Good things come to those who wait in line | Fiction | Fresh Soup
I like writing stories about heaven. Not because I really believe it exists, or that I think if I write a particularly good story about the afterworld they’ll let me in without a wait. It’s just that there’s something in writing about a perfect place that helps sharpen my recognition of how far I am from that perfection, that wholeness. So far that the very act of trying to imagine it is doomed to poignant failure.
The story was first published in an anthology in Frisian (there really is such a language!) called Happiness Delayed, which included one hundred optimistic stories.
It's about time we acknowledge it: people are not very good at remembering things the way they really happened. If an experience is an article of clothing, then memory is the garment after it's been washed, not according to the instructions, over and over again: the colors fade, the size shrinks, the original, nostalgic scent has long since become the artificial-orchid smell of fabric softener.
Dov Shviro, may he rest in peace, was thinking all this while standing in line to get into the next world. The line looked long, almost endless, but somehow, time flowed differently in it and the waiting was a lot more bearable than it was, let's say, in an airport security line or at a doctor's office, situations that Dov, who always flew first class and was treated in prestigious clinics, wasn't familiar with anyway. But in that particular line, there didn't seem to be any shortcuts. Everyone appeared to be equal in the face of death, or in the face of the Creator or whoever it was waiting for them way up there at the head of the endless line. Although, who knows, Dov thought, maybe there's another entrance for virtuous men that he and the others didn't know about. The more he thought about it, the more likely it seemed that there had to be a secret VIP entrance. After all, it doesn't seem reasonable that when the Virgin Mary or Mahatma Ghandi died, they had to stand in line like everyone else.
But don't get me wrong, it isn't that the line didn't move. It did, the whole time, except that even now, after Dov had been waiting in it for…for… So that's just it, when we said that time in that line behaved differently, we actually meant to say that it didn't really exist. I mean, it did exist, because time always has to exist, but it's just that somehow, Dov and the others couldn't seem to estimate or measure it. The tall woman with the bindi on her forehead standing in front of Dov explained to him that it was like Nirvana, and the old guy with bad breath standing behind him claimed it was a little like dementia, but in a good way. Interesting, Dov thought to himself, what could be good about dementia? Maybe it's the fact that dementia makes you forget a life you'd rather not remember anyway? But even that thought faded in his mind before he could finish thinking it, and an instant before another aimless thought replaced it, he caught sight of the white wing of an angel.
The angel was standing in line too, about twenty people ahead of him, waiting patiently like everyone else. From that distance, it seemed to Dov as if he were swaying in place and talking to himself, and maybe he was even praying, although why would an angel waiting in line to get into the next world be praying? That whole praying thing is totally normal in the world of the living, but after death, you would expect an angel in heaven to communicate with the Creator in a slightly more direct, reliable way. That needs to be checked out, Dov thought. When he was still alive, he was an analyst in a successful hedge fund, and the first thing they taught him when he started working there was that if one of the managers makes a mistake or just asks Dov to do something that doesn't sit right with him, instead of disagreeing or arguing, it's better to say, "That needs to be checked out," and wait patiently until the whole thing blows over. But this time, it wasn't a polite brushoff, this time it was about an issue Dov was truly invested in, and he really felt he had to check it out.
The tall woman with the bindi and the old guy with bad breath promised Dov that, while he went to question the angel, they would save his place in line, and that promise was enough to enable Dov to work up his courage and go for it.
"Excuse me!" he said to the angel, who at first ignored him, "Excuse me! Yes, you. Can I ask you a question?" The angel, who seemed a bit distant, nodded. "Thank you," Dov said, giving a forced bow, "It's just that maybe you could give me a quick description of this whole next-world operation, you being an angel and all? Territorial boundaries, hierarchal structures, you know, all the important stuff."
The angel tried to evade his questions, claiming he just happened to have wings, but angels aren't great liars, at least not for an extended period of time, and it took…it took…Okay, we already mentioned the strange way time passes here, so Dov couldn’t really say how long it took, but at some point, the angel admitted he was an angel and explained to Dov in a whisper that his job was to mingle with the dead to make sure everything was running smoothly and there were no problems.
"And if you do come up against a problem?" Dov asked, "What exactly are you supposed to do? Is there a protocol? Do you have to report it to someone? Take care of it yourself?"
The angel thought for a moment and then began stammering. The truth is that, as an angel, he had never come across a problem. After all, dead people congregate in an orderly way, so what could happen? He did remember that, during the briefing, they told him what to do if there were disruptions, but that was so long ago that he didn't remember what it was.
The pale woman standing behind the angel told Dov that he was being noisy and it was very annoying. You could tell she suspected that Dov's whole conversation with the angel was just an excuse to get ahead of her in line. Dov apologized immediately and explained that he was just checking out some small technical thing and the second he finished he'd go right back to his place in line. The truth is, he no longer remembered where his place in line was. He remembered a man or woman who was tall or old or had bad breath…or a bindi…and meanwhile, the angel managed to forget what Dov had asked him, and Dov himself, who also forgot what he'd asked earlier, now asked, "Tell me, with all this Divine Spirit and omnipotence and everything, couldn't you set up a more efficient operation? You know, something without a line."
The angel gave Dov a confused look. "Line?" he asked, "what exactly do you mean?"
"What do I mean?" Dov sneered, "I mean you and me and all these people who have been waiting here with us…for…I don't know, a long time. You know, all…this." Dov made a limp gesture with his hands that was meant to take in all the people standing in front of them and behind them, waiting quietly.
"That?" the angel asked, shrugging his wings, "that, if I understand correctly, is heaven."