Frank is driving Bardstown Road toward the city, toward the interview, toward the next logical step. From high in the sky, it seems, he can see himself. This is how he often sees himself, from above, like God looking down on a chosen son.
“He shall direct thy paths”—the old voice is there, the old language, always King James. What’s the rest of it? “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.” Frank’s ex once said his letters read like some sort of strange religious literature. That summer before they were married. His mind glances back. The longing. The long, lonely days. Him and God and the milk cows on a farm at the edge of Bull’s Eye, his hometown in Missouri, her back at MU finishing her English degree.
A horn honks from behind. The red light has turned green. He guns it. Where were those verses from? Somewhere in Proverbs? It doesn’t matter anymore. No more strange religious literature. Well, in a way—copy for an ad agency. It’s just a different religion. The ex would get that joke.
Tears well up. He bats them back. There was so much good. But so much bad. “Irretrievably broken,” the judge read from the Decree of Dissolution, final judgment on ten years of marriage, finally over yesterday.
In times like these, God takes his old place in the sky, judging. In times like these, Frank drives like a bat out of hell.
He’s behind the wheel of a deep blue BMW 325i. Brand new six months ago. God isn’t particularly pleased with the new Beemer. He liked Frank better in the old rust-bucket Ford Galaxy back in the seminary days. He liked Frank humble, praying that the Galaxy would actually get him someplace, humble but proud, in that weird Fundamentalist way, that certitude, that if God does not answer a believer’s prayer, it’s because God has something better in store.
“Move it, Buddy,” Frank snarls and whips the Beemer around the car in front of him.
Frank bought the Beemer without consulting God. It’s the type of car the ex’s string of new men drove, six-figure-guys, all of them. And today, Frank is not just driving the car, he’s wearing it. He’s wearing it with the sunroof open hoping to blast a little springtime into his thirty-four-year-old, wacked out brain before he gets downtown to the interview. God is watching right down through the sunroof. And there’s the preacher-boy-turned-yuppie, dressed for success in a professionally laundered Oxford cloth, button down shirt, specifically not the typical six-figure-guy-light-blue-or-white. It’s hot pink. A creative flare. In form, a nod to the establishment. In function, a statement: I know the game, but I’ll play it my way. Competing with the six-figure-guys? Yep. Pathetic. From the Greek, pathetikos meaning “sensitive.” Root word, pathos, “suffering” or “disease.” God liked him better as a seminary student studying dead languages. Or as a Psych undergrad wrestling valiantly with behaviorist ideas that made religious conviction sound like some sort of mental pathology. There’s that root again.
He thinks: “Diagnosis, bi-polar. She’s on lithium now. I walked out on a sick woman. Lame. But there was no hope. Her crazy made me crazy. My crazy made her crazier. Which made me crazier still. Inter-locking neuroses.”
There’s another one. Neuroses. From the Greek neuron, nerve, sinew, tendon. Dead language, but the roots live. Like that eye in the sky. Whatever. “God” is shorthand. “God” is a nerve, a tendon connected to a dead past. The God who was not pleased with Frank’s jump from seminary to the secular world five years ago and also took no pleasure in his recent promotion: “Frank Gray, Creative Director,” his business card says, as does the resume in his briefcase. That humble-proud God is now badgering him about this next move up. A new firm. New clients. Potentially a new city. Lots more money. “Not six figures, my Dear,” he says under his breath, “But I’m on my way.”
The car ahead slows, left blinker on. Frank swerves into the right lane. The blare of a horn. He cut off a car in his blind spot. A quick glance to the rearview. The driver is shooting him the bird. “Sorry,” Frank mouths and accelerates away from his sin.
He thinks: “Gotta get a grip. I’m out there somewhere. Again.”
The traffic is a little crazy, the usual on Bardstown, sometimes four-lane, sometimes three with a turn lane in the center. He’s on the bohemian stretch that’s sided with bars, eateries of every description, head shops, music stores, bookstores, the Uptown—the theater where he fell in love with art cinema. The ex did, too. So many good memories on this road. Also, the marriage counselor’s office. Bad memories there. The worst.
Don’t even go there. He thinks: “Do the numbers. Let’s see. Current salary, $65 thousand and then you throw in a few perks like the 401k and health insurance and so on, and it adds up to about $70 thou. But you work 12 or 15 hours a day, and weekends, lots of weekends. Say 70 hours a week, sometimes 80. Say, 70. Times 52 weeks a year—well, say 50 because of vacation—but that’s still like 3,500 hours. So $70K is more like 20 bucks an hour, which is pathetic. New job—they’re saying up to $90K.”
He calms down some. The numbers technique usually works. Change the stimulus. Change the response. But you can’t change the past. You have to take control. Leave it to God and you get ten years of wedlock and maybe six good months. But never consecutive. Well, maybe more than six months. And when it was good, it was incredibly good. But when it was bad, it was utter darkness, like that first real fight. First college apartment. He thought they were having a Biblical discussion about a woman’s role in marriage. She exploded. “Fuck the Bible! I hate the Bible!” Ran for the bedroom. Slammed the door and locked it. Bible talk back then was never really about the Bible. The door stayed locked all night.
Traffic stops. He lays on the horn. Then lays off, takes a deep breath, and then another.
He was genuinely mystified at the beginning of the marriage. How could God call him into the ministry and give him a wife, a beautiful, smart, Southern Baptist girl, who hated the Bible? And how could he, Frank, know so little about her before the two became “one flesh” as the Bible says?
She was already leaving then. Maybe already gone. So many things she said. How her words changed once they moved to Louisville where he started seminary and she started climbing. Advertising. Then healthcare marketing. He was proud of her. She liked the new genre of strange religious literature he started writing—not letters to her but stories. Anachronistic humor. A first century Capernaum fisherman with a Barco Lounger and a VCR. Mary and Joseph driving home from Jerusalem when they realize they forgot little Jesus. The stories made her laugh. Still, where could they really take you?
Traffic is moving pretty well now. Twenty minutes till showtime. They’ve seen samples of his work. Award-winning. Now they’re going to see him. He’s going to nail it.
“You’re ambitious, Frank, but in a circle,” the ex once said. “You don’t go anywhere.”
That was early in the separation. No. Maybe just before. It’s all a blur now. Maybe about the time of her breast augmentation. Oh, yeah, she was going places. Big tits to attract men of a type she claimed to despise. The marriage counselor, Angus—what a jerk—said it all fit her family script. Her dad a millionaire who gave her everything and nothing. He once offered to make Frank a business partner along with his two sons. Not his daughter. Revenge tits. That’s what they were.
“I feel guilty for being a girl,” she confessed to Angus. News to Frank. Angus, in all his wisdom, decided individual sessions would be the best way forward.
The memories are really spinning. Again. “Stop!” Frank says out loud. “I’m sick of it.”
Bardstown Road to Broadway. Tangible direction, immediate, something to knock him off the gerbil wheel and back into the real world. The behaviorists got a lot of things right. What you do, tangible action, is who you are. Fake it till you make it? There’s some actual truth wrapped up in the yuppie lie.
The subtle tones of teal in his silk necktie pop against the pink shirt. His tortoise shell, horn rimmed sunglasses, lenses dark green, give him a little bit of a Tom Cruise vibe. His haircut: business up front, party in back—long, over his collar, blowing in the wind.
He looks cool in the Beemer. He feels cool. The power and agility. The “Ultimate Driving Machine,” the ads say, and it zigs and zags around the other cars almost as if the machine is responding to his thoughts even before he makes a physical move. It’s a little like great sex. Something he never had with the ex. “I hate your sex!” He hears the scream again, from one night years ago, long before he realized the marriage was already coming to pieces. “You don’t know what you’re doing!”
“Did Tom, Dick, and Harry know what they were doing? Did Angus?” Six months into the “you-have-to-get-your-mother’s-face-off-of-your-wife” rhetoric, Frank slammed the door on Angus. “How ‘bout getting my wife’s face off your dick!”
Rage closes the eye in the sky. Rage is relief. But pity the people in its path. Available women—no shortage of them in the ad business, and no shortage of interest in him once word of the split got around. Not lovers. Just sex. Revenge? Therapy? Definitely messy—the relationships. But his performance in bed? No complaints there.
He thinks for the millionth time: “Why did I marry her? It was almost like some sort of childhood faith. You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Guilt? Plenty. But only in between women—victims—at least six in the past year. Nobody right now. Make that no body. But he has one in mind. And, of course, God is watching.
Traffic slows. He’s passing the Uptown—that portal of light, blasts of art that answered prayers he didn’t even know he had. New films like The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Classics like Manhattan, one of Woody Allen’s best. And then, just a month ago, Woody’s segment in the triptych, New York Stories. Woody played Sheldon whose Jewish mother appeared in the sky, a giant head hovering over a crowded city street. She starts yapping advice about his love life. She gets everyone on the street into the conversation about what Sheldon should do. The segment is entitled “Oedipus Wrecks.” Frank laughed till he cried.
Tears roll down his cheeks. He’s laughing and crying. It’s been this way for days. Grief. Relief. Clarity. Confusion. He thinks: “Why am I looking for a new job? Another big change is the last thing I need. Or maybe exactly what I need.”
Break it all down one more time. The pros and cons. List them out. Assign a value to each item on each list. Add up both columns. The highest total wins.
Except Frank keeps changing the values, making new lists. They’re scattered all over the kitchen cabinets and coffee table in his condo, along with half-a-dozen self-help books including Seven Steps to Your Best Self, the book that introduced him to the “Ben Franklin Method of Decision-Making.”
God noticed that He wasn’t even mentioned in that book.
Which would have bothered Frank, too, in the past. It would have bothered him a great deal. Back when he actually believed he was a chosen son, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as the Bible says. Though it also says your wonderfully made self has to be born again, made over, cleansed, changed from the inside out. That’s how you become your “best self.” “Lean not unto thine own understanding.” Pray and wait for God to give you direction. Which is how he answered “the call” into the ministry, a call that no longer exists. Which is how he got into a marriage that no longer exists. Or does it? “What God hath joined together, let no man cut asunder” and all of that.
He checks his wristwatch. Time is getting tight. He gooses the Beemer and starts weaving his way between the lanes and the traffic. Taking chances. It’s all a game of chances. A new job. It’s a big agency. Part of a national agency. It might be a ticket out of town. A new city. A new start. The craving rises like lust for another body. And God is watching, judging, displeased. Frank yanks the face of God off of his mother one more freakin’ time and slaps himself back into the moment. A real world question: “The interview. What are they going to ask?”
They’ve already seen his resume—work history, education. They’ll ask about The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. How is that prep for a Creative Director job in the top agency in the city? He’s had some form of that question before. It’s bound to come up again.
“I once thought I’d be a preacher,” he’ll say. “I guess I’m a natural born storyteller.” He’ll say it with a little aw-shucks in his voice. He’ll pause, maybe stroke his chin. “I wasn’t cut out for the ministry. That’s the most important thing I learned in seminary.” It’ll work. It has always worked.
Of course, it’s only half the truth. But hey, this is advertising. A deal with the Devil? Maybe. A disappointment to Momma? Absolutely. She so wanted her Frankie to be a preacher. She said so on the phone just a couple of weeks ago. “I believe the hand of God is on your life. You’ve still got a message, Frankie.”
She doesn’t want to hear the whole truth either. Which is that the most important thing Frank learned in seminary is that God himself made a deal with the Devil. It’s the deal-making God that follows Frank around, the transactional God, the substitutionary-theory-of-atonement God. A God who requires payment for sin. Legalistic and therefore tricky. Yes, a tricky God who offers his own perfect son as ransom to Satan for all sin of all time, then snatches him back at the last second. Resurrection for Jesus. A stiff arm to the Devil. The birth of Christianity, the church of cosmic co-dependence.
“Mom, if God is love, how can there be judgment? Hell?”
“Frankie, God is in control. That’s all I know. That’s what I believe.”
Two or three times over the years, that’s where the conversation started and stopped. He couldn’t get past it. Past Mom’s theology, yes, but not the old habits, the endless emotional bait and switch. She remained in control and he a failure as substitution for something she couldn’t satisfy in herself.
The She-God liked Frank better long ago when Frankie Gray, the charismatic preacher boy, the teenaged evangelist, used to tell the God story as a love story, a true story of sacrifice and redemption that resonated in every chapter and every verse of the Bible. What a ride! The praise of the people, the assurance of God’s pleasure, the affirmation of Frankie Gray’s calling. But really, the dopamine rush is what it was. That makes so much more sense now. Temporal bliss. Not eternal. She got her kicks, all right. But where was She when the crash came. Always the crash. Then the nauseous craving for the next hit. That’s not a calling. It’s chemistry. All mixed up with her theology, which is his, or was.
Another honk from behind. Another red light has turned green while Frank was out in momma theology land. He stomps the gas pedal. The Beemer jack-rabbits through the intersection. Angus’ office is in the next block. The old hate burns. But he’d made progress. Is making progress. And isn’t that just the way life is, such a mixed bag. You have to take control.
Which he now suspects is why he kept writing those stories. Re-framing the whole Biblical story, trying to save it from its handlers, save himself from its handlers. The story is so deep in him. It’s laced into his own “family script”—thank you, Angus—which, itself, is riven with that tricky God doctrine, full of manipulation and substitution, handed down, not from the empyrean, but from the early church fathers seeking to impose control on a story that is only mystery at its core, like a river in the wild, beautiful but dangerous, prone to flooding, full of switchbacks, undercurrents, snags below the surface.
Frank glances at his watch again. It’s getting late. He gooses the Beemer and passes a car on the right. The driver gives him a look like, What the hell! Frank cuts back in front of him and starts angling for an opportunity to pass the next car up. He’s doing fifty in a thirty-five. He’s thinking how fast he’s changed. But not at all.
His eyes had opened to art cinema, opened to the wider art of storytelling, at the same time all Christendom seemed to be in the thrall of narrative theology. The story was the thing. Bring the cosmic drama down to earth. He got involved with a Christian theater group. Started writing monologues and short plays. The Good Samaritan as a hitchhiker out on the interstate. The woman at Jacob’s Well as a truck stop waitress. The wicked servants who were cast into outer of darkness go into scream therapy. He created faux advertising breaks between the set pieces, ala A Prairie Home Companion. “Do you hunger and thirst after righteousness? I know I do. Especially after a long Sunday service when I’ve been righteous for two whole hours? Reach for Manna-Bites from Manna-Co. They’ll keep the devil at bay while dinner is on its way.”
Strange religious lit? More like classic creative constructions. Old stories in new clothes. Surprise twists that touch the heart. “Abruptions,” they called them in the Ad Age creative symposium he’d sopped up in New York City a couple of years back. Abrupt interruptions that suddenly open the mind to a new way of thinking about some old human need or desire.
His writing and performances had struck a chord. Soon, he was traveling around the country to churches and conventions, five thousand youth here, two thousand college students there. They loved what he did.
Was he selling Jesus the way Madison Avenue sells toothpaste? In retrospect, pretty much. But at the time, the laughter, the applause—straight to the veins.
As long as he didn’t really care about the people, their souls, and he didn’t. Not individually. Not eternally. Not in the old heaven or hell, tricky God way. Not in the blood of Jesus way. But in the way of his own craving. And he led his listeners out into the shoals and swamps of the river with little blasts of art answering prayers they didn’t even know they had.
Another stop light. A brunette in a Miata convertible with the top down. The light changes and he romps it, leaving her behind. She’s gotta be checking him out.
He misses the audiences, no doubt. The attention, the cheering. Him in the spotlight, oh yes, and the crowd out there in the dark riding the currents of his stories and sketches to surprising places, satisfying a hunger they shared without demanding blood.
Except Southern Baptists do demand blood. He’s threading his way through the traffic thinking, again, about how he’d avoided certain questions. The Baptists who hired him as a storyteller had questionnaires. Legalistic, tricky God questions. In fact, the denomination was coming to pieces over exactly those kinds of questions. The cosmic drama brought down to earth as ugly politics. A great divorce in-progress, the love and judgment contradiction at the core of Christianity actualized.
“A contradiction at the core of Christianity?” The heretic storyteller, a minor celeb in the Baptist world, had to lie or be out of work.
He passes another car and another. Like they’re sitting still. Like historical markers on the road to a new life. Like old seminary friends he’d left behind. All the storytelling travel had made school impossible. The long absences were straining the marriage. Money was tight. His G.I. Bill had run out. The old Galaxy was dying.
It was not God but the ex who then directed his path. He remembers. The story behind the story on his resume. She worked at a small advertising agency. Got him a couple of freelance copywriting gigs. A brochure for an ophthalmology company: “The Eyes Have It,” he wrote. A video script for the Kentucky Newspaper Advertising Bureau—something about the power of print vs. electronic media: “Strong Silent Type.” The money was decent; the approbation divine. The dopamine hit. The hunger for the next one. Boom. He was off and running.
He leans to the right to check himself out in the rearview. They won’t see the Beemer when he wheels in. But they’ll feel it when he walks in. He’s gonna nail this interview.
The She-God is watching, talking to him. Advertising is sex without love. It’s half- truths, not the whole truth. Product stories are satisfactions with no demands.
Oh, but he’s got the vibe: Like AT&T, he knows how to reach out and touch. If we talk about cost, it is so worth it. Because you, Mr. or Ms. Consumer, are so worth it. Besides, “you deserve a break today.”
It’s not atonement. It’s not even a good substitution. But who really cares?
He passes another car and races to make the next green light. He rehearses his act. The questions are going to be all about the biz until the end. Then: “What’s your passion? What really makes you tick?”
“Demographic analysis,” he’ll say flatly without pause. “Defined target markets. Consumer behavior. I like the nuts and bolts.” And that will set up the next question, something like, “Are you sure you’re a creative?” Then he’ll deliver: “At the end of the day,” he’ll say—and they’ll like that phrase, “Solid market understanding drives the best creative. That’s how you hit pay dirt. Get buy-in. And that’s my passion. That’s what makes me tick.”
He’s five minutes from the parking garage. He’s going to make it.
For just an instant, a long, difficult conversation with the She-God crowds in. It happened after a flight from Atlanta, across the Southlands, over the region of the frontier revivals of the Second Great Awakening. “Buy-in by the tens of thousands—emotional, ecstatic converts to Christianity—a demographic cohort targeted by a message, finely tuned, shaped by the socio-economic and political forces of the era that also shaped those people. And boom. They bought it. Like the people of first century Palestine when the right market forces aligned and later, people across the Roman Empire. And people around the world ever since. Like you, Mom.”
“Don’t get too big for your britches,” she said.
He’s blowing through the intersection of Hawthorne Ave, the street where his ex lives. He spots the house, a Porsche 911 parked in the drive. He doesn’t see the traffic stopping in front of him. And suddenly, he’s closing in on the rear of a ’69 Camaro. His skid is short, the squall loud, the bending metal and breaking glass sickening. He sits for a moment. Cars now passing on either side. He closes his eyes, then opens them again. Steam is rising from under the hood of the Beemer.
He gets out. Scans the sidewalks on both sides for a pay phone. “Fender bender,” he’ll say. “Gonna be late. Can we reschedule?” His stomach is churning. He closes his eyes. Puts his hands to his temples. Holds them.
The Camaro door opens. Frank’s eyes open. The driver unfolds, about six-four. Black hair to his shoulders. Black beard. Black T-shirt with large white block letters: DIE YUPPIE SCUM.
He walks toward Frank with a look of utter scorn in his dark eyes. Frank, a target audience of one.
“I’m …” Frank starts.
The man turns to the Camaro, the back bumper and trunk are crunched in. He drops to his knees. “Ahhgg. I just finished rebuilding it.”
The anguish. He is truly about to cry. He bows all the way down to the pavement and moans like a wounded lover.
“I’m so sorry,” Frank says.
The man rises. “Sorry ain’t even a beginning,” he growls. The accent is rural Kentucky. He towers over Frank. The message on the T-shirt is at eye level. It suddenly reads with a menacing drawl. The man’s fists clench, calloused hands with fingers as thick as sausages.
Frank sees the two cars and the two men as from above in spite of himself, the She-God yammering, the message on the T-shirt is no accident. She quiets when the big man turns back to the Camaro and drops to his knees. “Shit, man. I just finished this thing.” His voice writhes with genuine pain.
Frank envies the man’s pathos. Is it the love of the Camaro? Is it the looks he gets on the street? Is it a passion for restoration? Does it matter?
They exchange phone numbers and insurance information. The Camaro tires squeal and the smashed taillights disappear down the street.
Frank stands alone in the passing traffic watching steam rise from beneath the Beemer’s buckled hood like smoke from an unintended sacrificial fire, and refuses to lift his eyes to the sky.
John Styron grew up in a small, rural town in the Missouri Ozarks, exited for military service, college, grad school and the establishment of a writing career as a media developer/scriptwriter for museums and visitor centers. He returned to his hometown in 1994, continued to write, became a mom-n-pop Main Street businesses proprietor in partnership with his wife, raised three kids, then retired to complete an MFA in Creative Writing at Spalding University. His work has previously appeared in The Louisville Review and Caveat Lector.