By Cephalgia (Val Brown)
Author’s note: This story was a long while in the writing, but I put that down to the fact that it is pretty different for me. I thank those who encouraged me and gave me feedback during the process. A big thank you to Karen for the editing. Any comments or feedback can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
First thing, right off, I’m going to ask you to suspend your disbelief. Go ahead; suspend it now. Done? Thank you.
I had to ask you to do that at the start of this tale because you might not believe it otherwise. Let me assure you, however, that I’m going to tell you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I’m leaving off “so help me God.” You’ll see why later.
I’ll try to put it all in the best order I can; if I need to skip around some I hope you’ll forgive me. If it seems a bit strange or bizarre, just think about how I must have felt going through it. It all started the day I got hit and killed by a streetcar. Even before that really.
Oh geez, I didn’t even tell you who I am. The name is Rebecca Bean, but you’ve probably read my work online under the name Becca Bean. I love writing and posting my stories on the Internet. It’s the first time nobody made fun of my name. When I was in school I was called String Bean, Wax Bean, Lima Bean and Green Bean among others. In college, my best friend Fly and I took a course in French. She started calling me “Le Gume,” which sounded very continental, but basically you know what it means.
Anyway, I write stories. Some short, some long, and I bet by the rainbow flag on the wall over my computer you can figure out what kind. I love a bright crowd I don’t have to explain a lot to. Also, let me confess something to start the story; I’m not a writer. Well, I am, but only part-time. My full time job is PBX operator for a large downtown San Francisco law firm. I was the receptionist and PBX operator, but as the firm got bigger they decided to split the work.
Now I sit in a windowless room from nine to five. I get an hour for lunch that I spend outside if possible, or in the cafeteria of the Cochran building if I must. I eat my salad or sandwich and then it’s back to “Wittenberg, Escobar, Brenneman and Dow. How may I direct your call?” for the rest of the day. I don’t have time to write at work, but sometimes I think about stories between phone calls. And that’s the problem.
I think…a lot. Story ideas float around in my brain. I’m constantly second guessing myself and changing plots, characters…you name it, I’ve changed it. I once held up the posting of a story just to change a character’s pet dog to a cat. But the worst, the very worst, are endings. I’m never happy. On average I’ll rewrite an ending seven or eight times before I post it and I’ll be honest…there is a webmistress or two who will write and say, “Are you sure?” when I submit a tale.
Speaking of tales, let’s begin, shall we?
There I was at Fisherman’s Wharf. Being a resident of The City, I’m not normally down there much, but one Saturday I had a craving for fresh sourdough bread. The best sourdough in my opinion is at the Boudin Bakery at the Wharf, so I headed down to get two rounds of the wonderfully crusty bread. I had made my purchases and was going to wander down and buy a bowl of clam chowder from the guy who cooks it outside Grotto #9, when I met my demise.
The Wharf was crowded, like it is every Saturday, and I waited for the green light to allow me to cross the street. Behind me, a man facing away from me was trying to get a picture of his wife under the huge ship’s wheel that says “Fisherman’s Wharf” on it.
“Hang on, Delores. I can’t get Alcatraz from here. Move down some. No, left. Your left, Delores. Never mind, I’ll move.”
And move he did, backward to get a panoramic view of Fisherman’s Wharf, the Bay, Alcatraz and the entire West Coast for all I know. Backward, and right into me. The force of the collision caused my precious sourdough rounds to slip from my grasp and as I stepped forward to bring them back under control….WHAM!
The F-line runs along the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf and it runs on time. I caught the F-line and the F-line caught me. It was quick and painless as far as I can tell. I’m not going to describe my earthly remains; it would be too gross and besides, I really can’t remember it well. All I remember is that green F-line streetcar and then I was floating. It was soft and warm and I headed for a light that grew steadily brighter and more inviting. I wasn’t in pain or hurt or scared, just on a journey that felt joyfully welcome.
The light grew brighter and brighter until it was almost blindingly white. Then all of a sudden the light went out. The blackness was inky and I wondered where I was. I knew clearly that I was dead, but where I had landed was a mystery.
“Hello?” I called out. A light went on. It was a small lamp with a pink shade sitting on a small wooden table. To either side of the table were two tan, canvas director’s chairs.
“Sit down, please,” a voice said from the darkness. I moved to one of the chairs and sat down.
“Not there,” the voice said. “Can’t you read?” I stood and looked at the chair. How I missed it the first time I don’t know. Emblazoned on the chair, in bold gold letters, were the words, “In Charge”.
Somebody’s got an ego, I thought.
“Do not,” came the voice again. That creeped me out so I sat in the other chair, trying not to have any more thoughts at all.
“Welcome to Purgatory,” the voice said.
“Purgatory? I thought that was a Catholic kind of thing. Purgatory…” I tried the word out on my tongue. “You sure I’m supposed to be here?” I asked, not knowing where to look or address my questions exactly.
“Very sure. This isn’t that kind of purgatory. Think of this as a transfer station on the way to someplace else. A rest area, a pit stop…just know this isn’t your final destination.”
“Okay, I see the chair says ‘In Charge’. Can I ask who you are?”
“You can. I’m God. It’s a pleasure to meet you again.”
“Again? Oh, right. The whole ‘you knew me before I was born’ thing. Got it. Can I see you?” I asked, curious to get a look at the Creator.
“Not in my God form, if you want to call it that. The bright light on the way here? That would be like striking a match to the brightness of what I am. It isn’t for humans to be able to see or understand. You have much larger brains than the dinosaurs, but you have nowhere near the capacity to begin to fathom me. Don’t worry, I wish to speak with you and I will adopt a form you are able to comprehend.”
Footsteps sounded in the darkness, approaching the small circle of light thrown by the lamp. I sat up straighter, anxious at the thought of being in the presence of the Supreme Being. Closer and closer the footsteps came until into the light walked…Oprah.
“I knew it!” I said. “I always thought you had too much information.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” God replied, taking the other chair. “I chose this form because you were familiar and comfortable with it. Oprah is not God and God is not Oprah, though we have worked closely together in the past.”
I have to tell you right now that the voice, hair and movements were all dead ringers for Oprah and it was hard for me to think in any terms but those. A thought hit me then. How did I know this was God? Could it be that this was actually the master of a domain a hell of a lot hotter, if you’ll pardon the pun? Until I could find out for sure, I wasn’t going to sign my name in blood to anything.
Oprah sighed. “Okay, let’s get this over with. Test me. You humans are never certain until you test me.” She was right; I’d need to be convinced. I guess God expected that. “Make it tough,” Oprah urged and it almost sounded like she wanted to show off a little.
“What’s the square root of 566,054,598?” I challenged.
“Very feeble,” Oprah said, shaking her head. “752,366. Next…and make it something that isn’t just a parlor trick.” This is actually a tough thing to do. Put yourself in my place for a moment. You meet God and need to verify identity…how would you do it?
“I have ID in my purse,” God suggested. A Creator with a sense of humor, I had to admit I liked her. I tried to think of something only God would know. I ran through several questions in my mind.
“You stole two Snickers bars from the Circle K when you were eight years old, your first crush was Miss Pennywise in the fourth grade and the capital of Iceland is Reykjavik. You’re a writer, come up with something for goodness sake, will you?” I decided to ask something I’d always wanted to know.
“When I was growing up, my mother told me that there’s somebody for everybody in this world. Soulmates, I guess you’d say. Did you do that? Is that the way you’ve got it arranged?”
Oprah smiled softly at me. “Don’t you love a mother’s wisdom? Mother’s wisdom was mine, you know. I thought that one up. If everybody listened a little closer to their mother, humankind would be happier.” Between us, a large screen came to life showing a montage of pictures of mothers with their children, holding their hands, hugging them and things like that.
The pictures ended with one of my mom and me. It was from a family vacation we had taken when I was nine. My mom and I were walking along the beach in Monterrey. She had her hand on my shoulder and we were talking about a vacation she had taken with her family as a child. It was a close and tender moment for us. It was also the vacation my dad forgot the camera. I got choked up; I couldn’t help it.
“Thank you for that,” I said as the picture disappeared. Oprah reached over and patted my hand. Hers was soft and warm and I was instantly filled with a radiance and…love is the only way I can describe it. I’m sure my eyes were as wide as saucers. There was no doubt about it; this was God.
“Glad you realize that now,” Oprah told me. “To answer your question though, no, there isn’t someone for everyone in this world. There isn’t someone for anybody. I put that idea in humans’ minds and mothers’ wisdom so you wouldn’t be solitary creatures. If you think there is a person out there just for you, you’re going to look. You’d be surprised at how many people feel they’ve met the person they’re destined for, when actually they’ve just met the person they’re best with. Works out well, just like I planned. I’m omniscient you know.” I had to admit, it was very clever.
“If you’re omniscient then you know why I’m here, which puts you one up on me,” I said. “What can I possibly do for you?” That made Oprah laugh.
“Do for me? Like walk my dog or butter my toast? No, you’re actually here because I’m going to let you do something for yourself.” Not having the vast knowledge of the universe at my disposal, I was stumped. The screen popped up behind us again, this time showing Oprah standing at a contestant’s podium on the set of Jeopardy. Leaning into the microphone, she said, “I’ll take God’s Mysterious Plans for four hundred, Alex.” The screen disappeared again.
“I have to tell you, I’m pretty good at that show.” God laughed at her own joke. “You’re here because you’re a work in progress. As a rather bright young woman, I’m surprised you didn’t figure that out. Oprah would have.”
“Good for you…I mean good for Oprah. I’m clueless.” God stood and moved to the outer edges of the circle of light. Reaching into the darkness, she pulled back a rather thick folder.
“Let’s go over your file, shall we?” Opening the dossier, Oprah shook her head slowly. “Routine beginning…the female, Caucasian, Earth standard.”
I wondered if there were non-Earth standards. Oprah looked up from the file, directly at me. She brought up her right hand and I saw the index finger and thumb were pinched together. Slowly she moved the finger and thumb apart about one quarter of an inch.
“Better?” she asked solicitously. I felt a strange sensation pass through my body.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Just opened your mind some,” she replied with a shrug and resumed peering at the contents of the folder. Let me hold up the story a second here to assure you, there is life on other planets... lots of it.
“Let’s get back to you,” God continued. You started off fine, but you let your journey take you down a very wishy-washy path. I knew it…woman trouble. Okay, you got the soulmate idea, believed it, looked for and found your best match. You didn’t follow through though. I know why you didn’t, do you?” Memories of Maggie flowed into my mind. She was warm, fun and I thought I loved her, but…
“But she wasn’t perfect, was she?” Oprah prompted.
“No, she wasn’t,” I admitted.
“Later you thought you met your soulmate on a plane.” God stated it as the fact it was. I closed my eyes and remembered.
“Her name was Catherine. I had seat 16F and she had 16E, San Francisco to Boston, four and a half hours of bliss. We were compatible in everything. She skied and I liked to watch skiing. She sky-dived and I always wanted to, she could paint and I had taken a course in art appreciation. She was my destiny; I just knew it. I’m not saying anything you don’t know though, am I?”
“No,” Oprah said, sitting back into her chair. “But maybe there are a few things you don’t know.”
“She was perfect, but not for you. You just couldn’t accept that though, could you? You saw Maggie as safe and comfortable, but Catherine as your soul mate. You were torn, so you did for the first time what would become a habit with you. You did nothing.”
That was the truth. I became indecisive and vacillating both in my personal life and my writing. I wanted to pursue Catherine, but I was frozen. What could she see in a scrub like me? I wanted to be happy with Maggie, but I made the unbidden comparisons. Eventually, I fought for neither and I had neither. I could have and should have kicked myself into some action, but from that point on, it was continual second-guessing.
“You’ve pretty much wasted the life I gave you,” Oprah accused mildly. I looked down, unable to meet the knowing brown eyes.
“Yeah, I did. I always thought one day I would have the time to find out which one of them, if anybody, was right for me. Guess I ran out of time. I suppose the penalty for wasting something as precious as a life is to go down there,” I said, pointing down in the direction my childhood pastor always said Hell was.
“Worse,” Oprah informed me. I trembled. “You’re going back.”
“Back,” I said miserably. “This is a fine time to find out reincarnation is true.” I lifted my head up and pulled my shoulders back. “Okay, I’m ready. What’s it going to be? Will I be a rock or an amoeba or maybe a fungus, just waiting to get annihilated by a good dose of somebody’s jock strap powder?”
“Nothing that good,” Oprah teased. “You’re going back as yourself…sort of.” The Supreme Being who created the order of the universe certainly had to have a better plan than what I had heard so far, so I waited for clarification. I wasn’t disappointed.
“Well, you’re dead of course, at least to everybody on earth, so that changes things a bit. Your mortal body is…unavailable.” I wondered if I had been buried or cremated, but only briefly. All I knew is that this month I wasn’t going to have any cramps.
“Sooo shallow,” Oprah said as she closed my file and relaxed back in her chair. “Listen up; I’m going to explain how this is going to work. It’s a second chance kind of thing. You made a fine mess of your life with your first one, so I’m being generous and giving you another. You have things to learn and changes to make.”
“What kind of changes? What do I need to learn?” I asked. “What happens if I learn what you say I need to?” A terrifying thought struck me. “And what happens if I don’t?” Every movie I had ever seen that dealt with the afterlife and Hell, as well as several episodes of South Park, flashed through my mind.
“You have to love Hollywood, don’t you?” God asked. “Actually, Hell is nothing like that.” Oprah looked at her manicure and waited. She was waiting for my curiosity to get to get the best of me. It did; I had to ask.
“What is it like?” I inquired. She sat forward, almost childlike in her eagerness to tell me.
“Well, I’ve been experimenting over the last few centuries. Early on all that fire and brimstone stuff worked fine with you humans, but then you got so jaded it was tough to make anything a threat. For example, if you spent a few years in South Central L.A., a lake of fire isn’t very scary.” That sounded reasonable to me.
“So now I have a new project…Custom Hell, I’m calling it. Your own Hell…just picture it. Let’s say you’re a gang-banger from the hood; I’m talking a real bad ass here. Your Hell might be to work in an ice cream store in suburbia for all eternity. In the Midwest. Serving only vanilla.”
“Brilliant,” I had to admit.
“Or how would you like to relive your high school prom or have your taxes audited or your prostate checked for all eternity?”
“Diabolical,” I breathed.
“It’s all the rage,” Oprah agreed, settling back in her chair.
“Does Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell know about this?” I asked, not remembering having heard them announce the change.
God made a disgusted sound. “Those guys. No, they don’t know about it. I think they’re going to write ‘I am a dick’ on the blackboard for the rest of eternity. Of course, I’m still working on that one.” I said nothing, noting her irritation.
“But to get back to your other question, I’m not going to tell you what you need to learn and change. That’s part of this second chance process. You go through it and you figure it out.” I knew it wouldn’t be that easy.
“Before you tell me what I have to do, can I ask one more question?”
Oprah smiled. “Why you, right?” I nodded. “Well, it’s not just you. I’m having this very same conversation, or one like it, with tens of thousands of people right now, but at the same time, it is just you. I love you, Becca Bean, and I care about you. It’s as simple as that.” I was loved and I was cared about. I felt it and had no doubt about it. When had I lost that?
“Tell me what I need to do,” I said. “I’m ready.”
“You’re going to receive three files. Each one is a case, a person with problems. You’re going to solve them. You’re the master at revising endings, now you’ll have the chance to do it for real. Your decisions will directly affect the lives of the three people in the cases. In essence, you’ll be playing God.” Oprah paused here, letting the importance of what she had to say hit me. It did, like a ton of bricks.
“I can’t do that!” I protested. “And you can’t put these people’s lives in my hands. Good grief, I can’t even write the lives of fictional characters without screwing it up! And let me guess…no ‘do-overs’ either.”
“Nope,” Oprah confirmed. “You can intervene in their lives as many times as you need to, but once you do, what you’ve decided will stick. You, and they, will deal with the consequences.”
“What happened to all that ‘free will’ stuff? I thought you didn’t interfere with people and the way they live their lives,” I said, hoping to outfox God.
“I don’t interfere, you’re going to do it,” she replied, outfoxing me. I tried desperately to come up with an argument to get off this gigantic hook, but all I got was the biggest case of brain freeze I’d ever had. Oprah stood and paced the breadth of the circle of light slowly. “I know you don’t think you can do this, but I’ve never put a task to a person that was impossible to complete.” That made me feel better... a little.
The brain freeze thawed for a moment. “How am I supposed to help these people if I don’t even have a body?”
“There are ways…” Oprah began, as she stopped her slow pacing.
“Hey,” I exclaimed, interrupting the Lord. “Am I like an angel?” I cut my eyes to the side to see if wings or something had sprouted when I wasn’t paying attention. Oprah started laughing and returned to her chair.
“Thousands and thousands of years and you still amuse me. You walk on my bad side quite a bit, but there’s nothing like a human for a chuckle. Look…” She moved her left arm up and out to the side, extending her index finger. “You,” she explained. Moving her right arm up and out to the opposite side, she extended that hand’s index finger. “Angel.”
Got it, I was no angel.
“You’re going to get something from me to help you. It’s only temporary, so don’t get thrilled.” Oprah took her formerly extended right index finger and just touched it to the back of my hand that was closest to her. Raw power surged through me.
“Holy shit! What is that?” I shouted, still shaking from the feeling coursing through my body.
“First, I am the Holiest of the Holies and I do not defecate so I wish you humans would stop saying that. Second, just relax, the feeling will settle down in a few seconds.” Even as Oprah was saying it, I could feel the powering down inside me.
“You have now been granted the Word of the Lord,” Oprah said. “It’s but a very tiny piece of what I am.”
“How tiny?” I asked, still feeling like I could move mountains. Oprah considered this.
“You know the Sahara Desert?” I nodded. “You just got a grain of sand.” I literally trembled at that simple statement. To say the fear of God had been put in me was completely accurate.
“Go ahead, try it out. Do a test drive. Right now, think of something…anything at all and it will be granted. Like a one time wish kind of thing,” Oprah clarified. Put on the spot like that, I had a hard time coming up with something. I grabbed at the first thought that came to my mind.
“The Word of the Lord,” I announced and from thin air came a grilled peanut butter, bacon and banana sandwich. “Cool!” I said, reaching for the treat. God looked a little disappointed. “What? I eat when I’m stressed,” I said.
“I’m not upset,” Oprah explained. “I just don’t get it. You order up a lunch for Elvis instead of wishing for world peace. I would have given that to you, you know. I never break my word, but you humans never wish for world peace.” I winced internally and externally, living through the ultimate moment I’ll never get back.
“Use this power carefully, Becca. Remember, it’s all permanent.”
A task I wasn’t sure I could complete, a power I couldn’t comprehend and a daytime television goddess guiding my actions. With assets like that, how could I fail?
“I’m ready.” I said, hoping the tremor I felt inside didn’t show itself in my voice, not that it really mattered in the presence of an omniscient being.
“Go get your first file then, woman,” Oprah instructed, nodding at the dark edge of the circle. Mimicking her earlier actions, I went to the boundary of the light and reached my hand cautiously into the inky expanse. Bringing my hand back, I found a file folder in it. It was labeled, “Latosha Louise Williams”.
“Fly?” I asked incredulously. “I don’t suppose in this huge world, with its billions and billions of inhabitants, there could be another Latosha Louise Williams?”
“Not a one, Becca,” Oprah said. “See you soon.” With the merest dismissive wave, everything plunged into darkness.
I didn’t have to read the file; I knew everything in it already.
I had known Latosha Louise Williams since my parents moved to the Bay area when I was in the third grade. We hated each other immediately. We were antagonistic and cruel to each other in the way only children can be, and it all culminated in one of those after school “sort of” fights.
We circled and feinted, pushed a little bit, but when it was obvious neither of us had the guts for a fight, the other kids turned on us both. There’s a real lack of entertainment in elementary school and when what little there promised to be vanished, we had just doomed ourselves to be official outcasts. From that point on, she was my best friend. I even gave her the nickname that would stick for the rest of her life.
In the ninth grade we went on a class trip to the Gettysburg Battlefield. We also toured the Amish country and that’s where Latosha discovered Shoofly Pie. The sweet sticky dessert seemed to strike just the right note in her and she had three slices at one memorable lunch. I called her Shoofly Pie the rest of the day, just Shoofly the next and then Fly after that until everyone else started calling her that too. Only her parents call her Latosha now. Even her boyfriend, Juwon the Jerk, calls her Fly.
Juwon the Jerk isn’t a name I gave him, she did. It didn’t refer to the fact that he was unemployed most of the time, which he was. It also didn’t refer to the fact that he screwed around and brought home a dose of Chlamydia, which he did. No, Fly called him that because every time she thought she was strong enough to kick him to the curb, she would change her mind and give a jerk on his string. Just like a yo-yo, he would be back in her life. She’d done it four times so far. Juwon never minded having his string jerked, as long as it was tied to a fork, because Fly can cook. Oh my God, can Fly cook! She can serve up dishes that will make your taste buds jump up, do the Samba and then lay down, happy to die. All that is why I never understood why she chose to work at the Ptomaine Palace.
Okay, it wasn’t called the Ptomaine Palace, it was Hampton’s Grill and Don Hampton, King of All Things Garbage, was master and overlord of the establishment. Hampton’s Grill would have been only a distant memory on the San Francisco culinary scene, as well as the San Francisco Board of Health’s violation book, if Don hadn’t done the one thing that saved his ass. He hired Fly. She took his recipes and made the dishes palatable and took his establishment and made it habitable. Instead of being voted “Restaurant Most Likely to Give you a Case of Salmonella,” she had made the place safe to eat at in the beginning and first to eat at later.
I told Fly she needed to open her own place. There wasn’t a customer of Hampton’s Grill, still living, that didn’t know she had been the reason for the change. That clientele would follow her, I was sure, but her reply to those kinds of suggestions was always the same. She’d say, “I’m fine for now. One day I’ll have my own place, but right now I’ve got a steady paycheck coming in and that’s a lot more than some people can say.”
I knew better though. Fly had more than an intention of having her own place, she had dreams. She had plans. She told them to me. She had a vision of the place, right down to the napkin and plate designs. She knew every inch of her kitchen, all of the utensils and pots and how the copper would reflect the orange and blue flames from the burners on the stove. That restaurant existed in every way except in reality. “One day,” she would say wistfully. “One day.”
Fly had one other thing, a thing she called her secret weapon. Fly had a cookbook. The cookbook had come to Fly from her grandmother who had worked in the kitchens of some of the finest homes on Nob Hill. The granddaughter of slaves herself, she had amassed the recipes as she moved along from the richness of a southern heritage to the freshness of a California future. The recipes had been refined and improved and every single one was a culinary treat of epic proportions. In plain talk, damn tasty eating!
Fly never cooked her own recipes at Hampton’s Grill. She fixed his tired old ideas, but never gave up the magic of her own.
Speaking of magic, around the time I was thinking about all this, a little of that happened to me. I was back in San Francisco, my beloved city by the bay. I recognized the Mission District and Fly’s apartment building, the I’ve-Seen-Better-Days Arms. I turned to look down Valencia Street and there, heading straight toward me, was Fly. It was a sight that almost made me cry.
To call Fly a big, black and beautiful woman would be simplistic. She was far more than that. The only word that ever came close to depicting her was “abundant”. Sure, it could have applied to her physically, but it also described her nature. Her abundant attitude showed in her love of life, love of friends and that famous flair for cooking. Abundant almost seemed small when you used it to describe Fly.
As Fly appeared on the street, I waved frantically until I realized that was not what I expected. I could wave. I looked down and saw my body, just as it was before the F-line and I crossed paths. I really wished I’d bothered to dress up a little before heading to the bakery. I’d worn jeans and a baggy sweatshirt and looked like a refugee from Haight-Ashbury. All I needed was Birkenstocks and wool socks instead of my Keds high tops. Anyway, I waved, but there was no reaction from my friend at all. I could see me, but certainly Fly couldn’t.
“Spiritual body.” Oprah’s voice came to me as if on a breeze. I got it then. I could see me, obviously God could, but nobody could who was…how do I say… living? On the earthly plane?
“Temporal,” came the voice again as Fly walked right by me. Well, not so much by me as through me. Kind of like the F-line, but not nearly as messy. In fact, I was completely intact. Dead as a doornail, but intact.
“Man, Fly, I sure wish I could talk to you,” I said as she ascended the five steps to the front door of her building. As she reached the top step she turned and looked around, almost as if she might have heard me.
“Can she hear me?” I asked hopefully. Silence. “This is a fine time to clam up,” I complained. “You sure don’t give much orientation time, do you?”
The famous San Francisco fog chose that moment to cover the previously shining sun. This is a common occurrence in the late afternoon in the city, but it was too big a coincidence for me. Without hesitation, I shut my cake hole and followed Fly up the steps.
I have to stop here for a second to brag myself up. Without any help from the Almighty, I figured out a little of the spiritual existence thing. When I followed Fly up the steps to the entrance to the building, I decided if she could pass through me then I could pass through it. And I did. I was actually in Fly’s apartment before she was. Granted, this little triumph of mine wasn’t much, but since my demise I hadn’t had much to crow about.
Fly’s apartment was like a homecoming to me; I had been there as much as I had been in my own place. My apartment and microwave Salisbury steak or Fly’s apartment and a veritable smorgasbord of delights… no competition at all.
I tried to keep my focus on my task though, whatever that was. Fly’s life needed changing, but I needed to be sure the changes I made were the right ones. I decided to observe her and think about it some. I also thought that maybe if she could sense my presence, maybe I could communicate with her and get a little help. Fly had always been my sounding board.
As Fly went about gathering up things in the kitchen to make her supper, I pondered on the best way to let her know I was there. Then I saw it. On a shelf with lushly growing potted plants and various knickknacks was a large framed picture of Fly and me at the previous year’s Gay Pride Parade. Though Fly was straight, or as she put it, ‘strictly dickly,’ she still loved a good time and the parade was definitely one of those.
The picture showed us in our matching shirts with eyes glowing from a steady imbibing of daiquiris. My shirt read, “Family” and hers read, “Friend of the Family.” It was perfect.
Remembering Oprah’s words, I thought about the picture and saw it in my mind’s eye literally jumping off the shelf and onto the floor where it would get noticed by Fly. She was smart; she would figure out it was a sign from me.
“The Word of the Lord,” I said and the picture moved exactly as I planned. Fly turned to the picture precisely as I predicted and she picked it up with a look of revelation on her face.
Nine. That’s how many stitches it took for the Emergency Room doctor to sew up Fly’s hand where she cut it on the broken glass of the picture. Say, have you ever noticed how closely a look of pain resembles a look of revelation? Me neither. Well, God was right as usual. I had decided on a stupid plan and Fly had reaped the consequences. This whole spiritual quest thing was not nearly the barrel of monkeys you might think it would be.
As Fly reclined on her couch with her bandaged hand propped on two pillows and her mind floating on Percocet, I sat cross-legged on her living room floor moving between guilt and consternation. This thing was going to be more difficult than I had imagined. Not only had I not communicated with Fly, I had cost her pain and money. The pain was obvious and the money part came in when she had to call in sick to Hampton’s House of Gastrointestinal Misfortune. Of course that turd of an employer wouldn’t have a sick plan. Fly never would have lost that time if she was her own boss. Her own boss…
You really do get a glow over your head when you come up with a good idea. It isn’t a light bulb, but more like a soft light emanating from your head. Of course you have to be a spirit, and therefore dead, to see it, but take my word for it…it’s there. I expect Thomas Edison glowed like his own incandescent bulb in the afterlife.
Anyway, it hit me then. Fly’s revised ending needed to be getting her own place, being her own boss. It was so simple I can’t believe it didn’t hit me immediately. I started a happy dance round Fly’s living room and I have to tell you I moved way better in a spiritual body than I ever did in my physical one. I was so enamored of my prowess I tried moves I never would have dared to when I was alive.
It was fantastic until I accidentally danced through Fly’s living room wall and into the bedroom of Terribly Tattooed Tom who lived next door. He wasn’t alone and what he and an almost equally tattooed woman were doing in that bedroom wasn’t pretty at all. So many pictures moving at the same time…it was like trying to read the Sunday comics on the bus. I turned to go back into Fly’s apartment, but glanced back at the writhing couple. Tom did have one move I wanted to remember in case I ever got back into a physical body. And was with a woman. And I had a strap-on. A big strap-on.
Those were thoughts for another time maybe and I moved back into Fly’s apartment. As I slipped through the walls I was just in time to catch Juwon the Jerk in Fly’s kitchen, going through her purse. The little rat bastard’s eyes were watching Fly closely as he moved in on her wallet. Fly and I had talked about this, about her suspicions that he was taking money from her. She tried to make excuses for the missing cash, blaming herself and poor money management. It was bullshit on a stick and no matter how much batter you put on bullshit, it’s never going to be palatable. I got mad then. I looked above Juwon, to where Fly had hung her grandmother’s original cast iron skillets.
“The Word of the Lord!” I said and the largest one came down solidly on Juwon’s noggin.
“Ow! Son of a bitching…ow!” he cursed, rubbing his head where I hoped a goose egg the size of Toledo would pop up. What did pop up was Fly’s head from the cushion on the couch.
“Juwon?” she said a bit groggily as she started to take in the situation. “What are you doing in my purse, Juwon?”
“Oh, hey, baby. I didn’t want to wake you up, but when you called and told me about your hand, I knew you wouldn’t be up to cooking tonight. I just thought I’d run over and bring us both a little bit of take-out from that Thai place a few blocks away. I heard they had some good specials today and right off I thought of you. I knew I just had to help you out.” He smiled ingratiatingly as he made his way from the kitchen to the couch. “I was a little short on cash though.”
“You’re always a little short on cash,” Fly mumbled as she struggled to sit up without using one of her hands. She eyed Juwon skeptically. “But I guess I can’t fault you if you were going to buy me dinner.” He relaxed then and let out a long held breath.
“Of course I was, baby,” he assured her.
“And Thai food too,” Fly said, smiling at him. “I love that spicy stuff.”
“I know that,” he said proudly. “And when I saw that place and smelled that food, I said, ‘Juwon, you just get that woman some supper tonight. She’d do the same for you if things were switched.’” Then he reached out and actually patted her braided hair. Patted her as if she was some faithful, but not quite bright, dog. Fly smiled at him again.
I was pretty sure the Word of the Lord would let me enter the Cast Iron Skillet for Distance Competition and win. I was just picturing it in my mind when Fly spoke.
“The Thai place closed up two weeks ago. If you heard about specials and smelled their food, you have very sensitive ears and nose because the owners moved to Baltimore.” Juwon’s jaw dropped like the stock market in 1922. He could only look at her, speechless.
“Get out, Juwon,” Fly said evenly. “And this time, leave the key.”
“But, baby…” he managed to sputter. Fly stood up from the couch and moved to the kitchen where she picked up her grandmother’s skillet in her one good hand.
“No, Juwon, this is it. Leave my key and go. You can go now under your own power or wait for the ride the nice paramedics will give you.” Fly’s quiet tone told Juwon the Jerk everything he needed to know. He slipped Fly’s key from the ring he fished out of his pocket. Then he slipped out the door.
Fly dropped the skillet and headed back to the couch. She stopped by the shelf where our picture, minus the glass, resided once again. She stood looking at it a moment, then sighed and moved back to the couch. I didn’t need omniscience then to know what she was thinking; I missed her too. A tear slid down Fly’s cheek as she lay back down and I wished I could think of a concrete way to help her.
That was when the glow returned to my head. A happy ending would be a dream come true, you see, and I just needed to make Fly’s dream a reality.
I need to stop again for another second and give you a little more information on the situation after death. Time means nothing. Everything that happened with me and God/Oprah seemed to have been in an instant. I was shocked to see Fly’s calendar show it had been two months since my earthly demise. Time flies when you’re having fun and I was just about to start having some. I only mention this time thing so you know why I felt Fly was ready to move on. Juwon was gone and so was I…sort of.
Now that I knew what I needed to do for Fly, my spirits perked up considerably. One day I’ll have to stop and think about this: If you’re a spirit already, can you get your “spirits up”? Anyway, a bit of a plan started to gel for me and I had Fly and Juwon the Jerk to thank for it. It was the mention of Thai food that did it. Not the food exactly. I like Thai food as much as I like sushi, which is to say not at all. It wasn’t the cuisine, but rather the old business axiom of “location, location, location”. Fly needed a restaurant and there was a closed one nearby. Inspiration was just flowing through me! I wished I’d had a thimble of that in all the times I’d been blocked, unsure or vacillating when I was writing. I would have been a lot more prolific, that’s for sure. But this was Fly’s life and not my feeble attempt to put ink to paper, so I tried to focus like never before.
Getting Fly to go by that restaurant was easy. I’d like to apologize to the residents of the Mission District for the temporary water main break, but I had to get Fly to change her course on her way home somehow. When you eventually get a taste of Fly’s food, I hope you’ll see the delay in doing your laundry was worth it.
Fly walked by the restaurant and coincidentally the “For Lease” sign dropped right off the front window and came to a stop at her feet. Now I wonder how that could have happened? Must have been a fortunate breeze. Being a good citizen, Fly picked up the sign, placed it back where it came from and stopped to look through the glass. I can change circumstances, but I can’t do a damn thing about how a person thinks. I know, because I had already tried that. I wanted so badly for Fly to understand.
“Damn it, Fly…use that head! You’re a smart cookie,” I said. Fly just looked through that window, and then walked away. I had hope though; when Fly got to the end of the block she stopped and looked back. Fly was the type of person who never looked back; she was a forward-looking woman. If she looked back, the seed had been planted and just needed some watering and fertilizer. Hell, I’m a writer; fertilizer is my business!
Now I don’t want to bore you with the frivolous, yet brilliant, details. Let’s just say the Word of the Lord is mighty darn useful when it comes to getting things done. What things? Oh, things like a brand spanking new program by the Small Business Administration empowering minority women. Things like restaurant supply catalogs being delivered to Fly’s address out of the blue. Things like a winning scratch-off lottery ticket in the amount of fifty thousand dollars. And they say it never happens to anybody you know.
I don’t know which of the pieces of “good fortune” finally put it all together for Fly. It didn’t matter. What did matter was that she did put it all together and from the moment she started working on it, Fly was a happy woman. That stunned me. Fly’s dream wasn’t a reality yet, but the mere working on it was changing her life. It was the journey, I realized. I couldn’t see it when I was alive, so I’m hoping by telling you what I learned, maybe you won’t have to figure it out after you’re dead. Like me.
Fly’s dream took a while to pull together, but like I said, time meant nothing to me. Though I had interfered mightily when getting Fly to go for her dream, she didn’t need my help one bit when it came to making it a reality. You really should have seen Don Hampton’s face the day Fly quit. Like they say in the commercials…priceless!
I was there the day Fly had her grand opening, just like I would have been in the flesh if I hadn’t had that unscheduled meeting with the streetcar. She was radiant. Her loyal clientele had followed her and a nice mix of new faces was in there too. There was a pride and joy about Fly as she supervised the cooking and the serving and I couldn’t have been happier for her.
The place was exactly as she had envisioned it. The napkin and plate designs were just as she said. The kitchen was stocked with every pot and utensil she wanted and when the huge grill was fired up, you damn well could see the flames reflected in the copper. Fly had her dream and do you know what she called the place? It was something she had said to me more times than I could count.
She called it, “One Day”.
Right during the grand opening the lights went out again and that floating feeling hit me once more. Oprah was having a pedicure when I reappeared in the circle of light this time. It was the craziest thing I could think of…God needing her toenails done.
“I don’t need it,” Oprah said as she motioned me toward the chair I had sat in previously. “I just find a good pedicure so relaxing.” The technician working on her feet finished as I sat down and she and her equipment just disappeared.
“You like the color?” God asked. “Crimson Hussy.” I nodded my approval and God slipped right into her shoes. I gasped.
Oprah laughed. “Do you really think God has to wait for polish to dry?” She joined me in the chair she had sat in before, but this time it was labeled, “Yahweh, Jehovah, God, Allah…whatever.”
“You’re all those things?” I asked incredulously.
“What can I say? I’m a little bit country; I’m a little bit rock and roll.” She eased back in her chair. “Like the outfit?” I admired the blood red business suit with matching pumps. “It’s Donna Karen, or it will be when she gets an inspiration sometime next year.” Straightening her skirt, she asked nonchalantly, “So, what did you learn?”
“Follow your dream,” I said immediately. “And thanks for letting me help Fly follow hers.”
“I don’t always make people wait until they’re deceased to give them their rewards. Fly’s a good woman. When good things happen to good people, it sets an example. It works for me, works for you and it worked for Fly. I should tell you though, that was an easy one. I always start with an easy one.”
In my elation in helping Fly out, I forgot this was just the first of three cases. It hadn’t been a walk in the park and yet God was saying this was the easy one. What would be next? Parting the Red Sea?
“Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt,” Oprah said. “Moving a little water is child’s play when you compare it to the intricacies of human nature. There are problems and tangles and entanglements. Tangled entanglements, if you will. Just like your next case.” She nodded toward the edge of the circle of light and I knew what to do this time. I headed over to the border and extended my hand. A heavier file than Fly’s was deposited in it. I looked over to Oprah.
“No time off for good behavior?” I asked.
“When Marsha and Helen need your help?” Oprah said, answering my question with one of her own. I didn’t have time to even wonder who Marsha and Helen were before the lights went out completely.
When the lights came up again, I ridiculously thought maybe God had forgotten to pay the electric bill. It was only when my senses accepted the return to Earth again as real, that I could tell I had landed in the middle of a quiet and softly lit restaurant. It wasn’t Fly’s place, that I knew. It did look vaguely familiar though and I knew I had been there before.
Turning, I saw the name ‘Charades’ written on the frosted panes of the front door and memories came charging back at me. Charades was a discreet place in the South of Market area of San Francisco. It had private parking attended by several burly valets and was the kind of place where you met when you didn’t want anyone else to know you were out at all. I had been there once, during a short-lived little fling with a member of the Mayor’s staff. Three dates. Yeah, you could call it short-lived.
As before, the contents of the file were in my mind and though there were two names this time, the details weren’t filled in for me. Oprah wasn’t kidding when she said this one wouldn’t be as easy. Names and a place to land wasn’t much to go on. The names were Marsha Kathleen Anderson and Helen Elizabeth Ramsay and I was drawn to a small table in the rear like a meatball to spaghetti.
I knew it was them, Helen and Marsha. They sat together quietly eating their dinner. There was salmon in front of the woman I knew was Marsha and a prime rib in front of Helen. A bottle of Chardonnay sat open between them with the pale golden liquid generously poured in adjacent glasses.
“Happy anniversary, love,” Marsha said, lifting her glass. An anniversary. It was a fitting celebration for a place as expensive as Charades. If you were going out to supper there, you had better pack your platinum MasterCard and maybe a bag of cash to boot. I moved to the women’s side to eavesdrop on their conversation.
“I knew you’d get the salmon, Marsha. As soon as the waiter mentioned it was the special, I knew that’s what you were going to order,” the older of the two women said. She had short silver hair and a twinkle in her dark blue eyes. She was around sixty years old, and I’d be willing to put money on the fact that the twinkle had been unchanged in all that time.
“And how many times did you run over the menu before you went right back to your favorite? Once or twice?” Marsha asked, smiling at the other woman. Marsha was ginger-haired and appeared to be slightly taller than Helen.
“Guilty. And twice, just so you know.” Helen cut into the beef. Light pink juice poured from the slice. “Perfectly medium too,” she said as she popped a piece into her mouth. She chewed slowly as she looked over at Marsha who was bringing a sour cream laden forkful of baked potato up to her lips.
“What?” she asked as the potato disappeared.
“Nothing,” Helen answered. “I was just thinking how well we know each other. I guess eighteen years will do that though. Can you believe that? Eighteen years. You’re as lovely as the first day I met you. Just as lovely as ever.” She brought her hand up to cup Marsha’s cheek gently. The look of love shining in their eyes was so sweet I felt a lump forming in my throat. A big piece of me was sad that I would never know what it was like to love someone like that, a happily-ever-after kind of love. Never to have someone look back at me with the pure emotion I saw passing between those two.
A thought kept niggling at me. I kept having the feeling I knew Marsha from somewhere. I couldn’t quite place it though. I knew I hadn’t seen Helen before this moment, but Marsha… Don’t you hate it when you try to remember something and it seems like it’s just out of your reach?
I leaned against Helen’s chair as I reviewed what facts I had so far. Two women in San Francisco, long-term relationship and an anniversary. Nothing really special there, San Francisco is full of those kinds of stories. You only had to attend last year’s Pride Parade to know that. So what was their story and why was I here? I decided to keep listening in to see what I could come up with.
“Did you see the report on the standardized test scores? I was pretty pleased, I can tell you,” Helen said. Yeah, I thought, talk shop. That might give me a clue.
“I did,” Marsha replied, putting an orange flake of salmon into her mouth. “A six percent increase in just a year and it was all on your watch. That’s pretty good work, boss.”
Helen waved off the compliment. “It’s not me. I just let you guys know what the State wants and then I stand back and let my teachers teach. When you’ve got the best staff, you don’t have to worry. They’ll never let you down.”
Teachers! All of a sudden my reach was extended those last few inches and it finally came to me. I did recognize Marsha. Of course I didn’t know her by Marsha when she was my fifth grade teacher. We called her Mrs. Anderson then. Well, we did on good days. Like all kids we had a bunch of nicknames for her. “Math-butt” and “Grandma Tardy” were a couple that I can recall. She really hated it when you were tardy. Know what I say? I say sometimes you can’t just walk away from a tetherball battle merely because the bell has rung. Okay, I was bitter, but I got over it.
Anyway, I hadn’t seen her since fifth grade and amazingly enough she didn’t look all that old to me right now. Possibly she wasn’t the “Grandma” we painted her as at that time. Apparently she wasn’t a lot of what we thought then and I found myself feeling glad she’d had this wonderful relationship with a woman she obviously adored.
I still was in the dark about why I was here and what problem Marsha and Helen could have that would need revising. They were enjoying a lovely crème brulee with fresh peach slices sitting just under the still-warm sugar shell. It all seemed perfect to me. I waited for them to finish their coffee, convinced now that God was just testing me with a case of mistaken identity. There wasn’t anything wrong here.
Marsha and Helen paid the exorbitant bill, and moved toward the exit hand in hand. I tagged along for the fun of it, certain at any second Oprah would be there to tell me she had my real second case waiting. Gosh, death sure seemed to boost my intelligence. I wished I could take the IQ test right then; I felt certain I would do better than I did in high school when I scored someplace between “A danger to herself with plastic cutlery” and “Be sure to water her twice a week.” Yeah, you could say I froze on that one.
As we slipped out into the cool San Francisco night, I looked around at my beloved home. I missed it a lot and I wondered if wherever I was going to land after my assignments from God were done would be half as nice…or half as cool.
Marsha and Helen went over to a blue minivan parked in the restaurant’s lot. They stood there a moment until Marsha leaned over and placed a short peck on Helen’s lips.
“This has been wonderful. I wouldn’t mind coming here every year.”
“Just as soon as that money tree I planted starts giving forth with the cash, we can come here every week if you want,” Helen said.
“I won’t hold my breath then.” Marsha pushed a button on her key fob and the lights on the minivan blinked twice as a chirping sound announced the doors were unlocked. She looked at Helen. “I wish…”
“I know; I wish the same thing. Thursday though, right?” the silver-haired woman asked.
“Definitely. I wouldn’t miss it.” Marsha opened the door to the vehicle. “I love you.” She slid behind the wheel and pulled her seatbelt on.
“I love you, too,” Helen replied as she closed the door. Marsha started the engine and backed up slowly until she could exit the lot. Helen watched until the car was out of sight, then went to a Toyota Camry and got in it. She left, going in the opposite direction of the woman who had driven away before her.
I still didn’t get it. Two women in love, probably with different things to get done after a nice anniversary dinner. What was the problem? I couldn’t see anything that needed changing. I decided to keep observing the situation. I visualized the front seat of Helen’s Camry and uttered, “The Word of the Lord” in my mind. Instantly I was riding along with the silver-haired woman, heading south toward Daly City.
Confession time. I didn’t wear my seatbelt. Don’t try this at home, kids. You should never ride in a car without your seatbelt on unless you are already dead and on a mission given to you by Oprah. I mean God. Or unless you’d like to be dead and on a mission from Oprah. Whatever.
We pulled up in front of a nice multi-story apartment building, not unlike any of the others you see dotting the hillsides in the Bay Area. Helen entered a modest one bedroom apartment that was tidy and organized. I looked around a bit as Helen entered the bathroom and I heard the shower start. I didn’t see anything unusual, though I thought the place was a bit small for a couple of working women. After a few minutes I decided to see what Marsha was up to. The Word of the Lord sent me zipping to Marsha’s side. She must have hit some traffic somewhere, because she was just crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, heading north into Marin County.
We left the highway at San Rafael and wound our way through a few neighborhoods until we pulled up into the driveway of a very nice two-story home. Marsha got out of the minivan, headed up to the front door and let herself in. A small light was on in the entryway.
“Phil?” she called
“In the den,” a distant voice answered. Marsha made her way up the hall to a shaft of light extending into the darkened passageway. She entered the second door on the left, the light bathing her as she walked in. At an oak roll-top desk sat a man who might have been about sixty years old, if I correctly interpreted the amount of gray in a head of hair that had obviously once been jet black. A basketball game was playing on a flat screen television sitting against the wall to the side of him.
“Who’s winning?” Marsha asked as she leaned over and pecked Phil on the cheek.
“Lakers by four over the Warriors, if you mean the game. If you mean the checkbook, then it’s winning. I’m thirty-seven dollars and change off and I can’t figure out what the problem is.”
She leaned over his shoulder and peered at the display on the laptop. She narrowed her eyes in thought. “Didn’t you write a check to Appleby’s Hardware last week when two sprinkler heads in the backyard needed to be replaced? I don’t see that on the register.”
“Damn, you’re right. Hang on.” Phil fished a wallet from his back pocket. Opening it he found a folded yellow piece of paper. “Thirty seven sixty-seven. That’s it, another month balanced to the penny. You’ll be happy to know we’re still solvent,” he said as he entered the figure on the keyboard.
“That’s good. I would have been too nervous to sleep otherwise,” Marsha said with good-natured sarcasm.
“How was the school board meeting?” he asked. She shrugged.
“Same school board, different day. Helen says hi,” she added nonchalantly. School board meeting? There was definitely something fishy about all this.
“Her cold must be better if she’s back battling the school board. Oh, I almost forgot. Jenine sent me a couple of new pictures of the kids and I forwarded them to your e-mail. Man, that little Phillip is going to be a chick magnet, just like his Grandpa.”
“How come you get the pictures first all the time?” Marsha asked as she glanced briefly through some bills. “By the time I see them they’re already part of your screensaver slide show.”
He laughed. “I begged you to be the indulgent parent. Begged you, I say. But no, you had to insist the kids pick up their rooms and do their chores. I knew it would come back to haunt you one day.” He indicated the TV. “You want to watch the rest of the second half with me?”
“Overpaid, sweaty millionaires versus seeing new pictures of my grandkids. Gee, there’s a tough decision. See you upstairs.”
“In a half an hour or so,” he agreed and turned his chair to get into a comfortable position to see the game. Marsha left the room, went up a short flight of stairs and into a small room containing a day bed, computer desk and a file cabinet.
She shrugged off her light jacket and booted the computer sitting on the desk. Accessing her e-mail, she brought up pictures of two tow-headed children. The boy was dressed as a wedge of cheese and the little girl was costumed as a chicken leg. The text read, “Mattie and Phillip in the Marin Christian Academy’s ‘Nutrition Night.’ It was a hoot!” A warm and loving smile played across Marsha’s face as she gazed at the attached photos.
She fished a cell phone from her jacket pocket and hit a number on her speed dial.
“Helen? I’ve got new pictures of the grandkids. I’m pretty sure these are the cutest kids on either side of the Mississippi.” Marsha reached for her mouse and clicked it a few times. “Of course you can; I’m sending them to you right now.” With a final click, the pictures were sent on their way.
“You can tell me in the morning how adorable they are. See you then.” She paused a moment here to listen. “I love you, too.” Marsha closed the cell phone. A few more clicks of the mouse called up a password-protected file. Entering the required codes, she opened it and brought up several pictures. They were of Marsha and Helen and it was patently obvious these women were more than friends.
“Coming to bed, Marsha?” Phil’s voice called from the hall. “No sense in staying up, the game is becoming a massacre.”
“Be right there,” she called back. Looking at the screen once more, she whispered, “Happy Anniversary.” Then she closed the file, shut the computer down and left the room.
A case? God called this a case? This wasn’t a case; this was a practical joke! A homo-hetero-bisexual love triangle? Nothing made any sense. Who did Marsha love? Was it Phil, Helen or maybe even an unnamed third person? How can you revise an ending for someone when you don’t know their heart? Fly’s case was easy compared to this. I knew Fly’s heart. A bright bluish-white light flashed before me. Instantly I was standing on Market Street in front of a newspaper kiosk
“Paper, ma’am?” the vendor offered. I was about to decline when I realized the news seller had seen me. No living human had been able to see me.
“And none ever will,” Oprah said as she handed me a folded newspaper. My mind was blown; God had a newsstand.
“And on Thursday afternoons I work at Ben and Jerry’s. You think they came up with New York Super Fudge Chunk all on their own?” She flipped an “Open” sign on the kiosk to “Closed” and pulled down the rolling metal door. Putting a combination lock into place she secured the little business. “Jimmy Woo, the guy who owns this place, likes me to make sure it’s locked up tight. I wouldn’t want to lose this part-time job, you know. That would only leave me with bringing order out of chaos and all the rest of my day work.” As we started to walk away, I looked at Oprah to see if she was kidding.
“Of course I’m kidding. I just brought you here to give you a little background on Marsha and Helen.” She nodded at the newspaper in my hand. “Go ahead.” I unfolded the paper, The Purgatory Gazette, and read the headline. Sure enough, it was “A Little Background on Marsha and Helen.” I rolled my eyes internally.
“I heard that,” God said as she gave a half nod at a homeless woman sleeping in the doorway of a major financial institution. From thin air a thick blanket appeared over her. Let me say that God sure can bring up some mixed emotions. I was simultaneously touched by her actions with the homeless woman and frightened that she could hear an internal eye roll.
“And would it also impress you to know that I know the exact number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin?” Oprah asked as we resumed our stroll along Market Street. I couldn’t think of a reason I needed to know. It’s not like I could prove it for a bar bet or anything, but I was curious.
“Okay, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”
“As many as I want,” Oprah said with a laugh. She opened her coat to reveal a small yellow button pinned to the shirt beneath. It read, “I’m God, remember?” I did and that made me ask a question.
“Instead of giving her a blanket,” I indicated the homeless woman, “Why didn’t you clean her up, give her a job and a home and…”
Oprah put her hand up for silence. “Look, I didn’t create mental illness; you guys came up with that one all on your own. There are a lot of causes, but let me assure you of one thing. After this life she won’t be mentally ill ever again.”
I wanted to ask about what happens to us after death, other than the option I was exploring at the moment, but I confess the only afterlife I was interested in at that time was my own. I looked again at the paper and as I did, the words just seemed to enter my brain. To save time, let me put what I suddenly “knew” in a nutshell.
Marsha and Phil had known each other since high school and they were married shortly after college. They had two children, Michael and Jenine. Michael was a stockbroker and active in the local Republican committee. Jenine was mother to the two kids in the pictures and her husband was a police officer and deacon in their local church. Phil was semi-retired, now working as a consultant to the pharmaceutical company that had employed him for almost thirty years.
Helen was the principal of Joaquin Murieta Elementary School and had met Marsha eighteen years before. Marsha had been a housewife until her children were older, but decided when they didn’t need her as much that she would return to school for a teaching certificate to go along with her degree in English.
A stroke of luck landed Marsha in Helen’s classroom as a student teacher. There had been a stirring of something inside Marsha then, something she had kept suppressed inside since she first became aware of her sexuality in junior high school. In those years the Midwest was no place to explore any sexuality but the usual male-female one and not even much of that. Marsha had gone to her marriage bed a virgin and found sex more of a thing to do rather than a thing to be enjoyed. She successfully fought down or ignored any urges or curiosity in her own gender. Until Helen.
Helen Ramsay had been a schoolteacher since graduation from a Boston women’s college and looked for a change from the stuffiness of an upper middle class lifestyle. She accepted an appointment at a private school in a Los Angeles suburb, but eventually migrated to the Bay Area in search of a less hectic atmosphere and more international culture. She found both in San Francisco. She hadn’t been employed at Joaquin Murieta for five years yet when a rather shy woman entered her classroom. Her husband had been transferred to a west coast division and she was ready to trade a case of not feeling needed for the pleasant bedlam of being a teacher.
Helen saw the deer-in-the-headlights look on the woman’s face at once and took Marsha under her wing. Helen was not the stranger to her sexuality that Marsha had been. She’d had relationships and affairs, one of which prompted her final decision on the move from the East Coast. She didn’t hide the fact that she was gay, nor did she flaunt it. It was just a part of her being. It wasn’t long before she realized she was noticing her protégée in ways that definitely weren’t strictly professional. Nothing happened though until Marsha completed her courses and received her teaching certificate.
One day after classes, Marsha took a bottle of sparkling cider and two paper cups to Helen’s classroom to celebrate her achievement. There was celebration, but also revelation as Helen made the first move and confessed her interest, feelings and desires. Marsha nearly wept with relief. She had been trying to figure out some way to broach the subject and speak about emotions and needs foreign to her experience up until then. For the first time in her life, Marsha was completely in love. I had the answer then to my earlier question. Marsha loved Phil, but was in love with Helen.
By the time Helen was promoted to principal, the women were known as colleagues and best friends, but the two of them knew it was much more. At conferences, late night work sessions and frequent getaways, the women created a relationship that fulfilled their emotional, sexual and companionship needs completely.
Yes, I know that was a big nutshell, but now that you’ve heard the story I bet you’re wondering the same thing I did.
“Why aren’t Marsha and Helen together?” Oprah asked, interrupting my absorption of the womens’ story. “Maybe that’s part of what you need to figure out.” If God wasn’t going to help me with Marsha and Helen, I decided to ask another question I was curious about.
“Why do some people dislike those of us who are gay?”
Oprah hesitated and then shrugged. “I put it down to free will mixed with stupidity. You human beings don’t like what you don’t understand and I think for a lot of humans it’s easier to hate than to do a little work and learn. Tolerance is in short supply on Earth sometimes. You know, confidentially, I didn’t plan this whole straight and gay thing. I made humans to be able to love everybody and sometimes it pisses me off that you screwed that up.”
Being bold with the Alpha and Omega, I said, “Well, why don’t you just fix it and have universal love? Let everybody love who they want to and have the rest accept it.”
“Girl, you don’t want to have to struggle for anything, do you? Tell me something positive human beings have come up with that wasn’t an answer to a problem they had. I know you humans need challenges, but you just want to ask and I should give, is that it?” Oprah began to pace. You do not want me testifying here about all the requests I get every day. “‘Oh Lord, let me get that promotion.’ ‘Dear God, please bring Grandma through her tummy tuck.’ ‘Dude, let me crack twelve hundred on my SAT so I can get into a real party school.’ Those are just a few of the ones I’m getting right now. Besides, I send little messages down about this gay/straight thing all the time.” God stopped pacing and turned to me with a mischievous grin. “Wait until the world finds out that one of the Bush twins is gay.”
“Ha! That’s so cool,” I laughed. “So let me understand this. Something a huge chunk of humanity has screwed up has to be fixed by me for Marsha and Helen?”
“I guess from your perspective you could see it that way.”
“It’s the only perspective I have,” I stated as the fact it was.
“I’m positive you can handle it,” Oprah assured me.
“Maybe me and some of that power you gave me. It sure came in handy with Fly’s case.”
Oprah looked away. “About that…” I got concerned immediately.
“You’re not taking it away, are you?” The Lord’s eyes swung back to me.
“Not exactly. I am limiting it though.”
“Limiting it? Limiting it as in to a range of five miles?” I asked.
“Limiting it to three times,” God replied.
“But why? How am I supposed to help these women without any power?” I was pleading pitifully, but I didn’t care. Neither did God apparently. She just walked away from me.
“Use the power in your mind,” Oprah spoke as she faded slowly from view. “And your heart.”
The power of my mind and heart. A lot of good that would do me. That power had all the incandescence of a two watt bulb…flickering. God had given me a harder task and less ability to complete it.
Then I thought of something. In all the magic lamp and genie stories I’d ever read, there were just three wishes and yet every one of those had a happy ending. Using logic, that meant I should get those same results. If I’d only ever been a logical person. The whole problem seemed unsolvable and I sat by the sleeping homeless person all night thinking about it. By dawn I had decided what to do.
This is what it boiled down to: I’d always heard that God is love. If that was true then love had to be the way to go. Marsha cared about Phil and she certainly loved her children, but I couldn’t escape the fact that she was in love with Helen. So that’s what I chose. I chose Marsha to end up with Helen and I believed I’d come up with a way for that to occur. That’s how the earthquake happened.
If you were in the San Francisco area the day after Marsha and Helen’s anniversary, you might have felt it. It was just a rolling kind of quake, not much damage at all except for the cracks in the wall of Helen’s building. Don’t get your knickers twisted, the crack was superficial. It was just enough to be inconvenient and noisy regarding the repair. As I hoped, Helen and Marsha were friends as well as lovers and not more than a day had passed before Helen was hauling her suitcases into Marsha’s guest room.
My thinking was by having Marsha and Helen be in close quarters in an everyday setting, they would recognize how comfortable and necessary being with each other was. I thought that would eliminate one hurdle to them being together and ultimately, being happy. I tell you right now it was a waste of one Word of the Lord.
The women were in the kitchen of Marsha’s house one morning. Marsha was scrambling eggs and Helen was making coffee and toast. There wasn’t much talking, just the harmonious activity that happens when two completely compatible humans work together on a project. They sat at a small wooden table in one corner of the kitchen with their food.
“Phil coming home for lunch?” Helen asked, picking up the home and garden section of the newspaper.
“Mm-hmm, around twelve thirty,” Marsha replied, scanning the headlines.
“Good. Do you think he’d take a look at my car? I think that fuel pump is acting up again.”
“Probably, but maybe not until after work.”
“Not a problem. He’s a sweet pea.” The older woman raised her arms and stretched. “This is nice.” Marsha topped off both her own and Helen’s cup.
“It always is,” Marsha agreed, taking a sip of the aromatic liquid. They finished breakfast in companionable silence. Helen rose, put her dishes in the dishwasher and then leaned over to place a quick peck on Marsha’s lips.
“Love you. I’m going to put in some time on that paperwork for the superintendent. Let me know when Phil gets here, would you?’
“I will,” Marsha agreed. “Love you, too.” Helen had moved to the kitchen door when Marsha called after her. “I’m going to grill some steaks for dinner along with baked potatoes and some of that squash we picked up the other day.”
“Sounds good to me and I know Phil loves anything barbecued. Remember last summer at the Marin Festival?”
“It was all I could do to keep him out of that Buffalo Wing Eating Contest. He would have eaten himself sick!” They laughed, but not at Phil. They were the kind of laughs that demonstrated true affection.
Wonderful. Just marvelous. Now I find out they like Phil. He wasn’t an obstacle, he was a friend. I thought about how it would all be so much easier if Phil would have been a chauvinist or abusive or a boozer or…heck, just give me a reason to hate him. The only thing I could find to hold against him was that he put the toilet paper on the roller so it came out underneath instead of over the top. I’m still not sure if that’s a venial or mortal sin anyway.
They liked him. My plans for a demonstration of domestic bliss had been wasted, along with one third of the Word of the Lord. It was strange to realize I didn’t need to show domestic bliss because it seemed like they already had it, and apparently it included Phil!
I thought maybe I was taking the wrong tack in showing Marsha and Helen that they could be happy together instead of in their current part-time situation. I wondered if the reason Marsha didn’t leave Phil wasn’t that he was a nice guy, but rather because of her children and grandchildren. Offspring are a powerful motivator for a mother. If Marsha thought her kids would be against the whole idea of her being with another woman, I wondered if she would have the strength to pursue her own happiness. Unfortunately, it seemed Marsha had two kids who might be tough nuts to crack when it came to a same-sex relationship. Michael the Republican and Jenine, churchgoer and deacon’s wife. Not quite being brave enough to tackle the God problem, I decided to turn my attention to Michael. For those of you out there making those “bok-bok” chicken noises…you are absolutely right.
Let me say right here and now that I know some Republicans and really like several of them. I can’t, however, stand their political views. The Middle East, gay marriage, turning public lands over to mining, lumbering and grazing interests…you name it, I disagree with it. On the other hand, they disagree just as strongly with me. I had realized for a while that even with the Word of the Lord, I couldn’t change people. I could only change circumstances and hope the people would change themselves. How do you get someone so far to the right to shift to the left? I tried to think of what had influenced me in my political and social viewpoints. I didn’t just believe in gay equal rights and gay marriage because I was gay.
The glow was back over my head in that moment.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to convince Michael he should walk a more liberal path. That would be like leading Dick Cheney to water to try to make him think. I thought maybe I knew some people who could convince him though. Carefully I envisioned the scenario I wanted. With only three Words of the Lord available, I had to make it perfect and I had already blown one of them with my worthless earthquake.
I came up with and discarded several plans until I decided on the simplest one I could think of. Michael Anderson, misguided but dyed-in-the-wool Republican, was about to spend the next six hours of his life trapped in an elevator with my hand-picked liberal consulting team, Bill and Hillary Clinton.
I can’t say that Michael getting stuck in an elevator of a San Francisco financial district office building made any newspaper, television or radio station headlines. The six hour ordeal was shrugged off as “one of those things”. The victim was inconvenienced and slightly dehydrated, but otherwise unharmed. Unharmed was the right word, unaffected would have been the wrong one.
From the moment Bill and Hillary stepped on the elevator with Michael, I knew they had him. I saw a button once that said, “I think, therefore I vote Democrat”. Marsha and Phil hadn’t raised any fools, but even the most astute of us can be lead astray. Yes, Colin Powell, if you’re reading this, I mean you. Anyway, the seduction of the notion that you are right all the time is a powerful thing and Michael had been drawn into that giant delusion of grandeur along with fifty one percent of the American public.
As I see it, the problem with thinking your own moral compass is set on true north is twofold. You either think that anyone who has a different compass is assuredly wrong and therefore inferior, or you think that they are attempting to knock you off your own walk. Both ideas are ridiculous, of course, but Michael had to see that for himself.
I can’t provide you with a line by line transcript of Bill, Hillary and Michael’s conversation, but I will encapsulate it for you. Michael was instantly star struck and then saw the meeting and subsequent elevator malfunction as God’s gift to him to spread the philosophy of the right. Michael was a convert, but Bill and Hillary are true believers. They didn’t need to browbeat or intimidate or castigate, they just talked. Michael would bring up a subject and espouse the party line. Bill and Hillary would respond with a little something we liberals like to call the truth. A good dose of the truth works more often than people think.
I appreciated the Clintons letting me borrow them for a few hours, though they would have no memory of it afterward, nor anyone else except Michael. He stepped off that elevator a different person. He wasn’t a registered Democrat, but I know he learned to think for himself and would now question things thrown at him as “facts”. He would ask, “why?” and “who says so?” and “who stands to profit?” Those are the baby steps he and a lot of us need to make.
When Michael told the Clintons he was going to resign from the National Rifle Association, I knew he was ready. If one day his mom let him know she was in love with another woman, it would shock him, but he wouldn’t brand his mother as something evil or slam the door on what had been a wonderful relationship.
Now I could turn my attention to Jenine.
I’ll be honest; really religious people scare me. It doesn’t matter what religion it is, if I’m damned to some eternal torment for not being it, it scares me. I’m walking a fine line here. I want to be honest about my feelings, but I don’t want to be a modern day Salmon Rushdie, with some religious fanatic with a rifle and a high-power scope looking to take me out. Does that make me chicken? I think that makes me a little like a lot of people who privately are appalled by some things done in the name of religion, but are reluctant to get vocal about it in public.
Okay, I can’t resist this one little poke at the Religious Right in this country. Back off gay marriage! Marriage does not belong to you exclusively. If marriage were truly the property of any church, then that church should be able to divorce you too. None can. It’s the state, the government if you will, that marries and divorces you and denying civil rights to gay partners isn’t “protecting marriage,” it’s just discrimination. I am stepping out of the pulpit now and resuming the story.
Jenine met and married Daniel Mace while they were in college. Daniel came from a moderate Christian home, but on campus he became much more involved in his church than his parents ever had. Jenine was open to new experiences and found she liked belonging to a group that cared about her, her family and their community. The Church of the Lamb wasn’t one of those nutty snake-handling fundamentalist joints, but they weren’t exactly performing same-sex marriages either. How could I fix it so Jenine would be open to her mother being involved with another woman? And even if I could come up with an idea, would Marsha then be able to take the big step herself?
Although I wouldn’t have thought it was so, I’m here to tell you it is possible to get a headache in the afterlife.
It was Helen’s last day at Marsha’s house. The last repairs had been completed on the wounded apartment building and I was no closer to having their happy ending than I had been the day I first ran into them at Charades. I remembered the looks on their faces that night and became even more determined to think of something to help them.
Now don’t be alarmed here when I tell you I thought of something then that fell into the “drastic” category. I decided only something colossal was going to increase the glacial speed at which those two were moving toward each other.
I had decided to out them. What’s more, I decided to out them to Jenine. After that, there could be no going back. The course would be set and I desperately hoped I was doing the right thing because I was definitely changing their lives forever.
My plan was straightforward and I used my final Word of the Lord to make it happen. I brought Jenine’s purse to her mother’s house while at the same time sending her a text message on her cell phone letting her know where it was. She had been there earlier helping plan a dinner party to celebrate the grand re-opening of Helen’s apartment.
Marsha and Helen had been…affectionate…all day. The touches, kisses and caresses were constant whenever they were alone and I could tell they were going to miss the closeness they had experienced while Helen had been moved in. They were seated on the couch, kissing and talking quietly to each other as Jenine made her way into the home. She had let herself in with a key earlier and this time was no exception. I crossed my fingers and waited for the explosion.
“Mom!” Marsha and Helen broke apart, surprise and guilt plainly written on their faces. “Geez, you know that kids aren’t supposed to think of their parents like that.” Marsha took Helen’s hand gently.
“Sorry, Jenine,” she said contritely. Jenine scanned the living room and spied her purse.
“I could have sworn I had this with me when I left,” she murmured absently as she picked up the lost object. “And you two,” she said, directing her comments back to the women, “You’re lucky I wasn’t Dad or Michael.”
“Then there would have been another person in on our secret,” Marsha said. “But you know we would never do that deliberately, right? Never hurt them.”
“I know,” Jenine replied. “And it’s just one of the things I love about you.” She leaned over and kissed Marsha’s cheek. “And you, too,” she added, as she pecked Helen on the cheek as well. “Now, I believe you two were going to bake shortcake cups while I picked up the kids and hit the supermarket.”
“Yes, Boss,” Marsha saluted as they rose from the couch. “Chief cook and assistant bottle washer now headed for the kitchen.”
“See you at seven,” Jenine called as she left again.
I was a) perplexed, b) flabbergasted, c) stunned or d) all of the above.
If you chose “d”, you're just getting close.
So Jenine knew and it was fine. And Marsha and Helen knew that Jenine knew and it was fine. And Michael and Phil didn’t know and that was fine too. My head was spinning.
My head. That was it.
Oprah told me to use my mind and my heart. I had concentrated on the heart part, thinking that was the most important thing, but I’d left the mind bit out. I never gave Marsha and Helen credit for already having looked at all their options and picking the best one for their lives. Maybe a lot of people wouldn’t have made their choice, but that was just it…it was their choice to make. It worked for them and who was I to mess with that? Marsha and Helen didn’t need me to figure out a happy ending for them, they already had it. I wished hard that I’d never tried to interfere in the first place.
Out went the lights.
When I stepped back into the circle of light, God was watching television.
“Shhh,” she said as she motioned me to the chair I had sat in before. Soon familiar theme music began playing and Oprah shut off the set with a wave.
“You watch ‘Law & Order?’” I asked.
“Just the episodes I wrote,” God replied. “You think with all those different versions on that they could keep coming up with fresh ideas without divine inspiration?”
“Divine inspiration for a TV show? Is that the same kind of divine inspiration they used for the Bible and Ten Commandments and stuff?” I wondered.
“Something like that,” Oprah said. “Confidentially, the Ten Commandments weren’t mine exactly.”
I was fascinated. “Really?”
“What I told Moses on that mountain was, ‘Be nice to each other.’ On the way back down he didn’t think it sounded authoritative enough and threw in a bunch of ‘Thou shalt nots.” He was a little obsessive about the coveting thing, don’t you think?”
I shrugged, a little too surprised at the news to venture an opinion.
“So, what did you learn on this trip?” the Creator asked.
I put it as succinctly as I could. “Sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing. I guess I needed to see that sometimes no changes need to be made at all, despite what we might feel.”
The Supreme Being nodded. “Tough one, wasn’t it? I’ll admit it; I’m not above throwing in a trick question now and again. I wasn’t sure you understood until the very end when you wished you hadn’t interfered. That’s when I knew you got it.”
“So, just one more file then?” I asked brightly. Things were looking up and I was actually looking forward to trying out the last case, even when Oprah announced there would be only two Words of the Lord this time.
The last thing I saw was God rolling her eyes as I announced, “Bring it on!”
The blackness was expected and welcome now as I made my way Earthward. I was two for two and on a roll. I was changing things and learning things and after one more case I would be out of purgatory and going on my way to…well, I wasn’t sure where I’d be going, but just the “going” part sounded promising. As with my other cases, the facts in the file were implanted in my mind. Virginia Brenneman, case file number three.
I was deposited back onto the streets of San Francisco, though in an area I didn’t know much about. Noe Valley wasn’t exactly my old stomping grounds. People with a hell of a lot more money than I would make in a lifetime, or had made in a lifetime I should say, lived there. I’d always wanted to see the other side of the tracks, the better side, and now I would.
Virginia Brenneman was a name not completely unknown to me. I didn’t know her, but I knew of her. She was Brenneman in the “Wittenberg, Escobar, Brenneman and Dow” that I announced hundreds of times every day as PBX operator for the law firm. In my windowless room in the Cochran Building, I never thought about who Wittenberg, Escobar, Brenneman and Dow were, never tried to imagine their faces or their lives. All I knew was that every other Friday a paycheck with their names on it made its way to my bank. I doubt they knew I existed; I sure as heck had no idea about them. Until now.
Virginia Brenneman was fifty-three years old. Her face made its way into my mind from the file as I made my way over to a nearby bus stop. I sat on the tipping slats that make temporary seats and prevent homeless people from making it their bed. Her brown hair was lightly graced with a smattering of silver. Not enough to make her look old, but rather distinguished. She had discerning hazel eyes that I had heard referred to as “bullshit meters” by two junior partners in the elevator one day. If you’re a small enough piece in the corporate machinery, you don’t get noticed, even in as a space as tiny as that.
Virginia Brenneman had a talent for sizing up opponents and compatriots alike and making judgments based on those estimations. Her estimations were accurate enough times for her to have punched a svelte hole in the glass ceiling of an up and coming law firm in San Francisco to become the youngest, and only female, partner.
At that moment a black Lincoln town car turned into a horseshoe shaped driveway about half a block from where I sat. A rear door opened and Virginia Brenneman appeared. She leaned back into the car briefly to retrieve a black briefcase and beige raincoat before heading up to the house. She was dressed in a navy blue skirt and jacket with an eggshell white shirt. Her clothing spoke of muted sophistication and graceful wealth.
As the car pulled slowly away, Virginia let herself into a house just like the one I expected her to have. It was large without being ostentatious, ornate without being gaudy and worthy of my respect without incurring my envy.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind people having money whether they earned it, inherited it, stole it, or as in the case of several prominent politicians, all three. Just as long as they don’t rub my nose in it. You’ve heard about those people. They have more money than sense and throw dollars around without the least bit of thought.
When I was a kid, I would pick dandelions from the expanse of grass at the local park. I blew hard on the fuzzy blossoms and away all the little bits would fly. We called them angels. Seeing those angels floating in the air was how I thought being rich was like. Enough money and you could blow it; there would always be more. There were always more dandelions in the lawn.
I never thought much about what money meant. In my life it wasn’t ‘do I have money,’ it was ‘do I have enough money.’ I got my paycheck, paid my bills and looked at what remained. That’s how I determined how I would get to live my life for the next two weeks. That’s how it worked. Now that I saw Virginia Brenneman had become a case for me, I knew I should try to understand what living like that would entail. I wondered if money was part of the reason I was there. I wouldn’t find out by just sitting there so I rose and crossed the street to Virginia Brenneman’s house. I let myself in, naturally.
The inside of the house was as amazing as the outside. It was just purely elegant. I haven’t had much experience with elegant, but if the word had a picture attached to it, it would be of Virginia’s house.
Facts, like a job resume, slipped into my mind. God was being generous this time and not making me be Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple. Virginia was fifty-three, as I said earlier. She was born in Stockton, California to middle class parents. She was an only child and a hard worker. She got good grades in school. She went to James Law School in Sacramento and interned with a state appeals judge in her last year.
Then something appeared in my mind that wouldn’t be on a job resume. Virginia had an affair with that judge.
I want to stop here and ask you a question. This is for my own curiosity, of course. No, you don’t have to answer, but maybe you might want to. When I just told you Virginia had an affair with the judge, what did you picture in your mind? I know the sex of the judge, but you don’t. Did you see a woman or a man? Why? If I told you this affair was just that for the judge, but was Virginia’s first time truly falling in love, would that change the picture? If I said the judge called a friend at a law firm in San Francisco and arranged for Virginia to get a job as a way to end the affair, do you think one way or the other about the sex of the person? I’m only asking all these things because I’ve been guilty in the past of heaping praise or scorn on particular groups because of how I see myself.
Unscrupulous users come in all economic categories. Fickle lovers come in all colors. Guilt-ridden judges who want to end affairs come in both sexes. By the way, the good stuff about people comes in all classes, sexes and colors too. Ok, I’m officially getting off my soapbox now. Hell, if all this had been clear to me when I was alive I wouldn’t have changed so many things in my stories. It wouldn’t have mattered.
And, to answer your question, I’m not going to tell you if the judge was a woman or man. The situation would stink like yesterday’s catch at Fisherman’s Wharf either way.
The rest of Virginia’s tale reads like a modified Horatio Alger story. Yeah, she got help getting started, but the rest is Fortune 500 history. Her now famous “bullshit meter” eyes developed after getting the boot from the relationship. She threw herself into the law firm and her work. She made partner and now her name is on a plaque on the Cochran Building announcing the law firm inside. She’s had no deep relationships and no real loves since that first one. Still, she had money, respect, a darn nice house and right then she had a couple more things. She had two hazel bullshit meters full of tears.
I had been looking around at Virginia’s house and not paying too much attention to her, but I didn’t think I had missed anything important. She was just standing at a small table in the entryway looking through a stack of mail. I didn’t think it could be something she read in the mail; she just seemed to be sorting it into two smaller stacks.
Virginia closed her eyes and stood still for a moment. She must have been composing herself, because when she opened her eyes she cleared her throat, picked up one stack of the mail and left the entryway. She had only taken a few steps when she stopped and looked back. She went back to the stack of mail she left on the table and rifled through it quickly. She removed two envelopes and put them with the bundle she was carrying. Then she left the room, pausing only long enough to kick off her shoes at the bottom of a large, white marble staircase. She walked through a formal dining area and went into the kitchen, unaware she had a spectral caboose trailing her.
In the kitchen she placed the mail on the counter as she went to the fridge and removed a bottle of wine. Uncorking the excellent California vintage, she poured half a glass and moved to a telephone answering machine with two flashing lights on it. Pressing one button, she listened as she sipped her drink.
“Ms. Brenneman, it is six o’clock and I will be leaving shortly,” an accented voice said. It was Ukrainian or possibly Russian. “I’ve left a mushroom quiche in the refrigerator and a small salad. There are two messages on the phone for you that came while I was at the market. Your dry cleaning is in your closet and I will be back at eight o’clock in the morning as usual. If there is anything you need done tomorrow please let me know.” The machine clicked off and Virginia pushed the second flashing button.
“Virginia, this is Greta at the gym. I’ll be about fifteen minutes late in the morning as I have to make a brief stop on my way into the city. If you start on the new circuit we worked out on Tuesday, I’ll be there as soon as possible.” A short beep followed and a second message played.
“It’s Matt, Virginia. I tried to catch you at the office, but your secretary said you were out of the office all afternoon at a deposition. Listen, I’m stuck in L.A. for another day. The negotiations on the Lonager case are running longer than I expected. I know it’s my job in the firm, but can you do a drop-in at the Mayor’s luncheon for me tomorrow? The firm’s check for our donation to the City Parks Council is already made out and you can get it from my secretary. I’ll owe you one and this time I’ll pay you back, I swear. See you soon.” The message ended with Virginia mock saluting the phone. Pressing a third button, she waited for a tone to sound.
“Dina, thank you for the quiche, I’m sure it’s going to be delicious. Would you please call the accountants in the morning and ask them to send a courier for the bills? I’ve left them on the table in the foyer. I have an appointment in the afternoon, but I should be home by four if there are any messages.”
Aha! Miss Marple had her first clue. The mail on the table was bills and she took two out. What don’t you want your accountant to see, Virginia Brenneman? Did you buy something latex by mail order? Is it dues at an executive free love club? Blackmail? I sat on the kitchen counter trying to figure it out as she put the quiche in the microwave and drizzled a little vinaigrette over her salad. I had just about decided the envelopes would fall to the floor aided by the Word of the Lord when she picked up her mail once again. Being the sleuth I felt I needed to be, I peeped over her shoulder. To be exact I was looking through her shoulder, but really that would be splitting hairs.
The first two envelopes were invitations to a social outing and a charitable event. She put those aside. I was impatient for her to reach the bottom of the pile and those two mystery bills. Virginia obliged me by going to those next.
The first envelope was from a pharmacy, and all I can say is there isn’t a cut rate for medication just because you’re a wealthy, prominent citizen. For a minute I thought maybe Virginia needed some of my spam e-mail from those places promising cheap drugs online. It was a hefty chunk of change and I thought that was strange, but maybe she had the kind of insurance where you pay and they reimburse you. The second bill was from a doctor’s office. Well, I thought it was a bill, but actually it was a letter from the doctor himself. I was just starting to read it when the phone rang.
“Hello?” Hearing her voice again, I could appreciate the strong, even timber. “Oh yes, Amanda, it’s completely my fault. I should have called you back ages ago. We’ve been swamped down at the office and now with Matt out of town…well, you know how time gets away from you.” She listened a moment and continued. “Yes, I saw the doctor and it’s just what I thought, the start of that executive’s ulcer I’ve been putting off getting. No more coffee for me for a while.” There was silence as the other person spoke.
“You bet. I was relieved too; I hated leaving early that night. Okay, Amanda, I have some briefs I need to go over so I’ll see you and Mac soon. The twenty-fourth? I’m not sure, let me get back to you on that, okay?” After she ended the conversation, Virginia hung up the phone and stared at it a moment. She returned to the doctor’s letter then. I noticed now that it was from a radiologist. That made sense; she had told the woman on the phone she had an ulcer.
She unfolded the pages and left them there as she went to retrieve her quiche at the insistence of a buzzer on the microwave. Miss Marple didn’t hesitate; I seized the opportunity. This is what I found.
Dear Ms. Brenneman,
As per Dr. Cardone’s instructions, I am enclosing a copy of my interpretation of your recent MRI scan. If the specialist you are consulting needs to see the original films, please contact my office and we will arrange for them to be sent over.
Paul Ramos MD
I glanced at the second page, at the MRI report itself. I couldn’t make sense of most of it, but at the bottom it read,
Impression: Large pancreatic tumor with diffuse metastases to the liver, bilateral kidneys, colon and omentum.
Virginia Brenneman had cancer of the pancreas and by the date at the top of the MRI report, she had known about it for four months.
I turned to watch Virginia, who had taken only a bite of her quiche before pushing it away. She went back to the hallway and retrieved her briefcase. Bringing it back into the kitchen, she dialed in the combination and opened it, removing a small bottle of pills. The label read, “Oxycontin 60 mg. Take one tablet twice daily.”
I knew what Oxycontin was. My grandfather had taken it before he died of lung cancer. It was slow release morphine and if Virginia was taking it, it meant her cancer was big and it was serious. She opened the bottle and took one of the small white pills, washing it down with a sip of her wine. Then she did something odd. Virginia went to the phone, and holding up the bottle of pills, dialed the number on it. She waited a moment until the phone was answered.
“Yes, this is Virginia Brenneman. I’d like a refill on my prescription number 73033. That’s right, Dr. Packard. Thank you, I’ll be by tomorrow to pick it up.” She hung the phone up and returned to her quiche. She dumped the rest of it down the garbage disposal as I wondered why she renewed her prescription when she still had half a bottle left. Disposing of her salad remains the same way, Virginia snapped off the lights and left the kitchen. It wasn’t until she picked up her shoes and headed up the stairs that it hit me. Dr. Packard? I thought her doctor’s name was Cardone.
I beat Virginia to the top of the steps and then followed her through a huge and beautiful bedroom to the biggest bathroom I’d ever laid eyes on. It had a garden tub and a shower big enough for a party of two along with a mariachi band! It even had those special showerheads that give the rain forest shower effect. No doubt about it, Virginia had heaven right in her restroom.
She went to the medicine cabinet and opened the mirrored door. Inside were five other pill bottles, all containing the same medication, but with the name of three different doctors on them.
If Virginia had been Rush Limbaugh, I know those pills would have been for recreational use. For a woman with pancreatic cancer that has spread, it could mean only one thing.
Virginia Brenneman was going to kill herself.
Okay, here’s a secret from my earthly past. In a moment of supreme despair and even more supreme stupidity, I tried to commit suicide. I had it all planned out. Notice here I said planned out and not thought out. The planning part is easy. There are plenty of ways to kill yourself. The thinking part is much more difficult. It’s strange; at the time I think I could have told you a hundred reasons to die. Later it seemed there weren’t but a few good reasons to kill yourself. Now that I actually have died, I can’t think of a single one.
Well, I gathered pills from every source I could. I bought some aspirin and Tylenol from the drug store, but I wasn’t sure that would be enough. I had some leftover codeine from the time when I twisted my ankle after an ill-fated attempt at rollerblading. It was outdated, but I added that to my stash anyway. Then I even looked in Fly’s medicine cabinet for something I could use, but I was pretty sure Juwon’s prescription medicine for that stubborn toenail fungus wouldn’t help. It was that gathering of medicine that made me realize what Virginia’s plan was. It was as clear as a bell to me and I knew what needed to be revised in her life. She needed not to die.
Oh, what happened to me? I lived. I actually took three aspirins, but it wasn’t the kind with the coating on it. The aspirin dust made me cough and then gag a little. I resolved to wait a few minutes before resuming consumption of the drugs and I decided to call Fly to pass the time. That was either my worst mistake or the best decision I ever made. There’s no question about it actually. It was the latter. I could never hide anything from Fly and calling her saved me from myself.
Here is a tidbit of information for those of you contemplating anything like what I did. The people in the Emergency Room rarely believe you when you say you only took three aspirin. They want to see for themselves. A bottle of Ipecac made me throw up my toenails and the bill for the overnight stay in the hospital made me determined I wouldn’t go down that road again.
You know, everybody should have someone in their life they can call when they are about to do something stupid. Someone they can respect and trust and love enough to know that they’ll save you. And you should also be that for someone. Fly didn’t let me down when I needed her and I would try with everything in me not to let Virginia down now.
I think my “brush with death” was the reason Virginia struck such a chord with me. Her case though, unlike mine, might actually have some merit to it. The woman had cancer, a bad cancer that had spread. If she wanted to check out of Hotel Life, maybe that should be her decision. I had heard the arguments over euthanasia many times. There were strong feelings on both sides, but I could never make up my mind what I thought. Each person and each circumstance made me feel differently. I wondered if that was how it was supposed to be.
While I was thinking all this, Virginia had showered and slipped into a thick, blue robe. I would have pegged her for a silk robe type and I would have been wrong. I decided to snoop around a little as Virginia dried her hair and applied various creams and lotions to her skin. In life I really should have taken better care of my skin. Doesn’t matter now though, I guess there’s no point in moisturizing a spiritual body.
I was hoping that by looking around and getting a few more clues about her life that I would find something or somebody that would make her want to live. No matter how bad her illness was, I was hopeful modern medicine could do something for her besides give her a pharmaceutical way out.
I wandered around Virginia’s bedroom. It was classy and understated, but it could have been any bedroom in a fancy hotel. The only personal thing there was a small black and white photo of a bride and groom on the dresser, Virginia’s parents I presumed.
I couldn’t understand that, not putting your personality in your bedroom at least. My bedroom was festooned with photos of family and friends, souvenirs of trips and voyages and small presents I had received over the years. It was a room of treasures and I kind of felt sorry for Virginia that she didn’t have that.
I was still gazing at the lone picture when Virginia made her appearance. The robe had been replaced by a soft, peach-colored nightgown that complimented her skin tones and reaffirmed the word “elegant” for me. I think there are really too few elegant things left in this world. We’ve got plenty of “useful” and “functional” and a whole boatload of “cheesy” and “frivolous,” but not near enough elegant.
She moved to the bed and, sitting on the edge, opened the top drawer of a dark oak nightstand adjacent to where she sat. She retrieved a portable micro-cassette recorder with a headset and microphone. Slipping the headset on, Virginia settled back onto the bed, propped against the headboard. She depressed the ‘record’ button and immediately hit ‘pause.’ She sat a moment, apparently deep in thought. Then she released the pause button.
“This is Virginia Lane Brenneman. I suppose any number of my co-workers at the firm or my friends will be able to recognize my voice and verify my identity. Whoever you are, I hope you’ll forgive me if I stumble through this a bit; I’ve only used this recorder for dictation and not for anything personal.” Virginia moved her finger to press the ‘pause’ button again, but seemed to reconsider it.
“I’m just going to let the tape run while I speak. I wouldn’t want any doubts or conspiracy theories to pop up because of a series of stops and starts on this tape. Everything I say and everything that happens is solely my decision and my responsibility.” Virginia stopped a moment, just staring at the recorder. I watched, and then listened, as she began to speak.
“I suppose the obligatory thing to say here is, ‘By the time you hear this, I will be dead.’ Those of you who are acquainted with me know that I don’t care for the melodramatic, so you’ll just have to accept that statement as a matter of fact and not a matter of the theatrical. I haven’t shared this with anyone, and I do apologize for that, but it seems I am terminally ill with pancreatic cancer. This cancer has spread to several areas of my body and is becoming increasingly painful. Fours doctors, two in San Francisco and one each in Houston and New York City, have all given me basically the same prognosis. The discomfort is becoming more difficult to deal with. The medication doesn’t seem to last as long or work as well anymore.” I sat on the end of Virginia’s bed and crossed my legs Indian style.
“I’ve always been independent and pro-active in my life and career and I’ve decided to remain that way in regard to my death. In short, I plan to kill myself.” Though I’d figured it out already, it was still a bit of a shock to hear her say the words.
“I’ve had a good life, filled with many wonderful things. I’m grateful to have received this diagnosis after my parents passed away; it would have hurt them terribly.” Virginia’s gaze turned to the picture on the dresser.
“I’ll miss this life; I’ve had a lot of fun. Maybe not so much as an adult, guess that changes for everybody, but when I was a kid I had a blast.” Virginia’s voice took on a softer tone and I felt like I was seeing the woman behind the executive.
“I remember one summer my family took a trip to the Midwest to visit my grandparents. I’d never been there before and I saw my first firefly on that trip. The small lake near my grandparents’ house seemed to be a gathering place for them. My cousins who lived in the area thought it was funny that I was fascinated by the fireflies, but I couldn’t help it. They fluttered around, each of them with their own individual Mars light. That’s the name of the single headlight on a train; did you know that? Mars light. My dad told me that when I was a little girl and for some reason I never forgot it. It’s strange the things that cast themselves permanently in your mind.” Virginia paused again and I could see her line of sight was fixed on a distant memory.
“I don’t regret much,” Virginia said. “It’s surprising how little. I hope in whatever comes after this life, I won’t regret doing this. Thank you for listening and I hope it will be an open and shut case. My lawyer has the rest of my instructions, wishes and my will.” She clicked off the recorder and placed it on the bedside stand. She stood briefly to pull back the covers and slip her feet under the thick blanket. Reaching over, she was about to turn off the lamp beside her bed when her hand paused in mid-air. She simply stared at the light for a minute and then pulled the extremity back. Tossing back the blanket, Virginia left her bed and headed to the bathroom.
I heard her click on the light and the unmistakable sound of water running. She returned a moment later with a large glass of water and all five bottles from her medicine cabinet. I thought she was just counting her pills as she arranged them out in neat and precise bundles on the top of the covers. It was when the first five pills were popped in her mouth that I began to panic.
This was it. This was no dress rehearsal. It may have been impulsive, but it was really happening. She washed down the pills with a large drink of the fluid. Virginia was reaching for the next five pills and I was freaking out!
I had to do something; I had to intervene. So I did the first thing I could think of. I summoned the Word of the Lord… and set her house on fire.
Don’t get your undies in a bunch; it wasn’t a big fire. In fact, as the firefighter told Virginia later, it was just a little smoldering light fixture conveniently located next to a smoke alarm. It was a good thing her smoke detectors were in good working order, he noted, or it might have led to a blaze where there could have been a loss of life. I heard that and wondered if Virginia found it ironic.
Virginia showed no signs of being drugged, even after having taken five Oxycontin. I put that down to a brief adrenalin surge and maybe some tolerance to the medication. Whatever it was, Virginia seemed in full possession of her faculties, calm and collected, as she locked up after the firefighters left. She returned to her room and put away the pills she had hastily covered with the bedspread at the sound of the alarm. It was as if she wasn’t bothered that her plans had been interrupted and that gave me hope. I wondered if I could figure out something that would give Virginia hope.
I thought about the doctors’ reports I had seen and decided medicine didn’t have much to offer Virginia at this point. Probably pain control would be the only thing and too much pain control would lead to her taking a dirt nap, as I had once heard it so graphically described. With a medical cure out, what else would offer Virginia hope or at least comfort?
I think had I known I was going to die, I would have turned to family and friends. Virginia had no family and I think if her fiends would have been even a little closer to her, she probably would have shared the news of her illness sooner.
Religion? I didn’t know about Virginia’s religious convictions, but I’m pretty sure most of the major ones frowned on punching your own ticket to the afterlife. The afterlife. What did Virginia think would happen after she died, if anything at all? Maybe she was like most of us who never really think about death. Of course we did after the death of a friend or relative, especially one near our age. Sometimes we even made resolutions to take better care of ourselves and get into the doctor for that long overdue physical. Those resolutions didn’t last long.
When I was a kid I never thought about death except some nights when Fly and I would have a sleepover. Fly would wait until all the lights were out before she started singing every one of the verses of “The Worms Crawl In.” She would sing it slowly and softly and it would send a deliciously creepy feeling down my spine.
“Did you ever think when the hearse rolled by, that you would be the next to die?” I can hear Fly singing that first line as if it was yesterday. Still, I was indestructible then and death never entered my mind much.
I suppose you realize by how I described my own demise that there is no Grim Reaper. I think that’s a good thing. After being hit by a streetcar and losing my sourdough rounds, a meeting with the Grim Reaper would have been the crappy frosting on a really rotten cake. Anyway, death wasn’t grim at all. Like I said before, it was peaceful. Maybe Virginia was only hoping for a peaceful death and didn’t figure on a conversation she might have to have with You-Know-Who. I know I didn’t.
Maybe this was another case of knowing when I shouldn’t interfere, but damn it, I didn’t want Virginia to die. She hadn’t had a great reciprocal love, she hadn’t had a daring adventure, and she hadn’t had a fist-pumping moment of personal victory. Then again, neither had I. Maybe I wanted Virginia to live because she hadn’t had what I hadn’t had. There was that connected feeling again. We were at opposite ends of the economic spectrum, but under all that money, we were sisters.
What a waste; what a senseless waste. That was my feeling, but was I talking about her life or mine? Hard to tell.
I watched Virginia like a hawk all the next day. You’d never know by her performance at work that she’d taken what would have been an overdose for most people the night before. Except that she arranged to have the immediate inspection and repair of the light fixture, you’d never know that she’d had an emergency at home either. She was sharp and precise in her work and I marveled at her energy and focus. I knew how much that cost her though.
Sitting next to her in the back of the Lincoln Town Car on the ride home, I saw the pain etched into her features. It could have looked like concentration to someone who didn’t know about her illness, but I knew it wasn’t. My suspicion was proved right when once again Virginia eschewed dinner and immediately took a pain pill with a long sip from a bottle of water. Her pace up the stairs was slower and a lot more labored. As with the night before, she showered and slipped into a nightgown.
She placed her water bottle on the nightstand and went around to open the bottom drawer on a second nightstand on the opposite side of the bed. She chose a CD from several in the drawer and inserted it into a player located there. In a second, music flowed from hidden speakers throughout the room. It was classical, Rachmaninoff I think, and it made me feel as if I was floating along in a thick, rich river of music. It was the music that accompanied Virginia to the bathroom where she retrieved her bottles of Oxycontin once again. Placing the dictation micro-cassette on the nightstand it had been taken from, Virginia was set to repeat her attempt of the night before.
It’s strange thing to tell, but as I watched Virginia Brenneman prepare to take her life, I thought I knew what she was feeling. The nearly unbearable pain, the use of every scrap of energy just to make it through the day and the unspoken but very real wish for all of it to end.
I had one last Word of the Lord to use and I knew I had to use it wisely and in the very best way I could. I think I did. As I watched Virginia determinedly down pill after pill, I summoned the Word of the Lord to wish that Virginia be given the quickest, most peaceful and most painless death possible.
And she was.
I stayed with her until that last slow and irregular breath left her body because no one should have to die alone. I don’t know if she could sense me there as she passed away, but I hope so. I wished her well on her own journey toward that peaceful warmth.
The darkness descended.
Oprah was seated on a soft couch as I appeared back into the circle of light. She stood and said nothing, but the compassion in her eyes spoke volumes. I wasn’t sure if it was okay to be so familiar with the Lord of Hosts, but Oprah Winfrey opened her arms to me and into them I went. Then I cried.
I think I cried for a long time, but what is that next to eternity? I supposed God could make the time. I suppose God makes that kind of time for all of us. When my sobs subsided, Oprah led me to the couch and gave me a silk handkerchief out of her pocket. I hesitated for a moment, not knowing if it was alright to blow my nose on God’s hankie.
“Go ahead,” Oprah urged and I blew my nose with as much respect as I could muster in the situation.
“That was horrible,” I said, sitting next to her on the couch. “I realized that no matter what I did, Virginia was going to die. I felt so helpless. I had some of the greatest power anyone ever had and I could do nothing.”
“I know the feeling,” God replied. “I created the human race and put it on a pretty cool planet and you guys just end up killing yourselves and each other. That bugs me a little.”
“Sharper than a serpent’s tooth is an ungrateful child,” I said, quoting something Fly’s grandmother said whenever Fly or I got in trouble.
“Something like that,” Oprah responded with a soft smile. “It was nice of you to ease Virginia’s way,” she said, changing the subject.
“That was okay?” I asked “For a second I was pretty worried you wouldn’t like me helping her do that.”
“Why would I ever mind you helping relieve the suffering of one of your fellow creatures? Why you humans think on one hand that I love you to pieces and on the other hand I want you to suffer, I’ll never know. Well, of course I know because I know everything, but you get what I mean.”
I did. I also understood my last lesson. With Fly the lesson was change and revise what you can to make things better and more positive. With Marsha and Helen the lesson was to know when to leave well enough alone and make no changes at all. With Virginia, the hard lesson was no matter how much you’d like to change a situation, sometimes you can’t do a damn thing about it. That’s when you have to accept defeat gracefully and try not to let it make you bitter or withdrawn.
“That’s right,” Oprah said, waiting for me to finish the connection.
“I didn’t know how to do any of that, did I? None of it. So many lessons learned too late.” I thought about that. “Why didn’t you have me learn all this when I was alive? Why don’t you have us all learn our lessons before we’re dead?”
God looked like she’d heard that question before. “You think I don’t try? If you truly looked, you’d see learning experiences all around you. Nobody wants to learn because the vast majority of humans think they’re always right. It’s not until you’re dead that I get your complete attention.” I nodded and swallowed thickly. She was right; death is what it took to get me to learn. That thought made me ashamed.
“Now what?” I asked, curious and at the same time dreading the answer. “What happens to me now?”
“Put yourself in my place,” The Lord said, rising to her feet. She paced a bit. “What do you think I should do with you?”
When I was a kid, my feeblest response would have been to shrug my shoulders and shake my head slowly, a miserable look on my face. So of course that’s exactly what I did in response to God’s question.
“Leaving it up to me then?” she asked. I couldn’t think of a reason not to; I had no clue what my options were. I nodded.
“Fine,” Oprah said, stopping her pacing directly in front of me. “I’ll decide.” I stood and looked her directly in the eye. “I’ve decided that my first decision regarding you was the right one, like always.” I scoured my mind for what that decision was. God reminded me. “You’re going back.”
I suppose I should have expected it. Obviously three lessons wasn’t going to be enough for somebody as flawed as me.
“No, dodo bird, you’re going back…for good,” she clarified.
“Like an angel?” I asked, repeating one of my earlier questions to the Supreme Being. Call me an optimist.
God laughed, “No, not like an angel. Like a Becca Bean, something nearly as special.” How could I be disappointed with a response like that? God sure could make you feel good, even if she had just called you a dodo. “There have been a few changes though, Becca. Your friend Fly has her own restaurant and one of the partners in your law firm passed away. Little things like that.”
I nodded, remembering my part in those things. I thought about going back and I started to get excited until something hit me.
“How do I explain what happened to me?” I asked. “Coming back from the dead doesn’t happen every day. I’m pretty sure Fly will shit a brick.” I clapped my hand over my mouth. My dad always said one day my alligator mouth would overload my hummingbird ass and this might have been the day.
“No, not today,” Oprah assured me. “And don’t worry about being gone; to them you weren’t.” I wanted to ask a lot of questions about that, but she just raised her hand. “Uh-uh, a girl needs to have a little mystery about her. See?” She raised up a copy of “O” magazine. Sure enough, one of the articles was entitled that very same thing. How could I doubt it when it was in print? I knew then I’d miss God’s playful sense of humor. To be honest, I’d just miss her.
“Look,” I said, “I know I’m just a human and you’re probably busy, but I just want you to know I think you’re pretty great. Now that I know you exist and all, would you like to maybe hang out or something sometime? You’ve taught me a lot and I’d like to be able to talk to you some more.”
“You always can, Becca. You don’t need a special occasion to do it. I’ll hear you.” I felt foolish then. I could hardly believe I had basically just asked the Creator to tea.
“That was sweet; I wish more people would ask me to do that,” Oprah said. “But, girl, you’re going to be very busy. You have a life to lead, some love to find, a couple of surprises to experience and a story to write. Do you think you went through all this for no reason? You’ve got to share what you learned.” She paused here and gave me another hug. “You’ll be fine.” I felt that deep and abiding love again and it was with the utmost reluctance that I pulled back.
“I’ll tell them,” I promised. “I’ll tell them you’re real and that you care and I’ll tell them all the things that we’re messing up and…” God stopped me with a fingertip to my lips.
“As tempting an offer as that is, everyone needs to make up their own minds, Becca. Remember when I said that if you truly looked there would be learning experiences all around? You’re going to be one of those.”
“But you’re wonderful,” I protested. “You’re not anything like we’re warned about. You’re loving and fun…”
“And I’m fading as certain knowledge in your mind even now.” Oprah slipped her hand around to cup my cheek. “This might have just been a story you’ve made up in your head.” I was having a hard time disputing that, though just a second before I’d had no doubt. That God has some powerful touch.
“Go back and have a good life, Becca. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. In all good time we’ll meet again.”
The blackness drifted down slowly this time, like a curtain ending a play.
It’s taken me a while to write all this down. I hope it wasn’t too crazy a tale. I’m sitting here in my favorite coffee house writing it out and sharing like God said I should. It’s strange to think that anything that happened to me would teach a single person a lesson, but I hope that turns out to be true. Not that anybody is going to believe me anyway. It does seem a little far-fetched. Even now I’m having a hard time deciding whether all this really happened or if it’s just been one hell of a dream.
Maybe another cup of coffee will help the fuzziness in my thoughts. It’ll be my fourth one, but the new waitress is being very patient with me taking up the most comfortable overstuffed chair in the place for as long as I have. I know she’s new around here, but she’s one of those people you think you’ve met somewhere before.
Anyway, I’m going to head over to One Day in a bit. Fly has a new recipe she wants to try out on me. Her place is so cool, I love wandering around in it. Fly just laughs at me and says I’m acting like an idiot, like I haven’t been there almost every evening since she opened. You see why things are fuzzy?
“Can I get you another cup?” the waitress asked, appearing at my side.
“No, I was going to, but I think I’ve taken up enough of your time and space here,” I responded.
“That was no problem; you seemed to be pretty involved with whatever you’ve been jotting down.” The attractive black woman indicated the composition book in front of me. “You studying?”
“No, nothing like that,” I said, closing the cover. “It’s just a story I wrote to share with a great group of women on the Internet.”
“Really? That’s very cool,” she said, seemingly impressed. “Say, if you need an editor or proof-reader, I have some friends at the University who might be able to help.”
I smiled at that. “I appreciate the suggestion, but except for the use of a spell check, I think I’m sending this in like it is. The story might be a bit bizarre, but it will be honest and it will be just the way I wrote it in the first place.”
“Okay, but if you change your mind, my name’s Anita and I’ll be working here a couple days a week,” she offered.
“Thanks, but I don’t think I’ll be changing my mind…anymore.” I pulled some cash from my pocket to settle my bill. “But I will see you in here now and again.” I handed her the cash, including a generous tip. “Keep the change.” Anita took the money and headed toward the till.
“Anita?” I called after her.
“Something else?” she asked.
“Yeah, sort of,” I answered, a bit embarrassed now. “You remind me of someone, like we’ve met before and I can’t put my finger on it.” She smiled at me.
“I get that a lot. Some people think I resemble Oprah a bit. Either that or they remember me from when I worked a newspaper stand on Market Street.”
I considered her explanation. “That must be it. Alright, well, take care, Anita.”
“You too, Becca,” she said as she rang up my purchases. I don’t remember telling her my name, but I suppose I must have.
And I also suppose if you’re reading this then I actually got it written and posted in a timely fashion. I don’t have a lot more to say so I’ll just close by reminding you of some words of wisdom I heard somewhere.
Be nice to each other.
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