Though it was fifteen minutes before the 7pm service, the Center is full. The kids sit hip to hip in the interlocking seats. Their voices stuff the room. At the door, ushers point newcomers to the Box — a conference room outside the Center — where they can watch me preach live on a jumbo screen to those seated in the inner sanctum.
Some of them don't make it to the Box. They slip into the Center through another door to sit or stand against the walls until the ushers remind them that they are fire hazards.
The kid in the skinny pants with the Bieber hair — his name's Ezekiel or, was it Isaiah — turns knobs on the two thousand dollar guitar hanging from his neck. He adjusts the pedals with the toe of those fabric shoes with the flimsy rubber soles. Dean's daughter, Jessica—who can't be much older than twelve —wears heels on the hoofs of her gazelle legs. She flips the curtain of hair in front of her eye out of the way of her microphone. Ezekiel or Isaiah nods at her and the music starts — U2-riffs, raised hands — while I rub my bald head, sway, and stare at the same old black gum spot on the carpet. Rub my bald head, sway, and stare. Rub my bald head, sway, and stare. For the half hour the band does their thing, I rub my bald head, sway, and stare. Rub my bald head, sway, and stare. Until the music stops and the skinny kid in the fabric ballet shoes calls my name.
Maybe it's the lights, maybe it's the thousands of stares, maybe it's all of the rubbing and swaying and staring, maybe it's the trance-hush into which the U2 riffs have rocked the crowd and myself, but as I step onto that stage I enter into what could only be described as a wormhole. The wormhole's beginning is on earth and its end is in the time-space dimension of the Divine. And my mission is to transport these thousands decrepit, bedraggled souls, in my direct audience and in the ones watching the Box's jumbo-tron, through the wormhole to the godhead before the other end pinches shut for all eternity.
I may have said this out loud because the mouths in the audience laugh nervously. I can feel their crossed legs squeeze tighter, their shoulders stiffen. So, I make a joke about the Denver Broncos — do the Tim Tebow. That puts them at ease. They lean back into their chairs. Their assholes unclamp. Ah, Bronco jokes. There's the Mike we know, they think. But, I know the truth: the real Mike is in the wormhole, and they're coming with him.
Half an hour into the wormhole, sweat has rimmed my collar and I've shed at least a couple tears. Told stories about how my daughter paints my toes blue. I've abandoned my notes to focus on the unrelenting pinching pinching pinching of the wormhole. The light light at the end is like 6pm sun on a dirty windshield. It obscures my vision.
I am on my knees reaching toward the dingy light. It dims.
"Eli, Eli Lama Sabacthani!" I say.
The weight of the souls in the room tied about my waist has more mass than the energy I can muster to drag them. I cannot move faster than the speed of light.
The light dims. The wormhole pinches shut.
"Great sermon, Mike." A hand claps my sweaty back. I turn to find a twenty-something face smiling with horse teeth.
"Oh. Yeah. Well…"
"Really, though, you know? My girlfriend Hannah and I? We thought it was awesome. I loved the part about how, like, we think we can, you know, take care of stuff on our own. But we really need to do life together…"
Do life together? Where did he get that? Did I say that? My mind travels back to the wormhole and hunts around for detritus of the thousands of words I spewed during my forty-five minutes onstage. Horse teeth is still talking as I pick up a chunk of words from the ribbed flesh of the wormhole's dark matter: "we weren't meant to live life on our own—isolated. We aren't islands, people. As much as you'd like to think of yourself as a one-man-show — a Mr. Saturday Night Live — running the play of your life, you're not. You're really only playing a roll in a bigger story. One that's being written for you by the main character himself. If you lived with this knowledge — really lived within this calling of finding your role in his story — you'd know that you were not the protagonist on the stage, but an actor in the play… Or, better: a portal, if you will, for the Divine to play out his narrative through your life."
"… so that's why I thought it was really cool because I just never really thought of, you know, how I'm not the main character in my story!" I would've given him little more than a smile and a pat on the shoulder, but horse teeth's smile looked sincere that I found myself saying, "well, you're in every scene! It's hard not to, right?"
"Right! Right, you're so right-on," he beamed.
He opened his mouth to say more, but I'd already saluted him and climbed the steps to the stage where I could loiter behind the drum kit's shield thing that always reminded me of the nose of a B-52.
I sat on the pleather drummer seat and stared at the fecundity of healthy blonde twenty-somethings, swarming ants-on-a-mound, behind the plexi-glass. Stared at the shapes mingling and tried to forget these shapes housed the souls that had only minutes ago prevented us from making it through the wormhole. Tried to forget that the bodies out of which grew their laughter and their horse teeth were also the rags on top of which their fragile, whining, weak, mewling souls that had failed to prevent the pinching shut of that damn wormhole. And how they would all thank me through their sparkly white horse teeth for the "great sermon" that I don't even remember and that might or might not have been made up of mostly bullshit, but was definitely not strong enough to get us through.
I tapped on the snare with one of the drumsticks. I would've thrown it into the plexi-glass if, from my left, I hadn't heard the soft moaning of a girl the size of a large child kneeling by the exit door. Her blonde hair draped over her face. She rocked herself back-and-forth. Back-and-forth. I scanned the room: shapes chattering, hugging, smiling. The girl rocked herself back-and-forth. Whispered to herself.
Jealousy upchucked into my gut as the girl rock herself back-and-forth. Back-and-forth. Back-and-forth.
I threw my sticks at the set so they clanged and bumped on the cymbals and drums on their way to the floor. She rocked herself back-and-forth. Damn her! That blonde baby got through!