A month went by. It was hard for Frankie to comprehend that a year has passed since he left home, since the night he nearly beat Billy Martin to death. A year since Pam fired the gun at his head, a year that he’d been on the run. Frankie had made it thirty days without booze or other drugs. He was still not sober, and still not quite sure what that term meant. At the AA meetings, he was told he was sober and was given a thirty-day chip. He was happy, maybe even a little proud, that he’d survived thirty days not drunk or drugged, but he felt he was still missing some key points before he could find sobriety. Zara assured him that he was working the process and he should not try to force anything. He needed to learn from the process.
His initial zeal to find God through Don and Tom had faded somewhat, but he was still seeing those men and attending church three or four times a week. He’d started working street corners “testifying” and collecting change for the church. On a good day or night, he could collect a few hundred dollars for the church, or as Don often corrected Frankie, he was collecting change for God.
He was planning his adult baptism and rebirth in a week. On a Sunday morning, on a secluded bank along the great Mississippi, Don would join him in the muddy water and wash away his sin. Then later that morning, he would testify before his church about the miracles Jesus had performed in his life. Frankie could feel it; he was even starting to think he had a soul and it was on fire for Jesus. That was his public story. Alone, at night in bed with Zara, he would confess he felt empty and still broken. He would roll over and wrap his arms around his beautiful friend and feel a comfort he’d never known. Those were the moments he felt he might have a soul, but to everyone but Zara he told them this reawakening in him was all about Jesus.
Halloween in New Orleans was an amazing experience. That was the night he felt, for the first time, gratitude. It was that moment in the journey to sobriety, where out of thin air you suddenly realize you are not drunk, but you’re reasonably happy, and you are not as sick as you have been. Not healed, just less sick. It’s an overwhelming moment. It was a milestone.
Frankie was on Bourbon Street with Zara and a couple of the girls. The street was alive with madness: drunks and vampires and werewolves and cowboys and nurses and strippers and Elvis, pumpkins and ghosts and ghouls and candy, and a seemingly endless river of booze. The entire French Quarter was just one ungovernable party.
Noise from fireworks that exploded everywhere echoed off the city and their flashes lit the night sky and reflected in the broad Mississippi River. Small fires pumped pungent stench from burning garbage cans into the still-sticky autumn air.
The music of a thousand bands all playing different tunes at once. The noise in the air was deafening; people could feel it, as if the air was on fire. Drunken people hung off second- and third-floor balconies, perilously close to falling over the railings and down to the street below.
For some reason, their heads turned at the same moment, and Frankie and Zara looked down the street as two women on horseback came galloping through the crowd—twin Lady Godivas, totally nude, on horseback. The crowd cleared away and broke into wild applause. Zara commented as they dismounted the horses, just down the street, “Those girls won’t be able to buy a drink all night.”
In the midst of all of this, in the depth of this drunken party, Frankie came to understand and appreciate gratitude. It came to him like a flash of light in the middle of this chaos and revelry. A calming revelation overwhelmed him in the midst of insanity: the realization he was not. He was no longer insane. Maybe today was only a moment, a respite, but it was real and it was his and he would take it and cherish it.
For nearly fifteen years, daily, systematically he had dug himself a perfect bottomless hole, or so it had appeared until about a month ago. Somehow, through circumstances that should have destroyed him, he found that bottom. He crashed into it hard, in what was apparently now, a survivable landing.
For the first time since that night many years ago, as a teen drunk in the cemetery with Sammy, Frankie felt sane. In the midst of complete pandemonium, this boozy, drugged orgy, he felt the gentle, welcoming breeze of sanity and peace. With those first fresh breaths, as they deeply filled his lungs, he became aware of just how precious his breaths were. For the first time, he became aware of his breath and himself. In that moment, he was alone in this crowd. Perfectly isolated, yet somehow connected to everyone and everything.
He was sweating and smelling bad, a beautiful hooker on each arm, drenched with beer—or what he’d hoped was beer—poured onto him from a balcony above. He stood there whole and clean and not drunk. Sobriety might still be a few days’ ride off into the distance, but at the moment it felt to Frankie that he might actually find it.
The following Sunday morning dawned bright and clear. The sun in the South was strange to Frankie. The angle was all wrong, well into November and it looked like later summer to him. The entire southeast and Deep South was like a foreign country to him. He sat up on the edge of Zara’s bed. She stretched; he watched. He bent down to kiss her and then went into the shower. He was going to be washed of his sin today.
He dressed in khaki pants and a white sports shirt. He wasn’t sure what to wear, maybe a bathing suit; he had no idea, he’d better bring one. His hair had started to grow back in. He shaved. He almost looked healthy. He thought himself a long ways away from healthy. He went back in to say goodbye to Zara. She was up and getting dressed too. Payton was with her. The two of them were coming and they would meet Frankie there. Zara, for support, and Payton for amusement, but both under the guise of going to be part of the rebirth of Frankie. Zara wasn’t in favor of the whole born-again adult baptism thing, but she supported the entire process to sanity. She supported the journey. Payton did, too. Both were amused at the level to which Frankie insisted on taking everything.
Zara and Payton drove the ten miles or so down to Bella Chasse, Frankie drove with Don and Tom and rode in the backseat of Don’s car. They all pulled into the parking area a little past the ferry landing. Frankie was uncharacteristically nervous. Don and Frankie walked over to a public bathroom and changed into bathing suits. They came out and walked together the quarter-mile to where they would enter the water.
Tom, Zara, and Payton waited. Tom intentionally ignored the women. He wouldn’t even look at them. A small choir was there from the church, six young girls, including the one who always seemed within arm’s reach of Tom. The day Frankie met Don and Tom, he noticed her. Frankie never spoke to her; she just always seemed to me there and always close to Tom. Too old to be his daughter, but not his wife, Don just said she was Tom’s assistant.
Frankie arrived at the gathering and looked to see the woman from the voodoo shop and a few of her friends there as well. Frankie smiled and said, “Eclectic group.” Everyone smiled, except Tom and Don.
As Frankie and Don walked over by the riverbank, the choir of girls started to sing some old southern hymns. He was never one for church music, unless it was the old lady banging on her ancient out-of-tune piano. The songs were soft and strangely haunting. He couldn’t make out the words, but the melody was ghostly and comforting to Frankie.
Tom began to read passages from Corinthians, then Peter, then the Book of Acts. Don and Frankie started to walk into the water together.
Don said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who doesn’t believe will be condemned.” The words scared Frankie as he felt Don’s arms around his body and he felt his head go under the cold, muddy water.
Instantly, Frankie began to panic. He could see the eyes of the demon again, feel him. The water began to burn his skin; he began to fight Don. His face broke the surface. He looked at Don and in him he saw a demon, too. He scrambled to find his feet in the slippery, steep, muddy banks of the river. He heard the haunting melody from the choir and Tom still talking. He just wanted to get out of there as fast as he could. Maybe he was truly evil. Maybe he was truly soulless, maybe this God was real and he thought Frankie was making a mockery of him and everything he represented.
Frankie wanted to believe, but what he saw and what he believed were staggeringly different. There had been something disconcerting about all things with Tom and Don since he met them. What he saw there in the water made him face a few truths that he had been forcing out of his mind.
He reached the edge of the shoreline. Zara and Payton were there with a towel. Don followed right after him. Don touched his arms and said, “Now, go and sin no more.”
Frankie looked at him in what must have looked like complete terror and walked quickly toward the bathroom to change. Zara followed him in.
She looked at him and said, “What happened to you out there?”
Frankie looked at her and then down at the floor. “I saw him again. All this talk of God and Bible studies and I felt nothing and I saw the demon’s face. I’m done.”
Zara sat next to him as he dressed. She spoke softly, “We all have demons, Frankie, every one of us. You are just more in tune with yours than many. Are you still going to testify?” Frankie looked at the bland concrete of the bathroom floor. It reminded him of the locker room and the night he killed Sammy. He missed Sammy. He wished he could talk to him.
He took her hand and he said, “I’ve got to. Maybe when I’m standing there talking, it will come to me. He will come to me.”
Zara simply said, “Then, we’ll be there.”
Don walked in and looked at the two of them with clear disapproval. Zara got up to leave saying she would give Don some privacy. Don dressed quickly and motioned to Frankie and said that they needed to get going. The church service would start in about an hour.
Tom and his assistant joined them in the car. The drive back to the church was quick and uneventful. Frankie sat quietly and looked out the window. In less than an hour, he was going to stand in front about 200 people and lie through his teeth. He didn’t buy any of it. Not one word. He didn’t like the restrictions, the regime, or the lack of humor. He didn’t feel it. He wanted to feel it. For a time, he thought he was just trying too hard. He tried to back off, but the more he did the stronger Don and Tom would come after him.
As Don drove, he turned halfway around and asked Frankie how he felt to be clean of his sin. Frankie said he felt great. Tom sat by the passenger side window, with his assistant between him and Don. Frankie never really got her name or where she fit into the grand scheme of everything. He watched as Tom put his arm around the girl as they drove north back toward New Orleans. The relationship between Tom and this girl bothered Frankie, not because anything anyone did was his business at all, but because it was pretty obvious something was going on between those two and it went against the grain of everything these guys preached.
A small fire had been building inside of Frankie for a week or two. He was still new at all this God and church business, but he was trying to keep all things in perspective. They pulled the car into the driveway next to the church and to a small alley in the back of the building. They opened the doors and got out. The sun was warm on Frankie’s face. He didn’t miss the cold of the north at all, but he was missing home, especially today.
The baptism left him deeply and dangerously sad and disappointed. He needed to find Payton and talk to her. It was the first moment since that last night, in the bar in the bathroom, where he really wanted to get high, totally and completely destroyed, and fight. The desire, the craving was overwhelming. He realized he was scared, scared and totally out of control. Anger controlled him, driving him. The anger was as much his drug as any chemical, anger and fear.
He’d been trying for over a month to be something other than what he really was, what he felt inside. That fueled the anger. It was subtle comments and things he overheard, from Don and Tom and some others, like Tom’s assistant. There were comments, some not so subtle, about Zara and her line of work and Payton’s. He’d been keeping it all inside, but suddenly it was coming to a boil. He walked into the old stone and concrete church; it smelled musty, like old books. It was cooler inside than outside. He walked past the dark brown, shining, rich wooden pews. He heard the empty, hollow sound of his footsteps echoing throughout the old building. He looked up at the pulpit, a tall wooden structure that dominated the room and seemed to tower over those who sat before it.
He’d been struggling all week with what to say, what words to use. He struggled with his questioning, had he had given this enough of a chance; maybe it was still part of his learning process. He could stand there and mouth some words about the profound impact Jesus and God had made on his life, or he could rip this entire show open like an infected cut that was festering and about to turn deadly. He was still divided fifty- fifty. It could go either way.
Tom walked up next to him on his left side and sat down. He put his hand on Frankie’s knee. Don joined them and sat on Frankie’s right. They said they wanted to talk to Frankie and they wanted to pray with him. Don began the prayer. Frankie couldn’t recall the words. It was relatively brief, for Don anyway, who had a tendency to be somewhat wordy. They held hands and prayed about guidance and forgiveness and for Frankie to change his ways and find his path. Frankie commented silently to himself that he was feeling pretty good; AA/NA was working. He felt a little better every day; he wasn’t so sure he wanted to change his path.
Don then became very somber and serious.
He looked Frankie in the eye and said, “We need to talk. You are about to become a member of our church. You are already part of the family here. We need to talk to you about some of your friends. Frankie, we understand who you were and where you came from, but you are clean now, you are born again. You need to consider carefully who your friends are now. We are all sinners, Frankie, but your friends, the prostitutes and homosexuals, you have to let them go. Do you understand? People like that are not good for your soul, Frankie. Not good for you. We can pray for them. We will pray for them with you, but you need to seriously consider who your friends are. You’ll be much happier without them in your life. You’ll thank us one day.”
Frankie sat there. His mind was made up for him. He was no longer on the fence. He hated indecision. There were times when he would jump in with both feet, knowing it was a bad decision but, to him, a bad decision was better than no decision or indecision. Frankie was okay now, maybe for the first time since all of this church involvement started. He’d clearly made up his mind. Don and Tom got up, quite content with themselves that they had successfully saved another soul. They patted Frankie on the back and went around to the back of the church to get dressed.
Frankie walked into the chapel. He smiled and waved. Bianca, the voodoo shop lady, had joined Zara and Payton in the back row. He looked up and saw David and a few of the guys from the leather bar. These were his friends and this was New Orleans. In any other place in the world, this group, this eclectic group of friends might seem impossible or strange. Here, it all made sense. No questions asked or explanations expected. It was just the Crescent City.
Frankie sat in a front pew alone, then he said to himself, “Fuck this,” and he got up and went back to sit next to Zara and Payton. He thanked everyone for coming.
Zara took his hand and said, “There are people in this world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Then she said, “Do you know who said that? Gandhi. Think about that today as you speak. Today, now, at this moment I need you to think about what you truly seek. I support your path and your decisions, but consider those words. God will appear to you when and how you need him. This is not your place or your path, Frankie, but this decision today, whatever that decision is, does not decide your fate.”
He smiled, for what seemed the first time in days, and thanked her.
Dave came out from the back and walked to the pulpit. Tom followed to the right. He put his hands in the side rails of the rich, brown wooden pulpit. He smiled that smile that Frankie found a little disconcerting; he could never quite figure out the deal with Don. Tom was a little more transparent, but Don had an edgy arrogance about him. As hard as Frankie tried to follow him, more often than not he thought about hitting him, although he knew it wouldn’t be much of a fight. Don seemed to Frankie the kind of guy who would call a cop before he’d fight back. Frankie had little use for guys like that. It became more and more apparent to Frankie that this experiment was over. He decided he would “testify,” but he was sure no one would be very happy when he was done.
Don droned on about how he met Frankie, how he “saved” him, or led him to salvation, and the struggle to bring him to God. Frankie sat there, listening, and thought to himself that Don was talking about someone else. He made a passing comment about people “addicted to their sin,” and glanced to the back of the church at Zara and his friends gathered there and Frankie’s anger grew.
Tom stood up and led them in prayer. Frankie stared at the polished hardwood floor. The room went quiet and Don introduced Frankie. Frankie stood up from his friends, where he was still holding Zara’s hand, and walked up to the pulpit.
He didn’t like public speaking. It was a deep fear of his. He spoke once at a friend’s funeral and he swore he’d never do it again. He really questioned why he decided to do this, but he knew he was doing this at the bidding of the warrior who lived inside him. The warrior lived in there right next to the demon; they seemed to coexist. At times, it appeared they supported each other.
Frankie dug in deep and took his place behind the pulpit.
He began to speak, “I am a drug addict and a murderer. I’m a criminal. I can kill you as easily as I can talk to you, standing here right now. That’s what I am and that is what I’ll always be. That’s my introduction, so now you know me. Some of the people in this room seem to think that I have suffered some great salvation. I can assure you that nothing could be further from the truth,” and he looked at Don. “These men over here,” and he pointed at Don and Tom, “they jumped right on me when I was sick and lost and broken and they tried to make me be like them. Then they sent me out into the streets to preach the Word and collect money for them. I can assure them as I assure you, I am not like them. I have nothing at all in common with them. I am what they fear. I’ve robbed their homes and killed their friends and fucked their wives and sisters and daughters. These men over here are as criminal as I am. They’re the ones who prey on the weak and the sick; it’s a business to them.”
Tom started to approach the pulpit and Frankie’s eyes lit up like burning embers. “Sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up. If you approach me, you won’t like the outcome, not one fucking bit.”
Zara looked at David and Payton. David said, “I’ve seen this guy before. He’s in full-on demon mode.”
The demon was out and having a fine moment.
Frankie continued, “I need to find God. I need to connect with a higher being, with the Creator of the universe. I know this and I feel this, deep inside. The desire and the want and the need is very, very real. I have no idea how to proceed. I thought these two men had some secret they wanted to share, but they lied.”
He pointed to the back of the church. Zara and Payton and the voodoo lady and David and the boys in leather looked incredulous, somewhere between shocked and nervous and completely amused.
Frankie continued from his pulpit, “Do you see those people back there? They are my friends, those prostitutes and drug addicts and homosexuals. When I was so sick that I was close to death, when I was insane and a danger to myself and everyone else, they took me in. They cared for me. They didn’t know me. I was a drunk who showed up in that leather bar filled with scary homosexuals. The guy right there, David, took me to the local brothel and that lady and her friends cared for me. But these clowns, these guys right here, they have a conditional relationship with God. I have tried, tried hard for two months. I’m trying to stay sober and sane and I’m trying to find God, but all these bastards can do is tell me that all I do is wrong. I don’t pray right, I don’t think right, and this morning after he dunked me in the muddy river, he said I needed to turn my back on my friends to find their God. You know what, Don and Tom? I don’t want your fucking God.”
Tom approached Frankie from his left and behind. Frankie spun around and connected hard to Tom’s face, with his right hand. Tom fell back. Frankie reached down, pulled him back up with his left hand, and connected again, hard, with his right. Frankie held Tom’s limp body in his left hand and looked out over the congregation and he started to growl and groan. Frankie seethed and sweat ran down his face. He slammed Tom’s body into the pulpit like a rag doll, let go, and watched his limp body slam to the floor.
David and a couple of the leather boys came running up and grabbed Frankie. They dragged him out of the church and into the alley at the back of the church. David laughed a little but tried to look somber and concerned. Zara, Payton, and the others followed.
David spoke first, “Dude, we need to get you out of here, fast!” Zara agreed. They all moved en masse out of the alley and down the street, toward St. Peter’s and back up toward the bar.
Frankie finally spoke. “I’d better get out of town. I know they’ll call the cops and I can’t go to jail. That was stupid, but I just lost it.”
David looked at Zara and as they walked quickly, she spoke. “Frankie, we have enough on these guys that they won’t call the cops. I’m going to go back there now. You go to the bar and stay there with Payton. I’ll be back.”
Zara turned and headed back toward the church. Frankie and the rest of the group walked through the batwing doors and everyone sat down at the bar. David was especially welcoming to the voodoo lady, Bianca. He told her it was an honor to have her in his bar.
He offered everyone a drink. Frankie had a Coke, and so did Bianca and Payton. Everyone else had a beer. It was now early on a Sunday evening, two weeks before Thanksgiving in New Orleans.
Frankie asked David what he thought. “Do you think I should pack and get out of here?”
David calmly replied, “Frankie, Zara and I have been friends for years. We’ve known about Tom and Don for years, too.”
Frankie looked at him and said, “About what?”
David said, “They’ve done some bad stuff. That girl who’s always with Tom? She’s eighteen now, but he has been fucking her since she was very young. There are so many rumors about Don with young boys. Things no one anywhere would condone. Trust me, they don’t want any more attention than you do. I’m pretty sure Zara will take care of it and of them.”
Frankie got up and said, “David, you’re a good and true friend, but why didn’t anyone ever tell me these things?” He was a little angry.
David replied, “Frankie, everyone needs to find their own way, their own path. Zara and I discussed this many times. We decided that as part of your journey, you had to find these things out on your own. It looks to me like you did. It was a Hell of a show there, too, by the way”
Frankie said he was going back to get Zara. Payton joined him, and, reluctantly, so did David. The three of them walked quickly back to the church. Frankie saw Zara outside the church with the other parishioners. Tom and Don were still inside.
Frankie walked past the crowd and Zara and into the back office where the men sat. Tom’s face was still bloodied. Zara, Payton, David, and now Bianca all followed him in. Frankie stood in the doorway and looked at the two men.
Frankie spoke to Tom, “So that girl—your ‘assistant’—have you been fucking her since she was a little girl? Don, you have a thing for young boys? How did I miss these details? You didn’t share this with me. I should kill both of you. I could do that, you know that, right? I could kill both of you right now and drag your dead carcasses into the swamp to let the alligators and crows eat you and no one would ever know.”
He walked over to Don, pulled him up to standing from his chair and put his hands around his neck. “I want to kill you. It would feel so fucking good to end your life. I can’t. I can’t do this now. You two scumbags are challenging my sobriety. I won’t let you compromise that. I’m here to tell you this: you will never go to the cops about what happened here. You tell your congregation we worked it all out. Make up some of your bullshit forgiveness stories. You tell them whatever you want, but we shook hands and it’s all good now. We parted ways as friends. The cops never find out. If they do, I will come back here and I’ll kill both of you and I’ll fucking enjoy doing it. Do you understand me?”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish