In an office bigger than many men’s own homes sits a withering human being — white, male, hairless with crepe paper for skin. Fingers like rotting twigs press a button near his lap. There is a resulting buzz which summons another ancient man. They are both dressed in couture out of time — sweeping, shimmering robes.
“Yes, Your Holiness?” says the second man, just as papery and just as bald.
The man behind the massive cherry wood desk has a copy of The New York Times spread before him. Peering through glass lenses an inch thick he still can’t quite make heads or tails of the headline there, English not being his preferred manner of communication.
“The Father from America,” says the Pontiff in his native Italian. “He will arrive tomorrow with more information on this non-denominational Protestant from the television.”
“The one they call Dodd,” says the Cardinal.
“Precisely him,” says the Cardinal’s human Boss. “See to it that our informant is well accommodated. A nice room. Something with see-through curtains all around the bed: Americans seem to think that’s a big deal. Order in some apple pie and ice cream. And Kentucky whisky. We’ll want him talking.”
“Bourbon,” says the Cardinal.
“They call it ‘bourbon,’ over there, sir,” the Cardinal says.
“So be it,” the Pope says, and waves a hand airily. At his approval, this becomes fact. Oh, finally!
“Is that all?”
“Not quite,” says the Sovereign. “Depending how this goes, you may need to ready several more guest bedrooms.”
“Oh?” The Cardinal raises an eyebrow.
“Yes,” says the papal, papery man. “It may be time to get the band back together.” He rubs a finger across the front of the Times, across the smirking face of Gideon Dodd, American Preacher Man. His cream-colored fingertip turns gray.
“Yes, I could see this escalating rather quickly.”
I. …and Waxed Very Mighty
“Here, take a Palm Pilot and start deletin’.”
James and Ellie Dodd were four years old now, presently watching Daddy-approved cartoons — that is to say, cartoons of high Moral Fiber. Tamera Dodd was still alive, stirring coffee she would never get to drink and rubbing her temple.
In his study, Gideon Dodd put down a paintbrush and a miniature gazebo just in time for his brother-in-law, the congressman Roger Bulkiss, to force a miniature computer into his hand.
“What’s goin’ on, Rodge?” Dodd said, frowning at the device. He fancied himself something of a Luddite. At the church, he had fellas who handled all the techie stuff for him. “Tamera know you’re here?”
Roger waved a hand, grabbed a pocket computer of his own and sat on the workbench, opening a hefty Dell laptop up in the process. “Said ‘hi.’ Never mind, Gid. Just do me a solid and open up my AOL. Delete everything.” As if goosed by a ghost, he jerked and cocked back his head. “And open nothing!” he added.
Dodd sighed. As Roger turned over a duffel bag and emptied a mound of PDAs, laptop PCs, and beepers onto the drafting table, Dodd glanced down at the tiny screen, lowering his reading glasses from the crown of his head.
There was a long list of email messages there. Highlights of the subject lines included morsels like “I Need U Babe,” “So Hot Right Now,” “Got the Stuff (Got the $$$?),” and “Barely Legal but Totally Legal.”
Dodd, having never sent or read an email in his life, did recognize the universal rune for TRASH and tapped it with his pinky, again and again, saying nothing. Warmth spread to his cheeks. Breath became something of an effort.
“Wouldn’t you just believe it,” Roger muttered, clicking feverishly with two hands. “What a lousy mix-up.”
“Some bad guy get ahold of your email password, Rodge?” Dodd asked, tapping — but having averted his eyes upward at the digital sight of the word “Coitus.”
“All fourteen of ‘em!” Roger said, clucking his tongue. “Wouldn’t you just believe it. How’s it going over there?”
“This one’s wiped out,” Dodd said, and Roger ripped the Pilot from his hand and replaced it with another. Dodd looked at the beacon-like display in his palm. In the window labeled “Outlook,” he searched for a way to intuit this one’s deletion process. And then he saw it:
“Investing in the Church,” one email said. A colon, then: “Big Opportunity!” It showed the sender as something called Midian Speculations.
Dodd flicked eyes at his brother-by-marriage, saw only his heaving back and shoulders.
And he put the device in his pocket.
“Any reporters call?” Roger asked, his fingers twiddling and wrists flexing.
“Any news reporters call the house? Y’know?” He looked around. “About me?”
Dodd shrugged. “Don’t think so.”
Roger nodded, biting his lip. “Good,” he said. “Good. If they do—”
“We mostly let the machine get it these days,” Dodd said.
The congressman turned back around, still nodding. “Good,” he said. “C’mere. Where’re your shoes? We gotta stomp some pagers.”
II. Into the Wilderness
From the moment Gideon Dodd announced his candidacy for the Office of He Who is Called I Am, his world was ripped asunder. Reporters camped out on his lawn, rinsing their clothes and nethers with the aid of Dodd’s own garden hose; protesters entered his crawlspace to plant thankfully non-functioning homemade bombs; and fervent supporters lay bouquets and other sundry gifts — one mega-fan offered his first-born — around the premises, or pressed breasts and lips and tear-smeared cheeks against his windows.
Through it all, both the preacher and the Lord God kept pretty much mum.
They stayed in hotels these days — Gideon Dodd and his children. Never for long. They were usually pretty quickly found out, thanks to the conspicuous cavalcade of Dodd-branded stretch limousines and the wide load U-Haul that bore the entirety of Doddville, which the preacher man hadn’t been able to bear leaving behind. By the time the lobby doors were torn down, the Dodd camp were usually halfway to the next four-star lodgings.
Following a particularly harrowing day of dodging interviews and writing another sermon to be delivered via satellite, the pastor excused himself from dinner, leaving his children alone with their salmon filets and chocolate milk. He went into the U-Haul to whittle something, anything, new to add to his pet project and to soothe his nerves.
He was well into a handsome park bench when someone knocked on the storage trailer’s door.
“Come in,” Dodd called. The only light was coming from the flashlight strapped to his head.
Until Wachstetter threw open the doors. At his height he needn’t have stooped to enter, but did so anyway. Stubble-faced, sandy hair drooping over one eye, his tie loosened sadly, he said, “You need a lock on this thing. And don’t yell, ‘Come in.’ I could’ve been anybody.”
Dodd shrugged, continued carving.
“Look,” Wachstetter held his breath and skirted the edges of the model town, his behind brushing the metallic walls. He stooped nearby. “We have to talk.”
“I’ll hit the campaign trail,” Dodd said, with the air of someone having had to repeat himself many times, “when you schedule the first debate.”
The press agent scoffed, wiped his mouth. “It’s not as if I can just phone up God Almighty, Gideon. I can’t just give Him a buzz and say, ‘Can we pencil You in for Tuesday the 8th?’”
“Sure you can,” Dodd said, hunching over his craft. “Just get on your knees and clasp your hands.”
Wachstetter fumbled with the tail of his untucked Oxford shirt. “You could do that,” he said, his voice a faint croak.
“Anyway, you’ve got to get out there,” said the agent. “The world is on pins and needles. They want to know your platform.”
“What’re you bringing to the table?” said Wachstetter. “What change can you promise if elected? Who’s your cabinet? That is, who’ll be your archangels? Your, um, cherubim and apostles and that.” He attempted to cross his little legs and, in the cramped space, grunted and gave up. “We could go on FOX. 20/20. Anywhere. Just — get the message out there. If you want to win.”
Dodd said nothing. Scrapings of pine fluttered to his feet.
“But that’s not why I’m here,” Wachstetter said. “It’s about your brother.”
The preacher lifted his head, dropped his project into his lap. “I don’t have a brother.”
“Brother-in-law,” Wachstetter said. “Bulkiss? He says he needs to talk to you. Keeps calling. I don’t know any other ways to tell him ‘no.’”
“Whatever he has to say to me,” Dodd wiggled a loafer to knock the shavings off, “tell him I’m not interested.”
Wachstetter put a hand on his client’s shoulder and squeezed.
“Maybe you ought to tell him yourself.”
“He’s outside. Hotel lounge.”
Dodd picked the tiny bench up, one leg between the nails of thumb and middle finger. “How’d he find me?”
Wachstetter gestured at the plus-size carriage’s innards.
“Followed the caravan, I expect,” he said.
Dodd’s bottom lip consumed his teeth. He suckled at his canines a long time before saying, “I’m not goin’ into that lounge. Send him here.”
The other man nodded. “Sure thing, boss.”
“And have him bring one of those virgin mai-tais,” said Dodd.
“I like those virgin mai-tais.”
III. “How is It That You Have Come So Soon Today?”
The gummy, glistening lips of one cow flopped and sagged, bits of chewed grass clinging to them. Dodd stared into its cud-filled mouth as if all the secrets of the universe were inside, if he could just see past the half-digested glop.
Roger licked and slurped at the straw of his Shirley Temple, an unwitting mirror image of their new bovine pal.
They’d walked to a field opposite the hotel lot in silence. They went around opposite sides of an old dusty well, each dropped a penny into it, and drank their drinks. Now they leaned against the fence of a sprawl of farmland watching a dozen or so cows graze, fart, and use the ground as a makeshift hankie.
Roger — a little slower these days, considerably paunchier, far less frantic, and looking pretty comfy in his polo shirt and cargo shorts — turned his glass over his open mouth so ice tinkled into it.
“How’s business?” Dodd asked. It was the first thing either of them had so far said.
“Mm,” said Roger. He gave a shrug and crunched. “It’s a Waffle House. We do business.”
“How’d you get the day off to come slum it with me?” Dodd said it casual-like, attempting a jokey-hokey smile at the end. It fell a little flat, given the history of the two men, given the circumstances of their last meeting, given a lot of givens.
Roger shrugged. “It wasn’t a long drive or nothin’.”
The preacher smiled again. It came more natural this time. “I think civilian life suits you, Rodge.” He swirled his own glass over the wood-rot railing. A second cow gave the beverage a disinterested sniff. “Do you ever miss it? Public service?”
Roger let out a chuckle, spat some half-chewed slush from his mouth. His lips gleamed as wetly as the cows’. “You’re a riot, Gid,” he said. “Why on Earth are we talkin’ about me right now?”
Dodd took a sip. “You’re family. Haven’t seen you since Tamera’s service.”
“Not my doing.”
“I’m just making conversation.”
“You ask me how managing the Waffle House is going,” Roger said, lifting a foot onto one of the lower rails, “as if you haven’t declared war on God Almighty.”
“War?” Dodd ran a finger around the rim of his glass. “Never said anything about war. I’m just callin’ Him to the carpet. And if He don’t want the job anymore, well, I got some ideas.”
“You got the whole world talking,” the erstwhile congressman said. Some life entered him; his eyebrows went up and his shoulders did a little shimmy. “You got everyone’s attention. What next?”
“I don’t have everyone’s attention,” Dodd said.
“I don’t think there’s a pidgin-speaker in Papua New Guinea hasn’t heard of your little crusade, brother.” Roger raised his empty glass. “Cheers.”
One cow lowed, then another, setting off a chain reaction of obnoxious moos.
Dodd grumbled. “Then why,” he said, “does the One Guy whose say in the matter matters — have nothing to add to the conversation?”
“You’re talking about—”
“Where is He in all this?” Dodd took a big gulp. “The human race is apt to buck him and he just… don’t care.”
“So you’re really goin’ for it.” The Waffle House manager let out a whistle. “This ain’t just some stunt to sell books. You’re probably gonna be God.”
“When you get the Throne, couldja’ bring back polygamy?”
“I don’t think it ever went anywhere, did it?”
Roger considered this. “I never really read the Bible.”
Dodd tutted. “Doesn’t matter. It’s all silly. My agent can’t even get me onstage with You-Know-Who for a proper debate.”
Roger put his other foot on the rail and hoisted himself up a head taller. He reached out a palm and offered it as a sort of salty lollipop to the cattle, a pair of which took him up on it with eager sloppy tongues.
“That’s why I came out,” Roger said. “I think I can help you. Or rather — I know someone who can.”
“Oh, no,” Dodd said. “No. I know your ‘I know a guy’ kinda guys.”
“Now I’m not talkin’ about anyone caught up in anything… in any of my extracurricular activities. Which,” Roger’s hand was now completely lost to a pair of tightly wound cow tongues, “I have sworn off entirely, as well you know. Born again, as you well know, seeing’s you were the damn mid-wife.” He tugged. The cows had a pretty good hold on him up to the wrist. “No, this guy — on the level. He ran every campaign I ever won. And whatever my failings, I won every campaign fair and square.”
Dodd finished off his drink and set the glass on in the browned grass. He drummed fingers on the fencing, watched the cows play tongue-of-war with his former brother-in-law’s paw.
“Can your guy get me a debate with the Big Man? Broadcast live? Moderated?”
“If anyone can, my guy can.” Roger put a shoe on the next rail up for leverage. “He once got me in a room with Dolly Lambda.”
“The Dalai Lama?”
“Him, too. Anyway, I always called him a miracle worker. And I think you need a miracle. What’ll it hurt to meet him?”
Dodd prodded the corners of his pursed mouth with a thumb and forefinger. He breathed in bovine emissions.
“All right. Set it up.”
“You won’t regret it.” And something familiar flashed in Bulkiss’s eye. He smiled as Dodd hadn’t seen him smile in years, and he gave a mighty heave with a sudden burst of energy, slipping free of the cows’ licking snare and falling backward onto his ass.
He laughed until he guffawed, hand dripping in slime, smearing it in the hay.
“I tell you what,” he said. “Politics is a game. It can be a real hoot. And the Guy that invented those things?” He cocked a head at the cows, all empty eyes and slack lips. “I bet He’s a riot.”
Dodd reached out a hand to help the other man up. “You know they used to slaughter those things in droves, just to make God happy?”
Roger didn’t take the preacher man’s hand, not just yet.
“How many burgers you eaten this week, boss?”
Gideon Dodd opened his mouth. Then shut it.
Both men forgot the question anon: The sound and distant image of slowly growing dots, far out in the weeds of the field, derailed any train of thought. The dots became blots, then vague shapes, then tiny people growing, growing in a bum rush approach.
At a certain point Dodd could see: There were seven of them, women all. Reporters, all. Microphones or recorders and notepads hanging from their fingers. A few of them waved single arms overhead.
Their voices rang out across the pasture. They echoed.
The voices would draw more.
“Time to go?” Roger looked at the pastor.
Dodd nodded. Roger took his hand at last, got to his feet, and the men had turned their backs to the cattle and the charging journalists when—
A gunshot. The sharp crack of it popped in Dodd’s ears, brought back memories of the rough neighborhoods of his adolescence. Roger fell back to the ground in an instinctive lunge. The preacher looked out into the field, saw the women ducking, scanning, trudging ahead anyway the way the best journalists do.
The best journalists are always the ladies, Dodd thought.
“Outta here!” a booming voice shouted. “Off my property! Off my land!”
A hunchbacked man in jeans, trucker hat, and zip for a shirt materialized from a shuddering row of bushes on the edge of the land butting against a hill capped with a farmhouse. He hobbled, but he hobbled lithely, somehow, toward the women. A bent arm jerked to cock the gun and he fired again in their direction.
Dodd rolled over the fence lamely, waving his arms.
“Hey! Hey, mister! Stop that!” he said. “They’re here to talk to me! Let ‘em be!”
The farmer turned, squinting. He was nearer Dodd than the would-be interviewers. He took a few steps forward, toothless, chin jutting.
“Hey!” he said, lowering the gun to let it swing at his hip. “Ain’t that Gideon Dodd?”
Dodd felt Roger’s hand clap on his back. “Yeah, it is!” Roger shouted. “The next God! Right here.”
“Well, don’t that beat all!” the half-naked elder said. He hooted and kept walking forward until he stood between the two nearest cows, belly pressed against the fence. “I been thinkin’ to myself, ‘If only I could meet that Gideon Dodd, tell ‘im thanks, and he’s got my vote.’ And here y’are!” He put an arm around either cow’s neck, and they licked his armpits symmetrically.
“Kinda like my prayer been answered,” he said.
“We thank you, mister,” Roger said. The little click, the guttural croak his voice had taken on in recent years, seemed to have vanished. “Good to hear we can count on you to hit the polls come election day and make the right choice for all of Creation.”
The farmer stared blankly at Roger, as did the cows.
He asked: “When’s that again?”
The old-timer turned around in time to see the reporters reach the fence and did a lumbering sort of double-take. “Sorry, ladies,” he said, tilting his head toward the gun. “Only if I’da know you was with him…”
“Forget it,” said the woman at the center. Intense, focused, shark-like, she pushed through the other women, past the farmer and over the cows. “Mr. Dodd,” she said. “Maria Stenson. We’ve met before, actually.”
Dodd’s eyes widened. He felt Roger notice.
Stenson’s eyelashes took up more space on her head than her actual eyeballs. When she blinked, they resembled butterflies perched on a flower. Her chipmunkish cheeks rose as her wide mouth opened, revealing the gap in her front teeth. “I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions?”
Dodd stood there, frozen.
“My brother here is not taking questions at this time,” said Roger Bulkiss, seasoned in the ways of press wrangling. “C’mon, Gid.” He put an arm around the preacher, turned him around and steered him back toward the hotel some fifteen minutes’ walk away.
“Thanks for keeping us from getting shot!” Maria called to the back of Dodd’s head.
“Thanks for lookin’ out for us little guys!” the farmer said.
“We’ll grab lunch sometime then?” Maria said, even louder, almost mockingly so. “I’ll buy, of course. Consider it my offering?”
Dodd’s hands found the arm of his dead wife’s brother and clasped it. “We need a new hotel,” he said so only Roger could hear.
“And I want to meet your guy soon as possible.”
Roger’s mouth twitched.
“And I’m hungry. Where’s your Waffle House?”
Roger stopped, faltering a little against Dodd’s continued steps. “Hm? Oh. A ways away.”
In fact, the Waffle House suddenly felt very far away indeed.