Way up in the clouds, in the sky, right in the middle of heaven, I walk to the mall to meet a once-coworker. I walk just the one road and it’s not far from my apartment in heaven––maybe a mile on the soft, cloudy, concrete––which I like, and is probably why I so often want people to meet me at the mall. So, I do that. I do. And normally this is a very smooth thing for me. An easy thing. But today as I walk in the shadow of the Mattress Express, I notice an unease. The mall seems unusually busy for the middle of the day, on a day that’s also, usually, not very busy.
The parking lot is near full.
And it’s hot, too. Too hot in heaven? Yes it is. Also: the gasoline is making the asphalt shiny and shaky. The heat doesn’t faze the wild-seeming crowds. No. People continue pressing themselves towards the entrance of Dillard’s. They huff. They yell. They adjust themselves into tinier things and keep it moving.
I jog across the four-lane not using the crosswalk.
And as I’m breaking one of God’s traffic laws my uncle passes behind me in his Chevelle. He can drive here, no longer confined to his electric wheelchair and feeding tube. Gone also is the yellow bile that gurgles from his trachea and mouth. He’s good here. Rebuilt: a once broken man, returned whole and now cruising around heaven like the smoothest-most-wheelchairless-motherfucking angel in the entire joint.
The brakes lights go red on the Chevelle.
He can roll down a car window in this place.
“It’s packed,” says my uncle, looking at me and then nodding towards the mall. I nod like, whaddya gonna do? Then my uncle says, “Be safe!” And is off towards the part of the sky where it’s pink just for people who like the sky to be that way. Pink. And soft. And ready for play.
I keep it moving.
I always keeping it moving.
In the parking lot I push past all types of angels: the pill-heads and disgraced professors, the oil field workers and the ladies who danced for money. People are shouting in all languages and the war guys are jumping up and down maniacally, intimidating the book club angels and the rockabilly-types that I sometimes see at the bar by the airport. Everyone is freaking out in different ways.
I turn my head to the sky, at the sun unravelling behind a stack of clouds.
I take a deep hot breath.
Then I look below the clouds but above my head, at wrens and pigeons, chirping from the aluminum parapet that rises from the Skechers store. They look down at me, pushing my way through a group of motley angles. The birds’ heads turn as they chirp. It’s as if they pity me, as if I’m a goofy, as if they’re an amused parent watching their child on ice skates for the first time.
I figure out the whole deal when I get up to the front.
As per always: It’s the picketers.
The dummies with the big hearts.
They crack on from time to time and it makes them feel like they’re still alive, which is how when they were alive, I suspect, they made themselves feel even more alive. And certainly not dead. Or helpless. Or impotent. It makes them feel good to have something to hate for a week or two. Once: the picketers strapped themselves to the clocktower and demanded to be released back to earth. And bad for them: The Jazz Festival was that weekend, so some of the more unruly angels started throwing corn dogs and mustard packets and sodas. Then someone got hit too hard and things got a bit out of hand.
The festival canceled.
Everyone so worked up.
But of course.
As things tend to.
Because things tend to chill in this place.
The Jazz Festival rescheduled for the following weekend.
And everything was fine.
But that was last year.
Today the picket people are back with their marching signs: demanding the immediate release of Baby Cyrus back to his birth parents. Which I don’t totally understand. Because in this place you get what you want. And I tend to think that if Baby Cyrus wanted to be with his parents in this place, he probably would be. And if his parents were actually the kind of big-hearted dummies that the rest of these dummies are…well, than, probably Baby Cyrus would be here with his parents.
But he probably doesn’t want to be with them.
Because he isn’t.
He’s somewhere else.
And what can be done about a child sent to a different heaven?
I think one of the picketer’s spits in my hair as I duck their Red Rover armlock.
“Blood lover!” someone yells. And my heart skips a beat.
Inside the mall is perfect and cool and clean and not too busy. The way I like it. Today the mall is the way I like it to be. At the center of things: the carousel spinning in retrograde. A small girl inspects one of the enamel horses for signs of life, but quickly is called into a shoe store by her mother. I sit on a bench and adjust my belt, pulling my hair back and tie it into a little bun, admire the rise and fall of my gut, and wonder if my eyesight is getting worse as I can barely make out the words, Burp the Worm, scratched into the seat next to me.
I must be fifty, I think, counting backwards in my mind.
Something like that.
It doesn’t matter so much.
What does matter is that the coworker I’m meeting is not someone I’ve ever seen this place –so, to my knowledge, they’re new to all this or they’ve been ducking me. Either way I’m nervous. My chest feels active and complicated. Almost like: there’s a hammock draped inside of me, from one end side of my ribcage to the other, and the most drunk version of my father I can remember is lying in the net with his boots on, snapping bottle caps against my sternum, adjusting his hat, murmuring, spitting Copenhagen over his shoulder and into my lower intestines, and seeming utterly, totally, devotedly unimpressed with my heart which hangs above him and races in the sky.
That’s the anxiety of new acquaintances in the afterlife.
Even the people you used to know.
It’s all stress.
Don’t talk too much, I tell myself.
It’s so much better that way.
Still early to meet my coworker: I decide to walk-off some of my nerves and go about, examining the shops around the carousel and the courtyard. First, in a store that sells jokey and serious barbeque accessories, I admire two t-shirts. One says: Kiss THIS Chef. The other says: Where’s The Wagyu?. I let out a laugh and say, “Wagooo.” And the kid behind the counter with the dangling earring looks at me like I’m old and wrong for thinking it’s a little bit funny. Say less, I repeat to myself. Just say less and less.
I watch through the glass: girls too young to be in the mall alone and too young to be dead and in a mall in heaven. They take turns disapproving of an orangish roll-on body glitter. Their faces tell me the glitter is too sticky and does not smell the way oranges do when they are plucked from the trees.
With ten minutes left to kill: I go to a kiosk selling cell phone cases. I pick up an iPad cover that has Calvin pissing on a Cowboys helmet. Underneath, it reads, GO EAGLES! and it feels somehow heavy and cheap at the same time as I hold it in my hand. I swirl my tongue around in my mouth and worry my adenoids are swelling. My chest is again having that active, drunken father feeling and it only worsens as I look down an empty sect of the mall, to an unoccupied row of stores, at the end of which a maintenance worker is high on his ladder, coveralls tied at the waist and stippled in white paint.
He changes an air filter.
Then he changes a pair of those halogen bulbs.
They turn bright as he rotates them into place.
Then he’s covered in cold light.
And I am reminded of a girlfriend from when I was alive who liked having sex in public places. And who brought me into a changing room at the Target or Fred Meyer. And my body behind her body and both bodies being shown back to me in the changing room mirror. And she could tell I wasn’t feeling it. She could tell. But she did not admonish. She did not flinch or frown. She did not give me a look like, chill out dude. No. No, she simply whispered in my ear to close my eyes. “It’s just like we’re in the dark,” she said. And I did. And it worked! And I came. And I don’t know if she did, but she was certainly into it. And I think one of the great shames of my time on earth was how everything went down with Amelia – and the others – and how I couldn’t get over myself enough to let people love me. How I could never just calm the fuck down.
I find my friend, my old coworker, the principal of the school I taught American History at when I was still a man in the flesh. She’s beside the stone fountain, which turns itself into a shallow blue river and runs through the heart of the food court and pools below the tall glass windows that overlook the parking lot.
“Mrs. Mira Seldoria!” I say, doing a dance I regret as I come from behind to sit next to her.
“Benjamin Ross, look at you,” she says, the grays in dark hair shining beneath the light. She is heavier than the last time I saw her, rounder, her large peaceful breasts somehow even larger and more peaceful. We always joked she looked more like a librarian than a principal and she always joked with us teachers that we looked more like students than faculty members. I should put you in detention, she used to say to me, the front tire of my mountain bike popped high towards the clouds: a perfect wheely which I always turned into a skid-stop near the entrance by the art rooms.
“I never thought,” says Mrs. Mira. I shake my head like I understand her.
“It’s been a minute,” I say.
“Years,” she says. Then amends, “Too many years.”
Her eyes were become red at the edges.
Like she wants to cry.
Like she’s about to.
“A very long time,” I say.
She adjusts herself in her chair.
“There’s a statue,” she says, wiping her nose with a tissue. “In the quad by the grass, a brass statue of you, holding a ruler in one hand and a book in the other.”
“Yeah,” I say, feeling guilty, locking my feet beneath my chair. In this moment–my gut sick and my ear hot–I become aware of the mall totally. The dough rising at the Wetzel’s Pretzels right behind us. The coldness of the air vent overhead. And the sound: this winning-type of sounds that booms from the arcade. The bonus point bells. Even the quiet motors of the whack-a-mole, and the prize tickets unfolding from the dark underside.
I scratch the bridge of my nose and look at Mrs. Mira.
Don’t tell her, I tell myself.
“You’re a hero down there,” she says.
“Yes,” I say. “I’ve heard that.”
A concerned look pulls down on the corners of Mrs. Mira’s face.
My eyes shake then well up.
“Don’t cry,” she says. “Most people could only hope to die so beautifully.”
I turn my head sideways and let out a deep, sad breath. Fake lilacs and fake wisterias line the planter boxes in front of the cheesesteak stand and I try to concentrate on their slick, waxy stems. But nothing helps. No. I can feel Mrs. Mira’s concerned, thoughtful look against my turned away face. It’s getting bigger. More concerned: a bonfire grown out of control.
To tell her in heaven that she’s wrong about me seems wrong.
But I want to.
I want to tell her I only held myself over the children that morning, when the gunman came, because I thought he may take pity seeing me like that: so desperate to protect my flock. And I want to tell her I was more than ready, if given the opportunity, to give whatever student–or students– needed over to that crazed man in exchange for my own freedom. I want to tell her Nathan Lemont told me it would be okay; that a boy, half my age, consoled me in my final moments. But I still was ready to trade his perfect little football life for my own little destitute existence.
But the chance never came.
Only bodies splayed in horribly Catholic ways against green carpet.
The globe spinning slowly on my desk.
There was no deal to be made.
And I want to tell Mrs. Mira all of this.
The truth: maybe Nathan and I could have disarmed the man if I wasn’t such a coward.
Such a frightened thing.
An impotent little boy.
A dog of lesser breed.
I want to tell her she’s wrong.
Heaven is wrong.
And I’m a liar. A liar, even in the afterlife.
But she’s holding my hands now.
Both of mine with both of hers.
“It is so beautiful to be here with you,” she says. Then she smiles like she’s about to say something funny. “If I’d known you were waiting… I would’ve skipped chemo.”
Then she smiles.
And rubs her cheek.
And again I turn my head, looking out the windows at the far end of the food court, down at the picketers all returning to their cars, or motorcycle, or waiting for their bus to arrive. I marvel at the strange people of Heaven; how many are here and how many are yet to follow. When will they come? I wonder. Why? Why does a fear of death feel right, even when I’m dead? It’s very sad. But it should be sad, I think. Death should be sad. But I don’t say this to Mrs. Mira.
Keep quiet, I tell myself.
Just pretend to smile.
I smile with Mrs. Mira.
We smile together for a good long time.
I call ahead to the liquor store as I walk the long street from the mall back to my apartment. Jenny S. will have my usual waiting. Jenny S. is good to me. I’ll cop a handle of gin. I can already imagine it warming my body as I step from the sidewalk towards the dirt, quack grass breaking underfoot. The sun’s chilled out behind the pink parts of heaven. Everything has a glow, it seems. A patience. I walk the fence line beside the battery store, choosing to stomp through the low part of a drain. Like when I was just a boy, there’s a soft splash sound and gray water spilling up onto the dirt.
The streetlights get going.
Silver bugs come out.
With the breeze it’s still warm.
Heaven can be like that; it can still be hot after sundown.
Exiting the liquor store I cradle my plastic bottle like a newborn. As soon as the opportunity presents itself, I duck in between the hedgerow outside the private school and drink and drink and cough and drink.
A few cars pass me and then the wind of a passing semi-truck lifts my long hair.
I decide to skip all that and cut through a lot of houses being developed.
The gin sloshes in its bottle.
Right now: The Whitewater Estates are nothing more than cement foundations, wood frames, an occasional bundle of wire.
But it will be more.
I’ve seen the pamphlets.
And I do.
I can’t help it: I wonder how many must die to fill all the bedrooms.
How many to satisfy the infinity pool.
How many angels can a private gym hold?
I take a breath.
Behind the row of porta-potties my apartment building stands in the distance. It looks like a colossal fuckup against the night sky. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. One day I’ll move, and it will be like I never lived on this street. One day: it will be like a lot of things never happened. I will have a new life, a new home.
Maybe next year?
The year after?
Right now: there’s only the gin under my arm and a rock that’s too big to kick at the far end of the building site. I stop at the rock, a nice big stone that would be perfect for someone’s garden path. I circle it like I’ve found a bird with busted wings. Kicking this rock will fuck me up. It will.
And something about that feels right.
I kick the rock as hard as I can.
It goes about two feet and settles in a dint of uneven dirt.
My shoe fills with blood as I kick again.
I kick the rock in the direction of my apartment, sort of.
I kick it until my sock is red to the ankle and the blood begins to soak through the tongue of my shoe. And it feels, it feels like everything is correct. It feels correct to break myself against something, to make my foot into my whole body and slam it against the concrete. It’s good and It’s okay. It is what it is: the way things on earth used to be. Unapologetic. Faultless. Broken and made to heal. It’s what I miss most about living: how things hurt a bit and, how sometimes, things hurt a little bit more. I kick the rock again with my other foot. Then back to the first foot. Back and forth, three or four times, and the rock just sits, unmoved.
I cry some.
Then something darts to my left.
A bat dropping from the awning of a half-built home.
I watch the bat.
Watch him fall and hide behind dumpster or compactor. You can call it what you want.
A construction thing.
And before I know it, I’ve fallen.
Down to my knees, I’ve lost all the feeling in both my feet and I can see the blood begin to stain through the fabric at the tops of my shoes.
Thirty yards from the door of my awful, heavenly apartment building.
Because…you know. You get it.
I can no longer stand.
I just can’t.
Not on my toes.
Which I have crushed so good.