My life is marked by contrasts — then and now, light and darkness.
Heaven and hell.
Marked too by memory.
I remember the exact moment it started.
In fact, in a perverse recollection of detail, I even know what I was wearing — Dockers slacks and a blue golf shirt with the Wailea Emerald Course logo on it. My shoes were the brown slip-ons my wife had bought for me online a couple of months earlier. No socks.
I was in my office, looking out the window at the stunning view of the valley. The church occupied twenty of the most valuable acres in Southern California, prime property we bought when we outgrew our smaller space in Northridge ten years before.
And I can remember my thought patterns that day, leading up to the moment she walked in. I was thinking of Moses, another mountaintop man, and how his human frailty kept him from the Promised Land. He struck the rock, and water flowed, but he had disobeyed God.
As I was about to do.
And that is why I am here.
A jail cell is smaller than it looks in some old James Cagney movie. When you’re in one it doesn’t seem possible for life to continue, for the paper-thin fragility that is human existence to sustain itself.
But since my life has ceased to exist, I suppose nothing is lost.
Do I suppose I can regain my life by writing down these confessions? Or am I writing just so I can eventually place another volume on my shelf?
Yes, even within these walls, my ambition bares its teeth and grinds through the lining of my guilt. Maybe that’s why I’m here. Maybe that’s why God put me here after all.
Maybe that’s why I did the unthinkable.
Unthinkable, at least, if you were to look at me ten years ago. Even five. Then you would have seen a star. Not a comet, flaming out, a fading tail of cosmic dust in its wake.
No, a real star set in the evangelical heavenlies.
Then I fell, let it all slip away, that day in my office overlooking the valley.
How did it happen? All I know is that, somehow, it began.
It began with a plea.
“Help me. Please.”
A note of hopelessness vibrated under the girl’s voice, a soft trilling like a night bird’s cry. Ron Hamilton felt it in his chest — an electric snap, a static in the heart.
“I’ll do anything I can,” he told the girl. She must have been around twenty, though he had long since given up guessing ages. When he turned fifty a year ago, he was certain selected segments of his brain went into meltdown, like a kid’s snow cone on a hot summer day.
“I’ve done a terrible thing, I don’t know what to do.” The girl looked at the floor, and when she did, Ron couldn’t help noticing her shape under the snug dress. It was a red summery thing, with thin straps over the shoulders. Before he could stop it, his gaze lingered, then he forced himself to look away. His focus landed on his seminary diploma, hanging on his office wall. Doctor of Divinity. But he couldn’t keep looking at it and give her the attention she deserved.
How was he going to avert his eyes if this interview continued?
Best thing he could do was put her at ease, then ease her out of the office. The interview would be over and he’d pass her off to someone else, maybe the professional counseling team the church had an arrangement with.
“I’m sorry. Let’s back up.” He looked at the Post-It note on his desk, the one where he’d scribbled her name: Melinda Perry.
“How long have you been coming to church here, Melinda?”
“Little less than a year.”
Ron didn’t recognize her face. But then, with the church at roughly eight thousand members, it would have been easy for her to blend in. So many others did.
“What attracted you here?” he asked, putting his marketing hat on. He couldn’t help himself sometimes. Seventeen years of good marketing sense had built up Hillside Community Church.
She looked at him. “You.”
Another electrical snap went off inside him. And this time it tripped an alarm. Danger here. Remember last year . . .
Yet he found himself wanting to know exactly what Melinda Perry meant. What could that hurt?
“I listened to you on the radio,” she said.
Made sense. His sermons were recorded and played on L.A.’s second largest Christian radio station. Three times throughout the week.
“Well, I’m glad somebody’s listening.” He laughed.
She didn’t laugh. “You don’t know what it meant. You saved my life.”
Now he was hooked. “Really?”
“Oh, yes. You preach from the Bible, right?”
“Always.” Well, he attached Bible verses to his favorite topics.
“You were talking about something to do with heaven. Do you remember that?”
He fought the temptation to smile. “I talk about heaven quite a bit — ”
“In this one, you said heaven was going to be a place, a real place, where we’ll live.”
“Yes, what the Bible calls the new earth.”
“And streets made out of gold and all that?”
“All that, yes.”
“And I was thinking of snuffing my candle, Pastor Ron, I really was. You don’t know what I’ve been through.” She paused. “Anyway, I was flipping around the radio stations and I heard you. I heard your voice. I thought what a nice voice. You really have cool tones, Pastor.”
“Thanks.” Heat seeped into his cheeks.
“And what you said about heaven made me cry, it really hit me, and that’s why I started coming to Hillside. I sit in the back mostly. I don’t want people to get too close to me.”
“But why not?”
“That’s part of the reason I’m here. To tell you why.”
Did she have a boyfriend? She looked like she could have many boyfriends.
“But I’m afraid,” she said.
“Talking about it.”
He wanted to know. “Would it help to talk to a professional counselor? I can arrange for you to have a free session with a — ”
“No. I want to talk to you. You’re the only one who can help me.”
“There are others who are trained — ”
“No.” She almost sounded angry. “You have to tell me first.”
“Tell you what?”
“If God can ever forgive me.”
Without so much as a beat, he ran off a familiar message. “That’s what God does best. He forgives us. Anything.”
“Anything? Even something so bad . . .” She looked down.
There was no way he was going to let her go now. He almost got up to put a comforting hand on her shoulder, but the alarm sounded again, and he stayed in his chair.
“Go ahead and tell me. Take your time.”
He watched her chest rise with breath.
“All right,” she said. “It started this way.”
Dallas Hamilton put her hand over her left eye and said, “Whoop-de-do!”
The boy looked at her, confused, then shook his head. “That’s not a pirate.”
“You think all pirates have to say argh?”
The boy, a six-year-old named Jamaal, nodded tentatively.
“How boring! You can be any kind of pirate you want. That’s the thing about the imagination. And this ship can be as big as you want it to be.”
Dallas picked up the square of Styrofoam from the craft table, took a straw, and stuck it in the middle of the square. The boy and his mother watched Dallas as if she were a diamond cutter.
“See that?” Dallas said. “That’s the mast.”
“What’s a mast?” Jamaal said.
“The place where the sail goes. We’re going to put a sail on the straw, see?” Dallas held up a square of construction paper. “And that’s how you get a sailing ship. And here’s the best part.” Dallas took a couple of thumbtacks and a rubber band from the clear plastic box on the craft table. She’d carved out a square section from the stern of the foam boat and now secured the rubber band across that span with the tacks.
“This is where we’re going to put the paddle. You wind it up in the rubber band, and it’ll make the boat go in the water. No batteries required.”
“That’s nice, huh, Jamaal?” the boy’s mother said. Her name was Tiana Williams. She was twenty-three, but to Dallas she looked ten years older. The ugly puffiness around Tiana’s right eye was part of the reason. It marred what was otherwise a pretty face of smooth, dusky skin.
“That’s your ship,” Dallas said, “and you don’t have to be like any other pirate. You can say whoop-de-do or any other word you want.”
Jamaal smiled. It was what Dallas had been looking for all along. Smiles rarely occurred inside the women’s shelter on Devonshire. Six years ago, the church board at Hillside Community gave Dallas the go-ahead to start Haven House, a place where abused women could find safety. The board appointed her to oversee the daily operations and fund-raising. She also taught classes in child rearing and women’s self-defense.
On a couple of occasions, she’d given a room in her own home to one of the women, for a few days anyway, when Haven House got overcrowded. Ron, good husband and Christian that he was, supported her all the way.
Her favorite place, though, was right here in the craft room, where the kids could imagine and create. So many of the women had children with them.
“Would you like to color some?” Dallas asked Jamaal. The boy looked at his mother. Tiana nodded.
Dallas got a fresh coloring book and a box of crayons from the cabinet and set Jamaal up at one end of the craft table. There was a little girl there, hunched over her own book. Jamaal grabbed a red crayon, opened his coloring book, and took to his work with an optimism that made Dallas want to weep.
“You got kids?” Tiana asked as they watched Jamaal.
“Two,” Dallas said.
“My daughter, Cara, is twenty-seven. Jared, my son, is twentyfour.”
“They turn out all right, don’t they?” The anguish in Tiana’s voice was familiar. Dallas had heard the same anxiety in countless voices over the years. “I want Jamaal to be all right. I don’t care about anything else.”
Dallas had no doubt about Tiana’s sincerity. It was her choices that mattered most, and she would have to make one right here and now. “Tiana, you can’t go back to where you were.”
Tiana looked at Dallas with sunken eyes, cavernous with dread. “I’ve got nowhere else to go.”
“We have a network of places, rooms. We can find something.”
“Got no way to pay for it.”
“We can help get you on your feet. Maybe look for a job with you.”
“What do you know about it?”
Dallas put her hand on Tiana’s arm. “Don’t go back, Tiana. Let me help find you a place.”
Tiana pulled her arm away. “Jamaal needs a father.”
“He’s an abuser, he — ”
“I can talk to him. I know how.”
“No, you can’t, not someone like that.”
“You don’t know him.”
“I know about abusers.”
Tiana slapped the table with her open palm. “I can talk to him! He loves me and Jamaal, and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Tiana paused. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“Maybe I know more than you think. I was down pretty low once, had someone who took it out on me, but God was there to pull me up.”
Tiana shook her head. “I used to go to church. With my mama, before she died.”
“Our church isn’t far from here. My husband’s the pastor. We’d love to have you and Jamaal come.”
“Your husband preaches?”
“He’s wonderful. Has a radio program. You may have heard him sometime.”
“Don’t listen to the radio much.”
Jamaal’s voice broke in. “Look, Mama!” He was holding up the coloring book, which was now a madcap swirl of multicolored lines.
“That’s good, baby,” Tiana said, as if willing herself to believe it. “That’s real good.”
“It’s a pirate ship,” he said.
“A big one, huh?” said Dallas.
Jamaal nodded and said, “Whoop-de-do.”
Dallas’s heart melted into a mixture of hope and uncertainty. Oh, Lord, let these two make it. Please, let them make it.
“I was just this dumb kid from North Dakota,” Melinda said. “Ran away and I was gonna make it in Hollywood. You know the story.”
Yes, Ron thought, like countless other teenagers who flooded into Hollywood. A lot of them did come with hopes for stardom, and every now and then one of them had what it takes. Melinda, on looks alone, could have been one of those exceptions. Her face held the mix of beauty and girlishness that Marilyn Monroe had early in her career.
Ron remembered watching The Asphalt Jungle with Dallas a couple of years ago, and how striking Monroe was in her brief appearance on screen. Almost as striking as Melinda was in person.
“I thought I could get a waitressing job or something to tide me over, but it’s rougher than it looks out there. I ended up on the street. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I thought I might have to start, you know, selling the goods.”
Ron noticed his right hand trembling. He put it in his left hand and put both hands in his lap.
“I saw this ad in one of those free papers they have down in Hollywood. Open auditions. Made all these promises, like they’d get a tape to agents and producers. I figured I didn’t have anything to lose, so down I go to this dumpy-looking place, and they have a camera set up, and when they told me to take off my clothes I figured that’s what it takes these days. I’m going to have to show myself onscreen sometime. They kept saying all these nice things and then all of a sudden they call in this guy and . . .”
Her voice trailed off in a muffled sob and it was everything Ron could do not to get up and go to her. He wanted to hold her. He wanted to hear the rest of her story. He was suddenly very afraid, but not enough to open his office door.
“They told me I could make five hundred dollars that day, right there, and all I had to do was . . . Five hundred dollars. Only I didn’t know it wasn’t five hundred all at once, until after. They said they’d give me the rest over the next couple of weeks, but that I could make more, and if it worked out and I was good enough, a lot more.”
Melinda looked at Ron, her eyes savagely probing. “I want to get out of this life. I need to get out. But I’m in so deep. I want God to save me, but I don’t know how to ask.”
Ron felt suddenly lacking, as if all his years of study and preaching and writing amounted to exactly nothing at this particular moment in time. But there was something more disturbing, he realized, muddying the counseling waters. No, polluting them. In his mind he kept seeing her, Melinda, in scenes his imagination was firing at him with involuntary vividness.
Call this off right now. Set her up with a counselor. Open the door. Get her out.
Suddenly she was up, turning her back on him and walking toward a bookcase. Her red dress hugged her form, and the form swayed —
Melinda put her fingers on the spine of a book, delicately. And then her head slumped forward and her shoulders began to shake.
Ron got up.
Open the door.
He went to her, her cries rising up, anguished. He touched her shoulder.
The phone rang the moment Dallas stepped through the door. She took it in the kitchen.
“Hey, kiddo!” Karen, Ron’s literary agent, chirped in a goodnews sort of way. “You sitting down?”
“You got pillows under you?”
“What is it, Karen?”
“That book deal we’ve been working on? It came through. And it’s a monster. A million for three books.”
Dallas nearly dropped the phone. “Is this for real?”
“Honey, would I kid about this?”
Joy filled Dallas to the brim. What a confirmation from God this was. Dallas had always believed in her husband and his ministry. She had prayed long and hard for it to prosper, and now God was opening doors, windows, and floodgates.
His last book was a surprise bestseller. It tackled the dangers of pornography, a subject suggested to him by Dallas. She’d seen her share of girls trying to escape what was euphemistically called “adult entertainment.” It was a hell on earth is what it was.
She also knew firsthand what a porn addict could do to a woman. It had happened to her once, long ago.
But that was in the past, God had covered it, and now Ron’s new series on prayer had sold for a million dollars. More money than they’d made in the past ten years, counting all the speaking Ron was doing now, his church salary, and the book sales to that point.
“Dallas? You there?”
“Karen, I don’t know what to say.”
“Say praise the Lord.”
“Praise the Lord.”
“Is Ron at the church? I don’t like to call him at work, but this — ”
“Oh, Karen, let me tell him.” Dallas and Ron needed something to celebrate, an excuse to put all the strains aside and laugh and be joyful. “I’ll tell him when he gets home. I’ll put some sparkling cider on ice, make it an event.”
“Do it. I’ll be getting the contract in a week or so and then we’ll go over it. Don’t go spending it all right away now.”
“Well, there is that small island I’ve had my eye on.”
“I don’t know how to begin to thank you,” Dallas said.
“Just give me one of your imitations saying it.”
“Who do you want?”
“How about Katharine Hepburn?”
Dallas always thought it was God’s sense of humor that gave her the ability to do impersonations. She couldn’t sing, draw, or play the piano, but by golly she could do Bette Davis and a whole bunch of others.
“Here it comes,” Dallas said, switching to Kate Hepburn. “I am so, so thankful. Rally I am.”
Karen cracked up. “Perfect, dahling! I’ll call Ron tomorrow. Enjoy.”
Enjoy. Yes. Oh, God, thank you for sending this at just the right time.
Just the right time to beat back the fear hissing at her from an inner cave, the fear of growing older and becoming less attractive to her husband, the fear that sometimes clutched her when she’d nuzzle up to him at home and ask, “Love me?”
He always said yes. Or stroked her cheek. Or shook his head at her and said, “How can you ask me that?”
Never did he say, “I love you so much, I can’t even begin to tell you.”
He would never cheat on her, of course. She knew that. She trusted him completely. But she feared worse — a seepage of neglect, building up over time until it calcified into something impenetrable.
Dallas put a bottle of Martinelli’s sparkling cider in the fridge. And waited. Yes, they would celebrate. It had been so long since she and Ron had actually spent time together, intimate time. Maybe the good news would be just the thing.
It was later than normal when Ron came through the front door. Darkness was already falling over their home two miles from the church.
Dallas jumped up to greet him, throwing her arms around his neck and kissing his mouth.
He sighed and said, “I’m really tired. What’s to eat?” Dallas tried to conceal the excitement in her voice. “Come in and sit down.”
“Huh?” Ron was already heading toward the kitchen.
“Come into the living room and sit down.”
Ron stopped, turned. “Is that an order, Captain?”
Her smile dropped. “Of course not. I just want to tell you something.”
“Can it wait? I want to grab something and go for a swim.”
“I think you’ll want to hear it.”
“Is Jared in trouble?”
“No, no. This is good news.”
“Just tell me then.”
“I want . . . how about a glass of sparkling cider first?”
Ron frowned. “Dallas, will you just tell me what the news is?”
Not the reaction Dallas was looking for. She wanted a buildup, a production. But she’d come to the point in their marriage where she could, like a master chess player, anticipate several moves ahead. If she kept up the pretense of getting him into the living room, sipping cider, she could foresee disaster. She capitulated to reality.
“Karen called,” she said. “Your deal has come through.”
“When did she call?”
“Why didn’t you call me? Why didn’t she call me at the church?”
“Because I asked her not to call. I wanted to tell you myself. I wanted to make the announcement a little special. That’s what the sparkling cider was for.”
“Well, what is it? What are the details?”
“Ready? A million dollars!”
“For how many books?”
Ron looked at the ceiling. “Don’t you think I would have wanted to know that?”
“I wanted to tell you — ”
“You should have had her call me at the church.” He looked at his watch. “It’s too late to call her now. I wanted to talk to her.”
“You can call her in the morning.”
“Thank you. That’s not the point.”
Dallas bit down on the insides of her cheeks. “I thought the point was going to be that you and I could celebrate some great news together.”
“When it comes to the books, let me handle the business part of it, okay?”
He turned around and started walking down the hall toward the bedroom. Dallas followed him. “Can’t we just consider this a blessing from God and be happy about it? We can call Cara tonight.”
Her husband did not stop. He pulled off his shirt and threw it on the floor near the bedroom door.
“Let me just go for a swim.”
“Did something happen today? At church?”
He spun around. There was an anger in his eyes, a cold fury that Dallas had never seen before. It froze her.
“Yeah, something happened at church. I didn’t get a phone call I should’ve gotten.”
That hurt as much as a slap in the face. “Please don’t do this, Ron.”
“What am I doing?”
“I’m going for a swim.”
He started to get out of his pants. She tried to understand. He’d been under a lot of stress lately with things going on at church, some fallout from the antiporn book. They were just a few miles away from the porn capital of the world, Chatsworth. But the book deal should have made him happy.
She sat on the bed and shook her head slowly. “Why didn’t we see this coming?”
“See what coming?”
“This . . . hardening.” He slipped on his swimming trunks. “Dallas, look. I know things have been stressful the last couple of months — ”
“Stressful! We make coffee nervous.”
“Oh, Ron, can we just go away for a while and — ”
“I’m going for a swim.”
He turned quickly and strode out of the room.
Jared Hamilton took a long hit on the glass pipe, held the smoke deep in his lungs, let the music play on. Combination was everything now. A high would calm muscles and mind, while urban bass from the radio pounded his brain and kept memories at bay.
The combo was the only ritual in his life, so he treated it with a gentle reverence. It came on Fridays around four, because on that day Scott would let his crews off a little early. Scott worked them fifty plus and paid them for it. But there was nothing like a jump start to the weekend to keep up morale.
Jared had been working for Scott almost six months now. Good, steady work. Painting houses. It was a routine, and he needed routine.
So when he finished on Fridays he said good-bye to Carlos and Guillermo, the two he usually worked with, and headed off in his beat-up but running red Chevy pickup for Bautista Market on Fourth Street. It was a small, family-run operation, and they knew him there. He liked being known by them and not too many others.
He would buy a six-pack of Dos Equis and a bag of Doritos and a small jar of salsa. It was, he would sometimes think, his communion. That thought was always accompanied by an ironic smile. If his dad were to see him now . . .
He would then drive to the park on Lake Avenue. In his pickup he had a camping chair, the kind that folds into a cylindrical shape for an easy fit under the arm. He always kept a tent and bedding ready too, for he was not sure from one day to the next if he’d have a roof over his head.
He would set the chair on a nice patch of grass, in the shade of a pine tree, with the sun behind and the fields in front of him. The fields where the children played.
The games were organized, mostly. Soccer practices, baseball, volleyball. The little ones were his favorite. They still did what the adults said and were eager to please. Like he’d once been.
He would open a beer and the bag of chips. He’d set the chips on his lap and put the bottle of Dos Equis in the cup holder of the camping chair. He’d open the salsa and place the lid on the arm of the chair.
He would sip and eat until the nameless guy came with the weed. He was a friend of Guillermo’s and sold him a nickel bag. Jared would pay him and the guy would sit on the ground for a minute and want to talk.
Jared never talked.
The guy would leave and Jared would fold up his camping chair and throw it into the back of the pickup and take his beer and salsa and Doritos and grass and drive to a new place each night. Listen to music, loud.
He was convinced it kept him from blacking out, the way he had a few times since coming back from Iraq. Yeah, keep the mind lit up and the music playing.
This night he was sitting on the hood of his truck in an empty parking lot without lights and feeling it, eyes closed, the music loud in his head and —
“. . . down, will ya?”
Jared looked up at the sudden appearance. It was dark and cold this night, and in all of Bakersfield there had to be this one guy who looked like he wanted to make trouble and looked like he could do it too. Big and beefy, with a faded Lakers jersey over his shirt.
“Look, man,” Jared started to say loudly. Yeah, the music was blaring from the stereo — the only good piece of equipment in the whole truck — but that was the right of a guy sitting in an empty parking lot off the highway.
“It’s pounding through the walls. Will ya turn it down?” The guy was big, no doubt about that, about Jared’s age, twenty-four. Bigger, even though Jared was six-one and not exactly flabby of muscle. The Marines didn’t go in for flab.
Jared put it together that the guy had come from the AMPM across the street.
Jared made no move off the hood.
“You gonna turn that down or what?” The Laker dude was wide, yes, but his belly showed the effects of a few too many breakfast burritos.
“I’m just sittin’ here, man.” Jared raised his hands in protest, all the while sizing up what it would take to put the man down. One jab to the jugular would probably do it, followed by gouging the eyes.
“If you could turn it down, that’d be cool,” Laker guy said.
“You know what else’d be cool?” Jared said, just loud enough to be heard. “I could take your head off and spit down your neck.”
At that moment Jared had a vision of it, of ripping the fool’s head right off and leaving a wound he could look into and see the lousy messed-up soul inside Laker dude.
“I’ll be calling the cops now,” the guy said, turning.
“Wait, wait, okay.” Jared slid off the hood, feeling light, reached in through the window, and turned the key. The music stopped. The silence of the night was like a blow to the head.
“All right,” the guy said. He started back toward the AMPM.
Jared, without thought, went to the back of the truck and grabbed a crowbar. It was heavy and nice in his hand. It would make a major dent in the guy’s head, or his kneecap.
There was nobody in the store that Jared could see. Maybe he could lay the guy out and take a few things. Sure —
Then it was like a beautiful scene in a movie playing in his mind, the guy lying on the floor with blood all around, bright red, living color. Jared Hamilton, hero, Tarantinoesque — he’d have made a difference. To himself.
The scene was vivid.
Stuff like that kept showing in his mind ever since he got back.
The crowbar heavy in his hand.
What would his father say?
No. Who cared? It was Mom. What would she think?
In his head: Do it anyway. That’s the combo. That would really put the bad thoughts away.