III. …But with Many Advisers They Succeed
“What was that horseshit? ‘Bad muchacho?’ Did you hear yourself out there?”
Inside the Doddville bus, Kratz leaned against a crafting table, shaking in his mauve Adidas windbreaker. With the back of a hand he knocked a squeeze-tube of adhesive paste into an unreachable crevasse under the console.
“That’s expensive,” Dodd said.
Kratz’s reddening face appeared over his shoulder from the nose up. “Why didn’t you use my cards?” he said.
Dodd’s shoulders sank. “I did use your cards.”
“Not all of them.”
“You’re right.” Dodd reached into his back pocket, where the remainder of Kratz’s speaking points rested. “You’re right. I didn’t want to read some of this— I won’t.” He wagged one card in the air. “Why would I say I’ve smoked marijuana?” He pronounced it marriage-wanna. “That’s not true. Well— once, in college, but I didn’t inhale—”
“Gideon! That’s not the point!” Kratz spun round, shuffling sneakers along the narrow stretch of carpeting between Doddville boroughs. “Do you want to win or not?”
One nod from Dodd.
“You’ve got to show these people you’re imperfect! The babysitter smut thing: That was gold! They loved it. It showed them you’re like them. You’re gross. You’ve got impulses. You shit — and it stinks.”
“That’s your only advantage, Gideon Dodd. That’s the one thing you got over the Big Guy. You make mistakes and you admit it. Case in point: You didn’t read my cards. Instead, you go on this asinine devil diatribe—”
“I liked the devil thing.”
This was Ray Wachstetter, huddled between pallets bearing vast stretches of miniature restaurants, apartment buildings, and city parks. He’d wedged himself between the legs of opposing platforms which suspended stretches of the preacher’s own self-made world. Now nobody could be sure how Ray would ever get out; his stout body fit the space like a foam puzzle piece.
Wachstetter said, “Satan’s the enemy, right? We should be fighting him. I think folks’ll respond to that.”
“There is no devil,” Kratz sneered. “Don’t be an asshole.” Dodd could smell Kratz’s deodorant, scarcely suppressing the underlying eggy smell of a deep sweat.
“Well, but.” Wachstetter wobbled on his heels. “There’s a God.”
“Yeah,” Kratz sniffed. He jerked a thumb at Dodd. “And it ain’t gonna be him if he doesn’t start listening to me.”
The campaign runner followed his own pointing digit to look down upon a slumped Dodd. “And what is he—” the thumb did an about-face and singled out Wachstetter — “still doing here? Did we not have a deal?”
Dodd picked up a small, fluffy tree model and stroked its foliage with a fingernail.
Dodd did not look up. “Well, I suppose…”
Wachstetter squirmed and pawed between wooden sawhorses, rising at last with difficulty. A few teeny buildings and a bitty greenhouse were lost to his efforts. “What’s he talking about, boss?”
Dodd said nothing. Just rubbed that bristly little elm.
“I’m talking about you,” Kratz said through a curling smile, “being fired.”
“C’mon, Kratz,” Dodd said so nobody heard. “Not like this.”
“Gideon?” Ray edged between wooden platforms, necktie grazing the rooftops of minuscule neighborhoods. “What does that mean? Fired?”
Kratz moved with considerably more grace among the panels of city bits, landing with the swift menace of some bird of prey to cock one eye toward Wachstetter’s nose.
“We made a gentleman’s bargain,” said Kratz. “My end was booking the debate. His end was dumping you and hiring me on, kit ‘n caboodle. I’ve upheld my end.” He dug a knuckle into the other man’s doughy paunch. “But you’re still here.”
“Ray’s been with me for ages,” said Dodd.
“And… Well, that’s saying something. Isn’t it?”
“Not really. Ages and epochs ebb and flow.” Kratz put his hands on either of Ray’s shoulders and sunk his fingertips into the flesh there. He looked beyond the puffs of hair, past Dodd’s old friend, locking eyes with preacher man himself.
“This… man… is dead weight. You know it. I know it. Dump him — or I walk.”
“Well, that’s…” Dodd blew air between dry lips. “I mean, really…”
“Him or me. Win or lose. You do want to be God, right?”
“I— I want to serve.”
“Then you’d better start thinking strategy and make some severe changes. You wanna solve all those injustices you’re so concerned about, you’ve gotta actually win, Papa.” Kratz lifted one hand from Wachstetter, holding tight with the other, and fished in his baggy pants pocket. A wad of crinkled papers emerged. He waved it like a dead fish. “If the election were today—”
“When is the election?” Wachstetter said.
“Quiet.” The papers drooped over Kratz’s pale hand. “If the election were today, you’d only get eight percent of the popular vote. And that’s being generous. You’d not only lose, you’d be humiliated.”
Dodd grasped at the air and clutched the nape of his neck. “But all those people out there… You saw. They love me.” At every other syllable, he took a minute step back.
“And there are six billion other people who’ve never even heard of you. Or think you’re a novelty act. A joke, Dodd. We have to get out there. Talk radio. Internet blogs. Good Fucking Morning, America. There can’t be a tribe in darkest Peru hasn’t heard of you by the time the polls close. Get it? The world at large, the populace outside your fervent little book club, has no idea who Gideon Dodd is.”
“Numbers.” Kratz tossed the paperwork up and it fell in a limp arc to the floor. “Polls, Dodd.” His free palm found Wachstetter’s shoulder once more and he resumed his savage massage of the press agent.
“The only man on the planet that can get your ass in that golden throne is standing in this bus, wearing a satin windbreaker.”
Wachstetter somehow seemed smaller now; Dodd realized that Kratz had gradually been pushing him down by the shoulders. The smaller man’s nose now nearly touched the taller one’s navel.
“I got Whoopi Goldberg a fucking Tony, Gideon. What’s this putz ever done?”
“Excuse me.” Wachstetter floundered around Kratz’s waistline. “I secured the publishing deals for Gideon’s first seven books.”
“Did you get movie rights?”
Wachstetter choked. “Movie whats?”
“Doddy-boy.” Kratz breathed. “You don’t have to do it. The firing, that is.” His teeth — all of them — were showing. “That’s what you got me for. I’ll handle it. I’ll be tickled pink. Just say the word.”
For the other two men, Dodd was scarcely more than a glinting pair of eyeballs in the dark, port-a-john-adjacent recesses of his mobile workshop.
“What if we kept him on as an adviser?” he said.
“Part-time?” Wachstetter offered. “Half the pay? Hm?”
Kratz snuffed through his nostrils. Wet mist issued, sprayed Ray’s bald dome.
“No,” he said.
“There’s no other way?” Dodd sank further around the corner, vanishing from sight.
“If you flake on me now,” Kratz said, smile fading, voice rising, “I can’t trust a damn word you say on the campaign trail. And if I don’t believe in you, I don’t work for you. Simple as that, pastor.”
When Dodd didn’t answer, Wachstetter whimpered, and Kratz cleared his throat.
Kratz tapped a Doddville sidewalk with a long fingernail. “‘Build cities for your little ones,” he said, “and folds for your sheep. And do what you have promised.’”
Dodd made an odd, inquisitive chirp.
“What poll was that?”
“It’s from Numbers. The Bible, you boob.”
“You know the Bible?”
Kratz bit his lip. “I need an answer.”
Nothing was said for nearly a minute. But in the end, all that thinking and silence amounted to was this:
Gideon Dodd turned loose his oldest friend and closest confidante, and he reached the decision to do so in under sixty seconds.
“Write him a severance check,” Dodd said, his usually smooth voice now crumbly as a slice of coffee cake. “Rainy day fund.”
“Of course.” Kratz ran upturned palms into Wachstetter’s damp armpits and lifted. “Come on, my friend. Let’s get you severed.”
“W-wait.” Ray wrestled with his usurper’s grip. “Hang on. I want to say ‘bye. Don’t I get to say ‘bye?’”
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Kratz said, and shoved Raymond Wachstetter — Gideon Dodd’s right-hand man of over a decade — out the door, back onto the naval tarmac.
Dodd found it impossible to move a leg, to twitch a finger, as Kratz climbed out after his erstwhile servant and shouted, “Achtung!”
Kratz’s massive hound came bounding toward them, a living shadow absorbing all light into its slick, black fur. Feathers fluttered wetly from its jowls. The dog’s master spoke something else in German, more difficult to hear as they grew further.
All three of them entered the driver’s cabin of the main tour bus. The door slammed shut and had no window, so all Gideon Dodd could see was his own face — printed and adhered — smiling back at him.
Raymond Wachstetter would never hear it, but the preacher here said aloud, in his new solitude:
IV. As Iron Sharpens Iron
“You can’t fire that man, Giddy.”
Tamera Dodd smiled, though not patronizingly, exposing a row of teeth — and indeed the very tooth her husband would wear as a necklace in eight years’ time. It looked so pretty and pearly, attached to her head.
“You hear me?” she said, obscured from the neck down by Doddville’s first skyscraper. “This article isn’t his fault.”
Gideon stood hunched over a desk lamp and magnifying glass, painting the floral pattern on a very little old lady’s blouse. The old lady was wooden, and carved by hand (except for her walker, which was a bent and soldered BBQ skewer). More focused on her than his wife, he said, “He’s supposed to be my press agent. If he can’t stop people like this — this Gutierrez woman — from printing libel about my wife and mother of my children, what’m I paying him for?”
“Ray’s been so good to you. He loves you.”
“He has.” Gideon scrunched up his nose. “He does.”
Tamera stepped forward into musty basement air, put an arm around her husband.
“That article happened because I said things, things I felt, that I should have spoken to you in private. I messed up. Not Ray. Don’t punish him for my big mouth.”
“Someone’s got to be punished.” A beam of light reflected off the glass when he shifted, and Tamera put an arm over her eyes, wincing. Gideon said, “They can’t print that stuff about my wife, my baby, and expect me not to respond.”
“Did you actually read the article?” Tamera took a pinky and turned his head toward her. “I mean, really read it?”
“Sure I did.” Gideon set the paintbrush down, but hung onto the little lady. “And I got plenty to say about it, believe you me.”
“Do you?” Tamera kissed the top of Gideon’s head. “I’d love to hear it.”
“You will,” he said. “In Sunday’s sermon.”
Tamera took her arm away. She flicked a finger at the figurine in Gideon’s hand. “Cute old woman.” And she left.
When she was halfway up the stairs, the preacher called out to his wife:
“I won’t fire Ray Wachstetter, hon’.”
Like the little old lady, the stairwell railing was made of wood.
Tamera Dodd balled up a fist and knocked on it.
V. Whoever Goes about Slandering
Who could drown the world… and not bat an eyelash?
Who could feed a human being to an enormous fish?
Who could sentence his own son to a grisly, unjust death — then turn his back at the moment of execution?
…Turn a woman to salt — for looking over her shoulder…
…Let a group of slaves wander aimlessly in the desert for forty years, despite being perfectly capable of offering simple directions…
…Leave an apple out on the table only to punish whoever eats it with torture everlasting…
Who could do these things? And would you trust them alone with your children?
Then why would you trust a deity — who proudly admits to all this and more — to be your God?
Gideon Dodd believes in the sanctity of all life, moderate rainfall, and women not being turned into water-soluble elements. And he would really appreciate your vote.
(Paid for by the Committee to Elect Gideon Dodd Lord and Savior of All.)
“Well? Whaddaya’ think?”
At the video’s end, Dodd yanked earbuds from his canals and found himself immediately grappling with a tangled mess of thin cord, bunched around three fingers on two hands.
They were back in Baltimore, in a large garage, rented and all to themselves. Dodd had requested it, so he could assess the growth of his miniature town, which was approaching the size of either a miniature state — or an actual town. Overhead, shoddy hanging lights buzzed in competition with the insects swarming them.
Kratz took his phone back, leaving Dodd to sort out the wadded wire situation. With a fingertip he scrubbed through the video on its tiny screen, fondly admiring his own handiwork of voiceover, free use music, and public domain stock photography. “I think it’s gonna be a shot in the arm, frankly.” He pocketed the phone. “Well, say something.”
Tongue peeping, Dodd tugged on his headphone snare, causing a finger-trap effect of tightening the knot’s grip on his digits. “It wasn’t so much about why I’m a good candidate as it was about why God is bad.”
“Right.” Kratz jerked his chin into the air. “We’ve got to take Him down before we prop you up.” He snorted. “Kind of the oldest play in the book, Padre.”
“Wachstetter would have made something with a more positive spin,” said Dodd. This wasn’t necessarily true — Wachstetter probably wouldn’t have even thought to run an ad, or known how to upload it to the Web.
“And that’s why we were losing with that frumpy bum in our camp,” Kratz said. He pinched the fraught noose turning Dodd’s fingers a deep purple, gave it the slightest of flicks, and the whole mess slipped loose and dangled like a wet noodle from the advisor’s thumb.
“I don’t want to run it,” Dodd said.
“Well it’s too late, Papa Bear.” Kratz made a claw and ruffled his slick coif. “That sucker’s been playing before every Taylor Swift video, Tyler Perry trailer, and My Little Pony fan-film on YouTube.”
“Oh.” That’s all right, Dodd thought. What, a couple hundred teenagers on the Internet?
“Yessir,” Kratz jerked his head, chicken-like, so that his hair flopped against its natural part. “Sixty-three million views this week.”
Dodd sank onto a fortunately-placed milk crate. With half of Doddville spread out before him, he looked like a downed kaiju.
“Wasn’t cheap,” Kratz said. “But don’t worry! Paid out of pocket. We can settle up when you’re running the universe.” He crouched, splayed fingers, and fondled Dodd’s knee. “Padre,” he said, “you’re up three percent.”
“What?” Dodd’s knuckles pressed into his cheeks, making a hamster out of him. “Three percent? Is that good?”
“Three percent of the planet?” Kratz stood, smoothing out the shiny, noisy fabric of his windbreaker bottoms. Today’s were orange. “Yeah, that’s good.”
“You can thank me later. Just knowing I was right is enough for now.” Kratz took a few steps down the aisle they’d settled into, ran fingertips along a Doddville road. He lifted a small figurine: thin, red, with a dash of pitch black topping it. He held it up.
“Is this supposed to be me?”
“Huh?” Dodd leaned forward and squinted in a pitiful feint at inspection. “Oh. Yeah. I guess it is.”
“I’m flattered.” He tucked it into a jacket pocket. “Do you mind?”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
“You can make another.” Kratz held out his arms. “Don’t know where you find the time for all this. We’ll have to leave it here.”
The side door banged against the wall, and both men flinched. Kratz’s dog came bounding in, tail wagging in sloppy, elated arcs. Something in its mouth limply bounced along.
Up Dodd shot. “Stop him! Don’t let him—”
But the four-legged monster seemed to be attuned to the pastor’s concerns, deftly but no less expediently weaving in and out of Doddville lanes and alleyways, between palettes and platforms, not even grazing a lamppost with its flailing tail. It came to rest at its master’s feet and dropped its bounty there.
“Aw, hell,” Kratz said. “These were new shoes.”
The dog whined. Dodd saw a mass of fur and meat huddled on Kratz’s crisp Jordans. Whether cat, ‘possum, or — Dodd frowned — most likely fox, it was nothing but sinew, blood, and bone now.
“Pfui!” the P.R. man spat. “Böser hund!”
The dog hung its head, sighed, and curled up before its master, pawing unenthusiastically at its catch like a picky child at the dinner table. Lying on its belly, its head still reached Kratz’s hips.
Scratching the contrite mutt’s ears, Kratz said, “So let’s talk next steps. We want that three percent to reach a hundred, or at least fifty-one. Second debate is in two weeks. Radio City Music Hall, thank-yew–vurry-mush. But before that— oh.” His eyebrows met. “Have you had your shots?”
“Shots?” The wet slurping sound of the dog’s licking Kratz’s hand caused Dodd’s stomach to turn, and he thought of rabies.
“Immunizations.” Kratz shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. You’ll need a physical either way.”
“Unless you want to roll the dice on whatever plagues they got in Tanzania.”
“Nah, it’ll be fun.” The hound snorted, as if in agreement. “We’re gonna go chat up the Hadzabe tribe, explain how you’ll make life better for them, if they vote for you. See, they don’t have YouTube out there. Or, uh, toilets.” He licked his teeth. “We must spread the good word: ‘Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them your disciples.’ Think of it like one of those mission trips, only, you know — we’ll have bug spray.”
Dodd rubbed his upper lip, wiping away fresh sweat there. “I don’t know.” Since his wife’s lethal Parisian tumble, he had not left the United States — not even when Ray and his publisher begged him to go on tours and speaking engagements. Not even when his congregation invited him, time and again, to preach the gospel and feed the children in less-fortunate nations. Instead he’d just write them a massive check and say a prayer for their safe travels. He cared for all God’s children, but the thought of overseas travel now made him shiver, made him gasp for breath.
“Well, it’s all booked,” said Kratz, “so now you do know. I told you we’d have to spread your good word into every nook and cranny of the globe, didn’t I?” In the distance, the garage door squealed open again, slowly. Some daylight seeped in. “It’ll be — well, not fun — but productive. We can’t just focus on the so-called ‘civilized nations.’ There are scores of societies out there that haven’t even heard of God. You can get in on the ground floor, my man.”
Light footsteps approached, and the hound leapt up excitedly, once again maneuvering around Doddville with supernatural precision and care. By the time it was at the door to greet them, Dodd was only just realizing his twin children had entered.
“Hey, boy!” James laughed. He needn’t bend over or squat to be eye-to-eye with the beast, and so they locked gazes as the young man massaged the dog’s jowls. “Guh, your breath stinks!”
Ellie giggled, too, and patted the dog’s flanks.
“Kids,” Dodd slipped past his manager, Dad Mode kicking in. “Don’t get too close, okay?”
“Oh, they’re fine,” Kratz said.
Ellie squealed in delight. The mongrel had half her face and one pigtail wrapped in its tongue. “Eww-hoo-hoo!” she cried.
“Kratz!” Dodd shot a look back at the man, and the dead thing at his heel.
Kratz grunted, wolf-whistled. “Platz!” he shouted. “Setzen!” The dog sat, statuesque, and let James and Ellie past.
“He’s funny,” James said.
“Don’t you two have homework?” Dodd wrapped an obligatory arm around either child as they hugged his sides.
“All done,” said Ellie. “What are you guys doing in here?”
“We’re planning a trip,” Kratz said, joining them near the door. “How would you kiddos like to go to Africa?”
“Africa!” Ellie nearly fell over with glee.
“No kidding!” James’s doe eyes peered up at his father for confirmation.
“We’re just talking,” said Dodd.
“Is this God stuff?” James asked.
“Yes,” said Kratz. “It’s God stuff.”
“Cool.” Though this, Dodd couldn’t help noticing, sounded oddly flat.
The boy wiped dog drool from his chin and said, “There’s someone here to talk to you.”
“Talk to me?” Dodd leaned forward, squinting through the crack in the door and its concentrated bar of sunlight. “Who? For what?”
“Oh, that’ll be Stenson.” Kratz withdrew a pair of Aviators and slipped them on and opened the door. “Let’s go say ‘hi.’”
“Who?” Stenson. The name sounded familiar. Dodd grabbed Kratz’s shoulder. “Hang on a second. Who? What’s going on now?”
“Well, we’re not schlepping out to Tim-fuk-tu — sorry, kids — just to talk to a couple dozen indigenous peoples, Padre. C’mon.” He cocked his head toward outdoors. “We’re getting a Time story out of it. Front cover, and you’re welcome.”
“So this fella’s gonna follow us around and write down everything we say and do?” Dodd swallowed before adding, “In Tanzania?”
“Not fella’,” Ellie said, twisting her hips and grabbing her daddy’s forearms in a sock-hop fashion. “Laaady.”
“She’s pretty, Dad,” James said, only to immediately gasp and cover his mouth in surprise.
“I wish you’d run this by me,” Dodd said, grimacing into Kratz’s shades.
“I know what I’m doing,” he said.
All four of them jumped inches off the ground when the hound let out a sudden, booming bark. It shot out the door, bow-wow-wowing madly, then stopped as if a switch had been turned.
A soft, female voice from outside: “Whoa, settle down, poochie.”
“C’mon,” Kratz said, and clicked the corner of his mouth. He pushed open the door fully, and the two men and two children stepped outside.
James almost fell over when he collided with his father’s backside, for Dodd had stopped moving once his eyes adjusted to the sun.
Standing between the two tour buses, Kratz’s elephantine dog pressed against her and gazing up with love, was the reporter who would be accompanying them as they broke bread with the Hadzabe tribe of Tanzania. She smiled, the space between her front teeth a dangerous singularity from which none of the men’s gaze could escape.
“Hey, there, Father,” said Maria Stenson, neé Gutierrez.