“Get down from there, Boogie.”
Somewhere in Utah a budgie perches upon a shower curtain rod, shrouded in the vapor clouds swirling above a bathtub full of water, lavender, and sixty-eight year-old, white male flesh.
The man in the tub repeats himself, stern and authoritative:
“C’mon down, Boogie-Man. Sit on Pappy’s shoulder?”
The budgie does not budge.
“Fine. Be that way.”
The man claps, and the lights go out, leaving only a few tea candles to illuminate the room scantily. He closes his eyes and sinks into the bubble bath, letting the musical stylings of Johnny Mathis wash over him as much as the water.
The music is cranked so high, he almost doesn’t hear the telephone ring.
Though he does hear it, he does not stir. There is no need.
His assistant sidles through the open bathroom door, a wireless receiver in one hand. The admin — a creature so scrawny and bland that his boss often forgets to think of him as a person — holds out the phone to his bathing elder with an astonished, breathless expression.
“It— it’s the Vatican, sir.”
“Surely not!” The older man sits up, water sloshing onto a fuzzy bathmat curled upon the tile. Boogie the Budgie flaps its wings but otherwise remains stationary. “Must be a joke. Hand it here, Vincent.”
His assistant places the telephone in the sopping man’s pruny hand. Wiping his eyes, the white-haired naked fellow places the receiver between his ear and shoulder and speaks:
“You’ve reached the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” He gives Boogie a longing, distant look, licks his lips and listens. “Yes,” he said. “This is he.”
The P.A. averts his eyes from his employer’s hairless chest and protruding pink belly.
“Mmm-hmm,” his boss says. “Yes, yes, I’m aware of the situation.” He holds a knuckle to his nose and schnots over the side of the tub. “Right. Right.
He flings an arm out toward the door and sends a wing of water across the admin’s waist. The older man puts a hand over the phone and hisses: “Turn that music down, son!”
The younger, dryer one crosses over into the parlor to comply. From that room he can hear his master in the bathroom, quaking voice echoing in the watery depths of his steamy scented cave.
“Well, I’d wondered if a meeting would be called. Of course, Heavenly Father and I have had long and arduous conversations on this very matter. As you know, I have His ear as His favorite Earthly confidante…
“Well, that’s your opinion.”
He sniffs and snorts.
“Of course. And the others?
“I see. Well, then. This is very serious, isn’t it?”
The assistant waves hands over his dampened lap, trying not to eavesdrop in spite of himself. The rest of the stateside half of this conversation reaches him without any strain to his ears.
“That’s very kind of you. First class. My, my.
“Well, of course I can’t say ‘no’ to that. And I haven’t seen old Fauntleroy in ages.
“Very good. You bet your bippy, yessir. I’ll see you in one week.”
There is some sloshing, the beating of tiny wings, a gurgling of the belly and a soft burp. Then the senior of the present pair calls out:
“Come take this phone!”
And his assistant does. His employer lies back in the foamy water and seems to be speaking to the ceiling.
“That was His Holiness himself,” he says.
His assistant splutters, chokes a little on his own saliva.
“Calling you, sir? That seems — unorthodox.”
“Nothing the Pope does is unorthodox, you goober. Now, please clear my schedule for next week. I’ll be out of country. And I suppose you’d better pack a bag, too.”
“Where are we going?”
“The Vatican. Were you not paying attention?”
The bird gives a soft peep and flutters down elegantly onto the soaked fellow’s shoulder.
“Ah, there’s my Boogie.” He holds out a fingertip, which the parrot gladly nibbles for sport.
“The Vatican! Golly! Why are we going half a world away?”
“It’s this Dodd character.” The man covered in bubbles pecks his bird on the top of the head, and a proud poppa he is. “Looks like we’re gonna have to put the band back together, do something about all this hoopla. And they want the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints there. Can you blame them? So to Rome I go.”
The bathing body undulates a little beneath the froth of essential oils.
“I think it’s gonna get nasty, Vincent. Do you have the stomach for it, if it turns nasty?”
“I— I don’t really know, sir.”
“Well,” the man says, “you’re about to find out. Now leave me. I must speak with Heavenly Father.”
So the younger man leaves. As he does, the budgie squeals. This shrill, avian ejaculation echoes round the steamy chamber — staccato bursts of noise not unlike a human being in very severe and sudden agony.
I. Cursed is the Ground Because of You
In those glory days before the Baltimore Observer went digital-only, Gideon Dodd took his paper and his coffee and his bacon together, wrapped up in a bathrobe and slippers — as many red-blooded American men of his generation.
But one morning about eight years before his fateful first debate with the Almighty, there was no paper folded at his Folgers.
He bent over to slurp some joe and called out: “Tammy?”
And there she was, one hand behind her back, at the pantry, biting a row of pearly nails. “Hey, baby,” she said. “Coffee strong enough?”
“It’s fine. Where’s the Observer?”
“Uh, well. Why don’t you sit down?”
Gideon did. Trying to catch his wife’s eye, he said, “What’s goin’ on, shoog? Sit with me. Have some breakfast.”
“I will. I just—” She breathed through clenched teeth. “Giddy, I think we need to talk before you see this newspaper.”
Her husband nudged his mug to turn so the Gary Larson cartoon faced him. “What’re you talkin’ about?”
“I love you very much,” Tamera said. One arm still tucked behind her, she stepped forward, and with a thumb she brushed at a wet track running down her cheek. “I think what you do is very important— what you do for this family matters, Giddy. I want you to know…”
She put the back of her hand on her forehead like she was checking her own temperature. “Oh, heavens to Betsy,” she said. “Just… here.”
A rolled-up morning edition appeared from her side and hit the table with a plop. It landed face-down, displaying the lesser news, the little columns relegated to the no-man’s land beneath the weather forecast. In small font he read:
Prostitution, Gambling, Assault on Magician Kriss Angel, and Cocaine-Powdered Fruit Chews: Maryland Congressman’s Re-Election Celebration Turns Sour
“Roger,” Dodd sighed. “Already saw this on the morning news. Can’t say I’m shocked by your brother anymore, love. But I’ll sure pray for him.”
“No.” Tamera’s voice cracked. She pinched the newspaper, jerked her wrist, and flipped it over to the front page. Gideon Dodd’s own beaming face grinned up at him from that flat, half-tone world of ink and tree pulp.
Above the front-page picture the paper bore this headline:
TV PASTOR’S WIFE CONDEMNS MEGACHURCH, TELEVANGLISM IN GENERAL
Tamera Dodd Says God “Not Present” in Husband’s Arena Congregation
For a while Tamera saw only the top of her husband’s head, the downward-facing tip of his nose. She grabbed either side of her neck and bobbed her head like a bird.
“It was the Gutierrez woman.” She leaned over the modern kitchen table that cost half of Gideon’s college education and clasped her hands in supplication. “At Roger’s fundraiser. I’d had a couple glasses of wine, and she… just cornered me. Took things out of context. Nudged me, coaxed me, cajoled me. Oh, Giddy… Giddy, say something!”
He reached into his robe pocket and retrieved his reading glasses, pushed them up his wide nose. Clucking his tongue and leaning back, for all the world as though he were cracking open a Miss Marple cozy, he sipped his coffee, crossed his feet at the ankle, and smoothly ran his eyes left to right, left to right, left to right.
Half-magnified by designer lenses, his eyes appeared like tugboats when they drifted up at the woman unconsciously rolling her hair into knots with her fingers.
“Did you really say,” Gideon shook the paper stiff and glanced down, “that ‘there is no room for Jesus Christ in a place as huge as my husband’s church?’”
Tamera broke her own dinnertime rule by holding herself up with elbows planted firmly on the tabletop.
“I… Well, when I did say that, I only meant—”
“And did you say,” Gideon went on, “that I ‘cater to a confused mass of bored couch potatoes who think any problem will go away if they throw enough money in the collection plate?’”
“Well, it didn’t sound that bad when I—”
“And did you also say that you ‘see signs from God Himself every day that He wants us to shut that eyesore down and get back to real preaching?’” The preacher man lowered the paper to show his entire stolid, emotion-free face. “What is ‘real preaching,’ if you’d enlighten me?”
His voice was no louder than any typical morning’s coffee chatter. He might have been describing the weather, or a new fabric softener that wasn’t working out exactly as he’d hoped.
“Are you mad?” Tamera said.
Her husband ran a finger along one line of print. The faintest twinge of shock grazed his brow. “Did you say the promotional advertisements for my broadcast are ‘injury lawyer schlock?’”
“Oh, that I did say.” His wife fell into a chair, shifting weight from elbows to buttocks. “Baby, I’m sorry. That Maria said she was from a San Antonio paper. I didn’t think they’d ever run this in the Observer.”
“So you’re sorry you said it,” Gideon said, creasing the paper down the middle of his own printed face, “or you’re sorry the local paper ran it?”
“Look, honey,” Tamera grabbed a blackened crisp of bacon from the saucer centered on the table. “I told you I ain’t comfortable with that football stadium masquerading as a house of God. I told you all this profit-turning in a church is… It doesn’t sit right with me.”
“The church does not turn me a profit, as I’ve explained. Do I sell books? Do I pack out lecture halls? Do advertisers come begging to write me checks? Well, yes. Yes.” Gideon gulped coffee. “Is that a sin?”
“Giddy. You don’t need to spin me. I know you better than anyone. I love this house. I love my car. I love our kids and I love you.” She held an upturned palm out on the table, twitched the fingers. Her husband did not take her hand. “Do you remember your first congregation? At Little Mt. Sinai?”
“Sure I do.” A brief flicker of smile lit his face. “My flock of seventeen.”
“I never saw you more alive, more full of the Holy Spirit, than you were — preaching to that muggy little room of seventeen. And I never saw seventeen folks more in love with God and more alive with worship than I did those early mornings, fanning my face with the sermon notes. You were my hero.”
“‘Were.’” Dodd swirled his mug, stared at his negative reflection in the black murk of java.
“No, I don’t mean…” Tamera sighed.
“I see what’s happened here.” He was suddenly very tense, assuming the posture of a plank. One veiny fist pounded the paper. “You were duped. Taken in by that Maria. She strung you along and got just enough talk out of you to twist it, contort it, manipulate it to her will. You don’t hate my church. That would be ridiculous! Of course. Of course.”
He just kept swirling his mug. Here and there a jerk of the hand would send brown droplets splashing onto the immaculate tabletop.
“Gideon?” Tamera rubbed her forearm.
“That media!” Gideon snorted. “The people’s press? More like the devil’s diary! Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry you got dragged into that vipers’ nest. I oughtta be protecting you from those kinds of people. People like that Maria.”
“Baby. You’re getting carried away. I did say those things. And I need to say more — to you, right now, okay?” Tamera tucked a hand into her velour robe. Her hand peeped out, and between the fingers Gideon caught a glimpse of a gray plastic something. Something familiar. A calculator?
Not a calculator.
“Giddy, there’s something I need you to see,” his wife said. “Do you remember when Roger—”
“My lands!” Gideon sprang from his chair, darted past Tamera to the pantry door and squatted. For a second his wife thought he was having some sort of nervous breakdown, scuttling around on the floor grunting. Then he said, “Them kids with all their toys, and still they can’t keep their hands off my valuable… my, uh, my hard work!” When he rose, there was a tiny wooden person in each hand.
“Huck the hot dog vendor,” he said, then turning his head, “and little Betsy the Planned Parenthood protestor.” A miserable arch replaced his lips. “I told those kids that Doddville ain’t a playhouse.”
“Gid, is now really the time?” The plastic rectangle in Tamera’s hands caught the light and flared. “I need to—”
“Kids!” Gideon yelped up the stairwell. “Kids, you get down here right now!”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake.” Tamera’s hand found its way back into the folds of her morning attire, and the device was swallowed up there. She stood and disappeared out and into the garden as the sounds of galumphing young feet rattled the stairs. She could hear the preacher man say, “James! Ellie! Which one of you scuffed up poor Betsy’s pro-life posterboard?” Then the door snapped shut behind her.
Shedding her slippers, she walked barefoot in the soil between rows of sunflowers she herself had planted and tended to. All else in the garden was the handiwork of Montez, the landscaper Gideon had hired against her wishes. She would’ve been pleased as pie, she’d said, to get her hands a little dirty, make something grow.
“Why dig around in the dirt if someone’ll do it for us?” Gideon had said, as he’d handed the toolshed keys to old Montez.
But Montez was off Tuesdays.
Tamera plunged a hand into the soil, scooped up a hole there on her knees. From the inside pocket of her robe she once again withdrew the old Palm Pilot she’d been carrying around for six months now.
It hit the dirt with a soft sound like piff, and bleeped and lit up with new email notifications directed at her brother. He would never read them.
“You’ll reap what you sow, girl,” Tamera said to herself.
But she covered the little machine with brown, clumpy earth all the same.
II. Plans Fail for Lack of Counsel…
When Gideon Dodd thought of buses, he tended to think of dingy, smelly, cramped vessels packed with the unbathed and the rude. They were for less fortunate souls, bless ‘em. Many a time he’d prayed for the bus riders.
But the tour bus Kratz had procured for him, he had to admit, was a thing of beauty. This was a fully furnished, sprawling house on wheels, complete with two bathrooms and a kitchen — all stocked with the nice hand soap, the kind with exfoliating beads mixed in.
Kratz had even arranged a second bus to tail them all along the campaign trail, this one gutted to make room for the ever-expanding model metropolis of Doddville.
Now both monolithic vehicles sat parked on the tarmac of a naval base, emblazoned with bright red, white, and blue lettering that said:
DODD FOR GOD
And this morning, the preacher man stood between these echoing five-foot sentiments, flanked by his twin buses, at a pulpit.
It was his second rally. The turnout had doubled since last time. A sea of roiling banners, posters, and intertwined arms stretched out before him as far as he could see.
Into the thin, bendy-straw microphone he laid out his plan for heavenly reform.
“If elected God,” he said, “there will be no more disease.
“If elected God,” he said, “I will abolish violence.
“And if elected God,” he said, “you will never be sad again, because sadness simply won’t exist. Now doesn’t that sound nice?”
The response from the crowd confirmed that, yes, they thought that sounded mighty fine.
He flipped over a neon yellow note card and squinted at the calligraphic ink markings there. Word-for-word he read: “My opponent says you gotta take some bad to appreciate the good. That’s pretty easy to say from your literal golden throne in actual Heaven, seems to me.”
Another card flipped over on the pulpit. He held out his reading glasses from his face, tongue peeping between his teeth.
“And,” he read, careful: “We’ve got Ten Commandments that haven’t been reviewed, updated, or amended in millennia.”
A sass-laden voice from the crowd barked, “Thass right!”
“If elected,” said Dodd, “my staff will take a good, long look at that holy document and consider some much-needed modern addendums. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ technically still extends to household pests. Vermin!
“I know a lot of folks in this town are gainfully employed by the mousetrap factory. Good folks who I — as your God and Savior — would never write off as callous sinners!”
A considerable cluster of blue-collar mousetrap workers in the back hollered and wolf-whistled its appreciation.
“American heroes, if you ask me,” Dodd said, regurgitating verbatim the handwriting that was not his own.
Amid the diminishing cheers, he went for the next note and skimmed the writing there. His mouth opened. Then it closed, an indecisive tongue polishing his teeth to buy time. Dodd gave an imperceptible (to all but one) headshake and tucked the note into his pocket.
“I will now take questions,” he said — his first original thought this rally. One hand for nearly every body huddled onto that tarmac shot straight up.
“Yes, the young lady in the pink peacoat?” Dodd pointed.
“Umm,” a college-age girl in the front swayed on the balls of her feet, barely squeezing out the words through suppressed laughter. “I was wondering? Are you looking for a babysitter?”
The crowd giggled and catcalled. Several onlookers applauded.
“‘Cuz I’m good,” the young woman said. Friends on either side buried their faces into her shoulders, shaking. “I’m real good.” One of the friends smacked her thigh.
“My children are well cared for,” Dodd said, by all appearances calm and oblivious, “I assure you. Next question?” He pointed at a man in matching plaid coat, shirt, and pants.
All beard and rising unibrow, the lumberjackian fellow looked bewildered and honored to be called upon. “What about Satan?” the man said.
“Yeah,” the flannel-man crossed his arms, a head taller than most surrounding him. His voice carried well. “What are you gonna do about him?”
“Do you mean,” Dodd said, “the Prince of Darkness? Evil Incarnate?”
“I guess,” said the man. “I just mean, will you nuke ‘im? Blast Hell off the map, or what?” He rubbed his hands together. Dodd noted the dog tags hanging around the man’s beefy neck.
There were claps and whoops of approval at this notion of dropping The Big One into the Styx.
Dodd drummed his fingers on the lectern surface. “I have a plan for dealing with Satan.”
And the bearded head of his questioner sank into the sea of people.
“Next question?” Dodd waved a careless finger, figuring someone would step up.
A squat woman in shoulder pads wedged her way with ease and confidence to the front-and-center of the first row.
“What is it?” she said.
“What is what?”
“What is your plan for dealing with Satan?” Shoulder Pads asked.
Humming tunelessly, Dodd shuffled through his deck of tailor-made cards amid a soundtrack of coughs and mumbling. Finally, he struck the whole stack from the pulpit and smacked the wood paneling with both palms.
“Well, I’m gonna knock the hell out of Satan, I’ll tell you that.”
Someone called out, “Yes!”
Dodd licked his lips. Screwed up his face. He thought of the devil. He thought of the burning bonsai at the playhouse.
But he couldn’t think of a thing to say.
“We’re going to defeat Satan,” is what he did say. And, “Look, Satan happened at the dawn of time in— in, in a vacuum that was left because of bad judgment. I’ll tell you, I will take care of old Lucifer, okay?”
The woman ran a painted nail down the space between her nose and lips. Her mouth opened slowly. “Well, okay,” she said, “but — how, exactly?”
Dodd breathed in, held his stale breath in his lungs. “I think you have to knock out Satan, you know.” The wood under his fingers grew slipperier, more damp. “I, uh, I believe we have to get the devil. I think down in Hell, in general, you got some bad muchachos.” He tried to straighten his spine. “And this Satan, you know, he’s just the worst. He’s got to go. And where my opponent’s failed, I’ll prevail.”
Nine-tenths of the crowd roared in enthusiastic agreement. A chant of “Dodd for God” grew from the back rows.
Dodd said, “Next question?”
“But Mr. Dodd—” The woman was swallowed up by her fellow rally-pals.
“Next question.” Dodd’s indiscriminate finger was doing its searching swirls in the air again. “Yes, the young man in the Superman t-shirt.”
A nine-year-old on his father’s shoulders shouted: “I want to know the plan.”
Slack-jawed, Dodd dropped his hands to his sides at last. “I think,” he said, “that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you all, so very kindly, for your time and your support. I’m doing this for you, and don’t you forget it!”
Have a blessed day.”
And, led by a frowning L. Kratz and an utterly bewildered Ray Wachstetter, Gideon Dodd evaded any further questioning from the assembled masses until he reached his oh-so-fancy tour bus.
Not that there weren’t more questions.