Driving west on Highway 50, travelers are often surprised by how unremarkable the landscape of the Gunnison River valley is. The mountains that flank the road on either side are neither tall nor especially beautiful, and basically treeless. A harsh, nearly desolate stretch of land frowns at the traveler until the appearance of the Blue Mesa Reservoir on the left begins to soften the view. Soon the character of the land changes. More vegetation clings to the mountain slopes, which are lower and rounder—almost hills in places. The influence of the water, no doubt. Once the reservoir has been left behind, the green begins to fade again, as quickly as it had appeared. Scrubby brush covers the river valley floor now, but the mountains are mostly dirt once more.
In mute witness to who-knows-how-many-thousands of passersby, an unassuming wooden sign indicates where to turn north onto State Highway 347: “Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.” First-time visitors begin to worry they have fallen prey to some cruel joke perpetrated by generations of family, friends, and fellow tourists, all sworn to secrecy, all longing for each new gullible traveler to experience the same crushing disappointment they did at discovering Gunnison’s guilty little secret. “Surely this can’t be right,” they mutter to themselves. “Smaller but more breath-taking than the Grand Canyon, they said.” Meanwhile, climbing almost imperceptibly, the long, loose curves lead on, more like a county road meandering across Central Texas than the entrance to a national park.
Suddenly, travelers are greeted by an incongruous sight—flat, lush green, cultivated fields watered by giant irrigation sprinklers. Just as suddenly, rows of tree-covered hills reappear, the fields ending as abruptly as they had popped into existence moments before. All the while, the slow wandering ascent continues, even more gradually if that were possible. Drivers sense they are nearing the top, but of what they aren’t sure. Plains covered with short, dense brush reach in every direction. A small wooden kiosk stands in the middle of the road, marking the official “South Rim” park entrance, but still no canyon in sight. “Rim of what?” drivers muse, now committed to seeing the ruse through to the end, if for no other reason than so they can join the initiated and, hopefully, pay the trick forward on future generations. A sign indicating an elevation of 8400 feet—meaning the driver has somehow climbed 1800 feet since leaving Highway 50—completes the illusion. “No detail overlooked,” the now-savvy traveler notes.
The entrance road intersects “South Rim Drive,” with signs pointing out alluring destinations in either direction, but since the majority of them seem to lie to the west, drivers usually turn left, compelled now by a kind of madness. Nothing else matters but seeing the promised but elusive canyon. At the first parking area, for Tomichi Point Overlook, drivers finally learn that they have not been deceived. At their feet lies an incomparable work of Nature that, as they will learn just down the road at the Visitors Center, can boast “the greatest combination of depth, steepness, and narrowness of any canyon in North America.” So steep, in fact, that parts of the canyon floor see less than thirty minutes of direct sunlight per day—hence the name.
* * *
On a particular Friday in late August of 2013, a tourist by the name of Major Porter followed this very same path from Gunnison and found himself at the Visitors Center in the late morning. The day was particular because it was Major’s 60th birthday, and he was spending it alone, away from his family back in Texas. To treat himself and ward off loneliness, he had decided to visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a dream he had harbored for more than forty years. The dream was born while he was in college, in the living room of a family who had “adopted” him for the summer while he did youth work at their church. Glutted on King Ranch Chicken and endless glasses of sweet iced tea, he sat on their gaudy floral sofa watching an interminable slideshow of their family vacation to the canyon the previous summer. Having yet to see anything spectacular in his nineteen years on Earth, Major drank in the images that flashed across the screen. Off and on through the succeeding years, he had recalled those images, promising himself he would witness them in person someday. And on this particular day, on the drive from Gunnison, the images were as fresh in his mind as they had been forty years earlier, when they first beckoned to him from their celluloid prisons.
In spite of the elevation, the air was already growing warm as a hostile sun stared down from a fiercely blue late summer sky. Major was already regretting his decision to wear blue jeans instead of shorts this morning. On the sidewalk in front of the Visitors Center, a uniformed man stood beside a telescope, so Major walked toward him after parking his truck.
“Would you like to look?” the man asked.
“What will I see?” Major asked.
“Solar flares. We’re in a period of high activity right now, and the telescope is equipped with a special filter that blocks most of the light coming from the photosphere so the edge of the disc is more visible. You can see a really good flare right now in the lower right quadrant.”
Major closed one eye and peered into the telescope. At first, he saw little more than a well of darkness at the bottom of which danced a flash of reddish-orange color. Gradually, the flash resolved into an image, and eventually, the image stood still. It was the Sun, but someone had hooked up a dimmer switch to it and turned it most of the way down.
“I can see the sun!” Major blurted out.
“Yes, you can,” the volunteer said.
“I mean, I’m actually looking at the Sun. Not like when I was a kid, and we’d try to look at it but had to turn away after a second or two with a searing pain behind our eyes. I’m really looking at the real Sun!”
Major was so excited, he didn’t notice the small crowd that had gathered around the telescope in response to his cries of childlike joy.
“Now, hold your head as still as you can and look toward the lower right-hand part of the disc,” the volunteer said in a patient, almost parental voice. “Do you see what looks like a bright orange fountain shooting away from the surface?”
“Yes, yes, I can see it!” Major exclaimed.
“That’s a solar flare.”
“Wow. Wait a minute. How big is that thing?”
“There was a massive flare about this time last year that was seven times the size of the Earth,” the volunteer offered. “This one isn’t nearly that big, but it is reaching thousands of miles beyond the corona.”
The volunteer knew there were others in line, eager to look through the telescope, but Major’s enjoyment was so obvious, he was reluctant to end it. After another moment, Major stepped away from the telescope on his own and asked the volunteer a question:
“How did you get this job? I’m about to retire, and doing something like this would be a dream come true.”
“There’s a website that tells all about the Senior Volunteer Program and its requirements. You apply, tell them what your interests and skills are, then wait to hear back from them. I’m a retired high school science teacher and amateur astronomer. I wanted to start years ago, but their summer season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day, so I could never make it fit the school year. But as soon as I retired, my wife and I signed up, and here I am.”
“Does your wife volunteer too?”
“Not in the park, but she’s involved in stuff several days a week in Montrose.”
“That’s great. My wife has trouble with altitude. That’s why I’m here by myself . . . on my birthday.”
“Today’s your birthday?”
“Yep. Sixty years old today.”
“Well, Happy Birthday, Mr……”
“Porter. Major Porter. Given name, not rank. Thank you, Mr. Stevens. It’s on your name tag. Seeing that solar flare was a gift I’ll never forget! Now, what do you recommend for seeing the canyon at its best?”
“Just follow the rim road west and stop at every viewpoint. Each one has its own wonder to reveal. And if you have time before you leave, be sure you go all the way to the east as well. You can drive down to the river level and see the dam.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Major shook Mr. Stevens’ hand and walked back to his truck. Just before he got in, he remembered he had promised his wife to get something stamped with the official seal for this national park. She collects them in a little blue souvenir book modeled after a U.S. Passport, along with other mementos of each visit—even if she doesn’t go. As long as either one of them makes the trip, it counts and goes in the passport.
Major found the stamps and ink pad right beside the cashier’s counter in the gift shop, but he didn’t have anything to stamp. So he bought a couple of postcards, stamped one of them with the “Black Canyon of the Gunnison” seal, and addressed it to his wife. The message said only, “I finally made it! Love, Major.” It’s Wednesday, he thought, so this should reach her before I get back home. But I don’t have a stamp.
“Do you sell postage stamps?” he asked the cashier.
“No, sorry, we don’t. And that box gets picked up only once a week anyway, on Wednesdays, but the truck has been here already this morning. You’d do better to mail it in Gunnison or Montrose, depending on which way you’re heading when you leave.”
“If it’s as beautiful as they say, you may never want to leave,” said a voice from behind Major.
He turned his head to see a peculiar-looking man standing at one of the display tables off to the right of him. And next to the man was another figure, with the body of a young man but the face of a child.
“That good, is it?” Major replied, mostly not to seem rude by ignoring the stranger.
“It will set you free,” said the man, followed by what sounded like part high-pitched giggle and part low, groaning croak from the man-child, “Set you free!”
Major turned back to the cashier, who rolled her eyes, as if to say, “Yeah, we get all kinds in here.” Major thanked her for her help, tucked the unstamped postcard in the back pocket of his jeans, and turned to leave. Just as he reached the door, he turned again to look for the two strangers who had spoken to him, but they were gone. In their place were a perfectly ordinary-looking, middle-aged man thumbing through a guidebook and a typically dull-faced and disinterested teenager standing inert next to him. Just a father and son on vacation together, nothing more. But, as Major turned his head away and stepped out the door, the man looked up and smiled, placing a hand on the boy’s arm.
Major headed for the parking lot, giving the telescope man and the large crowd he had now drawn a wide berth as he passed. Back at the truck, he took a few minutes to unfold the park guide map and check the location of all the viewpoints, then pulled out of the parking lot and headed west.
As Major was walking from the parking area to the first overlook, he saw the middle-aged man and teenage boy from the gift shop on the pathway heading toward him. Puzzled by how they had gotten there ahead of him, he determined to walk by them with neither a glance nor a word. But when they were still about 50 yards apart, the boy croaked out something that sounded like, “Go back!”
Continuing toward him, the man called out, “The overlook is closed. Police tape. Crime scene.”
At that point, Major’s curiosity won out over his determination, so he stopped and waited for the pair to reach him and then repeated the man’s final words as a question, “Crime scene?”
“Somebody jumped,” croaked the boy.
“What!” cried Major. “Someone committed suicide?”
“That’s what the police say,” the man offered calmly. “Not a frequent occurrence, but it has happened before. The Park Service tries to keep it out of the news. Bad for business.”
“Thought he could fly,” croaked the boy, this time with the giggle at the end.
“That’s enough, Wash. You’ll upset Mr. Porter.” The man spoke to the boy slowly and evenly, putting the same emphasis on each word. More like a nurse or a therapist calming down a mental patient than like a father correcting his son. “We don’t want to spoil Mr. Porter’s birthday.”
“How do you know my name? And how do you know it’s my birthday?” Major blurted out with a start.
“Heard you speaking with the Ranger. That’s all. Wash wanted to take a look in his telescope, so we were in line behind you. Nothing odd or mysterious.”
“And how did you get here before me?” Major insisted, his voice still edgy, but calmer now. “You were still in the gift shop when I left.”
“So you were spying on us too, it seems,” the man returned, with an unsettling smile that restricted itself to his eyes, never approaching his mouth.
“I wasn’t spying on anybody! You just called so much attention to yourselves with what you said, of course I remember you. But you were the ones eavesdropping.” Any control Major had gained over his voice had abandoned him now.
“Was that us?” the man asked coyly. “Are you sure? Were we in the gift shop, Wash?”
“Gift shop,” the boy bleated. “Thought he could fly!”
“Hush, Wash. No, Mr. Porter, I don’t think you saw us in the gift shop at all. Maybe you mistook someone else for us. After all, Wash and I are so ordinary looking, we often remind folks of someone else.”
“Maybe that’s it,” Major said, more to himself than out loud. “That’s the only way this all makes sense.”
“So, we’ll see you later, then, Mr. Porter,” the man called back as he and the boy walked away.
Major tried to remember the faces from the gift shop, but they all ran together. Was it two different fathers and sons he had seen, one peculiar to an unsettling degree, like something sinister and barely human, and the other too ordinary to recall? Or were they the same? Could seeing them from opposite sides account for such a marked difference in appearance? And was either of them the same as this pair with him on the overlook footpath now?
Starting suddenly awake from his reverie, Major saw that he was alone. Under the strong impression that he had been speaking with someone just moments earlier, he took stock of his surroundings. No one on the footpath. The only sound was muffled conversation coming from the direction of the overlook, beyond the yellow crime scene tape. Never having been especially susceptible to the effects of too much sun or altitude, he ruled out hallucination. And as far as he knew, he was mentally sound, so he ruled out delusion. What was left as a possible explanation, he demanded of himself, but came up empty. So, after deciding there were plenty of other overlooks, he headed back to his truck.
Sometime later, Major spotted the father and son again, at Devil’s Overlook. The father was in an animated conversation with a man about his same age, while the son was throwing rocks at the chipmunks and marmots skittering along the rocky edge of the canyon. Luckily for the wildlife, the boy’s aim was terrible, so Major decided to forego reprimanding him for his cruelty to these animals. While Major was still watching the marmots, the father, son, and the father’s conversation partner started up the path back to the parking area, this time taking no notice of him.
Major resolved to set the morning’s events behind him and make the most of this special birthday treat he had given himself. He had been waiting over 40 years to see these views in person, and he wasn’t going to let a couple of crackpots deter him.
At the Painted Wall viewpoint, he struggled to steel his nerve and walk closer to the guardrail, so he could take in a fuller view of the canyon.
“Howdy, Major!” the boy brayed, adding a mock salute.
“Don’t be rude, Wash. Never call a gentleman by his first name until he invites you to do so.”
“Sorry, Mr. Porter.”
It was the father and son again. Somehow, they had both sidled up beside Major without his even hearing them. Having shed their earlier companion, they looked at Major appraisingly, cocking their heads simultaneously but in opposite directions, evidently deciding to glom onto him, as the only body around.
“You must face your fears. You must move right to the edge and look over. Lean out far enough to see the entire cliff face all the way down to the bottom. Trust me, it will set you free.”
“I’m not afraid,” Major snapped back. “Just cautious.”
“Trust me,” the man confided. “I was a terrible acrophobic, just like you. It was so crippling, it destroyed my marriage. And I nearly lost my boy here.”
“You from Texas?” the boy brayed, having apparently exchanged his frog for a mule.
“How would you know that?”
“We’re also from Texas, but not the part you’re from,” answered the man, cutting off his son’s would-be response. “You have very little accent that I can detect. Just a smidge. You probably learned all your pronunciations from listening to national TV news anchors. They all have that perfect….ly insipid Midwestern non-accent. People should know where a man is from by listening to him speak. Now, Wash here has such an atrocious drawl. I tried to break him of it, but the more I beat him the worse it got. I guess that was his Mother’s revenge for the acrophobia. Anyway, where was I?
“Embracing my fears?”
“Oh yes. You must dangle your legs over the edge of the cliff or you will go home a bitter and unfulfilled man. And you wouldn’t want to feel that way on your birthday.”
Major was so overwhelmed by the torrent of words coming from his new acquaintance, he momentarily set aside that faint itchy feeling he always got just behind his eyes when something bothered him but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. Inspired by the testimony of a former-but-now-redeemed acrophobe, he climbed over the guard rail and stepped cautiously to a flat spot about five feet from the cliff’s edge. Sitting down, he began to scoot forward almost imperceptibly, until finally his heels reached the edge.
“Not close enough,” said the man. “Closer.”
“Closer,” echoed the boy in a corvidian caw.
Fighting his fear, Major kept scooting forward until the underside of his knees hugged the rough, dirty edge of the stone and his feet dangled over the side. Having done this without catastrophe, he relaxed just a bit and tried to slow down his breathing.
“That’s it. You’re doing great. Now, lean forward.”
Knowing that he could not simply lean forward, could not will his body to do so, Major placed his left hand on the rock behind him and bent sharply at the waist. He could see the top portion of the cliff face. The familiar sick weakness in his gut tried to overwhelm another, unfamiliar sensation—exhilaration.
“It won’t work unless you lean far enough to see all the way down the cliff face to the bottom. That’s what unleashes the magic. That’s what sets you free.”
Surprised by his own temerity, Major bent as far forward as possible, compressing his belly against the tops of his thighs. He struggled to keep the palm of the hand he had placed behind him flat on the rock surface, but it began to lift just a little. His butt was still in contact with the rock, but he could feel the pressure lessen slightly. Just as he was about to give up and resign himself to remain a prisoner of his fear, Major caught a glimpse of the bottom. The sight empowered him to compress his belly even more, making it possible for him to drop another inch in his bent-over position. Now, he held the place where the cliff face meets the rocks along the river bank in a steady gaze.
“I did it!” he cried out.
“Yes, you did,” said the man calmly and quietly. “Look Wash. Look what this 60-year-old man accomplished just by setting his mind to it and overcoming his fears.”
“I see it, Papa. It’s time to set him free, isn’t it?” asked the boy.
The father said something in reply, but Major couldn’t make it out clearly. He thought he felt a nudge on his back, then watched as the world turned upside down, then right-side up again. Disoriented, he instinctively shut his eyes, but opened them again after a few seconds when the toppling motion slowed. Observing dispassionately that the river at the bottom of the canyon, the Gunnison River, that had carved this unique wonder of Nature (for that’s truly what it was—he knew that now and smiled when he remembered the uninspiring drive to get here and the pitiful sign out by the highway) and given it its name, was much closer than it had been just moments earlier, he concluded that he was falling. He should have been terrified and screaming incoherently, but he wasn’t.
He was weightless, totally free from all encumbrances.
He was filled with an anticipation that trembled with joy.
He was totally alive.
He was flying.
And then he wasn’t.
* * *
Some hikers found his body on Sunday morning, floating in a spring-fed pool by the river’s edge. Clutched in his hand they found a crumpled postcard. The addressee was illegible, but the message was still faintly visible.
“I finally made it! Love, Major.”
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 aging televangelist who had been the guiding star of her young adult life. But she 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 there 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. “Right about here. That way he just pulls up his sleeve when he wants to show it. Good dramatic effect.”
“Then that’s where we’ll put them,” pronounced Bonnie. “That way everyone who sees them will know he has been sealed in Jesus and they’re wasting their time trying to hurt him.”
With that decision made, the ink artist put headphones on (to drown out PR’s screams), 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 and waved her arms over her head in wide arcs, her long red curls dancing back and forth, and shouted thanks to Jesus and God the Father right there on the tattoo parlor floor. When she finally ceased, the owner handed her a bill. She rose to her feet, extended her hand, told him God would bless him for his generosity, told PR to stop blubbering, and walked out of the shop, never looking back.
“Internationally famous evangelist Caruso Delacruz has just announced that he will be appearing at the Brown Convention Center at the end of this month for a special, two-nights-only crusade. The flamboyant preacher is rumored to be exploring a possible entry into politics. Locals in the know speculate that he might be looking at the upcoming mayoral race, which would explain his unplanned stop here in the city of his birth, but unnamed sources close to his organization hint that something much bigger is in the offing.
This is Eileen Barra reporting for Gulf Coast Network News.”
PR’s favorite bar had 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 attempt 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 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, baring unbrushed teeth.
“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 crunch 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 left eye.
But before either man can make another move toward the other, a loud blast shakes the bar and more smoke fills the already hazy room. Startled back to their senses, both men 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 face personally and pressed charges for battery, a Class A misdemeanor. On the advice of counsel, 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, lest he be subjected to some unpleasant initiation ritual as “fresh meat,” the designation assigned to him by the other residents as he is led to his cell. Despite his good intentions, though, he drifts off to sleep after only an hour or so, and dreams.
Standing on the edge of a numberless crowd, PR sees that everyone but him is gazing toward a raised stage at the front of an 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 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 each step he takes. As he nears the end of the aisle, the arena floor slants downward so steeply, he cannot 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 sweaty palms stick to them, PR climbs up toward the stage. Behind him, a lone, familiar voice fills the brief silent spaces in the mindless chant 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, a pom-pom accentuating her contrapuntal cheers. Despite the distance, PR recognizes it as the “prayer shawl” Pat Robertson sent her one year after she made a larger-than-usual year-end donation.
As he continues climbing, he hears a faint metallic clank each time he lurches up past an iron rung. Noticing for the first time a cold, unfamiliar weight pressing against his groin, PR turns slightly, left 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 knows this is his mother’s Beretta 92, the one an old boyfriend named Vinnie gave her years ago for self-defense. Swaying on the ladder, trying to ignore the waves of panic rolling over him, PR shoves the pistol back into his waistband as far as he can, till its grip is no longer visible.
A few rungs from the top, he peeps 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 abruptly stops, the final note echoing 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 a dozen identical dark suits and sunglasses, each with its left hand raised to its ear and its right hand reaching inside its suit jacket, and all looking directly at him. Before he can stand, though, a trumpet fanfare sounds from above, and the gold lamè slippers and the bare ankles protruding from those neatly turned cuffs 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 form a “duck tail” just above a powder blue collar. Bobby pins discreetly hold the wings in place and bushy black eyebrows jut out from between cold black eyes and the impeccable white mane. The blazer has been specially tailored to conceal a not inconsiderable middle-age paunch.
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 one 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 frisks 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.”
Early on a Saturday morning, 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 didn’t visit PR while he was incarcerated—she has “a thing about jails”—but as his emergency contact, she is the one they called to pick him up when he was released. A little after nine, the windowless steel door in an otherwise unbroken cinder block wall opens, and PR slouches out and slips into the passenger’s seat of the running car. 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, Mama? You leave me in there for two weeks and then you wanna know if I made any new friends?”
“I wanted to bail you out, honey, but you know I can’t afford that much money. Besides, I didn’t get my check till yesterday. But maybe it was good you had some time to think . . . you know . . . 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 wish you wouldn’t talk that way. Your Heavenly Father will never turn his back on you, but He does get 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. Head toward the airport. There should be some places out there.”
Mother and son drive on in silence. Realizing Bonnie is his only source of money, though, 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.
“I’m not 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.”
Thrilled by her son’s apparent desire to spread the gospel, Bonnie whispers a quick 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.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Bonnie replies, slowing almost to a stop before pulling into the parking lot. After several attempts, she gets the car into “Park,” then turns to face PR. In the morning light, he sees the losing battle her once-fiery hair is waging against the ashes of age and feels a twinge of sadness. But only for a moment.
“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.”
PR opens the car door and slides out, confident the seed he planted is already taking 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.”
“This’ll do,” PR assures her as he snatches a hundred 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 attests, the place is empty. No customers, no dancers on stage, no music. Just a lone bartender, head down, staring at his phone.
PR plops down on a stool and lays the 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 snarls at PR, “I’ll knock a dollar off each shot if you’ll pour them yourself and leave me alone.”
“Deal. But what if I pour some long?”
“I figure you’ll finish off that whole bottle, so pour them 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, if this bar is self-service, should I strip and do my own dancing?”
“Name’s not Mack, and if you keep up the chatter you can forget about the discount.”
When PR has finished the bottle, “Mack” is ready to get rid of him. He offers to call him a cab, but PR declines, having nowhere in particular to go. But he does ask for a large coffee, on the house, and wobbles out the door.
“Super Star Evangelist and possible future political candidate Caruso Delacruz opens his crusade today at the Brown Convention Center with a free lunch for everyone who attends the afternoon ‘early bird’ session and free parking for the Grand Gala tonight. On a related note, the Mayor’s Office has just issued a statement asking the public not to let concerns about crowds or traffic deter them from patronizing the many restaurants, bars, and sport venues in downtown and the surrounding area. ‘Let’s make it business as usual for the next few days and stay focused on what really makes our city great.’
This is Eileen Barra reporting for Gulf Coast Network News.”
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 a classic MMA defensive position. When she realizes her assailant is no more than a hapless young barfly, she switches to offense.
“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 you can be reborn today.”
Caught off guard, PR takes several moments marshaling his reluctant powers of concentration. Standing up almost straight, he manages a passable imitation of facing the young woman squarely. Fixing her with a stare that isn’t half as withering as he believes it to be, he 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. I can’t be lost, unless Jesus and God renege on their end of the bargain, and that ain’t gonna happen. 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 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 gasping and sobbing.
“For years I have prayed that God would send me a hero, a strong pillar to lean on when my own faith falters. And now, in the fullness of His time and in this unlikeliest of places, God has answered my prayers by sending me a godly husband. 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 volubility and stunned by her 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 together.”
“Ok. Sure. What about you? You got a name, I suppose.”
“It’s Caterina. Caterina Caruso.”
Something about her name triggers an itch in PR’s brain, but struck by how attractive she is, he ignores it and decides to put out a little effort.
“If she wants to play house, I might end up on the receiving end of some connubial corking.”
“So, do you live around here, Cate? You don’t mind if I call you Cate, do you?”
“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?”
“No, 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.
Caterina speaks as if testifying, rather than just answering a simple question. “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 today and tomorrow.”
“Wait a minute!” PR draws in a breath so sharply he chokes. “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,” he lies. “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’s afternoon session 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.”
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 Saturday, 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 mumbles, 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 last one of them.”
“So, I got a question, Cate. It’s kind of a coincidence you being a Caruso and this preacher you like so much being a Caruso too, isn’t it?”
“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 our family name to Delacruz to appeal more to Hispanics. But he kept Caruso as his given name because he liked the way it sounds.”
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 extra for you when I get back,” she purrs as she tosses him the keys, laughing.
“Yes, Ma’am. I will treat it like it belongs to The Master himself.”
A passing thought that this young man might be related to Caruso Delacruz assaults PR. “Maybe a nephew or a bastard son. That would make him what to Cate? Some kind of cousin? Gross!” But he shakes it off as simply too unlikely and shoots a glare 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 one of the guards sees Caterina, he simply waves her through the turnstile. She points back toward PR—shuffling along, hands in his pockets, and still thirty feet behind, determined not to hurry after a teenage 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 . . .”
“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 crusade. 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
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 younger, but Daddy said it was better I didn’t know, and he 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 afford. 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 talk about The New American Covenant today.”
“What’s that? Your uncle’s fan club or something?”
“Silly boy. I’m serious. It’s the heart of the message God has told The Master to deliver. He wants America to be transformed and finally become what it was intended to be—a Christian Nation.”
“Christian nation? Shit. I don’t like the sound of . . . .”
Caterina cuts him off by launching into what is clearly a memorized recitation: “This has been God’s plan all along. 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!”
“Wait, what was that part about laws and Christian principles?” PR swallows hard as a single bead of sweat rolls down the small of his back then scoots between his butt cheeks.
Sounding like PR’s seventh grade English teacher when “peeved” at students who couldn’t understand diagramming sentences after one “perfectly clear” explanation, Caterina recites the catechism once more, more slowly this time and in expanded form.
“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 propagates throughout the crowd. More felt than heard, three beats, repeated, then three more beats, also repeated, 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, a wave of déjà vu crashing 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 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! I gotta get outta here, but how?”
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 during only 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 joining you, 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 the seat you would occupy and what you would wear—tell you exactly what he is calling 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), cheering, shouting praises, and weeping 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 hand and make me 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 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 dumbfounded by what he has just heard. 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 knows where kissing will lead.”
“I can tell you where it will lead, but I don’t want to spoil the 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 do will ever damn him, and they all erupt as a clenched fist intent on revenge. With each new blow, Caterina morphs in succession into his mother, 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 her pistol, which he shoves into his waistband. Moving to her closet, on the top shelf he finds a shoe box containing some old letters. 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. 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 certainly not a 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, 1994. 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 over the course of the next hour and passes out on the sofa.
PR dreams of the crusade again, but this time he is seated in the front row, just as he had been with Caterina. 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 shots being fired, but again nothing happens. When he hears the sounds a third time but wasn’t pulling the trigger, 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, would you, or how her car ended up just a few blocks from here?”
“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. We met downtown. You say she was attacked?”
“Yeah,” mumbles the man 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 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 coax his brain back into sobriety, PR closes his eyes and rubs his right temple while sliding by the intruder 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 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.
Having left the change from his mother’s C-note on the dresser at home, he searches in his pockets for spare change. Supplementing it with a few coins retrieved from the gutter, he catches a bus downtown and gets off at the Convention Center, the marquis announcing a free lunch for all “seekers” sponsored by The New American Covenant Crusade. Flat broke and having eaten nothing 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, but they don’t even break stride. A ragged 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 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.”
“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. Means 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, it was also 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?”
“Your Mom still around?”
“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?”
“Undercover 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.
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,” he reasons.
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. Taking the portable parts of the free lunch and wrapping them in a napkin, he 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 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 should go to the Cathedral.”
“Cathedral? Where’s that?”
“Sacred Heart. Just go 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, hoping his lies don’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’re 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 exactly 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, 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 himself from Daddy 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.”
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.
“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”—certain this time 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, but it 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 launches into a loud prayer, 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. As both bodies collapse into the water, bright red blossoms can be seen through the clear sides of the pool.
BREAKING NEWS . . . BREAKING NEWS . . . BREAKING NEWS
“Attendees at tonight’s crusade were shocked when a young man in the process of being baptized shot well-known evangelist Caruso Delacruz then killed himself. Hospital sources report that the first shot entered Delacruz’s neck on an upward trajectory and exited through his temporomandibular joint on the other side. Police have identified the shooter as P. R. Freeman. Records indicate he was granted early release from the Harris County Jail just days ago. Jail officials declined to comment.
This is Eileen Barra reporting for Gulf Coast Network News.”
UPDATE . . . UPDATE . . . UPDATE . . . UPDATE . . . UPDATE
“Unnamed sources at the medical center report that the injuries world-famous evangelist Caruso Delacruz suffered when shot at his crusade have left his face permanently paralyzed. Family members who wish to remain anonymous report that he is unable to speak intelligibly.
This is Eileen Barra reporting for Gulf Coast Network News.”
UPDATE . . . UPDATE . . . UPDATE . . . UPDATE . . . UPDATE
“This just in. New American Covenant, Inc. has filed for bankruptcy. Board members could not be reached for comment.”
This is Eileen Barra reporting for Gulf Coast Network News.”