THE WRONG HEAVEN
1. Word of God, as appears in Bible (obv.)
3. Pipe organs
4. Meditative feeling brought on by needlepoint
5. Rodgers & Hammerstein
6. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (existence)
7. Flowers/ constant renewal of life cycle
8. Billie Holiday (singer)
9. Billie Holiday (dog)
10. Theory that Everything Exists for Purpose, Pain and
Trouble Sent as Trials, All to Bring us Closer to God,
11. Way students say “Oh!” when pet caterpillars turn into
1. Genocide/Wanton Destruction
4. Animal Cruelty
5. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (world’s treatment of)
6. Dimpled thighs
7. General lack of love in life
8. Early death of Billie Holiday (singer)
9. Early death of Billie Holiday (dog)
10. Dream in which I slap Jesus’s face
11. Dream in which Jesus slaps my face
12. Dreams in which Jesus and I sit mutely on folding
chairs in a blank room, as in group therapy, but with
no therapist, wanting to slap each other’s faces but
unable to rouse ourselves to action
13. Looks on students’ faces when caterpillars die
14. Looks on students’ faces when caterpillars die
expectedly (different and somehow worse)
Evidence Against seemed to grow longer every day. Plus, a growing number of items appeared on both lists.
So on my lunch break, I went and bought some new lawn ornaments. Neither Home Depot nor Safeway had the kind I wanted. They just said, “Try the East Side”—that’s where the Mexicans live. Eventually, I found the right store. I arrived back at school out-of-breath, four minutes late, carrying an Electric Jesus and a Flashing Virgin.
My class was waiting for me at their little desks with folded hands, like anxious orphans. They aren’t classified as retarded, just “remedial,” but this air of abandonment clings to them already. They’re always afraid something that seems like a joke will turn out not to be.
“Who’s ready for marine life dioramas?” I sang. I placed the lawn ornaments on my desk and hung my purse on the back of my chair. I plugged in Jesus and Mary, because I thought this would cheer them. But two of the children immediately started to cry.
I unplugged the statues, and made a mental note to add this to Evidence Against.
I stayed late to grade spelling tests, but I couldn’t focus. Jesus and Mary kept staring at me.
It’s not that they were lifelike—they were made of shoddy translucent plastic, their features colored in with already-flaking paint. But there was something about them. Mary had a calm, serene expression on her paper-white face, her large imploring eyes floating above her swimming-pool-blue robes, her palms folded demurely across her middle. Jesus, on the other hand, had a sort of intense, burning stare. He held His white-robed arms out to the side in a way that could have been an embrace or a pantomime of crucifixion—I wasn’t sure. I’d never thought about how similar the two looked.
I leaned over and plugged them in. The electric glow shot through their translucent skin, and they lit up like fireflies against the dusky room.
“You are loved,” said Mary.
“Probably,” said Jesus.
“We know you have questions,” said Mary. “And we have answers.”
“But we’re not just going to give them away for free,” said Jesus. He held out His palms. “Look at the marks where the nails went in.”
“Come on,” said Mary. She shot Jesus a reproachful glance. “We’ve talked about this.” Then she looked at me and smiled sweetly. “So,” she said. “How can we help you today, Cheryl?”
“Well,” I said. “I guess I’d just like to feel like you’re on my side.”
Mary nodded sympathetically. “I think you’re doing a bang-up job,” she said, “under the circumstances.” She had a slight British accent, like Julie Andrews.
“Look,” said Jesus. “Don’t take it the wrong way, what I’m about to say. It’s just my personality. But have you considered the lilies of the field? The birds, and wild beasts? Do they wonder who’s on ‘their side’?” He made air-quotes.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well,” He said. “They don’t.”’
I waited for Him to say something more, but He didn’t. He just stood there with His arms folded, apparently waiting for me to say something. Mary rolled her eyes.
I leaned over and unplugged them. Their lights went out, and their faces hardened into frozen masks of cheap Mexican plastic.
I picked them up, took them out to the car, and drove back to the East Side.
The store was one of those hole-in-the-wall places with two narrow aisles filled with detergent and Goya products, and religious paraphernalia up front with the condoms and chewing gum.
“They don’t work?” said the young man behind the counter. He had eyes as green as marbles, and black hair neatly parted down the middle.
“They work,” I said. “That’s not the problem. The problem is, they’re judgmental.”
He nodded. “Ah, I see,” he said. He folded his arms. “A lot of people complain about that.”
“So can you take them back?”
“No, Ma’am.” He shook his head. He pointed to a large handwritten sign that said NO REFUNDS ON RELIGIOUS STATUES.
I sighed. “Where do these come from, anyway?”
He shrugged. “Some big distribution company in Los Muertes, Mexico. Angel’s Plastics. They make religious statues and Halloween masks and shovels.”
“For burying the dead.”
“The soil is very loose in that part of Mexico.”
I sighed. “Thanks for your help.” I picked up the two statues, one under each arm, and headed back out to the car.
When I got home, I placed them in front of the rosebush, which provided a nice color contrast with Mary’s blue robes and Jesus’s white ones. I did not plug them in.
Instead, I went in to the kitchen and opened the freezer. There was Billie Holiday. She was in a plastic bag, but I could clearly see the shape of her through it. One of her little paws stuck out of the bottom. She had died a month ago, but I still couldn’t bring myself to move her. I stood in front of the freezer and looked at her for a while. Then, I reached to the left of her stiff body, took out the gin, and closed the door. I filled a glass nearly to the top, and threw in a little tonic water. I took one delicious sip and then went over to the living room, lay down on the rug, and tried to balance the glass on my chest. I had read about someone doing this, in a novel or something. It was harder than it looked. When I breathed, the glass tipped forwards and spilled down my front, soaking my torso and crotch.
Lately, everything was harder than it looked. Things had turned out so disappointingly for me. Beauty had not turned into happiness. It hadn’t even turned into beauty (see, in Evidence Against, item 6: Dimpled Thighs.)
I shouldn’t have been so stuck-up in the bloom of my youth. I turned away six objectively impressive men. They were all just so boring. But it’s also boring, I now realize, to be alone.
Let me tell you about Billie Holiday. I’m not even a dog person. But when I saw her face on the flyer, I knew she was mine.
The flyer was on the bulletin board at Shop-Rite. It said, FREE DOG, and underneath there was a picture. She was an unclassifiable mutt, with deep cocker-spaniel eyes and matted terrier fur and a wrinkled bulldog brow; she looked both anxious and mournful. My heart lay down, rolled over.
I didn’t rip off one of the detachable slips at the bottom, I just took the whole poster. I even took the thumbtack. I’m not sure why. I called the number and drove over immediately.
The owner’s place was an actual trailer. I had only ever heard trailers referred to in the phrase “trailer trash”; I hadn’t ever thought about, let alone visited, a real one that existed. Like the phrase “test-tube baby”: the baby doesn’t actually come from a test tube, right? If so, I don’t want to know about it.
But this was an actual trailer, in which people lived. A woman answered the front door (is “front door” the right term? Or are trailer doors defined like car doors, driver and passenger?). She was extremely pregnant, but also extremely fat. You couldn’t even have told except that the roundness of her belly had a convex tautness, a definition that the rest of her lacked. The rest of her was slack, weary, blurred. Two small, dirty children played on the floor in diapers. One of them was holding something that looked dangerous, a can opener, perhaps, or a meat knife. I looked away.
“There she is,” said the woman. She gestured toward a card table that apparently served as the family’s combination dining-room table and changing pad. A bowl of congealed Spaghetti-Os stood next to a steaming diaper. Beneath the table, Billie Holiday cowered, shaking like a leaf.
I crouched down. “Come here, darling,” I said. The dog took a tentative step forward, then retreated again. She began to whimper.
“She’s a nice dog,” said the woman. I looked up at her. Her hands rested on her high belly. Her eyes were even sadder than the bowl of Spaghetti-Os, which is saying a lot. Like the rest of her, they sagged. “Not much trouble. But my boyfriend said someone had to go.” She looked down at her belly and shrugged.
I coaxed Billie Holiday out of the corner and picked her up. She stared into my eyes with a human-like intensity. It was clear what her eyes were saying. They were saying: I still have hope. They were big, quivering, Liza Minnelli eyes.
But I didn’t name her Liza. I didn’t name her anything until a week later, when I put on “Lady Sings the Blues,” and I watched her stop what she was doing—which was batting around a toy rubber martini glass I’d bought her—and listen. She actually listened. She cocked her head to the side and her ears perked up. Then—and here’s the amazing part—she closed her eyes.
I watched her listen to the rest of the song, with her eyes closed. When it was over, she lay down and fell asleep. In her dog-dreams, she moaned a low dog-moan, full of tenderness and pain.
I played the song several times that week, and always the same thing happened. And so I had no choice, name-wise. Billie she was, and Billie she would always be. Until last month, when she died of Dog Leukemia. That’s when I started making the list. Because what kind of God would give leukemia to a dog? I often tell my students to marvel at the small and myriad wonders of the world. A caterpillar’s many feet, the tiny veins of a leaf. I have them look at the veins in their hand, then back at the leaf. Hand. Leaf. Hand. Leaf. After a while, are they that different? Does it matter? I don’t say this, because it would be anti-Separation of Church and State, but I believe—or want to believe—that the world is full of these miracles, little filigrees personally added by the Creator. But that would mean that the self-same Creator also came up with Dog Leukemia. And what kind of a filigree is that?
I fell asleep that night on the living-room floor, in front of World’s Most Interesting Autopsies. In the morning, when I pulled myself up and went outside, my clothes were stiff with the gin and tonic; it had soaked through them and dried overnight.
I stared at the statues for a moment, then plugged in only Mary. I couldn’t deal with the other one right now.
“Good morning,” she said. “Sorry about yesterday. He sometimes gets carried away.”
“It’s OK,” I said. “I was a bit rattled, though.”
“You poor thing,” she said.
“Can you answer some questions for me?”
“Maybe later,” she said. “Right now, I’d rather sing.” She took a breath and began: “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow...”
It was “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” from Oklahoma!, which is one of my favorite songs, which she probably knew. But her voice was wispy and wavering, and she was a little flat on the high notes. Plus, it sounded odd and wrong with her British accent. Still, I thought it would be rude to interrupt her. So I stood and listened until she finished.
“Thank you,” I said. “That was lovely.”
She smiled and gave a slight nod and curtsy. Or at least, I thought she did, but it could have been a trick of the eye. I unplugged her and went inside to get ready for school.
In case you’re wondering, I wasn’t that surprised that they could talk. My view of the universe is Christian but not narrow. On TV once, I saw an elephant and a dog who were best friends despite their different sizes; the elephant rubbed the dog’s belly with its foot. A woman in my church had a horseback-riding accident and saw the white light at the end of the tunnel, and after they brought her back she was able to accurately predict the results of every mid-term senate election. My brother James had a spiritual conversion in his twenties and is now a full-fledged member of the Apache Nation. Anything can happen.
This is why my students like me, why I consistently receive the highest ratings of any second-grade teacher at Two Trees Elementary: I believe the world is malleable, that our understanding of it is provisional, improvised, subject to a change of rules at any time, that sometimes the magician pulls out the tablecloth and the dishes all stay in place, and sometimes the magician pulls out the tablecloth and everything is gone, including the table. I don’t tell the children how things are. I don’t condescend.
But lately, it’s all too much. I’m starting to believe that maybe, like other adults, I should start pretending to know more than I do. I don’t know a single other adult who recently woke up in gin-stiffened clothes clutching a rubber martini-shaped dog toy. I would not wish this on anyone.
That day, one of my students turned eight. Her mother brought in cupcakes for everyone. There were so many allergies in the room that parents weren’t allowed to bring in anything with peanuts, wheat, sugar, milk, pineapple, shellfish, strawberries, soy, or Red Dye #9. Among other things. What remained was basically spelt flour and water. The cupcakes were made with spelt flour and water and they tasted like spelt flour and water. The children and I played a game while eating them where we imagined a world without allergies. We discussed what we would eat for people’s birthdays in this allergy-free world.
“Chicken nuggets,” said one.
“Soy sauce,” said another.
“Red eggs and ham,” said the child allergic to red dye.
“What if there was this magic dinosaur,” said Maddox, my favorite, “That ate everything in the world and vomited it back up, but its vomit was actually really delicious food with no allergies?”
Caroline N. raised her hand. “What would the dinosaur keep in its stomach?”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“If it vomits everything up, it doesn’t get to keep anything in its own stomach.”
“I guess it dies,” said Maddox. He looked stricken. He clearly had not considered this question.
“Like my caterpillar,” said Josephine. “My caterpillar died.”
“My baby brother died,” said David G., “Before he was born.”
I looked out at the sea of faces grown round with fear, spelt crumbs strewing them like dark freckles.
“Nobody dies for real, ever,” I pronounced. “There’s just a different place where dead people go. Like how we can’t see Ms. McClosky’s class right now, but we know they’re next door.”
They looked relieved, even hopeful. Ms. McClosky’s class was the non-remedials.
When I got home, it was dark already. I poured myself a g&t, drank it standing up, and then poured another. I went outside and plugged the statues in to the outlet at the base of the porch. They lit up against the darkness.
“I saw what you just did,” said Jesus. “I saw how strong you made that drink.”
“You are loved,” said Mary. But she sounded a little strained.
“I was just a normal human like you, and I manned up without the aid of stimulants or depressants,” said Jesus. “Do you need to see my hands again?”
“You don’t need to keep reminding people,” said Mary.
“It was very traumatic,” said Jesus.
“Look,” I said. “I’m a mess. I admit it. And the worst part is, I’m supposed to be guiding people.”
“How can we help?” asked Mary.
“Well,” I said, “For starters, I would feel better if I just knew that there was a Heaven. That Billie Holiday was in a better place. And the caterpillars, and David G.’s baby brother.”
“It’s not so much like that,” said Jesus. “It’s not really another place.”
Mary cleared her throat. “Let me explain it to you,” she said. “Think of caterpillars. Hedgehogs. Carrots. Dogs. Babies. There’s a Heaven for each one, and they all exist in the same airspace, like all the radio signals from all the world flying through the air, constantly. But you need the right equipment. Is your Heavenly Radio tuned to the right station? You might be picking up Carrot Heaven, or Hedgehog Heaven.”
“The radio is a metaphor,” said Jesus. “The metaphors are given out at birth, like names. Some people get the wrong ones. You can get another, at Customer Service, but there’s no escalator. This is the only body you’ve ever had. Use it, and walk up the stairs. You get to Heaven by willpower and thigh muscle.”
“Call this toll-free number from a touch-tone phone,” said Mary, “if you believe you’ve selected the wrong heaven for your species, gender, socioeconomic status and weight class. You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.”
“Possibly,” said Jesus.
I turned and walked inside, without unplugging them. I lay on the couch and felt their faint glow through the curtain. I couldn’t believe that Jesus had mentioned my thighs.
Outside, Mary softly murmured the toll-free number, over and over and over. I got up and called it.
It was busy.
I went into the kitchen and opened up the freezer. I took out the gin bottle, but it was empty. I stood there with the bottle in my hand, tapping its cold heft against my thigh, trying to decide whether it was worth a trip to the liquor store. Then, my eyes fixed on Billie Holiday.
I thought about how we used to spend time here together, doing the dishes. I’d taught her to stand on the counter with a clean towel wrapped around her; I’d rub the dishes against her towel-clad body to dry them. She loved to help out. She loved the attention, and the togetherness.
No one knew about that but she and I. No one but me could remember. The responsibility was mine, and no one would help me with it: not even Our Lord and the Holy Mother. They might know about the various levels and frequencies of Heaven, but I was the only one who could lay my friend to rest in the Earth.
I knew what I had to do.
The store was closed. I shouldn’t have been surprised—it was after ten by now—but somehow, I’d thought that things would operate differently on the East Side. Didn’t Mexicans have a different sort of circadian rhythm, with their siestas/fiestas? Anyway, the door was shut and the lights were off. But when I peered through the glass door, I could see one light on in the back of the store—probably in some sort of storage closet—and the silhouette of someone moving around.
I rapped strongly on the door. The silhouette stopped and stood still. I knocked again, and in a few seconds the green-eyed man was at the door.
He turned the lock and opened it. “We’re closed,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “But I really need your help.”
“I want one of your shovels.”
He sighed. “Why do people always wait till the middle of the night to decide they need one of those?” He stepped aside. “Come in.”
I came in. He pulled a string, and the light bulb on the ceiling clicked on. He went behind the counter and rummaged around. “We have three colors,” he said. “Green, purple, and black.”
“Green,” I said. He stood, and held out a green plastic shovel, bright, the same color as his eyes. It was about as long as my forearm. The relief of a grinning skull was embedded in the flat part.
I looked up at him. His eyes flamed like emeralds. A small pool of light encircled us against the hot, breathless dark.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Why should I tell you?”
“Because I want to know.”
He shrugged. “Felix,” he said. “Felix Ramirez Johnson.”
“Felix,” I said, “Can I ask you something?”
“Will you be my witness?”
“I’m going to hold a funeral, right now. For my dog, in my backyard. And I need a witness.”
Felix looked like he had seen everything. He sighed. “I’ll get my coat,” he said.
In the car, I said, “Where are you from in Mexico?”
“Actually,” he said, “I’m Nicaraguan. But I was born here.”
“Oh. Nicaragua. Is that where they have the Galapagos Islands? With the turtles?”
“No, that’s Ecuador.”
“Oh.” I pulled into the driveway. Mary and Jesus were still lit up in front of the rosebushes.
“Well,” said Felix, “they look nice.”
“Thanks,” I said. “But they’re really just being such bullies.”
He nodded. “I know what you mean.”
As we approached the statues, Mary said, “You’ve brought a friend!”
Jesus said, “Felix! My man.”
“Sorry, guys,” said Felix. “I’m gonna unplug you.” He reached out and pulled their cords, and that was that.
Felix and I took turns with the green shovel. It really was an excellent instrument. It felt good to dig, and to watch him dig; different combinations of muscles surfaced in his arms as he moved the shovel up and down. We had a hole in no time.
I had chosen a lovely spot beneath the oak tree in my backyard, and when the hole was large enough, I placed Billie inside. I’d dressed her in her favorite tartan rain-jacket and boots, and wrapped her in her favorite blanket. I threw in the rubber martini glass and my copy of “Lady Sings the Blues.” Then I stood back up and folded my hands. There was a feeling of momentousness in the air. Something important was happening. And I had no idea what to say.
“I should say a prayer,” I said, finally. “A eulogy, I guess.”
“Sure,” said Felix.
“Before these witnesses,” I began. “Before these witnesses, God and Felix Ramirez Johnson...”
Felix stood with his head bowed respectfully. I had no idea how to continue.
“Before these witnesses,” I said again. “Before these—”
And then I burst into tears.
Felix stood there, doing nothing, while my sobs exploded like wet fireworks down my face and clothes. Or rather, he wasn’t doing nothing. He just wasn’t moving. But I could tell something was taking place within him; he was paying attention to my sobs, listening to them, as if he were a scientist in the wild, and they were the cries of some elusive animal, and they carried a great and indiscernible meaning.
Felix let me cry until I stopped. It was a long time.
“The day my parents were murdered,” he said, finally, “I didn’t feel anything at all. And I haven’t felt anything since.”
We stood there, staring down at the grave. We stood there until it felt like the grave was staring back at us. Then, our eyes glazed over and lost focus and we weren’t looking at anything anymore. We turned and went inside.
“There’s one more thing I need help with, before you go,” I told Felix, filling up two glasses of water.
“Well, I feel like I need to get rid of Jesus and Mary. They just make things more confusing.”
“And since you won’t take them back,” I continued, “I need to destroy them.”
He nodded, and folded his arms. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
I told him what I was thinking.
“I see,” he said, nodding slowly. “Yes, I think that will work.”
We went and got the statues from the front of the house and brought them around to the backyard. I got the can of kerosene from the garage and the fire extinguisher from the kitchen, and Felix pulled a book of matches out of his coat pocket. I doused the statues in the liquid; he lit a match and tossed it.
Jesus and Mary blossomed instantly into flame. I let them burn for a few seconds—just long enough to see their features begin to melt—and then I sprayed them down.
Mary stood there dripping, her body charred and singed like an over-grilled hot dog. But Jesus continued to burn.
I looked over at Felix; we locked eyes for a moment, and then he turned and ran into the house and emerged with a pitcher of water. He dumped the water onto Jesus. The water cascaded over and around the flames, but He continued to burn.
Felix and I worked as a team. He went back and forth from the kitchen, getting more water; I continued to soak the statue. But no matter how many times we drenched Him, He would not stop burning. Finally, we stopped trying.
“Well,” said Felix. “I’ve never seen this before.” He took a step back and folded his arms. “Look, though - it’s not stopping, but it’s not catching anything else, either.”
It was true. The fire did not spread. Even Mary, next to Him, appeared flameproof. She just stood there, palms folded demurely, her face thoroughly charred. She resembled a silent actress posing in blackface.
Felix slowly approached the flaming Jesus. He contemplated it for a moment. Then he stuck his hand right into the flame, and held it there.
I screamed. He removed his hand. It was perfect and smooth and untouched.
“Well,” I said. “What should we do?”
He shrugged his signature shrug. “I guess we should make the best of it.”
Suddenly, I knew exactly what that meant. “I’ll be right back,” I said.
Felix and I spent the night in front of the flaming Jesus, marshmallows speared on long sticks snapped from the oak tree, roasting them in Our Lord’s flames. The backyard was dark, and He was our only light.
“I can’t believe you’d never had S’mores before,” I said.
“They’re really good,” he admitted. He put another marshmallow on his stick and extended it into the flames. Instantly, the whole thing caught fire; he removed it and blew it down, revealing a dry blackened lump. He looked up and made a sheepish face.
“Don’t worry about that,” I said. “The most important thing, no matter what happens on the outside, is to keep the inside tender. You can always peel away the surface. There’s always another layer underneath.”
“Wise words,” he said. I watched as he peeled off the charred exterior, flake by blackened flake.
“Here goes,” he said. Then, he slowly extended the naked white mass towards the fire, and held it at exactly the right distance from the burning Jesus. We both watched as the alchemy took hold: the marshmallow’s skin slowly turning into gold, kissed again and again by the edge of the flame.
fiction poetry "fact" photography