VI. Their Rims Were Tall and Awesome
“It should be you.”
In his study, Dodd, a block of pine on his knee, uncapped a bottle of industrial-strength wood varnish. At the window, his press agent Raymond Wachstetter reached on tip-toes to open the blinds and let some sunshine in. The squat man sniffed. With his long nose and the cottony tufts of his only hair wisping over his ears, he looked more or less like a penguin offended. He opened the window a crack, letting in cold air.
“What’s that?” Dodd asked. He daubed some varnish onto a rag and wiped down the pine.
“I’m looking at the list of best-sellers in Moldova,” said Wachstetter. “It’s showing here that the Springsteen autobiography’s topping the list there, but that can’t be right. It should be God Don’t Care. It should be you.” He coughed and held a sleeve over his mouth.
The preacher shrugged. He said, “I’m sure things’ll sort themselves out,” and put the varnish on his work table without closing it. He opened a nearby leather pouch and took out a carving knife, set about scraping at the wood chunk on his leg. It was to become an inch-high video store clerk, employed at the model Family Video in Doddville.
After all these years, Dodd was still at it. His hobby proved more therapeutic than ever, and since Tamera’s death he’d increased productivity in his hand carved mini-city a hundredfold. An entire room in his posh downtown home was dedicated to Doddville, and soon its space would need to be expanded — he’d have to knock down the wall and overtake the solarium to accommodate its growth. It wasn’t just a little wood-and-plastic village anymore; it was a sprawling metropolis. Somewhere in there was little Mary Lou, cheer captain for the Doddville Huskies.
“Oh, here it is!” Wachstetter smacked a sheet of stationery. “I was looking at last month’s numbers.” When Dodd merely grunted, Wachstetter turned, smoothing out the sleeves of his cheap tweed jacket as though huddled in sub-zero temperatures. “I figured you’d be happy, Gideon,” he said. “Moldova was our last major market holdout. Nearly everyone in the enlightened world has read your book now, or else had it read to them.”
A curly scraping of wood landed in Dodd’s mustache. “Then why hasn’t He shown His face?” he said. “Where’s His answer?” The knife and wood block landed on the worktable with a pair of soft clumps as he joined his agent at the window. Together they peered into the winter light, and Dodd fixed his gaze upon the large hill beyond the backyard’s spire-ridden fence where James and Ellie were dragging up their sleds.
“You know what the kids said?” he asked. In the distance Ellie hopped onto her sled and kicked off, hands in the air. James hung back, arms crossed, waiting to ensure she’d survived her trip downhill before attempting his own. “They don’t think there’s a God at all.”
“Oh,” Wachstetter said, “He’s there.” The agent gave his client a soft rap on the shoulder. “Look at that view and tell me there’s no God.”
“Credit where credit’s due,” Dodd said. “That’s all the landscaper. Montez, I think’s his name.”
“Even so,” said Wachstetter. “It’s only a matter of time. Mark my words: This is only the beginning.”
Dodd shut the blinds just as young James managed to propel himself down the hill, flat on his belly with a firm grip on either side of the sled. “Well,” he said. “We’ll just see, I s’pose. What’s it called, anyway? In Moldova?”
“Your book?” Wachstetter pulled a folded sheet of paper from his jacket and glanced at it.
With the sheet held up to him, Dodd read (or looked at, anyway) the words:
Бог не піклується
“Looks good,” he said. It felt like the thing to say. He went back to his stool and table and resumed carving a tiny, detailed face on the miniature teenaged DVD and Blu-ray huckster, whom he’d just decided would be called Jeremy. One small slash of the blade and there was his mouth. Two imperceptible flicks and he had eye sockets. Gideon Dodd considered the youngster’s expression.
Insolent. Mocking. A youthful challenge to his elders.
He slid the knife down longways and scraped the little wooden brat’s smirk right off.
“Um, Gideon?” Ray, at the window. “Who’s that out there? Is that Montez?”
“Mm?” Dodd looked up. “Montez’s off Tuesdays.” From his workbench he could see that, indeed, a tall, thin figure — not clearly man nor woman from here, but certainly adult — had approached the twins at the bottom of the snow-dusted hill. This person wore a whitish gown, or perhaps a clergyman’s frock. They knelt, making themselves eye level with the kids, and with remarkable posture, appeared to be sharing with them some story. The youngsters’ eyes sparkled in wonder even at this distance.
“Should we go out there?” Ray whipped his head around, then jerked back. “Hey!” he shouted through the inch-gap in the cracked window. “You there! In the dress!” Then to Dodd: “They’re pretty pretty, Gid.”
Dodd joined his agent at the pane and saw the strangest thing.
A sled. No, a sleigh every bit as impressive as Santa Claus’s came gamboling down the hill, no rider in its leather seat to guide it. It was white and ornate, gilded along the edging with a golden veneer. It sparkled in the sunlight, and its white surface seemed crafted from diamond.
“Maybe they’re Norwegian?” Ray suggested.
The self-guided sleigh parked itself between the stranger and Dodd’s children, who promptly hopped in and grabbed the shining golden reins.
Along the ornamental gilding, dozens of circular baubles moved and bubbled, and Dodd knew when Wachstetter squeaked and squeezed his shoulder that he was thinking the same thing.
They were eyeballs. Blinking, searching, seeing eyes.
Ellie laughed. James ran a hand along the side of the sleigh, whistling.
And then the sleigh burst into flames.
Blue. Then white. White-hot, deathly bursts of flame.
“Hot damn!” said Wachstetter, but Dodd was already at the armoire, fumbling in his pocket for the key. He found it, opened the cabinet, yanked out a shotgun and ran as fast as his troubled knees would let him — out the door, across the yard, through the gate.
The stranger with the flammable sleigh remained at its side, serene, head bowed. The bald head shone bright in the flames, and the mouth bent slightly into a calm smile.
Dodd got within grabbing distance of the odd stranger. And grab he did. Dodd took them by the shoulders, shotgun at the ready, and shouted: “Who are you? What did you do?”
The robed one’s eyes never opened, but it held out a flat palm toward the sleigh, and Dodd looked there. His children, swallowed in liquid-white flame, sat with their hands folded in their laps, grinning like they’d just dug their unclipped fingernails into the cookie jar.
“It should be you,” the stranger said.
And dozens of inhuman eyes lining the massive and impossible toboggan all, at once, turned to Gideon Dodd.
“In there?” said Dodd.
The figure nodded.
Dodd nodded, too. And he reached out. He reached out for his boy, for James. He lifted a leg, made to clamber over and join his children in the fire. But the instant his thumb made contact with James’s shoulder blade, a white flash overtook his sight. He stumbled back, blind, crying out for Wachstetter, for James, for Ellie. For Tamera.
But he opened his eyes again, and he was somewhere new.
No more beautiful, snow-bejeweled garden. No more sleigh or stranger. The air was thin, the ground rust-colored. And he knew he was on a mountain peak. The sun beat down on him, and in an instant he was sweating like a hog. Ellie was there, fingers splayed out in his tight-curled hair. It was odd, her massaging his scalp like that. Like Tammy used to—
Without warning, without his brain telling it to, Dodd’s arm swung upward. He glared into the sun to stare at it, aghast at the loss of control. Nestled within white-knuckled, clenching fingers was the bone handle of an old, old, ancient tribal knife. Dodd’s eyes followed the arc of his arm back down to the knife’s destination. Pinioned under his other hand was the throat of his only son, James.
The boy didn’t struggle. He only lay there in the red sand. Ready for anything.
Ellie tugged on her father’s hair. It tingled at the roots.
“Daddy,” she said. “It should be you.”
The sweat on his forehead fell into his eyes, stung them, begat tears. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, it should. Is there nothing I can do?”
And then it didn’t matter, for Dodd’s arm was falling, thrusting, zooming down, and the old sacrificial knife with it — the slaughterer of so many lambs before it. Only now it wasn’t any kind of relic. It was a workman’s knife, of the sort one would use to whittle tiny wooden people, and it was headed straight for James’s willing throat, and then James was gone. The mountaintop was gone, Ellie, the sand, the sweat and the sun: gone.
It was a cool Paris night. The stars twinkled, winkled, flirted overhead.
And Tamera was there. Her hands, cold but dry, folded over her husband, the preacher man’s fingers. She had her lower back pressed against some decorative railing, and she was smiling, wearing a new necklace she’d just opened and just loved to bits.
And Dodd knew they were atop the Eiffel tower, the most romantic spot in all the world. And he knew his wife, his beloved, was about to die, and he could do nothing to stop it.
“It should be you,” she said.
“Yes,” said Dodd. “I know it should.”
And she fell. And all that was left was a tooth.
Dodd wore the tooth around his neck these days. Tucked into his damp collar.
His shirt was soaked through.
The sheet draped over him: soaked through.
He lay on the couch in his second living room. Wachstetter sat on the Eames, one leg draped over the other, leaning in. His brow was twisted in intense concentration and concern.
Dodd’s children knelt at his side. Ellie had her hands on his forearm. James hugged his own bent-up legs.
“Dad?” Ellie shook him. “Daddy?” She turned around to the press agent, having never looked to him for any sort of sage adult advice before. “Do we call a hospital?” she said.
Wachstetter shook his head. “He’s coming around,” he said, and stood. “Ain’t that right, boss? Just a little too much of the old wood varnish fumes. You went all floppy on us. Conked out when I tried to get you to read Moldovan.” He sucked on his teeth, and looking like he wanted to look knowledgeable, held up a “peace” sign on one hand.
“How many fingers, boss?” he said.
But darn Wachstetter’s dopey fingers! They weren’t real! They didn’t matter! What he’d just seen! That had been real. Dodd rapped his temple with a damp knuckle, trying to recapture and mentally archive everything that had happened in his — yes, he’d call it. Why not?
“I’ve just had a vision,” Dodd said.
Ray’s eyes doubled in size. He left his fingers in their V shape. “Maybe you should lie back down,” he said. “How many fingers?”
“Hell with your fingers!” The preacher planted his feet on the hardwood floor. Ray looked abashed. The language.
Dropping his hand as a bad job, he said, “Sorry.”
Dodd found that the whittling knife was still in his hand, gripped so firmly the brand name was now set into his palm like the brand of some secret society. Dodd set the knife on the nearby coffee table and it rolled off, landing tip-first into the floorboard. It stood upright, proud.
“I saw it too, Dad.”
Dodd looked down. There, on the floor, sat James, rocking with his chin tucked into the space between his knees. His big white eyes flashed up at his father, doe-like.
Dodd said, “’Scuse me?”
“I saw it, too.” James was shaking. “The sleigh. That— person. And the…” he swallowed. “The mountain?”
“Don’t be silly,” Dodd said, standing, wobbling only a little. “You’ve just had a bad dream.” Bird-like, his head cocked aside. “Now, Ray.” He pointed at his agent. “Call the outlets,” he said. “CBN, Christian Science Monitor, Focus on the Family. All the giants.”
Ray nodded, patting his pockets for something to write with and on.
Said Gideon Dodd:
“I have an announcement to make.”
VII. “Scoffer” is the Name
“Well? What do you think?”
In the past, Pastor Gideon Dodd watched his wife’s face with boyish expectancy. Was Momma proud?
“Hmm.” Tamera ran a hand over one wall of the wooden structure at the crease of her palm. “What is it?”
Her gruesome death would happen ten years from this very day. She was pregnant with twins, almost a month past her due date. Her exhausted eyes told the story even better than her swollen belly.
“It’s a church,” Gideon said.
Like a kid who’s just realized he took the wrong lady’s hand in the supermarket, Tamera withdrew her grip on the model building — the latest addition to Doddville, a hobby that had long since become, in her opinion, an unhealthy habit.
“It looks like an arena,” she said. “Like Vegas.”
“Well,” Gideon smiled. “On weekdays, sure. That’ll be the deal. That’s how we foot the bill: athletics, rock and roll concerts. But never on Sunday. On the Sabbath —” he straightened up “—it’ll be God’s house.”
Tamera averted her gaze from the model mega-church. “You talk about it like it’s real,” she said.
And her husband, a showman even then, made a tri-folded slip of paper appear. With a flair, he let it fall open.
He said: “Ta-da.”
The paper, on official-looking parchment, bore a legal sort of seal at the top left. On its face were what looked like billions of words in a microscopic font that made Tamera’s vision blur in optic protest. At the bottom was a big, billowy signature: her husband’s. She didn’t need to read billions, or even a dozen, words to know what it all meant.
“Giddy,” she said. “You didn’t.”
“Giddy did.” He took her by the shoulders, met her eye. “I’m making the announcement to the congregation in tomorrow’s sermon. We’ve been growing for years — the radio show’s climbing to number one, those publisher’s’ve been sniffin’ around for a book deal — well, now we’ll have some wiggle room, God willing.”
“You don’t like it,” said Gideon.
She looked thoughtful, weighing her next words.
“You don’t like it.” He shook her, just slightly. Just to wake her up.
“Oh. I hate it,” she said.
Gideon let go. He turned and squatted, leveling his sight with the base of the stadium model. He closed one eye and peered inside. What he thought he’d find in there, Tamera could only guess. “You’ll see,” he said. “You’ll see. We’re gonna make so many people happy, honey. Spread God’s word. Reach millions. Go international with it.”
Tamera shrugged. “They already got God in Zimbabwe.”
Gideon behaved as though he did not hear her. “I’ll need you there, tomorrow.” He looked up, pleadingly, over his shoulder. “For the big announcement. You’ll be there, right?”
He thought the worst, as she stood there, towering over his hunched frame, licking her lips and staring at her knuckles, now miraculously the most interesting things in the world. He thought she would say no. He thought she would tell him and his stupid church to go to Heck. He thought she would grab the to-scale replica of the to-be building and crack it into pieces over her own hard head.
Whatever she was going to do, however, she never got the chance. For at that moment, they were both startled to hear a galumphing pair of hard-soled shoes clatter down the steps into the basement. They looked toward the commotion and saw there, draped over the railing, panting and sweating like a loony-bin escapee, a stout man in a damp polyester suit. His plaid necktie wrapped round his thick, veiny neck and down his back like a noose. His glasses had slid down his nose precariously, a millimeter from falling off his head and to the concrete floor below. His face was streaked with blood, trickling down what appeared to be scratch marks along his forehead.
“Tammy!” he said. “You gotta help me!”
Tamera forgot all about her husband. She whizzed past him, still prostrate and pleading, to the new man on the scene. Joining him at the foot of the stairs, she put an arm over him and said, “What is it, Rodge?”
Her brother accepted her matronly embrace — indeed, even rested his head in the crook of her neck. “There’s been a mix-up,” he said.
Tamera dug fingers into her brother’s hair up to the knuckles. “Oh, Roger,” she said. “Another mix-up?” Gideon saw the back of his brother-in-law’s head bob up and down into Tamera’s shoulder. “What happened this time?” she said.
“Not my fault,” said Roger. “Not my fault.” His face, from the nose up, at least, appeared. “Wrong place, wrong time. Just my luck. Just my lousy luck.” He inhaled. “Can I sleep here?”
Tamera patted Roger on the back. “Shh, shh,” she said. “Of course you can.”
“And if the EPA comes calling, can you tell them you never heard of no monitor lizard breeding ring?”
“Um.” Tamera’s head tilted a little. “I suppose.”
“And if the DEA knocks on the door, you’ll say you don’t know nothing about anyone extracting a chemical from monitor lizard urine that folks are vaporizing to get real, real high?”
Tamera nodded just once. “I really don’t.”
“Just my lousy luck,” Roger said again. “I tell you.”
Gideon rose, folded his arms. “Roger,” he said, “what — exactly — did you do this time?”
Roger started, evidently surprised at Gideon’s being there. “Oh!” he said. “Gideon! Thank goodness!” He slipped free from his sister and made the last step onto the basement floor. With two long strides he reached Gideon, gripped him in a bear hug, and said, “People listen to you! I need a favor, pal.” He took two trembling fingers to push up his glasses. “There’ll be this — press conference tomorrow morning,” he said. “I’ll have to explain some things, and, well, it’d mean a whole lot to me if you could be there to back me up. Y’know, in front of the cameras? Can’t anybody be mad at me with God’s favorite preacher man over my shoulder.”
The damp of Roger’s clothes began to seep into the chest and belly of Gideon’s short sleeve button-up. Gideon felt the other man’s grip tighten when his own relaxed.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Big sermon tomorrow.”
Roger held on. “What?”
“Can’t miss it.” Between them, a paper copy of a development contract crinkled in Gideon’s breast pocket. “Or I would.”
“But I need you,” Roger said. He took a step back. Watery, drooping, pink eyes stared back at Gideon through blood-and-oil-smeared glass lenses. “D’you know what this could do to my career?”
“I’m sorry.” The preacher tried to catch his wife’s eye, there on the stair landing. She was no help.
“I’m sorry, Congressman.”
And Roger Bulkiss said nothing else to Gideon Dodd — nor did his wife on that particular day — for what was there to say? The pastor knelt back down to admire itty-bitty Doddville’s own version of what would, soon, be the lavish meeting place of his real-life congregation every Sunday. Tomorrow, they’d all get the good news — right along with their weekly helping of the Good News. Postpone the announcement? Certainly not!
It was too bad, he had to admit. He thought now to pray for his brother-in-law, though he wasn’t quite sure what yet to ask of God, in regards to the Maryland state representative.
“Uff.” Dodd grunted. “I sure do hate politics.”
VIII. Truly, Truly I Say
The Sunday after his vision, all those years later, Gideon Dodd watched in — if not astonishment, well — a kind of amusement from the backseat of his stretch limo as it pulled up to the monolithic monster church with his name emblazoned across it in neon letters. Yes, he’d expected the press to turn up when he promised a major announcement. But Al Jazeera and FOX News? NPR and Rush’s guys, sharing the red carpet, comparing the size of their microphones?
It was perfect.
Near to divine.
He dodged questions on the way in, only removing his sunglasses and bomber jacket once he got into the greenroom. The floor rumbled; during hair and makeup the mirror on his vanity wobbled.
“What is that?” he asked the stylist, knowing already.
“That’s the crowd. They’re going nuts,” she said.
He smiled again.
He braced himself to be knocked backward by a wave of ovation when he stepped onstage and into the bright lights. An eerie calm-before-the-storm hush fell over the crowd at his appearance instead. He took to the pulpit like a duck to water (and soon, he thought, they’ll be sayin’ ducks take to water like Gideon Dodd takin’ to a pulpit.)
“A blessed morning to you,” he said.
Hold for applause.
Hold tight for applause: The hot breath of thousands of screaming zealous mouths smacked him across the face. They cheered fit to crack a hole in the ozone.
He smiled yet again.
“A blessed morning to you all. I see some new faces. Some familiar ones. And some new but very familiar ones.” He nodded to the celebrity couple in the front row, stooped over on the edge of their seats.
He swallowed. “You’re all here, after a fashion, for the same reason. Some weeks ago I called for the impeachment of God Almighty. I stood here and asked the Lord Hisself to step down, own up, and admit He’s botched the job. And now I say I’ve got big news.”
There was a strange sensation, a popping of the ears, as a thousand people drew in and held a breath at once.
“Well, you know, God used to speak to me all the time.” Several hundred nodded. They’d seen it on the TV. “But on this matter,” Dodd continued, “as in the matter of my late wife, God has remained resolutely — silent.”
The crowd roared disapproval. The big, bad villain of the wrestling match had just lumbered in.
Dodd stepped around his podium, patting an invisible kid’s head in an effort to hush the room. They obeyed. “But I had a vision, my friends. Was it from Him? I doubt it. But it was real. And I now know what I must do.” Both hands wrapped round the microphone, clasped, prayer-like.
“So I’m announcing today,” he flicked his eyes to the journalist rows and relished the way they readied their pens. “I’m announcing today my candidacy for the throne of Heaven.
“I’m gonna run for God.”
In the instant that followed he felt alone. The room so quiet it could have been empty — might as well have been. The speech was meant to end there, but feeling alone, he found it easy to vamp. And he would vamp until the silence was vanquished.
The silence, the unbearable silence!
He paced. “I challenge the Almighty for the right to continue his self-appointed despotism from On High. I propose an honest, open, and fair election: Me? Or Him?
“If the people will it so, He may continue. But our voice will be heard. This once, it will be heard.”
Eyes straining against the stage lights, he looked up.
“What do you say to that, Tight-Lips?”
No one said a blessed thing. Not the riveted audience (all of whom would have plenty to say later), and certainly not any celestial figure from above.
But with a substantial flash and a startling crackle, the arena lights did snuff out, sprinkling the assembly with a dust of sparks, and leaving thousands in utter darkness.
Dodd licked his teeth, and they lit the stage back up.
“You’re on,” he said.