Smiling people mill about under a big white tent on tramped-down grass. The mother ship church building looms to the right. The first time I saw it, its gleaming domed roof, I thought it was a sports arena. Spiky junipers line the hillside behind it, waving in the breeze.
I cross the black sea of pavement. The buzz of chatter increases with each step. A line of church members snakes to the serving tables. Men in golf shirts and Dockers and women in long skirts and dresses. I shove my hands in my pockets. I’m already getting looks.
A few older women stand behind the tables ladling steaming food out of crock pots onto people’s white paper plates.
Slope is in the line, his back to me, talking loudly to a group I take to be the pastors. “I don’t know,” he says, “I guess I’ve just always felt like God would do some huge things through this church.” His game-show-host charade I’ve witnessed far too often.
The senior pastor’s wearing a name badge that reads “CGO.” I make mental note not to ask.
Slope suddenly turns and spots me. “Zeke.” He holds out his hand. “You know Pastor Hank.”
I shake the big man’s hand, wondering again what I’m doing here, and working hard to keep his smarmy grin off my face. It takes some doing, but I manage.
“How are you,” he says, not really asking.
“I’ve been better,” I say and Slope scowls. I’m not helping his pitch.
“Hank,” Slope puts an arm around his shoulder to turn him away from me. “What’s a good time to hear more about what my wellness assessment can do?”
Little folded signs sit in front of each crock pot: Magdalene’s Mutton, Good Shepherd’s Pie, Israelite’s Stew. A church this size supports a lot of creative ministries and nonprofits, like the local Creations Café and Catering, aka “the ladies of ladles.” My old employer, Evangelical Outreach International is one of those ministries. We never had themed potlucks at EOI, but the similarities between the two organizations are pretty annoying. Both care deeply about evangelizing the entire world, and about gaining political advantages in Washington. Unfortunately, both are hampered by the general tone-deafness of Evangelicals.
Slope returns to my side. “Hey, do you know a Dr. Modoc?” he asks. He glances behind us.
“No. Look—” I’m about to ask him if we can go somewhere and talk, finally admit my embarrassing sensitivity, which I think may stem from some unresolved anxiety or PTSD from the wreck, and which warm summer days like this tend to bring back strongly, but he cuts me off.
“He wanted to talk but I’m eating with the pastors. He’s a professor at our dear old alma mater. Tall, big head. Mess of curly hair. Can’t miss him.” He turns to a gray-haired lady serving “Philistine Franks & Beans” and hands her his plate. “Oh yeah. Keep those little babies coming. Great. Little gravy? Ooo—that’s nice.”
I look around and consider escaping again when I see a tall man with a silver cane limping toward me. “Zeke,” he says. He hooks his cane on the arm holding his plate and holds out his hand. I take it. Firm grip.
He grimaces, “Pleasure,” and nods at Slope. “Always glad to meet a fellow Fallbrookian. What year were you?”
“Ah, just missed you,” he says, nodding. “I started the following semester.”
He does have a big head.
“Listen, I’ve got a sort of proposition for you both, and I’m aware it can be a tough sell.”
Slope throws me a glance as a sudden gust sucks the warmth from my shirt and sends a tumbleweed rolling under the table in front of us.
I raise my eyebrows. “Like a job? I’m not really looking for work.” With Christians, I think. Slope wanders off again. “But I can listen. If you want to grab a seat. What do you teach?”
He hooks his cane on his arm and hands me a plate. “Applied psychology, actually.” He waves his free arm. “But we focus on theology, of course.”
Modoc chuckles. “I came to them with the idea years ago and they didn’t know what to do with me. They finally agreed to give me an elective, but now I’m hoping the program will convince them to mainstream it.” He turns and winks at the server, handing him his plate.
“The program?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah. A scientific therapy. At Fallbrooke, if you can believe it.” He grins like he knows the real question behind my question. “I guess I like a good challenge.”
Modoc shields his plate from the next woman. “Sorry. Israelites give me gas.” He turns to me, “Can’t be too careful.”
I smile. “Not sure that best represents our savior’s heritage.”
He laughs again, a free, hold-nothing-back laugh. Something about him seems familiar. He quick-scans the rest of the offerings and steps back.
The big woman in a blue dress plops a greasy ladle of stewed meat on my plate. We make our way through the row of pots until there’s no room left on our plates.
“Let’s grab a bench,” Modoc says. I look around and nod toward one outside the tent, furthest from the crowd, near the red Dumpsters. “Get you a drink?” he asks.
Big orange Thermos jugs sit on a table at the far side of the tent. “Sure,” I say.
I offer to take his plate and he hops off to the crowded drink station. I head toward the bench, watching people talk, eat, nod, and smile at each other.
I scan the crowd. Slope is sitting with all the pastors at a picnic bench under the tent. They’re all laughing at some joke Slope’s made.
“So you quit EOI.” I look up to see Modoc walking up with two red plastic cups full of something light brown. He hands me one, picks up his plate, and sits. “Did it have anything to do with all this…” he waves his hand. “…church business?”
I ponder this. “I guess so.”
He lets a forkful of stewed beef plop on a pile of chicken wings. “I think pot lucks were basically designed to give people freedom to eat a lot of greasy crap.”
I look over at him, chewing. “You know, I can’t imagine Jesus eating some of these.”
He smiles and takes a bite of coleslaw. “I read your blog.”
“Really.” I stare at him. “My blog.” I make a face. “Why?”
He considers. “I like your honesty. You’re a searcher.”
I can’t tell if he’s truly admiring or trying to win me over. But whichever, I’m embarrassed and flattered. “I started it thinking I’d only be at EOI a year. Things got sort of …sticky.”
He nods slowly, like he appreciates how sticky EOI could be. He looks at an older couple nearby in vinyl chairs busily carving meat. He shifts back on the bench, gesturing with his fork. “Well, here we are. The most misnamed city in America. No color. No rad-o. No springs.”
I chuckle. It’s a quote from one of my posts. “That was a bad week.” I squint in the bright sun. “I remember that week, hating it here. Had I only known there was all this free food…”
He sips from one of the cups. The brown hair on his temple flinches as he chews ice. His narrow eyes flare. “I caught one of your concerts at Fallbrooke,” he says.
I blink. “My piano concerts? That was almost 5 years ago.”
“You were very good.”
“Thanks.” Even more embarrassed.
“So how committed to this church review thing is Chris?”
“Slope? He doesn’t do anything halfway.”
He nods, pokes at his plate. “Why’d you work at EOI?”
I sigh. Put down my fork. “It was complicated. I didn’t have a home after my parents died. And they were Dr. Lane devotees. But I finally realized I didn’t believe all that.”
He nods. “You lost faith?”
“Could say it like that.”
“I see the problem.”
I chuckle. “It was inevitable. I’d been denying it a while.”
He nods. “So that was that.”
“I couldn’t keep using my story to help them gain supporters.” I study the water at the bottom of my cup, take a sip.
He seems empathetic. “I’ve seen lots of people leave that place. Some give up fighting, others put the struggle to good use. I’ve found too few of the latter.”
I stare at my plate. Suddenly he slaps his knee. “Potato salad. Who made it a salad?” He sets it down. “I’m looking for a couple analysts for the field tests in a couple weeks. Strictly confidential, of course,” he says in a mock-whisper.
He makes a face and waves his hands. “It’s based on ‘EMDR’—eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing. Amazing therapy. People with deeply imprinted traumas, we can remove them.”
“Wow.” I’m intrigued, but wary. The hair on the back of my neck suddenly perks up.
He leans back on the bench, and closes his eyes in the sun. “We can isolate specific neural connections where memories are stored and eliminate them, thus removing the fear.”
Across the street, a row of big boxy houses dwarfs an old trailer home on an overgrown lot. A slobbering bulldog in front of it sits watching from behind a low chain-link fence.
I set down my plate. “You need analysts or subjects?”
“Yes.” He grins. “But analysts, mostly. Especially ones who understand Dr. Lane’s attachment-behavioral therapy.” He shoves his hands in his pockets. “You and Slope have been in my sights for a while.” He swipes a hand through his mop and I notice it’s thinning. “I could use a couple of guys like you.”
“I’m really not looking for a job.” I squint at him.
“Fair enough,” he says handing me a card, and pushing himself up to stand. “I think we could resolve any lingering issues from the accident you’re having. Maybe even some of your struggle with God.” He hooks his cane over his arm and holds out his hand. “If you can come by tomorrow, I’d love to show you both the project.”
His eyes bore into me. I look at his card.
“My tech assistant Avie would be glad for the help.” He stands and hobbles away.
The bulldog is still staring at me, panting. I cross the street with the plates of food and drop them over the fence, and the dog goes into a frenzy.
I don’t want a job. I don’t need a job. I just want to be done with all this.