Barbara Read was in for quite the surprise when she got to Heaven.
It wasn’t that she was dead. Barbara saw that coming a mile away. (Cancer. Breast at first; then, everywhere.)
Nor was Barbara surprised by the existence of heaven itself. Belief was bred into her since birth, and Barbara, a good-hearted person who followed the golden rule, always just assumed she’d arrive at the Pearly Gates. And she was right!
Barbara now approached the tableau she’d long imagined: downy clouds billowing over a coral horizon; harp-shaped gates twinkling incandescent; and – ah! There’s St. Peter at his golden pulpit, head bent, quill poised above a gilded ledger – just as Barbara imagined!
St. Peter waved Barbara forward without looking up. “Name, please.”
Barbara stood straight-backed and pronounced, “Bar-bara Read,” as if “Barbara Read” should mean something to a saint as great as Peter, or any saint.
“Read, Barbara. Yes. We’ve been expecting you and are quite pleased to have you here…” He slid a fine, slender finger down the page. “In heaven.”
Then he lifted his head – “My heavens!” Barbara cried.
This St. Peter was younger, taller, and far more strapping than the gnarled, stately version in that fresco at parochial school. There, St. Peter was paternal. Here, brawny and broad, with sharp cheekbones, olive green eyes, and bulging biceps, St. Peter was a downright stud!
It was a nice surprise, but not the surprise. That’s still on its way.
“Well, I’m happy to be here,” Barbara gave a coquettish flap. “My hand! It’s – it’s –” Firm, fresh, and pink – there wasn’t a wrinkle, age spot, or IV bruise in sight!
Barbara surveyed the rest of her body – and it was spectacular: Taut breasts pushed against a pink satin blouse; formidable calves below a pencil skirt; waist thick but fit. She again had the heft that made her feel sturdy; again had the robust, lively blonde hair that turned heads on earth – before the chemo stole it.
Here, now, Barbara was supple and youthful. Vibrant and elastic. Gorgeous!
Yes, Heaven was indeed a five-star experience – just as Barbara had imagined.
“Now.” St. Peter raised a rigid finger. “There’s the matter of your husband.”
Knees turned to jelly, Barbara caught herself on the lectern. “M-my husband!?”
This was the surprise.
“Mm-hmm. Your husband, Mrs. Read.” St. Peter cocked his head. “Where should he go?”
“B-but St. Peter.” Barbara hoisted herself back up and smoothed her skirt. “Hmm-hmm.” She cleared her throat. “My husband has been dead for almost 30 years.”
“Yes.” St. Peter’s flinty tone would give even the snootiest maître d a run for his money.
“And you’re asking me where he should… go? As in –” Barbara pointed up. Then she pointed down.
“That’s right, ma’am.”
Barbara frowned. St. Peter calling her “ma’am”? This is not what Barbara imagined.
“Call me Barbara. Please. And, again, St. Peter, Henry has been dead for quite some time. And he and I –”
Barbara considered the wisdom of confessing such a thing at such a time – although, St. Peter probably already knew….
Still, Barbara leaned forward and whispered: “We were… separated.”
“You were getting divorced, yes.” St. Peter affirmed, decidedly not whispering.
“Sheesh!” Barbara scanned side-to-side. “You don’t have to advertise it!”
“Yes. Well. Be that as it may, you must make a judgment about his fate.”
“Wait! Wait -” Barbara stopped herself and took a breath. This was one situation she definitely didn’t want going south. “Pardon me, but shouldn’t this have been settled a long time ago?!”
“No, ma’am. Dr. Read has been in stasis since his death.”
“‘Stasis’?! As in, limbo?… Is that why I sensed him watching when Jack and I were – you know…?” Barbara didn’t make any gestures this time.
“I should think not. Stasis is quite secure; I assure you that.” Peter gave a self-proud nod.
“Oh… Well, that’s good… I guess… But why is Henry my responsibility? Death did us part, divorced or not!”
Barbara reflexively smiled. She liked the sound of that: Death did us part, divorced or not.
Barbara always dreamt of being a writer after college. She even won an internship at a glossy women’s magazine as known for its in-depth investigations as its runway reports – the intended launching pad for her big dreams and big career and a whole new, brighter era that would leave a lasting legacy for decades to come – but within a year, Barbara was a pregnant housewife.
Two years later, another kid on the way, Barbara was already so ground down that she couldn’t fathom a coherent thought. Two more children followed in quick succession – a quartet was au courant at the time – and each day her family and spouse ate up Barbara’s drive in itsy bits so that finally all her own hopes had all but been devoured.
By the time the kids longer needed or wanted her, by the time Henry had left, Barbara’s life was engulfed by hobbies that felt like obligations: the opera board, various charities; The Club, cards with friends, tennis. Jack…
Oh, once in a while Barbara wondered what life could have been like… maybe could be like. She fantasized about sitting at her grandmother’s old desk, pushing the scented thank you cards aside, and pouring her heart out.
But what was in her heart? She no longer knew. And what would be the point? Who would even care what a middle-aged divorcee would have to say?
“Death did do you part, you’re correct, Mrs. Read. However, you added the ‘for all eternity’ clause to your wedding vows. See?” St. Peter pointed to faded script on a crinkled sheet of once-luxurious paper now stained with wine and tears, a rip up the middle stitched with fine, white silk.
“My vows?! I destroyed those! I remember clear as day -”
“Since your divorce was never finalized –” St. Peter mustered a sanitized smile. “Well, you can see the dilemma here.”
“I don’t believe it!” Barbara couldn’t hide her annoyance now if she tried, and she was not trying. “This – this – I don’t even know what to call it! This muddle is because of our wedding vows?! Those matter?”
“Oh!” St. Peter gasped.
“I mean, obviously they matter. I knew they mattered!” At the time, Barbara thought. Now, though? After all she’d experienced? Not as much – and certainly not as a contract with weight in a situation of such gravity.
Barbara cleared her throat. She clarified: “What I mean, your excellency… Those vows are binding?”
“Quite. God takes all his writing very seriously.”
“Wha?!” Barbara’s face scrunched as if smelling something rank. “God wrote those vows?! Seriously? They’re so formulaic; so… so… dispassionate!”
Barbara expected more than those elementary vows from the almighty Creator!
“God writes all His own material, Mrs. Read.” St. Peter said. “He’s very hands-on.”
“If God’s so ‘hands-on,’ why does He let good people die? Why does He let people starve? Why are there droughts and genocides? Why do women get beat? Hmmm?”
Hands on hips, chest puffed, Barbara was again that willful 4-year-old interrogating the department store Santa; the 12-year-old rallying to save the local ball field; the 20-year-old protesting the firing of a beloved professor.
Barbara was the fiercest, purest version of herself in those moments– a self who became someone else entirely as life stretched on, as vim and vigor blanched into acquiescence and comfort.
Now Barbara’s dormant fire filled her veins once again – maybe not the best timing, here at Heaven’s Gate, but Barbara had to know: “Why does God give small children cancer or let old women be raped? Why does He let animals be abused and our forests burn? Why? Why, St. Peter? Why?!”
St. Peter turned his head and held a finger to his ear. A moment later, St. Peter replied, “He’s busy working on his next set of hymns.”
“Hymns?! Hymns?” Barbara’s indignation was on full display. “God’s too busy to help humans– His greatest, supposedly most beloved creations – because of hymns?”
“God must not be distracted from His hymns.”
St. Peter’s clipped tone made clear this was a hard and fast rule, but Barbara had to laugh: Him playing with his hymns. She muttered, “God in Heaven…”
St. Peter pursed his lips to reply when he caught sight of the pulpit – “Oh!” His eyes widened in horror.
The ledger had at least tripled in thickness and been heaped with manila envelopes, weathered leather pouches wrapped in twine, case files with metal clasps, ancient scrolls made of animal skin, and a rainbow of cocktail napkins, too!
St. Peter stared at the mess for a moment before he sighed despondently and rotated back to Barbara. “How would you like to proceed, Mrs. Read?”
Barbara clicked a nail against her front teeth. “Why is Henry in limbo, anyway? Was it all the affairs? I bet it was….”
“That’s confidential. And it’s ‘Stasis.’”
“Hold on. My husband’s fate is in my hands, and I can’t know why he’s in limbo – Statis?” Barbara corrected herself before St. Peter had the pleasure. “Why not?”
“Policy. I’m sorry.” He didn’t seem sorry, though. Instead, with that humorless smile and cold gaze, St. Peter evoked the same empty apathy one gets from corporate customer service. “Now, please, ma’am, there’s quite a queue…….”
Barbara saw behind her a line stretching beyond the horizon and comprised of every type of person imaginable: a bored Asian sorority girl; a toddler teething on a wooden block; an ancient Jewish woman knitting a shawl and a monk in a drab brown robe; a teenage boy playing a handheld video game; another teenager, this one a girl, in dirty, torn bell-bottoms.
About a dozen twenty-somethings wearing the same rock band’s t-shirts stood dazed by whatever terrible incident preceded their arrival, and there, right behind Barbara, stood an elegant Indian woman about her age. She wore a diamond-studded sari, a tiara loaded with emeralds, and a scowl that silently screamed: “Hurry the hell up, lady!”
Barbara pretended not to notice – just like on the city sidewalk, she looked through the woman as she rotated back to St. Peter. “All these people are getting into Heaven?”
Barbara thumbed at a man dressed in only a trench coat and a leer. “Even him?”
“Yes. And there are more arriving each second, Mrs. Read, so, really -”
“So, wait -”
“Oohhhh!” St. Peter cried out.
“Well, I’m sorry. But I have to ask: Is there one true God, or is Vishnu or someone on the other side?” Barbara’s attempt at a subtle nod toward the Indian woman came out too fast so it was more of hard jerk and so completely obvious Barbara had to hurriedly clarify: “Not that it matters because all should be welcome – are welcome. Of course.”
Barbara smoothed her blouse. “I just want to know what to expect.”
Composed and as impassive as ever, St. Peter shook his head,“I’m not at liberty to say.”
Jangle. St. Peter’s keys clinked against his thigh.
“Wait.” Barbara froze. She looked about, examining her surroundings anew. “Is this actually heaven? Are you actually St. Peter? What am I getting myself into?!”
The gatekeeper had been asked various variations of these very same questions infinite times in infinite ways, and infinite times he’s answered as instructed, routinely and robotically: “Actual afterlives may vary depending on beliefs and preferences.”
Barbara’s arms crossed. “And what about those who don’t believe in an afterlife? Huh?”
St. Peter looked down his nose and replied, “That’s not my jurisdiction. Now, Mrs. Read…”
“Yeah, yeah.” Barbara propped her elbow on the pulpit. “Henry…”
They’d met the summer after Barbara graduated from a prestigious all-girls college.
Henry was only in the second year of his residency but had already garnered renown as an exceptional talent. He was “going places” – that was the official prognosis – and not to mention attractive: flaxen hair and a movie star’s jaw; stout wrestler’s build and deep dimples that made an impression on everyone he met. They certainly did on Barbara that night in the E.R.
“… Long story short, after that high-on-my-horse speech to Molly Jenkins, turns out I am a klutz!” Barbara prattled on, at once aroused and embarrassed by the dreamy Dr. Read’s hands on her swollen ankle. “So, anyway, back to this: I was placing a new piece by this young, downtown painter, Guy Hendricks, and –”
“Guy Hendricks?!” Henry gaped from her feet, her sole in his palm. “I love his work – very avant-garde. Not many people know of him yet. You have a Guy Hendricks?”
“Yes. My fa – it was a gift.” Barbara said. A force overcame her – Eros, she later thought – and she purred, “Want to come see it?”
Carnality danced in Henry’s caramel eyes, “Oh, I’ll come… After my overnight shift?”
“But of course. Come away,” Barbara cooed even as she mentally ran through all the chores to be done before he did indeed come.
Four hours later, shortly after sunrise, Henry rang Barbara’s bell. Inside, she had breakfast plated. It was their first meal together – and the last thing they ate for two days…
To Barbara, it was a fairytale: doctor prince saves brilliant but lonely princess. To Henry, it was a shock: vibrant, wry woman snapped him from his caddish ways.
Thus caught up in their otherworldly romance, the couple married a month later – a move that instantly increased Barbara’s ardor and simultaneously broke the spell for Henry. He cheated on his new wife the next day.
Barbara wouldn’t learn about that dalliance until after Henry was dead, though she did have other doubts in those early years. It was little things: the unnatural way he averted his gaze from certain women; his nervous cough when adultery came up on tv; the sharp breath when the phone rang after dark… They all added up.
More than a few times she drove herself to near madness looking for proof – dug through Henry’s desk, scoured his underwear for scents or stains, emptied his pockets and golf bag; she even broke into his hospital locker! – until she finally took her mother’s advice: strike a balance agreeable obliviousness and aloof suspicion.
“It’s more graceful,” her mother said over tea at The Club.
And maybe she was right. Self-imposed ignorance certainly was easier, and Barbara had grown accustomed to being a successful doctor’s wife. Now she believed “Mrs. Dr. Henry Read” afforded her more status than “Barbara Montgomery” could have ever achieved. And more ease, for sure.
It was a well-oiled life, yes.
The truth ultimately came out most ignominiously: a wine-drunk floozy in a halter top sauntered up to “Harry” at their daughters’ ballet recital and bawled in a thick New Jersey accent, “What are you doing here, Hair-rry?”
A cheap perm bobbled atop her head as she smacked her gum. “Playing family man, huh? Well, let me know when you want to be my little piggy again!”
“Harry” was flustered; Barbara mortified; and the floozy amused: “Tee-hee!” She tottered off.
Embarrassment and rage tousled for dominance in Barbara’s psyche, though it was the dark horse of abandonment that won out. And stupidity. She just felt so small in the wake of her partner’s betrayal. So reduced and useless…
Still, despite her pain, Barbara stayed with Henry. It was more a protective urge for her children than anything else. She couldn’t upend their young lives. Not like that. She could never forgive herself the trauma she presumed would result – or the therapy bills.
With his secret more or less out of the bag, Henry became less discreet, and Barbara blinder and blinder.
For now, she told herself in more clear-headed moments.
For now, she’d keep quiet… For now she’d look the other way… Until their youngest graduated high school.
Then Barbara would do it. Yes, she’d really let Henry have it – and it would stupendous! He’d squirm and deny and maybe even cry! And Babs would stand there, haughty and amused. It would serve him right, too! Ooo – Maybe she’d do it at The Club, where Henry’s friends could bear witness to his humiliation! Yes!
But Barbara never got the satisfaction: Henry beat her to the punch by a month. And he didn’t end their marriage with a mournful apology. He didn’t cite their years together or declare his pride for their shared children and the life they’d built together.
No. Henry wrote with an overwrought letter on cheap, pulpy stationary from a cheap, pulpy motel.
He gushed on and on about how “marvelous, beautiful Naomi” made him feel young and her wit was a riot and she was just so smart and “attuned,” whatever that meant, and Henry was simply positive Barbara would love her once they met.
“Not fucking likely,” Barbara snarled as she crumpled the letter and tossed it into the fire.
Two weeks later, Henry died – in bed, atop Naomi, who was not nearly as smart as Henry claimed: instead of calling an EMT, she called Barbara – insult atop injury.
Now, in Heaven, as Barbara recalled all that anguish, all those lies and betrayals, all the tears and shame and insecurity, she realized it would be pretty damn gratifying to see Henry burn in hell.
She could see it now… Ah, lovely: Henry squeals as demons poke his scrotum with red-hot pitchforks; he screeches as infernal beasts eat his toes. Oh! The beautifully abusive vulgarities they’d thrust upon her former love! The delicious humiliation and degradation Satan’s deranged minions would inflict upon the man who broke her heart – pain well-earned! Wonderful!
Yes. Henry deserved to be punished for all his false flattery… for his lie and deceit, his duplicity and disrespect… for heartlessly and casually dissolving their marriage with a soppy letter.
“Say, St. – whomever you are. How did you come upon those vows? I destroyed them.”
“We have our methods.” He tilted his head. “Why?”
“Could you use those ‘methods’ to locate the letter Henry sent me before we…?”
“Separated. Yes. But why would I do that?” St. Peter arched an eyebrow, intrigued.
Barbara arched an eyebrow of her own, confident: “It’ll speed this whole thing along.”
“One moment!” St. Peter trilled.
A magnificent but angry-looking angel immediately appeared. It held out an alabaster palm smeared with black soot and glared at Barbara.
Barbara shrugged. “I was mad.”
The angel rolled its eyes.
“Well, go ahead!” St. Peter shrieked at the seraph.
The angel huffed dramatically but eventually conceded: A wave of its creamy wing transformed the soot into intact paper. Outdated letterhead read “The Edgewater Inn.”
“Henry’s note!” Barbara squealed.
St. Peter snatched the page and began to read – his face fell as he read the conclusion aloud: “I pledge my soul to Naomi… forevermore, in life and death. Signed, Henry Read, M.D.”
“See! See?” Barbara bounced up and down. “This is Naomi’s decision.”
“Oh.” St. Peter sniffed. “Well…” He shifted from foot to foot. “Let me –”
“Mmmh-hmm.” The angel leaned in – it so rarely got a front-row seat.
“Oh, scram – get out of here!” St. Peter shooed the angel, which POOF disappeared in a cloud that smelled of baby powder.
The gatekeeper turned to Barbara, tense smile in place, and instructed: “Please hold.”
St. Peter rifled through his piles of papers, tossing sheets and entire notebooks this way and that until, finally, breathlessly, he clutched a rolled-up scroll found smooshed below the jumble. “All right, let’s see…”
He squinted at the scroll’s fine print – “Ah… Here! Yes, you are correct, Mrs. Read. This should be Naomi’s… ‘problem,’ as you say.” His mouth tightened as if he’d sucked a lemon.
Barbara beamed – until St. Peter added, “In theory.”
“That, Mrs. Read, was under the old paradigm. Naomi’s body expired… About seven months ago.”
“Oh? Isn’t that just too bad?” Barbara chuckled to the Indian woman behind her – but if she expecting some kind of sisterly support, she didn’t get it: The woman scowled with a ferocity that repelled Barbara back to St. Peter, equally-unamused.
Barbara laced her hands and bowed her head. “Sorry.”
“Tsk.” St. Peter shook his head with disappointment but did continue: “You see, Naomi chose to upload her consciousness into a cloud server – one of the more novel attempts at thwarting death. It doesn’t work, but it does negate an afterlife. Naomi and those like her won’t be welcome until they either opt out of their technological perpetuity, if that’s possible – I would not know – or someone pulls the plug.”
“Or there’s a power outage,” Barbara suggested.
“Mmm. Perhaps.” The entity stroked his chin. “Regardless – Back to your husband.”
“Wah!!!” Barbara burst into tears.
Goggle-eyed St. Peter clutched his chest apparently taken aback – and Barbara was taken aback. She’d never been much of a crier in life, but here, the home stretch, reality walloped her: the excruciating, drawn-out illness; the agonizing brevity of earthly existence preceding it.
Just yesterday she was a little girl playing with her dolls as her parents argued; she was sixteen, cat-walking with books on her head to prove her posture; she was a young woman, at the peak of Mt. Hood, regarding the world below with awe and disdain. She was celebrating her fortieth in Venice, lazily floating through canals with Henry by her side; she was 60, lunching alone; she was in her early thirties, at the pool, floppy sunhat on her head, her four children fried red from UV rays and asking for ice cream.
Her children! Her babies! The four rays of sunshine who lit up dark, undiscovered corners of her heart; the little people who eclipsed her other, earlier dreams… Who had become a dream she didn’t know she’d had!
Barbara knew what to do.
“I’ve made a decision.” Barbara exhaled, purging surplus grief: “Henry should be here, in Heaven.”
“You’re sure, ma’am. Quite sure?” St. Peter’s eyes alit, quill at the ready.
“Yes.” Barbara dipped her head. “The children would want him here. He should be here. Or there or wherever!”Barbara threw her hands in the air. She just wanted to get on with her eternal bliss!
“Thank you, Mrs. Read! Thank you! That’s quite munificent of you, ma’am. Here…” St. Peter held out a silk handkerchief. “For your tears.”
Barbara expelled her nose into the gossamer fabric and examined the results. “Yeah, I’m a real saint.”
Barbara offered him the hanky back, but St. Peter demurred. “It’s yours.”
Then, finally, with a big grin and great flourish, St. Peter crossed Barbara’s name from his list and waved her forward.
Before Barbara, the pearly gates opened. Ruby red rays beckoned: You are wanted.
Barbara squared her shoulders and fluffed her hair – “Oh!” She swung around to the Indian woman: “Thank you for your patience.”
The woman smiled, but did not say a word.
Satisfied, Barbara stepped confidently toward Heaven’s Gate, just as she’d always imagined – and as she did, a silhouette materialized amidst the undulating mists ahead. It was unmistakable; that squat, wide wrestler’s stance… Henry.
As she passed St. Peter, Barbara cracked out the side of her mouth, “It’s gonna be a long eternity.”
Eyes narrowing into slits, the entity agreed: “Oh, you have no idea.”
- New Mexican Sunset, Carol M. Highsmith
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- Sunset on the Rocky Oregon Coast, Carol M. Highsmith