Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Day in the (After)Life of St. Peter

Peter sat on his stool, behind his expansive, solid oaken desk, with the little cherubs carved into it which sat on a endless plain of fluffy cloud-like material that was always soft on the feet no matter how many feet trod upon it, and sighed. He looked behind him to the tall (they seemed to almost reach up for ever), pearl carved gates of heaven, inlaid with gold, of course. He turned around to look at the great book that lay on his desk, in which was the names of every being, past, present and future, throughout all creation, and sighed again.

“Ah-hem,” the woman standing in front of Peter’s desk cleared her throat to get his attention. This was the third time she had done so since she arrived here. Peter looked up at her, a spiritually beautiful woman, with long, flowing red hair and gleaming white robes, and sighed once again.

“Well,” the woman, Clara Frost her name was (Peter saw it listed in his book), said. “Are you going to cross off my name in your book and open the gates to Heaven for me, or what?"

This was somewhat rude, Peter felt, his eye’s squinting in the manner of someone about to snap in anger. And snap is just what he did. He reached up, and, instead of grabbing the large (almost twelve inches), pure white quill pen next to his book, slammed the great book shut. This caused a loud “pumph” noise, startling the woman, and causing the people directly in line behind her to jump.

“No.” Peter said.

“No?” Clara said, a look of fear creeping in on her face. “No what?”

Peter smiled, but it was anything but pleasant. “No, I’m not going to cross your name off my book and open the gates to Heaven for you. Nor anyone else, for that matter. I quit.”

“What?!” said an Arabic man, next in line behind Clara, named Homayun, Peter remembered reading in his book. “You cannot quit!” he cried.

“Oh, yeah?” Peter said, “Just watch me.”

“But,” Clara stammered, “but, what about us? How are we going to get into heaven?”

Peter actually smiled, but it wasn’t really reassuring. “I don’t know. Not really my problem anymore.”


“Listen lady,” Peter said, pointing at Clara, “I’ve been trapped out here for almost 2000 years! For all that time, I’ve only been in Heaven once, and then I got this job. Now, I sit just outside Heaven, right next to the gate, but I never get to enter it. I hear the music, but I cannot join in. I open the gate for all of you, but never for myself. Well, I’m fed up with it. I’m leaving.”

“But, where would you go? You still can’t enter Heaven, right?” a woman in line asked. Peter didn’t know her name, because his book was closed.

“You’re right, I can’t. I think, though, I’ll go to Tahiti. I hear it’s a nice place to visit. Good bye.”

And with that, Peter vanished in a puff of pure white smoke.

There was a few moments of nervous silence before someone near the back of the line said, “Hey, not that I’m not enjoying the scenery here, or even getting tired for that matter, but how come the line stopped moving?”

With a somewhat shocked look still on her face, Clara turned around and even though she didn’t know who spoke answered, “St. Peter’s gone.”

“What, like on a brake?” someone else from the back of the line asked.

“No,” Clara answered, panic beginning to creep into her voice, “he said he was quitting. He just disappeared, and it didn’t look like he was planning on coming back.”

No one answered. Everyone just stood there in line, unsure what to do. The line got longer, and as the news made its way down the line, the new people were informed that they might have a long wait before getting into heaven. It was difficult to tell how much time had passed since Peter left, being that things never changed and there was no since of being tired or hungry. However, after what began to feel like a long time, there was a puff of cloud like smoke, similar to the one Peter left in, that had the faint aroma of roses with it. Clara was at first excited, figuring that it would be Peter returning. Instead, it was something far more impressive.

Floating several inches in the air before her was a six foot tall being with massive white wings, wreathed in a soft white glow. Obviously, this was an angel. The stark beauty of the being caused Clara to be stunned, and she simply stood there, staring at it, with her mouth open.

“What is going on here?” the being said in a voice that sounded more like three voices, all singing in a perfect harmonious choir. “Why have you souls not been processed and passed through the gates? We have angels on the other said waiting for you.”

“Um…” Clara said, still in awe of the being before her. “You see, sir, Saint Peter is no longer here. He, uh, quit.”

“He quit?” the angel said.”He can’t do that! He’s runs the gate. This is a logistical nightmare!”

At this point the angel seemed to become fully aware of the long line of human souls that were staring at him, most now in terror over his words.

“Uh, listen, folks,” it said, waiving his arms in what he thought was a calming fashion, “we’re experiencing some technical difficulties here, but don’t worry. We’ll find Peter and get things up and running again soon.”

Then, it leaned in to Clara and whispered to her, “Did he happen to say where he was going?”

“He said something about Tahiti,” she replied.

“Tahiti?” the angel said in its chorused voice. “Did he happen to say when? Never mind, it doesn’t matter. It’s as good a place as any to start looking. Thank you!”

And with that, the being was gone in that magical puff of white smoke. Clara stared at the empty space for a few long moments before turning back to the line. Everyone was still in it, but several people were poking heads around to see what was going on. From Clara’s point of view, it looked like a long white snake with multiple heads. She looked at the man in line immediately behind her, and he just shrugged and shook his head. Everyone stood there, unsure what to do, for another long period of time. Then, another cloud of white smoke appeared, and the angel was back.

“Has he returned yet?” the multi-voice asked, and then the beautiful head turned and looked around. “No? Okay, well, don’t worry, we’re working on this. We’ll have him back and you all in this gate in no time.”

Then, it was gone again. Shortly after that, people started moving out of the line. Everyone knew their place, and no one even had the thought of stepping out of place. But people were starting to get bored. A few started to do yoga. Some just sat and talk. One young woman discovered that the cloud they were standing on had the consistency of snow, and started making balls out of it and threw it at the man in line in front of her. A snow ball fight broke out there after, with many laughing and enjoying themselves.

One man in line, who knew his own name to be Jeffrey, watched it all from a slight distance. In life, Jeffrey never participated in the activities of his fellows, and honestly didn’t feel the need to now. Mostly, he felt fear. Fear of the other’s not liking him, fear of the cloud snowballs hurting, fear of humiliating himself. He had honestly not expected the fear to follow him in death. Of course, he hadn’t expected to die at the age of thirty, either. This is what happens when a bus hits your car.

Looking at everyone playing and having a good time reminded him of a time when he was a little boy. He was about ten, and living with his mother, who had just left his father that same year, in North Dakota. They had only been in this neighborhood for a few weeks, and Jeffrey hadn’t yet made any friends in school. Outside his house, he saw a group of children ranging from six to about fourteen playing. They had built two small snow forts and were currently throwing snowballs at each other, each side trying to capture the other’s fort. Jeffrey had trouble determining who was on who’s side, as it appeared that children switched sides wily nilly and were more interested in throwing the hard packed snow than in winning the game. He couldn’t figure it out, but he did know that they were laughing and having a good time, and he was sitting inside, looking at them. He had just about decided to pick up the book laying open on his bed when his mother had come into the room.

“Why don’t you go outside and play with them, honey?” she had said.

Jeffrey, of course, protested, but his mother wouldn’t have it. He needed to make friends, as far as she was concerned, and so he needed to go out there and play with the neighborhood kids. Jeffrey loved his mother, very much, and so did as she asked. A few moments later, he was bundled up in his winter clothes and being gently shoved out the door by his mother. When he got down the little walkway and past his fence, to the street, all the other children stopped playing to look at him. Jeffrey froze. He had no idea how to interact. What was he supposed to say? Why did it always look so easy in his books?

Then, a little girl came up to him and said hello. She was Jenny, about his age, and she asked if he wanted to play. Jeffrey only nodded, so she dragged him off to “her side.” Just as Jeffrey was reaching the snow fort, pay resumed, and snow went flying everywhere. At first, Jeffrey had fun. Jenny showed him how to pack the snow into a ball, and then poked her head up over the fort and threw one, randomly it seemed to Jeffrey. She laughed and ducked back under. Jeffrey was next. He closed his eyes up, poked his head up and threw the ball, then ducked back down.

“You did it!” Jenny said. “You hit Donald Bloom!”

“Did I?” Jeffrey asked, and looked back up over the fort. It was just in time to see Donald, his coat covered in fresh snow and an evil grin on his face, throw a snowball right at him. It smashed hard right into Jeffrey’s face. It felt just like being smacked with his father’s belt that one time when he was eight. It hurt, and all Jeffrey could do was stand there. Jenny asked if he was okay, seeming genuinely concerned, and Jeffrey was about to sit back down next to her. Jenny seemed to make everything seem okay. But then he saw Donald Bloom and some of the other kids right around them. All of them were laughing, and pointing at him. He felt the tears come before he could control them, and though he tried fighting it, he was crying in a matter of seconds. Jenny tried to tell him that they weren’t laughing at him, they were laughing because they knew what it was like to be hit like that. It was a good hit, she said, even he had to admit that.

Jeffrey didn’t have to admit anything. He just ran back to his house, past his mother and back up to his room. He tore off his wet, cold clothing, jumped onto the bed, and picked up his book, instantly escaping into the world of Mowgli, the boy raised by animals in the jungle. His mother came in to find out what happened, but he refused to stop reading his book. She only sighed, and picked up his wet clothing to wash.

He shook his head and watched the cloud ball fight continue. At least back on Earth, when he was alive, he had his books. Here, there was only one book. He looked sideways at it. It was beautiful, a hard leather, hand crafted binding. And it was huge. Oh, the things that must be written in there. The story of every person that had ever lived and ever would live. Jeffrey would give his right arm to read that book. He shook his head again. He knew that not only would he never get the chance to read that book, but that even to think about it was probably blasphemy.

He looked away from it and was startled to find himself staring into the bright blue eyes of a young woman. In surprise, he cried out and backed away. She smiled at him.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “you startled me.”

“That’s funny,” she replied. “I’ve been sitting here watching you for a few minutes now.”

He blinked, unsure what to say at this moment. Her accent was slightly Australian or maybe English, it was difficult to tell. She smiled again. Jeffrey couldn’t help but smile back. Something about her put him as ease. She was beautiful, to be sure, with long black hair, shining blue eyes and perfect, slightly pouty lips. Like everyone else here, she wore long, white robes that were both a perfect fit and free of any dirt. In fact, Jeffrey was pretty sure, the whole cloud was probably free of dirt. She moved around next to where he was still sitting and then sat down herself, cross legged.

“Mind if I sit down?” she asked.

“You already have,” Jeffrey said.

“Oh, look at that, so I have,” she said. She held out her hand for him to shake. “I’m Melissa.”

“Jeffrey,” he said, shaking her hand.

“So, Jeffrey,” she said, “How come you’re not joining in the fun?”

“I’m… not a very social person,” Jeffrey said in a bout of honesty.

“I see,” she said. “So, what is it you would rather be doing then?”

“Honestly?” he asked, and she nodded her head. “I’d rather be reading. But, of course, none of my books are here. There might be books waiting for me on the other side of the gates, of course, but in the mean time, I’m stuck out here with no books to read.”

“Well, that’s not really true, now, is it?” she said, and then pointed to St. Peter’s book on it’s podium. “There’s that book, there.”

“Yeah, but, I can’t read that one,” Jeffrey said.

“Why not?” she asked. “I don’t remember hearing any stories about not being able to read St. Peter’s book. I mean, who are we going to tell? We’re dead. Besides, I saw the way you were eyeballing it earlier. You want to read it, don’t you?”

“Well, of course I do,” said Jeffrey.

“So, get up there and go read it,” she said. “What’s the worst that could happen.”

“I could go to hell,” Jeffrey pointed out.

“Okay, yeah, that’s the worst thing,” she said as if that had never occurred to her. “But, do you really think that the Angels and God would do that just for looking at it? I’m sure they would give you some kind of warning. I mean, look, it’s not like St. Peter is here right now. Heck, he even left the book unlocked.”

Jeffrey looked and saw that she was right. The massive, gold flap and lock on the book was left open. The key that locked it was even sitting on the podium, next to the book. All he would need to do is open it. Then he looked back at Melissa, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

“Who are you, really?” he said. She laughed.

“I know, I know,” she said. “I must sound like the devil, trying to get you to do something bad. I swear, I’m not normally like this. I mean, look, I’m here in heaven, right?”

“Well, in line just outside of heaven, anyway,” Jeffrey replied.

“Right, well,” Melissa said, scratching her head. “I just like it when people are enjoying themselves. And you don’t look like you’re enjoying your self. I say, if reading is something you’ll enjoy, then go on and read. I mean, it’s not like you’d be opening the gates to heaven and letting people in, right?”

Jeffrey nodded his head. That was true. He looked back over at the book. No one was even by the podium right now. He could even keep it there and just read. There was a lot of fear in him, though. He looked back at Melissa. She looked like someone with no fear, and something in side of him snapped. He had lived his whole life in fear. Now, he was dead, and he was still letting the fear rule him. He decided right then and there that enough was enough. He was going to overcome his fear, and he was going to read that book. He turned back to Melissa with a smile on his face.

“I’m going to go do it,” he said. “Want to join me?”

She laughed back. “Sure, why not,” she said. “Reading’s not really my thing, I’m more of a movie girl, but I’ll give it a go.”

The two of them stood up and smiled at each other. Jeffrey realized it felt good. He’d never done anything like this before, never mind with a beautiful girl at his side, but it all felt good. They marched up to the podium, dodging around people and ducking to avoid the cloud balls being thrown about. Jeffrey wondered for a moment if the cloud stuff would hurt if he let it hit him, but he was enjoying the simple physical pleasure of ducking and avoiding being it. He was surprised at how good he was at it.

After laughing and moving their way to the podium, they stopped, look at each other and smiling. It was a great thing, he though, just to be here. She nodded at him and then the book. He looked over at it, and the fear all returned. He looked around to see if anyone was looking, and saw that no one was. Mostly, everyone was involved in the cloud ball fight, but some were praying or meditating, some were talking and others were exploring their surroundings. None of them were looking up at the book or the two of them. He slowly reached over and touched the book. It was the most exquisite leather binding he had ever seen. In life, he had become a librarian, and had spent his time finding rare and hard to find books for the library collection. The night he died, he had received an award for his collection, having rescued several books that were bound for the incinerator or the trash heap.

None of those old, rare books he collected, no matter how finely put together they were, matched the fine quality of this book. He wasn’t really surprised, but he did decide to take a moment to savor the quality. When he looked at Melissa, she had this strange look on her face. It occurred to him then that she had no idea what it was he was doing. Embarrassed slightly, he removed his and from the spine and reached to open the book. It opened with a slight creek, and set off a sweet, almost lemony sent. Jeffrey found himself inhaling in that smell, and saw, to his surprise, that Melissa was too.

“Wow,” she said. “I didn’t know a book could smell like that.”

“Me neither,” he said, “and I’ve been a librarian all my life.”

The books pages didn’t seem to want to say at the beginning of the book, although that’s where Jeffrey opened it. He saw a brief entry on Adam, but never got the chance to read it when the other pages tumbled open. The book seemed to go on forever, but eventually the pages stopped, and he saw that there was a large, red silk bookmark at the point where the book stopped. It must have been open to that page for some time. He looked at the page, and it was exactly as he expected. Fine calligraphy, as if twelfth century monks handwrote the book. Each entry was set off from the others by a large block letter, complete with highly detailed pictures. Jeffrey saw that most of the pictures contained many modern things in them, such as cars or cell phones or even televisions.

He turned to Melissa and smiled. “Look at the work on this lettering,” he said. “It’s exquisite.”

She smiled in return, seemingly genuinely happy that he was enjoying himself. And he was. He returned to the book and examined it some more. He discovered that some entries were clear and sharp, easy to read. Those seemed to be the older ones, the people who already entered heaven. There were others that, while the lettering was just as fine, and clearly printed, it was difficult to read. It was almost as if the words seemed to slip right off his brain, like he couldn’t get a grip on them no matter how hard he tried.

So, he looked at the next entry, right below the last person who passed through the gates of heaven. It seemed to come into focus as he was reading it. Clara Frost, it read, and began to describe her life. She was born in a small town in England Clara Blake, and lived there until she was college age. It listed her loves during her time in England, including the star soccer player at her high school, and the time the two of them spent in the school stadiums broadcast booth, making love. It was the first time she made love, but didn’t say anything about the boy except his name, Edward Jones. It went on to describe her move to the United States to go to school at UC Berkley. She majored in creative writing, participated in several protests, and at the age of 22 graduated. That same year, she became an American citizen and was married to who she thought was the love of her life, James Frost.

She went on to write several books, a few of which were published, and became the mother of two boys, Thomas and James Jr. He life was not easy, however. Her husband, it seems, was an alcoholic, and after losing three jobs in the same number of months, she divorced him, took the two boys with her, and moved back to England. She didn’t stay there long before returning back to the United States to accept a teaching position at Berkley. Her boys grew up and left home and went onto their own lives, James Jr. eventually marring and giving Clara her first grand child, Neil. She never re-married, though in the later years of her life she had found someone that loved her for her, a man named David Jones. He stayed with her until she died in her sleep at the age of 81. Under that entry, it had a single line. It read:

Entry to heaven granted right away.

Upon reading that, he felt compelled to do something. Before he realized what he was doing, he spoke.

“Clara Frost,” he said in a clear, strong voice. A woman looked up from the game of Rock-Papper-Siscers she was playing with another woman. She looked young, in her twenties, and was beautiful. Long flowing red hair surrounded her face, and Jeffrey realized that she was the woman at the front of the line. She came up to him and stood before the podium, straight, tall and proud.

“Yes?” she asked in a tone of voice that indicated she was used to getting her way.

“It says here that you can get into heaven right away,” Jeffrey said, pointing to the line in the book. He then pointed to the gates, and was surprised as they swung open. They were quiet and slow, almost like the mechanical gates for parking lots of gated communities. She turned to look at Jeffrey, a look of shock on her face. Slowly, it turned into a smile.

“Thank you,” she said, and quickly walked through the gates. Jeffrey could hear some angels on the other side, singing songs of welcome, and then the gates closed. Some of the other souls had noticed what happened, and the line was re-forming. No one had forgotten their place, and no one fought to move up in the line. It was instinctive. Jeffrey turned to look at Melissa. She looked as surprised as he did. Then, she smiled.

“Well,” she said, “it seems to be working. Keep at it.”

He nodded, turned back to the book, and looked at the next entry. Homayun Aziz, an American of Aeribic decent. He was born in America, but was raised in a very traditional Muslim culture. When he went to school, he had trouble with the other kids, who would pick on him for his funny name, but he always tried to turn the other cheek, tried to be better than them, just like his mama taught him. One day, in sixth grade, however, he just couldn’t take it anymore, and punched one of the bigger kids that was picking on him right in the jaw. The punch knocked out two teeth and dislocated the jaw. Homayun was sent to the principles office, and sent home that day, where his parents punished him thoroughly. However, when he returned to school, no one made fun of him anymore. As he got into high school, he discovered sports, joining the school baseball team. He eventually got into the local university on a baseball scholarship, and majored in computer repair and programming, getting a job as an IT specialist. He married a African-American woman, Susan, who was a Christian. The two combined caused his mother to faint when she heard the news, but eventually, Susan was accepted into the family, and they had a little boy, named Ishaq Levon, who went by Levon most of the time. He died of a heart attack at the age of 53. He had the same note on his entry as Clara Frost had on hers.

“Says here you get to go in right away, Homayun,” Jeffrey said. Once again, the gates opened and Homayun entered. Jeffrey heard the angels inside singing again, but this time it was in an Arabic language he didn’t recognize.

The next person in line came up. Major Alfred Doddsworth, RAF, retired. He fought in WWII and later in some other campaigns. He never married, but did have several affairs throughout his life, including at least two to married women. For the most part, his life was pretty normal and dull, outside his service in the air force. He appeared to be slightly selfish, but, he also gave to charity when he could, and would serve at hospitals dedicated to taking care of war vets. The note at the end of his record read:

Entry to heaven granted after twenty years in limbo.

“Major Doddsworth?” Jeffrey said after reading the entry.

“That would be me, young man,” the man came up to him and saluted. He looked somewhat like the stereotypical image displayed in America of the Victorian officer, complete with mustache, except that he wasn’t wearing a uniform, but the white robes everyone was wearing.

“It says here that you’re life was good over all,” Jeffrey said, “but you also had some pretty major sins that you still need to make up for. You’re assigned to twenty years on Limbo, after witch you will be granted access to heaven.”

The man saluted once again. “Very well, young man.”

With that, two angels descended from on high and gently lifted the Major away. And on and on it went. Name after name, person after person, some admitted right away, other’s assigned to serve time in Purgatory before gaining admittance. Some tried to bargain with him when this happened, other’s were accepting of their faith.

After what seemed like several hours of moving the line along, the white puff of smoke happened again, and the Angel that Clara Frost had spoken to earlier. He looked around somewhat confused, saw Jeffrey at the podium with the book, and looked relieved to see someone there.

“Hey, did that lady that was at the front of the line wander off?” the angel asked, then went on before Jeffrey could answer. “Never mind. Listen, we’ve got a solid lead on Peter. Apparently, he’s visiting Disney World now. We should have him back here soon. Do me a favor, and just keep these other people away from the book, would you? We’ll get you back up and running in no time.”

And with that, he puffed away again. Jeffrey turned to look at Melissa.

“He didn’t say you couldn’t read it, just that you needed to keep others away,” she said. “I’d say keep going.”

And so he did. He got trough a total of one hundred and twenty names before some unexpected happened. The next name on the list was Melissa’s.

“Melissa,” he said, “this is you.”

She gulped. “What’s it say? I’m guessing that I’m getting time in Purgitory. I haven’t exactly been a good girl all my life.”

Jeffrey read. Her whole life was there, summarized in one paragraph. Despite it’s short length, it seemed to cover everything, not missing a detail. He knew her more deeply than he had ever known anyone before, even the other people he’d let through the gate. Then, he got to the line after her entry. He read it again to be sure. Then, he looked up at her and smiled.

“It says that for helping me come out of my shell and start reading this book,” he said, pointing to the big book in front of him, “you get to go straight into Heaven.”

“Does it really say that?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “yes it does.”

Then the gates to heaven opened. Melissa looked at them, then wrapped her arms around Jeffrey and kissed him.

“I’ll be waiting for you on the other side,” she whispered in his ear.

She walked through, and Jeffrey was very happy. He turned to look at the next name on the list, but a hand touched him on the shoulder, stopping him. When he turned to look around, he saw Saint Peter, with the Angel that had been looking for the wayward saint behind him. Both were smiling at him.

“You’re name is next on the list,” Peter said. “I think I should take over for this one.”

“You never really quit, did you?” Jeffrey said. “This was all a test for me, to see if I could come out of my shell and do something kind for my fellow man. If I did, I wouldn’t have to spend time in Purgatory.’

Peter and the Angel both nodded, and Peter clasped Jeffrey on the shoulders. “It’s true that I felt I needed a break, so the Angels felt this was a good way to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. I pretended to quit, Melissa was put close enough to you in line that she nudged you in the right direction, and you made the final decision. Now, my boy, you are granted immediate entrance to Heaven.”

The gates opened, and Jeffrey looked at them, longing in his heart. But, he turned to look at the book, a slight twinge of sadness there too. He looked up at Peter.

“Will I ever got to read this book again,” he asked.

Peter laughed, and turned to look at the Angel. “I told you he would ask that.” He turned to look at Jeffrey once again, and said, “I’ve been told I can offer you a deal. I’ve been granted a two week vacation every decade. During that time, if you would like, the Angel’s have agreed to let you work this station in my stead. What do you say?”

Jeffery smiled. “It sounds like heaven.”

The End

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