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The Messiah of Morris Avenue
by Tony Hendra
Henry Holt, 2006


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PROLOGUE

Fort Oswald, Texas. An early summer storm roils the sky. Lightning crackles between fat thunderheads. They lurch over the flat plain, roly-poly, gun-metal-grey giants, thousands of feet tall, occasionally spitting thin streams of dazzling light at the ground.

Abutting the vast air base's southern boundary, is a brand-new maximum security prison, one of thousands that dot the Lone Star landscape, as familiar a sight as forests of oil rigs once were, back in the bad old days before God returned to America.

The prison is a sprawling complex covering dozens of acres. It consists of identical rectangular compounds, each formed by three rows of titanium-reinforced, 20-foot chain-link fence, topped with dense rolls of razor wire. The gap between each row is packed with more razor wire. The wire bristles with countless thousands of tiny blades. When lightning flashes overhead, they flash too.

The prison's full name is The Risen Lamb Correctional Facility. Its directors call it a Christian prison, one that respects the retributive power of Church and State: the right of the judiciary to exact punishment, the right of the Lord to vengeance. The men and women incarcerated here aren't "inmates" or "prisoners" but "sinners." Those convicted of capital crimes are called "cardinal sinners." But the God of vengeance is also the God of forgiveness. This prison differs from all others in the fervent efforts that are made to help cardinal sinners repent before they're terminated; to be born again before they die.

At the center of the complex is its spiritual heart: a circular two-story rotunda containing ten lethal-injection chambers. No other facility in the world has such multiple capability. If necessary, ten cardinal sinners can be terminated simultaneously.

From the center of the rotunda, rises a colossal 150-foot rotating crucifix: one full rotation every 60 seconds. Front and back, the arms of the cross bear a scrolling LED readout. On one side the legend reads CHRIST DIED FOR YOUR SINS! When the opposite side comes around, it reads NOW IT'S YOUR TURN!

It's been an auspicious morning for the new facility. At noon it executed its very first cardinal sinner, a young non-Caucasian male, and for an unusual crime: treason. Every effort was made to bring him to the Lord before he went to the execution chamber. Alas, he was unrepentant.

Owing to the inexperience of the staff, he underwent considerable trauma: the lethal drugs took some time to effectuate termination.

But all is well. At 12:45 P.M., he was declared dead and his remains were cremated. The ashes will be placed in a simple container and before nightfall, delivered to his mother.

*

The years haven't softened the image of him, lying dead on the gurney. The memory is as raw as the long bloody gashes the IVs had opened in his arms. Each time I see him there, the pain still roils me, as the storm did the sky.

I put him on that gurney. I was his Judas.

ONE

In the beginning... I knew him only as The Mysterious Stranger.

I first came across him at a low point in my career—well the low point actually—lower, as they say in Texas, than a snake's belly. Clinging to the underside of said reptile was where you'd find me, Johnny Greco, in the middle of the second decade of America's Millennium, or Christ's Millennium—which by then were interchangeable terms.

I was entering if not the twilight certainly the happy hour, of a long career which had begun in youthful idealism at the Columbia School of Journalism and proceeded more realistically through the ranks of the newspaper of record, reaching its peak when I was forty-something and the descendants of Mr. Joseph Pulitzer bestowed one of their baubles on me for investigative reportage. This was when that still meant something: before they began awarding Pulitzers for In-Depth Gossip and Best Rumor.

From then on my path led downhill to its current nadir: a senior post at something called The New Jersey Inquiring Mind.

According to its proprietors the Inquiring Mind was a newspaper, but it had no connection to news or to paper. At a time when most real newspapers had gone out of business, the term had the cachet of the obsolete. The Inquiring Mind was a newspaper in the same sense that, when I was a kid, a pimpmobile was called a brougham.

The homepage was topped with tasteful line-art depicting a crusader on whose shield was emblazoned the proud word TRUTH. Below this logo, it was a bottom-feeding web-zine, pumping out old-fashioned streaming video, and chockablock with blinding ads for sex aids, bankruptcy lawyers, homeopathic cancer cures, intercontinental "dating" services, and astrology-based investment strategies.

There was an identical Inquiring Mind in every other state of the Union and in scores of nominally English-speaking countries. The whole world-wide web-net of rock-bottom sleaze cost almost nothing to run and made a fortune. It was owned by three guys in Bangalore. Alas, they didn't call themselves Three Guys from Bangalore. If only. They called themselves NewsWeb and were listed on the Nikkei Multi-Bourse. One of them is now prime minister of India.

The Inquiring Mind was premised on an obvious if depressing reality. Whatever global computer literacy was doing for understanding among nations, it had added hundreds of millions of people to the happy throng of those willing to do anything in front of a camera. Now everyone in the world had the chance to act like a fubar senior on spring break.

Whether it was a Sherpa trying to Rollerblade down Stage 2 of Everest or an ordinary Joe from Canton, Ohio with size 14 feet so webbed that from the butt down he looked like Donald Duck, the freaks of Planet Earth found a warm welcome at the Inquiring Mind.

Like all the others, the New Jersey "edition" was essentially a strip-mining mechanism that scoured our territory for freaks. The only remotely newspaperlike aspect was my half-dozen stringers around the Garden State, doing the scouring. If they found something promising they forwarded their video to me; if I liked it I would "report" it: that is, insert myself in the video (thanks to some miracle of digital editing beyond my print-bred brain) and slug it into the appropriate department. It could run regionally or nationally, or—that pinnacle of journalistic prowess—globally.

The top-rated department was The Nut Log, which brought our reportorial scrutiny to bear upon rampant cases of mental derangement. (It wasn't exploitative or anything—perish the thought).

Many Nut Log candidates were religious nuts, which wasn't surprising given the improvements Christian fundamentalists had introduced into the American way of life. The Ten Commandments now appeared helpfully in schools, bars, planes, restrooms, gyms, and night-clubs; on cigarettes, alcohol, prescription drugs, lingerie advertising—anywhere temptation might slither up and bite your ankle. This theocratic concern for American souls was widely seen as a good thing. In a national Inquiring Mind Insta-Poll we'd run, 86% of the respondees believed theocracy was spelled "The Ocracy"; 89.9% of them said they didn't know what Ocracy was, but knew it was good.

The most powerful effect of The Ocracy on the deranged was its constant drumbeat that these were the Final Days. For someone with a limited supply of marbles, the urgency of the end-time message had a very specific result. Instead of developing some more normal abnormality like barking from trees or directing traffic in their boxers, they zeroed in on being God—or close to it.

My favorite Nut Log nut was a former professor of archeology at Rutgers. An obliging angel of the Lord had informed him that he was the reincarnation of Simon Stylites, a saint who'd spent the best years of his life atop a fifty-foot pole, sustained by bread and water.

St. Simon the Sequel had constructed a similar perch in his yard in Asbury Park and had been living up it in a loincloth for a while when The Nut Log crew caught up with him. His wife would shin up a ladder every morning to bring the Saint his bread and water.

We shot this ritual from a neighboring tree and the very first time, St Simon snarled, "Damn you woman, I said stale bread! And this water is clean!"

That did it for me. But what sold him to the Nut Log was an hour later, when the time came for his self-mortification. The appearance of his helpmeet had given him a fine erection, which he proceeded to pound with a mallet against the floor of the platform for a good half hour.

Then there were the messiahs. In theory, messiahs were a goldmine. Problem was, they were largely indistinguishable. The Manson eyes, the unkempt hair, the beard with bits of food in it, the occasional robe—they'd all been watching the same movie. When you get right down to it, fanatics aren't that funny. Except for the King James garble coming at you non-stop, most Christs could just as easily be animal activists, Roswell geeks, classical bassoonists or wine writers.

So when I first got a report from my stringer in South Jersey about some guy wandering around with a bunch of disciples, performing miracles, I didn't pay much attention. Messiahs were a dry hole. But other stringers in other parts of the state began to hear things on their grapevines: a man cured of TB in a supermarket parking lot in Phillipsburg, a kid with MS made to walk in a schoolyard in Mount Laurel. More than one report of a young woman cured of full-blown AIDS, no location given.

I began to wonder a little. Not whether miracles were happening; quite the opposite. These "miracles" had a familiar ring. They sounded like retooled versions of old tent-revival, laying-on-of-hands scams: auto-suggestion temporarily alleviating symptoms of serious disease. You had to know your way around not to be fooled by them, but desperately sick people often were. Then they'd find out there'd been no cure and fall apart.

Hardly what Nut Log fans wanted to see on their carputers in morning traffic.

Messiahs fell into two categories: nuts or hustlers. This guy sounded like the second, and I wasn't about to give him any publicity. He was probably doing enough harm as it was. On the other hand, he didn't seem to want publicity, which was puzzling. Nuts or hustlers, messiahs were always ravenous for attention; even the most severely unhinged sought us out day and night.

One of my stringers, a funny energetic Asian kid named Kuni, was intrigued enough to start keeping a record of the "miracle" messiah. There weren't that many sightings, perhaps five in as many months. All were after the fact. There was no way to predict where he was going to crop up. He seemed to be operating in the tristate area, but was hard to track because he moved in the underground of the truly poor: the toughest neighborhoods of hard-hit cities like Elizabeth, Trenton, Bridgeport. Once or twice a stringer got wind that he'd materialized somewhere, but the neighborhoods where he appeared weren't easy or safe to navigate, and by the time someone got there he was on his way again, leaving behind talk of cures and second sight and people changed by his words. The inaccessibility of these places made it hard for stringers to find and check the people who'd been "cured" or "changed by his words."

Kuni kept at it. One source said the miracle worker's people called him Jay and they all traveled together in a beat-up van. He sometimes preached in Spanish. He never took up collections, as other messiahs invariably did. One source said he had a real slow way of talking that "made you feel peaceful-like." Kuni said someone told him she thought he'd got his start in Camden. That'd be news, I said: getting your start in Camden.

I remember this conversation because it was the first time Kuni called him the Mysterious Stranger. I liked that. It was a very cool putdown. From then on, in that way that happens when someone anonymous acquires a handle, he became more real. I asked Kuni about him regularly, not because I planned to run a story but just so I could say, What's new with the Mysterious Stranger? It always made me smile.

It wasn't a nice smile. The term Mysterious Stranger had a derogatory, derisive overtone. It could even be code, indicating to those who moved in the anti-fundamentalist samizdat that you did too; you too resisted the dictatorship of holytariat, worked for the overthrow of the Church-State.

*

The term was in vogue that year, thanks to a man I'm proud to say I loathed, one of the few men in terminally compromised, culturally homeless, morally destitute America who was evil enough to make the stump of my lefty conscience tingle.

The Reverend James Zebediah Sabbath embodied in every respect Christian America's long journey from the heathen wilderness of the mid-twentieth century into the Promised Land of the early twenty-first: a faith-based, morality-valuing, Bible-believing America, where theocracy and democracy were synonymous; where executive, legislature, and judiciary were Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, distinct, omnipotent—not to mention omniscient—persons of the ruling triune God.

The Reverend had been Spiritual Adviser to three Presidents, enjoyed the rank of two-star general as chaplain-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, and had twice been reappointed Spiritual Clerk of what he first dubbed the Supreme Court Under God. He was arguably one of the most powerful men in the nation—certainly the CEO of fundamentalist Christianity, which by the second decade of Christ's Millennium, was the only kind left standing.

Our paths had crossed twice. Once face–to–face—for me, disastrously—and once electronically, earlier that year, when The Reverend had achieved a decisive victory in a war he'd fought for decades: the conversion of that last nest of paganism in God's Chosen Land, Hollywood.

Hollywood had fought back. Hollywood had thrown everything it had at him, but finally, to use his favorite phrase, Hollywood had cried uncle. After a furious internal debate and scores of angry resignations, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had invited The Reverend to host the first faith-based Academy Awards in history.



Excerpted from The Messiah of Morris Avenue by Tony Hendra. Copyright © 2006 by Tony Hendra. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.









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