something special for you when I get back,” she murmurs as she tosses him the keys, laughing.

“Yes, Ma’am. I will treat it like it belongs to The Master himself.”

PR is suddenly struck by the thought that this young man might be related to Caruso Delacruz, maybe a nephew or a bastard son. “That would make him what to Cate? Some kind of cousin?” But he shakes it off as simply too unlikely and shoots a glare and a growl at the valet, “Keep your eyes off my woman.”

“So, I’m your ‘woman’ now, am I? Not wife yet, but I guess we’re making progress. Come on, I have seats in the VIP box,” Caterina calls back at him over her shoulder as she skips toward the entrance.

Thousands are waiting in line having their bags checked and filing through the metal detectors, but when the guards sees Caterina, they simply wave her through the turnstile. She points back toward PR, shuffling along and still thirty feet behind, determined not to hurry after a girl, and calls out to the guards, “He’s with me.” Apparently, that’s all it takes to vouch for his integrity because the same guard waves him through as well.

“What’s the deal, Cate?” PR asks when he finally catches up with her at the door to the main auditorium. “Even though no one knows this Caruso guy is really your Cousin Vinnie . . .”

“Uncle Vincenzo.”

“Right, Uncle Vincenzo, everyone here seems to know you.”

“Daddy makes a lot of money, and he likes to spread it around. He’s one of the name sponsors of this rally. Look, there’s his banner hanging just to the left of the stage.”

Sure enough, when he looks where she is pointing, PR sees a huge red velvet banner hanging from the ceiling, on which are embroidered the words

Caruso —

for all your needs

in giant golden letters.

“What exactly is this family business? That’s not very specific.”

“I don’t really know. I asked once, when I was young, but Daddy said it was better I didn’t know and told me never to ask again.”

A disembodied, not-quite-human voice announces that the afternoon session of the crusade will begin in twenty minutes, so Caterina takes PR by the hand and leads him to a roped-off section designated “VIP ONLY.” In the aisle next to their row stands a short, broad man with slicked-back wavy black hair, wearing a tailored suit he could never have afforded. The man pays PR no attention, speaking only to Caterina, “Your father is very pleased you are attending the crusade, Miss.”

Once seated, PR looks around for the first time at the auditorium. The voice informs them that only fifteen minutes remain until the crusade begins, so everyone should make their way to their seats. As the thousands of faithful who have been milling around in the lobby are herded toward their seats by the ushers, PR chuckles to himself and says, “Baaaa,” just loud enough for Caterina to hear it.

“How very right you are, Husband. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we are the sheep of his pasture. But now he has given charge of his sheep to The Master, and it is his voice that calls us by name.”

“The crusade will begin in ten minutes,” the Voice declares, adding its ‘Amen’ to Caterina’s words.

Not for the last time, PR worries about what he has gotten himself into for just a meal and the hope of a quick screw.

Caterina leans toward PR and whispers, “I do hope The Master will preach about The New American Covenant today.”

“What is that? Your uncle’s fan club or something?”

“Silly boy. I’m serious. It’s the heart of the message God has delivered to The Master. He wants America to be transformed and finally become what it was intended to be—a Christian Nation.”

“But the Constitution…”

Caterina cuts him off by launching into what is clearly a memorized recitation: “The Constitution was written by men, but this is God’s plan. America is to be like Israel of old, only better. God will be our Ruler, all laws will be based on Christian principles correctly understood and scrupulously applied, and the government will be led by God’s chosen representative.”

“The Crusade will begin in five minutes!”

“What was that part about laws and Christian principles?” PR swallows hard and feels a single bead of sweat roll down the small of his back then scoot between his butt cheeks.

Sounding like PR’s seventh grade English teacher when peeved that her students couldn’t understand diagramming sentences after one “perfectly clear” explanation, Caterina recites the catechism once more.

“America will have new laws, and those laws will be based on Christian principles. But those principles must be ‘correctly understood’ so they will be pleasing to God and ‘scrupulously applied’ to everyone so that we will be holy and acceptable in God’s sight. The only way to accomplish this is to have a leader who has been given enough power to enforce God’s plan. And the Lord’s Holy and Anointed Servant, Caruso Delacruz, The Master, is just such a leader. That’s why God gave him—and only him—the vision for The New American Covenant.”

At the moment Caterina pronounces this final word, the house lights go down, and the Voice fills the entire auditorium.

“Grace and peace to all of the Lord’s faithful gathered here today for a word from The Master. You will have showers of blessing poured down upon you. And all of you here who are seeking the Truth in a world of Lies, today you will hear for the first time the glorious Good News that God has entrusted to His Holy and Anointed Servant, Caruso Delacruz, Good News that will not only change your lives but will also transform the world and usher in the Kingdom of God. And now, let the Crusade begin!”

While the final syllable is still echoing off the back wall, a low, rhythmic pulse begins to spread through the crowd. More felt than heard, three beats, repeated twice, then another three beats, but different. The hushed but insistent rhythm grows stronger with each pulse, now joined by a whisper. PR can hear something, but can’t make out any words yet. Then finally, a recognizable sound. A long vowel, maybe a “u,” repeated four times, but the second two are not on the same beat as the first two. The hair on PR’s neck stands on end and a wave of déjà vu crashes over him just as the murmur, with no apparent signal from anyone, erupts into a roar: “Caruso . . . Caruso . . . Delacruz . . . Delacruz . . . Caruso . . . Caruso . . . Delacruz . . . Delacruz.” The two sides of the auditorium might as well be rival crowds at a West Texas schoolboy football game, each trying to out cheer the other under the Friday Night Lights, and here he is stuck in the middle with a wacked-out Caruso Freak, certain that he is losing his mind.

“I was wrong. These aren’t sheep. Sheep are stupid, but at least they have a will of their own. These folks are zombies! They’re like the Borg. ‘Resistance is futile.’ I gotta get outta here, but how?”

 

VII

 

Caruso preaches for almost two hours, during which Caterina leans forward, chin in her palm, in the rapt state of fixation seen only in a young school girl smitten with her middle-aged teacher. PR sits frozen in place, horrified, staring blankly at the gold lamè slippers. He is conscious only for the last few minutes, and only then because a trumpet fanfare and The Voice herald a special announcement.

“My belovèd Children, while I was deep in prayer just prior to this afternoon’s session, having fasted since sunrise, beseeching the Lord for guidance regarding his will for my future, I received a special message. An audible answer to my prayers. The Lord spoke to me in a voice I could plainly hear with my ears and instructed me to tell every one of you gathered here right now—for the Lord knew you would be here today, knew even what you would wear and the seat you would occupy—exactly what he told me to do. And so I am announcing from this stage for the very first time in a public gathering that the Lord has told me that I will be the next President of the United States!”

The trumpet fanfare sounds again, only to be drowned out by thousands of human voices as the crowd jumps to its feet as one (except for one seat on the front row) and begins to cheer, shout praises, and weep for joy. It takes almost five minutes before The Voice can regain enough control over the audience for The Master to continue.

“As I’m sure you all realize, even though the Lord is the Ruler of the Universe, he cannot simply wave his hands and make me the president. That isn’t how things work in America . . . yet. There will need to be an election, and my name will need to be on the ballot in every state. The Lord can take it from there, but you my Children and all the other faithful across the country must make those preliminary steps happen.”

More cheering, praising, and weeping, along with promises from the faithful that they will not fail The Master. Right on cue, volunteers materialize at the end of each row and start the offering baskets moving across the auditorium, while The Voice exhorts the faithful to give sacrificially, to plant a great seed so that God can produce an even greater harvest.

“The Lord has told me that I am to have nothing to do with any established political party, especially not the Democrats or Republicans. So you, my Children, must shun these organizations and all who belong to them. The Lord has said that you must commit to a new political party, the only political party America needs, and the last political party America will ever have—The New American Covenant Party. When the time comes for the election, you must vote only for those candidates approved by The New American Covenant Party and no one else. Do this, and God will work a miracle the likes of which the world has never seen. America will be saved from its sins. America will be transformed in a single day and become what God has always intended it to be. And God’s Kingdom will finally come on Earth! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Shout Hallelujah with me! Glory be to God Almighty, to Jesus his Son, and to his anointed Messenger!”

PR is so dumbfounded by what he has just heard, he almost doesn’t notice that Delacruz has just glorified himself and put himself on par with the Father and the Son. Certain that the crowd will not calm down and start heading out in the foreseeable future, he leans over to shout in Caterina’s ear, “Can we get out of here and go somewhere we can talk?”

Surprisingly, Caterina readily agrees and pulls PR toward a side door that leads to a backstage corridor then to an exit. Confused, he runs to keep up with her as she continues dragging him, now toward the parking lot.

Once inside the car, she locks the doors then grabs PR around the neck and kisses him deeply. When she finally comes up for air, PR pulls back and sputters, “Wow! That is not what I expected!”

“I’m just so excited about The Master’s plan, I had to let it out some way. It’s going to be wonderful. You and I will be so blessed!”

When Caterina moves in for another kiss, PR stops her and suggests they should find some place more private. “After all, who know where kissing will lead.”

“I can tell you where it will lead, but I don’t want to spoil your surprise, Husband.”

Caught in the sway of his own growing passion, PR buries his shock and disgust from the crusade under thoughts of getting laid for the first time in months and hears Caterina’s words as an undeniable invitation. Giving her directions to one of the spots he frequented when younger, he slides over and sits next to her, shoulders and thighs touching.

Once parked in a secluded clearing overlooking the bayou, PR decides it is time to cash in on all this “husband” talk with a little pre-ceremony consummation, but he is thrown out trying to steal second base.

“I told you, no sex till we’re married. We must keep ourselves pure if we want to be part of The New American Covenant.”

“But what was all that business about where the kissing would lead and not wanting to spoil my surprise?”

“It will lead to our formal engagement, of course. Kissing is permissible, but Daddy will get upset if you do anything improper like trying to get inside my blouse before we get married.”

Without warning, PR snaps. The sexual frustration of the moment, his sense of loathing toward the crusade audience, and a lifetime of anger toward his mother join forces with the assurance imprinted on his arm that nothing he can ever do will damn him, and they all erupt as a clenched fist intent on revenge. With each new blow, Caterina morphs in succession into Bonnie Davies, then Caruso Delacruz, then Sallman’s head of Jesus, then back to Caterina again, with “Mack” the bartender popping in once or twice.

His rage finally spent, PR reaches across Caterina’s crumpled body to open the driver’s door and push her out onto the ground where she lies sprawled face down, her whimpers barely audible. Sliding behind the wheel, he drives to his neighborhood, parks the car a few blocks from his house, and walks the rest of the way home.

Going straight to his mother’s bedroom, he digs through her dresser drawers looking for money. Instead, he finds a pistol, which he shoves into his waistband. Moving to her closet, on the top shelf he finds a shoe box containing some old letters no longer in their envelopes. The first one he opens is from his mother to Vinnie, thanking him for the pistol and assuring him she won’t be afraid to use it “for her own protection.” Tucked inside this letter is a second one, from Vinnie, telling her not to be pissed at him. He knows she can take care of herself, but a pistol is the only language those “mooks” who give her shit when she stays late to close up the diner understand.

By the time PR finishes all the letters, he knows that his mother wanted to marry Vinnie, but he didn’t want to settle down. And when his mother found out she was pregnant, she gave Vinnie an ultimatum, but he abandoned her, saying God had greater plans for his life, plans that didn’t include a wife and baby. This is the last letter in the box, but under it, PR finds an official-looking envelope containing a birth certificate for a baby boy, born alive, January 6, 1993. Father’s name: Unknown. Mother’s name: Bonnie Davies. Father and mother unmarried. Child’s name: Pat Robertson Freeman.

“Well, shit,” PR spat as he folded the certificate and stuffed it in his back pocket. “Freeman isn’t even Mama’s real name. I guess she just made it up and hung it on me, since my Daddy’s name was ‘Unknown.’ Hell, how did she get herself knocked up with me and not even know who the father was?”

Still without funds, PR heads into the kitchen and rummages in the pantry until he finds two unopened bottles of cooking wine. Heading back into the living room, he downs both without stopping and passes out on the sofa.

 

VIII

 

PR dreams of the crusade again, but this time he is seated in the front row. When Delacruz calls him by name and invites him on stage, he realizes he has his mother’s gun again, but this time the bodyguards don’t take it from him.

When Caruso comes to embrace him he draws the pistol and fires till it is empty, but nothing happens. He pulls the trigger again repeatedly and hears what he thinks are shots being fired, but again nothing happens.

When he hears the sounds a third time but hasn’t tried to fire the gun, he wakes suddenly and realizes someone is pounding on the front door.

“Someone’s at the door, Mama!”

Rolling over and hoping to go back to sleep, PR hears the pounding again. His soggy brain finally remembers his mother should be at work, so he dismounts the sofa, landing on hands and knees, and hollers toward the door, “Hold your damn horses. Geez Louise, I’m coming.”

A bandy-legged barrel of a man wearing sunglasses and a black fedora pulled down to his ears on both sides stands on the front porch. Identifying himself as a police detective, he steps in and announces that he has a few questions he would like to ask.

“I’ll just stand. This won’t take up too much of your valuable time, Mr. . . .”

“Freeman. PR Freeman,” he answers reflexively, adding “or Davies or maybe MacVinnie for all I know” sotto voce.

“You wouldn’t know anything about an attack on a girl named Caterina Caruso last night, or how her car ended up just a few blocks from here, would you?”

“Never heard of her,” PR blurts out, then realizes how easy the lie will be to disprove, so he tries to retrace his steps. “I mean, I never heard of her before yesterday, when we met downtown. You say she was attacked?”

“Yeah,” mumbles the detective from behind flabby lips suspended between two stubbly jowls. “Somebody beat her up pretty good. Put her in the hospital. She says she don’t wanna press charges, but her father is a close personal friend of the Chief, and he told us to look into it anyways.”

 PR’s mind flashes back for just an instant to the banner at the crusade: “Caruso – for all your needs.”

“Anyways, we think you oughta come down to the station with us.”

Struggling to snap his brain back into sobriety, PR closes his eyes and rubs his right temple while sliding by the detective and toward the front door. Opening it with his left hand, he sees a black Escalade in the driveway with someone who is definitely not a police officer slouching in the driver’s seat. Recalling that he never got a good look at the detective’s badge, and now with the sunglasses and hat off, PR recognizes the man from the crusade who spoke to Caterina. Knowing he won’t be going to the police station, PR grabs the artificial tree in the planter by the door and turns it over, hoping to trip the “detective,” then launches himself out the door and around the corner of the house. The adrenaline focusing his mind and steadying his gait, he is over a chain link fence and into the back alley before the sputtering spheroid can get back to his feet or the driver, playing a video game on his cellphone, notices PR fleeing and gets out to pursue him. Over the fence on the other side of the alley, through the backyard, and out the front gate, PR gives them the slip.

Using the last bit of loose change in his pocket, he catches a bus downtown and gets off a few blocks from the Convention Center. The building’s marquis advertises a free lunch for all “seekers” sponsored by The New American Covenant Crusade. Penniless and without solid food since his soul food lunch with Caterina yesterday, PR decides to go in. The guard at the gate recognizes him and greets him warmly, waving him past the metal detector at the security checkpoint. But when the guard asks where Caterina is, PR stares at the floor, pretending not to hear him. Still looking down, he runs straight into two of the dark-suited goons from his dream. He is sent sprawling on the polished tile floor; they don’t even break stride. A fellow attendee “seeking” nothing more than a hot meal stoops down to help PR up and leads him over to where the food line starts.

“So, you know anything about this Delacruz guy?” PR’s new buddy asks.

“Heard him yesterday. Wants to take over the whole country with some religious bullshit turned into laws and him as dictator. He’s one scary mother and a total fraud. Not even Mexican. He’s Italian, and part of a crime family.”

“That’s some freaky shit alright. Pretty high price for a free lunch. You wanna get out of here and hit the food trucks outside?”

“Can’t. I’m flat broke, and I gotta eat,” PR confides.

“I’ll catch lunch, and you can owe me till you get back on your feet again.”

“I don’t know when that would be. Think I’ll just tough it out here. But I could use some bus fare if you can spare it.”

“Local or Greyhound?”

“Maybe a little of both.”

“Here’s a twenty,” the kindly older man says, pressing the bill into PR’s palm. “It’s the only cash I have on me, but it will get you out of town at least.”

“Why’re you helping me? You don’t even know me.”

“Your tattoo.”

“What about my tattoo?” PR snaps back defensively.

“It says, ‘IJIT.’ Stands for ‘In Jesus I Trust.’ You’ve had it since you were just a few months old. You’re sealed in the blood of Jesus.”

“How do you know all that? Do you work for Mr. Caruso?”

“I recognize my own work, even after all these years, and that’s the only one like that I ever did. Shit, that was the only time I ever tattooed a baby. Tried to talk your mother out of it, but her mind was set.”

“You did my tattoo?”

“Sure did. Must be, what, twenty years ago?”

“Twenty-five.”

“Your Mom still around?”

“She is.”

“Still crazy? No offense, but tattooing a baby is highly irregular.”

“She thought it was the only way to keep me safe.”

“And has it? Kept you safe?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

“True. But if you don’t mind me saying so, you do look a little the worse for wear.”

“I’m hungry and hung over is all. And on the run from some mooks who want to break my kneecaps because I . . .” PR stops without finishing, realizing he shouldn’t be talking so much. “But you still haven’t told me why you want to help me. It can't be just because you did my tattoo.”

“Your Mom stiffed me that day. Paid me nothing for three and a half hours of work. But she said God would bless me for my ‘generosity.’ That’s what she actually said, my ‘generosity,’ as if I offered to do the tat for free. I was royally pissed . . . at first. But then my business started picking up. I met a good woman, and we got married. Even had a kid, after she helped me get sober. So, the way I look at it, God did bless me, all because of your tattoo. Never dreamed I would have a chance to return the favor.”

“I don’t know what to say. Mama would say it didn’t surprise her at all—just one more sign of me being sealed in Jesus. But I gotta ask. If you’re so blessed, what are you doing here?”

“Research and reconnaissance. We can’t let people like Delacruz get the last word. But look, I have to go now. Great to see you again, and tell your Mom you ran into me.”

Squeezing once more the hand with the twenty in it, PR’s benefactor spins around and scurries for the door, pursued by two more of the identically dressed goons.

 

IX

 

Left alone at the convention center, PR gets in the food line and takes a tray when offered. “If nothing else, it’s a free meal and a chance to just sit and weigh my options.”

While he is eating, The Voice from the crusade returns.

“If you will all kindly direct your attention to the screens at the front of the room, your Host, the Most Reverend Caruso Delacruz, has prepared a special video message for each of you about how peace, prosperity, and happiness can be yours in The New American Covenant.”

Screens concealed in the ceiling roll down as the video begins, but they show only a frozen image of Delacruz’s face smiling benignly at a group of white and Hispanic children with the South Lawn of the White House in the background. The scene pixelates then freezes again, this time rendering Delacruz’s smile in Cubist fashion and the group of children as the fragmented aftermath of an IED.

“We seem to be having some minor technical difficulties,” The Voice intones optimistically. “While we’re rectifying the situation, you can all enjoy an audio clip from The Master’s latest teaching series, explaining how true joy can be found only through obedience and holy living.”

The video screens go dark and the PA speakers crackle then fill the room with a familiar voice speaking in an unfamiliar tone.

“So, how much was the take last night? I gave it all I had, so I bet we fleeced those sheep all the way to the skin.”

Sounds of approving laughter can be heard in the background.

“Any word from CBN about that interview yet?”

A panicked voice suddenly yells, “Geezus, we’re on live feed. Cut! Cut the damn feed!”

The Voice returns with an oily self-assurance, “I must apologize for that glitch, Friends. As you can hear, we’re not the only group meeting here this week, and sometimes wires get crossed. I can assure you it won’t happen again. We’ll just let you finish your meal in quiet prayer and contemplation.”

What PR contemplates is whether he might still be able to work some kind of con on Caterina—if he only knew what hospital she was in.

Taking the portable parts of the free lunch and wrapping them in a napkin, PR slips out a fire exit, wanting to avoid another possible encounter with the security guards and figuring the alarms will only add to the shit show they have just witnessed.

“Gotta find out what hospital she’s in,” he mutters to himself as he strolls through the homeless camp set up behind the convention center.

“Ask at a church,” a voice behind him says. “They usually know about that kind of stuff.”

PR turns to see a homeless woman with three almost naked children scampering around her feet.

“Good idea, but where is a church around here?”

“Can’t be around here,” the woman replies. “They’re all surrounded by iron fences and padlocked gates in this part of town. You need to go to the Cathedral.”

“Cathedral? Where’s that?”

“Sacred Heart. Just go this way down to Caroline and turn left. Just this side of the Pierce Elevated. Can’t miss it. About a twenty minute walk from here. They’re always open this time of day.”

“Thank you, Ma’am. I’m obliged.”

“You look like you need some help. Hope you find her.”

“Yeah, me too.”

After the short walk, PR finds the gates open, as promised, and goes in the door indicating “Offices.” Just inside the entrance, he finds a reception desk, and behind it what appears to be a young nun.

“Excuse me, Sister, can I use the phone?”

“I’m only a postulate, so you shouldn’t call me Sister. We don’t have a public telephone.”

“But it’s really important, Sis….Miss. I just got into town on a bus to see my Mama, who’s in the hospital, but I lost the piece of paper with the hospital’s name of it. When I saw your beautiful church, I thought maybe you’d let a fellow believer come in and use the phone to call around and see if I can locate her.”

Her face softening the young woman directs PR to an empty room behind her.

“There’s a phone in there. It’s reserved for use by members of the parish, but I suppose we can make an exception in this case. Is your mother having surgery?”

Having worked on his story on the walk over, PR is ready with an answer.

“She already had emergency surgery. Last night,” lies PR, laying it on thick to impress a pretty young woman. “She was hit by one of those silver trains while she was trying to cross the street. That’s why they called me and told me to get here as fast as I could. I’m all she’s got.”

“Then she may be at Ben Taub. That’s the city’s primary trauma center.”

“No, that wasn’t the name. I’d remember that one.”

As PR starts making his inquiries, the young receptionist hears him asking each time about Caterina Caruso.

“Excuse me, Mr…..”

“Freeman. PR Freeman.”

“Excuse me for interrupting, Mr. Freeman, but we have a Caruso family in this parish, and the daughter’s name is Caterina. Are you related to them in any way?”

“Yeah, I guess so, though I’ve never met any of my Caruso kin,” PR answers, lying for all he’s worth and hoping it doesn’t lead him down any blind alleys he can’t find his way out of. “Poor relations I guess you could say. Mother was the youngest daughter in her branch of the family, but she disgraced herself, so they disowned her.”

“Well, that’s interesting. And here’s an even greater coincidence. The Caterina Caruso who is a member of this parish is also in the hospital—St. Joe’s, just a few blocks from here. But how peculiar that they would name their daughter after your mother after they shunned her.”

“Yeah, families. Weird, right? Listen, thanks for your help, but I gotta go. Which way is that St. Joe’s Hospital?”

“Out the door you came in, under the freeway, then turn left.”

PR turns and leaves without looking back.

At the hospital information desk, he has to lie again about being family before the volunteer will give him Caterina’s room number. Relieved to learn she isn’t in the ICU, he waits for an empty elevator to take him to the third floor. When a nurse coming out of the room turns back and asks if she feels like having a visitor, PR hears her say, “Tell him to come in.”

Visibly bruised and with a bandage over one eye, she is seated in a chair beside the bed in a blue silk robe.

“I dreamed you would come back to me—that you would repent, and I would forgive you. I guess we’re getting started early on the ‘for better or worse’ part.”

“They’ve been to my house—men with guns. Said they were the police, but I guess your father sent them.”

“Daddy is very angry. I lied to protect you, so they don’t know you are the one who did this to me. All they know is that you were with me earlier, and they think I let you borrow my car to get home. I told them I was street witnessing and that’s how I got beat up.”

“I gave them the slip, but now they’ll be wondering why I ran.”

“I know how we can make it all better, but you’ll have to do what I say.”

Not ordinarily inclined to follow someone else’s lead, PR is desperate enough to hear her out.

“We’ll go to the crusade together tonight, and when The Master calls for those who want to repent and have their sins washed away, you’ll go up on stage. The Master will hear your confession and baptize you. Then, as soon as you are free of sins, you’ll tell The Master you want to propose to the woman God has chosen for you, right then and there. He’ll balk at first, but when he hears my name, he’ll agree. And together we’ll pledge not only to be husband and wife but to live under The New American Covenant and obey The Master in everything. That way, we’ll be under his protection. My father is a true believer and probably a future Apostle in The New American Covenant, so he will also be bound to protect us. You’ll be safe, and we’ll always be together.”

After several turns pacing the room, muttering to himself, PR agrees to go along with Caterina’s plan as the best way to save him from Mr. Caruso’s goons. “I can always just disappear at some point,” he thinks to himself. “Besides, my tattoo will keep me safe, like it always has. I’m sealed in Jesus! And if it all goes to shit, I’ve always got Vinnie’s ‘Mook-Pacifier.”

 

X

 

The Voice is in rare form this last night of the crusade, sculpting the crowd to its will, bringing them almost to the boiling point, then taking the heat away just in time and letting them simmer. PR knows the drill by this point and anticipates to the moment when the chanting will begin. He even indulges himself with a few inaudible “PR . . . Freemans.” The trumpet fanfare, the spotlight, the armchair, even the gold lamè slippers—everything is perfectly orchestrated for maximum effect.

After subduing his sycophants with a single word, Delacruz launches directly into the real business of the evening--God’s plan for The New American Covenant and how it depends on their loyal obedience in the voting booth. Even though he announced all of this at the afternoon session, Delacruz assures the audience repeatedly that they are “privileged and blessed to be the very first to hear God’s great plan.”

“Lambs to the slaughter, pigs at the trough. Watch ‘em gobble it up,” PR muses, recalling one of his mother’s favorite sayings. But she always used it about the mindless, adoring crowds at political rallies, lamenting how ignorant they were of God’s Truth.

“I guess she never realized she was one of them too.”

“Who was one of them?” Caterina asks.

“My Mama.”

“One of who? Who are you talking about?”

“No one. When is he going to issue that invitation? I’m ready to get on with this.”

“I’m eager too,” Caterina whispers and snuggles closer to PR.

When Delacruz pauses to gaze benignly over his flock, PR is surprised to hear The Voice interject, “We can’t let people like Delacruz get the last word.”

PR lurches forward in his seat. “What did he say?”

“What did who say? The Master?”

“No, that voice over the PA system.”

Caterina betrays a growing impatience as she shushes PR. “The announcer didn’t say anything. The Master is praying for the gathered faithful, the first citizens of The New American Covenant. But he’s speaking directly to God, so we can’t hear him.”

PR hears the words again--“We can’t let people like Delacruz get the last word”--this time certain the voice is in his head. “The tattoo artist. Was he some kind of divine messenger? Is that why he was here today?”

When Delacruz finally issues the invitation to all those who would repent of their sins and be baptized, PR is the first one on stage, heading directly toward the not-quite-angelic creature with his arms extended and tears streaking his cheeks.

Seeing a priceless opportunity for wringing a little more devotion from the crowd, Delacruz calls out, “Every one of you stop where you are and return to your seats. I want only this young man with me on stage, because I know he is here on a divine mission.”

Unsure what is happening, PR also stops, but Delacruz motions him forward.

“Come here, my child. Tell me what God has placed on your heart tonight.”

Not waiting for PR’s answer, Delacruz launches into a graphic, generic, and mostly fictitious account of PR’s “fallen and wasted life,” adding that by the miracle of God’s grace and his own efficacy in proclaiming the gospel, “this young child of God has decided to forsake his evil ways, confess his sins, and be baptized in the name of Jesus.”

Catching sight of PR’s tattoo and undeterred by not knowing what it means, Delacruz tells the audience that PR has a worthless outward display of faith inscribed on his skin that needs to be “as the prophet Ezekiel spoke, ‘written on the flesh of his heart.’”

Telling PR to kneel right there “in the middle of this stage” and laying his hands on PR’s head, Delacruz begins to pray loudly, asking God to hear the confession of “this young man’s sins” (ignoring the inconvenient detail that PR--whose name he still doesn’t know--hasn’t actually made any confession) and “in the words of the prophet Isaiah, create a clean heart in him.”

On a pre-arranged signal, a trapdoor opens in the stage and a clear baptismal pool rises up into sight. Leading PR by the hand to the pool and pausing only to take off his slippers, Delacruz guides PR up the steps then down into the water. But as he is positioning himself to be able to immerse PR into the water, a gunshot rings out. A second follows just moments later. Both bodies collapse into the water as bright red blossoms appear through the clear sides of the pool.

 

PR successfully kills himself with the second shot, but the awkward position of having his back turned toward Delacruz causes the first shot to go awry. It enters the not-quite-angelic neck from one side on an upward trajectory and exits through the ball and socket of the temporomandibular joint on the other, destroying his larynx on the way. In the hospital Delacruz will learn that the injury has left his face permanently slack jawed and his most precious instrument reduced to inarticulate guttural noises, more like belching than recognizable words.

 

New American Covenant, Inc. files for bankruptcy, and his once-adoring flock sets about finding a new shepherd, knowing in their hearts they will need to be shorn again before too long.

 

 

The End

Comment Log in or Join Tablo to comment on this chapter...

©2018 Keith A. Jenkins

All Rights Reserved.

This story or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Comment Log in or Join Tablo to comment on this chapter...
~

You might like Keith A. Jenkins's other books...