Charlie Kondek, author of “The Jesus Deal”, is a marketing and communications professional from metro Detroit whose work has appeared in niche print and online publications including Kendo World Magazine.
Christopher Hedge opened his eyes, body turned toward the window. The grey light that slipped beneath the curtain, the dull pulse of the ocean and softness of the bed, these were his first waking reminders of where he lay: in a beach motel beside his wife, not on a bunk in a cell. The same impulse that made him place himself in the right surroundings made him turn away from the window, raise himself on his forearm, and look across Donna’s fountain of hair, her hip beneath a pale blue sheet, to where Josh lay in the other bed. Hedge took a moment to consider that, in sleep, Josh looked like an ordinary boy.
The air conditioner muttered in black language as he moved quietly out of the bed. He dressed quickly in loose chinos and a frayed button-down he saved for beachcombing. As hurried as he was to slip out of the room, he couldn’t help checking Josh’s rubber pants for wetness. Any other morning he’d take the boy to the toilet and then try to coax him back to sleep without waking Donna. If Josh wouldn’t go back to sleep, they’d watch Captain Kangaroo or whatever was on TV, the sound very low, Hedge’s arm encircling Josh’s head, his hand stroking the boy’s hair. It was a routine they’d developed since Hedge had come home.
As hurried as he was to slip out of the room, he couldn’t help checking Josh’s rubber pants for wetness.
He left a note, “gone for coffee,” on the suitcase, and had a sweater over his shoulder and his shoes in his hand when he eased the locked door shut. The motel, triangles of yellow and brown over sticky white cinder block, was across the street from the new, pearl-colored hotels on the beach. There was coffee in the lobby urn and yesterday’s newspaper, full of LBJ and campus unrest, still on the rack. He carried the coffee in a paper cup as he crossed the parking lot and empty street and walked the sandy path between the hotels to the beach. Gentle light bathed the balconies. A nearly invisible mist shrouded the gulf waves that spilled onto shore. Hedge took a moment to set his coffee on one of the corral pink walls that surrounded the hotel patio, put on his sweater, and roll the legs of his trousers. He would carry his shoes on the way to his appointment.
The sun risen over the ocean was not yet warming to the task of scalding the clouds. Faded gold was the sky over grey-green water, persistent but patiently consuming the shore. The beach was long, the water wide, and here was a first orange shaft that parted the mist. This statement of nature, its immense breadth, was how Hedge imagined God. Like the cover of a hymnal. Looking out over the ocean at the end of the world, he imagined the deity and wondered how the image differed to a cradle Christian, someone raised on religion, as opposed to a jailhouse convert like himself. Memories of the prison chapel where he’d been lead to that conversion were evoked as he addressed the light parting the clouds. It’s you, he prayed. Here I am. Keeping my end.
Coffee in one hand, shoes in the other, he walked along the beach to his appointment. The pastor that put it over had had admirable technique – Hedge was well qualified to judge. A good con begins by recognizing vulnerability in the mark, usually greed, arrogance, vanity, or all three. In Hedge’s case, there had been desperation. He remembered a pivotal conversation with Donna in the visiting pen. “Something’s wrong with Josh.” The boy was a toddler when Hedge went inside, but already they had concerns over delays in his development. As Hedge did his time, and observed Josh on those days Donna brought him, the scope of the problems were revealed. Josh could not speak except to bark or moan or cry, and he would not look anyone in the face. He waved his arms spastically when agitated or clinged to little fetishes, a raccoon tail, a rabbit pelt, and he soiled himself frequently, long after the age when he should have stopped. Donna, trying to quiet Josh, drew him away from the pitying or annoyed stares of the other inmates and their families. She was angelic in motherhood, as Hedge always suspected she would be, but her calming movements concealed real horror. Hedge had dragged her through extensive trials in the past, had broken her heart frequently and come to take her loyalty for granted even as he despised himself for doing so. But he never envisioned putting her through something like this. And he behind bars, helpless.
So that was how the prison chaplain found him; this was the opening for the fleece. Hedge’s weakness was that he wanted to be forgiven, not by the state but by his life, the world. But if he was going to be forgiven, he had to acknowledge that there were things to forgive, acts that violated laws deeper than the ones he and his partner had always circumvented. And he had to acknowledge that there was somebody with the ability to forgive, the authority. Somebody even beyond Donna. This is what the pastor, in increasing increments, offered him, how he persuaded Hedge, bit by bit, to part with agnostic resolve.
Anyway that’s how it started, Hedge remembered, crumpling the paper cup and dropping it into a wire trash bin. On the surface, it seemed like a good out to all his pain, something he could tell Donna and that she could tell her parents and friends – Chris is giving his life over to God and is going to come home and help care for Joshua. They’d greet the 1970s as a real couple, true spouses and parents, and they’d never have to suffer again; all would be healed. Below that surface, though, in his own mind, Hedge, as in all good marks, weighed the options, evaluated the bargain, and made his own decisions. In a good con, the pigeon lives in a reality the artist has constructed for him. The pastor’s reality was made of basic apologetics, meat and potatoes philosophy and history. Hedge had plenty of time to read in the joint, and to ask questions, consider the answers. And, awkwardly, stumblingly, to pray.
Hedge’s toes were cool in the sand, and he guided his steps away from the waves. The beach was nearly deserted except for a few solitary oldsters in windbreakers, flopping hats and fishing poles, empty not only because it was just after sunrise but because it was off-season, weeks after the Easter break that had populated the town with ice-cream colored Galaxies and Impalas and Polaras, men in Bermuda shorts with pipes clenched in their jaws, women beside them like visitors from space in their cat’s eye glasses and piles of hair smiling upon a colony of bronzed, near-naked children. He’d known such crowds well, in towns like these, hunting grounds far from his native Midwest where he and his old partner, Treus, worked.
A lot of cons, long or short, have names, variations on “The Spanish Prisoner” or “The Grandchild” or “The Mining Shares” and such. Hedge and Treus specialized in something they called “The Peso Swap,” their version of a currency exchange trick. In prison, Hedge had begun to think of his life as being at the center of something called “The Jesus Deal.” This is how it worked: on the one hand, he would get Donna back, and Josh, and he’d be in a position to actually care for his wife and retarded son. In exchange, he would have to surrender his vocation but also his freedom and his pride, to impose on himself new rules and new attitudes, to no longer “be conformed to this world.” No more cars. No more suits. No more nightclubs and hotels. He would have to humble himself. Move to Donna’s town. Get a job – an actual job – in a grocery store or something, move in with Donna’s parents, at least until they could get on their own feet.
And, he would have to believe. That was the true price to pay if Hedge wanted to take the Jesus Deal. Because saying you were a Christian now, joining a little Ohio Lutheran church, sitting in its pews – in the case of the Hedges, sitting in the rearmost pews in case Josh had an outburst and needed to be taken out – this would give you the outer form of respectability, enable you to square your debts with some of the people you’d hurt and, belatedly, penitently, heal your marriage. But if you wanted to be able to face yourself as a man, even a bad man, if you wanted to live by your decisions and not as a fake, if you wanted the outer man and the inner man to be the same – and you did – and if you wanted real change in your life, if you really wanted to be forgiven… you’d have to really believe. Believe in something you couldn’t see. Believe in something you only grasped conceptually. Something you only felt as a nagging affliction of guilt, not the joy and the optimism others experienced – he had seen them, on their knees and weeping in the prison chapel, and it just wasn’t him, could never be him.
The pastor had told Hedge that you could believe and have doubts. That everyone did. Hedge learned to begin his prayers like this: “Uh, it’s me. But you knew that. I guess I feel like I’m talking to myself, but here goes…” It was a start. It was more true to the inner man, and he hadn’t exactly spent his life even trying to be truthful.
But then the most amazing thing happened, and this was what Hedge could not explain to Treus. Yes, Treus, how shocking, what awful luck, to bump into him down here. Hedge had been in one of the gift shops when he and Treus had spotted each other, Donna nearby, amusing herself and Josh with all the useless, junky souvenirs, here and there finding little objects that might engage him, widen his interests beyond rabbits’ feet and racoon tails.
Hedge’s body, face, eyes, mouth, slipped immediately into a practiced state, as did Treus’ – each with a fleeting glance acknowledged they saw the other, but behaved as if they hadn’t, glancing away but still keeping each other in their fields of vision. Over the years they’d worked together they had developed a cant of gestures, signals not unlike those used on a baseball field between coach and batter, runner. A tug of the ear and a scratching of the chest. Two fingers to the forehead in response, as if massaging a brow. Can we speak here? No. Pinching both earlobes, first one, then the other. Where? Squeezing the palm, three times. Wait here. Leaving the gift shop a few minutes later, Hedge touched Donna’s elbow. “Just remembered – I told your mother I’d see if they had one of those commemorative spoons. You and Josh sit on that bench and I’ll be right back.” Hedge slipped back into the gift shop.
Hedge’s body, face, eyes, mouth, slipped immediately into a practiced state, as did Treus’ – each with a fleeting glance acknowledged they saw the other, but behaved as if they hadn’t, glancing away but still keeping each other in their fields of vision.
He found Treus in the same spot, alone, idly examining a rack of post cards. In the old days when they’d worked together Treus would wait for Hedge to prompt the conversation, the cover, assign each of them a role. “Frank Jones! You old so-and-so. Haven’t seen you since the sales pow-wow in Kansas City.” This time, Hedge, too, looked at postcards and said, loud enough for Treus to hear but without speaking directly, “I can’t talk here. What about tonight?” It wasn’t the time or place or method for other questions, questions like, “What are you doing here?” or, “Can you forget you saw me?” Treus replied, “There’s a steakhouse one block over called the Sands Inn. Meet me there.” “After 9:00,” Hedge said. He was on the street again in a moment, reaching for Joshua’s hand. “No spoons,” he explained.
The bar at the Sands inn had recessed red lighting and webs of fishermen’s netting overhead twined in shells and plastic fish. Treus’ amused, hooded eyes and patch of beatnik chin hair inhabited that subterranean red space comfortably, slouched on the leather uphostelry on the bar with a gin and tonic at his elbow. A bald man, Treus could sculpt his appearance with hairpieces, facial hair, and his own protean gestures to make himself look like anything from a Hungarian ambassador to a Missouri milkman. “Chris Hedge,” he purred. “As I live and breathe. My brown-eyed protégé.” In the red light, scalp Yul Brynner-clean, eyebrows arched, he looked every bit a matchbook devil lacking only horns and tail, a manifestation of Hedge’s predicament so palpable it stopped his breath. “I get it,” he thought to himself. “You’re real and so is the other guy.”
In his former life, which was not so long ago, Hedge, like Treus, had the skill of being able to appear as if consuming voluminous cocktails while in fact nursing them. He carried one now, scotch and soda over ice, to a corner table of the Sands Inn where he and Treus could speak more freely. Another old habit surfaced, like their meeting in the gift shop, that of fitting a conversation, the essentials of what they needed to exchange, into the time allowed, which Hedge set as 30 minutes so as not to arouse Donna’s suspicions; he had told her he was going for a late stroll. How long you been out? A year and a half. Where are you living? With Donna’s folks. Is the heat on? What have you been doing? No heat. Living a normal life in a quiet town. These basics established, they got down to “business,” though in Hedge’s mind was the eagerness to establish that they had no business.
Treus, a student of people that knew his old partner, sensed something was different about Hedge and chose his words carefully. “How would you feel about working again, Chris?” Treus’ voice, low, could be priest-like. “You seem spooked. Like your self-assurance is gone. Tell me your mind, friend. I’d love to help you.”
Hedge picked his way among the words just as carefully. “I’m not doing that kind of work anymore,” he explained. “I’ve gone straight. You saw my family in the gift shop. That’s the only thing that matters to me now.”
Treus could not keep himself from smiling with one corner of his bearded mouth. “Prison has changed you,” he suggested. “But do you mind if I ask if this is a change that you want? I can’t imagine what you’re doing – in Ohio, for God’s sake – but I have to assume there’s not much money in it.”
They maneuvered, they probed. Hedge explained that money was no longer important, only caring for his wife and child, and that it was necessary for him to remain clean. Treus suggested that maybe Hedge simply suffered a crisis of confidence, his belief in himself damaged because he’d been popped and done time. “I’ve seen it happen,” Treus assured him. “But you’re good, Chris. You know you’re good. It’s why I chose you.”
“That’s not it,” Hedge replied. “None of that matters. I told you, all that matters now is Donna and Josh. I’m done with that life for good. I’m out.”
Money, Treus ventured. What about money? “That’s not the Chris Hedge I know. The guy that likes to see his women in Chanel.” Unimportant, Hedge insisted, doesn’t matter anymore. Gone forever. And here was where Hedge’s ability faltered, where the words ran out, or would not come out, what he who twisted words and professionally persuaded could not explain.
It wasn’t just that Josh was vulnerable, and that that vulnerability made Hedge’s protection of him more acute. It wasn’t just that he’d made a promise to Donna, and that, in a reversal of his former self, Hedge now kept his promises to the best of his ability. Hedge could not bring himself to tell Treus, in prison I accepted Christ sincerely and it has changed, is changing me, so significantly that I can’t even entertain your propositions; Hedge did not say this both because he was embarrassed to do so in the company of his criminal fraternity but also because he couldn’t think of a way to make the words make sense, or difference, to Treus.
Nor could Hedge adequately convey the enormity of the changes in him, how the Jesus Deal worked, really worked, and that Josh was the key to the whole thing. You see, he might have said, it was my son, my helpless son, that has not only made this God thing real to me but made me actually want to love and follow Him. My son… you saw him, right? How he acts? How he can’t talk, or completely understand what’s going on around him? How he’s like a baby still, and he needs his mother and me to guide him, do most basic things for him? When I first came home I was a stranger to this child.
My child, this retarded kid that looks like me – Donna’s thick, dark hair, my suspicious eyes and mouth. Taking care of him was, at first, just a complicated chore; I felt nothing, only responsible for learning his ways – squawking, humming, spastic hands – seeing to his needs and keeping him out of harm. I was, at first, just a babysitter to him, an assistant to his mother. But then, little by little, I began to see truly that he experienced pleasure. That just because they weren’t our pleasures didn’t mean they weren’t real. Or that he appreciated things in his own way.
When I played records for him, he didn’t look at anyone’s face but watched the record spin and rocked, sort of in time with the music, and smiled. He began to have favorites, Doris Day, Jack Jones, he liked all those swing records Donna’s father collected and the Mamas and the Papas that Donna brought home. Left alone to shake and pet his raccoon tail he experienced great peace – you have to take your own blinders off and see it the way he sees it, a sensual communion with a precious toy. You’ve never seen a child love a teddy bear the way Josh loves a rabbit pelt.
Or the way Josh can feel snow, fascinated by it, rolling in it and crushing it between his mittens – sand, too. There’s a pond where we like to go on a rowboat. Josh loves the motion on the water, the emptiness when we’re far from the shore, trailing his fingers on the water and casting ripples through our reflected faces. He is overjoyed in ways none of us can be when I lead him through the weedy path to go rowing. In most of our settings and circumstances, he’s upsetting, a freak; in others, he is the most magical thing I have ever known.
But it wasn’t only Hedge’s appreciation of the “magic boy” that had changed him. It was love, a woven connection to Josh like the nautical nets above their heads in the Sands Inn that had been formed at the child’s birth, frayed while Hedge was in prison, snapped in places as Hedge struggled to accept Josh’s condition, and then, in that mournful town, in the basement apartment of Donna’s parents’ home, in morning and midnight attendance to the boy’s many needs, became not just repaired but strengthened, extended. Hedge was a liar and a thief whose specialty was pilfering the human mind, but he was capable of love.
He loved Donna, but the love of Josh was unlike any he’d ever felt; it was so alien to Hedge to be absorbed by complete devotion to another, and yet this is precisely what occurred. On one memorable occasion, Hedge had responded to the boy’s nocturnal awakening and, laying beside him with his hand on Josh’s hair, felt Josh’s utter dependence on him as a bright, warm, desperate light filling his body, to which he responded in prayer, sincerely and without hesitation, “Thank you for giving him to me. I love him so bad I can’t stand it and I will do anything to care for him, with all of my being.” Like the bombs that fall near the proverbial atheist in the foxhole, Josh made it easy to believe.
If Treus understood what Hedge was trying, and failing, to communicate, he, under the red light and fingering the rim of his glass, made no outward sign. Rather, Treus seemed to have made his mind up about something, and was choosing his next words. Hedge, like Treus, knew when to stop speaking and wait, and when Treus’ counterproposal came it was this.
“Chris, we’ve been friends for a long time and I’ve never been unfair to you but I’m going to be now and I hope you’ll forgive me. In fact, now that you’re an upstanding disciple you kinda have to forgive me, don’t you? Seventy times seven?” Even the devil can quote scripture, Hedge remembered. “The fact is I got a fat one on the line and investors that are expecting results, and I could use your help reeling him in. In fact, there was nobody better than you when you were in the game, Chris. This is too good for me and I can’t let you go.”
The truth was, Treus reminded him, that Hedge had not paid for all he’d done. There were still several places across the country where, were Hedge’s crimes to be made known, his role in them, he could be pursued again, caught, and sent back to prison, maybe this time for even longer. A half a dozen swindled victims were still out there eager to prosecute Hedge if they, and the police, knew Hedge’s real name, his whereabouts. All Treus had to do to ruin Hedge was provide this information – at risk to himself, it was true, but it was a risk Treus was willing to take.
“So here’s the strong-arm, Chris, but it’s gonna pay off for you, I guarantee it. You do this job with me, one last job, three, four weeks of work, and afterward I’ll dissolve our partnership for good. When my investors are paid you’ll acquire a nice pile so you can see this will work out very well for you and Donna in the end. You may even thank me for doing it this way. But if you won’t do this, Chris, my brown eyed boy, I’ll burn you. I’ll call up Preston Petersen in Minneapolis and the state police and let him know who it was took him for 15 large. I’ll write a letter to Antonio Linea in Cleveland with details about… but there’s no reason for me to go on.”
There was, indeed, no reason to go on, and Treus’ demands were quite clear, as was the timing of Hedge’s response he now established. Hedge was to meet Treus the day after tomorrow, at dawn, under the pier up the beach from his motel, with a yes or no answer.
That pier, long and low over waves breaking gently in the new day’s sun, was now visible to Hedge as he walked toward it as toward his doom. He kept discovering new aspects of the Jesus Deal. In exchange for his belief and obedience he had been given freedom and love, love he could never have imagined, and faith like he’d never known. But he had also been given a new set of rules by which to behave, and Treus’ ultimatum forced him now into one of three options, each of which, and its consequences, he viewed from the perspective of his new self but the experience of his old self.
One, he could take the job, which would mean returning to his life of crime – he didn’t for a minute believe Treus would hold him to only “one more job.” When Hedge considered this decision, he did so with his old instincts actively alert to the angles, the possibilities of somehow navigating it while sticking to his end of the Jesus Deal, but the idea gnawed at him; it would violate the deal, because he’d still be a believer but not an obeyer.
Yet didn’t that kind of thing happen all the time? Were none of us free from sin? Penitent, sure, sorry for what we continued to do, but still somehow within the fold of Christ’s family? What interested Hedge more than the armchair theological argument was how he felt about it. He sensed it would somehow damage him, and Donna, and Josh, in ways he couldn’t identify, and some desire in him rebelled against this. He had gotten a taste of the clean life, of righteousness, and he didn’t want to give it up.
Two, he could refuse the job. He had no doubt this would be as physically catastrophic for him as the first choice was spiritually. He would go back to prison – he’d give Treus up, too, but Treus could disappear, and Hedge would spend a long time behind bars. Possibly, he could cut a deal with the law, and somehow, they’d muddle through, Donna, Joshua and he, but it would be miserable, torturous, to be separated from people he loved to the point of need.
Three. He could murder Treus. Hedge couldn’t help identifying this option. Maybe anyone, regardless of background, considers this in the face of blackmail. Hedge had never killed before. While he couldn’t help planning it, strangling Treus, or bashing his skull with a hammer, he also couldn’t see himself carrying it out. Both his old self and new self were simply repulsed by the idea.
He spent 24 hours pretending with Donna and Josh, playing on the beach, sharing food, while secretly agonizing over his decisions. It didn’t take him long to make up his mind, because the guidance of his maker, the new rules, were very clear. Taking the Jesus Deal, Hedge now realized, meant acquiring all that freedom, love and faith he experienced, but it also meant sometimes a radical acceptance of consequences.
Of Hedge’s three options, there was really only one allowable under the deal, and so he intended to tell Treus he would not do that job, that he would take any reprisal, even if it meant his incarceration. He could beg – a first, for him, and he would, but in the end it would amount to the same thing, throwing himself on the mercy of an unmerciful man. Hedge felt himself imprisoned already, his beloved child once again beyond his reach, and he wanted to die.
The pier was of thick wood planks, weather and salt-water beaten, and rose out of the surf and sea supported by broad wooden columns. Perhaps forty or fifty feet of sand and shore, specked by bits of trash and seagull excrement, lay under the pier in shadow, and it was here they’d arranged to meet, above their heads a handful of early fishermen casting long poles. Hedge could see Treus now, sitting in a lawn chair in one of the darkest spots under the pier, calmly, head on chest, almost as if sleeping, as if with no cares and all the time in the world. Hedge stepped under the shadow of the pier as into the black hood of the condemned.
Treus didn’t look at Hedge, and as Hedge drew nearer he became confused by some of the accessories Treus was wearing, until he saw that what he mistook for shiny shirt cuffs was in fact several inches of packaging tape that bound Treus forearms to the arms of the lawn chair. The same tape held his legs. Treus’ eyes were slightly open, and he seemed to be gazing at the sand in front of him, except the expression was one of astonishment, the bearded mouth slight agape and spit-flecked. Treus was not moving, and drawing still closer, pulling away at the collar of Treus’ shirt, Hedge could see why. He was dead. His throat had been cut.
At least, Hedge thought he was dead. Believed he was dead. Wanted to check Treus’ pulse but couldn’t bring himself to do it, looked very close for any signs of breathing and saw none, and, remembering what Treus had said about his “investors,” backed away, turned away, walked away.
Hedge walked quickly away, the way he had come, still not quite comprehending what he’d seen. Then his thoughts swerved to caution and he doubled back, kicked at some of the brushes his feet had made in the sand, and walked instead up to the pier. From the pier he could get to the boardwalk and from there to the sidewalk, which he did after putting on his shoes. And he walked, calmly, though he trembled and his head pounded, along the street, past quiet hotels, motels, bars and gift shops. After a few more steps he sat down on a bench to steady himself.
Was he safe? Treus could never harm him, or anyone, again, unless he’d left some written record for the law to find; unlikely. Should he go to the police? Would they try to pin Treus’ killing on him? He hadn’t done it, could offer what information he knew, probably establish an alibi; Treus must have been killed before dawn by maybe two or three people, not one, and someone may have seen Hedge leave the motel or walk along the beach later. Could he just… depart? Telling no one, and hoping no part of it followed him home?
To God, he asked, “Am I doing the right thing? If I simply leave?”
And then: “This feels like a test. Like Abraham and Isaac. To see what I would do. Except, I don’t think you work like that.”
A moment later. “Did you kill Treus? Was the knife your instrument? No, I don’t think you work like that, either.”
After some time, Hedge rose and walked on steadier legs back to his motel. He let himself into the room just as quietly as he’d left. Donna and Josh were still sleeping, and he sat in a chair out of the widening plane of light creeping under the curtain.
Treus was right about one thing, though, Hedge thought. There are still things I’ve done they don’t know about. Things for which I have not been caught, or punished. If Hedge really wanted to follow this all the way, he reasoned, he would turn himself in, even without the threat of Treus exposing him. But that would almost certainly land him back in prison, maybe for a long time, and take him away from these two sleeping people that needed him.
But Hedge had already decided, he now realized, walking away from that corpse, gathering his nerve on the sidewalk. He’d been given a second chance by luck or intervention, it didn’t matter which, and he would take it and flee, back to the small town, the rowboat and the pond, conceal himself in their midst.
And if he wasn’t completely free of guilt, he would just have to find a way to live with it, hating part of himself and always fearing a knock on the door. His prison pastor had instructed him that his soul was wiped clean in the Jesus Deal, even if his body – and his name – wasn’t. But didn’t that also depend on a remorseful heart? Hedge was, indeed, sorry for what he’d done – at this moment, with so much to lose, and having been given a reprieve he didn’t deserve, he was more sorry than ever. But not enough to turn himself in. Not enough to confess to everything.
Hedge realized he had been wringing his hands, as if mangling hands joined in prayer, and that he was praying, his thoughts flying straight to God: “Can you work with that? Can you accept me? Am I still yours, even with all these crimes on my back?”
Hedge figured he had better wake Josh. They had a long drive home.
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