The Man Who Ran for God (pt. 8)

SELAH: III

There is a stomp, a shattering of glass, and blood.

The bridegroom collapses into a heap upon the bunched train of his newly-minted wife’s gown. Flat red flowers bloom on the white of her dress from under her man’s heel, where shards of a wine vessel sparkle in sunlight from the dirt — and from their jutting positions in the sole of his foot.

“Oy, I’m dying! I’m bleeding out!”

The bride turns to her mentor, her hero, who stands with hands clasped over the Torah at his crotch, stone-faced.

“Rabbi Fauntleroy!” she shouts. She grabs at the shoulders of his tallit and tugs. “Do something!”

“That was idiotic,” the Rabbi says to the bridegroom lying fetal at his shoes. “You see now why I thought the idea of a barefoot, outdoor wedding was nonsense? And still you stomp the wine glass!” He throws back his head and laughs, as if sharing a chuckle with HaShem. But HaShem is busy these days, as he knows. “Stand up. You’re not dying.”

“Rabbi Fauntleroy!” The bride pulls back, scandalized. With a trembling hand she yanks off her veil and wraps it around her husband’s spurting foot, and it soaks through in an instant.

“Someone call an ambulance already!” Rabbi Fauntleroy shouts to the stunned friends and family gathered under the hot sun, whose mandatorily bare feet merely shift with uncertainty in the grass.

The Holy Man shrugs. “I guess if you hadn’t made them leave their cellular phones in some fakakta basket, the Red Cross would be halfway here by now.”

Rabbi!

“Oh, I’m dying! Married not fifty seconds and already you’re a widow!” The groom writhes on the ground.

The Rabbi gives a wide berth as he steps around the newlyweds and walks down the path laid out for the bride. For someone has arrived — it’s not the Red Cross, to be sure, but their convoy is emblazoned with crucifixes nonetheless.

In the middle they meet, the flower girl’s leavings at their feet. Rabbi Hamish Fauntleroy and the two men who look right out of the Secret Service: Sunglasses. Earpieces. Bulges in holsters at their waists.

“Rabbi,” one man says.

“You haven’t been answering your phone,” says the other.

“No, and I’d hoped you people would take the hint.” Fauntleroy charges shoulder-first between them, to slip past, but is grabbed and held by his right wrist. “I don’t want anything to do with whatever mishegas you’re cooking up. Never again.”

“You’ve been summoned,” says one of the spooks — doesn’t matter which.

“A private plane will take you to Vatican City now,” says his counterpart.

The Rabbi rubs his beard with thumb and forefinger. With one jerking motion he absolves himself of the man’s grip and grunts.

“What, it’s this Dodd person?” he says.

The men nod.

The Rabbi tucks the Torah under his arm.

“All right. After lunch,” he says. “I’m going to have my yoghurt first.”

“We’ve got yoghurt on the plane.”

“I like my yoghurt.” Fauntleroy holds his head high and walks by regally. “And take care of the kid, will you? He’s bleeding all over the place; it’s vomitous.”

“We will.”

And they do.

With lighter fuel from the tiki torches, and lighters, and their own mouths and lungpower, they cauterize the gushing groom’s open foot, melting glass into the whole mess. There are screams of protestation — some folks even move to stop them — but these brave wedding guests are stifled with a casual pat of the guns hanging from the strangers’ belts.

The guns, too, have crosses embossed on them, right on the butt.

ACTS

I. And He Sped upon the Wings of the Wind

“Will you calm the hell down? You’re freaking me out.”

Kratz dressed more comfortably than usual for the airplane ride: slippers, white t-shirt, sweatpants. Dodd wished he had done the same, rather than stuff himself into the usual button-up and slacks. The onset nerves and nausea of merely boarding this private jet made his stomach swell, his pits sweat, and his head pound.

“I don’t know what’s come over me,” he said between deep gulps of air. “I’m sorry. This is silly. Been a long time since—” He reached over Kratz to shut the sliding eyelid of the window. “Since I been on a plane.”

“This is awesome!” Ellie said, bouncing in her seat across the aisle.

“Quiet, baby.” Dodd rubbed his slippery temples with thumb and forefinger.

Kratz raised an eyebrow. “You are not a worldly man, are you?”

“My worship program airs in thirty-seven international markets.” Dodd belched, pounded his sternum. “Are we taking off soon?”

“In a minute,” said the advisor, stuffing a magazine back into the leather pouch on the seat in front of him.

“Heh.” Dodd snorted. “M’nervous.”

“You don’t say.”

“There’s no reason to be nervous.” In front of them, a bouncy mass of dark hair swished round to reveal the craning neck and glib face of Maria Stenson, Time Magazine reporter. “I’m up in the sky more than standing on terra firma anymore. No crashes. Barely any turbulence. Heck, I can’t even remember any delays, if you can believe it.” She wrapped four cherry-tipped fingers around the seat and smiled, just a bit. “I’ll be your good luck charm, Mr. Dodd.”

“You’re not writing all this down, are you?” Dodd crooked a trembling finger at the open computer on Maria’s legs. “Because this — all this, the plane, all this — this is off the record.” Kratz’s mouth creased in mild surprise at the preacher’s openly hostile gibbering.

“I’m not writing about this plane ride.” Maria bit into her breath mint.

“Then what are you writing?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“I want to see.”

“Maybe you should focus on your boy there, Father.”

Dodd snorted. “I’m not a Father.”

“Tell him that.” Maria batted her strange, long eyelashes across the cabin.

“Huh?” Without shifting his tense body, Dodd turned his head to the left. Next to Ellie sat James, knees wagging, as wound up and openly distraught as his father. Ellie waved a hand in front of his face, as if trying to snap him out of a trance.

“Ellie,” Dodd said. “Leave your brother alone. He’s fine.”

“Fine.” Stenson sniffed and went back to her laptop screen.

Out of the side of his mouth, Dodd said to Kratz, “Why’d it have to be her?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Kratz yawned; his eyelids appeared to weigh forty pounds apiece. “Are you going to keep talking?”

“I feel like I’m going to vomit.”

Kratz’s drooping eyes rolled over in their puffy beds. He fished into the deep pockets of his baggy loungewear and came up with a box of Dramamine and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. “Here.” He pressed it against the pastor’s tummy. “I’d give you a Xanax, but I just killed the bottle.” He lowered the padded blindfold wrapped around his ears and leaned back his head. “Now can it, Padre. I’m twelve pills and six little liquor bottles down the road to Naptown.”

Gideon Dodd wiped his palms on his thighs, then he set the Pepto on one knee and the Dramamine on the other. His eyes closed, his chin touched his chest, and his hands clasped. He began to whisper softly, under his breath.

“For Christ’s sake.” Kratz fidgeted and adjusted his genitals through his PJs. He lifted the blindfold from one eye, revealing a peppermint with a pupil. “Are you fucking praying?”

“Um.” Dodd closed his thighs on his hands.

“You are.” Kratz laughed without mirth — a gritty, reedy trill. “Who are you praying to, dummy?”

“Oh.” Dodd’s mouth squished to one side.

“I’d rule out any help from the Big Guy for a while,” Kratz said. “Good thing the reporter’s a good luck charm, huh?”

Behind them, Kratz’s dog puttered its flapping, black lips, all supine and cozy in its very own row of seats.

Next stop: Tanzania.

II. Whose Food Is the Root of the Broom Shrub

“This must be the place.”

It was a tree — notable for a large knot shaped like the Pepsi logo — that finally stopped Kratz on his merciless, never-ending hike through the African brush. James and Ellie slumped, panting, into their father, who grabbed at his gut and grunted.

Maria Gutierrez-Stenson, computer bag hanging at her shoulder, was the only one besides Kratz who didn’t seem bested by the trek. She wasn’t even sweating under her wide-brimmed sunhat. Composed, she took a sip of water through a straw attached to the complicated apparatus strapped about her waist. “Doesn’t look like much.”

“Our guide will meet us here,” Kratz said. “For now, we wait.”

The view was beautiful. Unlike anything any of them — save, perhaps, the public relations man — had seen anywhere but on television. The sun was just setting, giving the grasslands, the birds, the pure-white clouds a hazy, unreal quality.

But the heat…! Dodd felt he was wearing it like a blanket that couldn’t come off. And still he had goosebumps.

“Where’s the bathroom?” he said, rubbing his belly.

Kratz gestured all around. “Wherever strikes your fancy, Papa.”

Dodd inhaled sharply and swigged from his Pepto bottle.

Something rustled in the grass, and all present turned to watch the yellowing stalks fall in a quickly-unfurling line.

“What’s that?” James hugged his father tight. Dodd’s insides made the sound of stirred mac and cheese.

Everyone, save Maria, issued a startled “Eep!” as, from the edge of the tall grass, something small and fast erupted. Petite, graceful, and hooved, the brown bundle of energy pinned spindly legs into the ground and rebounded. It darted past James, brushing his arm and nearly toppling him with not size but surprise, and the grass exploded again.

The reeds spat out Kratz’s hound, soaring, flecks of foam suspended in standstill about its tar-black snout and jaws. Its paws hit the ground for an instant.

The dog’s prey was fast — but the mutt’s front legs were thicker than Dodd’s neck, and it jumped now. Or flew, it seemed.

The hound landed squarely on the fleeing animal with a whump and a snap. Dodd watched in revulsion as its fanged mandibles wrapped around the poor creature’s head and crushed it like a rotten pumpkin.

The dog didn’t take a single bite of fresh meat but rather proceeded to rend the animal like a smaller dog might rip up a throw pillow. Something like a human wail lifted from the thing’s ripped throat and hit Dodd’s ears with a chill. Chunks of gore and fur flew in all directions.

“Jesus,” Maria said, choking.

“Wow,” Ellie said.

Then the vile sounds just stopped. Kratz’s tagalong monster, evidently satisfied with the utter devastation of the other animal’s biology, shot up and loosened its shoulders. Tail bouncing like a mad metronome, it shed its predatory demeanor and panted jovially, coming to squat at James’s heels. The boy took a shuffling step back.

“Uh, hi, boy,” he said. The dog licked his forearm, smearing thick maroon over it. James’s voice, croaking: “Daa-ad?”

Kommen!” Kratz said.

The dog’s tail curled between its legs, over its considerable testes, and it loped over to its master to be patted on the head.

“Eesh,” Maria said. “You might want to put that thing on a leash.” She pointed at the desecrated critter with a hiking boot. “Those are endangered, aren’t they?”

“You’re the reporter,” Dodd spat. “Don’t you know everything about gazelles?”

“Actually,” Maria squatted, investigating, “that’s a dik-dik.”

“Ahoy-hoy!” A deep, booming voice called to them, rippling over the fields, billowing up dust. A hazy pair of shadows approached, coming into focus — one massive, marching; the other small and thin, sort of gliding.

“Finally,” Kratz said. He breathed on his hand and rubbed it through his hair with vigor. A layer of dirt made him sandy blonde and sort of handsome — more, Dodd thought, like he should look. More natural?

The campaign manager hiked up his shorts well above the knee and chuckled, taking big steps to stand in the shade of the Pepsi tree and lay an elbow on it.

“Wrong tree!” the newcomer shouted, all baritone and brass. Dodd could see the approaching men clearly now. Both had dark skin. The bigger one wore safari gear — even the domed khaki hat — and had a long narrow gun in a holster at his hip. The small fellow had nothing on but a leather flap to cover his privates, and ornate facial piercings protruding from more or less every hole.

“Bullshit!” Kratz hollered back. “I don’t get lost. It’s you’s got no sense of direction.” The large man lunged, brought his broad scowling face nose-to-nose with Kratz’s. His companion hung back.

“How ya’ doin’, Mal?” Kratz’s mouth split open into a toothy grin. The odd pair threw themselves into a hug. Dodd and Maria exchanged glances.

“It is good to see you, my friend.” Mal stamped a tall boot in the dust and squeezed, his square jaw resting on Kratz’s pate. This was the first person Dodd had seen with any considerable height on his campaign manager. Mal grunted. “You brought your damned dog, I see.”

Breaking the embrace, Kratz turned to his traveling companions. “C’mere, padre.” Dodd stepped forward, a queasy belch escaping his nostrils. “This is Gideon Dodd,” said Kratz.

Mal held out a massive hand. “Ah,” he said. “The man who would be God.” They shook. Dodd’s knuckles shifted uncomfortably.

“Maria Stenson.” She’d sidled up of her own accord and swooped an open hand forward. Mal grimaced when they shook; apparently her grip was no match for his. “Time Magazine.” A notepad and pencil appeared in her hands. “Spell your name for me?”

“Em ay ell?” the big man said.

Maria’s eyes drifted to the rims of her sunglasses. “And last name?”

“Just Mal,” said Mal.

“And these are the kids,” Kratz said, wobbling a hand toward the twins. “So who do we have here?” He waved a timid ‘hello’ to the young native several yards away. The half-naked man just stared, arms at his sides.

“That’s Mwapi,” Mal said. “One of the kids from the camp you will be staying. Good guy. Bit dim.” He whistled and gesticulated a big, scooping “come-hither.” A series of melodic syllables and clicks poured from his mouth with smooth ease. Mwapi nodded and strode toward them.

The Hadza spoke in his native tongue, looking at Dodd, at Kratz — lingering with confusion and fascination on Maria. Mal gave a quick clacking retort.

“He says he is honored to meet you and proud to be your host. He likes the woman’s hairdo.”

Mwapi grinned. His teeth were white, straight, and perfect. He bent over and made jazz-hands at the kids. “Ishoko,” he said.

Dodd spoke slowly, for some reason. “We are humbled to be welcomed into his home and that of his family.”

Mal smiled, nodded.

“Aren’t you going to tell him?”

“You are here at a crucial time,” Mal wrapped an arm around Mwapi and the two men took a few steps together, away from the tree. Mal held a palm out over the horizon. “The Hadza are foragers. This being dry season, their usual supply of fruit, nuts, tubers — it is, what would you call it, slim pickings? This time of year, they would usually eat more meat, but hunting is scarce. The animals in this region have fled. It is the poachers. The tourists.” His eyes flickered in the direction of Dodd’s battered suitcase.

“Don’t they have farms?” Ellie asked. “Or gardens?”

“No, child,” said Mal. “Mwapi here, and his kin, they search for their food where it grows naturally. They waste nothing, they destroy nothing, and still they are sustained.”

“Remarkable.” Maria was scribbling in her notepad.

“But it is different now.” Mal looked at his friend, softening, slumping at the shoulders. “We need a miracle. And Mr. Kratz here says you are just the man for that, Mr. Dodd!”

Dodd jerked into a military stance. “A miracle? Oh, no, I’m not—”

“And a miracle you shall have.” Kratz pressed a heel into Dodd’s hiking boot and patted his arm. “We just hope you’ll help these fine folk understand that when they cast their holy ballots, it’s Gideon Dodd who’s looking out for them. Not the absent god who left them to starve.”

“Of course.” Mal clapped once. “Mwapi!” He shouted in the Hadzabe tongue.

Mwapi was stooped over the dead dik-dik, taking panicked gulps of air. A single tear tracked his spotless cheek. The troubled intonations from deep in his throat needn’t be translated for Dodd to understand he was upset.

“Damn it, Kratz,” Mal whapped the manager on the back of the head. “These people have not had a bite to eat in six days, and your idiot mongrel has to slaughter the only meager game in a ten-mile radius?”

Mwapi curled onto his side, groping at the dead thing’s eyes to close them — but one was missing its lid.

“They can have it,” Kratz said.

“They will never eat it now.” Mal shook his head. “And smart of them, too. That mutt is probably riddled with disease.” He tugged on Kratz’s sleeve. “Get it out of here.”

“No problem, sure.” He took a canteen from his rucksack and drained it. “I think we’re all squared away here. We can be off now.”

Dodd’s mouth dropped. “We’re leaving already?”

Kratz laughed at that. “You aren’t going anywhere until you’ve performed your miracle and secured these people’s votes. I’m going to the hotel.”

“Hotel?” Dodd licked his dry lips.

Kratz brushed past him, the dog at his heel. “C’mon, kids,” he said. “We can make breakfast if we leave now.”

“Huh?”

“Yay, breakfast!” Ellie leapt into Kratz’s wake.

“You’re taking the kids?”

“They’ll be safe with me,” Kratz said. “Unless you want them out here in the wild African bush? Exposed to the elements and carnivores and God-knows-what?”

Dodd frowned. “No,” he said, “no. The hotel makes sense.” A brief buckling of the knees and he added, “Can I come with you? J-just for a minute — to use the facilities?”

“Sorry. You’ve got to get to work, padre,” Kratz said. The dog barked to punctuate this.

“We’ll save you a bagel, Dad!” Ellie said.

“No, we won’t.” Kratz’s voice carried over. They were already several yards back the way they’d come.

Except James hadn’t moved. He shifted on reluctant feet. “Do I have to go?”

Dodd pinched the bridge of his nose and winced. “James,” he said, “go with Mr. Kratz. He’ll take care of you.”

“But I don’t want to. I want to stay with you.”

Mal came to Dodd’s side, casting merciful shade onto him. “I would go with Mr. Kratz,” he said. “If you want food to eat and water to drink.”

With one last searching look at his father, James slumped around and trudged after Ellie and the hound.

With the word miracle ringing in his ears, Dodd turned to face Mwapi, to try to apologize for the mangled dik-dik somehow. Impeding his view of their new friend, however, were two mirrored reflections of his own swollen, sopping face in Maria’s classy shades.

“Well, Father,” she said. “Looks like it’s just you and me now.”

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