The WJHC studios were not far from TTG Specialty Lines, where Elaine and I had our office. My parking pass would get us into the Justice Center Garage. Walking the three blocks to the downtown studio on a Saturday night was probably a lot safer than walking in some of the nearby suburbs.
They had metal detectors at the studio entrance, manned by rent-a-cops. I sized up a couple of the guards. They had the strut and the hard stance of seasoned uniformed officers, so WJHC had spent a little money. They could have spent more for full-time guards and a better security system, but then who’d want to shoot up Cleveland’s UPN affiliate?
Don’t answer that.
The elevators opened on six into a lobby that looked out over Public Square. A cross, mounted on a golden shield with “John 3:16” written in small red letters near the base, dominated one wall. The cross and shield served as the logo for Faith Rising Ministries, Leach’s television outreach. Roger had still not determined whether Leach or the Reformed Resurrectionist Church owned Faith Rising. If the huge oil painting of Leach next to the cross and shield meant anything, Leach probably did.
We followed the crowd around a corner. Signs on metal stands with white plastic lettering pointed the way to Studio 6B. The place surprised me. Once upon a time, when I lived with a television reporter, I’d visited a similar studio over at Channel 4. It looked large on television but felt damned claustrophobic from inside. Studio 6B was a cavern, extending up into the seventh floor. I wondered who had sprung for the remodeling job until I realized that Elton Paul, a faith healer out of Akron, had originally broadcast from this very studio. He still owned the station, but we wouldn’t see him tonight. For that, I thanked God for the first time in years.
“Tickets, please,” said a perky studio page. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen, and she looked so pleased to be there she might explode. Her blue blazer had the cross and gold shield on the pocket.
Elaine smiled and handed her our tickets.
“Thank you,” said the page. “God bless.”
Leach had gone all out. The place resembled the set of a TV show about a church. Cameras and lighting ringed the studio as well as the altar. In one corner, a gospel choir stood practicing in the corner. The altar itself, with an understated oak pulpit, was empty. The pulpit had the cross and shield mounted on the front. Behind it sat a plush bench where, I assumed, Leach and his fellow speakers would sit during the service. To the right, opposite the choir, a band warmed up – electric guitars, electronic keyboards, a drum kit that would make Lars Ulrich drool, and horns. Ladies and gentlemen, Calvin Leach was rockin’ with the Lord.
Elaine took me by the hand and led the way to one of the blue-upholstered pews. We sat next to an older couple, a silver-haired man in his late fifties and his plump, red-headed wife. Like Elaine, the wife dyed her hair. Unlike Elaine, she didn’t spend nearly as much on the color, putting the savings into a perm to give her that electrocuted look.
The woman tugged on my sleeve. “Your wife looks lovely,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said, “I like to think so.”
“I’m Verna. This is my husband, Jerry.”
Jerry looked over at me, bored, and waved hello. I nodded back.
“I’m Tommy Lee,” I said, “and this is my wife, Pamela.”
Elaine drove the heel of her pump into my foot.
“Are you okay, Mr. Lee?” asked Verna.
I reached down and rubbed my calf, pretending I had a Charlie horse. “Yeah, just a leg cramp. Hurt myself while we were making a video earlier.”
I got Elaine’s elbow this time.
“Oh, really? What of?”
Elaine grabbed my wrist and dug her nails into it. “Just something to show our families. Right, Tommy?”
I gave her my best shit-eating grin. “Yes, dear.”
“I’m so excited,” said Verna. “We’re going to see the Reverend Leach live. I just know he’s going to revolutionize our church.”
I perked up, and Elaine’s hand tightened on my wrist again, this time sans nails in my skin.
“You’re both Reformed Resurrectionists?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” she said. “The Brunswick congregation stayed with the parent church.”
I could see Jerry’s brow furrow and his lips press thin as Verna gushed.
“But many of us have seen Reverend Leach for what he really is,” said Verna.
“Which is?” A charlatan? A con artist? Elmer Gantry in Billy Graham’s clothing? Elaine must have guessed what I was thinking because the nails went right back into my skin.
“A saint, Tommy,” she said. “An absolute saint. That man is just brilliant. I’m sure the church senate will come around to his way of thinking and welcome him back soon.”
Fat chance. This was too cushy a gig for Leach to give up.
“Are you and Pamela Resurrectionists?” asked Verna.
“No,” we said in unison. I saw a faint smile from Jerry as he stared ahead.
“We’re lapsed Catholics,” said Elaine, “looking for a way to renew our faith.”
Elaine Haskell, queen of the bullshitters.
“How wonderful!” said Verna. “And your children?”
Before I could answer, Elaine dug her nails in again and said, “No. No children.”
“That’s too bad,” said Verna. “A woman your age should be looking forward to your children growing up. Some of them would be adults now, wouldn’t they?”
Elaine’s grip on my arm tightened, but she didn’t dig in. I looked over at her and saw her left temple twitching. I looked back at Verna. “She’s only 32. It’s just that I… I’ve… um…”
She reached over and patted my hand. “That’s okay, dear. Some of us weren’t meant to be fathers.”
Elaine leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Thirty-two? You deserve the mother of all blowjobs for that save.”
I smiled and strategically placed a hymnal in my lap.
At a little before seven, a balding man in wire-rim glasses and sneakers rushed out onto the stage. He had a headset on linked to a wireless rig on his belt. The crowd hushed as he stepped to the center of the stage. He raised his hands, and the audience went silent.
“Praise the Lord, everybody!” he called out.
“Praise the Lord,” the crowd replied.
“Praise the Lord!” he said again.
“Praise the Lord!”
“One more time, with feeling. Praise the Lord!”
“Praise the Lord!” They started to sound like the crowd at an AC/DC concert. I half expected the band to launch into “Thunderstruck.”
“Thank you all for coming,” said the man in a lower voice. “I’m Evan Klinger, producer of The Unbroken Circle. It’s a pleasure to have you all here.”
“A pleasure to have all our money,” I whispered in Elaine’s ear. No elbow, nails, or stiletto heel this time. She simply gave me a dirty look.
“Before we get started, I need to cover a few things with all of you,” said Klinger. “First, I want to point out the exits at the back of the studio. There are three. In case of an emergency, calmly move to the back of the room and head for the stairs on either side of the lobby. Secondly, as you know, the Reverend Leach wants your spiritual experience to be a personal one. If, during the Moments of Healing, you feel called to come forward, please do so. And finally, I must ask that you all remain silent during our periods of prayer and while our speakers are in the pulpit.” He stepped over to the right and gestured toward the band. “Gordy Burrell and the Unbroken Circle!”
The crowd cheered, and the band played what might have been the Jimi Hendrix version of “Amazing Grace.”
Klinger moved to the opposite side of the studio and shook hands with the choir director. “Jeffery Alford and the Glory Baptist Temple Choir.” With the Unbroken Circle playing a generic rock bass line, the choir sang “Praise His name” over and over for a few bars.
Again the crowd cheered. I got excited. Maybe Velvet Revolver would headline tonight. I glanced in the band’s direction and did a double take. I knew the drummer, a fat guy who looked like Jerry Garcia’s morbidly obese twin. I nudged Elaine and whispered, “That’s Clyde.”
Elaine looked. Her eyes widened. “From your old band? What’s he doing here?”
“Praising Jesus for a steady paycheck.”
The show began with the band blasting out an up-tempo gospel tune, which the choir sang. I listened to it closely and tried to place it. The lyrics weren’t the same, but I finally figured out the song. Todd Rundgren had originally done it as “I Love My Life” back in 1989. I wondered if Todd knew Leach had appropriated his tune, or if he got a nice fat check for his trouble.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said a well-modulated male voice, “it’s time for the most powerful ninety minutes on television. Praise the Lord and put your hands together for The Unbroken Circle!”
Growing up Catholic, we had a lector welcome the faithful, give the theme for the Mass, and read a Bible verse. The priest would walk in behind a procession, everyone in solemn poses as they made their way to the altar. Leach, who had to be pushing sixty, bounced out from the left side of the studio like an aging game show host. He practically skipped over to Alford, the choir director, and shook hands with him. He then jogged over to the band and exchanged high fives with Gordy and the keyboard player, whom I assumed was Gordy’s girlfriend.
Leach finally pranced up onto the stage and vigorously shook hands with the three men on the altar. He had a peck on the cheek for his wife, announced as “The Lovely Phyllis,” before he took the pulpit and drank in the crowds applause.
“I just love Phyllis,” Verna said in my ear. “She is such a sweet and lovely woman.”
Phyllis Leach simply stood to the side and looked demure and overwhelmed by the attention. Like Tammy Faye without the tons of makeup or running mascara.
The music and the applause died down. Leach raised his hands high and shouted, “Praise the Lord!”
“Praise the Lord!” the crowd shouted back.
“Sieg, heil,” I whispered in Elaine’s ear. She smiled. I wondered how the cross-and-shield logo would look on khaki uniforms with black ties.
“The Lord is our shepherd,” said Leach, “and we shall not want. Welcome, my friends, to The Unbroken Circle. We’re so pleased to have you with us, whether in our studios in downtown Cleveland or nationwide at home. The Lord welcomes you with open arms.”
In my head, I kept hearing that old Star Trek episode where canned voices chanted “Hail, the Fuhrer! Hail, the Fuhrer!” I also felt dark forces tugging on my wallet. A strange combination of images Leach gave me: Gameshow host, fascist leader, Johnny Carson on crack. He came off as anything but a preacher. Something happened to me that had not happened since I was sixteen. I began to miss a traditional Mass.
At least I was until she came out, she being Laticia Matlock. Tall, sleek, and black, her eyes held a certain joy mixed with a world-weariness I understood well these days. I remembered Laticia from my college days. My girlfriend during freshman year liked to make love with Laticia’s music playing. MTV, record companies, and half a dozen coked-up record producers had once billed her has the successor to Donna Summer as the Queen of Orgasmic Soul. Unless my girlfriend had been faking it, I’d say they were right, at least in 1987 or 88.
Laticia sang a different tune that evening, one of redemption and salvation. Her voice sounded even more powerful than on those over-mixed, over-synthesized post-disco tunes she did in the eighties. She had a rich mezzo-soprano voice that could rattle the windows. The sheer feeling in her song grabbed me, and for once during the show, I was actually glad to be there.