Oceanside – Escondido, California
Malachi left his high school graduation ceremony with one thing on his mind: mischief. He partied hard that Friday night in Escondido, slept off a hangover, and headed out to the beach on Saturday afternoon. He and some friends borrowed one of their parents’ RVs and were going to spend the night at Oceanside Harbor to surf, party, and raise some hell. There were about twenty recent grads at the beach that evening. They secured one of the bonfire pits and got down to business. Drinks flowed freely and the glowing embers of joints being passed around the bonfire seemed to form glowing orbits like planets around the sun. Summer always spelled freedom to high school kids, a season of endless possibility. For the graduate however, there was a need to hold on, because the ground that once seemed solid began shifting beneath their feet as new paths into an unknown future were forged.
Malachi’s buddy Alex, a partner in crime, was sitting next to him, leaned in and said, “Dude, Lori’s been making eyes at you all night. This might be the last chance you get to hook up with her. She’s been into you since we were freshmen, and I have no idea why you haven’t taken the bait. Look at her — she’s hot, man.”
Lori, indeed, had had a crush on Malachi for the better part of four years, but Malachi seemed to show no interest. She was a petite, curvy blonde with big brown eyes and a cherubic face. But that night, her intentions were anything but angelic.
“I know,” said Malachi, squinting through the haze of booze and weed.
“Well aren’t you going to do anything about it?”
“Not a damn thing, hombre,” smiled Malachi, “Not a damn thing.”
“Why the hell not?” asked Alex.
“I’m not into her and it’d be too easy. I’d just be using her and that’s not me.”
Malachi spoke the truth. He might have been every flavor of wild, but he wasn’t one to take advantage of people. He had all of the sexual energy of any eighteen-year-old young man, but he knew that something burned inside of him that would only spell heartache and destruction for a sweet girl like Lori. Malachi knew he had nothing for her, so he wouldn’t place himself in a position to take from her what he had no intention of keeping. Just because something is offered does not mean it should be .
Sometime after midnight, as the party hit a lull, Malachi started getting restless, as he often did. A full moon, shining in pale brilliance, lit the inky waters between the north and south jetties of the harbor beach. There was enough light to surf, but not enough to keep a crew of drunk, high eighteen-year-olds from flirting with disaster.
“Hey, Alex,” Malachi said, “look at the sets rolling in; they’re perfect man. Little three footers as clean as glass. They’re begging for us to head out.”
“Yeah, buddy, but we’re all wasted.”
“Whatever, man. Let’s round up a few guys and have ourselves a little night surf.”
With that, Alex shrugged and went to the RV to grab his trunks and his board and Malachi followed, shortly after he coaxed three more guys to join them. After they had their trunks on, the party seemed to revive with hoots and hollers that only egged the five young men on. They decided not to paddle out to the line-up. Instead they walked out on the north jetty beyond the breakers with the intention of jumping in. What they didn’t know is one of the families in the RV next to theirs, already sick of the incessant noise, had alerted the Harbor Police that a bunch of drunk grads were on the verge of a stupid choice. By the time they had reached the midpoint of the jetty, a police boat flashed its sirens, and an officer on the loud speaker commanded them to walk back to shore to safety. Everyone complied with the exception of Malachi, who was thrilled at the prospect of getting under the officers’ skin. He tried to convince his buddies that the police couldn’t do anything and to stop being such wimps. He made the plunge, and the others cowered back to shore.
Malachi had time to catch one wave before the police boat arrived into the open water. He was paddling back to catch a few more when the police gave the command for him to paddle back to the boat or face arrest. At this point he had already set his mind on surfing and defied the order, paddling into another wave. He would get around to paddling to the boat when he was good and ready. He ignored two more orders and paddled into two more waves until the boat pulled up next to him while he was out in the lineup waiting for another one. The boat was close enough for one of the officers to reach under Malachi’s armpit and haul him aboard. If it wasn’t for his leash, they would have left the board to get washed to shore. However, Malachi let them know he would cooperate without further incident. The boat made its way back to the harbor, where Malachi was cuffed and cited for being drunk in public and a minor under the influence and escorted into the back of the police car in nothing but his board shorts.
“Officer,” Malachi slurred, “Can you at least have one of my friends grab me a t-shirt and my sandals before you haul me off to the drunk tank?”
Malachi was fortunate that the officer was in a good mood that night, and somewhat amused at his brazen attempt at an inebriated surf session.
“Sure, kid,” he said, “we’ll have someone bring them over.”
Another officer drove the squad car over to the RV and broke up the party. By this time the kids had stashed all their weed, but the mound of empty bottles and beer cans outside the RV was enough for the officer to confiscate the remaining booze and to give the half-dozen kids remaining from the night’s celebration a stern warning that the party was over and that if he had one more complaint, he would have them all arrested.
It was a long ride to the Vista county jail. The officers in the squad car took turns lecturing Malachi about what a stupid thing he had done. Malachi caught almost none of it and passed out halfway to the jail while the officers carried on as if he was actually listening.
Sometime around five in the morning he was lucid enough to make a call home. While he had little issue praying when he was well-behaved, he always felt guilty praying that God would get him out of a jam of his own making. Nonetheless, he prayed that his mom would answer the phone. He knew this was unlikely, since his dad usually rose early on Sunday morning to go over his sermon notes.
“Hello?” answered the voice on the other side of the line.
“Malachi, it’s quarter after five. Why are you calling so early? Aren’t you in Oceanside?”
“No, Dad. I’m in jail”
There was a deep sigh, “Well,” said David, sounding not the least surprised, “I’ll have your mom come get you when she wakes up.”
“Thanks, Dad,” was all Malachi could manage after several moments.
“Yeah, well, I still expect to see you in church this morning.”
“All right,” said Malachi, resigned to his fate through a skull-rattling headache.
“One more thing,” said David, “Don’t you dare pass up communion this morning, I don’t care how hung over you are.”
The marine layer of low-lying morning clouds hung heavy over the Vista jailhouse as Malachi and Serafina exited the main entrance in silence. Malachi expected to see his mother angry, instead there was a soft, knowing smile on her lips and eyes full of understanding. This made his hangover worse. He could always handle his parents’ anger, which there was plenty of over his numerous missteps. It was their kindness that hurt him most. He couldn’t bring himself to look at her, as her gaze seemed to wrap around him with an unwanted blanket of mercy. He wanted her fury; at least that would give him the opportunity to defend himself. Instead of subjecting himself to her compassion, he found the nearest hedge to wretch in. It took several minutes before he could stop throwing up, every spasm in his core seemed to him to attempt to expel his sins from the previous night, along with whatever else lingered in his belly.
“Gin last night?” asked Serafina
“Why do you ask, Mom?”
“You mean besides the fact that it is wafting from your pores?”
“Is it really that bad?” asked Malachi.
“Well, you smell like a bar-room swill bucket, so yeah, it’s that bad,” she said, as she reached into a white paper bag and handed him a breakfast burrito, “This will help soak some of it up.”
“Actually, Mom, I’m thirstier than I am hungry at this point,” he said, as he took the burrito.
Before she put her sedan in reverse, she reached into the backseat and pulled out a large bottle of Pedia-Lite, “I’ve got you covered, kiddo.”
He thanked her before taking a few timid sips of the syrupy, salty, and altogether disgusting liquid.
“Go ahead,” he said, “Say it. I know you’re thinking it.”
“Thinking what?” she asked.
“What a screw up I am, how disappointing I am. You know, the lecture you’ve been rehearsing during your drive over here.”
“Give me a break, kiddo,” said Seraphina, “Your dad and I have never thought you are a disappointment, and we gave up on the lectures a long time ago. They haven’t worked since you were ten-years-old. Besides, you’re a man now, at least in the eyes of the law. It’s those consequences you’ll have to deal with, not ours.”
“So, you aren’t disappointed in me?”
“Not at all,” she said, “Just think you’re stupid, like most young men your age. Besides, your mischief is fairly tame compared to others, regardless of the image you have built up of yourself in your mind.”
Malachi let out a slight laugh and that was coupled with instantaneous regret as the acid in his stomach rose high in his throat. He regained himself and nodded in agreement, “Yeah, I have an incredible capacity for stupid I guess. Were you stupid like me when you were my age?”
She shook her head, keeping her eyes on the road, “No. Young women are never as stupid as young men.”
“Then where did I get it from? ‘Cause it sure as hell didn’t come from Dad.”
“Your father, Elias, was as wild as a March hare all the way up to when I met him. He was a pastor’s son, too, you know, which is an uncommonly rebellious breed.”
“I wish I could have known him.”
“I do, too,” said Serafina, with a taint of sorrow in her voice, “But, rest assured, he’s passed a large part of himself to you. Someday, you’ll learn how to contain that fire inside of you, just like he did. The way things look right now, my guess is its going to take a while for you.”
“Yeah, I kind of get that sense, too.”
“Just do me a favor, kiddo, just remember that all of that wildness doesn’t define you. Maybe it’s part of you, but it isn’t all of who you are. When you realize this, I think you’ll see how to point that untamed part of you in a powerful, even beautiful, direction.”
“I going to try to get some rest before we get home,” he said, choking back the lump in his throat.
Malachi couldn’t let her see his tears that morning. He longed to believe that what she said was true, but he didn’t see the path that would lead him there. All he could see was a dark road full of wandering through the wilderness inside of him. He knew that there was light shining beyond the valley of his soul, but he couldn’t see it, and he feared it most. The hidden light stalked his dreams and he felt as if some secret doom lay within it, one he was unwilling and unable to face at this point.
When they arrived home, he went straight upstairs to the shower. He was unsure how a shower could hurt so much; it was as if he was standing under the roaring pressure of Niagara Falls and the water was boring into his brain in an effort to split his skull. He wanted nothing more than to go to his room and sleep his hellacious hangover off. Going to church in that condition was the last thing he wanted. As he dressed himself in front of his mirrored closet doors, he caught a glimpse of his skin, usually brown and sun-kissed, now a pale olive green. Jacob knocked on the door and let himself in.
“Man, you reek,” he said.
“I just got out of the shower,” said Malachi, “Is it still that bad?”
“Worse than you think. C’mon, Mom’s waiting in the car. We have to head to church.”
Malachi heard nothing of David’s sermon on the Prodigal Son that morning. The congregational singing seemed only to amplify his pounding headache. The service, in short, was to him an exercise in pure agony. When it came time for communion, he wanted nothing more to pass the bread and the wine, but Serafina was sitting next to him, and she passed it with a deliberate glance, making sure he complied with David’s wishes. Something inside of him shook when he heard the words of institution, “this is my Body broken for you,” and “this is my Blood shed for you.” This was the last thing he wanted to hear and what he needed to hear most and he knew it. He felt like he had been running his whole life from something, Someone he could never outrun. During the service he could feel Jesus in the corner of the sanctuary, a familiar stranger waiting on the edge of the darkness where the light shone brightest. Malachi feared that light and what lay beyond it and, above all else, longed for it.
“Have a seat, son,” David said, motioning to the chair on the other side of his desk in his church office.
“Okay,” said Malachi, bracing himself for the coming talk.
“You don’t look so hot.”
“Trust me, I feel even worse than I look,” said Malachi.
“I bet.” said David, “I think I’ve got something that can help you out a little.”
David opened the cabinet door beneath his bookshelf and pulled out a bottle of single malt Scotch and proceeded to pour about three fingers into Malachi’s glass, and four into his. He also put a paper cup with two Alka-Seltzers resting on the bottom and a bottle of water in front of his son.
“A little hair of the dog should help,” said David, with a smile on his face, “I’m sorry I don’t have any gin, but we’re Presbyterians and we drink Scotch.”
“Jeez, Dad, I didn’t know you had a full-service bar in here.”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t. I have some nice bottles in here, and I’m sure you would have raided it if you knew I had them.”
“Is that how you get through your days here?” asked Malachi.
“No,” David laughed, “But, it is how the elders and I get through our long session meetings.”
“I didn’t know you guys were a bunch of devils,” said Malachi
“We usually only nurse one drink while we meet, and Daniel doesn’t drink, so nothing gets too crazy.”
Malachi nodded and let out a deep sigh, “Well, I guess you want me to tell you about what happened last night.”
“Oh, I already know all about that. Talked to the Sheriff this morning, he told me everything. Sounds like you’re going to have a mountain of community service to work on this summer.”
“So, what are the consequences on your end?”
“Consequences?” asked David half-bemused, “I think the law will take care of that. That’s one of the unfortunate parts of being an adult. The consequences get real in a hurry. No, I haven’t brought you here to punish you.”
“To let you know what I really think of you.”
“Oh, man,” said Malachi, bracing himself in his chair for the coming onslaught.
“Malachi, you might not be my blood, but you are my son and I love you. In fact, I’m actually quite proud of you.”
David’s words stung Malachi deeply as he took another drink from the tumbler. As much as he wished his mother would have been hard on him, he wished his dad could have been even harder.
Malachi asked, as he felt the warmth of the whiskey soothe his aching head, “You mean, even after last night?”
“Well, I’m not exactly proud of what you did,” David said, “But, I have always been proud of who you are. There’s a beauty to you, even in your wildness, as misdirected as it can be at times. I think that part of the reason I admire you so much is that you’re so different from me. I suppose part of me wishes I could be the way you are sometimes, as odd as that might sound.”
“What do you mean, Dad?”
“I don’t think I have known an uninhibited day in my life. When I look at you and the way you approach life, it makes me wish for something, I don’t…I don’t know,” David said, trailing off.
“What are you trying to say?”
“What is it you always quote to me from Luther whenever you’ve dug up some new trouble? When you sin, sin boldly. Sometimes I wish you didn’t have a mind like a steel trap when it comes to church theologians.”
“Yeah,” said Malachi, “I guess I do. Should I quote from Augustine, too?”
“That’s not necessary. I’m pretty sure where you’ll go with that. What I want to know is why you say that.”
“Well,” replied Malachi, shocked by the turn the conversation was taking, “I guess it’s just that I know God knows me, Dad. No use in pretending to be what I ain’t.”
“Well,” said David, “I can’t tell you how confusing it is to me that one of the most brilliant theological minds I have ever seen belongs to my eighteen-year-old son, who also happens to be the freest, most dangerously uninhibited person I have ever met. It’s a mystery, an outright contradiction, and I can’t figure it out for the life of me.”
“I guess I’ve always felt like it is one thing to know theology, and another thing entirely to know God. Theology is easy. Knowing him, not so much.”
David said, “That’s hard for all of us, son.”
“But, you’re a pastor, Dad, and a very good one, at that.”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t face the same kind of battles as you do, even if I fight them in a different way. I think knowing you, whether you know it or not, shines a light on me. I’m not sure why that is, but God makes some people that way. I think he made you that way.”
“I’m not sure about that, Dad,” said Malachi, “I pretty much do what I want to do. When it’s good, it’s good, and when it’s bad, man, is it ever bad.”
“Exactly. It’s guys like you that constantly baffle guys like me. I do what I have to do, whether I want to or not, and deep down I don’t know if I’m any better for it.”
“Well, you sure don’t make a mess of things the way I do.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” said David.
Malachi and David shared another drink and continued to talk for another couple of hours that afternoon. It was a strange threshold that they crossed; one Malachi wasn’t prepared for or expecting. He had always seen his dad as a paragon of strength and piety, not a man filled with weakness and doubt. As David let his walls down, Malachi was left wondering if his dad ever let them down for anyone else. He saw David as something else entirely as they talked, something he had never seen in his dad before, something human. Beyond the strangeness there was something sacred that they shared. Malachi felt he was taken into a part of his dad that nobody else had seen; he felt like he now knew the man in a way no one else did. It made him think of his mother, and this sent a cold shock down his spine. His dad was alone and the kind of loneliness that haunted David had its way of getting out, which almost always was in some form of a mess. He braced himself for the storm that was building on the horizon, and held in confidence what David shared with him. Malachi knew the curtain had been pulled back and it made him love David all the more for it.