The Last Chance Democracy Cafe
Episode 65: A heavenly protest, part four
by Steven C. Day
Vengeance is the pastime of fools: please don’t accuse me of being a fool.
(Message posted on the back entrance to the least popular Mexican food restaurant in all of heaven.)
If you had one last night left in paradise, how would you spend it?
Horace spent what he was certain would be his last night there working on a slogan for his protest sign. He wanted it to be perfect and was frustrated that the words weren’t coming easily.
Floating weightless, formless and invisible above heaven, and still able to read Horace’s mind and feelings, I sensed his discomfort. At a time like this, finding the right words is important. Think of how differently history would treat Nathan Hale if, before being executed by the British, instead of saying, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” he had developed writer’s block and was forced to settle for, “Hey, I tried my best.”
No, if Horace was going to voluntarily give up his place in heaven for a higher cause, he at least wanted to do it with style. But as he sat in quiet agitation at one of the oh so ordinary small round tables used in the Oddball Bar and Grill, writing down one thought after another, nothing came close to being good enough.
It was 3:00 in the morning, heaven time, but Horace wasn’t alone.
As I’ve mentioned before, sleep is optional in heaven: regardless of whether you get your full eight hours of shuteye or party all night like it’s 1999, you won’t be tired the next day. No one ever gets tired in heaven; bored, sometimes, but never tired. Still, Herb, the bartender at the Oddball, makes it a habit to go to bed on most nights: “I can only take about 14 or 15 hours of paradise at a time,” he tells patrons who wonder why he closes the tavern for part of the night. Tonight, however, he was skipping the sack time.
He wanted to be there when Horace needed a fresh beer and to help him in any other way he could. And he wanted to be there in the morning when Horace would be leaving the bar for what would almost certainly be the last time. Back when he had been alive, Herb had usually let farewells pass uncelebrated: the people in his life were just so many spare coins to be spent and forgotten without remorse. But heaven had changed him, and this time he wanted things to be different.
Meanwhile, still hard at work, struggling to find just the right words, Horace scribbled, crossed out, rescribbled, jotted down, erased, rejotted down, reerased and then — following the example of millions of other writers — finally just tore up the paper in disgust. After a deep sigh, he tried returning to the task, but by 9:00 that morning he was beaten. And so in the end, he did what every other writer in human history, with the sole possible exception of that guy named Shakespeare, has had to do: he settled.
He painted the words — the not nearly good enough words he was settling on – onto a simple plywood and paper protest sign Herb (who was more experienced at such things) had materialized for him. Horace had wanted the sign to be plain, reminiscent of his days in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 60s.
“A godly tyrant is still a tyrant!”
Herb looked at the words for a good 30 seconds before saying simply, “Are you sure about this?”
Horace said that he was. And that, as they say, was that.
Still floating unnoticed in the sky above, I found my happy-go-lucky blob existence being invaded by an unfamiliar emotion — empathetic fear. I still wasn’t self-aware and remembered nothing of my life on earth, including the fact that Horace had once been one of my closest friends. But by this time I had spent many months tethered to him, traveling in heaven only where he traveled, thinking only in response to his thoughts and feeling, at least by in large, only those feelings his mind and soul sent my way.
I didn’t know me, but I did know him: And I was worried about him.
And, just like that, I felt my thoughts tearing free from his: and if I was not yet entirely self-aware, and still lacked memory of my life, I was, at least, capable of my own independent thoughts; and so, very soon, I found myself screaming at Horace in a voice that made no sound, Please, don’t do it! Stop while there’s still time! I beg you, don’t throw your soul away!
But since the phone line connecting the two of us, for want of a better analogy, ran one way only, carrying messages from Horace’s mind to mine but not the other way around, no one heard me. And it struck me — smashing into my being with the force of a redwood tree crashing onto a picnic basket — that being a weightless, formless and invisible blob, even in paradise, must be the loneliest station occupied by any intelligence anywhere in the universe.
Horace, who was, of course, still unaware of my presence, stuck out his hand to Herb who brushed it aside as the two men embraced, slapping each other affectionately on the back.
Horace’s smile was sad but confident as he said, “Thank you for everything, my friend. May we meet again one day in a better place.”
“Who would have thought,” Herb shook his head with a sorrowful grin of his own, “that the day would ever come when we’d be dreaming of a better place then paradise itself?”
Horace chuckled, “When you put it that way, it sounds like we’re being sort of demanding, doesn’t it?”
Then he said the word: “Leave.”
* * *
The waterfall of endlessly changing images was back again, with the sky, once more, changing color every time Horace blinked his eyes and the rest of the scenery turning over every few moments. At first Horace was walking past an old English castle, then a Swiss château and then Parthenon in Rome.
He couldn’t have cared less. His target was due north, located at the very center of heaven. He’d never seen the Great Temple before — and truth be told, he’d never had any real desire to do so. But now, getting there just as quickly as possible was the only thing that interested him.
From my vantage point, floating above Horace as he speed-walked the streets of paradise, his journey looked a bit like the famous scene at the Red Sea from of the movie The Ten Commandments. The major difference being that instead of parting the waters, Horace was parting waves of humanity. As soon as the people on the crowded streets saw the protest sign he was holding, they scurried fearfully to the side opening a wide passageway for him to walk through the ocean of quivering souls.
As the old cliché goes, even here in the middle of a crowd, Horace was completely alone. But then he’d been on lonely journeys before. His mind drifted back, the way a condemned man’s will. He was in 1966 — one of the few black drivers to find work in the segregated interstate trucking industry in the early years following the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was walking into a South Carolina truck stop, with dozens of angry, hateful eyes burning holes into his soul. Muttered profanities, racial epithets and threats surrounded him like sharks circling a shipwrecked steamer slowly sinking below the waves.
Every instinct had counseled him to turn tail and run. But he hadn’t. He didn’t plan to today, either.
Then, just as his mind was refocusing back on his current journey, he was stopped cold by the most vivid and terrifying sensation he’d ever experienced. It slammed into him like a Category 5 hurricane: flames were everywhere, his skin on fire, the agony worse than any pain he’d ever felt before. Cries of anguish were all around him, as shadowy figures thrashed about helplessly, screaming out hopeless pleas: “Help me! Forgive me! Please, mercy, please!” But no one heard. No one cared. Sadness and hopelessness mixed together to form a despair so thick he could breath it in like air. This was misery beyond comprehension.
Then it was gone.
But Horace had gotten the message. He knew he’d been given a privileged preview of what lay ahead if he persisted. He had just visited hell.
* * *
The Great Temple was now directly in front of him. It surprised him that his first thought upon seeing the mammoth structure was aesthetic in nature. If I were God I think I might choose a little less gaudy place to live, were the words that ran through his mind.
The Great Temple is the tallest structure in the afterworld by a factor of well over one hundred, dwarfing even the Wall of Life and the Wall of Damnation by comparison. Approximately the same height and diameter as the Matterhorn, it puts even the most ostentatious earthly mansions and palaces to shame.
To get the general flavor of The Great Temple, think of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, but supersized and glitzier. It has a massive central dome, with two smaller domes standing guard; every inch is caked in silver, gold and platinum and covered with fine jewels. Were you to scrape all of the gems off from just one small section of the central dome (not something to be recommended for those concerned with the health of their soul), you would find yourself holding enough wealth to feed all of the children of earth for a thousand years.
This was, of course, His house, where He held court over all of heaven and earth. And no person, not even the leader of the White Robes, was permitted to step foot onto its grounds. This was the famous First Rule of Heaven, the violation of which, it was widely believed, would result in instant damnation.
In all of eternity so far, no one, not even one of the devil’s disguised servants who supposedly sneak into heaven at times, had ever dared to cross the 30-foot wide ring of golden bricks that separates the temple from the rest of heaven. That such a blasphemy might one day occur was unthinkable.
* * *
Horace, who now found himself standing literally inches from eternal damnation, paused. All he would have to do in order to continue for all time with his comfortable, if imperfect, stay here in heaven was to throw down his protest sign, step back from the golden bricks and walk away.
But floating above him, I knew that wasn’t the direction his heart and mind were leading him.
Don’t do this to yourself! I screamed in silence. What happened to your friends . . . to Tom and Winston was unjust, I know! It was horrible and unfair, but stop and think of what you’re doing! Think of the price you’ll pay . . . the price you’ll pay forever! Surely, fighting injustice can’t be worth this much!
It wasn’t until much later, when I was back on earth with my memory fully restored, that I realized just how futile these words would have been even if Horace could somehow have heard them. There was no way he could ever have brought himself to tolerate the climate of fear and oppression that blanketed heaven like a three-foot fall of snow. And doing nothing in the face of so great an injustice done to his friends was something he was also constitutionally incapable of doing. It would be like asking a coyote not to howl at the moon.
And so very slowly, but with great certainty and astonishing dignity, while holding his protest sign high, Horace walked across the 30 feet of gold bricks and onto the Great Temple’s lawn beyond.
The very last sound he heard — and since, by reading his mind, I heard what he heard, it was the very last sound I heard, as well — were gasps of frightened astonishment spreading out into the crowd of sightseers like the ripples in a pond circling out from a jumping fish.
Then there was nothing except the blinding, glaring light that was filling Horace’s eyes — a light so bright he couldn’t make out anything around him.
Oh God, he thought, it’s the flames.
One thing didn’t make sense though: if this was hell, where was the pain?
* * *
The conclusion to A Heavenly Protest is posted here.
* * *
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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 2007, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001