XIV. …And Be Content with What You Have
Three years before the Tanzania affair, Gideon Dodd thanked the man at the hardware store as he dropped two copies of a key into the preacher’s hand.
He paid for the discounted wood scraps in his cart — they’d make nice whittling — and turned onto the road that led out of the city.
In his two-seater sports car, he wound up and down hills, listening to contemporary Christian music, humming along. About twenty minutes away from the nearest gas station, he turned onto a gravel drive and led up a steep incline into an unpaved parking lot. He parked, put on the emergency brake, and stepped out into the muggy summer air.
Breathing it in, he smelled lilac and fresh-mown grass.
Whistling, the wind ruffling his collar and short sleeves, Gideon walked past a weathered and cracked sign reading CHRIST SANCTUARY NON-DENOMINATIONAL CHURCH. While he tucked his aviators into his breast pocket, he didn’t even look at the rented yard banner that said WELCOME AND GOD BLESS OUR NEW PASTOR, G DEON D0DD.
The new key in his hand entered the lock on the old brick-and-vinyl building with no trouble, turned with total ease.
When it opened, the door didn’t squeak a bit.
He entered the office of the old church and sat not at the computer desk, but rather a craftsman’s workbench, much like the one that used to be in his garage — only smaller. Dumping the wood blocks out, he eyed them to choose the best one for his next project.
Someone knocked on the door.
“Come in,” he said.
Tamara Dodd entered, grinning so wide her cheeks shined.
“Hey, Giddy,” she said. She kissed her husband. Behind her, the twins entered and squeezed ahead through either arm. They laughed, illustrated Bibles clutched in their arms, and tugged on their daddy’s hands and hugged his legs.
The preacher stooped and kissed both children on the cheek, slipping them each a Testamint. With a nod of assent, he granted them access behind his desk where they shared the spinning pleather chair and scrawled cartoons on his big desk calendar.
Chuckling, Gideon wrapped both arms around Tamara — Tamara, who he’d lost; Tamara, who was back and praise the Lord and hallelujah! He pulled her close.
“Here we are,” he said.
“Here we are,” she agreed.
XV. When Dreams Increase and Words Grow Many
Many yards to the west, the ant-like shapes of a dozen Hadza men, women, and children disappeared below the crest of a dry yellow hillock. When they were out of sight, Mwapi spat on the ground and said something rather vulgar in fairly decent English.
“There they go,” said Mal.
“If Dunwoodie’s fan club wants to secede from the camp to start their own tribe,” Maria said, “then let ‘em screw off, I say. This village is a Dodd village, isn’t that right, Gideon?” She had changed her clothes to more American fare: a flattering sundress with stylish belt, a wide-brimmed white hat.
“I just want to go home,” said Dodd. His bag was packed, slung across one shoulder.
A sound not heard in days came rumbling from up ahead, mounting every second. The burbling motor of a Jeep gave away its driver’s approach, and the hearts of every non-Hadza leapt at its call. The all-terrain vehicle puttered in its final stretch up the hill, spinning out a hundred-eighty degrees and pelting the group with pebbles and eyefuls of sand.
“Oh, shit, Dodd’s gone native.” From the driver’s seat, Kratz pushed sunglasses up his forehead, taking care to muss up his locks in the process. Leaning over the door, he pointed. Indeed, the preacher had donned a handmade necklet given as a gift by the tribe. Every color of the rainbow was accounted for in a series of organic spikes, orbs, and tetrahedrons, strung together on a thread of animal hair. It bounced uncomfortably on his throat and chest with even the slightest movement, and rattled like bones, and smelled like a popped pimple.
But the reverend liked it.
“Mwapi.” Kratz clicked his cheek at their Hadza liaison. “Still packin’ out that loincloth, I see.” He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “Hop in, assholes. We got a plane to catch.”
Dodd opened the door for Maria. She doffed her hat in jest and stepped forward. Kratz’s hound shot up in the backseat and drew back its ears, snarling. She jumped back.
“I hate this mutt,” she said so Kratz could hear.
“He loves you, sweetheart.” Kratz revved the engine, snapped his fingers, and looked ahead as the dog kowtowed, relinquishing two of the seats it had sprawled onto so Dodd and Maria could sit next to it. The beast licked the woman’s chin with an enthusiasm Dodd found somehow phony, then lay its dripping jaw on his lap with a puttering sigh. Mal got in the front passenger seat, tossing his loud orange tie over his shoulder.
The big man held an open vertical hand over the car door. Mwapi took it into both of his palms. Tears welled in the tribesman’s eyes as he made his glottal declarations, looking from Mal to Dodd and back.
“He says do not worry,” Mal said, staring ahead at the horizon. “He says he and his people will slaughter the blasphemers who followed Dunwoodie, if it is the last thing that they do.”
“What?” Dodd leaned forward. The dog grunted and pressed a bony elbow into his belly. “No, no! Tell him don’t do that! Tell him violence isn’t the answer.”
“I am tired,” Mal said. “You tell him.”
Mwapi came around the Jeep and bent over the back to take Dodd’s cheeks into his grasp and pull him forward, kissing him on the tip of the nose. His face still pressed between the Hadza’s hands, Dodd said, “Don’t kill anybody, okay?”
Mwapi laughed up to the sun.
“Religion and politics.” Kratz clacked his tongue. “Known to drive a wedge between even the Bradiest of families.” He shook his head. “S’why there hasn’t been a Kratz Thanksgiving since oh-seven, when Meemaw held a steak knife to Uncle Roy’s throat. Fat fucker deserved it, too.”
Maria leaned her head back and let out a long, slow breath.
“Everybody made wee-wee?” Kratz flicked the radio on. “We ready to go? ‘Cuz I ain’t stopping.”
“Aren’t we stopping at the hotel?” said Dodd. “I was looking forward to a shower. And toilet paper.”
“Sorry, Padre, no can do.” Kratz jerked the shift knob and licked his teeth into the rearview mirror. “Gotta get your happy tush back to Enn-Why-Cee for the big debate. But you’re in luck: Looks like it’s gonna rain. Maybe wash away your sins after all.” His finger shot upward, and Dodd followed its trajectory to confirm that indeed, the sky was darkening. The vehicle took off at a roll. Mwapi walked alongside until it picked up too much speed and left him in a massive plume of dust.
“We won, by the way.” Dodd massaged his temple. “We got the Hadzabe tribe’s endorsement.”
Kratz laughed and crammed a stick of gum into his mouth. “Yeah, I heard,” he said. “Your Opponent’s less than thrilled.”
“Why d’you say that?” Dodd pushed the hound’s head down to rest his chin on the driver’s seat and better hear his campaign manager.
“Anybody dream last night?” Kratz raised his voice as the Jeep sped up.
Maria looked down, rolling her thumbs. Mal smiled, open-mouthed.
“So that is what that was,” he said.
“What?” Dodd looked around. “What dream?” He shook the reporter’s arm. “Maria?”
She pulled down on the sides of her flapping sunhat. “Thought it was just me,” she said.
Mal twisted in his seat, tree-trunk arm draped over the headrest. “Last night I dreamed many unflattering images of you: In sweat pants, or with no shirt, or eating spaghetti. Yelling at your son on a baseball diamond. Picking your nose. All the while a narrator with a beautiful voice told me, ‘Is this a man who you could worship? Will you forgive yourself if you vote for him this Election Day?’”
“Oh, my God.” Maria sank in her seat. The dog lapped at her cheek.
“I don’t understand,” Dodd said.
“Ask the journalist about her dream,” Mal said, and turned to face the windshield once more.
She watched the grass whizz by. “I had it, too.”
“The same dream, Gideon. I had the exact same dream. It showed you peeing in the shower.”
“I imagine about seven billion people had the same dream,” Kratz said. He drummed the steering wheel and grunted: “Mm-mm-m.m. A smear vision. Dirty tricks from Heavenly Father.”
“Wait,” Dodd said. “Y-you’re saying… You’re telling me God sent everybody in the world a vision of me eating spaghetti in my underpants?”
“Ha!” Kratz smacked the horn. “Yeah.”
“But He can’t do that!”
“Sure He can.” The public relations man locked eyes with Dodd via mirror. “He can kind of do anything. That’s sorta the point. This is good. Means He’s threatened. Means He’s feelin’ the heat.” He laughed. “Hot damn!”
The preacher’s hands swallowed up his face. “How humiliating.”
Nobody said anything for a minute.
Finally, Maria sat up. “Where are the kids?” she said.
“Huh?” Dodd looked at her.
“Your children,” the reporter said. “If we’re not going to the hotel, and they aren’t here in the Jeep, where are they, Kratz?”
“They’re fine,” Kratz shouted over the roar of passing air. “Shipped the brats on home yesterday. They’ll be waiting for us in New York.”
“They’ve never been to New York,” said Dodd.
“What?” Kratz screamed it. He had to.
They drove on, storm clouds gathering behind them.
XVI. We Shall All Be Changed
“You’re that god guy. Please, can I get a selfie?”
Before Gideon Dodd could answer, the cab driver — a gleeful row of smiling teeth attached to a Pakistani human — whipped out an aging cell phone, leaned into him, and snapped a few blurry shots of half his own face with a grainy Dodd-head floating over his shoulder.
“No offense, mister,” said the man, “but your necklace stinks.”
Outside JFK International, yellow cars whooshed past by the dozen. Dodd, Mal, Kratz, and Maria clustered together. One by one they attempted to hoist their own luggage into the cab trunk — one by one being told, “Please, no,” as the driver beamed and stuffed their duffels in harum-scarum.
When Maria’s carryon was crammed between his and Mal’s, Dodd pointed at her. “You’re coming to Radio City with us?” he said. “For the debate?”
“No, Gideon,” Maria said, and he felt instantly childish under her gaze. “I work here. Time, remember? You’re gonna be on the cover?” She got in the back.
Mal adjusted the animal skull on his belt and took the front seat. “I do not wish to converse,” he told the driver.
“Oh, no,” said the cabbie, his black bushes of eyebrow bunching together. He bent his chin in the direction of Kratz’s muscle-bound hound, currently emptying its bladder on a nearby stroller’s wheel. “Many apologies, but I can’t let animal in my car. Doggie doesn’t ride.”
The beast’s hackles were already raised, its bulging legs spread under a question mark of a tail. It snarled at the driver, whose smile disappeared in full and might never return.
“Setzen,” Kratz said. His pet plopped onto its rear. Its black lips continued to ripple like an EKG readout, rumbling at the throat.
“I am sorry,” said the cabbie.
“It’s nothing,” said Kratz, his crescent smile betraying no signs of frustration. “No need to cause a scene.” He patted the animal on the neck, at the same time removing a cloth rag from his windbreaker pocket. Bending his lanky form ninety degrees, he groped in the taxi from the shoulder up, wiping down the seats. He then sneezed into the rag and dangled it at his hip. The dog’s ears perked at attention, and it sniffed and slobbered all over the dingy cloth.
“He’s made a few Incredible Journeys before,” Kratz said. One of his teeth actually sparkled. “He’ll find me again.” He tucked the rag into the canine’s collar and said, “Aufholen.” Then, without a modicum of fuss, he slipped into the cab next to Maria.
He waved at Dodd, still rubbing his arm on the pavement. “See you at Radio City,” said Kratz.
“Don’t I ride with you?” said Dodd.
“We won’t all fit, ya’ dope!”
That’s when Dodd saw Maria pointing over his shoulder. He turned around and scanned the throng of coming and going people on the curb. Just visible between passing bodies was a low-hanging, sloppy sign that read DADDY (GIDEON DODD). He could discern his twin children’s peeping faces from the nose up.
“Oh,” said Dodd. He rubbed a finger across his mustache and found Maria’s attention. “So is this goodbye, then?” he said. “Off to write your article, huh?”
“It’s bye,” she said, shifting in her seat at the hips. “For now. However this all pans out, I’ve got a hunch there’s a lot more to be written about you, Father.”
“I’m not a—”
“Shut up.” She smiled at him. It was a smile of friendship. “Good luck tonight, Gideon,” she said. “And I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” said Dodd. He bent at the knee a bit. “For something you did? Or something you’re gonna do?”
Maria Gutierrez-Stenson continued to smile as she shrugged on one side. Kratz slammed the door, and the cab took off. Dodd almost fell onto the road when the hound pushed past his thigh to dart across traffic, toward the cell lot, barking with feral fervor.
“Wait!” Dodd said. He took a step toward the crosswalk and stopped. What would he even do if he caught up to the monster?
Under his breath he said, “If a car hits it, I feel sorry for the car.” He pivoted and walked toward his daughter’s handwriting, nudging through clusters of folks who paused or outright froze at the sight of him.
Try not to think about how everyone here saw you taking a dump in their dreams last night.
Ellie dropped her end of the posterboard, and it furled toward James as she hopscotched between moving legs to wrap her arms around Dodd’s legs and squeeze. “Daddy, we’re back in America! Praise the Lord!”
“Praise the— What?” Dodd’s stiff hand patted the top of her head.
“God brought us safely back home,” she said. “Isn’t that neat?” She released her hold on his thighs, and her arms fell limp at her sides, swinging in diminishing arcs. “Thanks, Jesus!” Her eyes flitted to the clouds.
“Um.” Assessing her expression, he found it to be utterly without irony: eyes twinkling, teeth exposed in a grin of delight. “I thought you didn’t believe in God,” he said.
“Oh, Daddy, don’t be silly!” And she laughed. “Of course I believe in God!” With a rapid flick, she waved her brother hither. “Who else could have created the heavens and the earth and Adam and Eve? Duh.” She laughed even harder.
Dodd drew his lips into the creases of his jowls. Now James came tottering forward, feet scantly lifting from the ground in a dazed shuffle. He watched the laces of his untied shoes drag, every part of him as stuff as Ellie was elastic.
“James,” Dodd said. He knuckled the boy’s chin.
“Hi, Dad.” James did not raise his head or his voice.
“What’s with you?” said the preacher. “Look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“He’s just tired,” Ellie snapped.
“James?” Dodd went to his haunches and grabbed his son’s shoulders. “You feelin’ okay, champ?”
“M’fine,” said James — but the green hue of his face proved contrary.
“Well,” Dodd straightened up, drawing in breath, “we ought to find us a cab and get to the theater.”
“For the debate?” Ellie’s mouth hung open, her chest rising and falling like a rabbit’s.
“Yes.” Dodd thumbed in the direction of the taxi bay.
“Will God be there?”
“Uh— I don’t know. He’s s’posed to be.” Dodd raised a hand.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” said Dodd. “Remember last time, all we saw was a burning houseplant.”
“God works in mysterious ways,” said the girl, with giddy adoration she usually reserved for some pop singer or other.
“I wish you didn’t have to campaign against Him,” she said. “He’s been so good to us.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Dodd squinted, searching his daughter for some sign of prank or confusion. She seemed perfectly fine.
James tugged on his daddy’s shirttail. “Is Mr. K-Kratz gonna be there?” he said. The man’s name he nearly lost to an odd gasp or gulp that reminded Dodd of some of Mwapi’s native words.
“Well, sure,” said Dodd. “He’s my manager.”
“I don’t like him,” said James.
A cab rolled up and stopped, and its trunk popped open. Dodd scooped up his kids’ minimal luggage in a heap with his own. Dropping the bags in, he said, “What do you mean?” He hadn’t considered liking Kratz, and found the thought almost absurd. Who could like Kratz — and what would be the point?
“He’s a bad man,” said the boy.
“Just bad.” James swallowed. “Bad, bad, bad.” He climbed into the backseat of the taxi and placed his palms upon his kneecaps, staring at the floorboard.
Ellie prodded her father’s elbow. He bent over outside the cab, and he looked at the girl and saw Tammy staring back at him. From the shoulders down his arms tingled, and his fingers bent and curled against his will. The girl, who looked so like her dead mother, blinked and whispered into his ear:
“Kratz told James a secret,” she said. “In the hotel. In Africa. He’s been actin’ funny ever since.”
Dodd frowned. “A secret? What kind of secret?”
Ellie shrugged. “I don’t know. It was a secret.”
Something rolled over in Dodd’s chest. Grimacing, he swallowed it down and took care to sound calm.
“What about you?” he said, hunched over. “Did Kratz tell you anything in the hotel?”
“No,” she said. One of her Keds twisted on the asphalt.
“He never let me in the hotel.”
She got in next to her brother and told the driver with authority, “Radio City Music Hall, please,” while Dodd hung back on the curb just a moment longer. Thinking.
XVII. Sustain Yourself with a Piece of Bread
With the heft of musty stage curtains upon his shoulder, Gideon Dodd peered out onto the Radio City stage and slurped from a water bottle. There, front and center in the first row, was Diana Hough-Rampone — the once-bewildered moderator from his first debate with the Creator of Everything — tonight oozing a 1950s sort of gaudy glamour. Done up with pearl earrings, a brooch as big as her head, impasto layers of blue eye shadow, and an unbecoming cockiness, she looked now as though she’d been angling for political commentary her entire life.
The tiny old lady looked around, shuffling papers and organizing stacks of index cards. She adjusted her microphone and spoke into a wireless earpiece that looked as natural plugged into her lobe as a satellite would have.
Dodd knew this building’s interior from episodes of some nationally broadcast talent show. It looked different now, packed up to the rafters. Women, men, and children filled every seat (in many cases two or three to one chair) and many more stood in the aisles, shoulder to shoulder. For every three citizens, it seemed, there was a security guard. Large white rectangles with block lettering waved and screamed DODD FOR GOD or YAHWEH OR NO WAY and everything in between. Red baseball caps bobbed over the crowd with the embroidered slogan GILD THOSE PEARLY GATES AGAIN, an expression Dodd himself didn’t quite understand.
He could never guess how many people were here, only that the building was well over capacity and in violation of fire code. God could strike this place with lightning, and it’d all be over.
The lights rose and fell, and a chime sounded that no one heard. An announcer crackled over the speaker system.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the second Divine Debate. We will begin in just a moment. Please rise for the national anthem, then give it up for a very special appearance by the Rockettes!”
A massive American flag lowered and blocked Dodd’s view. As a trumpet signaled the first few notes of Key’s magnum opus, something tore the Evian out of his hand. Two ice-cold sets of fingers slipped reptilian over the sides of Dodd’s neck and massaged him uncomfortably at the clavicle. Something tickled and tinkled at his neck, and he reached up for it: the necklace Mwapi had given him, stinking to high heaven, closed around his throat.
“Don’t be seen without this,” a familiar rattle hissed into his ear. “The Hadza will be watching from a portable TV I shipped out there.” Muggy breath puffed onto his cheek. “I’ll just take this.” Kratz’s fingers slipped under Dodd’s tooth keepsake and tugged at it.
The reverend grabbed his advisor’s wrist.
“No,” he said.
The other man’s hand fell away. “Sure,” said the voice in his ear. “Sure. Now, Knock ‘em dead, big guy. Tonight we turn the tide.”
Dodd turned his head away from the heat of Kratz’s mouth. “I’m ready,” he said.
“You have my talking points?”
“And you’ll stick to them?” The campaign manager’s clammy fingers slid off Dodd’s shoulders. “No deviating?”
“Just like we practiced, Lucky.”
“Don’t call me that. I hate that.”
With an overlong “braaaaaaaaave,” the national anthem ended to substantial applause. Through the curtain gap, a bar of spotlight hit Kratz’s face. Bathed in stage light, one of his eyes glimmered orange. A grin spread across his lips when a row of legs shuffled onto the stage, seen one at a time through their limited backstage view. The audience went wild for the dancing beauties and an electronic remix of “America, the Beautiful.”
The tip of Kratz’s tongue peeped between his chompers as he leered at the disembodied gams onstage. Dodd watched him and fiddled with his mustache.
“Can I ask you something?” he said. Kratz waggled a hand behind him.
Dodd rubbed his forearm and watched the heels of his campaign manager’s sneakers. He said, “Urm— what did you say to my son?”
Kratz, fixated on his three-inch view of the action, said, “What’s that?”
“In Tanzania. I— Gosh, this is hard to say.” The reverend pressed supplicant palms together and squirmed. “James seems a little — spooked? Since we got back. I wondered if, um, maybe you said somethin’ to ‘im. Could that…” He stepped forward. The other man didn’t move, didn’t flinch, didn’t seem to even hear him. “Could that be the case? I don’t mean to sound, uh… Kratz?”
The P.R. man’s back arched like someone had run a feather down his spine. He took a step back and rounded on the preacher. Bending forward, his eyes sunk into his skull and his smile faltered into a crooked, unhappy curve.
“That’s between me and James,” he said.
“Oh.” Dodd’s chewed on his lip. “Is— is everything okay?”
“I’m afraid I don’t appreciate the implication, Padre.” Kratz hitched his head up his neck like a cobra. “James and I had a private tête-à-tête. I can appreciate that that might seem a little strange, but never talk to me like this again,” and he jabbed two splayed fingers at Dodd’s face, “or look at me like that again.” The thin ray of light sliced down his face, separating it from his body. “Understand?”
Dodd swallowed. Then, his chest expanding a little, he said, “Did you lock my daughter out of the hotel room?”
Thunderous applause drowned out whatever Kratz said next (Or maybe he’s just flappin’ his gums, sayin’ nothing, Dodd thought), and the strategist grabbed the pastor at the wrists and yanked.
“You’re on,” Kratz said.
Indeed, when momentum flung him onstage after a brief tussle with the velvet curtain, Dodd heard old Diana saying his name. The following clash of cheers and boos created an odd, new sound. It wasn’t pleasant.
Dodd floundered a bit, attempting a congenial grin that came out more as a lemon pucker, and found his podium. The campaign logo — a big “D” with a halo over it — marked his spot.
Again, he was the first to arrive. The podium to his left was empty, as before.
“Oh, great,” Dodd said to himself. “Fashionably late again.”
The audience laughed. He tapped his mike; it was hot. They’d heard him. The sound of thousands laughing was somehow anti-humor, the opposite of mirth.
“Mm-hem.” The amps resounded with the stirring slop of Diana’s throat. She inhaled and read from an electronic teleprompter displaying magnified text to accommodate her cataracts.
“Ladies and gentlemen, voters of Earth, welcome to tonight’s debate.” She took a sip from a glass of milk, white residue clinging to her upper lip. She left it. “Joining us tonight is the nominee for the Throne of God: Gideon Dodd of Baltimore, Maryland, United States of America.”
“America!” several dozen individuals shouted and whooped.
“And debating Mr. Dodd will, of course, be the Almighty and Omnipotent Creator of All Things — He Who Is Called I Am, Yahweh, Jehovah, Adonai, et cetera and so on.”
“Will He?” Dodd motioned to the empty lectern to even greater applause and laughs. At this amused response, his fists balled up quivering.
“I’ve sacrificed a lot, you know,” he said, resting his nose on the microphone. “To be here tonight. My time counts, too. I got kids. I got—” He drew back. Countless obscured faces stared up at him, the whites of thousands of teeth disappearing.
“Oh, never mind,” he said.
YOU KNOW NOTHING OF SACRIFICE, GIDEON DODD.
A robed figure — hooded, in black, like Death — glided in from stage left. As one might expect of a cartoon’s depiction of the Grim Reaper, the cuffs of its sleeves met and devoured each other, so its hands weren’t visible. The hood hung low, obscuring any semblance of a face.
This newcomer stepped onto the crate behind the empty podium. It hunched there, rocking. From somewhere — or everywhere — the deep penetrating boom continued.
I SO LOVED THE WORLD I GAVE MY ONLY BEGOTTEN SON. CAN YOU SAY THE SAME?
A low, building susurrus emerged from the house. Dodd himself gasped and steadied himself on his pulpit. “Is that…?” He leaned in.
“You came,” he said.
OF COURSE I CAME.
The chatter of the people’s shock threatened to become a tumult. Diana Hough-Rampone, to her credit, pounded her fist and sent droplets of dairy flying from her glass. “I’ll remind the audience,” she said, “to hold applause and commentary until the end of the debate.”
That calmed things, somewhat.
LET US BEGIN, said the voice of God.
Joints bent and muscles flexed under the billowing noir cloak. Ivory fingertips peeped out from one sleeve, twiddling like crab legs, and plunged into the depths of the robe. When the hand emerged, it clutched something small, square, off-white. The hooded figure laid the square-thing on a tiny easel that topped the podium, centered before the microphone.
Then whoever was in the robe backed away, disappearing into shadow.
WHO HAS THE FIRST QUESTION, DIANA, MY CHILD?
Dodd’s mouth fell open with such force, his vision blurred. What now sat upon the podium, on three six-inch wooden legs, was a burnt piece of toast. He leaned forward.
In the center, the burn marks made the rough and disputable shape of a bearded face with uneven eyes and a gaping slack maw.
It did not move, per se, but seemed to rumble — or reverberate, somehow — when the voice filled the auditorium.
WHAT? asked God, from a slice of Wonder Bread.
Gideon Dodd kicked his dais so hard the angelic “D” emblem fell off and rolled, wheel-like, down the stage steps and halfway up an aisle, where a thrilled spectator grabbed and hugged it.
“No!” He threw his shoulder out thrusting a digit at his opponent. “You don’t— He don’t get to do this! I debated a houseplant last month.” His chest heaved and fell. “Then He sends that Dunwoodie kid to square off with me in the Hadzabe camp! He don’t wanna face me, don’t wanna look me in the eye, fine! But this— this is beyond the pale, y’all! I won’t roll over and let this happen. I will not have a conversation with somebody’s IHOP leftovers!”
Strands of spittle and sweat ran down his chin. Bulging eyes searched for some concession, some sanity, from anyone. He looked to Diana Hough-Rampone, admiring her own brooch.
“Your honor,” he said, “surely you can’t allow this egregious assault on the-the-the— the dignity of this tradition! This insult to these people’s intelligence!” All the while his hands rose and swooped and arced like a maestro’s, his mouth screwed up and the vein in his forehead ballooning. “Either my opponent appears, right now, in person, or I walk!”
Behind the curtain, Kratz hissed something in protest at him. Dodd didn’t flinch.
“First of all,” Diana said, wrapping a tissue around her pinky, “I’m not a judge.” She poked her mummified finger up one nostril. “Though,” she said, looking into the camera, “if the American Idol people are watching, yes, I’m interested. Second,” she continued, twirling her septum wall, “there’s no rule that says either of you can’t send a stand-in.”
“But that’s not God!” Dodd stomped one foot.
“Mr. Dodd.” Diana leaned back in her chair, as exasperated as if she’d had this conversation a hundred times. “My grammaw saw the face of St. Mary in an armpit stain on Pappy’s work shirt. If that wasn’t really the mother of Christ, then tell me, why did the townfolk pay thirty bucks a pop just to look at a sweaty cotton tee?”
She yanked the Kleenex from her nose like a bathtub plug. “We’re wasting time,” she said and rotated her hand. “We continue— unless Mr. Dodd wants to forfeit this debate?”
The preacher man pressed his temples with the heels of his palms.
“No, ma’am,” he said.
“Good.” The moderator huffed and wobbled her way to pristine posture.
“Our first question is for the Incumbent,” she said, eyes fixed upon the teleprompter. “Across the world, families have found themselves hit hard by economic strife. A housing crisis in America—”
Someone in the crowd shouted: “Whoo! America!” A round of knee-jerk whoops and wolf whistles resounded. Diana glared and waited for this outburst to subside.
“…Record-high unemployment rates in the Orient, drought in the Middle East, and other factors have resulted in financial woes for the globe’s population.” She took another chug of warm milk. “In light of this,” she read, “what is Your stance on the practice of tithing in the modern era? Do You foresee, moving forward, a continued entreaty on Your part to call Your children to set aside ten percent of their diminishing wages as a sacrifice to You? You have two minutes.”
The crispy square of toast sat motionless on the podium, apparently thinking. Finally, a voice from within the bread and from everywhere boomed once more.
THE UNFORTUNATE REALITY IS THAT ONE MUST INVEST IN ONE’S SALVATION, it said. CHURCHES NEED MAINTENANCE. MISSIONARIES NEED PLANE TICKETS. STARVING NATIONS NEED FOOD. THESE THINGS COST MONEY. I THINK TEN PERCENT OF ONE’S EARNINGS IS A MEAGER PRICE TO PAY FOR LIFE ETERNAL.
“Mm-hmm.” The moderator nodded. Several hundred observers leaned to their sides to whisper into their neighbors’ ears.
“Mr. Dodd,” Diana said, “your response?”
Dodd looked at the first card Kratz had plied him with and licked his mouth. “Right,” he said. “My opponent says I don’t know anything about sacrifice. That hurts me, Mrs. Hough-Rampone. Cuts deep.” He indicated the toast with a jerk of his neck. “All my life I been cutting a check for one-tenth of my earnings. And I’ll admit — these past twenty or so years, that ain’t been anything to sneeze at. But I gave up much more than just money over my lifetime. I didn’t have fun in high school. I studied my Bible. Never listened to good music — no Prince, no Cindi Lauper, no R.E.M. Just worship music with low production value.
“I never had a weekend in Vegas. Never knew the taste of tequila. But worst of all, as some of you may know, I lost several years, what shoulda’ been good years, with my wife. By the time I won her heart back, she only had a year left to live and then she was plucked outta my life by the Will of God.” He turned and directly addressed the charred bread.
“I gave everything for You. For Your salvation, for Your love, for Your attention. And I stand here today, talkin’ to a slice of toast, because You won’t even give up an hour of Your time to come down here and face me like a man. I don’t even know if You’re really here, or that’s just smoke and mirrors!”
IT IS NOT SMOKE AND MIRRORS, GIDEON DODD.
“Diana, He’s interruptin’ me.”
“You’ve had your time, Mr. Dodd.” She sucked the milk smear from her lip and coughed. “Heavenly Father,” she said, “do You care to respond?”
HOW DARE YOU? the voice said. YOU QUESTION MY CIPHER’S AUTHENTICITY? HOW IS THIS FOR PROOF OF MY OMNISCIENCE?
Under Dodd’s chin came a low, quick clicking. He looked down, saw his microphone vibrating. Then, the adjustable neck undulated, squirmed, and suddenly its black smooth plastic sprouted scales. The mouthpiece parted, exposing fangs, and two yellow eyes slit open on either side. It hissed — a black python, hateful and very real. It nipped at the reverend’s wrist and bounded back, slithering down the pulpit and slipping like liquid behind the curtain. A stagehand screamed from backstage.
“Well, great,” Dodd said. “Now I don’t have a mike.”
YOU CAN HAVE MINE. I DON’T NEED IT ANYWAY.
A trembling, scrawny stagehand jogged onstage, snapped up the microphone laid before the toast with a branded face, and placed it in front of Dodd.
Dodd leaned into his new mike. “Well, that was distracting,” he said.
A few folks tittered and murmured.
“Enough,” Diana said. “Next question.”
“Mr. Dodd, this one’s for you. If elected, what sorts of sacrifices can humans expect to make in your name?”
“That’s easy,” Dodd said. He tapped the note card with the answer scribbled upon it, but needn’t have looked down at Kratz’s elegant penmanship.
“That’s right,” Dodd said. “Read my lips: No. New. Sacrifices.” His mouth curled into a comfortable grin. “What would I need your money for? Or your time? Your devotion? If I’m imbued with the power divine, then how could I ask anything of you beautiful, hard-working people and look at myself in the mirror? If you wanna sing to me, if that brings you joy, sure. Knock yourself out. I’d be thrilled. But to demand it of you? To demand a blasted thing from any one of you? No, no.
“I’ve toiled and slaved and suffered like David. I know what it’s like, to give and give and give, only to be tossed into the lion’s den.” He tapped his nose. “All I’d ask of my constituents is that you enjoy your life. Love your family. Spend time with friends. Be happy and fruitful, and take care of your own. You work hard. What’s yours is yours. Life is short and cruel — but it wouldn’t be under my administration.”
Diana dumped the last clinging dregs of her Prairie Farms into her upturned mouth. She swallowed. “Wow,” she said. “That—” She patted her chest. “That’s very moving, Mr. Dodd.” She turned to the miracle toast. “Your response? Two minutes.”
God’s gluten stand-in thought. The room felt a sharp wind as it drew breath and held it.
Finally, it said, THESE ARE PIPE DREAMS, DIANA. ASK YOURSELVES: WOULD YOU WORK FOR FREE? EVERY FARMER, GRAPHIC DESIGNER, AND BARISTA EXPECTS RECOMPENSE FOR THEIR LABOR. WHY SHOULD GOD BE ANY DIFFERENT?
“Because He’s God!” Dodd said, unable to stop himself.
“Mr. Dodd,” warned Diana.
I DO NOT APPRECIATE THE IMPLICATION THAT I AM A MISER, said the bread. LET’S BE REAL, FOLKS. I GIVE YOU THE SUN, THE OCEANS, THE MAJESTIC IMPALA. IN RETURN I ASK RELATIVELY LITTLE. MARK MY WORDS: IF MY OPPONENT IS ELECTED, HE WILL DEMAND MUCH MORE, IN THE END.
AND FRANKLY, MR. DODD: I KNEW DAVID. I ANOINTED DAVID. I TESTED DAVID. YOU, SIR, ARE NO DAVID.
Diana looked from side to side pinching her chin. “All right,” she said. “Moving on. This one is for the Incumbent.” She waited for the scrolling text to catch up to her. “Many of your followers have incorrectly predicted the Apocalypse, often leading to humiliation and financial ruin. If You are re-elected, does your administration have any plans to reveal details about the end of the world, so the human race can better prepare for it?”
NO, DIANA, I WILL NOT. NO MAN MAY KNOW THE DAY NOR HOUR, NOR SHOULD HE.
“Or she,” Diana said.
SURE, SURE. IF YOU LIVE A RIGHTEOUS LIFE, THERE IS NOTHING TO FEAR. THAT’S ALL I’LL SAY.
“Well, I wanna know if I shouldn’t hold off on my trip to Disney World, is all.” Dodd saw many people nodding. “A lot of us are planners. We don’t wanna just fly by the seat of our pants like the current celestial administration seems to.” The preacher straightened his tie, adjusted his American flag lapel.
“Look, my Opponent’s out of touch. That’s the reality. He’s never known pain. Never known heartbreak. Never had Himself a good cry. Keeping secrets up in that ivory tower, holding our souls hostage, it’s easy to forget that we feel. We matter.
“My Opponent doesn’t want us to feel! He would have us burn eternal for love!” He pointed at the crowd. “Yes! I said it! Our current God gave us hearts, and minds, and the capacity for love but has made it a vulgar, unspeakable thing.” He pumped a fist. “Leviticus! ‘If a man has sexual relations with a man, both of them have done what is detestable!’ Detestable? I don’t detest anyone! And certainly not love!”
Many people cheered from their theater seats. The moderator allowed it, even clapped herself a couple times.
The toast shifted on its stand. MY OPPONENT IS PUTTING WORDS IN MY MOUTH, the voice said. I NEVER SAID THAT. I NEVER WOULD. AND WE’RE GETTING OFF-TOPIC.
“I’ll allow it.” Diana leaned back in her chair, hands cradling her neck.
VERY WELL. The hard, dark bread slice quivered; the blotchy, abstract face on its surface seemed to pulsate. MR. DODD, YOU SAY YOU HOLD LOVE IN THE HIGHEST REGARD. YOU SAY I DEMEAN IT AND DEMORALIZE IT.
Dodd leaned into his microphone, raised his eyebrows. “I do,” he said.
WAS IT LOVE, THEN, THAT CAUSED YOU TO STRAY FROM YOUR WIFE AND ENGAGE IN AN EXTRAMARITAL AFFAIR WITH THE REPORTER MARIA GUTIERREZ-STENSON?
A hush fell over Radio City Music Hall. Dodd’s arms dropped to his sides, in unison with his plummeting eyebrows and smirk.
“I…” He said. “I… Listen, that’s low-down. I-I-I— That was a long time ago. Tammy… I…” The inside of his mouth felt like sand, tongue catching on palate. He searched for a glass of water. There was none.
YOU SAID YOU GAVE UP YEARS WITH YOUR WIFE FOR ME, the booming voice bounced off every wall and column. BUT THAT’S NOT TRUE. YOU FELL INTO THE ARMS OF ANOTHER WOMAN. I GUESS YOU’RE A LITTLE LIKE DAVID, AFTER ALL?
“It was just once,” Dodd croaked. Gray creepers branched into his perhiphery.
SO DON’T GET ALL HOLIER-THAN-THOU WITH ME, MISTER. YOU WILL NEVER WIN THAT URINATING CONTEST.
From the balcony, one spectator booed.
Someone else shouted, “Leave him alone!”
“Okay, now,” Diana said. “Let’s collect ourselves here.”
“Poor guy’s wife is dead!”
Mutiny slowly rose from the audience. It began with similar verbal remonstrations, but Dodd gasped when an egg whizzed past him and struck the toast, knocking it from its tripod. It lay flat against the podium. Next a tomato splattered on the stage before it. Soon an entire, well-balanced breakfast would manifest.
The voice was even louder now. Dodd felt it in his teeth. The crowd only seemed further angered by it, many getting up from their seats, approaching the stage.
YOU STAND BEHIND THIS MAN? THIS MAN?
The flattened toast rose an inch of the surface and plopped back down.
I HAVE SEEN HIS HEART AND IT IS NOT IN THIS RACE! WHAT IS IT? IS IT THAT GIDEON DODD SMILE? THOSE SPARKLING EYES THAT DECIEVE YOU? HIS MADE-FOR-TV VISAGE? LET ME SHOW YOU HIS TRUE HEART, THEN.
“What?” Dodd had missed this, distracted by a pounding in his eardrums and a shower of Mini-Wheats. His answer came in the form of a sudden, breathtaking sting that swept the whole of his flesh, from head to toe. He clutched his heart, his crotch, his neck and hips. Every part of him felt as if set to fire.
A bubbling, curdling sound filled his ears — like stirring mac ‘n cheese. He tapped a particularly sore spot on his cheek and felt something bulbous, wet, and hot.
“Oh, golly,” he said.
Diana Hough-Rampone stared up at him, terror and disgust in her eyes, from her moderator’s seat.
“Missus,” Dodd said, “is it bad?” An orange peel landed on his head.
In response, the moderator bent over and vomited a pint of milk.
Dodd looked behind him, at one of the news network monitors’ live feed. There he saw himself, eyes wide and white as saucers. His face was covered in bleeding, pus-filled boils. Even some of the boils had their own boils.
The crooked gaping mouth of the bread’s burnt face-shape seemed to gawp smugly up at him.
“You dirty, rotten…” he said.
Then a new pain: electric agony, sprouting from the left side of his chest and shooting into his fingertips and skull.
“Call an ambulance!” Diana shouted. In the chaos, nobody heard her, or cared.
Dodd hit his knees.
“God help me,” he wheezed.