Exactly like stories told by people who'd been close to death, Maryanne mentally rose above the operating table. Fascinated by her levitation, she watched the blue-eyed surgeon probe her abdomen on the table. She remembered the accident clearly: the absent-minded street crossing with her groceries while debating the correct wine for dinner, a sudden screech of brakes, that horrible pain. But it seemed unimportant now. Hovering near the ceiling, she scanned the group performing the operation; the eyes above the masks glanced occasionally at their patient's glazed stare. To the left, a jagged line on a machine beeped her heart beat.
"It's slowing down," a nurse said, reading the machine.
"She needs more blood," the surgeon said.
Curious, Maryanne observed the operation from her excellent vantage point near the fluorescent lamp, her hand gliding through it as though she were transparent, but the body on the table remained inert. She felt lightheaded, an odd sensation that soon she'd fly out of the room. How marvelous, she thought, to fly about--like a bird.
"Nurse, more blood!" the surgeon snapped.
The room faded. Marylanne was in a dark tunnel. It was funnel shaped, widening near the end. She drifted slowly toward the light, her hospital gown streaming behind her. She had no fear, no bewilderment, only a peaceful feeling. I must be dead, she thought, awed. She left the tunnel, and floated out into a pale greenish mist. Well, she must be in heaven. Except for the greenish hue, the atmosphere was just as she'd pictured.
Suddenly a face smiled at her. He was old, his snowy beard reaching his knees. He, too, wore a long white gown. Above his head hovered a golden halo, and from his back sprouted eagle-like wings. Her heart nearly stopped beating. Suppose it was St. Peter? She wanted to ask, but what an awesome question!
"Welcome to heaven," my child." He smiled gently. "Yes, I am St. Peter. We've been waiting for you. Come..."
Imagine meeting a saint! As if in a trance, Maryanne followed him through the filmy substance, and watched his wings fluttering softly. She wondered why he needed wings since she could float perfectly well without them. She chided herself for criticizing heaven, and gazed eagerly at her leader. She could hardly wait to meet everyone up here: deceased relatives, celebrities... And yet, why rush? She had an eternity to socialize, do anything she desired. She smiled to herself, and realized with a shock that she was suddenly back in the operating room, floating again near the fluorescent lamp.
"Her heart seems to be stabilizing," the nurse said, relieved.
"Increase oxygen," the surgeon said, busy probing.
Maryanne thought how odd it was they couldn't see her spirit separated from her body. But it didn't matter. Soon, she might return to heaven and meet Him. What could be more significant?
The room faded. Once again, Maryanne drifted through the tunnel, and out into the greenish light. This time she found herself staring at a palace behind a frothy scrolled gate, the capital letter G serving as handles. The palace had turrets and a parapet, and recessed windows; outside, an emerald green yard stretched to the horizon, the entire scene bathed in mist. It looked like something out of a Hollywood movie. She felt a twinge of disappointment, half-expecting to discover a machine somewhere spewing out mist.
Then she remembered Saint Peter. She looked about excitedly but he didn't reappear, so she floated above the gate, and through the palace's false-brick door. To her amazement, the rooms were gaudily wallpapered in candy-stripe red and green. She couldn't help but note with disapproval the angels and cupids crudely molded in paster of paris and sprinkled with gilt-ornaments no doubt pleasing to her cousin Aggie in Queens, but to Maryanne in the worst possible taste. Finally, entering a rear room, she saw in the golden rattan chair atop a dais a young man with a halo. She trembled. Could it be Him?
He beckoned with silvery, transparent fingers.
She approached, smiling nervously. "Are you..." She faltered, unable to continue.
He nodded with a benign, serene smile.
Overwhelmed, she hesitated, uncertain how to behave before Him. She finaly settled in the Lazy-Boy recliner. Despite herself, she noted that the orange carpet was orlon-acrylic, not pure wool like the one she and Jim, her husband, had bought for their house in Westchester. Maryanne shook off her pettiness, reminding herself where she was, and gazed in awe at Him.
"I am ready to begin my new life," she said humbly.
For a moment, his piercing blue eyes searched her brown ones. He pointed a finger--reminiscent of Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel--and said sweetly, "What is it you want here, my child?"
She marvelled how everything was nearly as she'd imagined. Fortunately, she'd read the Bible, so she knew all about Him and His world! And yet...she felt slightly annoyed by the gilded angels and orange carpeting--though cousin Aggie would probably love the decor. Well, here she was in heaven, and criticizing. She should be ashamed! Starting her afterlife was a remarkable experience. As for her little objections, they were, after all, petty. Too bad she couldn't tell Jim, who'd pooh-poohed religion. If Jim were here in this recliner, he'd change his tune! Remembering her refined, dark-haired husband produced a regret at their separation. Maryanne reproached herself. Surely heaven had much more to offer than earth--as Billy Graham kept promising.
"Some people, upon arrival here, simply like to enjoy the scenery," He said. The blue eyes became dreamy; He gazed at the rococo ceiling painted with coy shephardesses in skimpy togas. "Or you could listen to concerts. Our chorus of former opera stars sing divinely. Or--how about canasta? It has great appeal to certain suburban ladies." He studied Maryanne for a moment. "Or you could kill time by playing the harp." He chuckled, pleased by her enthusiastic expression. "Would you like that?"
"Yes, that sounds enjoyable," she said, and suddenly felt happy. Despite her tiny reservations, heaven still held many pleasures.
"Well, it's settled then," He said, and floated from the rattan chair, His halo accompanying Him. Funny thing about the halo, though. It now seemed to resemble a plump golden bagel. Maryanne pictured it spread with lox and cream cheese, and felt ravenously hungry. Shocked by her impiety, she concentrated on His beautiful blonde ringlets descending to His shoulders, which, for some reason, she hadn't fully observed. Probably because she'd been intent on criticizing the carpet. She certainly didn't want to criticize Him, but she could swear that His curls were bleached. They looked too brasssy to be natural, and seemed stiff--as though held in place with hair spray. Of course, it was difficult nowadays to tell who dyed their hair. She'd never dyed hers, preferring to let the auburn fade to gray, and worn in a sleek chignon at the nape of her neck. As the wife of a prominent attorney, she didn't want to appear cheap. Besides, she'd always disliked contrivances like wigs and falsies. She couuld barely suppress her disappointment. No matter how you sliced it, heaven was a letdown.
"You're supposed to follow Me!" He said, the voice raspy with impatience.
"Oh, dear, I'm sorry." Maryanne modestly tucked her hospital gown about her slender, middle-aged body, and floated discreetly behind Him, and out into the greenish mist. From afar came music wailed by frantic sopranos:
Rock...rock, rock, rock..of ages.
Cleft...oh cleft cleft please cleft
Oh cleft...oh how the rock is cleft--
"No, no!" shouted a male voice, rapping on something hard with a baton. "You're destroying the mood! This isn't grand opera, but a simple, folksy hymn meant to inspire piety. The idea is this--" Now, his high-pitched tenor droned the song off-key. Got that? Good! For the thousandth time let's try again, and I beg you: follow directions! Look, I know you were once adored, perhaps worshipped, but that's finished. We're all considered equal up here. So please--try to remember you're no longer starring at the Met!" He sighed, a heavy sigh that seemed to engulf Maryanne like a gloomy cloud. "All right," he said, "let's take a coffee break." There was a sound of chairs scraping, the muttering of angry, tired voices, and then silence.
Upset by the squabbling in heaven, Maryanne turned anxiously to Him.
Posed strikingly by the gate, His head uplifted in benevolent profile, He shrugged and flicked a blonde curl off His shoulder. "Well, what do you expect? The inhabitants were vulnerable mortals, like yourself, with all their foibles and frailities. I try to be loving, understanding, merciful--as you know, merciful is my middle name--but considering the inferior group I work with..."
"Yes, I can appreciate that, but..."
He nodded and smiled sweetly. "Perhaps, my child, you'd like a flower?" He pointed at the gate, and a row of orchids popped up.
"My goodness!" Maryanne exclaimed, impressd by His miracle. She waited shyly while He scotch-taped the flower onto her hospital gown. Orchids--how lovely! She glanced down and saw that it was crepe paper. Her disappointment was keen.
His blue eyes gazed at her sympathetically. "Don't worry, Maryanne, you'll soon catch on to our customs. After a while, you'll be blissfully happy."
"I'm not worried about catching on. It's just that..." She bit her lower lip. There was no use complaining. Besides, her complaints seemed so--trivial.
"Come along then."
She sighed and floated silently behind Him toward arched structures resembling Lincoln Center. She used to admire Lincoln Center, though Jim thought the place ostentatious, but seeing it reproduced here complete with gushing fountains, made her uneasy. If heaven imitated Earth, why bother coming up?
"Here we are," He said pleasantly, and led her into a room with more orange carpeting, rococo ceiling, and gilded angels. In the center were harps, their rhinestone-encrusted frames glittering obscenely in the greenish light. "You needn't worry about being unable to play..." He said. "You have an eternity to learn." He giggled, as if at a private joke with Himself. "Oh, and dinner is at six. Don't be late! The cooks become aggravated because there are multitudes to feed, and latecomers upset the staggered schedule."
At the idea of perhaps tasting a strange, exotic dish, Maryanne said eagerly, "Will dinner be ambrosia and nectar?"
"No, my child." He affectionately chucked her under the chin as though she were a toddler--irritating Maryanne since He was younger than she. "I, of course, prefer ambrosia," he continued, "but the inhabitants have a wild passion for spaghetti, french fries, and chocolate pie. Well, have fun, and I'll see you later."
"How will I know the time? I don't have my watch."
He smiled again--that benevolent, patronizing smile that Maryanne suddenly realized was getting on her nerves. "I must admit," He said, chuckling, "I get a big kick out of you mortals. Of course, you don't need a watch here! You'll know when it's six."
To her relief, He vanished.
Maryanne sank onto a chaise longue against the wallpaper, and shuddered as she scanned the garish room. She'd rather go to hell than touch those hideous harps! Her disappointment intense now, she leaned back and closed her eyes, fighting tears. Oh, if only Jim were here to comfort her, as he always did when something went wrong. If only she could see him, even for a few minutes. How she longed to return to her walnut-panelled living room, gaze into the granite-framed fireplace, and listen to a Bach contata on the stereo. How peaceful, how truly divine...
As she sat there, daubing at tears, the walls began vibrating. She shot up in her chair, wondering what would happen next. From somewhere in heaven, a hammer crashed against a gigantic gong--no doubt indicating mealtime. "Oh, no," Maryanne whispered in stunned disbelief, and covered her ears to muffle the horrendous noise. Well, it was obvious she couldn't spend an eternity here! She certainly didn't prefer the alternative--she shivered at the thought--but perhaps she could persuade Him to transfer her to Purgatory. Or, even better--no place at all! Compared with her present circumstances, nothingness sounded delightful. If she could just persuade Him, without arousing possible anger...
Brightening with hope, she floated from her chair and drifted out into the mist to find Him--beseech Him to release her from heaven. A horder of people floated by--probably headed toward the dining hall. She followed and soon approached a large windowed building where she joined the long waiting line.
Having "caught on" as He called it, Maryanne wasn't surprised that the dining hall was a cafeteria. She glanced up, expecting to see HORN AND HARDART imprinted above the window. Instead, a red neon flashed:
FREE FREE FREE FREE FREE FREE FREE
BLUE-PLATE SPECIAL TODAY. SPAGHETTI
COME AND GET IT!
FREE FREE FREE FREE FREE FREE FREE
Inside, people frenetically grabbed trays, emptied glass cages of food and fought for empty seats at tables wreathed in cigarettte smoke. Along gold-papered walls, dimpled cupids grinned from whatknot stands. Maryanne's gaze shifted outside to loudspeakers atop the neon. Harps tinkled a well-known song to entertain the waiting crowd: "Oh, it's only a paper moon..."
Thoroughly disillusioned by now, Maryanne decided against eating and searched for Him. She spotted Him speaking with a woman farther up the line, and she floated in that direction. But then...she spotted Him bent over a child at the crowd's fringe, so she turned about. Confused, Maryanne finally realized there were a number of Him, the benevolent smile popping up everywhere, like mass-produced toothpaste. Horrified, she watched one of the "Hims" approach her. She shank in revulsion.
"How are you getting along?" He said, nodding and smiling sweetly.
She remembered then the urgent matter of being transferred, but was suddenly afraid to state her request. Who knew what reaction He might have? She tried to uplift her courage by reproaching her fear. How foolish she'd been; why He was supposed to be the symbol of love and mercy!
"I...wanted to ask You something, but there seem so many of You..."
"Of couse, my child." His smile, Maryanne noted, had become rather smug. "As you know," He continued. "I'm omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. How did you think I accomplish this?"
"Well, I...hadn't worked out the method. But which one of You is real?"
"All of us--naturally!" He studied her a moment. "Hmm..." He said thoughtfully. The benign smile slowly faded, replaced by an ominous frown that made Maryanne shiver. In the distance, thunder rumbled. "I'm getting the impression you're unhappy here. For some perverted reason, you don't want to belong in My paradise."
Maryanne waited nervously. Perhaps she should try to placate Him--though it meant lying.
His frown deepened, followed by a quick flash of lightning. "Ah, now I see the problem," He said, the blue eyes growing melancholy. "You think you're too good for this place. But heaven is for all believers--not just the rich from Westchester! Better drop that snobbish attitude, Maryanne. Otherwise--eternal damnation without salvation. Have you any idea how terrible that can be?"
She timidly shook her head as lightning flashed about them.
"Let me give you a small example." He glanced at her sadly. "Believe me, my child, this hurts Me more than you." He brushed back his curls, raised his arms, and an icy downpour drenched Maryanne in her thin hospital gown, though he remained dry in a glassy enclosure. "See what I mean?"
"I'm g-getting the m-message," she said, her teeth chattering in the cold.
"Good!" He smiled sweetly, and the downpour stopped, replaced by the greenish mist. From afar came, "Rock of Ages," hummed off-key. "Well," He said, pleased by the music. "I think you're properly indocrinated." He patted her head. "Remember: accept my paradise or suffer the consequences."
"I understand," Maryanne said, and pretended a sweet smile. "I shall do my best to be worthy of You."
"Splendid!" He abruptly vanished.
She floated, as if pacing back and forth before the cafeteria, debating a solution There seemed no hope, and yet...
With a sudden jolt, Maryanne felt herself descending rapidly. Awed by this unexpected happening, she spun in what seemed a vortex--as though a heavy weight were pulling her down, down, down. She grew terrified. Suppose, furious at her rejection, He was sending her to that other place? Shuddering, she finally opened her eyes; she slowly scanned the hospital's recovery room. Not quite certain she'd finally returned to Earth, she gazed a while at the tubes linking her to machines beside her bed, and beyond the window, an oak waving gently in the summer breeze. Though physically weak, she sighed in relief. Thank goodness, she was back! She could still see that horrible room with the rhinestone harps, the cafeteria wth grinning cupids...
She forced her mind toward pleasanter events, like returning home. When she recovered from the operation, Jim would pick her up at the hospital, supporting her arm as they walked toward the waiting Mercedes. Oh, how delightful to see again those dear, familiar streets along the way: her neighbors' lovely homes, the neat lawns dotted with dogwood, and nearby, the convenient shopping center. She'd make sure that her first meal home with Jim would be perfect--a celebration at having narrowly escaped death. She'd stop first at Tudor Butchers for sirloin. Then, next door at Merola's for fresh vegetables: red cabbage and sweet potatoes. And Eclair Bakery for fresh croissants...
Recalling the various stops, Maryanne began to feel uneasy, and glanced from the covered bedpan to the window. Several Saturdays ago, Aggie had visited and dragged her into every store in the area. Despite herself, Maryanne pictured one dreadfully-garish place with striped upholstery, gilded lamps, and orange carpeting. Outside under the awning, was a hideous red sign:
SALE SALE SALE
GRAB THESE BARGAINS WHILE THEY'RE HOT!
NOBODY UNDERSELLS MOODY'S
A chilll ran up Maryane's spine. There, in the doorway, beckoning eagerly at potential customers, had stood a young, grinning blond salesman...