A string of spittle landed on the left toe of Dr. Stewart Marvin's brown Oxfords as he dumped a saliva-soaked cotton wad into the trash container. He pulled a tissue from his lab coat, bent down to wipe his shoe, and groaned in pain. On his return to Randy in the dentist chair, Dr. Marvin looked out the window and barked, “Do you see that? Someone’s in my spot . . . again.”
Moaning from back pain and complaining about his filled parking spot were daily rituals. Dr. Marvin's back ached all the time. “One of these days I’ll get it fixed,” he’d announce, on and off, to no one in particular. But he smoldered if someone parked in his private spot, which was pretty much every day.
I needed my job as an orthodontist chair assistant, so I usually remained silent when Dr. Marvin fumed about the overarching transgressions of humanity—but my mouth shifted into gear before my brain turned on.
“You don’t drive to work,” I said.
“They don’t know that,” he sniffed and held out his hand. “Pliers.”
I slapped the instrument into his palm.
From the point of view of the patients, there was no indication I was a teacher by trade but worked as an orthodontist’s assistant because I couldn’t find a teaching job when my family moved to Syracuse, New York, in October of that year. My husband Mark had finished theological school and was about to start a year’s internship at the Syracuse Unitarian Universalist Church. We were excited about the launching of his new career but dismayed at the timing. Elementary schools had opened for the year—all positions filled—so to supplement Mark’s stipend, I accepted a job with Dr. Marvin and put my seven years of teaching experience on a resume that languished in the new applicant file of every school district in the area. 1
Dr. Marvin stuck the pliers into Randy’s mouth and checked that the band on the lower left molar had dried and bonded. He reattached the wires and tilted his head in the direction of the window. “Can’t they read? It has my name on it. Right there in big letters. Reserved for Dr. Marvin.”
It was a small office. Randy’s mom, the likely parking-spot trespasser, had surely heard Dr. Marvin’s grousing. I waited for Nancy at the front desk to tell the woman to move her car, but Nancy didn't say anything. She had been moderating Dr. Marvin’s crabbiness for two years, and I figured she was sick of softening onslaughts.
“Ok, now Randy,” Dr. Marvin said as he clunked the pliers onto the metal tray. “Like I told you before . . . stop chewing gum and eating candy." He sighed and shook his head, as though he knew Randy would break the rules. He unhooked the clip from Randy’s paper bib and shook his finger at Randy’s nose. “I had to replace two bands today. Your mother’s not going to be happy with you when I tell her these braces aren’t coming off any time soon.” He pumped the chair down. “And Randy . . . don’t forget . . . God watches you. All. The. Time." He bent closer to Randy's face. "He sees you chomp gum and eat junk.” He scowled and folded his arms. “And he doesn’t like it . . . one bit.”
Randy's body wilted and his eyes fill with tears. He slumped to the reception area where his mom waited for him, hands on hips. “I heard what Dr. Marvin said,” she barked. “You’re gonna pay for your own teeth, if this keeps up. You hear me?” She turned around. “And Dr. Marvin, I’m so sorry I parked in your spot. It won’t happen again.”
Even though I offered an encouraging, “Good job,” and Nancy gave him a comic book, Randy’s spirit seemed crushed by the time he and his mom left the office.
But Dr. Marvin’s spirit had perked up. He strutted into the waiting room holding his King James Bible and smirked, “See? She knows she shouldn’t park there.” He paused and then opened the Bible. “Ok, now where were we? Ah yes, Proverbs 14 – Verses 15 to 20.” He looked up and smiled with what I assume he thought was a redemptive glow, one that would beam radiance directly into God’s heart, but to me it looked more like ecstatic arrogance eating the meek for lunch.
Thus began the daily Bible reading—Dr. Marvin’s third ritual. I was amazed that he could say all the ‘eths’ without stumbling.
After the reading, he looked from Nancy to me and back to Nancy. “Do you know what this means?” He raised his eyebrows. “Do you see what this is teaching us?”
Neither of us spoke. I knew what it meant, and I’m sure Nancy did, too. But did he grasp it? Probably not. Even if God himself waltzed in and thumped Dr. Marvin across the forehead, would Dr. Marvin realize he had missed the meaning altogether. Regardless of the sanctimonious policies he placed on the world, he had miles to go before being a prudent man who looketh well to his going. To me, he was ever-too-soon angry. A fool who rageth. A man who despiseth his neighbor.
Did he instruct us about love and goodness and mercy and forgiveness and how to recognize evil? Always. Did any of that dethrone his arrogance? Almost never.
At five-foot-four with graying sandy hair and freckled cheeks, Dr. Marvin looked like a happy, gentle, fifty-year-old horse-jockey. At first meeting, he was the perfect Welcome Wagon greeter. Big smile, cheery blue eyes, and a warm, firm handshake. His charisma engaged me right away. Congenial. Convivial. During the interview, he seemed to show interest in my background, Mark’s ministerial studies, and our daughter Sally's creativity. We chatted about the benefits of living in Syracuse and the beauty of the Finger Lakes. He admitted to liking Karen Carpenter and the Bee Gees. And he said if I took the job, he'd straighten Sally's teeth, even though she was only nine. I was smitten. What a wonderful man.
During my first few days on the job, Dr. Marvin sparkled with charm. We joked and laughed and appreciated each other's interests. He taught me how to handle dental instruments carefully and firmly, like a surgical nurse. He explained the science of good dental hygiene. He showed me pictures of the beautiful smiles he had created. And although Dr. Marvin blurted soft expletives against ne'er-do-wells in the news or toffee-chewing children, his laugh and charm overrode my initial dismay.
Within less than a week, however, it became clear that under Dr. Marvin's agreeable facade lurked a bluster-boy itching to expose the misdemeanors of the masses.
It started the day a tornado ripped through Iowa, devastating an entire town, killing dozens, and ruining acres of heartland corn and soybeans. Dr. Marvin said, “The Lord is at work,” he said. "God witnessed so much nefariousness running amok he had to extinguish it before it infected all of America.”
That's when I learned Dr. Marvin prided himself on having a beeline to God. He proclaimed he understood God’s thinking, he knew what God intended, and he could explain everything God did. To Dr. Marvin, most people were interlopers tramping through God’s garden, and since God was so busy with his own list of errands, it was up to Dr. Marvin to be Earth’s acting park ranger, monitoring societal wrongdoers.
He railed against people who broke God’s rules, all of which seemed to be based upon Dr. Marvin’s standards of life and decorum. Stack the waiting room magazines horizontally, at a slant, in alphabetical order. Keep the shades exactly halfway up . . . or down. Answer the phone on the
third ring—let clients know you’re busy, but not so busy calls won’t be answered. And, most important, be flawless.
According to Dr. Marvin, God’s main purpose was to penalize transgressors. All sinners punished. Debauchery eradicated. After slapping palm fronds on the private parts of the two original degenerates and pitching them from their lavish garden, God wielded his hammer across the globe, purifying the earth of depravity.
“Why, take Noah,” Dr. Marvin pronounced one day. “He and his family were the only worthy ones around.” He saw me start to speak and held up a wait-a-minute finger. “Aside, of course, from the finest two of every beast and bird on earth,” he added. “See, God chose Noah to float the righteous to high ground while the wicked drowned in a global deluge, cleansing the planet of vermin.”
His eyes darted around, as if following a mosquito. “And Pompeii. Crushed. Wiped out.” He squinted at me. “Must have been a horrid place.” His breathing increased. “Bubonic Plague, Cape Verde drought, those vile Salem witches—now there’s a good one . . . uh . . .” He stopped, his memory seemed stymied, unable to exhume any more tragedies. I considered offering the Irish potato famine and the Chicago fire, but I didn’t. It seemed more judicious to let Dr. Marvin squirm in his own brain freeze than engage him in further resurrection of death and destruction.
Whenever misfortune showered upon the masses, Dr. Marvin said, "God is house cleaning." Earthquake in Bulgaria. Supper Club fire in Kentucky. God weeding his garden of noxious plants, clearing the land for fresh flora and fauna so the world could be pure once again.
“God will sink California into the Pacific Ocean,” Dr. Marvin blurted once after the daily Bible reading. “Just you wait,” Wham. Bam. The entire state . . . another Sodom and Gomorra. “All those homos and hippies,” Dr. Marvin sniffed. “Scourge on the earth. Sinful. Living in VW buses. Wearing frayed jeans, tie-died shirts, and sneakers with no socks. Homosexuality . . . pure evil. Says so right here.” He tapped his Bible and began flipping the pages. I left the room to wash away the grit of prejudice and self-importance.
I vacillated between respect for Dr. Marvin’s expertise and disdain for his irrational thinking. I wrestled with the disconnect between his gracious facade and his colossal loathing of humanity. For the most part, I tried to ignore Dr. Marvin’s pronouncements about the direction of the world’s future with his rancorous God at the helm. I figured as long as I came to work on time, listened to Dr. Marvin’s tirades against societal breakdowns, and pretended to agree with everything he said about how the universe had “too many God damned people in it,” I would stay in his good graces and keep my job until a school superintendent heard my resume rustle with such remarkable instructional merit I would be hired mid-year.
Everything seemed off balance in Dr. Marvin's world. So much hatred, so little kindness. Where was the goodness? The compassion? I wanted Dr. Marvin to see the colors of a sunset instead of the darkness that followed. But I was his employee, not his mentor, so I asked him gentle questions instead. “Isn’t God supposed to be loving? Guiding people into happiness? Giving rewards?”
“God is very loving," Dr. Marvin said. "He lets worthy people live uncomplicated lives, like . . . um . . . mine. That’s my reward. But most people are wicked. They need intervention. So God created tornados and earthquakes.”
“But why destroy the innocent along with the wicked? What about children . . . or grandmothers . . . or nuns?"
“Well . . .,” Dr. Marvin paused and cupped his chin, as though he liked what he was about to say. “See, God needs to make a point. If there’s a bad apple, everything gets affected . . . so it all 6
Dr. Marvin’s God
has to go.” His face brightened with a fresh thought. “You know, it’s like leftovers. They start out pretty much okay, but if they’re not attended to, they get moldy and have to be thrown out.”
Dr. Marvin often mentioned a tent revival meeting held the last Friday of every month. He wanted to attend and get his back healed. He talked about it for months but never went. I wondered if he was scared he’d find out God didn’t give two hoots about him. But one Monday morning in early spring, Dr. Marvin was in high form.
He called Nancy and me into the waiting room to give us the good news.
“The tent was packed. Hundreds, no, thousands, clapping, singing, swaying . . . some were even speaking in tongues.” He threw back his head and laughed. “Even I don’t go to that extreme, but, anyway, when the preacher asked who needed to be healed, I froze. I couldn’t move. Finally, I felt a nudge . . . from God . . . and I marched right up to the altar. The preacher put his palm on my forehead, closed his eyes, and shouted, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ, BE HEALED!’ and he shoved the spirit of the Lord into my soul.”
Dr. Marvin paused. He took a breath. His eyes filled with tears. The silence was heavy.
“So?” I asked, fascinated by this foreign culture.
“I was healed,” he whispered. “God healed me.” He swiped his hand across the tears streaming down his cheek. “It was a miracle. When the preacher placed his hand on my forehead, I felt the spirit of the Lord permeate my soul. I was healed . . . magnificently, miraculously healed. The love of God took over my body and made me weak with joy.” He looked at me and smiled. “It was beautiful. The most sacred encounter with God I’ve ever experienced.”
“Congratulations! You did it!” Nancy said. 7
“Well, sort of . . .,” he said. “Yes, God healed my back.” He lowered himself onto the couch. “But then a funny thing happened . . .” He fell silent and stared into space.
“What happened?” I asked.
He stood and yanked one of the shades to the center of the window. “See . . . all that joy drained me. Made me limp. I fainted. Passed out cold.” He aligned the other shade. “And I collapsed. Flat on the floor. Right at the preacher’s feet.” He turned around. “And I hurt my back.” He walked past us into the patient room and said over his shoulder, “But I was healed.”
That did it. I had heard enough. Dr. Marvin’s God was a trickster—a manipulator—a sham. A wretched creature who dropped airplanes like pick-up-sticks and hurled cities into the ocean. I was no longer willing to be bombarded with stories about an angry monarch who slaughtered the innocent because they inhabited the same general area as petty thieves. I needed relief from the continuing drama of a demon deity lording over an insidious courtroom of crime and punishment.
Two days after the back-healing story, I quit. The timing was perfect. Mark had completed his internship in Syracuse and was offered a full-time position as minister of a church in Ohio.
I often think about poor Dr. Marvin and his God of acrimony, revenge, and fake-healing duplicity. How nice it would have been if a snappy, gum-chewing God, wearing a tie-dyed shirt, frayed jeans, and sneakers with no socks, had wandered into the waiting room, patted Dr. Marvin on the shoulder, and said, "Stew, we need to talk. Oh, and by the way, I parked my VW bus in your spot. Hope that’s okay."