I suppose I should want to talk about the President’s bold new plan for Iraq, but it’s all too depressing, isn’t it? So I figured it’s time for another godstory. The character of God owes a lot to a certain kind of sentimental movie version of the miraculous done so well in the 40’s by guys like Frank Capra. My adolescent religion was watching those things on tv every afternoon. Those stories owe a debt to Dickens, whose A Christmas Carol is a touchstone of sentimental magic. So here’s my Capraesque-Dickensish godstory:
Julia Prays to Forget Evan
Julia loads the dishwasher, wipes all the counters and splashboards clean and everything on them, scours the stovetop and the sink, vacuums and mops the floor, and watches it dry. She kneels to get a stubborn spot in front of the stove when, all of a sudden, she feels the overwhelming need to pray. It’s that or sob again. She hates that.
The tile floor under her knees is hard and cold. She’s eye-level with the digital clock on the stove, which hasn’t been reset since the thunderstorm three nights before. It blinks hypnotically: 12:00 12:00 12:00 12:00 12:00 12:00 . . .
She doesn’t know what to say. She’s not even sure you say anything. God knows your thoughts, right? Even when she was a kid, the last time she was moved to prayer, she never felt like she was doing it right. But here it is, out of nowhere, the need to pray, in her perfectly clean kitchen. She knows why she needs to pray, of course. She’s a solid block of grief and rage, has been for weeks:
Evan has left her for another woman. After twenty years together. Tabitha, the other woman, was two when Julia and Evan met, both skating through Comparative Religion, about to graduate. Tabby was five when Julia and Evan got married. He calls her Tabby. She could’ve been a flower girl at their wedding, strewing flowers after their car, until a Mack truck came out of nowhere and smashed her skinny ass like a sack of chicken bones.
This blissful image fades to gleaming Linoleum. This kitchen-cleaning binge has been her latest pathetic attempt to get a grip. And now here she is, on her knees, her hands clasped desperately around a bottle of Glass Plus and a Scrubbie, comforting herself with fantasies of hit-and-run, composing a fucking prayer?
The final humiliation.
And that’s what she prays forâ€”finality.
â€œDear God,â€� she says, in a loud, clear voice, â€œMake me stop loving him…” She totters on the brink of tears. Enough tears. God doesn’t want her tears. Nobody does.
“Make me forget him,â€� she says. “Completely.”
It’s as if it comes out of someone else, someone strong and sure who knows what she wants. She can’t believe she’s said such a thing, but hearing the words, she’s convinced of their rightness, and a faint, private smile comes to her making her feel for a moment that maybe, somehow, her prayer will someday be answered. You take what you can get.
â€œAmen,â€� she adds, making it official, and the clockâ€™s numerals stop blinking. â€œWeird,â€� she says aloud. She’s gotten in the habit of talking to herself since Evan left. She stares at the steady, unflickering numerals.
12:01, they glow.
And then, a minute later, 12:02.
Weird. She looks down at herself. Almost as weird as kneeling in front of the stove in the middle of the afternoon making prayerful with household cleaning products. She rises to her feet, and there’s a knock at the kitchen door behind her.
Only friends come to that door. Friends whoâ€™ve come by, no doubt, on this beautiful Sunday afternoon, to console herâ€”and to find out whether Evanâ€™s girlfriend is really only twenty-two. No, Tabby died when she was five, actually, a horrible accident involving a large truck and rose petals.
There’s nothing for it now. She’s standing in plain sight in the middle of the kitchen. Whoever it is can see her through the glass. She hopes they didn’t see her down on her knees and get the wrong idea. She turns to find a complete stranger smiling and waving at her through the glass. He’s a pleasant-looking old man, a dead ringer for Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street. The kind, crinkly eyes, the soft white hair and beard, the dimples when he smiles. It’s uncanny.
Cautiously, she opens the door a crack. He probably wants the house next door. â€œYes, may I help you?â€� she asks.
â€œI believe you just asked for my help,â€� he says. â€œIâ€™m God.â€�
He’s wearing a heavy wool overcoat with a cashmere collar, in mid-August. Not a good sign. Close the door and lock it, hit 911 on the speed dial, Now! she’s screaming in her head, but she just stares back at him. â€œGod?â€� she asks.
He nods and smiles pleasantly. â€œThe One and Only.â€�
She looks back at the oven clock. 12:03, it says. She rubs her eyes, takes a deep, cleansing breath, looks back at the old man, and he’s still there, still smiling at her. “My-my prayer?”
He bobs his head up and down, still beaming. “That’s right.”
A short, nervous laugh, more like a yelp than a laugh, pops out of her. â€œBut you look like Santa Claus,â€� she says.
The Old Man chuckles. â€œIt works for most people. With some, of course, I wouldnâ€™t dream of showing up as Santaâ€”theyâ€™d throw me out on my earâ€”you know, philosophy majors and the like. But you, Julia, Iâ€™d rather thought youâ€™d like Kris Kringle.â€� He takes a cautious step toward the threshold. â€œArenâ€™t you going to invite me in? So we can discuss your prayer?â€�
â€œInvite you in?â€� says Julia. She blinks at him like the clock blinked at her, as if her circuits, too, have been frazzled by a bolt of lightning. She can still hear her voice screaming inside of her: Close the door and lock it, hit 911 on the speed dial, Now! Now! Now! How interesting, she thinks.
â€œSure, sure,â€� she says and steps back, opening the door. “Come in.” She’s glad everything’s so clean. She’d hate for anyone to see the mess it was a few hours ago, least of all God.
God steps into her kitchen and smiles on everything. â€œVery nice,â€� he says. â€œMost people would’ve missed the spot under the toaster oven. Why donâ€™t we have some coffee and that big bag of Oreos you bought this morning?â€�
â€œOreos,â€� Julia whispers. So God knows about those. Probably knows about the Gummy Bears in her desk at work.
â€œAnd coffee,â€� says God.
â€œRegular or decaf?â€� Julia asks.
â€œRegular,â€� says God.
Julia can’t remember making the coffee, but there they are, the two of them, sitting at her kitchen table with cups of coffee and a platter of Oreosâ€”her and God. Maybe the prayer thing wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe she shouldâ€™ve filled the prescription for Prozac instead. Hell, gobbled up the Oreos like she planned.
God pries an Oreo apart and smiles upon it. â€œSo, you want to stop loving Evan. Why is that?â€�
Julia watches God eat Oreos, wondering whether He likes crunchy or smooth peanut butter, red or white wine. She imagines them on one of those stupid morning TV shows she watches when she’s too depressed to go in to work: Today on Juliaâ€™s Kitchen, Julia chats with God.
â€œIf youâ€™re God,â€� she saysâ€”â€œyou already know why.â€� God is beginning to annoy her just a little bit.
â€œI suppose you mean that business with Tabitha,â€� God says, his mouth full of Oreo.
The mere sound of the name fills her with venom. â€œOf course, I mean â€˜that business with Tabitha.â€™ The young and beautiful Tabitha. My husbandâ€™s lover, Tabitha!â€� And then, as it always does, her venom turns to tears.
â€œHe promised to love me,â€� she says, banging her fists on her chest. â€œMe, not her.â€� She buries her head in her arms. â€œHe promised to love me forever.â€�
God hands her his handkerchief. â€œI remember that. And you made a similar promise, as I recall.â€�
Julia can scarcely believe God is such a simpleton. She dries her eyes and blows her nose. The handkerchief is soft and billowy and smells like her grandfatherâ€”the nice one. â€œSo what? He broke his promise.â€�
God shrugs. â€œPerhaps. Who cares about him, right? Letâ€™s not get bogged down in the ethics of the whole thing. Enough talk. I’m a busy God. I’ve got a lot on my plate. What would you like me to do to him? Misery? Wasting disease? Death?â€� God pops a whole Oreo in his mouth, dispenses with it in a few loud, crunching chomps, chasing it down with a big swig of steaming hot coffee. â€œDismemberment?â€�
â€œGod no!â€� Julia shrieks.
â€œBut I thought you didnâ€™t want to love him anymore, that you wanted to forget him altogether.â€�
â€œIâ€”I do. But I donâ€™t want anything bad to happen to himâ€”or at least not horrible.â€�
God drinks off his coffee and pours himself another cup. â€œAnd whyâ€™s that?â€�
â€œBecause Iâ€™m still in love with him,â€� Julia explains to this incredibly dense deity, adding to herself, You fucking idiot! Then realizesâ€”The Fucking Idiot can read her thoughts. But she doesn’t care, Goddamnit. She feels worse now than when she fell on her knees to pray, and she thought she was hitting bottom then. She remembers why she quit praying when she was thirteen.
â€œHow about I make you stop loving him firstâ€”then I can do whatever I want to him.â€�
â€œNo! Youâ€™re impossible!â€�
God laughs. It’s big and infectious. â€œIâ€™ve often been told so, yes.â€�
Then she sees the twinkle. Probably been there all along. She hasn’t really been looking for it. Too pissed off, she supposes. But it’s there. God’s been pulling her leg. It’s kind of sweet when she thinks about it. Teased by God. This sweet old man wouldn’t hurt a fly. She smiles bravely at him.
â€œDrink some of your coffee,â€� God says. â€œItâ€™s quite delicious.â€�
â€œI don’t know what I was thinking,” she apologizes. “I shouldn’t have poured myself any. If I drink this, I’ll be up all night. I only drink decaf after noon.â€�
â€œOf course,â€� He says. He points a finger at her cup, and gives it a little wiggle. â€œYou can drink it now.â€�
Her eyes widen, and she stares into the steaming black fluid, imagining millions of evil caffeine molecules dissolving into nothing or turning into virtuous anti-oxidants. She wonders if He can turn the Cokes Evan left in the fridge to diet while He’s here. Cautiously, as if it might now turn her into a toad or a princess, she brings the cup to her lips and takes a drink. It’s deliciousâ€”the best coffee sheâ€™s ever tastedâ€”and it seems to wash away a good deal of her venom and grief. Maybe God isn’t so bad after all.
He gives her a reassuring nod, and she has another gulp, cradles the warm, comforting cup in her hands.
â€œSo, back to your prayer,” God saysâ€””You want me to make you stop loving Evanâ€”then what?â€�
Julia sets down her cup, picks up an Oreo and pries it apart, considering the possibilities. She feels grounded now, centered. â€œI just want to stop loving him. Thatâ€™s all. His life should be whatever it was going to be anywayâ€”whether I was stupid enough to love him or not.â€�
â€œBut you want me to change something important. Once you change one thing, it changes everything else.â€�
â€œMy love important? Ha! Ask Evan how important it is. Besides, he already changed everything when he fell for that little bimbo.â€� God pours her another coffee, and she drinks some more. â€œThis is really good coffee,â€� she says.
â€œThe best,â€� God says. â€œAnd you said you only drink decaf.â€�
She stares at the coffee in her cup. â€œThis is regular?â€�
â€œHigh octane, actually.â€�
â€œBut I thought youâ€”youâ€”â€� She wiggles her finger at it. â€œTransformed it or something.â€� She points her wiggling finger at Him. â€œYou lied to me.â€�
God rolls his eyes. â€œNo. I most definitely did not. I said you could drink it, an obvious truth, and you acted on it. I tricked you into living a little. I figured youâ€™d survive. Besides, youâ€™re going to be up quite late.â€�
Julia doesn’t like the sound of that. â€œDoing what?â€�
â€œWeâ€™re going out. Discussion doesnâ€™t seem to be getting us anywhere. I thought a field trip might help. Have you ever read A Christmas Carol or seen one of the movies?â€�
She wrinkles up her nose. â€œOf course. Only about a million times. You like that?â€�
â€œI love it. I love Christmas.â€�
â€œYouâ€™re kidding. Itâ€™s so crass and materialistic.â€�
â€œI assure you, my dear, I get quite enough grand and heavenly. But as I was saying, weâ€™ll go outâ€”just like in Dickens. Iâ€™ll return at midnight and take you to the present, the past, and the future. What do you think?â€�
Julia thinks He’s nuts. Sheâ€™s met God, face-to-face, and He’s totally nuts. It makes sense. It explains a lot of things. â€œWh-why . . . why would you want to do that?â€�
â€œSo you can decide what you want to do about this prayer of yours.â€�
Julia holds up her hands in surrender. â€œJust forget it, okay? Just forget the whole prayer thing.â€�
â€œSorry, no can do. Omniscience, you know.â€� He taps his white temples with his fingertips. â€œI canâ€™t forget anything.â€�
Julia eyes him suspiciously. â€œYou could if you wanted to. What about omnipotence?â€�
â€œWhat is thisâ€”philosophy 101? Can I make a stone so big I can’t move it? Omnipotence is for suckers. So what do you say? I usually leave this sort of thing to the angels, but why should they have all the fun? Theyâ€™ve certainly been getting all the good press lately.â€�
â€œDo I have a choice?â€�
â€œOf course. Iâ€™m a stickler on free will.â€� He pries open another Oreo and licks off the fillingâ€”all of itâ€”in a single slurp. Truly amazing. â€œIf you donâ€™t want to deal with it, Iâ€™ll just answer your prayer as I see fit.â€�
An image of Evan being fried by a huge bolt of lightning flashes through her mind. â€œOkay. Iâ€™ll go. But do we have to wait till midnight? What am I supposed to do, sit here all day? Iâ€™ll go nuts.â€�
â€œGood point,â€� God says, and the clock on the stove blinks 12:00.
â€œWhere would you like to go first?â€� God asks.
Julia looks out the kitchen door where she first saw God come calling, and it’s dark. Midnight, she’s guessing.
Julia decides on the present. The future’s out of the questionâ€”she doesn’t even like to have her tarot cards read. And the pastâ€”wellâ€”she was already crying bucketsâ€”what does she want to doâ€”slash her wrists? No, the past is a minefield of morbid sentimentality. Better to stick with the presentâ€”the rotten presentâ€”where she’s good and pissed off, and that gets her through the day. That and Oreos. And nowâ€”she tries not to think about itâ€”God.
He takes her outside, under starry midnight skies. He holds out his big right hand. The air is crisp and dry as if it were Christmas eve. Who wouldâ€™ve thought God was such a hambone.
â€œYou donâ€™t mean fly, flyâ€”like through the air with no plane or anything.â€�
â€œNo, please. Iâ€™m terrified of heights.â€�
â€œWeâ€™ll fly low.â€�
“No! You said I have free will!”
“Okay, okay. We’ll forget flying. We’ll just appear.â€�
Godâ€™s fingers are poised for a divine snap, when Julia thinks to ask. â€œAppear where, exactly? Not anywhere within a hundred miles of Tabitha, I hope.â€�
â€œWell, yes, actually.â€�
â€œSo I could see her at some cornball vulnerable moment, right? So Iâ€™d understand what life is like inside her perfect body and feel all sympathetic toward her like a big sister or something.â€�
â€œYou donâ€™t like it?â€�
â€œIt sucks. No Tabitha.â€�
â€œAll right. Past or future?â€�
The future could be anything, as recently demonstrated by the dreadful present she currently inhabits. It had once been the future too. The deceitful, false, treacherous future that promises one thing and delivers another. â€œOkay, the past.â€�
â€œThe past it is.â€� God gets a look in his eyes like heâ€™s paging through her life looking for just the right bit. Itâ€™s like someone rummaging through your trash. Only he doesnâ€™t have to rummage. He was there at every crumpled, discarded moment.
â€œWait a minute. Youâ€™re not going to take me to the past and show me how I dumped Charlie fifteen years ago, so Iâ€™m supposed to forgive Evan now, are you?â€�
God rubs his eyes wearily. â€œWell, yes, I was actually.â€�
â€œI donâ€™t like it,â€� Julia says. â€œToo predictable and easy. Besides I was a kid then.â€�
â€œThe same age as Tabitha.â€�
â€œNo. She was eight.â€�
â€œYou know what I mean.â€�
â€œSure I do. I just donâ€™t buy it. I didnâ€™t get involved with a happily married man. I just divorced my miserable husband before he divorced me.â€�
â€œBecause you were in love with Evan.â€�
â€œBut he wasnâ€™t married.â€�
God smiles. â€œYes, now I understand. I donâ€™t know why I didnâ€™t see your moral superiority before.â€�
God chuckles. â€œSo what shall it be then, the future?â€�
Why is it Godâ€™s always pushing the future? Is it because only he can see it? And maybe Stephen Hawking. Juliaâ€™s had enough. As much as sheâ€™s enjoying the crisp, cool night air in August, sheâ€™s had it with the time games. She crosses her arms and stands up straight. â€œNo. I want to change my prayer.â€�
â€œChange your prayer?â€�
â€œThatâ€™s right. New prayer. We start over. I prayed for the wrong thing, and now Iâ€™m correcting my mistake. Free will, right?â€�
â€œRight. And what is your new prayer?â€�
â€œI want to forgive Evan.â€�
â€œThatâ€™s right. You know, â€˜forgive my trespassesâ€™ and all that? Itâ€™s what you want me to do, right?â€�
â€œI told you. Iâ€™m a stickler about free will.â€�
â€œFine, fine. My own free will: I pray to forgive Evan.â€�
â€œWhat about Tabitha?â€�
â€œGod, you drive a hard bargain. Okay. Why the hell not? Her too. Charlie. My mom. My eighth grade English teacher. Hell. Even you.â€�
â€œWhat about Julia?â€�
A little sob catches in her throat as she whispers, â€œHer too,â€� and God kisses her lightly on the forehead, and she can feel it evaporating off her forehead like a mist rising from the river at sunrise.
She opens her eyes, and heâ€™s gone, and sheâ€™s kneeling in her kitchen with a fresh cup of coffee and a platter of Oreos on the counter, though God has already eaten most of them. Just as well. She can do without the calories. The kitchen looks great, and she has the whole afternoon ahead of her.