I. In the Beginning
Gideon Dodd, he was a preacher man.
And during the first quarter of the twenty-first century in America, a preacher man with the gumption, charisma, booming voice, and winning smile of Gideon Dodd’s caliber could make a lucrative go of it. At forty-seven years old Dodd had long since been hosting the top-rated religious program on television. His radio show was syndicated worldwide, his brand of communion wine sold by the crate at Costco stores across the nation, and he’d written fourteen best sellers — a third of them cook books, the rest of a more expected theological bent.
If there was proof of a God, it was that men like Gideon Dodd could make good on nothing but their own fortitude and elbow grease — could grow up in a Baltimore housing project and, some forty years later, come to wake up every day in an Upper Manhattan townhome replete with an antique gun collection and marble sinks in the bathrooms. That he could replace his Armani suit with a Brioni when the congregation laid one too many clammy hands on him during altar call.
A good Christian man, a successful man, an articulate and family-focused man with teeth so white the makeup guys had to dull them down before airtime every Sunday morning: That was Gideon Dodd.
Anytime tragedy struck, millions of Americans turned to Gideon for advice, for succor, for answers.
When a typhoon struck the Pacific coast and leveled four major cities in the Orient, readers of his newspaper column asked: “Why does God send these storms? Surely He could refrain? Have we upset Him in some way?”
And Gideon Dodd answered: “God loves you. He is not a spiteful or wrathful God. Nature’s gotta run its course, but God wants me to tell you all: He has not abandoned His children in the East! Oh, no, no!”
Weeks later, after a man brought an automatic weapon into a busy shopping mall in the Midwestern United States, a woman stood up during Dodd’s televised sermon to inquire: “Why didn’t God stop that awful monster? Shouldn’t He have protected those folks in that B. Dalton?”
Breathing into his microphone, Dodd said, “Just because bad things happen doesn’t mean God isn’t protecting us. He told me, He’s got our best interests at heart, always at heart — and all’s goin’ according to plan.” He then smiled to thunderous applause, introduced a Christian rockabilly act, and wrapped the morning early.
Then the news broke of the bombing that killed hundreds in a small African village. The U.N. declared a state of emergency in an Eastern European region where some new and fatal illness, transmitted by hummingbirds, had broken out. That cruise liner with the Make-a-Wish boy on it sunk after hitting an oil tanker, resulting in the death of everyone aboard both vessels and the literal extinction of at least four species of sea life, by early counts (all while further ensuring the Western hemisphere’s dependence on foreign fossil fuels and fanning the flames of ill-advised international wars).
Through it all, the preacher man with the billion-dollar grin assured his massive congregation that their God was an awesome God, and none of this could be pegged on Him.
That is, until Dodd’s wife fell from the top of the Eiffel Tower during a family vacation and could only be identified by the single tooth she left behind.
He sort of changed his tune after that.
II. And the Word was God
“God Don’t Care.”
At 9:00 a.m. on some Sunday morning following the untimely death of his wife Tamera, Gideon Dodd stood behind the pulpit, before a camera crew and a stadium full of devout parishioners. In his hands was a weighty tome emblazoned with his famous visage. The glossy cover glistened in the hell-hot spotlights, as did the actual Dodd’s own damp face.
“That,” he said, “is the title of my new book. God Don’t Care. And frankly, my friends, He just don’t.”
A series of tense murmurs issued from the assembled crowd. Dodd continued:
“War, pestilence, famine, bigotry, and natural disaster. Murders in the schools and babies havin’ babies.” He began to pace, challenging the camera crew to keep up. “Economic ruin in every Christian nation! Depletion of natural resources, drug lords taking over entire governments. Puppy mills and feline AIDS. And don’t get me started on the state of pop music!”
Dodd pressed the book against his chest and breathed in, his nostrils expanding to the diameter of quarters. “When my wife fell from the top of that tower in Paris,” he said and closed his eyes, “she cried out: ‘God save me!’ she said. She screamed it! ‘God save me!’ But she splattered on that pavement all the same.” His fingers wound around a bit of dental floss tied to his neck. There hung a single human tooth near his clavicle. “For all her cryin’ out, and a lifetime of Bible-studyin’ and hymn-singin’ and commandment-obeyin’, all I got left of her in the end is a coffee-stained molar. The rest of her teeth are dust in the French wind.”
By now Dodd had settled back behind his pulpit. He slammed his fist upon it now, missing — for once — the groove there where his balled-up hand fit perfectly.
“He’s not gonna save us. He never was, never planned to. The world didn’t turn bad overnight. Bad things didn’t just start happening to good folks. This ain’t a recent development, people! God don’t care!”
The scattered murmur of the audience had become a consistent susurrus by now. Nobody had ever heard Dodd speak in this manner before. They’d never, in fact, even seen the man frown.
“The Old Man’s gotten lazy,” Dodd said. “He’s tired and jaded and bored with us. And like I say in my book here, it’s high time He stepped down from His heavenly post and gave someone else a shot.” He leaned in low, so close to the microphone his mustache bristled against it and filled the room with a dramatic oceanic roar.
“I motion,” he said, “that we impeach God Almighty.”
Dozens of hundreds of people held their breath. A hush fell such as the stadium had never seen before, not even during its famed annual stagings of A Tribute to Marcel Marceau.
Dodd stood behind his oaken lectern, panting, grasping either side of it. His wife’s erstwhile tooth dangled from his neck. Whatever a “moment” is, several of them passed in absolute silence.
Then the crowd cheered.
Their response was so vocal, so heartfelt, so overwhelming that Dodd’s eardrums crackled. The thoughts he’d expressed that morning were nothing new to anyone present. Every man, woman, and child in that football-stadium-slash-mega-church had thought these exact things, more or less, on many an occasion. Having an authority on the matter such as Gideon Dodd express these opinions gave them credence, validated their secret shame.
It was liberating, and so they cheered.
“Here in America,” Dodd said, and paused for an inevitable cacophony of ovation. “That’s right! The greatest nation on Earth!” He gave the applause room to breathe, lips aquiver and shiny. “In the You-Ess of Ay, leadership gets eight years, max, to ply his trade and run things. But we give this Guy,” and he pointed upward, to the heavens, “the whole of eternity? Who elected Him?”
Viewers at home could not, by this point, do much more than attempt to read Dodd’s lips or rely on closed-captioning. The furor of the studio audience was simply too powerful. All the same, the millions upon millions tuning in from their living rooms held back delighted snickers, squeezed their partners’ hands, or flat-out joined in on the cheering from the comfort of their own PJ pants.
With a quick squat-and-hop, Dodd riled up his followers further, then spat into the mike: “Enough already! Time for some new blood! If you’re with me, say, ‘amen!’”
A good third of the population of the U.S. said, in near-unison, “A-MEN!”
“And all God’s children said, ‘Amen,’” Dodd said. Sweat rolled down his forehead and nose as though he’d just gone bobbing for apples.
“And all God’s children said, ‘Buzz off.’”
III. He Who Finds a Wife
“Let there be light.”
Twelve years before his and his wife’s fateful trip to the City of Love, Gideon Dodd sat on a workbench in a dingy basement composed of cobwebs as much as it was drywall and asbestos. He flicked a switch and on the table before him, a miniature football stadium lit up in the glow of its to-scale light fixtures. Tiny football players sprinkled the imitation moss ground inside.
Behind Dodd and his crafting table, there stood the proud and impressive display of Doddville, a model village hand-carved and painted by Dodd himself over the past couple of decades. He’d picked up the hobby in Bible college and kept it up well into the dismal annals of adult life. By now Doddville boasted over one hundred fifty-eight houses, a complete business district, six pubs, four cinemas, a gym and natatorium, and a population of five hundred and forty-three (five hundred forty-four if you counted the tiny pregnant woman on the park bench as two, which Gideon did, thank you much).
And now, a football field.
Dodd plucked an unpainted wooden cheerleader between his thumb and forefinger. Dipping a fine-tipped brush into a palette, he flared his nostrils and squinted at the itty-bitty gal in the oh-so-skimpy uniform.
“I’ll call you Mary Lou,” he said. “And you, little lady, get to be squad captain.” The brush daubed at her legs, coated them with a pinkish flesh tone. “What do you think of that?”
With an elbow he jabbed at the record player to his right, thus summoning a second play-through of Aretha Franklin’s greatest hits. His tongue poked out through pursed lips, tickling his mustache, as he began work on the finer details of little Mary Lou. Just as he finished endowing her with a generous cleavage, the door above creaked open and soft footsteps shuffled halfway down the stairs.
It was Tamera.
In those days, the Dodds were childless, as far as they knew, though on this particular night Mrs. Dodd happened to be carrying twins, unbeknownst to her or her husband. It would be another five years before Gideon was a world-famous and revered televangelist. For now his small-town congregation at the chapel next door was satisfactory — a source of pride, even. The Dodds may have even scoffed, then, at the idea of ruby-studded bathtub faucets, although in nine years’ time they’d have them in all six of their washrooms.
But this — this was in the old days, the simple times, when they didn’t have a clue they were at their happiest. When Tamera wore her hair up like a tower and wouldn’t be caught dead without shoulder pads. When Gideon Dodd still wore department store sweater vests, not designer ones, and got his haircuts at the local barbershop.
Back when Gideon and Tamera Dodd had each other, and that was enough.
“Giddy?” She came fully downstairs now and tapped his shoulder to break his concentration. He jumped and dropped the miniscule cheer captain. The tiny woman went clattering between the desk and concrete wall somewhere.
“Sorry, baby,” she said. “Didn’t mean to spook you.”
“No harm done.” Dodd stood up, arched his back and yawned. “Probably need to rest my eyes a minute anyhow.” He kissed her cheek. “What’s up? Dinner ready?”
“No.” Tamera’s hand wandered to the fuzzy mock sod in the center of the mini-stadium. She stared down, rubbing it, her brow dropping and mouth contorting into an odd frown. “No, not quite yet.”
“What’s the matter?” Her worry was evident; he grabbed her wrist, took her hand into his. To comfort her, yes, but also to keep her mitts of his handiwork.
“It’s Roger,” she said. “Dad just called.”
Gideon sighed. “What now?”
“There’s been a mix-up,” she said. Her free hand found her mouth. “So he says. He’s, uh, he’s in jail.”
“Your brother’s in jail?”
“And Dad won’t bail him out. Not again.” A soft whimper escaped Tamera’s throat. “Not after last time.”
Dodd squeezed his wife’s shoulder, drew her close. “You wamme to go get ‘im?”
She nodded into the crook of his neck. “Would you?”
Again, he sucked in the musty basement air, let it out like a pierced tire. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, let me find where Mary Lou fell and I’ll get my shoes.”
“Head cheerleader, Doddville Huskies.”
“I never know what you’re talking about.” Tamera pulled back, not dropping his hand. “But you’re good enough I guess I don’t care.”
IV. Whoever Spares the Rod
Twelve years, one rousing success story, and one tragic death later, Gideon Dodd found himself staring at a to-scale, bronze statue of none other than Gideon Dodd. The piece stood in the middle of the vast foyer of St. Vitus Preparatory Academy, perched on a dais inscribed with the words:
“With infinite thanks to Reverend Gideon H. Dodd, for his considerable and generous continued donations to this establishment. May you soar with the seraphim.”
He had written the inscription himself.
Loafers spinning on marble floor, Dodd wheeled round to face his approaching pre-teen twins. James and Ellie, however, couldn’t have looked less alike if they’d come from different mothers. James was a gangly thing, with sallow eyes magnified by extra-strength glass lenses. On the other hand, Ellie was already a beauty at twelve, and Tamera hadn’t held back in warning her husband, when she was alive, that the day was nigh when she’d be the apple of every boy’s eye in the tri-county area.
“Hi, Dad.” Ellie kissed her poppa on the cheek once he knelt to her height. He pulled her close, embraced her. James stood back, arms folded, hunching under the weight of his overstuffed bookbag.
“Hi, baby,” Dodd said to his daughter. To his son he nodded and said, “Jimmy.”
Trailing the kids, a tall woman in black business attire and horn-rimmed glasses drew near. With each step her high heels issued sharp clacks that bounced off the walls. “Mr. Dodd,” she called. “Thank you for coming.”
“Hello, Miss Balaban.” He shook hands with the headmistress of St. Vitus Prep. “I got here soon as I could. My secretary marked your note ‘urgent.’ What’d they do now?” Ellie slipped from his grasp, joining her brother a safe distance away, in the shadow of the sculpted facsimile of their dad.
“Oh. The children.” Miss Balaban cleared her throat, massaged her palms. “Right. Of course.” She and Dodd cast a furtive glance at the kids, who glided more than stepped another foot or so back. “Perhaps,” the headmistress said, “we ought to take this into my office. If you’ll step this way?” The preacher nodded, and the adults left the twins behind in the foyer to stare at one another from the corners of their eyes.
With a well-manicured hand Balaban pushed open the door marked Administration and stepped through ahead of Dodd, who was greeted upon entrance with an enthusiastic round of applause from the school staff. Two office receptionists kissed him on either cheek; Miss Balaban slapped his back and cackled; two lunch ladies hoisted onto the countertop a cake that required the upper body strength of two whole lunch ladies; and the Phys Ed teacher Carnahan was just finishing up a hearty shake of a champagne bottle. The cork whizzed by Dodd’s ear and shattered a framed certificate naming the school the best of its kind in the tri-state area.
“What’s all this?” Dodd asked, knowing full well what all this was.
Mrs. Kripke (Remedial English) waddled all four-foot-five of her failing body over to Dodd and took up his hand. “You’re a hero, Mr. Dodd,” she said. “You’ve done a very brave thing.”
“We read your book,” said Balaban. A copy appeared, perhaps out of thin air, in her hands. Dodd stared into his own printed eyes on the surface of God Don’t Care. It was better than a mirror because mirrors didn’t Photoshop out the bags under his eyes. God Don’t Care was an undeniable hit, and this wasn’t the first such warm and hearty response he’d garnered over it.
“It’s like you read the hearts and minds of every person on the planet!” the headmistress said. With a red fingernail she rifled through the book, every page riddled with highlighter marks and notations.
“Yes,” Dodd said, “well. I only wrote what I felt. God has a lot of explaining to do.”
“And He will,” said Balaban. Someone clapped. “Or we’ll find someone better.”
The gym teacher handed Dodd an overflowing champagne glass, spilling bubbly onto his wrist. The coach said, “Where’d you get the idea, anyway, Dodd? To write a book, I mean? When most folks wanna get God’s attention they just pray, y’know?”
“And most folks,” Dodd said, “never get God’s attention.” He drained his champagne in one gulp, pushed through the throng to snatch the first-cut slice of cake and a plastic fork, and tipped his flat cap at the educational staff gathered there. “I surely thank you folks for your support. Glad you liked the book. You are heeding my advice, right?”
“Oh, yes, indeed,” said Balaban, nodding with utter seriousness. “We’re following your directions to the T. I taped little reminders all around the teachers’ lounge.” He held up an open pair of hands: “‘Don’t get on your knees,’” he parroted, “‘and don’t bow your head for Anybody who don’t appreciate it.’”
“Wonderful,” Dodd said, though it wasn’t verbatim. Some frosting was caught in his mustache, and when he smiled at them, he looked like he had two sets of teeth, both white as whipped cream. “Well, I surely do thank you, but I must be going.” He turned to leave, tossing his scarf over one shoulder. His hand made contact with the door when Balaban stopped him with a firm squeeze to the bicep.
“Er, actually, Mr. Dodd,” she said. “We haven’t only called you here to congratulate you. There is still a small matter with your children.”
“Oh?” Dodd’s neck disappeared for a moment beneath a terse shudder. “What’d they do now?”
V. On Those Who Doubt
Gideon Dodd pounded his fist on the steering wheel, issuing forth a brief toot and spooking a nearby goose. It honked back, but Dodd didn’t notice.
“Expelled!” he said again. “How do you like that?” He focused on the view of his scowling children in the dash mirror, in lieu of watching the road. It didn’t make much difference; traffic somehow seemed to part and make way for Gideon Dodd most of the time. He only ever hit green lights, he liked to think, except that one time in Boulder, but he’d probably deserved that, he and his therapist had decided.
“Now what’d you do exactly?” he asked, locking eyes with the boy. The boy always caved first.
“Um,” James said.
“Don’t tell ‘im,” Ellie said.
“Ellie!” Dodd said. “You hush now. Jim, go on and tell your old pop what you kids did that got you thrown out on your rear-ends like that.”
In the rearview mirror he saw his son peek through his hands at his female counterpart. Ellie had her mother’s stink-eye. Had she been giving her father that look, he reckoned he’d have done or not done whatever she said. But James was different. It was his daddy, not his sissy, he couldn’t help but obey.
The boy always caved.
“We said your book’s a buncha’ bullshit!” James shouted. The hands he’d held over his eyes snapped onto his mouth.
“Idiot!” Ellie smacked her brother on the back of his buzz-cut.
The children collided, despite a tight and thorough seatbelt buckling on both their parts, as the sports car swerved to the side of the road. Dodd put it in park and bent over to glare at his children from around the driver’s seat.
“You said what?”
“Sorry we swore, Dad,” James said, disappearing into his puffy Gore-Tex coat. “We shouldn’t have said the ‘S’ word, especially not in class.”
“What did you say,” Dodd said, voice rising with each syllable, “about my book?”
Ellie unclipped her seatbelt and flung herself from the seat, coming face-to-face with her father. “We said it’s bullshit, Daddy! A buncha’ baloney! You can’t make God quit his job! You can’t make him come down and apologize for killing Momma! God don’t care — it’s in the title, and you still don’t know what you’re talkin’ about!”
Dodd removed his sunglasses. He watched his children — Ellie, trembling in anger; James, recoiling in shame.
“And besides,” Ellie said, “everyone knows there’s no such thing as God anyway.”
Dodd gripped the back of his seat, shifted himself to kneel on it facing the back. His salt-and-pepper ‘stache wiggled, agitated. “Young lady,” he said, “I hope you didn’t just say what I think you said.”
“You know it’s true,” Ellie said.
“Shh,” James said. “Stop. Just shh.”
One gloved finger pointed at the boy. “You think this, too?” the preacher said.
His son didn’t move, didn’t utter a sound. Ellie nodded. “He does,” she said. “And your book’s a big, dumb waste of paper.” She poked her daddy’s chin and pressed in. “All the grown-ups just like it ‘cuz it gives them somebody to blame for all the bad stuff that happens to them.”
“Hush now,” Dodd said.
“If there’s a God, why hasn’t He come down and begged the world for forgiveness yet?”
“Hush, little girl.”
“I’ll tell you why. Because there is no God. And if there is, he don’t give two bat boogers about your dumb old book, Dad!”
“I said quiet, now!” Dodd swatted the girl’s hand away. She gasped, clutched the assaulted fingers with her other set. Dodd turned back around, put the car into drive.
“Whaddayou know, anyway?” the preacher said into the windshield. He turned up the radio. Amy Grant was singing “Amazing Grace.”
“You’re just a couple of dopey kids.”
Next he drove them to the ice cream parlor and bought them (and himself) each a gourmet cone. It was compulsory but no less delicious.
This was the first time Gideon Dodd had seen his children in three months.
END PART ONE.