Prologue

In Mad Jones, Heretic, young high school history teacher Madison Lee Jones of Mobile, Alabama, already having lost both parents at a young age, suffers as his grandfather, his wife, his unborn child, and his mother-in-law all die tragically in rapid succession. Grief-stricken and angry, Jones vents by penning 59 religious theses (see appendix) and pinning them to church doors in Mobile and in New Orleans. With his theses unexpectedly (and unintentionally) attracting a national social media following, and spurred on by an odd collection of entrepreneurial friends, Jones—an only intermittently churchgoing Episcopalian—begins a writing and public-speaking “ministry” to elucidate his theme that anger at God can lead to deeper faith. His inaugural public speech/homily, at a Good Friday service at a “charismatic” church in a New Orleans suburb, begins as a fiasco and a comedy of errors—yet somehow ends in triumph, as Jones leaves the church “experiencing a boundless optimism…. He felt that he was leaving a wilderness, and that a Promised Land awaited.”

Editor’s Note: Click to purchase Mad Jones, Heretic; Mad Jones, Hero; and Mad Jones, Agonistes.

Book Three: Chronicles

 

Chapter One

Radiating enthusiasm, the Heberts had prevailed upon Mad to stay for dinner with some of the congregation’s leaders after the triumphal Good Friday service. (The same invitation had not been extended to Becky, who couldn’t help radiating a disdain for the brand of religion they practiced.) Mad hadn’t been there long before he realized that the dinner was matchmaker Angelina’s setup for him to meet Tonya and Rhonda, two of the most devout young adults at the church. Both wore sequined, body-hugging outfits; both had highly styled, shoulder-length hair, Tonya’s jet black and Rhonda’s bleached blonde. Rhonda, a 20-year-old waitress, seemed genuinely sweet and demure. But Tonya, 21, a student at the University of New Orleans, kept finding ways to put her hand on Mad’s butt, and kept licking her lips at him and winking when she thought nobody else could see. Mad had been relieved to finally escape, and made the drive back to Mobile in just over two hours.

He found Becky waiting for him on his front porch. She was in a foul mood. She said the video taken that day would be a disaster if shown to any Catholic or mainline Protestant audience; she said she was surprised Mad hadn’t stayed overnight with “one of those little holy-roller tarts” (apparently referring to Tonya and Rhonda); she said Mad’s tardiness was inexcusably unprofessional; and she said she had put too much work into the new venture to see Mad screw it all up—“especially when I’m not getting laid while I’m at it.” She was some kind of ticked off. Mad felt thoroughly chastened.

Two days later, Mad repaired immediately from Easter services to join the headmaster’s family for dinner. The headmaster wanted Mad to know that even though his teaching job was lost for now, he still was considered part of the school family and still was afforded everybody’s love and sympathy. Mad appreciated the gesture.

By Monday night, Becky’s attitude had changed entirely. The office phone had rung all day, with charismatic churches all across the country calling to schedule Mad. Word had gone out all weekend from Apostles of the Word that Mad was the real deal, despite what the highly respected Rev. Rob Patterson had thought and said. But except for a few Gulf Coast–area engagements (at which Becky agreed to let Mad speak for less than what would behis usual fee), Mad’s first real speaking tour would not begin for about another month. (It was being set up quite carefully to best use the board members’ strengths and to appeal to carefully targeted demographics.)

Also on Monday, Mad’s first daily, self-syndicated, spiritual-advice newspaper column—called “Madison Avenue”—had run in 11 morning papers ranging from Florida to Oregon. It was packaged to run only 300 words each day, letter writer’s question included. The first question had been picked by Mad from submissions to the web site: “Dear Madison: I want to be devout, but I can’t stand my pastor, and I can’t leave my church because my family has gone to the same church for three generations and it would break my mother’s heart if I did. What should I do? Sincerely, Stuck in Wrong Flock.”

“Dear Stuck,” answered Mad. “Your note didn’t say why you are not happy with your pastor, but the way I see it, faith isn’t for the faint-hearted. Only the faint-hearted would let a poor pastor be an obstacle for a spiritual life.

“Even though the Bible says that the way to God the Father is through the Son, it still leaves open the possibility that there are many ways to the Son. A church is more than its pastor or priest. A church is made up of a whole community of believers. Find people in your church with whom you share interests or values, and work with them to house the homeless or feed the hungry, or to start a spiritual discussion group, or whatever else floats your religious boat so it can sail toward Jesus. Christ did not say (Thesis 56) ‘come unto thy pastor…and he will refresh you.’ He said to go unto Him, unto Jesus. Meanwhile, though, try to get to know your pastor more deeply. Maybe you are missing something good in him. We’re all flawed, and the important thing is to look past what you see as flaws and find the good in someone. That’s how it is with approaching God, as well. Even if God seems to have acquiesced to something that seems unfair to us, we need to keep going back to Him and back to Him and back to Him. That’s what faith is all about.”

Mad meant every word of it but, frankly, he thought it nevertheless was pablum. “What the heck do I know about this stuff?” he kept saying to Becky and Justin. “I’ve never been profound about anything, so why should anyone take me seriously?”

“Oh, just shut up and write, loverboy,” was Becky’s invariable answer, once adding that “there’s gold in your lack of profundity.”

Mad reacted angrily to that; he didn’t care about gold but about helping people find faith.

Amazingly to him, it seemed that lots and lots of people wanted Mad to help them find it. In addition to the strong demand for Mad to take speaking engagements (usually at $1,000, plus bare-minimum travel expenses, per appearance), letters were flooding in to “Madison Avenue”—and the Mad Religion website was already attracting a fair number of advertisers and loads of web-surfer “hits.” Part of the appeal was that Mad promised to write at least one entry each day for the chat room. (Becky had set up a special electronic identifier, triggered only by Mad’s special password, that let other chat participants know that it was indeed Mad, not some impostor from Timbuktu or somewhere.)

By week’s end, six more papers had signed up to start running Mad’s advice column within the month. Arrangements had been made, too, by an aggressive young New York book publisher to send down a ghostwriter in the near future who would spend hours talking to and taping Mad, so the writer and publisher could start figuring out how best to present Mad’s ideas in a marketable book format.

Mad didn’t really know what to make of all this. He just followed whatever schedule Becky gave him each day. He did as much as he could from home, so as to avoid Becky’s unceasing sexual innuendoes whenever he joined her and the new (grandmotherly) part-time secretary at the office. Staying away from the office also meant he was blessedly able to see less of Justin, who kept finding excuses between physical training sessions to drop in at the office unannounced. Justin’s motive was as obvious as it was seemingly hopeless: He desperately wanted a romance with Becky. To discourage him, Becky still insisted on calling him Mr. Luke, even though they were contemporaries.

(“Mad,” Becky complained late that first week, “if that little fruitcake doesn’t find somebody else to dream about humping, and find her soon, I’m gonna personally castrate his little things and throw them to the fishes in Mobile Bay!” Then, as an afterthought: “On the other hand, Mad, if you do not start humping me, I’ll castrate you, too, and make you the modern world’s first gelded prophet.”)

Despite all her inexplicable crassness, Mad had to admit to himself that Becky was enormously talented at the business side. He had doubted that Mad, Mad World, Inc. could attract enough money to pay the salaries and fees for Mad, Becky, Justin, Mary, Buzz, Don, and the part-time secretary, much less generate a cash flow big enough to have some left over for charity. But Becky was a whiz. He had no clue how it all worked; he knew only that Becky announced four days after Easter that he should already start thinking about which charitable causes he wanted to support with MMW’s first grant.

 

***

 

In the chat room, FD Thom, Affirmed, and Perdicaris had become the most frequent participants, along with a new, bitter critic calling himself Defender of the Faith (later shortened to just Defender). M. Magdalene, oddly, had dropped completely from the picture.

Late in the week, Mad was happy to see Jezebel? finally show up again, even for only one quick comment. It was in response to a particularly venomous entry from Defender, part of which said that Mad ought to “stop polluting his family name with his idiotic blatherings.”

“Hey, Defender, lay off,” wrote Jezebel?. “I knew Mad’s father, and I think he’d be proud that his son is inspiring atheists like me to consider whether there really might be a God after all. You may think you have all the answers, but I don’t think you even understand the questions some of us have. Mad does, and I thank him for it.”

Mad was dying to know who Jezebel? was. He figured that if she had known Ben, she must be somebody from Mobile. Maybe one of those liberal English or sociology professors from Spring Hill, he thought. Maybe one of those intelligent women who always wished that Ben would let go of Mel’s memory and begin dating again.

“Hello, Jezebel?,” Mad wrote, his entry highlighted on the screen with the purple border Becky had created. “Thanks for being so nice. I really wish I knew who you were. Please let me know. If not on the chat room, then call my office.”

But Jezebel? neither answered nor called, and Affirmed and Perdicaris picked up the cudgel against Defender for several more hours of sometimes vitriolic debate. Affirmed, thought Mad when reviewing the messages later that night, was starting to go a little overboard, at one point writing that Mad might even be “a new Moses.”

The lines that Mad liked best, however, came from Cowardly Lion, who was apparently a new participant. “I can’t believe how intense and angry all you folks are getting,” he wrote. “Some of you Mad-vocates sound like you have no brains, and Defender, sounds like you have no heart. If I had enough courage, I’d tell the whole lot of you to get off this yellow-brick Internet and go get high in the poppy fields. Every one of you needs to just chill out, dudes, or else the great Wizard will never let you reach the Emerald City in the sky.”

It was a bizarre entry, thought Mad, but something about it really tickled him.

 

***

 

MMW kept growing, and Mad actually became somewhat accustomed to the routine of monitoring the web site, writing his newspaper column, reading a host of books on theology and spirituality, exercising nearly daily, and writing notes to himself for things he wanted to include in future discussions with his book ghostwriter. He also wrote and re-wrote notes for his upcoming lecture tour, and repeatedly practiced his delivery in front of a mirror. He still had trouble ginning up consistent enthusiasm for the whole enterprise, but figured that he darn well ought to live up to the responsibilities he had assumed. He told himself that, in a roundabout way, he was doing it to honor Claire’s memory—and also because he knew Daddy Lee would be disappointed if he ever failed to deliver on an obligation.

Fortunately, ever since his post-press conference plea to the demonstrators for them to vacate his block for the sake of his neighbors—which, amazingly, they honored—Mad no longer felt under siege. The mime and a small, hardy band of enthusiasts did occasionally show up outside the charmless office building that MMW shared with a small realty firm and a three-person law partnership, almost always with some new, clever chant or posterboard sign, but they never stayed more than an hour or so and never really got in anybody’s way. Mad once had tried to approach the mime to express appreciation (feigned) for the mime’s support, but the mime arched his back, hissed, and ran away like a skittish kitten.

 

***

 

Toward the end of April, Steve Matheson had the Rev. Patterson as a guest on Gut Check. Patterson was railing against President Clinton about the Lewinsky situation. With a few minutes left in the show, Matheson deftly switched gears.

“Okay, Rob, lemme move on to a slightly different topic. You know, I’ve been fascinated by this guy Madison Jones, down in Mobile, who wrote up 59 religious propositions where he says God isn’t always perfect, but in the long run God does offer salvation and should therefore still be worshipped. That’s not exactly it, but as I see it, that’s the gist of what Jones is saying. What I love about this young guy—and he’s only 25, I think—what I love is that he doesn’t take any guff from anybody. He held a press conference a few weeks back, and one of those arrogant network reporters asked a question that seemed to belittle Christian faith as a fairy tale or something, and this Jones guy just ripped him to shreds. It was beautiful, just beautiful.”

Patterson, anticipating where Matheson’s monologue was going, tried to interrupt, but Matheson’s word flow was like a river too big to dam.

“Anyway,” continued Matheson, “I’ve watched re-runs of a feature on Jones that the Acute Visionshow did, and in it Jones was asked about the Lewinsky situation, and he was critical of the president just like you are, although really not very stridently. Still, he’s on your side on this, Reverend. But you have been very critical of this young man. You’ve called him a ‘false prophet’ and a ‘pretty boy,’ and you said he is ‘a blasphemer, a heretic, and a profiteer of the rankest New Age variety.’ That’s really harsh, Rob, really harsh. What I want to know is, if this young man is inspiring skeptics to become Christians, and if he’s on your side of the culture wars, or at least of the Clinton wars, then why are you blasting him from here to kingdom come?”

Finally, Patterson spoke up, voice oozing with Georgia peachiness. “Well, Steve, I’m just not sure you unduh-sta-uhnd. Anybody with a lick of clev-uh-ness can position himself against the lies and moral de-PRAV-uh-tee of Bill Clinton, especially if he’s in the South where such de-PRAV-uh-tee is especially detested. The boy is trying to fool devout God-fearing people into buying his snake oil to make him rich. But the Scripture says…”

Matheson interrupted: “But Rob, here’s a guy who took on the demon ‘elite media’ that you are always warning against! And he says that even if we interpret God as having done us wrong, we should still remain faithful! And he says Clinton’s lying! Isn’t this Jones guy a horse out of your own barn?”

“Steve, this Jones guy even goes by the name of Mad. That’s what he truly is; he’s mad. I think the young man is unstable. He says God is a jerk, and…”

“And he says,” broke in Matheson, looking down at some notes, “be strong and of good courage, uh…da-dum-da-dum-da-dum, some other stuff along those lines, quote, ‘because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.’ That’s right up your alley, Reverend, and then, this is what I love about this guy, just a real gut-check kinda guy, he closes by writing, ‘Here I shout; I cannot do otherwise.’”

“But Steve…”

“He’s paraphrasing your Protestant founder, Reverend. He’s paraphrasing Martin Luther, who of course all urban Catholics like me were taught was almost akin to Lucifer, but he’s your idol, and Luther said, ‘Here I stand,’ and now this Jones guy says, ‘Here I shout!’ Nothing reticent about this guy, Reverend, and he’s right from your Protestant tradition. You should love him! Anyway, time’s run out; we gotta go. I thank the Rev. Patterson and my other guests; this has been Gut Check, and we’ll have more gut checks same time tomorrow night. G’bye!”

 

***

 

Laura Green’s life had become a whirlwind. Her work on Acute Vision, which had boosted the ratings enough to earn the show a renewal for next fall, had so impressed the network majordomosthat they had twice again requested she be pulled from her new duties at the New Orleans station to do special assignments for them. Rumor had it, they were considering a full-time contract offer for her as the ace reporter, second only to the show’s hostess. The honchos had always liked a male-female balance; but their market research showed that tabloidish news magazine shows were seen as more believable, and drew larger audiences, when the reports were made by women. So the new schtick for Acute Vision, to distinguish it from all the other similar shows, would be for women to do almost all the on-camera work. And Laura supposedly was at the top of their list.

Not only that, but a New York–based network reporter, a fast-rising young star, had shown some major extracurricular interest in Laura. He had flown her up to the Big Apple each of the last three weekends of April, wined and diner her and, by the third weekend, bedded her as well. (Obviously, she knew how and when to use sex for her benefit. Besides, this guy reallywas a hunk, even if a little shallow and vain for her tastes.)

Still, she couldn’t get Mad out of her mind. On that first weekend visiting the New York hunk, her flight out of New Orleans had left on Friday evening. She knew that Mad’s first speaking engagement would be that afternoon at Apostles of the Word, which wasn’t too far from the airport. The timing was just right. Out of sheer curiosity (so she told herself), she had attended. Within two minutes of her arrival, she had felt like Charlton Heston on the Planet of the Apes, visiting territory that looked familiar but that had a distinctly alien feel. Everything seemed off-kilter. This wasn’t Uptown or even Mid-City New Orleans, or even the Jefferson Parish suburbs that she knew. Surrounded by enthusiasts quickly enraptured by every mention of the Lord or Jesus, her senses assaulted by loud, repetitive music, Laura had had no idea how to behave. And she couldn’t understand why, during the first half hour, Mad was nowhere to be seen. On either side of her, people had begun speaking in tongues. But she had stood there, toward the back of the far-right row, stiff-legged and uncomfortable.

When Mad made his dramatic entrance and tried to explain his lateness, only to have his whole story treated as a parable by the Rev. Hebert, Laura had first been offended by Hebert’s interruptions and then amazed that everybody around her accepted it as part of the normal order of things. “Poor, poor Mad,” she had thought. “He’s become a one-man freak show, and this is all my fault.”

Yet just as she felt the most out of place and out of sorts, she had glimpsed a few rows away one other young woman, a buxom and slightly thick-hipped blonde maybe 30 years old, who looked as uncomfortable as she, Laura, felt. Ms. Buxom had not spoken in tongues, had not joined the chants, had not participated at all. She had just stared way up to where Mad stood in front of the congregation, looked decidedly perplexed and troubled, and occasionally wiped her eyes. Like Laura, she was dressed in a slightly more muted, more classic blouse and skirt, unlike the gaudier clothes of most of the female Apostles worshippers. Laura had felt the blonde was a kindred spirit, and had determined to speak with her when the service concluded. But when it finally did end, the blonde disappeared quickly from the crush of people, and Laura missed her.

Now, three weeks later, some wild hair had led Laura to watch Gut Check, and there she had seen host Steve Matheson take the unctuous Rev. Patterson to task. And out of the blue, a picture of the buxom blonde flashed across her mind again. Whoever she was, she had seemed moved by Mad in a similar way to Laura.

And it was only in thinking that, that Laura first acknowledged to herself that she indeed had been moved. It wasn’t the sex; it was the faith. Something about Mad’s earnestness had moved her. Something about his pain-deepened courage. Somehow, it radiated.He radiated. Or, rather, something radiated that was both from within him and yet greater than he and working through him, taking on Mad’s essence as it did.

Laura shook her head to clear it. Damn, what was she thinking? What was all of this esoteric crap?

 

***

 

From the Mad Religion chat room:

“Hey, did you all see the way Steve Matheson blew away Rob Patterson last night?” wrote FD Thom. “Matheson made a monkey of him!”

From Cowardly Lion: “Yeah, but some monkeys can fly, and they’ll swoop down and snatch you from the Yellow Brick Road and put you in the witch’s castle!”

To which somebody writing anonymously said: “Hey Coward, your act is getting old and it always was pointless. Why don’t you just shut up already with your Oz sh**?”

 

***

 

On April 30, a few days before he was to begin his first extensive speaking tour, Mad pulled out of his large stack of mail a hand-addressed envelope with a Spring Hill College logo. Inside was a multi-page, hand-written letter:

 

Dear Madison,

I don’t know if you would remember meeting me, although we have met once or twice, but through my prayers I have felt an increasing impulse to contact you. I can’t seem to reach you by phone, because your home number is unlisted and the messages I’ve left at your office are probably lost among who knows how many others. Anyway, we have a number of connections, you and I. I am semi-retiring next month after 36 years on the Theology faculty here at Spring Hill. Your father, Ben, over in the history department, was a younger colleague of mine whom I respected and liked although age and differing interests played a role in keeping us from a true friendship. But my uncle was the chairman of the history department who hired Ben. In fact, Ben was his very last hire before my uncle retired. Also, you and I share another kinship: I also attended Georgetown (nearly 40 years or so before you), where Father Joe Durkin, my uncle’s very good friend, was probably my most important mentor, just as he had been a mentor for Ben’s wife, your late mother, Mel. And, from what dear Claire told me, old Father Durkin still was active enough when you two both attended the Hilltop that he had been important to her experience there as well—and indeed, she told me, Father D. was the one who arranged for her to go on some excursion down Virginia-way somewhere, which provided her the opportunity to meet you.

Ah, Claire. I was not really her boss, but I was one of those Jesuits she performed work for here at the college. She was a lovely young woman, bright and kind and devout and true, and I mourn her passing very greatly, and I send my deepest condolences to you for her loss.

All this is prologue, Madison, for the real point of my letter. When I attended the memorial services for Claire and for the child who surely would have graced both your lives, I was so very disheartened to find that you were not there—that you were apparently too distraught to receive the hundreds of condolences that might have been of comfort to you. Ever since then, I have followed your saga closely.

It might surprise you to know that although I am as orthodox a Catholic as you will meet, I nevertheless find much of value in your theses. (As a Catholic, and an ordained Jesuit at that, the very idea of theses on church doors, with their evocation of Luther’s crusade that split the church, might have been enough, when I was younger, to dangerously raise my blood pressure—but age has a way of mellowing a person.) I think that you have touched on an age-old, almost insoluble paradox of the Christian faith, namely the problem of evil and of wholly undeserved bad fortune, in a way that is so fresh and raw that it piques my interest. A very Jesuitical thing, it is, this desire to welcome and be challenged by fresh ideas, even if only to respond by exposing the errors therein. Not that all of your ideas are wrong. In fact, I find them worthy of discussion, of intellectual inquiry, of serious philosophical and theological discourse.

But more than that, I have been emphatically moved by your saga, by your struggle to come to grips with, to articulate, and to hold true to, your innermost emotions, in a way that is both intellectually honest and that somehow finds a path back to faith in Our Heavenly Father. I watch you, and I ache with you, and, though you are ever so much younger than I am, I admire you. And, as a man facing retirement and thus obviously on the verge of leaving “middle-aged” for “old” (how hard that is to admit!), I have the aging man’s egotistical notion that I have accumulated enough wisdom and discernment and maybe empathetic abilities as well so that what I say and do may be of service or of succor to you. In short, Madison, I am offering myself as a sounding board, a confidant, a spiritual adviser if needed (although I certainly do not want to infer that your own priest—I understand you are Episcopalian—is unsuited for that task), or just as an older friend, if you should ever find yourself feeling lost or overwhelmed by this new task you have taken on. I will certainly not be offended should you decline my offer, but just keep it at hand in case you feel the need for the counsel of a rather cranky Jesuit who doesn’t really know what he’s going to do with his time now that he is leaving full-time professorship duties. (I’ll still teach a seminar or two.)

All my best to you, and for your new endeavors.

 

In the Lord’s name, yours truly,

Peter Vignelli, S.J.

 

Mad read and re-read the letter several times. The words anchored themselves in his heart. He thought he knew which one Vignelli was—balding, mid-60s, but still very athletic-looking. If it were indeed Vignelli he was picturing in his mind’s eye, the Jesuit had the look and air of somebody solid and strong and admirable. Yes, Mad would call him. Soon. Take him to lunch, maybe. This was a man he should know.

 

***

 

Two days later, just before midnight on a Saturday, Becky Matthews lay in her bed in the small unit she rented in a West Mobile apartment complex. Her head rested in the narrow, partial valley between two pillows. Her knees hugged another pillow, and her arms were tightly wrapped around yet a fourth. Silent tears streamed down her face.

Becky had now lived in Mobile for more than a month, and she was miserable. Soul-black miserable. She had left her promising (though boring) job at the Houston oil company, left the environs near to her family members (who had made clear their strong disagreement with her unconventional career choice), left the fun and familiar social life surrounding so many of her high school friends who had moved back to Houston after college, left all the big-city offerings, not just because she had always longed for an entrepreneurial enterprise, but also because she really believed in Mad. Not in his message (such as it was), actually, but in Mad himself. She believed there was something special about him. In fact, she thought she loved him. She loved him for the ease with which he seemed to move through life, and for his utter lack of meanness—and, of course, for the way, when they were together, that he made her nerve endings jump and her mind and heart float in an ecstatic trance-like state. She had loved him ever since their first night together during their all-too-stunningly-brief romance at Georgetown. Unlike most of the other girls who seemed oddly contented to enjoy Mad’s attentions for just a little while and not overly upset (just sort of happily wistful) when he moved on, Becky had taken the “breakup” hard. Not that she showed it, of course. But it had eaten at her for months, and she had never understood why he had not wanted to continue the relationship. And she didn’t understand now why he wouldn’t renew it.

Becky knew she was hot-looking. All the guys told her that. Guys tried to hit on her all the time. She had a body well-endowed by nature and well-maintained through her own hard work at staying in shape. She had a pretty face and luscious hair that was a natural strawberry blonde with no artificial coloring required. And she didn’t play games about sex: She liked sex and made it known she liked it—and after all, wasn’t that what men wanted, anyway? No games, no hassle, just honest enjoyment of mutual attraction.

Yet with all Becky had to offer him, Mad acted as if she were part of the furniture. She had come to this godforsaken town that the rednecks and social elite alike in Alabama actually considered a big city, and she knew nobody except Mad. She had found nothing fun to do and not enough people she considered intelligent, and she had done a remarkable job in creating MMW from scratch…and yet Mad seemed, if anything, annoyed by her labors and perhaps by her very presence. His attitude broke her heart.

And it was a real heart she had, a heart as tender as everybody else’s, even though she did her best to hide it behind her unhidden sexuality and her unyielding, modern-woman toughness.

Then, tonight, she had found herself so mind-numbingly, godforsakingly bored that she had finally consented to join Justin for a night out at what she considered those two-bit bars and dance clubs that made up a few-block strip on Lower Dauphin Street in downtown Mobile. The whole situation sucked. Justin kept insisting on dancing, even though he looked as goofy as Dudley Moore’s character in that old Goldie Hawn movie Foul Play. Idiot rednecky guys or sophomoric college guys kept trying to hit on her when Justin either wasn’t looking or had excused himself to the restroom. Then, the only time all night when she saw two young men who had the look and air of Becky’s type, Justin noticed their interest and moved in close to her as if he owned her. Those two guys had turned away, laughing at some private joke that Becky was sure must have expressed contempt for her own taste or self-worth on the basis that she allowed herself to be seen with such a runt.

Appalled that she had sunk to such a low, all in service of a guy named Mad—MAD, indeed!—who paid her no respect, she had pleaded a headache long before Justin was ready to call it a night.

But Justin’s disappointment was so palpable as he drove her home that she felt a twinge of remorse, for the first time, at treating him so shabbily.

“Holy mother of God!” her brain had screamed. On top of all the rest of it, on top of being a total loser who had given up a good life for a dumb pursuit in a town that (compared to Houston) was just Podunksville, USA, “you’re also a bitch of the first order,” she told herself contemptuously. “Who the hell are you to look down on that well-meaning little twerp?”

In bed now, Becky squeezed her pillows even more tightly, and cried still harder. Tomorrow was supposed to be a triumphant day for her, and instead it promised nothing but disaster.

 

***

 

The next day, Sunday, Mad would embark on his first real mini-tour as a speaker. Becky had arranged the whole thing, using her hometown of Houston as a point of embarkation. They would fly to Houston, meet Don the PR guy from Washington (his resignation from the staff of the California congressman had become official on Friday), have a late lunch with her wealthy parents (at theirinsistence; she feared it would be a disaster), and then have Mad speak at the Sunday-night service of a large Methodist church. The next morning they would drive down to Galveston for the breakfast meeting of a prominent civic club, back up to Houston for a luncheon sponsored by a major women’s auxiliary, and then all the way over to San Antonio for the monthly Monday-night forum of a large young professionals’ group. The next day would feature another luncheon, this one in Austin, followed by a flight home (plane change in Dallas) to Mobile that evening.

Mad was as nervous as a caged blue jay in a cat kennel. He could barely sleep that night, and when he did sleep (fitfully) he kept having variations of one particular dream.

It always started the same. Mad was in a bumper boat, a fountain splashing down on his head, the boat turning lazy circles in a weak whirlpool beneath it. But the whole situation was wonderfully funny and lighthearted. Claire drove her little boat 30 yards away, pointing at him and laughing merrily. Even at that distance, her laughter was so infectious that Mad had to laugh too, almost entirely unembarrassed by the jeers of bystanders at the boat pool’s edge.

But then the dream always started going wrong. The gentle whirlpool became stronger and then stronger still. Rather than holding his bumper boat in a lazy circular pattern under the gusher, the whirlpool started spinning him faster and faster. Soon Mad spun around like a passenger on an amusement park ride before being sucked into the whirlpool’s vortex. He no longer was in the boat, but instead in the insane clutches of Becky and Justin and Buzz and Mary. And it wasn’t Claire laughing merrily whom he heard, but a green-clad Laura Green talking into a microphone like a play-by-play announcer, describing Mad’s whirlpool plight as if he were the athlete in a spectator sport. Then Laura turned into Rob Patterson telling Mad that the whirlpool would carry him straight down to Hell, and then Patterson turned into the kind Rev. Hebert yelling helplessly that Mad had left his blackberries at the side of the pool. And just as Mad seemed about to be sucked under for good, he awoke.

When Mad finally fell into the next sleep, he had the dream again, and this time it was the mime and the iguana lady and the tall white Mobile TV reporter guy who had him in their clutches. And another time as he sank into the vortex, he grabbed for a lifeline somebody had thrown him—only to have it yanked away by Officer Williams on account of Mad’s being a “nigger lover.” Still another time Mad actually grabbed the lifeline and pulled himself to apparent safety—only to be so startled, as he finally stood poolside, by the feel of black-haired Tonya’s hand on his buttocks that he fell back into the water and began to be sucked under…

This time, before drowning, Mad awoke to see his clock showing a bit past 6 a.m., and he decided he might as well get up and start prepping for his 9 a.m. flight. The only thing that kept his jitters from being unbearable for the rest of that morning was that when he checked the web site, he found a late-night entry from M. Magdalene. Unless he had missed one somewhere along the way, this was her first appearance on the site since the night before MMW’s opening press conference. Just as on that earlier night, her message here was as brief as could be.

“Hey, Mad,” she wrote. “Good luck with your Texas speeches.”

That was it—but it was enough, somehow, to calm Mad down. Calmed him enough, in fact, to allow him to notice that when he picked Becky up on the way to the airport, she looked unusually pale and drawn and uncharacteristically despondent. She was surprised, pleasantly, when he gave her shoulders a reassuring squeeze before she got into his car.

“I know you’ve put a lot of work into this, Becky,” he said. “I appreciate it, and I won’t let you down.”

Becky sighed and managed a wan half smile.

****

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