On my flights home from Los Angeles—rising over the marina, U-turning over the Pacific—I pray. Pointless. Foolish. The future is fixed, time’s forward-motion arrow is an illusion, the sequence of events we call past, present, andfuture is in fact a single moment: explosion, stars, planets, meteors, water, dirt, cells, fish, plants, animals, men, women, babies, laughter, song, dance, fire, war, blood, renaissance, enlightenment, coal, electricity, steel, steam, trains, cars, telephone, television, airplane, rocket, computer, cell tower, satellite—vast wireless hum wrapped like a cowl around the planet—melting, contagion, epidemic, pandemic, the sun’s sudden spike in entropy before its final, by then we’ll say merciful, implosion: all of it beating now, now, now.
I know this, I still pray, though not in words. I conjure the image of two giant hands lifting the plane and keeping it aloft, point A to point B, heat from those hands radiating up through the baggage compartment to warm my feet. Sometimes, instead of hands, I substitute the bodies of muscular angels: male, positioned at the four corners of the plane’s underbelly. They fly along in silence, quadruplet supermen, fuselage resting on their backs.
What I’m praying about isn’t a plane crash. I’m not afraid of dying that way. It’s what comes after the crash, this scenario I go through in my head:
Engines stutter, oxygen masks erupt. A sharp drop, then another, then a high-pressure, terrifying spin, surface of the ocean on slow-motion approach before the hit, at which point there is either a) an explosion, or b) the breaking apart of fuselage. B involves long seconds in deep water, churn of screaming survivors swimming away from the massive down-tug that will swallow every soul within a certain radius—said radius dependent upon size and weight of wreckage.
Case B splits into two scenarios.
1) I swim away from the sinking plane. I’m a strong swimmer, I can hold my breath for two minutes. So here I am, freestyling hard, grabbing a piece of floating debris and kicking away with my powerful swimmer’s legs—a few fly kicks, a few flutter, to vary muscle use. Most passengers are not strong swimmers. Most will drown. Here’s where I have to figure out if I would give up my piece of debris and tread water until the choppers arrive.
2) I make it onto a life raft. Once I’m on board, the raft is full. The addition of a single soul will make the raft sink. A man swims up and grabs on, we start to tip, he’s getting on no question, someone has to beat the man down or give up his spot or everyone dies. Would I be the one to volunteer? Knowing I was given my powerful swimmer’s legs for such a time as this? If I wouldn’t give up my spot for the man, would I do it for a woman? An elderly woman? A child? What’s the age cutoff of worthwhileness at either end of the continuum?
Would failing to lay down my life for one of my brethren mean I don’t believe what I say I believe? That I am not what I say I am? Here I have to stop and breathe into the barf bag. Because no matter how many times I go over this, I know I wouldn’t give up my piece of debris or spot on the life raft for anyone on this plane.
There is no grace for your imagination, our pastor once said in a sermon. If any of the terrible things you imagine happening actually do happen, in that moment there will be grace to handle it. You cannot muster, imaginatively, the strength and courage that will be given to you if and when you truly need them.
This is how it is with my mind, heading out over the ocean, tipping one way so I see only water, shades of blue and green and cloud-shadow slate; tipping the other, all sky and complication of cloud. Ruckus of glinting refracted light. Some days, just empty gray, in both directions.
In the dream, my son tells me to sit down.
I have something to say, the dream son says. You will not like it.
I sit down. My son—his name is Conley, he’s sixteen, and even in the dream he’s too thin, six-one, 140—stands with hands on his hips and his head bowed, chin touching his chest. Nub of spine-tip at the back of his neck.
He takes a breath and looks up.
I’m the real Peter Pan, he says. At night, when you and Dad think I’m asleep, I go to Neverland.
The next morning at breakfast—it’s Friday, I’m just home from L.A. the night before—I tell Conley and my husband, Andrew, about the dream. The three of us laugh. Ah, dreams, we say. The busybody brain still going about its work while we sleep. Were it not for the playing out of our fears in dreams, the human race would go insane.
Conley calls an hour later, after he’s driven himself to school.
Are you some kind of prophet? he asks when I answer. Like in the Bible?
His voice is higher than normal, cracks twice.
Am I what? I ask.
I did a drug, he says. No. I have been doing drugs. I need you to come get me.
Where are you?
At school, in front of the gym.
On my way. Go inside and wait in the office.
I literally can’t move, he says. This is me losing my shit, okay, Mom?
On the way to the school I call Andrew and do what I keep telling myself I won’t do when I feel guilty about the travel: blame him. Today it’s a) his lack of supervision while Conley is on screen; b) the number of hours he lets him play video games; c) the types of video games he lets him play, first-person POV where all you can see is your own hand holding a pistol or knife or fucking AK-47; and d) the fact that he has never required Conley to do an after-school sport.
When I finish, my husband does what I keep asking him not to do when I get like this: apologizes. Owns what he can own. Promises to work on those particular things.
Andrew cancels his morning classes and comes home. We sit on the bed with Conley, who’s got his madras quilt pulled up to his chin. The ceiling fan is on high speed; a piece of Andrew’s hair, flipped to the wrong side of his part, flutters in its current.
At first it was just weed, Conley says. But that got boring, so me and my friends decided to do it with DXM.
With what? Andrew asks.
Cough syrup, he says. That purple stuff in the cupboard? My friends bailed, so I did it alone.
You did it alone, where, Andrew says, his voice a strained monotone—a disguise, I know, for his relief. Just marijuana and cough syrup.
Here, Conley says, in my bed. At first it was, like, cool. The walls turned colors and flapped around like sheets. I could remember everything that ever happened to me, even when I was a baby, like those green walls with painted trees in my old room. Then I started feeling sick and hating myself. I started thinking everything in my room hated me. My heart was racing and even though I’ve always thought the religious stuff you guys taught me was bullshit, I tried to pray. Every time I closed my eyes my whole body caught on fire. Like, I think I might have gone to hell?
But I felt God, too, Conley says, and he was standing behind me with his hands on my shoulders. He was mad but also comforting me.
So that’s it? Andrew asks. Weed and DXM? Nothing else?
Yeah, Conley says, but I’ve been smoking a lot. Pretty much every morning, and every day after school. And before bed.
Show me your stash, Andrew says.
Conley stands and opens a cupboard beneath the bookshelf. He pulls out NERF guns, tins of Pokémon and Yu-Gi-OH! cards, an empty LEGO architecture box—Space Needle—and a board game called Taboo. Inside the Taboo box is an old VHS cassette. Conley pops the back off; the spools have been removed. In the hollow space, inside a baggie, are clusters of gray-green blooms, bloated-looking. The skunk smell I’d noticed, thinking it was his old Vans.
He takes out a fat blue highlighter with a hole drilled into one end. This is my one-hitter, he says. And this is my pipe. It’s a super-nice one.
The pipe is blown glass, clear, with twisting threads of blue and yellow and red inside: primary-colored DNA.
That’s everything? Andrew asks. You’re not hiding anything else?
Seriously, Dad, Conley says, I couldn’t walk into school today because I thought a cop or demon might be waiting for me. I wouldn’t go through all this just to lie about it.
Thank you for telling us, Andrew says, sitting at Conley’s desk. Weed’s not a huge deal, but you see where it can lead.
I was gone, wasn’t I, I say. When all this started up.
Probably, Conley says. But it’s not like I would have told you, even if you were here.
We watch Conley flush the buds down the toilet. I take the one-hitter and pipe outside. Before I throw the pipe against the stone retaining wall and sweep up the glass, I hold it up to the sun. Put it between my teeth. An ethereal beauty in these illuminated swirls of color—anyone could see that, even sober.
Sorry for blaming you, I say to Andrew in bed that night. It’s more my fault than yours. All the travel.
Our marital bed, given to us by my parents: dark wood scrolled along the top of the headboard, sheets grown so soft we can’t stand to replace them, a strand of tin stars swagged from the corners of the bare canopy slats. Beneath these stars we have dreamed and fought and cried and made love and planned our future—lately, what we’ll do when Conley leaves for college, the bright years ahead, both of us just entering our forties.
It’s no one’s fault, he says, rolling to face me. And you’re just doing your job.
I don’t have to do this job, I say. They’ve got plenty of writers staffing the show.
Yeah, he says, but if you stop going out there who knows where they’ll take it. They need your voice.
Conley needs it more, I say. Just knowing I’m here, in the house.
It’s a temporary gig, he says. Conley and I can manage.
You’re just saying that because of the money.
The money’s good. But I’m saying it because it’s your calling.
I’m not sure which calling you mean, I say.
There are, Conley tells us the next morning, five friends in his network. These sort into two categories: friends who get him the drug, and friends with whom he shares his stash. We take his cell phone away so he can’t be in contact with these particular friends. We tell him he can check it at night, with our supervision, and then give it back. That these strictures won’t last, but we are in a season of reestablishing trust.
Texts he receives that night:
you fucking idiot you told your parents?!
Dude after you left I got called to principle you throwin me under the bus?
I’m graduating in three weeks you sissy bitch.
We tell him he can call these friends to assure them we’re not going to tell the school or their parents. We tell him to encourage his friends to come clean on their own. I listen on the other side of his bedroom door while he makes the calls, to be sure he’s following through and not arranging anything.
Dude I had like a massive panic attack, I knew if I walked into school I was gonna tell someone, probably the office, so I called my mom.
I don’t know what to say about that. What’s done is done.
Sorry man. Do what you gotta do.
I go into the kitchen. Beside the sink, a stack of cans and bottles for recycling, Cream of Wheat crystallized on pot and bowls, rotten bananas, thawed chicken breasts. I stand cataloging these things, touch nothing. Five minutes later Conley comes out and hands me his phone.
What I’m thinking right now, he says, both hands in his hair, is that it would have been better to just deal with all this by myself.
You did the right thing, I say, reaching toward him—still the impulse to enfold, though now I’m reaching up.
Conley backs away. Leave me alone, he says.
He goes into his room and blasts a Norwegian metal band called Tak. I hear his drumsticks on the desk, mattress, walls. An hour later he comes out. His face is red and he’s sweaty at the temples, but he’s smiling.
Fuck those guys, he says. I don’t care what they think. I care what God thinks.
Two days later I’m flying back, Atlanta to L.A. No bodies of water involved. Still I trade my window seat for the middle and make it twenty minutes before the scenarios start up and I have to breathe into the barf bag. The man beside me leans out into the aisle.
The show I write for is in preproduction development, about a couple that agrees to have an open marriage. In the pilot, Micah and Amy get married young, midtwenties. The opening montage is the two of them having creative, slow-mo sex, “Father Figure” playing in the background. Fast-forward three years. Micah’s bored, Amy’s getting there. Micah proposes the open-marriage concept and Amy agrees. Micah starts sleeping with everyone: women, men, teens, trans women, trans men. Even, in a dream sequence, a goat. That scene will never make it to production, if the show gets there.
The sex in the pilot, the network says, is over-the-top. My role on staff: Tone down the sexy. Make the sexy spiritual.
In Hollywood, when I speak, I am the most important person in the room. I pitch an idea to the producers—new character, plot twist—and they say: Genius, brilliant, you’re our absolute favorite writer, ever. We sit around an oval table on the fourth floor of a building in Santa Monica, a wall of windows facing Broadway. The other walls are floor-to-ceiling whiteboard so we can jump up and scrawl before we forget. I’m ten years older than the oldest person at the table, Jenn, a USC film-school grad who worked on Lost when she was still in college. Now she’s twenty-nine and engaged and the rock star on staff, blond hair to her waist and a plaintive, elfin face that belies her intelligence. Also a tendency to chew her lower lip while foregrounding her personal issues, in casual conversation, in a way that no one but me seems to notice.
Despite our age difference, Jenn and I hang out in the evenings. She has questions; I’m one of the only married people she knows. Sometimes we go to Zuma for sushi, or drive all the way up to County Line for crab at Neptune’s Net. We crack shells and drink beer and tell each other that we are the music makers, the dreamers of dreams, that with each episode we will nudge the world a bit. I never thought I would be attracted to a woman, but Jenn is an exception. The way she seeks my wisdom while in calm possession of a sexual maturity beyond my own. There is nothing she hasn’t done, nothing she won’t talk about or enlighten me upon, and sometimes this expert-novice seesaw makes my stomach bottom out.
Tonight we stay local, take a car to a Mexican place in Brentwood. We order margaritas and watch the joggers run the median on San Vicente.
So we have to get Micah to his saturation point, Jenn is saying. Exhaust his erotic possibilities. He needs to wear himself out till the only thing left that turns him on is Amy.
The trick will be buy-in, I say. Getting the audience to believe that a marriage could survive it.
As long as Amy’s complicit I think it’ll fly, Jenn says. The network wants to uphold the institution of marriage, you know? I feel like there’s this weird conservative trend in Hollywood right now. Religion’s making a comeback.
Also, she says, there’s something to it, right? All those years with just one person—you must know precisely what to do to get each other off.
Yeah, I say, but there’s a certain amount of curiosity you have to live with.
Don’t get me wrong, Jenn says. I’m excited to make a life with Tom. Have kids, decorate a house. But how do you stop wanting to fuck other people?
You don’t, I say. And you just don’t.
You’re a saint, she says. She reaches across the table and puts her hand on mine. I feel a responsive pulse below my navel, though I tell myself it’s the combination of her touch and what we’re talking about, and not her touch alone, that triggers the response. Her engagement ring is a delicate white tattoo in a scrolled font: tom & jenn 2016. Tom got the identical tattoo in black.
I don’t know why we didn’t get normal rings, she says, pulling her hand away.
I’m far from a saint, I say. I’m failing as a mother. Conley got addicted to weed and I had no idea.
That’s normal, she says. It’d be weird if he wasn’t doing it. At his age I was snorting coke and sleeping with one of my teachers.
Also I’ve been having panic attacks, I say. On the plane. Conley’s on this Southern Jesus kick and I’m not sure I believe anything I’ve been telling him all these years.
You probably wouldn’t be worried about it if you didn’t believe it, she says.
My turn, she says. I cheated. A playwright from New York, older guy, intense. I’m not going to tell Tom. It meant nothing. I think I’m just terrified to commit, you know?
I get it, I say. Part of me is envious. I wish I had your freedom.
I wish I had your morals, she says.
Also, she says, reaching out but this time putting her hand on my thigh, there are other ways to have freedom. Without cheating in the technical sense.
For a moment I envision taking her hand and moving it up farther, then move my leg away.
The studio puts me up at the Hotel California, a dive by California standards—no AC, no room service. Stick-up electric guitars and a poster of Kurt Russell in Escape from New York above the headboard.
After dinner with Jenn I go back to the hotel and call Andrew.
How’s Conley, I say.
He seems great, Andrew says. He actually went and talked to the youth pastor. And I got him an appointment with Dr. Nelson on Friday.
I’ll take him, I say. I’m coming home early.
If you’re sure, he says.
I’m sure, I say.
LAX to ATL. Giant hands, wingless angels, scenario A, B. Etcetera.
What my parents told me, when I was a child: Someday, someone will ask you to deny your faith. Point a gun at you and try to put a mark on your hand or forehead. If that happens, they said, it will be the mark of the beast. People who get the mark won’t belong to God. So resist. Die if you have to. Better to lose your life and save your soul.
What I told Conley, after one of the mass shootings: If you’re ever asked to deny your faith, do it. Deny away. Deny with gusto. Swear to Allah, Krishna, the devil. It doesn’t matter. Fake whatever you have to fake. Abraham told Pharaoh his wife was his sister so Pharaoh wouldn’t kill him. King David pretended to be insane—let spittle run down his beard—to escape from Gath. Peter denied Jesus but Jesus forgave him in advance. Preemptive forgiveness.
Recant, renounce, just stay alive, I said.
While Conley is peeing, the pediatrician talks to me alone.
The school will put him on a drug-test program, he says. Five-panel urine screens, once a month or so.
I was hoping we wouldn’t have to tell the school, I say.
Trust me, they won’t blink, he says.
It’s a Christian school, I say.
All the better, he says. They take the kids the public schools have kicked out.
Look, recreational marijuana use is incredibly common among teens, he says. Smoking with their buddies, feeling independent. The problems start when they do it alone, to self-medicate. The question you have to ask then: What is it they’re trying not to feel?
When Conley comes back, Dr. Nelson shows us a drawing of the brain with parts labeled. He tells us that long-term marijuana use in teens can stunt the development of the frontal lobe, the locus of motivation and coherent thought.
By the age of twenty-five, he says, if you haven’t stopped using, it’ll be too late. You’ll have become a chronic slacker.
Conley’s results are positive—no surprise. Doctor Nelson gives me the name of a local rehab center, which he says is a good place to start.
And listen, Dr. Nelson says to Conley before we leave. You’re going to want to take up porn and masturbation to replace the drug. But trust me, that form of addiction has its own problems.
On the way home Conley tells me he’s been reading the Bible. There’s some weird-ass stuff in there, he says. I’m pretty sure Cain was the first vampire. I mean where the tradition started. A blood curse? Driven to the ground?
And there’s this theory called emanation, he says, where God’s the starting point, and everything’s flowing out of him—angels, planets, stars, people—but the farther away things get, the worse they get. Which is why there’s evil. It’s the opposite of evolution, where supposedly things are getting better.
And visions, he says. Like when you dreamed about me going to Neverland. That had to be kind of a prophecy.
What I want to say to him: When Jesus cried out “It is finished,” orthodox theology says he meant his work on Earth. The Old Testament system, wringing of doves necks, day of atonement, Levite priest confessing the sins of the entire Hebrew nation while pressing his hands onto a goat, then sending the goat off into the desert—that system was finished, Jesus the final sacrifice. The scapegoat. But sometimes I wonder if it is finished only meant, Oops. I thought God would save me, he didn’t. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken, tetelestai.Game over.
I’m no visionary, I say. I’m not even sure there’s such a thing.
Listen, Mom, he says. This Jesus shit is real.
After school the next day Conley and I drive to the center, an aluminum-roofed outbuilding behind a walk-in medical clinic. A woman named Kaneesha hands me a clipboard and Conley a bottle of water. We sit on a vinyl couch with metal armrests. In the room with us are three other men. One appears to be sleeping; another is wearing khaki shorts with whales and loafers without socks; the third is rope thin with a buzz cut, gray hair at the temples and a face drawn in lines of charcoal. He sits across from us, knees bouncing, until a nurse in latex gloves comes out and takes him into the back, guiding him by the upper arm. This place is sketchy, Conley whispers.
Our caseworker is a giant black man named Weathers.
You ready to go for me, Mr. Conley? Weathers asks.
We follow Weathers down a hallway. The charcoal-faced man is sitting in a chair beside a scale, having his blood drawn. We go into an evaluation room and Weathers pulls on a pair of gloves.
Okay Mr. Conley, he says. Take off your belt and shoes, turn your pockets inside out, lift your shirt. I’m going to feel you up. He kneels in front of Conley, starts at his ankles. By the way, he says, how old do you figure that man getting his veins tapped is?
I don’t know, Conley says. Thirty maybe?
That boy, Weathers says, is seventeen years old. I want you to picture his face the next time you feel like using. You start with pot and end up looking like that.
Weathers runs a five-panel on his urine and a piece of his hair: amphetamines, opiates, cocaine, meth, marijuana. Result is positive for marijuana: Screen: 50 ng per ml. Quant: 15.
That’s threshold, Weathers says. Residual in the hair lasts three months. These reports will go straight to your school, Mr. Conley.
And remember, Weathers says before we leave. You might clean up your blood and piss and hair, but if you don’t get your mind cleaned up, you’ll go back. You got to have somewhere else to go, in your head. A pretty lady—or two or three.
On the way home, Conley tells me to pull over. I have to tell you something, he says.
I take the next exit and park in front of a Subway.
I smoked while you were gone, Conley says. In the shower. I found a pipe in one of my drawers. It’s one I made out of duct tape and dryer sheets. I forgot I had it.
Why didn’t you tell me, I ask. Or tell Dad. Before we had these tests.
I knew everyone was expecting it to be positive, he said. And I knew it was the last time. It sucked. It just made me nauseous.
I’m sorry, he says. I know this is messing things up for you. Like your job.
Don’t tell Dad, he says. Because I mean it, I’m really done this time.
I write a therapist named Weathers into Episode 2.
A COMMERCIAL JET flies through dark clouds. THUNDER, LIGHTNING inside clouds.
CUT INSIDE TO:
“FASTEN SEAT BELT” SIGN clicks ON. Sound of CLICKING SEAT BELTS, nervous HUM of passengers.
INTERIOR bathroom on plane. Close-up on Amy going down on a MAN IN DARK SUIT. As she undoes his shirt buttons, we hear:
You see, Miss Amy, the road to ruin begins in the mind.
Close-up of Amy’s MOUTH on man’s NAVEL; man MOANS.
Watch your thoughts, for they become your words…
Sound of man’s BELT BEING UNDONE; close-up of Amy’s hands running down pant legs.
Watch your words, for they become your actions…
Man’s hands in Amy’s hair, GASPS, sound of ZIPPER going down.
Watch your actions, for they become your habits…
Back of Amy’s head, man’s red face; camera jittery, BUMPS, MOANS through increasing turbulence.
Watch your habits, for they become your character…
We see man’s face as he cries out during climax. FLIGHT ATTENDANT KNOCKS on door.
Everything all right in there?
I need you to return to your seat, ma’am.
Sure, just a second.
Amy stands; man does not look at her, pulls up pants, buttons shirt. Amy EXITS bathroom, walks back to seat, CLICKS seat belt. Closes eyes.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
The Weathers voice-over is a fucking downer, Braydon says.
Braydon is also on staff. He’s twenty-four, wears tuxedo jackets over plaid flannel shirts. We’re at lunch, Jenn, Braydon, and I. I’m about to pitch the Weathers character to the producers.
Amy should be allowed to enjoy herself, Braydon says. The way Micah does.
This is more realistic, Jenn says. Amy’s struggling with whether or not they’ve made the right decision. Micah will struggle later.
It’s too early in the season for either of them to struggle, Braydon says. We should give Amy until at least episode five. Let her experience pleasure without any prohibition.
The prohibition is what creates pleasure, I say. Once the prohibition is gone, there’s no more pleasure. That’s the problem with the open-marriage concept. With the show in general.
I agree, Jenn says, leaning closer so her shoulder presses into my upper arm. I don’t move away. In my mind I’m revising the Weathers scene so it’s women in the bathroom: close-up on mouths, hands tangled in each other’s hair. I’m thinking about omniscience, preemptive forgiveness—grace from before the creation of the universe—that if it’s true, if I believe what I say I do, then prohibition is meaningless. There’s no way to mess up. Why not go on sinning so that grace may increase.
It’s too much guilt, too soon, Braydon says.
Also, he says, Road to ruin? You’re better than that.
I go back to the Hotel California after work. Jenn comes with me. We say we’re going to revise the Weathers scene. That is what we say. What we do is something else—what Jenn does to me first, which isn’t much, just our bodies pressing together, fully clothed. When Jenn stops and says, in my ear, You sure you’re okay with this, and I say, Yes, no, wait, I don’t know; when she steps back and lifts her dress over her head and stands there, not shy, not confident—a touching mix of provocation and uncertainty—I tell her she is beautiful, and that she has to leave.
You have no idea how much I admire you, she says on the way out.
When she’s gone I call Andrew.
I can’t do this job, I say. I don’t give a shit about anything I’m writing.
At least finish out the season, he says. We really do need the money.
It’s more than that, I say.
I wasn’t going to tell you this, Andrew says, but Conley skipped his afternoon classes yesterday and came back for seventh period, before anyone realized he was gone. The teacher sent him to the office because he wouldn’t stop talking—frantically, in her words—about the philosophy behind some video game.
They tested him—positive for opiates, Andrew says. I don’t know where he got the pills. I’m worried about, you know. Treatment costs.
I’m so sorry, he says.
Please, I say, don’t fucking apologize.
So we love Weathers, one of the producers says to me on the phone. He’s absolute genius, he’ll be an invaluable addition to the show, no question. But for now, I think the consensus is that we want Micah and Amy to enjoy all forms of sexuality, without stricture or guilt. Let’s save Weathers for season two?
Good idea, I say.
Something’s come up at home, I say. It’s sort of an emergency.
Oh my God, she says, is everything okay?
It will be, I say, but I need to get on a red-eye tonight.
Absolutely no worries, take all the time you need, you’re our number-one asset! she says.
When I get off the plane a text chimes:
Network bagged open marriage pilot. VP for series development wants to talk to you about creating 5-season, 60 episode, marriage and infidelity and Christianity. Southern setting. (Read: no travel!) Assistant setting up call at 4 PST.
So what you’ll need to do, my agent says on the phone, is come up with a story engine. Some overriding situation to generate five seasons of shows. If they like the idea they’ll want you to write the pilot.
We’re talking real money this time, she says.
Define real, I say.
The amount varies, she says, but I can tell you what they’ll pay for a sixty-page pilot. Are you sitting down?
It averages to about two grand a page, she says.
Thank you, I say. And then again: thank you. It’s the only response I can come up with.
Are you kidding me? Andrew says that night. For sixty pages? Holy shit.
I’m not going to do it, I say. This is my chance to get out of the industry. Focus on Conley.
Maybe, he says. Or maybe it’s an answer to prayer. No travel, three times as much money as before.
At least pitch an idea or two? he asks.
I pitch one.
The near future. In the wake of global terrorism and political/economic breakdown, the U.N. holds a series of emergency summits to avert an impending Third World War. A single world government forms: PAN (Peace for All Nations). Transportation, health care, education, military, currency all come under PAN control.
In the former United States—now known as PAN-12—evangelicals refuse to comply with mandatory-for-citizenship bar codes tattooed on temples and thumbs. They believe this is the “mark of the beast” spoken of in Revelation 13:16-18. Without a tattoo, PAN citizens cannot buy, sell, or cross borders.
A faction of right-wing militants take hostage and kill PAN law enforcement officers, social workers, scholars, and teachers. PAN outlaws the practice of “intolerant” Christianity. Resistance increases. PAN begins to enforce strictures against “Intolerants”: fines, relocation, imprisonment. Eventually, the humane euthanization of anyone who will not renounce the Christian faith.
Martyrdom reaches epidemic proportions. The Pope makes a public plea to both sides, PAN and Christians. He is assassinated, apparently by PAN. Christians around the globe go into hiding. The Church Universal Underground (CUU) forms. Members of “allowed” faiths—Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, moderate Muslims—begin to hide Christians on penalty of death.
In PAN-12, the United South (US) is the last holdout against PAN, offering asylum to Christians who make it across the border. A second Underground Railroad develops, this time in reverse. The African American Church in the south organizes the locations of safe houses and operates search-and-retrieve missions to assist Christians close to the border. Signal Mountain is the site Christians are trying to reach (comparable to the Ohio River for fleeing slaves). It is the location of the largest CUU in the South: PAX.
PAN wishes to locate and extinguish all Christians living in this community, and has focused the bulk of its intelligence operations there.
My agent calls an hour after I send the pitch.
They love it, she says. A chance to tap into a new market with American evangelicals. They’re ready to sign contracts and talk about the pilot.
Also, my agent says, Jenn says she wants to write on whatever show you end up doing. She e-mailed the VP and producers and copied me. Whither she goest, I goest—she actually wrote that. Charming.
The network will fly you out here in a few weeks, and we’ll get things signed and rolling, she says.
This is going to be huge, she says.
I am reading a book of essays by a brilliant atheist critic. How we think of God, he says, is the fundamental thing. Do we think of him, or her, or it. Or do we not. Materialism, electrical impulses, humans as impurities infesting the planet; the slow burn, quick explosion, extinction. All of us aching with the doomed beauty.
But why the ache? our pastor asks.
What if the important thing, the pastor says, is not how we think of God, but how he thinks of us? What if there are only two ends, at the end: Well done, good and faithful servant, or Depart from me, I never knew you? Also, the pastor says, look at the scripture. No one tells God what they think of him in the biblical text. Even angels turn men to stone. They cannot speak. They become brute beasts. Only Mary was able to speak in the presence of an angel. I am thy servant, may it be done unto me.
Maybe I’d say that, too, if God sent an angel to tell me exactly who I was, and would become.
Weathers says Conley’s compliant, eager to change. What he needs is routine, good sleep, healthy diet, exercise. Support and love from Andrew and me. Thing is, Weathers says, you all don’t know how good you got it. Kids in the South—I’m talking your South—they pretty much stick to party drugs. Weed, ecstasy, shrooms, cocaine. Meth heads are the rural poor. We don’t see much else down here. Heroin some, but not often.
Conley has a new girlfriend, Hannah, a serious student with Ivy League aspirations. He makes her laugh, she makes him study. He’s wearing button-down shirts and wants a pair of suede Clarks high-tops. He’s been applying for jobs: bus boy at the Mountain Café, checkout attendant at the Mountain Market. The store manager called to tell me that Conley is a delightful young man.
Can I tell Hannah about your show? Conley asks at dinner.
Better hold off, I say. I haven’t decided if I’m going to do it.
You have to do it, he says. It’s so cool. None of my friends’ moms have jobs like yours.
He puts his fork down and leans forward, onto one elbow, accidentally tipping his plate. A few peas roll off onto the tablecloth. Without looking up, he says, You forgive me for the drug stuff, right?
Only if you forgive me, I say.
Duh, he says. He doesn’t ask for what. Not that I would tell him. Still, I would like to have been asked, as the question would assume the possibility of some failing on my part, however remote, and the grace implicit in that assumption—you may have failed but I am here, at this table with you, asking you to tell me about it—would be enough.
He’s normal, my husband says while we’re doing the dishes. A normal teenage boy. He spins me around to face him, puts his wet hands on my cheeks. You’ve done well by him, he says. We’ve done well. You should feel nothing but excitement about the show.
Conley’s not the reason I don’t want to do it, I say. I reach out to hold onto the edge of the counter. For one thing, I say, I’m attracted to a writer on staff.
Andrew’s eyes go wide.
It’s a woman, I say. It’s Jenn.
Ah, Andrew says. He turns off the water and dries his hands.
Also, I say, I don’t think I believe what I say I do anymore. God, Jesus. The whole fucking thing. I’ll leave a giant stain on Christendom if I do this show now.
Andrew pulls my head onto his shoulder, because—against my will—I have started to cry.
Well, he says. Now those are reasons.
If you want to know what God’s will is for you at any point in your life, my mother once told me, ask yourself what God asked Moses in the desert: What is in your hand? A home. A husband. A son who is—new word for me—holding. Or was holding. I’m not sure how long the past tense will stick.
For now: Seek first his kingdom and righteousness and all these things shall be added unto. Etcetera.
I pray for the desire to seek.
No: I pray for the ability to believe in prayer.
If the prayer had words, it would sound like this: I cannot. So help me God I cannot.