Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 27

     The Quite Reverend John Joseph Matthew Paul III surveyed the crowd from behind the black curtains which formed the backdrop at the rear of the stage.

     "Hallelujah! It's going to be a fine, fine day," he said smiling broadly.

     "I'm almost done, J.J.," a young woman with long straight blonde hair told the Quite Reverend. "Just let me finish the eyeliner on your left eye and give you a final hit of powder."

     The Quite Reverend returned to the chair and looked at himself critically in the mirror. "We need to do something about this hair, angel. I'm bored with it. It's old. It’s last year's news. Whatever you do, sugar, wherever you go, don't you ever forget: the Lord is now."

     "Supposedly, so is this revival. Now sit still and let me finish."

     "The meeting can wait a few minutes," he said. "It's a right big flock out there and the lost sheep are still a-wanderin' in. Little Bo Peep couldn't have done a better job of finding this herd if her crook depended on it." He cocked his head quizzically. "I wonder if that's where they came up with the expression 'by hook or by crook'?"

     "Reverend?" a voice behind him suddenly asked.

     The Quite Reverend jumped out of his seat, the eyeliner leaving a jagged black streak across his cheek. "Lord have mercy! How many times have I told you not to sneak up on me like that?"

     "But you were looking right into the mirror," the neatly dressed man in the navy blue suit said defensively.

     "I wasn't looking in the mirror to see if anyone's creeping around behind my back like a snake in the Garden of Eden, I was busy admiring how this here angel can make me look so good without you even bein' able to tell there's a lick of make-up on me. Why I bet she could turn a horny toad into Raquel Welsh after just three li'l minutes in this here chair. She's a true artist, I tell you, right up there with Michelangelo and Rembrandt, 'cept of course she's not a homo."

     "Michelangelo and Rembrandt weren't homosexuals," the man corrected.

     "Why of course they were," the Quite Reverend declared, "otherwise they wouldn't have run around wearing those skimpy little toga things."

     "They didn't wear togas," the man said matter-of-factly. "They were Italian and Dutch and lived during the renaissance."

     "Perversion knows no geographical or chronological boundaries, my boy, a concept which you would be well aware of had you been paying attention during my sermon last Tuesday week," he said as he sat back down in his chair, smiling as the make-up artist wiped off the eyeliner streak. "Now what's so blamed important that it can't wait until after the meeting?"

     "There's someone here who would just love to meet you," he said, gesturing toward the curtain covering the doorway.

     "Not now," the Quite Reverend said sharply. "It's almost time for me to begin and you know I need a few minutes of quiet meditation before a meeting so I can gather my inner strength. Tell whoever it is that I'll be glad to see them afterwards. Now everyone go." He waved his hand in dismissal and everyone moved towards the door.

     "Not you," he whispered to a young girl who had been sitting cross-legged at his feet. Then, raising his voice enough to be sure everyone who was leaving the backstage area could hear him loud and clear, "Stay, my child, and I will pray for your salvation."

     He held out his hands as she stood up. Candy Warsh took his fingers in hers, smiling sweetly and closing her eyes. He looked at her smooth, youthful skin, as pale as if untouched by the rays of the sun. He watched her breasts rise and fall as her breathing grew slower and deeper. The touch of her hands was soothing, warm and soft, unspoiled by any signs of manual labor. He took a deep breath; she smelled of youthful energy, adolescent effervescence, raw uninhibited sex. The Quite Reverend shuddered as he sighed deeply.

     "Let us pray."

     * * * * * *

     "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake," the Quite Reverend's assistant shouted from behind the lectern as the crowd mumbled along with him. He looked at the microphone, attached to the top of the lectern with a gooseneck extension; what he wouldn't give to have the volume turned up just this once. Every night he spent the first fifteen minutes of the prayer meeting warming up the crowd—he liked to think of himself as the Ed McMahon of the preaching circuit—but he wasn't allowed the luxury of using the microphone. And if it was a night meeting, only two small lights would be focused on him, the rest of the lights and the two large follow-spots being reserved for the Quite Reverend. "If we didn't save the big guns for the Big Gun, we wouldn't be giving them the most bang for their buck, now would we?" the Quite Reverend explained to him every time he asked for a brighter light or a turned-on microphone.

     "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; they rod and thy staff, they comfort me," he continued.

     All of the seats in the tent were filled, with at least twenty-five people standing behind the back row, their hands reverently clasped in front of them. As his eyes scanned the crowd his mind quickly multiplied the number of people by the average donation per person during the past three weeks to come up with the amount he would select in the daily donation betting pool the Quite Reverend was so fond of organizing at every stop. He had a strong feeling about this meeting, he could just sense this was his turn to win the $150 in the pool.

     "Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over."

     He thought about how he'd not only been fated to have the job as the Quite Reverend's assistant, but had been curiously prepared for it as well. As a young boy he aspired to be a doctor, a desire which had been insidiously planted in his head by his parents, but he abandoned that career path during the eighth grade when he realized it would mean many more years of schooling than he was willing to invest in a profession he actually had no desire to make his own. At various times over the next few years he changed his vocational goal to agriculture, interior decorating, accounting, and toy design; but never religion. It was his having a highly successful show on the college radio station while earning an M.B.A. that impressed the Quite Reverend the most—who could be better suited for the mission than Bob Barker with a head for business?

     "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen," he said, the crowd finishing half a beat behind him. He looked out over the people, their expectant faces belying their lack of enthusiasm for the Lord’s Prayer. From deep down at his diaphragm he brought up his best Top-40 DJ voice, projecting far enough and loud enough to make the lack of a microphone unnoticed.

     "And now ladies and gentlemen, the moment you've all been waiting for. The man Time Magazine called 'the Moses of the Airwaves'. A man who has preached in more countries than belong to the United Nations. A man who has been seen in more homes around the world than Johnny Carson. A humanitarian who has healed more people than Albert Schweitzer, Karl Menninger, and the Mayo brothers put together. I'm proud to present, in his first live public appearance in this area, a great man, a great friend, a great speaker, and a great inspiration to us all; the reason you're here today, the Quite Reverend John..."

     "...Joseph," several people in the crowd joined in.

     "...Matthew," more people chanted along.

     "...Paul," the crowd spoke as one.

     "...THE THIRD!!" they all roared in unison.

     The crowd broke into wild applause as if a big flashing APPLAUSE sign had been turned on above the stage. One by one they stood up and cheered until everyone in the tent was on their feet. The small PA system crackled to life, blaring a Dixieland version of "I Saw the Light" which startled the crowd into an even louder wave of applause.

     The curtains behind the stage parted like the Red Sea and the Quite Reverend bounded out, striding to the front of the stage with his hands raised above his head, his fists clenched like a million-to-one longshot who'd just won the heavyweight title. Ladies and Gentlemen, the new champeen, the Quite Reverend Rocky Balboa! Two brilliant white spotlights hit him, transforming him into a dazzling beacon in spite of the filtered afternoon light drifting in the tent. He strode from one side of the stage to the other, bouncing up and down with a surprising springiness for a man of his grizzly bear size. His assistant beamed at the crowd, then realizing that not a single one of them was looking at him, turned and walked off stage.

     The Quite Reverend prowled like a caged tiger, the cheering erupting in each section of the crowd as he neared their side of the stage. He jumped off the stage and strode down the center aisle, shaking outstretched hands and even grabbing those which remained at people's sides, looking for all the world like he was dying to say, "John Joseph Matthew Paul's the name; religion's the game. Tell you what I'm gonna do: Tonight, and only tonight, I'm gonna save your soul from eternal damnation whether you want me to or not."

     He walked across the standing room area in the rear of the tent and trotted down the right hand aisle to the stage, shaking hands and kissing foreheads as he went. He mounted the platform and took his place behind the lectern, his hands clasped in front of him, a look of seriousness overtaking his face. The music abruptly stopped in mid-chorus. Quickly taking the cue, or perhaps shocked into submission, the crowd stopped clapping and self-consciously sat down. The Quite Reverend stared stonily above the heads of the crowd, his silence stretching uneasily to one very long, restless, minute.

     "The Lord Jesus Christ, our hope and our salvation, is pissed off.," he finally said, his voice booming through the PA system. He paused to let the thought soak in. "For while the seventh game of the World Series of righteousness is nearly upon us, most of you sitting before me haven't even reported for Spring training yet. Now, some of you may say, 'I didn't know I was on the team'. Well to you I say, everyone is welcome to play on the Lord's team. Some of you may ask, 'Which team am I on?' Well, I say there is only one team, and that's the Nazarene Bombers. And some of you may whine, 'But Quite Reverend John Joseph Matthew Paul III, I've never played before.’ And I say to you: Jesus doesn't care whether you're a seasoned veteran or you've just joined the team. Believe me when I tell you that our Lord Jesus Christ doesn't give a Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance damn whether you're an old timer or whether you've recently been traded. For as our owner, manager, trainer, and coach, Jesus Christ welcomes all players regardless of race, color, or position played, for when you join his team you've joined the best team in the universe; the only team that scores; the team that has always been a winner and always will be a winner; the team that's in a league all by itself. It’s the Lord’s team. And when you join the Lord's team you won't just be playing another nine-innings in the game of life, you'll have taken the first step on the road to winning the ultimate twilight double-header. Believe me, my teammates, when I tell you: You will be saved! Yes! I said you WILL be saved! Say hallelujah!"

     "Hallelujah!" a quarter of the crowd chanted.

     "Say hallelujah!"

     "Hallelujah!" half the crowd shouted.

     "Yes, and hallelujah it is." He looked out over the crowd and paused. "Now, who here in this on-deck circle of the Lord is ready to be saved? I don't mean just about, nearly, almost, or thinking about it; I mean ready right here and now because there's never a time quite like the present, and if you're present now, then the time is right. So without further ado, adon't or a-come-as-you-are, I ask you sluggers of the soul: Is there anyone sitting here right as I speak who’s prepared to sign up on the active roster and join the Team of Ages so you can proudly walk up to home plate, dig in your heels, and go to bat for our Lord almighty Jesus Christ?"

     A woman in the front row stood up, followed by her husband and their two children. They all wore their hair in the same style—long, stringy, and greasy—while their clothes had the signature look of the Goodwill label, causing them stand apart from the crowd like a Muslim at High Mass. So much did they appear to be shills—they just happened to be sitting in the front row, they jumped up as if they'd been anxiously awaiting their cue, and they looked like a third-rate dinner theater's idea of a born-again West Virginia family—that the Quite Reverend was tempted to shift into magician mode: "Nothing up this sleeve, nothing up this sleeve. Please tell the members of the audience whether we have ever met before this moment."

     But the fact is these people were too stereotyped to be anything but real. They'd been following the Quite Reverend around for the past three weeks, spending their nights sleeping in the Beat-up Old Buick Motor Lodge and their waking hours sitting in the front row at each meeting, always being the first to stand up and be saved, once a day during the week and twice on the weekends.

     The Quite Reverend stepped off the stage and stood in front of the family. Knowing the routine all too well, they bowed their heads and clasped their hands in front of them. The Quite Reverend held his open palms over their heads.

     "Lord Jesus, these troubled souls are asking that you take them under your wing and into the dugout of eternal life, for they vow that for the rest of their days in training on this earth—before you take them up to that big pennant race in the sky— they will root, root, root for the home team with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their might. Please put them on your starting line-up so they may hit the curve balls of life, and help them to score without breaking your seventh commandment: thou shalt not steal."

     "Enter their hearts, O Lord! The mother! The father! The son and the daughter! Yesiree, it's looking good. Here’s the wind-up. And the pitch. And oooh-wee! It's going...going...gone!! Say hallelujah!"

     "Hallelujah!"

     "Say hallelujah!"

     "HALLELUJAH!"

     "Lord have mercy! Jesus has just hit another grand-slam home run!"

     * * * * * *

     Jet, whose attention span was shorter than a fruit fly's adolescence, stood up and walked down the center aisle of the tent. He wasn't surprised at how many people he knew in the crowd, though if he stopped for even a moment to think about it he would have realized that much of the assemblage—at least of those he knew—were about as likely to be attending the Quite Reverend's show and revue as a salmon was to stop at a pay phone on the way upstream to let its mate know it was on the way home and in the mood for a bit of hot, passionate spawning. Jet, true to his idealistically assumptive nature, figured everyone was there for the same reason he was: sheer curiosity, a personality trait of which he was overabundantly endowed and which often overrode every other impulse including better judgment, guilt, and the occasional pang of conscience. Of course, had anyone asked him why he was there, his answer would have been much more concise; he would have shrugged his shoulders, arched his eyebrows innocently, and said, "We've all got to be somewhere."

     He walked down the aisle unnoticed, for the crowd was so focused on the Quite Reverend that everything else, Jet included, was peripheral. He left the tent and entered the bright late afternoon sunshine. He walked around the outside of the tent, jumping over one guy rope then ducking under the next. He stopped as he reached the rear of the tent, for there in front of him sat a long, sleek, aluminum-skinned Airstream trailer, by far the largest one he'd ever seen. He approached it with caution, inching towards it as if it was the Venusian mother ship it appeared to be. A quarter of the way down one long, shiny side was a door. An open door. It might as well have been a huge engraved invitation personally addressed to Jet; there was no way he could resist.

     He didn't even try.

     He walked over and stood near the opening. There wasn't a sound to be heard. He stuck his head in and looked around then, not seeing anyone, climbed the two steps and went inside. He found himself in a crowded living room area. The furniture was scaled down in size, not so it could be comfortably used by a family of dwarfs—which it could have—but rather so there could be as much of it as possible in there, ostensibly to give the appearance of a well-furnished living space but actually resulting in a mobile claustrophobic torture chamber Torquemada would have been proud to call his own.

     On the floor to the left were two stacks of plain wicker baskets—not dissimilar to the ones his grandmother used to serve home made Brown-n-Serve dinner rolls—nested inside each other to a height nearly as tall as Jet. On the table to his right were two shoe boxes. The first one was filled with cassette tapes. Jet plucked one out of the box; it had a neatly typed label that read "Hostile Crowd Introduction Music". Another was marked "Bringing in the Sheep". And another was labeled "Coughing Up Johnny's Cash".

     Jet put the tapes back and looked in the other shoe box. There were stacks of what looked like yellow and salmon-colored business cards bound with rubber bands. He pulled a yellow card from the middle of one of the piles and turned it over.

Look not at the things which are seen,
but at the things which are not seen.
II Corinthians 4:18

     He buried the card in the stack and dropped the bundle into the shoe box with the rest of the Word-O-God trading cards someone had obviously been collecting for a long time.

      "I'll trade you the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Forty-third Psalm for all eight Beatitudes."

     "Can't do it. That would break up my complete Sermon on the Mount set."

     "How about if I kick in all of the Ten Commandments and the Song of Solomon."

     "The whole Song of Solomon?"

     "Every last card."

     "You've got a deal."

     Jet picked his way into the next room, which was even smaller than the jam packed living room. It had all the conveniences of a modern kitchen except they were the size of a child's set of Suzy Homemaker appliances. The stove top had only two small burners, the oven would have had difficulty roasting anything larger than a single squab, the refrigerator would have refused to close were it filled with anything larger than two six-packs of soda, and the sink was too small to hold a full-sized dinner plate, better yet service for eight. This was a kitchen designed with carry-out food and paper plates firmly in mind.

     Stuck in one corner of the room was what had been advertised as a dining room table, a misnomer because not only wasn’t there a dining room to be found, there was barely enough room between the table and the two bench seats which flanked it to allow anyone to actually dine there. Sitting on the table top was a Monopoly board, houses and hotels still in place and piles of play money neatly stacked up.

     Jet took two hotels from Park Place and moved them to Baltic Avenue. Then he picked up the house on Marvin Gardens and dropped it into the bag of unsold buildings.

     "Sorry, but you were too far behind on your mortgage so we had to foreclose," he said.

     He took $50 in play money from the bank and placed it on Marvin Gardens.

     "That's all we got for the house in the auction, and you ought to be glad you got that much, you deadbeat."

     He looked at the two stacks of cards that sat in the middle of the board.

     The yellow Community Chest cards and the orange Chance cards.

     "Chance is fate for people who don't believe in it," Jet said with a smile as he scooped up the two stacks of cards. "I think I'll take a chance tonight."

     It was, as he liked to say, something to do.

Chapter 28 ]



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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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