by Mark Lawton
Frank lost his job at Safeway right before he suffocated his three-year old daughter. But we’re not supposed to say murder in heaven. “She passed over before God called,” is what they suggest in the manual. He did it with a pillow. She wouldn’t stop crying, Frank said, even after he gave her a bowl of Rocky-Road ice cream with extra almonds.
Frank harvests the next row over. We wave our hands over the vines and the grapes fall right into our sky-blue baskets. If one or two grapes get stuck we just point at them from a distance and they drop in like they’re walking the plank. We don’t talk much but every once in a while he says “How you holding up today bud?” Or, “Another beautiful day in paradise, ain’t it Brad.”
By the time they sent Frank to join me in the vineyard there was barely any anger left when he described the murder. It just came out like he was giving me directions to the freezer aisle. “The Haagen Daz and dead children are in aisle twelve. Can I walk you there?”
Donna was the angel assigned to Frank and me. She’s blond. All the angels are. She said that it’s going to take a while for us to work through our deaths. Frank got the electric chair. I jumped from a two hundred foot cliff over La Jolla cove. That’s why I’m working the vineyard now. They say harvesting grapes is a sure bet to get us through our issues and onto eternal bliss. We don’t see Donna much anymore because it’s not part of the vineyard program to get counseling. Harvesting grapes calms the mind all by itself.
It was steaming hot at my funeral. I would have liked an open casket. But Rachel didn’t want to spend the extra eight hundred dollars to get my face reconstructed. I wasn’t around to watch Rachel make the final arrangements because I had to go to an orientation for new arrivals in heaven. The angels started the orientations a few centuries ago because the slain knights were having trouble adjusting. They didn’t know what to do with their time. Chivalry doesn’t go too far in heaven. It gets you a few winks from the former madams of the brothels but that’s about it. Most of the knights end up working as a valet. They like opening the passenger door. Everybody gets to use a valet in heaven.
Rachel wore a black sweater with an aqua stripe around the collar at my funeral. She sat alone in the first pew fanning herself with the crimson funeral program. My youngest sister loves crimson and decided I would want it at the funeral. The whole extended family sat across the aisle away from Rachel. Rachel’s program got a crease because she fanned herself too hard. She stopped when the preacher gave her a look. Picked his head up quick and she laid that program right down on her knee. She may have cheated on me real bad and real often but the preacher wasn’t going to let her cheat my mourners out of some legitimate tears.
I asked about swearing at the orientation. Donna said “Swearing really just isn’t an issue up here.” Before she was dead, Donna worked in customer relations at Nordstrom’s. I didn’t swear once while I waited in heaven for my funeral. I probably would have stayed straight through if Jack hadn’t said “Dude you gotta go to your own funeral. If you don’t, you’ll regret it for the rest of your dead life.” He was right, of course. Everybody wants to get one last look. Anyway, how could I miss the eulogies. My sister read one of her poems. She’s written the same basic poem since she was thirteen. Year after year of couplets rhyming with breath, rose, and sip.
I always tried to get sis to take a poetry class at the community college but she was too busy. “Besides Brad,” she said. “I’m happy with my poetry.” Then she sent me one. My poems make me smile like a rose. They make me want to laugh and pose.
I’m the only suicide victim who has to work the vineyard. Donna said most suicides are ready for eternal bliss right after her the orientation session called Voluntary Passers – Pathways For Those With Special Issues. Donna said they don’t call it suicide because “It presents a bump in the path to serenity.” Donna works in Paths and Pathways.
The orientation materials came in a manila folder. The cover page was written in seventeen different languages with English third after Latin and Russian. So many Romans passed voluntarily after the collapse of the empire that Latin’s been at the top of the list ever since.
Rachel checked her crimson program and her watch every five minutes during the funeral. Her boyfriend was parked out back behind the mausoleum waiting in his black Ford-750 pick-up. It has fog lights and those mud flaps with the metallic playboy bunnies. He smoked Kool cigarettes and listened to Van Halen’s Go Ahead and Jump. I can’t believe Rachel left a school teacher for a San Diego redneck looking for a fog bank.
But since I’ve been in the vineyards, I don’t think about rednecks anymore. That’s part of the program. The vineyards take away the pain. Every time a grape drops into my sky-blue basket a drop of anger goes with it. By the time they give you the hundredth basket from the infinite stack, you love everyone. “Do I have to fill all those baskets before I get eternal bliss?” I asked. “Don’t worry Brad,” the guy stomping the grapes said. “There’s plenty of time in eternity.” He smiled and flipped a grape from his toe into his mouth.
Rachel worried that her boyfriend would duck out from the funeral without her. But that’s what she liked about him. “He always keeps me on my toes. I need someone, Brad, to keep me stimulated.” Rachel stuck her chin out when she said stimulated.
The boyfriend littered the butts right into the parking lot. A pile of unused urns leaned against the dumpster near the crematorium. He could have at least fetched one of those.
I asked about clairvoyance at the orientation but Donna didn’t know what it meant. “You know,” I said, “Do we get to predict the future up here?” Donna floated over, touched me on the shoulder and said “Brad that’s not an issue either. Just relax. Everything’s going to be just fine.”
Between orientation sessions, Donna sent us to the library. On the way out, she gave me a peck on the cheek and said, “Brad your adjustment will be a little harder than most. But trust me, it will all turn out okay.”
The library was packed. Everybody and their books floated around. One doesn’t actually read in heaven. The stories just float into your head. Only fiction. The non-fiction is stacked in the corner. If you want to read it you have to take it all the way down to the transition station. Next to the rainbow. By the time most people get there, Donna said, the facts have weighed them down and they don’t ever try again. God doesn’t believe in facts.
I asked Donna why I had to work the eternal harvest if all the other suicide victims were ready for eternal bliss right after the Session for those with Special Issues. “Because Brad,” she said. “All the other voluntary passers did it for good reasons. You did it out of spite.”
I tried to argue with her for a long time. But Nordstroms trained Donna in strategies for difficult clients like me – Gentle but Firm.
Donna was right. I did do it out of spite. Killed myself right before Rachel and the boyfriend were scheduled to leave for Las Vegas. He had just finished washing the Ford-750 in my driveway. All rednecks wash their pickups before going to Las Vegas. He wiped the playboy mud flaps down with a chamois.
The cops showed up at the door an hour after they scraped me off the rocks at La Jolla cove. Rachel had to cancel the Las Vegas trip and that stimulated her enough to slam the door on the cops.
Everything went South after the funeral. The boyfriend heard that somebody won five and half million dollars on the super-sized slot machine at Caesar’s Palace the day they were supposed to arrive. He chewed Rachel out and kicked the back tire of the pickup with his steel-toed cowboy boot. Said that if wasn’t for that god damned dead school teacher asshole husband of hers, he would have won the god damned five and a half million himself. She bawled and he left right then to Las Vegas. They haven’t seen each other since.
Rachel moped around for six months. That’s when I took my own turn South. But heading South in heaven is the closest thing to hell one is ever going to find.
Rachel was down there in our old apartment and missed me real bad. Every five minutes, she picked up the picture of her and me overlooking La Jolla cove. She kept saying, “Brad, I made a terrible mistake.” She cried and cried and could barely get herself out of bed to her job at Burger Mart.
I tried to cry along with Rachel but they take your tear ducts away in heaven. They do it right after they melt the muscles that make you frown. It’s all non-surgical of course. No anesthetic required. In kind of tickled. Donna said they used to just plug up the tear ducts but some people picked at them when they went down for their funerals.
I couldn’t stand looking down on Rachel crying. I missed her so much and she missed me so much and now that she was all alone I figured that we should be back together again. That’s when I did it.
I floated over to the dining hall. The one where the midget waiters balance trays of hors devours on their heads. I walked right into the kitchen and grabbed the four foot serrated knife they use to cut the French bread. They call it Bread Domestique in heaven. On the way to the smoked salmon pond out back, the maitre’de midget tried to stop me. But midgets can’t keep up.
I slit my wrist eighteen times. No blood. No blood. No blood.
God caught me and boy was he pissed. He hauled my dead school teacher ass up to in his condo above the counseling docks. God has hundreds of condos but is exempt from the association fees. He told me that it was a long God damned time since anybody was stupid enough to try killing themselves in heaven.
I told him that I killed myself to get to heaven so I should be able to kill myself to get back down with Rachel.
It’s a drag being around God when he’s fuming mad. His beard turns moldy green and it reeks above all seven continents. He yanked the Persian rug out from below me and I somersaulted a half-dozen before I landed on the top shelf above his chair. I thumped down between a knick-knack of a sphinx and one of those black jockeys holding a lantern.
“Jesus Christ,” God said. “Where the hell did you get that idea?” He was below me behind his big mahogany desk. God has a bald spot.
“I figured that since Jesus traveled in both directions, I could too.”
Then God somersaulted himself a half-dozen times up to the shelf across from me. He leaned toward me and looked me right in the eye. I plugged my nose.
“That bum,” he said. “I sent Jesus down to earth to get things straight with the live people so I could concentrate on keeping all you dead fools happy. There’s a lot more dead people, you know.” God’s breath smelled like an attic. “You think it’s easy satisfying cave men and Elvis at the same time.”
“Jesus was supposed to make my life easier but he just went down to the promise land to party and do tricks. Christ, how hard is it to walk on water – he could do that when he was three.” God took out a three by five of Jesus on the cross. “You know what he said when they nailed him up,” God said. I shook my head and tried not to gag. ‘Hey Dad, guess what… I can see Jerusalem.’
When Jesus got back to heaven, God bought him his own condo but Jesus said he hates condos and he’s been living at home ever since.
“I expect more from you, Brad. Until I sort this mess out, you’re grounded.” I couldn’t float anymore. I spent the first three years of eternity trying to walk. But there’s no traction and the first layer of heaven is so thick that it’s like trudging up a sand dune.
That’s when Donna finally floated over. “Brad, we gotta get you some help. Otherwise you’re going waste the rest of eternity being miserable.” Donna was right. I couldn’t go through heaven dying to get back with Rachel. Death’s too short for that.
So now they’ve got me harvesting vines. Dropping grapes one after another into my sky-blue basket on my way towards eternal bliss.
Brad died a terrible death. We love him today with his final breath.