Just One Look

Chapter 14


Still wearing the sea-predator smile, Cram opened the door and Grace stepped out of the limousine. Carl Vespa slid out on his own. The huge neon sign listed a church affiliation that Grace had never heard of. The motto, according to several signs around the edifice, seemed to indicate that this was "God's House." If that were true, God could use a more creative architect. The structure held all the splendor and warmth of a highway mega-store.
The interior was even worse-tacky enough to make Graceland look understated. The wall-to-wall carpeting was a shiny shade of red usually reserved for a mall girl's lipstick. The wallpaper was darker, more blood-colored, a velvet affair adorned with hundreds of stars and crosses. The effect made Grace dizzy. The main chapel or house of worship-or, most suitably, arena-held pews rather than seats. They looked uncomfortable, but then again wasn't standing encouraged? The cynical side of Grace suspected that the reason all religious services had you sporadically stand had nothing to do with devotion and everything to do with keeping congregants from falling asleep.
As soon as she entered the arena, Grace felt a flutter in her heart.
The altar, done up in the green and gold of a cheerleader's uniform, was being wheeled offstage. Grace looked for preachers with bad toupees, but none were to be found. The band-Grace assumed this was Rapture-was setting up. Carl Vespa stopped in front of her, his eyes on the stage.
"Is this your church?" she asked him.
A small smile came to his lips. "No."
"Is it safe to assume that you're not a fan of, uh, Rapture?"
Vespa didn't answer the question. "Let's move down closer to the stage."
Cram took the lead. There were security guards, but they swept aside as if Cram were toxic.
"What's going on here?" Grace asked.
Vespa kept moving down the steps. When they reached what a theater would call the orchestra-what do you call the good seats in a church?-she looked up and got a whole new feel for the size of the place. It was a huge theater-in-the-round. The stage was in the center, surrounded on all sides. Grace felt the constriction in her throat.
Dress it up in a religious cloak, but there was no mistake.
This felt like a rock concert.
Vespa took her hand. "It'll be okay."
But it wouldn't be. She knew that. She had not been to a concert or sporting event in any "arena venue" in fifteen years. She used to love going to concerts. She remembered seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Asbury Park Convention Center during her high school days. What was strange to her, what she had realized even back then, was that the line between rock concert and intense religious service was not all that thick. There was a moment when Bruce played "Meeting Across the River" followed by "Jungleland"-two of Grace's favorites-when she was on her feet, her eyes closed, sheen of sweat on her face, when she was simply gone, lost, shaking with bliss, the same bliss she'd witness on TV when a televangelist got the crowd on its feet, hands raised and shaking.
She loved that feeling. And she knew that she never wanted to experience it again.
Grace pulled her hand away from Carl Vespa's. He nodded as if he understood. "Come on," he said gently. Grace limped behind him. The limp, it seemed to her, was getting more pronounced. Her leg throbbed. Psychological. She knew that. Tight spaces did not terrify her; huge auditoriums, especially jammed with people, did. The place was fairly empty now, thank He Who Lives Here, but her imagination entered the fray and provided the absent commotion.
Shrill feedback from the amplifier made her pull up. Someone was doing a sound test.
"What's this all about?" she asked Vespa.
His face was set. He veered to the left. Grace followed. There was a scoreboard-type sign above the stage announcing that Rapture was in the middle of a three-week gig and that they, Rapture, were: "What God Has on His MP3."
The band came onstage now for sound check. They gathered at center stage, had a brief discussion, and then started playing. Grace was surprised. They sounded pretty good. The lyrics were syrupy, full of stuff about skies and spread wings and ascensions and being lifted up. Eminem told a potential girlfriend to "sit your drunk ass on that f***ing runway, ho." These lyrics, in their own way, were equally jarring.
The lead singer was female. She had platinum blond hair, cut with bangs, and sang with her eyes cast toward the heavens. She looked about fourteen years old. A guitarist stood to her right. He was more heavy-metal rock, what with the medusa-black locks and a tattoo of a giant cross on his right bicep. He played hard, slashing at the strings as if they had pissed him off.
When there was a lull, Carl Vespa said, "The song was written by Doug Bondy and Madison Seelinger."
She shrugged.
"Doug Bondy wrote the music. Madison Seelinger-that's the singer up there-wrote the lyrics."
"And I care because?"
"Doug Bondy is playing the drums."
They moved to the side of the stage for a better look. The music started again. They stood by a speaker. Grace's ears took the pounding, but under normal conditions, she would actually have been enjoying the sound. Doug Bondy, the drummer, was pretty much hidden by the array of cymbals and snares surrounding him. She moved a little more to the side. She could see him better now. He was banging the skins, as they say, his eyes closed, his face at peace. He looked older than the other members of the band. He had a crewcut. His face was clean-shaven. He wore those black Elvis Costello glasses.
Grace felt that flutter in her chest expand. "I want to go home," she said.
"It's him, isn't it?"
"I want to go home."
The drummer was still smacking the skins, lost in the music, when he turned and saw her. Their eyes met. And she knew. So did he.
It was Jimmy X.
She didn't wait. She started limping toward the exit. The music chased her down.
It was Vespa. She ignored him. She pushed through the emergency exit door. The air felt cool in her lungs. She sucked it down, tried to let the dizziness fade. Cram was outside now, as if he knew that she'd take this exit. He smiled at her.
Carl Vespa came up behind her. "It's him, right?"
"And what if it is?"
"What if..." Vespa repeated, surprised. "He's not innocent here. He's as much to blame-"
"I want to go home."
Vespa stopped short as if she'd slapped him.
Calling him had been a mistake. She knew that now. She had lived. She had recovered. Sure, there was the limp. There was some pain. There was the occasional nightmare. But she was okay. She had gotten over it. They, the parents, never would. She saw it that first day-the shatter in their eyes-and while progress had been made, lives had been lived, pieces had been picked up, the shatter had never left. She looked now at Carl Vespa-at the eyes-and saw it all over again.
"Please," she said to him. "I just want to go home."