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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.
Other men's sins are before our eyes;
our own are behind our back.
'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,
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.'