Claudia Mair Burney is the author of numerous novels and the popular Ragamuffin Diva blog. She lives with her husband and their seven children in Michigan.
Rocky showed up at my apartment door with an offer that, in his words, I “no coulda refuse.” Or maybe those were Marlon Brando’s words. I couldn’t be sure. My blond, dreadlocked former pastor slash ex-boyfriend locked me into a stare with those big, brown puppy eyes. He’d puffed out his jowls to utter the Godfather’s most famous line, while grazing his cheek with the back of his fingers—an excruciatingly amiss imitation. I’ve seen newborn babies’ smiles more intimidating.
“You look more like a hamster than a mobster, Rock.”
“Hamsters are cool.”
“But less compelling, you must admit.”
Rocky grinned and wagged his finger at me, “Never underestimate the power of a furry little creature.” He twitched his nose and started making hamster noises.
“Amen!” I said.
I thought of my vicious, former pet sugar glider, Amos. Although he’d become my friend and hero, I had to give him away to another nocturnal creature—otherwise, I’d never sleep again. My husband’s best friend, Souldier, had taken the murderous marsupial. Now Amos happily shreds his drapes.
“Come on in, my not-so-furry friend,” I told Rocky, mostly so he would stop making weird rodent sounds.
I moved aside so he could enter my little slice of paradise: shabby chic meets Africa is what Jazz, my husband called it. Rocky loved my funky, eclectically furnished place, too. He just didn’t describe it as aptly as Jazz did.
Who was I kidding? Rocky didn’t do anything as aptly as Jazz did. I had lost them both six weeks ago, and now here was Rocky, surprising me by showing up at my door like unexpected grace.
“Welcome back, Rocky,” I said. I know how lame I sounded, but I wanted him to know I was glad he’d come no matter what the reason.
He muttered a shy, “Thanks.”
We stood in my foyer exchanging reticent glances until I got bold enough to take a long look at him. I’d missed him so. He wore a typical Rockyesque uniform underneath his white down jacket—khaki pants and a long-sleeved Batman T-shirt. A cupid earring dangled in his right ear. Every year about this time he wore it to remind me to come to the Saint Valentine’s Day feast.
Without thinking I blurted out. “I see you and Cupid are still advertising our—” I bit my tongue. There’d be no “our” Saint Valentine’s Day feast this year for prodigal Bell. “Sorry,” I muttered.
“No problem,” he rushed to say, and then an awful silence descended on us like a cold, grey fog.
When I was still a member of his church, aptly named the Rock House, I never missed the event. Rocky would tell stories of the historical Saint Valentine; we’d eat candy conversation hearts, listen to live music, and share abundant amounts of food and laughter. It was Rocky’s way of making sure the lonely hearts wouldn’t spend the evening alone. There with my church family, not only did I get heaps of love, I could give out some from my meager supply.
That and we always had a chocolate fountain.
What was I going to do now?
I tried not to think about the sting of Rocky kicking me out of his church. I didn’t want to think about anything that had happened six weeks ago. Still, I figured whatever brought him to my door had an olive branch attached to it, and whatever he asked, short of sin, I’d be willing to do to reconcile with him.
Rocky hung up his jacket, kicked out of his Birkenstocks, and headed over to my rose-colored velvet sofa and sat. I followed, plopping down beside him.
“So, what’s the offer, Godfather?”
He stared at me. “Did you gain weight?”
Because I know it’s rude to kill your loved ones, I let that one slide and gave him a polite smile, but I did grab a mudcloth throw pillow and cover my expanding waistline.
“So, what’s the offer, Rocky?”
He gushed in a most un-Godfatherly like way. “I want you to go to a meeting with me. It’s only going to be the way-coolest event you’ve been to in forever.”
I cuddled the pillow and eyed him cautiously. He didn’t mean the Valentine’s Day feast. I braced myself. Rocky’s idea of way cool could get scary. “Can you be a little more specific?”
He didn’t answer. Just reached out and touched my hand, rubbing his thumb across my knuckles. “I really missed you.”
Oh, man. That small gesture—him touching the hand nobody held anymore—that tiny movement had the effect of a pebble in a pond, creating ripples of unexpected sadness that circled out of my soul. Lord, have mercy. I didn’t fling myself at him, begging like a rhythm-and-blues singer for him to keep loving me, to not give up on me, but something in me wished I could.
I didn’t want to marry Rocky, or even date him. He had never been the love of my life. In that moment I simply wanted to banish the nearly incarnate loneliness that had been dogging my heels as a solemn, maddening companion, shuffling me through all those days with no best-friend Rocky.
And with no husband Jazz.
I gazed up at him with my own version of puppy eyes. “I missed you too, Rocky.”
We let a bit of silence sit between us on the sofa like a third and very quiet presence. Our heads hung low. Apparently we both still smarted over our mutual pain of separation.
Minutes passed, our hands still clasped together, but Rocky’s merciful presence soothed my dry soul patches like olive oil.
Thank God. Thank God for every kind soul I don’t deserve in my life who loves me anyway.
“Rocky.” I made my voice as soft and small as a baby’s blankie.
He turned to me, his face as open and vulnerable as that blankie’s little owner.
I squeezed his hand. “I’m so sorry I hurt you.”
Those puppy eyes shone with the compassion I knew like the backs of my freckled hands.
“I’m sorry for the things I did, too, babe. For the things I said that night.”
“Don’t call me babe.”
He chuckled. “Some things never change.” Again, those gentle peepers bore into me. “Why didn’t you tell me you married Jazz?”
“At the time I didn’t seem too clear on it myself. Things happened pretty fast, and the next thing I knew, I was a wife.” I paused, the weight of that statement shifting just a bit since Rocky had shown up to help bear my burden. “He’s mad at me.”
“Duh-uh. You were kissing your blond boy toy.” He nudged me with his tattooed arm. “What’s going on with the two of you now?”
“I’ve seen corpses on Carly’s autopsy tables more involved than our marriage.”
I wondered if I’d ever get over what I’d lost with Jazz.
“I can only imagine what his parents think of me. I guess they’d say I’m the nightmare that took his ex Kate’s place.”
He regarded me with the care and concern I’ve seen him lavish on the fortunate souls he counseled as a pastor. Rocky may be only twenty-seven years old, but he’d been a pastor for two years. Two good years. He didn’t have the life experience an older pastor would, but God had given him an extraordinary shepherd’s heart.
“You’re not a nightmare,” he said. “You jumped into a marriage with no spiritual or emotional preparation.”
Like I, the clinician, needed him to tell me that.
I sighed. “Yet another psychologist heal thyself thing.” I looked away from him, guilt gnawing at me. “Maybe Jazz and I just aren’t meant to be, Rocky.”
“Have you talked to him?”
I shrugged. “Just once. He came over for a few minutes on Christmas Eve. I let him know I wanted him in a way I knew he’d understand. And then I waited. He never came back.”
“Why didn’t you go to him?”
“The same reason I didn’t come to you. I wanted to give him some space to feel whatever he felt and then to decide on his own.”
“But, maybe he’s not like me, babe.”
“Ya, think? And don’t call me babe.”
“Maybe he needs you to help him decide. Like, some extra reassurance or something.”
“That’s crazy, Rock.”
“It’s not so crazy, babe.”
I took back every nice thing I’d just thought about him. What did he know? Yes, he pastors a church of more than two-hundred members. He did missions work. He had a shepherd’s heart. He took pastoral counseling classes in seminary, but, honestly! His voice sounded just like Patrick’s on Sponge Bob.
Rocky glared at me. “Babe. . . .”
“Don’t call me babe.”
“Babe! You gotta go to him.”
“But he yells. Sometimes he cusses like a fish wife.”
“What’s a fish wife?”
“I don’t know, but my great-grandmother used to say that and it stuck with me. Maybe only females cuss like fish wives. Maybe he cusses like the fish.” Now I sounded like Patrick!
“Fish don’t cuss.”
“Okay, I know I should have reassured him.”
He sighed. Looked at me with those eyes. Squeezed my hand. “Will you ever let anyone love you?”
“People love me, Rocky. My sister. My secretary. Sasha.”
“I have doubts about Sasha.”
I thought about that and chuckled with him. “You may be right. My mother has done a few things that make me wonder. Now I’m really depressed.”
“I want to see you happy.”
“I want to see you happy, too. Speaking of which, how are you and Elisa?”
He grinned, reddened, looked away.
“What? Did you marry her in six weeks? My goodness!” For the first time, I didn’t feel jealous that someone was interested in Rocky. Well, not much.
“No. I’m not married. I’m . . . .”
“She’s really special, but it hasn’t been that long since she left creepy cult dude. I’m not sure I should be involved.”
“How involved are you?”
“I’m involved, babe.”
“You’re in love?”
He wouldn’t say anything, but his goofy grin spoke for him.
He nudged me, “Cut it out, babe.”
So, Rocky was really in love. Wow. I always knew it would happen, but I didn’t realize I’d still have the teensiest bit of pain knowing he’d moved on from me for good. I could see a flower of astonishing beauty blossoming between them when I saw them together, even though it nearly killed me at the moment. But God knows Rocky deserved the biggest, juiciest love he could find. He needed to look beyond the non-existent us. And he still calls me babe.
“Just take it slow, Rock. Trust me. The cost of moving too fast is astronomical, even if you are in love.”
I could tell he didn’t feel comfortable talking to me about Elisa. I decided to let their love blossom without my tending, pruning, or pulling up weeds. I got back to the business at hand. “Are you ever going to tell me what your offer is?” I eased into the lush upholstery of my sofa.
Rocky’s face lit up. Honestly, if that guy had a tail to go with those puppy eyes, it’d be thumping my sofa with joy.
“It’s gonna be awesome, ba— I mean, Bell.”
Apparently our little chat about Elisa made him correct himself.
“You think everything is awesome, Rocky.”
“I don’t think everything is awesome.”
“You said my Love Bug is awesome. You said Switchfoot’s new CD is awesome. You said my new zillions braids are awesome, and you said the ice-cream at Cold Stone Creamery is awesome.” Okay, the ice-cream at Cold Stone happened to be awesome for real. Lately I’d craved it like the blind crave sight.
“But, babe . . . ”
There he goes again. Honestly! A holy war couldn’t make that man stop calling me babe.
He went on. “Those things are awesome.”
“God is awesome, Rock. Awesome meaning the subject inspires awe, as in reverence, respect, dread.”
“You reverence your tricked-out VW Beetle,” he said, “And I respect Switchfoot, especially Jon Foreman, and your way-cool, African-goddess hair inspired me to get dreads.”
I stared at him. Comments like these coming from Rocky tended to render me temporarily speechless.
He filled the silence with his proposal. “I want you to go see Ezekiel Thunder with me.”
My eyes widened. Electroshock therapy wouldn’t have given me such a jolt. “Ezekiel Thunder?” I screeched. I jerked up from my slouch. I’d heard the un-right reverend wanted to hit the comeback trail, taking his miracle crusade with him.
Rocky gave me a wicked grin and settled himself smugly into the soft folds of my sofa. He knew I’d left Thunder’s particular brand of Pentecostal fire many years ago and had no desire to go back.
Rocky bobble-head nodded, as if his physical movement would affect a change in my attitude.
“Stop all that nodding!”
“I’m just trying to encourage you.”
I did not feel encouraged.
“It’ll be fun,” he said, blasting me with the full puppy-eyes arsenal. Oh, those eyes. Powerful! Mesmerizing! Like a basket full of cocker spaniel puppies wearing red ribbons. I could feel myself weakening.
“Rocky, that meeting will torture me. It will torture you!”
“No, it won’t. Ezekiel is my friend.”
“He led me to Christ.”
“Ezekiel Thunder led you to Christ?”
“I told you I came to Christ at a Bible camp.”
“It was a Sons of Thunder Bible camp. I’m a Thunder Kid!” He beamed with what I hoped wasn’t pride.
“You never told me that!”
Honestly! You think you know somebody! He was my ex-boyfriend for goodness’ sake. We’d talked about marriage. I couldn’t believe I had no idea he was close friends with the infamous Ezekiel Thunder!
“You can be kinda judgmental about guys like Ezekiel.” He went on. “I didn’t mean to upset you or trigger bad memories of your tongues-talking days.”
“Then don’t ask me to go see him.”
“He’s a different man. He and his family want to buy a house in Ann Arbor. He’s living at the Rock House house until one comes through for him. ”
“He needs support. People to show up and cheer him on.”
“Cheer him on? We should stop him!” Had Rocky forgotten that Ezekiel Thunder had fallen as hard as many of his televangelist contemporaries in the eighties—and for a tawdry little tryst with a young intern? May it never be!
“How hard would it be for you to sit there and listen? Maybe say a few prayers for him.”
“God bless you as you do that for him.”
“I was there for you, supporting Great Lakes Seminary when they were struggling and going to lose their building. I did it because of how much you love Mason May.”
“Rocky! That’s not even comparable. Mason is a fine theologian training good men and women for powerful, effective ministries. He’s not a snake-oil peddler.”
“It’s not snake oil. It’s miracle prosperity oil.”
I stared at him. He’d stunned me to silence once again. I waited for Rocky to fill the silence with testimonies about the healing properties of miracle prosperity oil. Thankfully, he refrained. But he didn’t look like he’d let me off the hook.
I tried to reason with him. “You shouldn’t ask me to do this. You’re Emergent, Rocky, not a dyed-in-the-wool charismatic.”
“You don’t like post-modern, post-denominational, Emergent folks either.”
“I like them more than Ezekiel Thunders.”
“What’s that thing you say about the Emergent Church?”
“This is not about the Emergent Church. I’d go to an Emergent meeting with you anytime. You name the place: Mars Hill, Ann Arbor Vineyard. How ‘bout Frontline Church? ”
He didn’t budge. “Come on, babe. He’s like a dad to me.”
“You always say Mason is like a dad to you.”
“But Mason has a PhD. He doesn’t sell ‘miracle prosperity oil’.”
“Ezekiel doesn’t sell it, either. He gives it away for a love offering.”
“A considerable love offering, if I remember! It’s plain olive oil he’s pushing to gullible babes in the faith who don’t know any better. How can I support his money-lusting schemes?”
“Ummm. By going with me?” Hope burgeoned in his voice as if I hadn’t just accused his mentor of being a hustler.
“Did you hear what I said, Rock? Ezekiel Thunder is everything I walked away from.”
“You walked away from a lot more than that, babe. And you’ve been known to hang out with people with worse theology than his. People way more dangerous.”
He had a point.
“Rocky . . . .” I didn’t want to go. Please, God, don’t make me go.
“He’s changed, babe. Give him a chance. For me.”
The eyes again, and a smile with an invisible tail wag.
I gave him a dramatic sigh. “What time are we leaving?”
“If you’re not busy, and you’re not, we can leave in a few hours. I’ll pick you up at six.”
“How do you know I don’t have plans?”
“Because you have antisocial tendencies.”
“Don’t hold back, Rock. What do you really think about me?”
“Don’t worry,” he said, ignoring my insolence. “You’re gonna fall in love with Ezekiel.”
I rolled my eyes. “Not likely.”
He put his face right in front of mine until we were eye to eye. “You are feeling veeeeeery tired. You’re getting sleepy. You’re going to enjoy yourself at the crusade.”
“No fair,” I said, “Those eyes of yours are potent hypnotizers.”
“You are going to love Ezekiel Thunder.”
“I am going to love Ezekiel Thunder.”
Rocky got out of my face. “You’ve gotta admit, babe. This will be safer than sleuthing.”
No, it won’t, a disembodied voice–also known as the still, small voice of God–informed me.
I tried to ignore it. Maybe this Spirit prompting was speaking figuratively.
Couldn’t ignore it.
What, Lord, am I some kind of trouble magnet?
Don’t answer that, God.
I started rationalizing immediately to take the edge off what I truly hoped was not a prophetic warning. Maybe I could fall in love with the guy and respect him. Maybe he could even heal the egg-sized growth on my lower abdomen that scared me to death each time I ran my index finger across it. Maybe I could even find the keys to unlock the little room inside my heart where all the Ezekiel Thunders I’ve ever known were locked. I’d stored them there to keep me safe from the particular brand of harm only they could inflict.
I could feel my defenses shoot up as if a rocket propelled them.
Fall in love with Ezekiel Thunder?
I shouldn’t have wished. My great-grandmother and namesake Amanda Bell Brown use to say, “Be careful what you wish for, baby. You just might get it.”
She ain’t never lied.