I was in the cereal aisle of the grocery store when I saw God for the first time. He was reading the nutrition facts off the side of a box of Fruit Loops. I was surprised to see him, because as far as I was concerned, he didn’t exist. He was a fairy tale I’d outgrown, like Santa Claus or Peter Pan.
He wore a long green plaid overcoat over matching trousers. His enormous feet were clad in banana yellow loafers with gloves to match. He had a fur-lined dark green lumberjack hat pulled low over his brow, and yellow tinted aviators obscuring his eyes. His skin, as far as I could tell, was as black as coal.
He must have felt me staring because he replaced the box of cereal on the shelf and gave me a small nod and a grin. His teeth were pearly white and lustrous. Then he shoved his hands deep in his pockets and walked towards the dairy section, whistling tunelessly.
I watched him go and then pulled out my cell phone to call my wife Janie.
“Janie-bell,” I said when she picked up, “You’ll never believe who I just saw at SaveMart.”
“Eileen,” she said promptly. Eileen was Janie’s bridge partner and probably the only person worth calling about who lived in town.
“No,” I said, pulling my shopping cart to one side so that a weary young mother pushing her screaming red-faced child could get by. “I saw God.” The mother stopped and gave me an odd look, so I grabbed a box of Wheatabix and made a cheers gesture at her before dropping it into the cart. She hurried off, her child distracted by a Tupperware container that he’d managed to pull from a display.
Janie was quiet on the other end of the line. “Janie, did I lose you?” I asked, pressing the phone closer to my ear.
“No, I’m still here.” I could hear her soft breathing in the background, more labored than it used to be.
“How do you know it’s God, Stephen,” she asked.
“He just is Janie. I don’t know how to explain it.”
“What did he look like,” she asked.
I paused. “Sort of like a pimp from the ‘70’s,” I finally replied.
“Oh Steve,” Janie sighed. “Just come home. Don’t forget the chicken stock.” She hung up and I placed the phone back in my pocket. I walked into the dairy aisle but God was already gone. I grabbed a half gallon of milk and located the chicken stock, which I probably would have forgotten if Janie hadn’t reminded me.
I paid the acne-scarred teenage cashier and hefted my bags out to the bus stop. On the bench, eating a bag of Hanover’s pretzels, was God. I slid onto the seat next to him, tucking my bags underneath the bench so that no one would trip over them. He held out the pretzels and shook the bag, inviting me to take one, but I declined, shaking my head. He nodded and slumped back against the bench, then pulled out a tiny silver hip flask and took a swig.
I picked at the peeling paint on the cold metal bench and tried to hold my tongue. It was just us at the bus stop, and the 35 never ran on time. After a few minutes, God clasped his hands together and stretched them above his head, letting out a loud grunt of satisfaction.
“It’s pretty fucked up,” I finally said to him, unable to hold back any longer. He turned and looked at me, and I could just make out the shape of his eyes behind his aviators.
“What?” He asked, his voice low and rumbling, like the ocean tide.
“You know. Life.” I gestured meaningfully around me. A little terrier was shitting on the sidewalk; his embarrassed owner waiting to scoop it up.
“Oh. Yeah,” said God, leaning back again.
“For instance, my wife.” I continued. “Janie. Best woman I’ve ever known. Makes me laugh, puts up with me. Did a bang up job with the kids.” God was nodding along, waiting for me to get to the point. “And then six months ago, bam, cancer, untreatable. That’s it. That’s all she wrote.”
“I’m sorry to hear that man,” said God. He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a hanky and handed it to me. I hadn’t realized that I was crying, but I took it from him gratefully. It was perfectly white and smelled of chai.
“She always believed in you, you know, still does. I never did. She took the kids to church, worked in soup kitchens, gave to charity…” I trailed off. “And look where it got her.”
“I’m sorry,” God said, again. I gave the hanky back to him and he folded it neatly, putting it back in his pocket.
“People keep telling me there’s a plan. That things happen for a reason. But all I can think is, what reason would you have to take her away from me. I have plans for us,” I said and my voice cracked. A tear slipped slowly down God’s dark cheek.
“Why her?” I found myself asking. Shaking, I pulled a picture of Janie out of my wallet. It was from June of 1999. Her hair was still mostly red then. We’d taken the kids to an amusement park to celebrate our oldest, Beth, getting into college. The day had been hot and sticky and the kids had whined, so we had bought them ice cream. I had snapped the shot of Janie as she was licking melted chocolate off her wrist. Her hair was plastered to her forehead, and she was giving me the stink eye. It was my favorite picture of her. I grabbed his hand and pressed the picture into it.
He looked at the photo for a moment, then handed it back to me. “I wish I knew,” he said. The 35 was finally chugging into sight. I held my breath for a moment.
“Save her,” I said, clutching the picture in my hand. He shook his head sadly.
The bus pulled up so I grabbed my bags and stood, my knees trembling, as the doors wheezed open. God placed his giant yellow gloved hand on my arm.
“All I can do is love you people with everything I’ve got as long as you’re around. That’s all you can do too.” He pulled off his aviators and I looked into his eyes, the depth of galaxies within them. “Go home and love your wife,” he said. I nodded and stepped onto the bus. I paid my fare and the doors closed behind me. I sat in the window and gave God a little wave. He waved back, then walked off as he had in the grocery store; his hands shoved deep in his pocket and whistling what I imagined was a tuneless song.