When I was a kid, way, way back—we’re talking when most channels were still in black and white—my parents had front row seats to church every single Sunday. Back then, God was this…presence that I felt when I was alone, pouring out of the walls and nudging my brain. Or at least, I thought I felt it. I wasn’t really sure if it was all in my head or whatever. And every night, before I went to sleep, I’d ask that presence for the most important things in the world according to nine-year-old boys—ice cream, cap guns, baseball cards, blah, blah, blah. This was before Game Boys, but if they were around, I’m sure one would be sitting pretty at the top of the list. Anyway, most of the time it didn’t work, and I asked my parents and my priest and my teachers why not, and they told me he doesn’t just give you what you ask for like some kind of omnipresent genie.
After that message sunk in, I started to think that maybe God was just the police chief—there to punish you when you call your classmate an idiot after he swears Africa’s a country, or when you scrape your asparagus off your plate and into the garbage while your parents aren’t watching, or you shout “Jesus Fucking Christ” after the older kids set off those firecrackers behind the school. So, of course I did all of these, and I frantically bargained with the “presence,” offering to throw some of my allowance into the church collection basket on Sunday and swear off swearing. Oh, Jesus, I remember when puberty hit, and I figured out how jerking off worked. Supposedly it’s this big sin, but I was thirteen, and I had this lust-guilt relationship with my dad’s old Marilyn Monroe issue of Playboy. I had to make more deals with God than I had cash in my little ceramic piggy bank. So of course I blew him off. And I knew that he knew I was blowing him off. Every night I braced for a lightning strike or an earthquake or Satan bursting from the ground or something. But it never came. So I started testing the limit. I stole a dollar from the ice cream store at school. I flipped my dad off when he wasn’t looking. I ditched Sunday mass to meet my friends at the local donut shop. And after all of it, I still had ten fingers and ten toes. That’s when I was sure the presence was in my head the whole time, and it didn’t seem so…well, present…but how could all these adults pretend to feel it? Maybe there was a God, but he was more of the hands-off ruler of the universe?
I was still trying to figure all that out when I turned eighteen, and the little more hands-on rulers of the U.S. gifted me front row tickets to see the exotic jungles of Vietnam. Non-refundable, non-returnable, and sure as hell non-refuseable. So there in the greenery, the rain, the gunfire, and the grenades, me and the twenty-five terrified kids next to me all asked God to save or skin, and in the back of my head, I knew this was it. This is where the retribution came. The punishment for all the lying, stealing, and copious masturbating…except the battle ended. And I was still breathing. And Danny over there with the bullet through the eye, Danny was a kid that said please and thank you and always asked if you wanted some of his peanuts when he opened a bag. And, yeah, Jimmy over there with his spleen spilling out was a fucking monster—a complete and utter sociopath—one of the ones that got off watching the men drop to the floor at the other end of his scope. But there were just as many Dannys as Jimmys lying there on the ground, and I couldn’t help thinking, if someone’s up there orchestrating all this, they must be rolling some fucking dice or something. Once in a while, I’d get a glimpse of the other side’s corpses, with the smooth faces and frightened eyes, and I just knew most of them were praying to someone, same as me, same as Danny. It all seemed so…random.
It made me think about people a thousand miles away, who don’t even believe in this God. They’re sitting there with their Buddha or Allah or Vishnu or Thor or whatever hanging over them, and I could’ve just as easily been born there, with tanner skin and a turban, and that presence could’ve been called anything else. I don’t know. Maybe it’s like a Hemingway story, and all the signs are there, swimming below the surface, too deep for my shallow mind to catch, but worshiped by all the ones who get it. Or maybe all these people are just making shit up. Either way, I don’t read much Hemingway anymore.