Horace has finally died and gone to heaven, and by some strange twist of fate I’ve gone along with him for the ride. But heaven hasn’t turned out to be the place he expected, forcing him to confront two painful questions: Can there really be injustice in paradise? And, if there is, what duty does a soul have to oppose it, and at what cost?
This will be the first of a series of weekly installments telling the story of how Horace came to answer these questions.
The Last Chance Democracy Cafe
Episode 62: A heavenly protest, part one
by Steven C. Day
“Heaven is what you make of it. So don’t blame Me if it doesn’t meet your expectations.”
(Message posted on the gates of heaven.)
When you consider that I had never before floated through the air weightless, formless and invisible, one might have expected that finding myself in that state would have struck me as at least a little odd. It didn’t. In fact, it didn’t strike me at all. I just floated.
I wonder if there’s a moment like that — awareness without self-awareness — early in the life of every sentient being, whether human, whale or silicon-based blob creature from planet X94. If so, it must happen at that very first moment when the thinking part of the brain switches on and begins to observe the warm, wet and strangely contoured world surrounding it.
That’s where my mind was, anyway, as I floated there in the sky above heaven — pure observation. Aware only of others: self had not yet been born, or, perhaps it had been but had gone to Vegas to take in a show and drop a few bucks at the blackjack tables. Either way, it was nowhere around.
And as I floated, unnoticed by anyone including myself, I realized for the first time that my friend Horace was standing directly below me. Just how I could recognize someone as being my friend when I had yet to recognize me as being me was a conundrum that concerned me not a whit.
Dead at long last at the age of 97, the last of The Three Wise Men to go, Horace had just received his golden ticket of admittance to heaven. Far from being overjoyed by this confirmation of his salvation, however, he was acutely downhearted. The two faces in heaven he had wanted to see above all others, more even than God’s — those of his dear late wife and of his son, Lester, killed in Vietnam — were being denied him. Those reunions would have to wait until later, he was told by the pleasant young woman in the white robe who processed his papers at heaven’s impressive but entirely unpearly gates. He needed to work some other things through first, she explained.
“You’ll understand in time,” she continued.
People say that a lot in heaven. After awhile it begins to piss you off.
That is something else that needs to be understood, if what I’m about to say is to make any sense to you at all: as I was floating there above heaven, being blown this way and that by the spiritual winds, I could do more than see Horace: I could also feel his emotions and hear his thoughts — an invasion of privacy, by the way, that would have outraged him had he known about it.
But then that’s one of the advantages to being a weightless, formless and invisible blob floating in the sky: you can get away with things like that.
So, yes, of course, I knew Horace was sad. I read his mind. Never one to waste time licking his wounds, however, he quickly set himself to a new goal: he decided it was time to look up a couple of old friends.
* * *
A word of advice: should you ever find yourself engaged in conversation with someone from the hereafter, for heaven’s sake, don’t ask what heaven looks like. It’s a meaningless question, and it marks you as a rank celestial amateur. You’ll never be invited to the really cool parties.
No, the proper question is what heaven looked like the last time the soul in question looked at it, because it’s constantly changing. Take the sky, for instance, which sheds one color for another every time you blink your eyes. When I first noticed Horace in heaven, it was as blue as the Pacific Ocean on a sunny day; an instant later it was a purplish pink; then light orange; then olive; then a color I’d never seen before.
The rest of the scenery in heaven is also in constant flux; a beautiful alpine village one moment, becomes a quaint New England town the next, then just as quickly turns into the streets of Paris as they existed back in the days of Bonaparte. The one constant is the people, although even their appearance changes. The muscular young outdoorsman serving ale at a mountain inn suddenly, and seamlessly, becomes a lanky New Englander dishing up clam chowder, and then, just as suddenly, morphs into an exquisitely mannered waiter at an exclusive French restaurant.
But only the aesthetic details change. Unless you move, or they move, the actual people around you in heaven remain the same through all of the changes, wearing the same unflinching smile.
By the way, if you ever find yourself floating above heaven, be forewarned about the smiles. Everyone wears the same broad toothy one — and it can be just a little spooky, in an Invasion of the Body Snatchers sort of way.
You see, smiling is mandated by law in heaven. Really.
* * *
Horace was walking now, and I was floating after him up above. I was aware of the floating, but not of the me. Strange, really.
The sky was deep purple, with stripes of pink that appeared and then disappeared and then appeared again, until Horace blinked, when it all vanished into a pale, but still beautiful, shade of red. He was walking along a mountain lake now, then the rocky coast of Northeastern Maine, then, finally, down the short approach to the famous hole No. 7 at the Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Then suddenly he was there — The Wall of Life. A beautiful granite structure that seems to go on for hundreds of miles, the wall rises at least a thousand feet into the air. By some miracle, however, it’s possible to walk its entire length in less than three minutes, and to see every square inch from wherever one is standing.
No one had told me the wall’s function — we invisible floating blobs tend not to be in the loop, you know — but Horace knew, so I knew, too.
Its purpose, as you’ve probably already guessed, is to act as the authoritative list of the saved — heaven’s white pages, if you will. Etched into the wall’s face in huge letters are the names and heavenly addresses of each and every soul in paradise.
Horace scanned the list again and again. His eyes darting back and forth between two points on the wall, searching for two names he couldn’t seem to locate. He stared intensely, shaking his head in dismay. He repeated the process many times. Still nothing.
An older woman, with white hair, brown eyes, an unusually long neck and the same broad toothy smile Horace had seen everywhere he’d been so far in heaven, was sitting on one of the park benches lined up below the monument. Her hands folded neatly in her lap, she didn’t seem to be doing anything more than passing time.
“I know how you feel,” she said, whispering. “I’ve been coming here for three years. And every time I come I think I’ll see his name . . . Harvey, he was my husband. I know it won’t happen. He died two years before . . . you know, before I came. He was a good man, not much of a believer, though. If he were ever going to make it, he would already . . .” A tear rolled down her cheek, but the smile was still there. “I’ve never been able to get myself to go check . . . you know, that other place. I guess I can’t face what I know I’ll find there.”
Horace patted her on the shoulder comfortingly. “What other place?” he asked softly.
“You know . . .”
“I don’t. I just got here.” There was no irritation in Horace’s voice. His words were matter of fact.
“Oh . . . I see. Well, the other list. You know . . . It’s down that way . . . I mean, if you want to go.”
“What other list?”
The woman avoided the question. “Yes, it’s right down there . . . if you’re sure you want to go.” She pointed in the direction of a distant mountain peak, which quickly changed into a stand of tall redwoods.
“Thank you,” said Horace.
“Smile,” said the woman emphatically. “You should smile.”
“I’m sure I’ll find something to smile about soon.”
“You should smile now.” Her own broad smile was unchanged, but Horace saw something different in her eyes. It was fear.
He managed a small grin, for her sake not for his. Then he headed off.
* * *
Horace didn’t notice it all at once. As he walked briskly in the direction the long-necked woman had pointed, it gradually seeped into his consciousness (which means, of course, it also gradually seeped into mine) that heaven was changing. The color of the sky still switched every time he blinked, but they were very different colors now. Industrial gray turned into sooty blackness: sooty blackness became the gray of storm clouds.
The rest of the heaven around him was changing too. Gone were the breathtaking mountain views, beautiful ocean scenes and tidy towns and cities. Instead, he was walking in front of a succession of rundown tenement houses, prison yards and slaughterhouses. And with each step — each change of scene — the images grew uglier and more disturbing.
Horace jumped back, an action that sent a chill running through me, whoever me was.
“Get out of here nigger,” shouted an angry, threatening voice. “You’re going to die nigger!”
He was back in Selma, Alabama at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. It was the first Selma-to-Montgomery March; the one that only made it a few blocks. As Horace watched in horror, state troopers and local officers, some on horseback, flew into the marchers with billy clubs, tear gas and bull whips. Horace felt the sharp pain on his forehead from the first blow, the wetness of the blood streaming down his face.
Then the scene changed, and he was walking (and I was floating) through an urban ghetto, a place where he had once done volunteer work with his church. Screams and gunfire sounded in the distance. Young men with bitter empty faces walked by. There were no horses, no attackers, and no blood on Horace’s face. Just the sight of burned out buildings, crack houses and graffiti filled walls, and something else — the smell of hopelessness.
He had reached The Wall of the Damned.
In many ways this wall wasn’t all that different from the other one: a mountainous tablet covered with names, though no addresses this time, running on for mile after mile. But there was no beauty to this wall: constructed of concrete, instead of granite, it was defaced by countless cracks and broken concrete, looking more like an old abandoned building than something divine.
The grounds below were unkept and rundown, covered with weeds, litter and debris from concrete that had fallen from the wall. There were no benches or other signs of human (or spiritual) welcome. A barbed wire fence ran two feet from the base of the wall with small hand painted signs posted every few feet, with the words:
“Keep Out: by order of Him.”
Desolate was the word that came to Horace’s mind, and, thus, of course, to my mind as well, as I floated there in the sky above heaven a few feet from the wall. This was desolation of apocalyptic proportions: desolation on the scale of a world after nuclear war. Hopelessness hung so thick that Horace almost thought it would smother him.
And although I still had no idea of who I was, or even that I was at all, I seemed to know one thing: this was a place I did not want to be.
It only took a few moments for Horace to follow the long list of names to the two spots in question: He checked twice, paused, then a third time. Tears streamed down his face. “No!” he cried. “It can’t be! This can’t be right! They were good men . . . They were such very good men!”
“Hush,” said a clearly agitated 60-something man standing nearby. “You mustn’t talk like that,” he insisted.
“You don’t understand,” Horace exploded, shaking his head angrily. “This is terrible!”
“I do understand.”
“No, you don’t,” screamed Horace. “How could you?”
“My own son’s name is up there. So you see, I do know how you feel.”
Horace’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Then you must understand how wrong this is. How terribly wrong.”
“You mustn’t talk that way.”
“But it’s true.”
“Listen to me. Hell is an awful place.”
“I know. That’s why it’s so wrong that . . .”
The man cut Horace off, speaking forcefully. “He can change His mind, you know. It’s happened before. He can still send you there if you make Him angry. Ears are everywhere here. You have to be careful.”
“I don’t care about that.”
A look of terror flashed across the man’s face, evident even behind the toothy smile. “I can’t stay here if you’re going to talk like that! I’m trying to help, but you’re a madman! I have to get out of here before you get me into big trouble!” He raced down the path out of view.
Horace was churning with emotions, grief and anger and disbelief all competing for his attention. He couldn’t believe it. It was so wrong. He just couldn’t believe that Tom and Winston were in hell.
* * *
* * *
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 27 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001