I open my eyes to a white-flocked ceiling slowly coming into focus. I blink in the dim light of the room. A young man—Slope?—sounds insistent in the other room through the partially-closed door.
“No, this was a contractual obligation,” he’s saying. “Look. I know Pastor Glen needs the extra preparation. I heard him preach. But I wouldn’t need to talk with him if you’d just pay me what you owe.”
A notebook sits on the nightstand next to me. The digital clock reads 9:14. I run a hand through my hair, sit up. My mouth has been blow-dried. Rub my face. A headache twinges at my temples, not throbbing but persistent.
“Fine. But I will keep calling.” I hear him slam the phone on the table.
It’s warm in here. I find jeans on the floor and pull them on. A t-shirt across the back the bed, I pull it over my head. There are 2 aspirin left in the bottle on my dresser. I pop them and swallow.
In the front room, Slope is sitting in a gray recliner watching TV. His hair is a mess and his pink t-shirt reads “Happy Jesus Milkshake” in bubble font.
Normally I’d just be finishing up with devotions at EOI by now. I’m not sure what’s going on back at the ministry and I don’t care. The thought is freeing and whatever repercussions I was worried about seem so far away now after the relief that’s taken the place of the fear. And what exactly am I doing now with my life? I can’t seem to remember.
I catch a whiff of coffee and something else—old motor oil? And whiskey? “Slope,” I say. “Did you sleep here again?” He’s been doing this since we worked at EOI together to avoid the commute, and since his mom moved back to south Denver. Why he’s still showing up here, I can’t say. He could visit churches up there. But we’re both creatures of habit, I suppose.
“I’ve been trying to get Rocky Mountain Covenant to pay me for a week,” he says, snapping his cell phone closed. “Man, remind me never to be rude to bill collectors again. Their job sucks.” He’s watching a nature show on mute. He cycles through the channels as I stumble past him into the kitchen to find caffeine. An empty box of coffee pouches sits on the counter next to a few dirty dishes. I pour coffee into a white mug from the cupboard. It looks thin.
“Did you use up all these coffee bags?”
“Coffee bags.” He stretches and smacks his lips. “Yeah, those are gone. Might want to steal some more before you quit the ministry.”
I pause. “I quit the ministry.” Charity’s sad face stares at me through the big window in my mind.
He gawks at me. “And you didn’t even tell me?”
I point at him. “You wanted to poison the executives!”
“I was just kidding!” He shoots up from the chair. “I can’t believe you finally did it! Congratu-freaking-lations, my friend!” He comes over and gives me a tight hug.
I pat his back and say thanks. I do feel relieved to have gotten away, but now I have no purpose—and the thin connection to my late parents and sister feels all the more faded. We return to the living room and look down at whatever he’s been watching on TV.
“I wonder if it’s true we only use ten percent of our brains,” he says, gesturing toward the television. “How much you think that guy’s running on?”
A big-haired pastor strains on TV, hands up in prayer. His shellacked hair shines like it’s fresh from the Play-Doh mold my sister used to play with. “What’s that smell?” I ask.
“Oh. That’s my clothes.” He motions to the stained shirt and shiny black pants on the futon.
“Why do they smell…like booze?”
“I’ve got to be a convincing drunk homeless gay man for church evaluations, don’t I?”
I blink at him. “I’ve got no idea what you just said.” I head back to the kitchen and find a plastic grocery bag under the sink.
“Hey, you’re jobless now,” he calls. “You should come.”
“You said you’d come check it out. I’m gonna score today. Big seminar. Bunch of pastors gonna be there.”
I toss the bag at him. “That’s your disguise?”
“Exactly. With this get-up”—he picks up the shirt and shoves it in—“I’ll have no trouble assuring them I’m a bum.”
I shake my head. “Not sure anyone doubted that.”
He gives a fake laugh.
“So what if you can’t convince them?”
“Won’t happen. If you go with me.”
I close my eyes. “No.”
He growls. “Come on. At least give me a ride. My truck’s still in the shop.”
I roll my eyes and look back at the TV.
“Trust me. Just come.” He aims the remote and the image disappears. “This will totally change your perspective on ministry work.”
I spot my shoes on the floor and pick them up. “You always have the answer. I was hoping you’d find my perspective.”
He fixes me with a glare. “Come on.”
“You ever notice how you’re always trying to get me to do something crazy?”
“It’s my spiritual gift. So, where’d you go yesterday after you left?”
“Nice—how was real life? I knew you’d quit.”
I take a sip from the mug. “You were right again. But I told you I was never staying.”
“Yeah, only five years.” He checks the time on his phone and slaps his knees. “Let’s go.”
“There’s no point.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You can’t change people who don’t want to change.”
He chuckles. “Such sweet innocence. Who said anything about changing them?” He takes my mug and sets it down on the coffee table. “Lesson number one: real life does not have to involve saving the world.” He snatches the clothes off the couch, dumps them in the bag. “Jesus already did that, remember?”
I’m driving past the ministry building on Shepherd Street.
“Take a right up there,” Slope says.
I follow where he’s looking. “Wait—by any chance, are you planning to crash the pot luck fundraiser at—”
“Major Butt-Numb. Biggest mega-church in the state. Told you it was a big score.”
Majestus Pactum is one of the biggest churches in the country. I know this from speaking at donor events for Evangelical Outreach. I know everyone on the pastoral staff. Majestus Pactum is amongst the biggest donors of my old employer, EOI. “I was just here last week,” I say, trying not to think back to the uncomfortable meeting. “Ever notice how you’re constantly getting me to do crazy things?”
He smacks the Jesus bobble-head on the dash, a gift from my sister in London. “If this pays off like I think it will, the rent is as good as paid.”
“I told you, you don’t have to worry about—”
“I know.” He pauses, eying me. “But with your help, they’d definitely give us a shot.”
“Your truck isn’t really in the shop, is it?”
“Of course it is.”
“Look, I’m honored by your deceptive ploy,” I say, pulling into the massive parking lot. “But I’m retired. And I definitely don’t do smelly disguises.”
“No need. Just lend me your credence for a couple hours.”
“Why do you do this? Seriously.” I steer us toward a cluster of cars parked next to an event area left of the giant stucco building. I shake off a case of the heebies seeing people milling around a few booths under a giant white tent.
“Visitors section,” he says, pointing. “Wow. Look how welcoming. Visitors’ parking! They’re scoring points already.”
I pull to a stop and he reaches back for the bag.
“Good luck,” I say. “I’ll see you later.”
“What, busy day today?”
I sigh. “The thought of staying here?” I hold out my bare arm. “Literally cold sweat.”
He slaps my stomach, softer for all the beer. “You like baked beans.”
He gets out and adjusts his belt. The enormous neon church sign shines over his right shoulder like a Vegas billboard.
I let my head drop back to the headrest. “It’s too soon. Bob’s gonna be here.”
“M-kay.” He closes the door and leans through the open window. “I think you’re missing the deeper beauty here. Don’t you want a chance to turn the tables? Judge them for a change?”
He straightens and nods, looking down at the bag. “You want to know why I do this. Come see. This is what we were made to do.”
“Are you high?” I glance over at the mass of people. “That’s so depressing.”
“Hey, man. I’m glad you quit.” He hefts the bag over his shoulder and scans the crowd. “But you can’t quit life.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We were born Evangelical, bro.” He turns to face the big tent. “We can’t give up our ministry. This is us.”
I watch him walk away, wondering if he really believes that, and thinking back to the day I received the employee handbook at the start of the week-long orientation meeting. We sat with 13 other fresh-scrubbed recruits around burgundy-covered folding tables. The entire program was well orchestrated, even inspiring, culminating in a welcome video from the founder, Dr. Marcus Lane.
For indoctrination, it was impressively convincing, obviously designed for creating devoted employees. I was already well inoculated from my years of Christian school and three weekly church services. But I could see some people viewed this as their ticket to Christian utopia and the reward of the Lord.
When the lights came back on, the presenter waited at the exit with books, his huge fake smile and big gleaming teeth. He thanked everyone and said something about going out and fulfilling our call. I was one of the first to exit. He shook my hand, curling his palm away so I’d grip only his fingers.
He grinned at me. “Glad to have you on board, Zeke,” he said, seeming so less-than genuine.
I smiled, figuring someone had made sure he knew my name. Maybe he was genuinely glad, but I couldn’t share his enthusiasm. I was here because the founder wanted me to speak at donor events about the impact the ministry had on my family before a sleepy truck driver killed them all and spared me. I was supposed to talk about how Evangelical Outreach International was my foundation for my faith before and after the freeway inferno, and one of the reasons I lived was to share that with the world.
That was my mission, to show God brings good even from such tragedy. And I agreed because it seemed selfish not to.
I pull away and in the rearview, catch at the crowd gathering around the tent.
Something’s happening. The parking lot is growing fuzzy.
Stop, a voice in my head says. You have nowhere to go.
Suddenly, I hit the brakes and the car screeches to a stop. My arms are locked against the steering wheel and my vision begins to grow dark and I shake my head and blink.
My mouth goes dry. The trees and sky are wavy. The little flashing lights at the corners of my vision are getting brighter, and something like a massive dread overpowers me.
I don’t know if I’ve heard the voice exactly right, but I won’t stay and make sure. And my heart is trying to break out of my chest. I fight against the tingling sensation in my neck and ringing in my ears.
I focus on breathing, on the scene out the windshield, but the constriction in my throat is still there and the panic is rising, louder and louder like a feedback loop. I gasp and my heart seems to stop for a moment. My mouth strains to open wider. I can’t get enough air. I blink furiously to clear off the hazy blackness, sucking big gulps of air and trying to keep my arms and legs still. After a few seconds, the dizziness passes and my eyes readjust. I look in the rearview again at the people standing around under the tents behind me.
Just calm down, I think. Everything will be fine.
I’ve had these panic attacks before, less frequently in recent years. Slowly, the world comes back into focus. The grip on my heart releases. The ringing dies down. But the sense of aimlessness and deep aloneness is still lodged like a knife in my chest, chilly against my fast-beating heart. I take a deep breath and check my hand—only shaking slightly now—and begin to slowly pull out of the parking lot.
A deafening motorcycle thunders by on my left, headed toward the street, and I suddenly veer into a parking spot and turn off the engine. I pull out the keys and lean my head back. A few patchy clouds hover in the blue sky. I watch them drift and build for a while.
I open the car door and get out, standing in a sea of blacktop facing the crowd.
Guess I’m staying.