"Would you stop fussing with that tie?"
Anita swatted Feely's hands away and straitened the bright red power tie she'd selected for this very important evening. "I swear," she said. "You are worse than the boys."
Feely tried to smile but knew it just came out as a twisted grimace. Like the boys, right. Because the boys went to great big campaign fundraisers for the President of the United States, packed to the gills with high rollers of every stripe all the time. Why it's just like one of their little soccer games!
And they always had dozens of photos of their own iniquities hanging over their heads. When the invitation came, Feely expected some demands from his mysterious blackmailers - at the least another taunting package of pictures! But no, not a peep. One would think they'd vanished into thin air - or never existed at all - except he knew they were still watching. They had to be, Feely was after all such an important target - now more than ever.
He cursed himself and his weakness. All this time when he knew for sure he'd been under scrutiny and he'd not had the common fucking sense to restrain himself! Instead, he'd behaved like a wanton madman, cruising the bleakest corners of Denver for lost men willing to take the sort of rough affections he so loved to give them. And a few not so willing, not that he bothered warning them...
"There," Anita said with one final swipe with her hand down his shirt. "Now you're starting to look like a real man!"
Anyone nearby would think it a friendly joke between a couple, but Feely caught the subtle barb, the hissing "I can't believe I married a fruit! What would the neighbors say!?" Hard not to notice when all they had between each other now were barbs. If she wasn't dropping hints about him being a sissy, he was making cracks that ended in "cankles."
They'd tried arriving at the hotel banquet hall fashionably late but traffic had been light. Anita bitched about it all the way to the door, even though she'd been driving - and she never could seem to do anything but fifteen over the posted speed limit. It didn't help that the "banquet hall" wasn't much more than a glorified community center far off the main highway. They probably never would have found it if not for the dozens of black - clearly armored - SUVs out front and the circling helicopters.
Inside, they'd been roughly frisked by men in black suits with the edges of tribal tattoos peeking out from under their collars before being ushered into the hall itself. Despite the garish floral arrangements and free-flowing bar, the wide room had a strangely sterile smell to it, like disinfectant. Whatever it was, it blessedly masked whatever smells were coming from the rest of the guests - predominantly male and over fifty.
And fat. Feely prided himself on his fit appearance - his firm, well-toned muscles that even in middle age he couldn't help admiring in the mirror - he'd been in the Marines after all. There was something about the heavy, wheezing old men that just offended him - something he desperately told himself had nothing to do with his nightly outings. That was just a sickness he'd contracted long ago, a disease that drove him to sin.
A disease very much on his mind. "We own you," and that's it? Could they possibly be here too? Could some of these fat old men have sent the pictures? Could the President Herself? Only his firm discipline kept him from again fussing with the tie.
A sweaty hog of a man approached them. "'Scuse me, but have we met somewhere before? You look awfully familiar."
He appeared to be speaking more to Anita, so Feely answered, "I'm Pastor Todd Feely of New Life Church." He put up his warmest pastorly grin, hoping it would mask his revulsion as he gestured to the woman beside him, "This is my wife, Anita."
The man gave the slightest twitch, maybe some unconscious confession? "Oh yes! Yes, I must have seen your Sunday mornin' broadcasts." He extended an eager hand, "Leland Hoyt. I'm here tonight on behalf of Lockheed-Grumman."
Anita continued that well practiced, bland smile but Feely, catching the last part, asked, "Are there many here in the Defense business?"
"Oh sure," nodded Hoyt. "We've been talkin' up the friendly rivalry for a while. There's also some oil folks here and there." He turned toward a tight cluster of gentlemen, frowning. "Not many of them left these days... But She's always had a thing for 'em, being an Okie and all."
"Well, I feel a bit out of place," said Feely. "I'm just a humble preacher."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," replied Hoyt. He seemed to have something of the salesman's aggressive friendliness. "In fact, seein' as the rest of us are just ordinary business types, I'd say you two were the guests of honor."
"Told ya," whispered Anita.
Feely really hated it when she got smug. Maybe he could slip something into her next highball, or her bottle of valium. Something to really twist her insides and turn her hair blue. Maybe a prescription strength diuretic...
Feely's revenge fantasies were interrupted as a great commotion swept through the room. A dense cluster of men in black suits and that distinct air of barely contained violence had entered - the attendees could just make out the clicking of a pair of expensive heels hidden deep within their midst.
People began reflexively clapping before Madame President even emerged from her security detail, a fit woman with the tight hairstyling of a librarian and the fashion style of an overly self-conscious celebrity. Smiling to all her supporters, or rather their representatives, she quickly mounted the stage at the head of the hall - a hastily constructed affair with a loud red and blue backdrop decked out in louder campaign slogans.
"Well, this certainly is a warm welcome!" she chirped upon reaching the podium. "Y'know, I may be a born and bred Okie, but I don't think I've ever felt as welcome as I do in..." She cocked her head to the side as if listening. A tiny black earbud was visible for a moment. "- Colorado!"
The crowd - industry and reporters - politely applauded despite the pause.
"Just one thing before I get started," she said with a big show of looking around in the audience. "Is Pastor Feely here?"
Feely could feel Anita practically bouncing next to him. For his part, he had a sudden and very clear mental image of those photos - in particular, the one's with the cowboy hats and horse bridle - appearing on that big screen behind the podium should he take the stage.
"Pastor, I hope it's not too much to ask but could you come up here and lead us all in a prayer?" Her smile and the rough looking men approaching from the sides said very clearly that it wasn't a question. "Get things started on the right foot!"
The men escorted Feely to the stage with a friendly, if gruff, silence. Though smiling as he knew he should, with each step closer to the podium Feely felt the knot of tension in his stomach tighten until he expected to fold in on himself right there - or just throw up. Should his earlier premonition come true, throwing up now might be preferable...
Maybe if he could just picture some happy image, something to mute his own screaming guilt, maybe something around age twenty - a nice Filipino boy with a soft mouth. The soft ones always split so easily and beautifully. Not too submissive the type who fights a little first...
Feely felt himself stiffen, along with his resolve. He shook Madame President's hand at the podium firmly, "Thank you, ma'am." Addressing the other attendees, his voice an authoritative boom throughout the sound system, "Folks, if you could all bow your heads?"
The attendees all reluctantly bowed their heads, some a bit slower than others. The reporters, at least those in sight of their own cameras, made a big show of it. The cameras for their part just focused even more closely on Feely. He briefly feared those lenses could peer right into his brain and broadcast his imagined Filipino - now split-lipped and leaking from his ravaged anus - across the whole country.
Sharply putting such paranoia to the back of his mind, Feely intoned, "Oh Lord! We, Your humble servants -" not sinners, not with this crowd, "- ask Your blessing this evening. For those of us here, for our dedicated leaders..." like Madame President, who he could practically feel glowing beside him from the reflected glory. "For our servicemen overseas and for all others doing Your work across this Great Nation. Let Your wisdom shine down on us and Your mercy and power work through us. Amen."
"Amen!" sang Madame President, quickly retrieving her spot as the night's center of attention.
The security men again came to escort Feely. His earlier calming thoughts of the Filipino boy had started to... well, become quite noticeable to Feely himself while still behind the podium. He dragged up a quick memory of laying with Anita to bring himself back down - can't have a faux pas like his own rigid member after dodging whatever They might have tried while he had that great big screen behind him, in front of so many people. He strolled off the stage, head high and chest out.
"I'd like to thank the Pastor for that," said Madame President, drawing the last few gazes from Feely back to Herself. "I've been a big fan of the Pastor's for quite some time. As you all know, my Faith is very dear to me." And the many instances of "Faith" in the screen behind her lit up noticeably.
"We are gonna be set for life!" Anita whispered to Feely.
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves..." he whispered back.
Once again in the safe anonymity of the crowd, his paranoia had returned. Maybe They were splicing a recording of his words with those photos right now! Making a little slideshow to discredit him. "We own you," so what did They want out of him? Did They want anything at all or was it enough to know that he knew that They had -
"- A comprehensive worldview that covers all areas of life and thought, all aspects of creation." Madame President continued loudly. "And only Faith offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world. Only Faith." She punctuated each sentence with a raised fist with the thumb poking up.
The crowd politely applauded at this cue. Even Feely and Anita joined in - because they were seated so close to one of the cameras. Feely found himself critiquing Her performance, mostly in the negative. He himself certainly would never use such gaudy showmanship...
"And Faith is what really calls us here tonight." Behind her, inflammatory news articles slowly materialized on the screen. "Even today, in this Great Nation, people of Faith are under attack from all corners. Socialists try to push prayer out of the public eye and into hiding while liberal elites in the media follow an insidious homosexual agenda aimed at our children." And there, brighter pictures of smiling children appeared along with the sinister news articles. "Others give aid and comfort to our enemies by claiming - falsely - that we have no right to be fighting the terrorists and their government backers in Syria or Yemen or Pakistan." And somewhere behind Her on the screen could be seen "ACLU" in red, angry letters.
She paused, giving the dire message time to sink in. "But I am here to tell you tonight that we are doing God's work Over There. And we must do God's work here. My opponent," she said it with a near hiss, "would have you believe that we should surrender Over There. He would have you believe we have no right to pray openly - as guaranteed by the First Amendment. And he would have you believe the homosexuals are not actively targeting our children!"
Feely shifted uncomfortably. He absolutely agreed, he told himself, but hearing it from somewhere other than his own mouth had a curious, shaming effect on him. Now he certainly didn't have any designs on children - eighteen or nineteen was technically adult.
"Well," Madame President drew Herself up, the campaign slogans brightening behind her to chase away the scarier images. "I cannot tell you such things because I know them to be false. This election is about more than partisan politics but the very future of this Great Nation! Across the world, it is a choice between victory and surrender. Right here, at home, it is a much simpler choice between all that makes this Nation Great or socialism and moral degradation!"
The crowd applauded much more loudly, nearly drowning out Madame President's "Thank you!" and "God bless America!"
Feely briefly wondered why she hadn't mentioned anything about the economy. He'd personally counseled dozens from his congregation on loss of jobs and savings. Some of those meetings had even devolved into political shouting matches - how could they come to him and then turn around and say they'd be voting for that loony liberal senator? The man wanted homosexuals to marry and raise children for God's sake!
And he was certainly no homosexual, Feely was always quick to remind himself. He just had a sickness... A sickness that walked like, talked like, and looked a hell of alot like being homosexual - but he didn't have any sort of agenda!
The crowd broke down into cliques after Madame President left the stage. They chattered among themselves, praising Her loudly when her security detail escorted Her into their midst. Hoyt had remained with the Feelys and remarked, "I like how She's straight an' to the point. Shoot's from the hip, y'know?"
"Oh, absolutely," Feely agreed while Anita also nodded. They both got the impression from Hoyt's unnecessary praise - who here wasn't a supporter? - that any disagreement or criticism might end badly. "It's refreshing to hear a politician speak so candidly about their faith," Feely added.
"Yes," agreed Anita. "And it's amazing she can find time what with running the country and all."
Feely winced, feeling Anita's crass ignorance bleeding off onto him.
"She probably needs even more spiritual guidance because of all Her responsibilities. Where do you think She goes for that?" Anita continued, elbow gently jabbing Feely.
Feely was relieved to see Hoyt didn't seem to care about them any longer. His attentions were focused on the revolving human Dobermans escorting Madame President in their direction.
"Madame President!" Hoyt said, so ecstatic his face turned red.
She didn't even notice. "Pastor, I just wanted to thank you again. That was a lovely opening prayer."
Feely prayed desperately that Anita wouldn't act up with those men so close. "Oh, well thank you."
"I'd like to talk to you again," She said, her voice lowering. "Privately, on some religious matters."
"Th-that would be, uh..." Feely knew Anita was about to explode.
"Probably not until after the election. We'll be in touch." And She was gone, shepherded to the next cluster of supporters and cameras.
Anita's hand had clamped down on her own mouth. Feely could only imagine the stream of exuberant obscenities she was holding in. That habit of hers had caused the Ministry quite a few headaches in the early days.
Hoyt seemed to be doing his best not to notice either of them. The appointed representative for one of the country's biggest weapons manufacturers and he'd been passed over for some backwoods preacher. Completely ignored! "If you'll excuse me," he said icily, still refusing to look at them.
Feely himself had been in shock from the moment She appeared. Appearing at a politician's campaign stop may have been nothing new, but to be singled out. Anita of course saw it all as a boon to the Ministry, free advertising. Feely didn't really know what to make of...
Unless it was Her! Or Them, Her handlers or whoever ran things behind the scenes with Her. They sent the pictures! It made perfect sense, oh yes. They wanted him for something shady, maybe even illegal, and They wanted a guarantee of silence. Just like Watergate or Whitewater or whatever that was!
The waves of nausea returned. "Excuse me!" Feely cried, scurrying out of the reception hall and into the nearest bathroom.
~ excerpt from ONE NATION UNDER GOD, now available on Kindle!