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Chapter 2: The Wizard of Odd
The next day was a Saturday, and indeed, started off as if the previous night had never happened. My father was jovial, mentioning no deities, while my mom breathed a sigh of relief. In a conspiratorial tone she suggested we take a bike ride. This is the last unabashedly positive recollection I have of my dad. He was so good a rider that he could sail beside me and playfully kick gravel at my wheels in a hard gray snowball fight without slowing down. When I was younger, I would try to kick back, but this inevitably led to my bike going into an awkward tailspin that would have led to marinara stains on my spaghetti legs. But every time I tripped up, my father grabbed my hand and lifted me, laughing, onto his lap, as if I had been the only survivor worth saving on some glamorous cruise crash. I was a little big for him to pick up so easily now, but I still kicked, and for the first time I did so successfully. This led to a more traditional race, which I won thanks only to his largesse, as my stubby legs never would have been able to outpace him in a fair fight.
That night we got a call. My dad, resentful of whoever was interrupting such a great day, picked it up as if it were a piece of rotten fruit.
“Hello?” he answered reservedly. I only heard his side. “Yes, this is him.”
There was an inquiry on the other end of the line, to which he answered, “No, I haven’t found a job yet.”
His conversation partner blathered like Charlie Brown’s teacher, prompting my dad to say, “So Jesus will provide?” as if this were new information.
The trumpet mute played a solo, longer, to which my dad shouted, “We’ll attend!”
The next morning started off badly. We awoke to the sound of a bell in our dining room, quickly followed by my excited father shoving my fancy flower dress in my face. It was the second time I would be wearing it, the first having been my cousin Kayla’s wedding (at least there were positive memories associated with it). My dad was clearly affectionate, but there was no doubt that we were in a hurry. It was quickly made clear that my morning was not going to consist of Disney movies, as had formerly been the case, which predisposed me to a miserable experience. My father had built the bell that night. If there was one thing that was admirable about him, it was the intensity of his fervency, however misplaced or ill informed. We came down like rats following the pied piper and sat beneath the new creation. It was a simplistic affair: two halves of a bronze flowerpot domed at the bottom, glued together, and turned upside-down, with a kitchen spoon clapper. It hung over the table like a thimble awaiting God’s finger. My father had made scrambled eggs and bacon, which he distributed onto our plates in the shape of a cross. We took our seats, still hoping this may be temporary.
“See? It’s the pig of Christ!” he exclaimed, proud of his convoluted Eucharist.
“Um…isn’t it supposed to be the Lamb of Christ?” my mother protested.
“Do you really think that we can afford lamb on our present salary?” my father snapped, instantly silencing my mother, who was too gentle to comment on his lack of contribution to the family income. Perspective never was his strength.
My father then poured the grapefruit juice, adding, “and this is just a bit of our delicious and nutritious Savior’s blood.”
Driving up to the church, I remember getting excited and commenting, “It looks like the Emerald Palace from the Wizard of Oz! Will God grant us each a wish?”
“Who knows, dear, the Lord works in mysterious ways,” my dad answered, pulling into a parking space. I was beaming as we stepped out. I felt like Dorothy, with my pigtailed hair, walking up the sidewalk, which in its beigeness looked like a faded yellow-brick road. I made believe my father was the Lion, my mother the Good Witch, Zach the Scarecrow, and Eli the Tin-man. I even carried a stuffed dog I renamed Toto in my enthusiasm. Although the songs coming from the church were less enjoyable to my Hollywood ears, I had high hopes for this religious thing.
Opening the big oak doors, I saw the church was no less impressive from the inside. My jaw hung like a hammock. However, there were only a few munchkins and they were draped in robes which fell far short of the kaleidoscope colors of the movie. All of them were tending to and milling about the glorious altar, which was itself a far cry from the joyously motivated little people of Oz (there were far fewer musical numbers – mainly: none). I learned later that they were acolytes doing their duty (most of whom had probably been coerced into it by their parents), but at the time I was not impressed.
The people in the pews were also less enthused than the bystanders of Oz. Many were sleeping and the rest were quietly talking. Few paid any mind to the choir to the right, whose jaws were bobbing down and up as if the singers were dummies controlled by an outside force. This, too, was less impressive to a seven year-old than good witches and dancing Danny DeVitos. Sulking, I stomped after my family and slinked into the pew between my brothers.
As the chorus wound down, the organist came in playing over the drum line underscoring the song “Gimme Some Lovin’.” The organ riff quickly followed. This prompted a tall, lanky man with a crescent moon face to jog out, waving to the crowd with a politician’s smile and a runner’s athleticism. He was in his late thirties, but his face and hair bore the grey scarred truth of the ages. His hair was peppered and slicked back in an all-too-formal manner. He looked like a cross between Jay Leno and a spray-painted Steve Martin. He was dressed like a groom who had missed five weddings. Nonetheless, he was smiling, crying, “Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready to rapture?” as if he were announcing a wrestling match, “Welcome to the First Church, we’re glad to have you with us! We’re going to have a blast representin’ our faith to the Lord and our gratitude for His Son, Jesus. Now, can I get an amen?” a quiet echo bounced back, prompting him to challenge, “I can’t hear you!”
“AMEN!” the crowd screamed. My dad was on fire – and looked it, too, with how crimson his face was. Even my brothers were getting into it. “God is pretty bad-ass!” one whispered to the other, leaning over me.
“All right, we gonna focus on the Gospel of our buddy Matt. He was a tax collector, but we gonna trust him anyway ‘cuz he had the Spirit of the Lord workin’ in him. Now friends,” he resumed, pacing like a committed advisor, “Many of us face challenges in life…”
“See? He knows we’re going through hard times! He wrote this for us!” my father nudged my mother like a child waking his parents on Christmas morning.
“But these challenges are ghosts, irrelevancies – compared to the eternity that waits on your doorstep. And are you going to let Jesus in or are you going to mock Him with a locked door? If you lock Him out, He will lock you out. Some people walk around today cavalier in their caviar, traipsin’ around man-made Heavens like they cock o’ the walk! But all that means is that they chickens and farmer God’s waitin’ to swoop with an axe called the Angel of Death to slice they smilin’ heads, makin’ bloody fountains of their heretical necks. The rich among you have your warning. Be like Lazarus, not the rich man in Hell lookin’ to Heaven. But you, disenfranchised friends, turn to Matthew 5:5, for therein does your salvation lie. And who does it say are blessed? I wanna see hands reachin’ to Heaven, so the one I choose can tell us.”
My father launched his hand like a rocket that lifted his whole body up.
“I love that enthusiasm! Tell us, sir, just who is blessed.”
“The meek!” my dad screamed like a groupie on the verge of tears.
“That’s right!” validated the pastor, “The meek, the weak, forlorn and bleak! Blessed are they who can’t pay expenses loomin’ today! I know you got the kindness and heart, and as long as that heart belongs to Jesus, so do you. Now I can hear some sayin’, ‘Tom, I could rip my heart out, and the banks might take it, but they’d be askin’ for more!’ I’d say, you’re right! But I’d ask you, ‘who’s your daddy? Is your god a multinational conglomerate eatin’ poor folk like Doritos?’ If so, there’s the door. But if your god is my God – who gave His life on Golgotha for us – for you – then why don’t you come over to Matthew 6:24?
“I’m gonna put it in today’s terms: you gonna serve God or you gonna serve an earthly master, be it a company, money, a job, or gov’ment. But no power on earth can punish like God. Life’s your probation, a second chance after Eden, and if you ain’t learned who you serve, then, as Jesus say, ‘There be weepin’ an’ gnashin’ of teeth’. Check it, Jesus says it four times in this gospel. And weepin’ and gnashin’ may sound tame in this day of Resident Evils and Quentin Tarantinos, but make no mistake, Hell ain’t no heavy metal concert. If you ask Dante, folks in Hell live in poop, live in fire, live in ice, and some push rocks for eternity. If you think your boss is bad, Satan’s worse. I guarantee God’s more creative with punishments than some Italian, ‘cuz if He’s as good at anything as He is at rewarding winners, it’s punishin’ sinners.
“Be thankful for what you got, but if you hurtin’ for cash, be more thankful…you gonna have more blessings than Bill Gates has pennies when Jesus come collectin’. You say, ‘Tom, blessings won’t pay bills.’ You right! God will! Turn to Matthew 6:26. This gem says it in ways that make sense after 2000 years. How cool is that? ‘Look at the birds; they don’t sow or reap or store…but your heavenly Father feeds them. Ain’t you more valuable?’ If you been to the city, you seen more pigeons than Uncle Bubba got tattoos. I ain’t once seen ‘em carrying a suitcase. I don’t care how down and out you are. I ain’t gonna agree you down and out ‘til you dead, and then we know that if you had Jesus’ back, He has yours. But while you waitin’ in Heaven’s lobby, God ain’t gonna forget you. He always provides. As long as you a believer, that’s no matter what.” There was more, but that was when I fell asleep. I awoke to him saying, “The Lord instructs us to abandon possessions to serve Him; to facilitate that, be generous with the collection plate; money you give are manifested multifold in the hereafter.”
He passed a plate. My dad took a fiver he’d been saving to pay for his clothes to be cleaned and dropped it in with some tears. Mom buried her head in her hands.
As we were leaving, I broke away and glided through the flock, which loomed like human redwoods, talking asinine back and forth. Eventually, I found the pastor, who was laughing with some disciples. I tugged at his suit, but received no recognition. I mumbled his name, intimidated by the crowd, but he didn’t hear me or didn’t care (admittedly, probably the former, but to a child, the smallest affront is the end).
Before being escorted out by my mom, I timidly approached the wizened organist, hiding behind a curtain, and shyly asked, “Mrs. Wizard-lady? I decided on my wish: please make my dad like he used to be."