VIII. A Vain Man through Pride Causeth Debate
It was small, this little playhouse stage. Big enough to put on Our Town but certainly not The King and I. Two podiums were on either side, flanked by the drawn and roped curtains.
Dodd looked around, heart pounding, forehead damp and chilly.
But no one else was out here yet.
A light smattering of applause greeted him. About a dozen people occupied some of the seats in the first few rows. One guy hung around in the back, sleeping or maybe dead.
Onstage cameras stood on tripods angled toward the podiums; a few more were scattered throughout the house.
In the middle of the front row was a small woman with curled white hair and a flowery dress divvied up by the thick belt around her waist. There was a foldout card table before her, a little cheapie microphone and stand wobbling on its warped surface. A stack of papers lay beneath her folded hands.
Concentrating on the microphone, apparently vexed by it, she tapped the mouthpiece and screwed up her pruny lips.
“Mm, hm?” she said, and her puny voice reverberated throughout the dingy theater. Satisfied with the sound she looked up at the stage, settled her gaze on Gideon Dodd, and slumped forward. Eyes widening, she said, “Oh.” She swung her head side to side as a murmur blossomed from the small crowd. “It’s really you.”
The gathered observers leaned toward one another, and Gideon heard his own named whispered, carried to him in a low soft rumble. The unconscious man, wrapped up in a soiled trench coat, stirred, restless, a little annoyed.
“Hello, everyone,” Dodd said. No stutter, no a-hem. Onstage talking to folks, looks of wonder and admiration twinkling up at him: right at home for this televangelist.
“My Opponent appears to be late,” he said, and felt a smirk spread beneath his mustache. “But then, punctuality never was a virtue, so far as He’s concerned.”
Timid chuckles rose up from the seats — and small squares of blue light. Most of the audience had summoned their phones, bapping away at their screens with fervent thumbs and forefingers.
“Well, we’ve spent most our lives waiting on Him,” Dodd said, feeling his own voice grow deeper, more resounding, as atrophied vocal chords and confidence built up their strength. “We can give Him another minute.”
More laughs. Dodd didn’t turn his back but rather sidled cattywampus to the podium stage left. He took his place there, found a little plastic cup of water and sipped, looking to his side and the empty dais.
There, slightly angled on the inclined surface of the podium, was an almost comical, sort of insultingly placed bonsai plant in a rusty pot. Dodd sighed.
Nobody’s comin’, he thought. Am I crazy for even bein’ up here?
Dodd ducked at the sound. A bomb! The crowd gasped at the sudden white flash of light, and the preacher shielded the top of his head with his forearms. A crackling like a newly wetted bowl of Rice Krispies emanated nearby, but it wasn’t until he heard the amazed oohing and aahing of the people that he peeped between his ulnas.
The bonsai was on fire.
Not the podium, the curtains, nor the stage: not even the pot or the soil. Just the bonsai plant.
And, Dodd saw, mouth dropping open under the weight of a numbed tongue — the houseplant itself wasn’t even truly on fire. Whitish flames only sort of danced around it.
The plant itself was intact, not consumed by the fire but living, thriving, glowing inside it.
And without aid of a microphone, or even decent theatrical acoustics, the bonsai spoke.
Gideon Dodd, it said.
Dodd’s hands trembled momentarily, a sensation he’d not felt since he attempted drinking coffee back in the nineties. Determined, he gazed upon the burning bonsai and found he could not bear to look into the concentrated blaze straight on. Cupping a row of fingers over his brow, he stared just past it, where Kratz hung in the wings, showing him a pair up upturned thumbs.
And Dodd said, “Here I am.”
Take off your Birkenstocks, the bonsai plant boomed, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.
As the group of shaken watchers, sniffling and whimpering, scrambled to tear off their own shoes, Dodd looked down at the floorboards between his feet. It looked a little splintery. Something sticky sucked on the sole of his sandal.
“I’d rather not,” he said.
The plant burned brighter, a veritable star there in the holy ground of the community theater — where not just two weeks ago a librarian named Bertha Normand had collapsed during an amateur production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
REMOVE YOUR SANDALS, GIDEON DODD. The only thing audible over the roar of the fire.
“I’m good,” Dodd said. “Really.”
The flame ebbed, shrank. Popped and snapped, patient.
Remembering the mic, Dodd spoke into it: “Is that really You?” He tilted his head, squinting.
I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the bonsai said.
“But,” and Dodd dropped the microphone, “that’s not really You. A representation, okay. But You aren’t in the room with us. Not really.”
A long pause, and in the flicker and fluidity of the fire, Dodd thought he recognized the quality of someone thinking very hard. Them gears turnin’.
In the bonsai plant’s stalling, the theater doors scraped and wailed open. Four, five, half a dozen new onlookers slipped in, sat down, muttering behind hands.
We are here to stage a debate, are we not? The bonsai flame pulsed.
Dodd gathered himself, nodding. “Right,” he said, and repeated it into the mic. “Right. In a fair and open election, the people of the world have a right — and us, a duty — to fair and complete information and evaluation. So thanks for being here, Heavenly Father, from me and the rest of your flock.”
Don’t mention it.
The little woman at the front-and-center card table gave a startled jolt. The glasses hanging around her neck she now lifted shakily to perch upon her slim nose. Two twitching fingers wiped the corners of her mouth, and she clutched the edge of the table. She cleared her throat and made a job of it, and then she spoke. Vibrating speakers repeated her as she blearily found the words on her papers and parroted them, nervous and unrehearsed.
“Good evening,” she croaked, “from the Littleton County Senior Citizen Players’ Theater.” She inhaled, little bunny sniffs. “I’m Diana Hough-Rampone, and I welcome you to the first debate for God’s Throne.” She licked her lips, her fingertip, and flipped to a fresh page. “Between the incumbent God and pastor Gideon Dodd of Baltimore, Maryland. I remind the audience in the hall to remain silent.”
She coughed once, a deep wet one, into her bent arm.
“So let’s get right to it,” she said. “Um.” Her eyes froze a moment, transfixed on the heavenly houseplant. Waggling the flaps of skin on her neck, she managed to snap herself out of this and trudged on.
“The first question is for the incumbent. There’s been some confusion, these past few centuries, as to which god we are meant to invoke in prayer, sing to in worship, and devote our lives to.” The papers flapped in her quivering hands. “So the question, then, is: Who is the true god? Who created us, who watches over us from above, and what may we call Him? Is it Adonai? Jehovah? Yahweh? Gee-hyphen-dee? Our Father — or just plain old ‘God?’ If elected to carry on Your work, will You, in good faith,” she twitched at the shoulders, “adopt and enact a title to clear up this confusion that has plagued us for so long?”
Yellow sparks fluttered from the flame like celestial dandruff. The branches gave a little twinge, and Dodd’s ears filled with a low, rumbling hum.
Stalling, he thought.
I am that I am, the bonsai intoned.
The woman looked from the vegetable to her papers, as though some scripted response to this must be there.
“But,” she said, “okay. But for those watching at home, could You…” A weird mewling sound emitted from her flappy throat. “Could you tell us Your name?”
I am that I am, the leafy stalk repeated.
Dodd chuckled. Shook his head.
“Maybe we should call my opponent ‘Popeye,’” he said, and winked at the crowd to mild, appreciative titters tinged with taboo.
The moderator licked her lips; the scraping sound of her dry tongue echoed throughout the theater.
“Follow-up question,” she said, “for Mr. Dodd. If elected God, what will you ask the human population to call you?”
“Oh, just plain old Gideon,” Dodd said, flashing his pearly whites. “Mr. Dodd, if you’re traditional.”
There were considerable murmurs of approval in the room. The doors wailed open again, allowing a dozen or so new spectators into the playhouse.
“Listen,” Dodd said, rounding the podium to show his lower half to the crowd, “my opponent — and I call Him that because I ain’t sure what else to call Him — well, He’s got a bit of an identity crisis, and that ain’t been good for the people, has it? I mean, who are you, sir?” He craned his neck to look at the pot but spare his eyes the sting of the fire. “Are you Father? Son? Or Holy Ghost?”
I am All Three, the bonsai said, of course.
“Sure,” Dodd said, folksy in the extreme, “that ain’t confusin’ at all.”
The crowd laughed its unsure laugh again.
“Mr. Dodd,” the woman said, “you answered your question. There is no need to tease your opponent.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” Dodd said, and bowed in supplication, returning to his podium. The woman blushed.
“Not at all,” she said in the bask of his glowing grin. “The next question is for you, Mr. Dodd.”
“Gideon,” Dodd said.
She giggled, shedding forty years of age in doing so. “All right, Gideon: Our next topic is eternal punishment. Many feel that a policy of such strict and stern retribution — namely, hellfire and torture everlasting — is inhumane in the extreme. And many argue this practice is unevenly distributed: While murderers and rapists are subjected to an afterlife of burning pokers and iron maidens, so are folks who tell off their mom and dad, or fib here and there to get by.” She folded her hands in a tight ball on the table. “What would your policy be regarding judgment and justice upon leaving the mortal plane, if elected? You have two minutes.”
Dodd took a sip of water and nodded, eyes downcast.
“A tough nut to crack, indeed,” he said. “A hot button issue if ever there was one.” He hoisted a finger into the air. “And one I’ve given a great deal of careful thought to. Under my care, we’d develop a more fair and balanced system of judgment. After death, each individual soul would be reviewed and sentenced by committee based upon the merit of his or her own unique set of good and bad deeds. All of ‘em. They’ll be given an angel lawyer of the Heavenly Court to plead their case, pro bono.”
That would be grievously expensive, interjected the bonsai.
“You’ll have your chance at rebuttal,” Diana Hough-Rampone snapped. “Let Mr. Dodd speak.”
“My Opponent is misinformed,” said Dodd. “It’s far more costly to fund these elaborate torture devices and employ billions of imps and demons to man them than it is to appoint due counsel and give every soul their day in court.
“And my plan’s the right thing to do — cost be darned. No pun intended, ma’am.”
The moderator and the audience — still growing — chuckled at this little joke.
“Heavenly Father,” said Diana, “your response?”
My opponent knows not of which he speaks, God said through his plant familiar. That all sounds wonderful, to be sure. But do you not understand the sheer number of souls whom require judgement each and every minute of the day? Who should oversee these “committees,” that they not show favor or mete out spiteful aspersions over mere mortal pettiness? There is no “fair and balanced” but I — no right, no justice — but I! Black and white. Day and night. Up and down. These are the Laws of Existence which I, My Own Self, enacted after millennia of debate and consideration.
Absolutes are the only order. Shades of gray cast doubt. There are laws. Sacred laws. Obey them, or perish. It is divinely simple: The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget Me!
The bonsai shook one tiny leaf.
I don’t know about you, but I find that comforting.
There followed a silence thicker than pound cake. What broke it was a tinny click as someone snapped a photograph on her iPhone.
“Ohh-kay,” Diana said. “That was… illuminating, Lord.” Obnoxious shuffling of papers into her mic gave the room the ambiance of a beach, of rolling waves. “Any rebuttal, Mr. Dodd?”
“Only that I wouldn’t throw you in a pit of fire for eating a hamburger on a Friday,” Dodd said.
“Next question,” Diana said, and she was getting into it now: she’d stopped shaking, and her voice had taken on a deeper, more authoritative tone. “For the incumbent.
“If re-elected, what would you do about your failed creations? Would you roll back production of stink bugs, mosquitoes, Canadian geese? Would you regulate the volume capacities of the domestic dog’s bark, so we can all sleep when our neighbors let Fido out for a wee in the wee hours?”
I do not make mistakes. The fire engulfing the plant took on a red tinge.
“I’m sorry,” Diana said, lowering her glasses to peep over them. “You said you… don’t make mistakes?”
That is right.
“Just checking,” she said. “Mr. Dodd: Rebuttal?”
But I’m not—
“Two minutes are up.”
That was not two minutes.
“Sorry. Mr. Dodd?”
Dodd theatrically checked his watch and held it up for the crowd. “I think you’ll find mine’s still working, Ms. Hough,” he said, and allowed the tinkling of amusement to brush his ears. “Thank you.”
He paced round and round the podium, gripping tight. “I’d immediately halt manufacture of these flawed creations,” he said, “if elected. If every creature is to serve its purpose, let’s make sure it really is. Why not? Heck! Let’s evaluate that purpose, let’s make sure it’s even doin’ any good, or what’s the point? Stink bugs?” He pointed at the leafy branch. “Shame on You!”
Dodd took out a crumply Puffs-Plus-Lotion from his pocket and dabbed under his neck. “And if any creature’s not servin’ a purpose, let’s put ‘em to work! The wasps and hornets could stand to pollinate some flowers. Bees work too darn hard, and there’s no excuse. No mistakes? Shame. Shame on You.”
The audience erupted in applause such as the Littleton County Senior Citizen Players’ Theater had never seen.
“All right,” Diana said, shaking her head, “all right. Enough! Hold your applause for the end of the debate.”
Chin on one palm, she looked up at Dodd once more. “Anything else?”
It must have been two minutes by now, the houseplant thundered. He gets fifteen minutes, I get thirty seconds. This is a circus.
“Everyone gets the same time,” Diana said. Dodd smirked and rolled his eyes, jabbing a thumb at his adversary’s pulpit. More laughs spilled forth from the crowd, now so large it had become “standing room only” in the theater.
“Do you have a response?” said the old woman.
I don’t have to explain stink bugs to you, said the crackling twig. But you tell me: What great purpose, in the cosmic sense, does a human being fulfill that these other creatures cannot?
Dodd closed his eyes, swooped a finger round his temple and shook his head, smiling. A few people in the house booed and jeered. “He just don’t get it, folks,” Dodd said. “Easy to say things like that from behind your golden gates, at the head of the heavenly elite.”
Somebody threw a battery at the potted plant. It bounced off without fanfare and rolled backstage.
“We may come back to that,” said Hough-Rampone. “For now let’s move on.” She used a wet thumb to turn the page and dropped open her mouth, licking below her lips as far as her tongue could extend. With some relish, she asked: “What do you plan to do about those who carry out atrocities in your name?”
Do about what?
“You’ve not spoken out publicly against acts of terror committed in your name. Not once have You gone on record saying the Crusades were a bad idea, or that blowing up buildings while shouting praise to You is deplorable. Do you have any condemning remarks for, or a plan to deal with, such criminals?”
Who wrote these questions?
“He doesn’t have a plan,” said Dodd.
“You’ll have your turn, sweetie,” Diana said. “Lord: an answer.”
Right. The plant’s tiny branches curled up and down. The flame, which had grown a deep red, now dulled into a pale, peachy orange. Right, the bonsai said again. Well, first off, those individuals are punished.
“But no more severely than someone who steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister?” said Diana Hough-Rampone, who was in the midst of rehearsals for an all-senior production of Les Miserables.
Black and white—
“This is sad,” Dodd said. A few audience members clapped.
You speak out of turn!
“Mr. Dodd.” Diana wagged her finger playfully.
“Sorry. But I think these fine people,” and he waited for applause, forgetting the house rules forbade it — but he was not disappointed — “these fine people deserve an explanation on this very sensitive issue. Why won’t my opponent condemn these actions?”
I have. If you would listen—
“If someone hurt anybody on my behalf, I would make it absolutely clear—”
I have made it clear—
“— that this behavior is inexcusable and unbecoming of the Throne of the Heavenly Father!”
YOU PLEASURE YOURSELF TO BABYSITTER PORNOGRAPHY!
The plant erupted in a fireworks-esque bang and was gone. In its wake were thick wisps of smoke and a slightly singed podium top.
No one moved. A hundred people in that room might not have even been breathing. Diana Hough-Rampone spilled her papers; they fluttered in a loose swirling mass about her.
Dodd couldn’t move. He spoke into open air, the mic hanging at his hip.
“That… That’s not true,” he said.
He mustered the strength to put the microphone to his mouth. “He made that up,” he said. “That ain’t true. That ain’t…” He trailed off.
Kratz rushed the stage in a single fluid motion, swooping one arm under Dodd’s and the other around the preacher’s shoulders. “Offstage,” he said. Dodd’s feet shuffled across the stage floor as the advisor dragged him across with surprising strength and control. “Time to go.”
More sounds of phone cameras snap, snap, snapping. And laughter — of a different sort. A growing susurrus of mumbling and jackets being reapplied signaled the exodus of the gathered masses in seats, lining the aisles, craning their necks at the doors. Soon the only person left would be the snoozing man in the trenchcoat.
It was over.
And that was the first debate.
IX. Behold, a Crowd Came
“That was supremely stupid.”
In the tiny dressing room beneath the theater, Dodd sat frowning and mopping his face at a vanity mirror. He was stripped down to his skivvies, his debating suit a crumpled damp heap on the floor.
Kratz stood hovering over him, whapping him on the back of the head with a thick stack of note cards covered in his scribblings and notations. Kratz’s massive dog sat in the corner next to a fern, quite still and looking like an ancient Chinese hound carving.
“If you’d just taken these—” WHAP “—like I said—” WHAP “—we woulda’ had Him!” WHAP! “I spent all night preparing foolproof talking points and rebuttals for you! And you, you cocky ass…!”
“He lied,” Dodd said. “About that… that babysitter thing. I don’t watch pornography. I don’t even have HBO.”
“Uh-huh.” Kratz threw his cards against the wall and the neat stack burst in the air like a water balloon.
“You believe me, right? He made that up.” Dodd looked at the man’s pacing reflection in the mirror.
“You can stop with that shit right now,” Kratz said.
Dodd’s face fell into his hands. He breathed.
“How could He know?” he said.
“You are kidding, right?” Kratz hopped onto the vanity counter, crossed a leg. “The Supreme Ruler of the Universe don’t need to hack your browser history or hire a homeless person to rummage through your trash to find out your dirty little secrets, Gideon Dodd. He just fuckin’ knows.” He bit off a fingernail and spat it out. It landed on the y-front of Dodd’s briefs, yellow against white.
Kratz dug fingertips into his scalp again, wiggled loose his tidy locks.
“I was really looking forward to this campaign,” Kratz said. He snatched up one of the sweat-soggy napkins on the vanity and blew his nose into it. “Ah, well. That’s it.”
“Cashin’ in my chips,” said Kratz. “If you’da used my prompts we’d be singin’ a different tune, but now, baby, strike up the organist because it’s ‘I Surrender All.’”
“That used to be my favorite hymn.”
“Shut up.” Kratz slipped off the counter, landed, and grabbed a satchel. He tossed it to the preacher man. “Get dressed,” he said. “Now we go home in shame.” The dog rose to all fours, its little nubbin tail attempting to wag. Kratz scratched its chin, which came level with his sternum. Wiry canine muscles rippled and pulsed in pleasure under the beast’s thin coat.
“Can’t believe it.” Dodd stepped into cotton pants. “It was goin’ so well. Did you hear my thing about the bees?”
But Kratz had his back to him now, and stayed that way.
They collected James and Ellie in the green room munching popcorn. The girl wouldn’t meet her daddy’s eye, and the boy was shaking, as sweaty as his poppa. He said, “Dad?” and the pastor pretended not to hear him, just poked them both between the shoulder blades in the direction of the alley exit. Dodd hardly registered the rattling of the door, the rumbling outside.
But then Kratz threw the door open and all five of them almost fell backward at the eruption of clamoring and shouting in the alley.
At least a dozen dozens of people were packed in between the brick walls, pushing and clawing each other to reach the forefront of the group. A litany of posterboards and makeshift signs rolled like sea waves.
At the door’s opening, everyone cried out.
Fearing a lynching, Dodd pushed his twin children behind him. He looked to Kratz at his shoulder, hoping for some guidance. The car was at the far end of the street. They’d never make it.
The dog bared its teeth, spread its legs for firm footing. Then Dodd saw Kratz lay a palm on its head to soothe it.
He was smiling.
These weren’t the jeers and war cries of an angry mob.
These were cheers.
These were hip-hip-hoo-rays.
Dodd inspected the signage ocean before him:
IN DODD WE TRUST
WE BELIEVE IN YOU, NOT HIM
I’LL BE YOUR BABYSITTER, G.D.
WE NEED A BETTER SAVIOR
And so on.
Kratz moved at his side, mouth quivering with an apparent snide remark upon it. But all he said in Dodd’s ear was, “Ah-ha,” with an air of surrender.
The crowd clapped and hollered, whistled and hummed. It was like any other day at the church, except it wasn’t. This ovation was quite unlike any Dodd had experienced behind the pulpit.
This applause wasn’t for God’s Word.
It wasn’t for the preacher’s readings from scripture or Christian advice.
This applause was for Gideon Dodd — and only for Gideon Dodd.
He waved a hand.
James hugged his leg from behind.
From the anarchic susurrus came a sense of order as the people transitioned into a steady, rhythmic chant:
Kratz nudged past him, saying, “Excuse me,” and slipped into the throng. Dodd could just make him out, charming some college-age girl with a wink and a five-dollar bill. She handed over her homemade sign, and Kratz returned to the elevated doorway with it. Two wiry arms shot over his head, and the poster beamed down at the people in neon hues of Crayola:
DODD FOR GOD
“I don’t understand,” Dodd said to himself. “I thought they hated me.”
“They hate themselves,” Kratz said. Dodd hadn’t expected him to hear. “How could I have forgotten that?” The tall man sighed and smiled. Then he straightened up and rose to even greater heights on tip-toes.
“God is dead!” Kratz screamed animalistic, a shrill ululation pounding from behind his throat.
“Long live Gideon Dodd!”
A few car alarms went off in the following explosion of support.
“Vote for Dodd!” Kratz said. “Together, we will remake this universe! Paradise has been withheld from us for too long! ON ELECTION NIGHT, WE WILL TAKE IT BACK!”
The cheering seemed to be coming from everywhere, too loud to be the product of a hundred or so. Dodd realized that this gathering must be winding around the block, far beyond his line of vision.
The dog wedged itself between Dodd’s and Kratz’s hips, and James and Ellie fell back and out of sight. The hound barked and licked Dodd’s hand.
Dodd leaned over with his lips at the advisor’s ear. “When is election night?”
Kratz licked his teeth. “We’ll figure that out,” he murmured behind an upturned hand.
“Should I say a few words?”
Kratz laughed once. DODD FOR GOD hung over the pair of them. For a second, Dodd could imagine that the creased, handmade sign successfully blocked him from view of any peeping overlords staring down from the heavens.
“I reckon,” Kratz said, “you’ve said enough for one night.”
He squeezed Dodd’s bicep, and together they stepped down. The mob parted for them like the Red Sea. Hot breath and runny mascara, flapping gums and lolling tongues assaulted his senses. Hands grabbed him in places both mentionable and unmentionable.
It was love.
Kratz’s canine led the pack. The children held onto their father’s shirttail like a wedding train.
In a fleeting eternity, they were back in the car. They sat in silence, collecting their breath, for a minute or two.
“Did you feel that?” Kratz said, as the engine wheezed to life.
“Yes,” Dodd said.
“I was being rhetorical.” Kratz switched the car into drive and the vehicle crept forward. “What’d you feel?”
James and Ellie winced, perhaps at the man-sized dog fidgeting in their laps, attempting comfort.
“I felt the earth tremble,” Dodd said.
“I felt God shakin’ in His boots.”