IV. I Will Spue Thee out of My Mouth
They met not at any Waffle House but an Arby’s where two highways crossed. Dodd went alone, driving a rental car. He put on a red baseball cap and sunglasses before he went in. Now was not a good time to stop for selfies with his fans or — worse — have the press show up again. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and kept his head down, opening the glass doors to the restaurant with a push of the shoulder.
He went inside.
Ding, ding! Bong, bong!
Dodd yelped. This loud, incessant clanging struck up the moment his first toe touched the grimy tile. Like a dinner bell on a farm.
“Look who it is!” someone shouted. A man, tall and skinny, wearing blue jeans and a thin red windbreaker over flannel, stood at the other set of doors beyond the service counter and soda machines. With one hand he clutched a paper Arby’s cup, and the other he used to ring a bell drilled into the wall next to the door. Above the bell was a plaque that read: Ring if you got great customer service!
Dodd took a step back, bumping into glass. He lowered the bill of his hat.
“It’s Gideon Dodd!” the man shouted, jabbing his cup forward, splashing brown onto the floor. “Looky there! Dodd, Dodd, Dodd, the next God!” He cackled and sucked on his soda.
Business carried on as usual. Patrons continued their orders uninterrupted, cashiers prodded buttons, and diners kept munching on their curly fries.
Dodd marched over to the fellow and put a hand on the bell to silence it.
“What’re you doin’?” He bared his teeth. “They’re gonna mob me! Please. Stop!”
The man laughed — threw his head back and just went to town. He took a pair of long, slender fingers and tapped Dodd’s wrist, causing his hand to fall from the bell. Mr. Windbreaker rang it once more and shouted:
“Hey, everyone! I got The Clap! Lookit me! Over here! Chlamydia Central!”
And still, nobody even bothered to look up. Fast-food ambiance of mild chatter, sizzling skillets, and beeping fryer vats went on.
The tall man ruffled his own jet-black hair, making a rat’s nest of a previously perfect coif. He put an arm around Dodd’s shoulder.
“First lesson, Mr. Dodd,” he said, and leaned in conspiratorially, dropping his voice to a hush. “In America, there are places — like this Arby’s, like this crossroads, like this town — places so unremarkable that their occupants simply can’t fathom, can’t even imagine something remarkable happening there.”
“You’re Roger’s guy,” Dodd said, sighing relief.
“Kratz,” the man said, and held out his hand. “Some call me Lucky. But to be straight with you, I fuckin’ hate that.” The two of them shook.
Dodd winced. Language. “Kratz,” he said. “Okay.”
“C’mon,” Kratz said. “Let me buy you a milkshake and some jalapeño poppers.”
Minutes later found them sitting at a booth, in the shade of a tree that somehow survived inside the building. Dodd wondered absently if it was fake, and then wondered if it even mattered.
“So you’re Roger’s brother,” Kratz said, rolling the straw in his cup over his strangely pointed tongue.
“Brother-in-law,” Dodd said.
“Sure, sure,” Kratz said. “Y’know, you’ve made quite a splash. It’s been a very long time, biblically speaking, since anybody stood up to God like that.”
Dodd peeled the breading off a jalapeño. He squirted the cream cheese stuffing out of the pepper onto the fried crust, dropped the vegetable onto paper wrapping, and ate the fried batter and cream cheese. “I guess,” he said.
“Traditionally, such a challenge ends in disaster,” said Kratz.
Dodd licked his lips.
“Eating the Apple? Tower of Babel? Sodom-slash-Gomorrah? The Golden fucking Calf?” Kratz balled up a fist and tapped Dodd gently on the temple. “Ringing any bells?” He laughed. “Besides the one nailed to the wall?”
“That’s all Old Testament,” Dodd said. His voice was soft, muffled by creamed breading.
“Aw, nothing much’s changed since then,” Kratz said. “How’s your milkshake?”
“Very good.” Dodd said.
Kratz leaned forward. “You know,” he said, making delicate work of resting the tips of overlong fingernails on the ketchup-stained tabletop, “we’ve met before.”
Dodd stirred his milkshake. His straw met with resistance from the concrete concoction. “Oh?”
“Yup,” Kratz’s mouth twitched. “Years ago. At one of your brother’s fundraisers.”
“Right.” Then Kratz clapped, suddenly enough to make Dodd jump. “Well, then,” he said, “you’re not here for your health. Let’s talk turkey. You want to debate Yahweh.”
“That’s right.” Dodd fumbled with the lid of his cup.
“I can get you a debate. That’s no problem.” He rubbed his hands over an invisible campfire. “But I want to be your campaign manager.”
“Oh.” Dodd had the lid off now, attempting to wedge the straw from its iron grip. “Well, I’ve already got one, is the thing. Wachstetter—”
“I met Wachstetter, too.” Kratz frowned. “He’s not a doer. Me, I’m a doer.”
“Well…” Clumps of jamocha dribbled from the straw into Dodd’s mouth and mustache.
“Lookit this. Lookit it.” Kratz reached beneath his rear and made a white binder appear. He dropped it with a thud and it skidded to Dodd’s side of the table. The pastor opened it.
Page after page were newspaper clippings. Victorious headlines, one after another:
Stern Wins House Seat
Jacobsen Takes Mayoral Election
Ruddermalk Goes All the Way to City Council Chair
Miss America Crowned: Congratulations, Mina!
Ollie Dumplin Sweeps Country Music Awards
And so on.
Kratz tapped the binder, his finger jabbing a very pretty comptroller in the eye. “All mine,” he said.
“Quite a résumé.” Dodd said. “Is Roger in here?”
“No.” The advisor snorted. “Tore him out.”
Dodd pushed the binder back to him.
“Keep it,” Kratz said. “Inspiration. And validation for when you give this Wachstetter the boot.”
“You’re loyal to your man. I get it. I respect it.” Kratz reached over the table and Dodd scooted back. The tall man snatched one of the preacher’s jalapeño poppers and bit into it. Cream cheese squirted from his lips like a popped boil.
“Isn’t that hot?” Dodd asked.
At this, Kratz’s pink lips fell open, and the half-chewed popper went plop on the formica, steaming.
“Damn, it is.” Kratz continued, rolling his tongue. “Okay, how’s this? I get you onstage in front of a moderator — with The Almighty right next to you — on live TV. What day is it?”
“Right. By Tuesday night you’re on an international broadcast, verbally sparring with the Creator, or you keep Wachstetter on board. But I make it happen, and from that point on I’m your man.” He swallowed and tousled his hair again. It had reshaped itself into a perfect muffin of slick tight tendrils. Mussed once more, it hung in unkempt strands over his long forehead.
He stuck out his hand.
“Do we have a deal?” he asked.
Dodd put down his milkshake, lid and straw perched ominously over the filthy table. He stared at Kratz’s hand, the long nails. Not gross or yellowed — manicured, certainly.
After a spell, he nodded.
“All right, Mr. Kratz,” he said. “Tuesday. You make it happen, you got yourself a deal.”
He thrust his hand forward to clasp the strategist’s. But Kratz flipped up a palm to block the pact.
“Just a second,” he said. “Before we make this official, I have to ask.” His windbreaker swooshed as he fidgeted. “You do want to be God, right?”
Dodd poked his chin, broke eye contact. He took a sharp breath and said, “If I’m needed, I will serve.”
Kratz exposed his teeth up to the gums. But he wasn’t smiling. He hissed. “No, see, that’s not gonna work for me.” Pinching the air with both hands, he squinted and smirked. “I need you to want it, Mr. Dodd. Because if you don’t want it, I start to wonder if your heart’s not in it. I start to wonder if I’m wasting my time, see?
“And when I look at you,” he said, “I see a man who ought to want it. I see a man who deserves it. Hell, I see a man who is owed nothing less than the Throne of the Almighty. You pray over the sick, you give to charity, you offer words of encouragement and empowerment to the weak and spineless. Every damn day.
“And what’s He done lately?” Kratz pointed upward.
Dodd rubbed the back of his neck. He became very interested the portfolio binder. Flipping through the résumé, through each triumphant headline, every smiling winner’s face, his mouth opened with caution. “I guess… The way I’d put it…” He could not quite hide the small smile creeping across his lips.
“I guess I’d say it would be a pleasure to… carry the burden.”
Kratz nodded. For a long time. Finally, he offered his hand again. “Okay,” he said. “Okay. I hear you.”
And they shook on it.
When the deal was, so to speak, sealed, Lucky Kratz gave a frat-boyish whoop and rose, his New Balance sneakers landing flat on the tattered pleather cushion of the booth. He stepped up onto the table, cupped his hands to his mouth, and bellowed:
“Hey! Up here! I pissed in the horsey sauce!”
Dodd cringed and sank into his seat. He looked around through his fingers. No one reacted to Kratz’s outburst at all.
Kratz kicked the milkshake from the table. It landed with a splat against the condiment station.
“Unremarkable,” he said.
Then he pointed down at Dodd and gave a grin so confident, so earned, that any doubt about the man’s sanity melted away.
“You and me, Mr. Dodd,” said Kratz. “We’ll get their attention.”
V. And My Eye Gazes on Their Provocation
The fancier the bathroom, the worse it smelled.
And this one was the fanciest. Eight years prior to meeting Kratz at the Arby’s, Gideon Dodd breathed through his mouth at a posh bathroom sink, hands cupped beneath a bronze swan’s open mouth. The swan vomited clean water into a tiny handheld pool that Dodd promptly splashed onto his flush face.
Stoic as a member of the Royal Guard, a bathroom attendant in white gloves stood to his side, teetering on the balls of his feet with a towel at the ready. Behind, a toilet flushed, a stall door swung open with a creak, and its occupant took the next sink over.
The man’s shirt was still untucked, the fly and button of his tuxedo pants still undone. He was tall, his face chalk-white, punctuated by a thin black goatee that would be gone in six years’ time. His pupils were the first thing Dodd noticed, dilated to a beady gerbil stare. The man ran a hand under his own water-puking swan until water poured out and let it cascade down his slender fingers, his long and shapely nails.
“You’re the preacher,” the man said. “From TV. Dodson?”
“Dodd,” said Dodd.
“Right, right,” the man said. “Congressman Bulkiss’s brother.”
“Sure.” The man kept his eyes on Dodd, extended an arm to his right. The attendant leapt into action, planting a towel in his dripping palm. He dried, dropped the towel to his feet, and slumped onto the countertop, grimacing. Dodd took a step back, watching as the man grunted and shook.
“Would you pray with me, Father?” he said.
“I’m no Father. Just Dodd.”
Convulsions of laughter added to the trembling that rocked the man’s shoulders and sides.
“All the same,” he said. “I’m in a bad way. Would you pray for me?”
“With or for?” Dodd’s words escaped him at a slug-like pace.
“You said pray ‘with’ you, before. Now you’re saying pray ‘for’ you. Which is it?”
The man’s demeanor snapped. Nervous giggles caved in to a sudden harsh slamming of fists on the counter. “I don’t give a shit!” he snarled. “A prayer! If you would, please.”
“Were you doing cocaine in there?” Dodd pointed at the stall. “Is that why your eyes…?” He frowned, figuring that was enough.
“The hell does it matter?”
“Because,” Dodd said, “I can’t help you if you don’t want to help yourself. Can you commit to helping yours—”
“Yes, yes, yes!” The tall, chalky fellow straightened up and prodded Dodd in the chest. “I renounce drugs, I will change the error of my ways, Jesus Christ, just say a fucking prayer over me!” He seized the preacher by the collar and pressed their noses together. “Pleasemisterdodd.”
It was amazing how still and steadfast that bathroom attendant was through all this.
Dodd breathed in. He nodded, a wobbly sort of bobblehead nod. He folded his hands over the clammy cold mitts at his neck. Lowered them, clasped them in his own like an impending game of Ring Around the Rosie was next. He closed his eyes.
And he prayed.
“Our Father,” he said, “who art in Heaven.”
“Hallelujah,” the stranger said.
“Hallowed be thy name.”
“Say Lawd, say Gawd-bomb.”
Dodd peeped one eye open. The man had his head thrown back, swaying it dreamily on his neck, the Adam’s Apple prodigious and bouncing in his throat.
Dodd continued. “We ask that you heal this man, O Lord…”
“Mmm-mmm!” the man said. “Say ayyy-men!”
“…and… and grant him control over his addiction and over his faculties.”
“Oh, yes, Jeezus, the faculties!”
There was an odd sound, like a cork being wedged from a wine bottle. Dodd realized this was the attendant, finally breaking character to snigger at them.
He cleared his throat. “Please, God, grant him peace and patience as he contends with the demons of… of drug dependency. And—”
“Not the demons, no!” The man squeezed Dodd’s hands, dug his long nails into Dodd’s palms. “Oh, I feel the Spirit of the Lord, Father— I mean not, not Father!” He swung the preacher’s arms like a senior in a swing dance class and swayed. “Oh, here it comes! Here it comes!”
Odd, foaming, guttural noises gurgled up from the back of his throat.
Dodd dropped the man’s hands. He thought his own would not warm up from the stranger’s ice-gold grip — not for a long time.
The man collapsed in a heap on the ground, doing a spot-on impression of a Tyrannosaurus Rex with a broken leg.
“Sir,” Gideon Dodd said, “you’re mocking me.”
The man ceased his rocking and his ululations, fell into supine hysterical laughter. “Sorry, Father,” he said. “It’s just— shit, I’m so high. I feel so good.”
“Well,” Dodd huffed, “I’m glad you’re having fun. Enjoy the banquet.”
He turned heel on the stranger, wiping his hands on his pant legs. The rude intruder called after him.
“Try the veal, Father. It’s remarkable.”
Dodd left him there with the stone-faced bathroom watchman. He rounded the marble corridor to an ornate pair of doors and pushed through them, still rolling his eyes and grunting disapproval.
Canvas posters lined the lavender papered walls, each bearing a heavily doctored photo of Tamera’s brother Roger. A dozen Rogers beamed down at Dodd at every step to his table. Beneath each one were block letters stating that “Bulkiss Gone and Done It!”
A waiter — could’ve been the attendant’s twin brother, say hallelujah — offered him champagne that he refused. Table after table he passed, each so full that sycophants and donors sat shoulder to shoulder, murmuring apparently important worldly things into each other’s ears and nibbling on bread. Dodd had to decline three more glasses of bubbly before he reached Tamera and his seat.
“My turn,” Tamera said, standing as he hunkered. Her gown, a new purchase, was an expensive number he’d gladly have paid twice for. Her earrings sparkled in candlelight, giving her a hundred floating earrings to match. Little fairies dancing round her head. Pocketbook tucked into her bare arm, she reminded him of some movie starlet, and he wanted to say so but thought better of it.
“If the waiter comes, I want the veal,” she said, and began her own long sojourn to the john.
No one at the table attempted conversation and that was fine. He wouldn’t have known what to say to these hotshots. Dodd watched the harpist for a minute. She was very good. Maybe he would hire her to open services. Would it be tactless to ask her rates?
“Mr. Dodd.” A woman’s voice, to his left.
In Tamera’s chair sat a different gal. A burgundy dress wrapped around her, bringing to mind a fashionable mummy until he saw the frilly crimson peacock wings ruffling her shoulders. And this one had no pocketbook: Nope, she squeezed between her pretty fingers a mini-tape recorder, already blinking its evil red eye.
“Some fundraiser, huh?” she said.
“Guess so,” said Dodd. He poked at the fanning napkin on his saucer.
“Always struck me as odd, how these politicians need so much money, yet have the cash to throw a shindig like this.”
The preacher looked just south of her green eyes. “They say it’s an investment,” he said.
“Well, you’d know something about raising funds, I suppose,” she said. “Keeping your mega-church afloat. Though I think if some of the people here gave ten percent of their earnings, Congressman Bulkiss could just buy the Capitol building and call it a day. Or — hell — Fort Knox, probably.”
“They’re very wealthy,” Dodd agreed. He sipped water.
“Maria Gutierrez,” said the reporter. She held out a hand. “San Antonio Gazette. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know much about politicking, miss,” said Dodd, and he took a big gulp and aah-ed audible refreshment. “Just here out of respect.”
“Oh, I’m not writing about your brother-in-law,” Maria said. A tiny blurred pimple appeared on her chin, then vanished, over and over: the blinking light of her recorder.
“A lot of folks do.”
“Oh, and he’s a story a day,” she said, taking Dodd’s water and sipping herself. She left a mouthprint, deep purple. “The escorts, the weird shit they say he does with Zagnuts, mob ties — including an actual necktie plant he’s invested in alongside known mafiosos. The list goes on and on with Roger Bulkiss of Maryland. And don’t get me started on his staff…”
She shot a disdainful look across the room and clucked her tongue. Dodd spun round in his chair and saw Tammy’s brother there, a glass of wine in each hand, swaying a little. Speaking into his ear was the man from the bathroom, the coke-addled maniac with the pencil-thin goatee.
“Who is that?” he asked.
“You really don’t know much about politicking,” Maria said, one eyebrow floating. “That’s Lucky Kratz,” she said in a tone one usually saved for their least-favorite band, or a neighbor’s dog that barked every 3:00 a.m. “Public relations advisor to the stars. The congressman’s campaign manager.”
“Odd fella,” Dodd said. Same tone.
He turned, shrugged, and gave the man not a single further thought — would forget him, in fact, in the kerfuffle that was to follow.
“But I’m not writing a story about Bulkiss and his cronies. Everyone’s doing that,” Gutierrez said.
She drained the rest of Dodd’s water and lifted the crystal glass, letting go but not looking. It landed squarely on a passing server’s tray.
“I’m writing a story about you.”
VI. …and He Habitually Dressed in Purple
“Rise and shine, my morning star.”
But it wasn’t morning. Dodd had lain down, just to rest his eyes, between paint coats on a model cronut bakery. That had been mid-afternoon. Now, through the open storage hauler door he could see moonlight.
Outside, a dog barked: something big, a Rottweiler or something.
“Upsy-daisy, now,” someone said, patting his cheek. Bleary-eyed, Dodd squinted and saw that Kratz was in the caravan with him. In a royal purple sweatsuit, he sat tenderly on the chair’s arm. Legs up, his sneakers pressed against the wood support frame on which Doddville rested and sprawled.
“Feet down!” Dodd said, squirming upright. His vision clouded; he felt drool on his chin.
Kratz obeyed, folding up into himself and standing.
“C’mon,” he said. “Don’t want to be late.”
“Late for what?” Dodd wiped his mouth. “What are you doing here? Who gave you the code?”
“‘Late for what?’” Kratz looked affronted. “Friendo, check a day planner lately?” He crossed his arms, grunting. “What day’s today?”
“Uh.” Dodd thought. Frankly, the days sort of blurred together anymore, given his current nomadic lifestyle — and that he hadn’t actually set foot in his church for so long.
“Tuesday!” Kratz smacked Dodd’s knee.
“Oh.” Dodd looked up at him.
“Your debate is tonight, ya’ dope.”
Dodd fell from the sofa, though there was little space to fall, and found himself wedged between Kratz’s shins and the chair.
“Wh-wh-ah-aht?” He sputtered, wriggled to his feet, and in the crowded quarters, found his nose nearly touching Kratz’s considerable larynx.
“I said I’d get you onstage with the Big Guy by Tuesday,” Kratz’s voicebox bobbled. “It’s Tuesday.” He turned. “Now I’ve got some suits for you in my Jeep. Real spiffy. Take a look.”
“B-but,” Dodd said, edging along the Doddville campus after him, “you never called. We haven’t spoken in— since—”
“Little busy,” Kratz said, hopping onto pavement, “y’know. Setting up your debate with God Almighty and all.”
Dodd followed him, groggily, onto the lot. He saw Kratz making his way toward a large red Jeep, all dirt-covered wheels, top down. Statuesque, an enormous dog sat in the back seat with regal posture, staring straight ahead. Clipped ears, a snout of fleshy folds, bulging muscles at the neck and shoulders: It didn’t acknowledge Kratz’s presence, even as he patted its head and called it a “good boy.” Just stared.
Dodd didn’t come any closer.
“And don’t worry,” Kratz said, “if you’re not prepared. I brought some notes. Talking points.” He leaned over the open-air Jeep’s passenger door and wrestled with plastic until he came up with three seemingly identical charcoal gray suits on hangers. “Some real doozy burns for your Opponent. Killer answers to questions the moderator’ll likely ask. Got you all set up, sir.”
He flashed a narrow-toothed grin. “Now,” he said, holding up the suits, “which one says ‘Ruler of All Creation’ to you?”
VII. Go with Confidence
They were half-jogging, jittery ghosts popping in and out of sight in the flickering lights beneath a local community theatre. Dodd had just had been flung through hair and makeup and now he, Kratz, and his children hustled through the concrete-walled corridors.
“Dad?” James tugged on his father’s suit jacket.
“Now, when you get out there,” Kratz said, panting, “you smile that Gideon Dodd smile. Dazzle ‘em. But don’t be smug about it.”
“This place is a dump,” Dodd said.
“It’ll make you look humble,” said Kratz. “Besides, it was all I could get. Everyone thinks we’re staging a play.”
“Never liked plays.”
James hollered: “Daaaad!”
“Of course not,” said Kratz. “Plays are awful. All that talking, all that drama.”
Ellie was in the lead, walking backwards, skipping, bouncing. “This is so weird,” she said. “You seriously think God’s gonna be on that stage with you?”
Dodd said nothing, looked straight ahead. The door leading upstairs and backstage was close enough now to throw a rock at.
“Oh, He’ll be here, kid,” said Kratz.
Dodd covered his mouth. His eyes tattled on the smile there.
“Oh!” Kratz snapped his fingers. “Almost forgot. My talking points.” He slipped a hand into his hooded sweatshirt and it emerged with a thick stack of note cards in it. “Now these’ll really throw the Old Fella through a loop. They’re color-coded, now, so—”
“Don’t need ‘em,” Dodd said.
Dodd joined Ellie at the door, pushed it open, began climbing the stairs.
“Don’t need ‘em,” he said again. He tapped his temple. “Got plenty of talking points right here, Kratz.”
“What, James?” Dodd whirled around, huffing, and leaned in to meet his boy eye-to-eye. “What?” he asked again, softer this time.
“Don’t go up there,” said James. “I don’t want you to go up there. I don’t like this.”
“Dork,” said Ellie.
Dodd pointed at Ellie, but kept looking at James. The girl hushed. The boy whimpered.
“Please, Dad?” he said. “I don’t like this.”
Dodd opened his mouth, inhaled. Kratz flipped through his note cards like a poker deck, humming.
“James,” said the preacher man, and he put a hand on his son’s shoulder. He got real close and smiled — a father’s smile.
“I have to,” he said. The tooth hanging around his neck dangled between them.
He turned to carry on scaling the steps. Kratz, keeping pace, waggled the cards. “If you’d just take them out there with you—”
“No, thanks,” said Dodd.
But it was too late. They’d reached the top of the stairs. Ellie giggled, and James sniffled, and Kratz grumbled as Gideon Dodd tucked his dead wife’s tooth into his collar, ran a hand through his frizzy hair, and patted a patient stagehand on the back as he grabbed a wireless microphone.
And then, Gideon Dodd stepped out onto the stage.