30 July 2007 | Vol. 7, No. 2
What Heaven Might Be Like
I started worrying about my ride home right after Dr. Thursgard told me I could put my bra and shirt back on. I didn't know it would happen so fast. Deke had driven me to the office and made sure I was signed in and sat with me in the waiting room for twenty minutes, but then he left to go get his wooling shears sharpened.
"Have you got a ride home, Mrs. Smith?" asked the pretty little nurse as she helped me on with my blouse. Bless her heart. She didn't know I was an old spinster.
I told her I thought so, and then I got dressed and went out into the waiting room, and there was Deke, sitting in a chair reading Time magazine with his long legs crossed in his overalls and lace-up work boots. He smiled at me when he looked up.
"How'd it go?" Deke asked as he stood and placed the magazine down on the coffee table, careful to align it with the others displayed there.
"Good, I guess. Did you get your shears done?"
Outside the air was warming up and I could smell the blooming lilacs lined up along the clinic fence. The lilac's perfume scent cheered me considerably and helped take my mind off of the new little hole in my back beneath the antibacterial gauze and surgical tape.
I opened the door and helped Ruellen up into the cab of my old truck. She kind of brushed off my arm and gave me one of her looks that let me know she could see right straight through my uncommon generosity and that my opening the door and offering my arm didn't exactly make her feel any better about what it was she was doing here at the clinic.
"Smell the lilacs?" she said after we had settled in the cab and I was turning out onto the highway.
"Uh-hum. Sweet," I said.
We sat there in the truck and I drove along. After a while I thought I should say something.
"You feel like getting a burger or something to eat?" I asked her.
"No, thank you, Deke."
She sat there and I drove. I turned onto Canyon Road and headed towards her house. Right as we crossed over the Peteetneet Creek Bridge, Ruellen asked me if I had ever put any thought into what Heaven might be like.
"Yes, Deke, Heaven. The great beyond. Past the pearly gates. Up there."
"No, I guess I haven't," I said.
My truck was in need of a new head gasket and the burnt oil coming off the engine was starting to work its way into the cab of the truck. I said, "Sorry about that smell."
"I imagine green grass and cool streams."
Our relationship kind of goes like this: Ruellen asks questions and I sometimes answer when I can, but most often I sit back and let her talk her way through the questions. Rhetorical examination I take most of them to be. But after I thought about a feasible Heaven for a minute, I did say, "I hope there's a tree or two. Damn better be a whole forest there. Shade sure would be nice."
She chuckled like she does and then said, "I hope there are seasons."
I put some thought into that and said, "Yut, I do like to see the leaves turn and fall." And then I said, "It sure would make things seem more like home, I suppose."
Deke drove us up the canyon to my house and pulled in behind my truck in the driveway. We sat there in his cab and looked out at nothing. I do have the darndest time trying to get him to talk sometimes let alone anything else.
After a while, Deke cleared his throat and said, "That truck's been doing you OK?"
See? Like that. Deke didn't give a tinker's dam about my truck. I turned and looked at him and said, "Come on Deke. I've got some beer in the fridge."
Walking through the carport to the backdoor, Deke said, "I sure hope there's cold beer in Heaven, too."
"Oh, I'm sure there is," I said.
I followed her in through the little breezeway to her back porch. I held back a little so I could relieve the silent fart gas that had built up in the truck on the way up canyon. I hoped the breeze was in my favor. If it weren't, Ru wouldn't mind. She knows my shortcomings.
Ruellen's got a nice view of the mountainside from her back porch. I do like to sit there in her little log swing she's got back there. I can see clear up the hillside and right then, while I was sitting in the swing waiting for Ru to bring me a beer, there were the wild turkey foraging about in the sage and gambel oaks. The Forest Service or wildlife management folks planted these turkeys a few years back and they've taken to the canyon and multiplied. Can't say I blame them. I myself couldn't imagine anywhere else I'd rather spend my time foraging.
I live up the road a spell, well off the canyon road. My father's old homesteader house. Me and Ruellen's the closest neighbors either of us has got. Well, that was until they put in that development on Walkers Flat. Them folks aren't exactly what I'd call neighborly, though. Well, the most of 'em anyway. I sometimes can hear them down off the hill raising their human ruckus, bringing it up here in the canyon. It's a shame. Your odd kegger and marijuana party in the bushes was all that used to remind me of them folks down out of the canyon.
"It sure is nice out today." Ru handed me a can of beer and sat down in the swing beside me. She kicked her toe at the cement and got the swing to rockin' a bit.
I decided to just go right ahead and ask her.
"Is it cancer?"
Ru let the swing rock to and fro before she said anything.
"They don't know yet. They have to have it biopsied."
"What's that?" I said.
"Tests they do to see if it's benign or malignant."
I just let those words sit. I figured one is apt to be good news and the other bad, though neither one sounded all that encouraging. I sipped at the beer. Ru sipped at hers. The stream down beyond her little lawn was gurgling loud with late runoff pushing over the rocks.
"How do you reckon you could a caught that?" I asked her and sipped a little more beer from out of the cold can that was sweating with condensation.
We were sitting out on the log swing and Deke asked me how I might have contracted the melanoma. I had asked Dr. Thursgard the same question when I was lying on the examining table with my bare back showing. The doctor was numbing my mole, sticking a long needle in there around it. He said it could have happened years and years ago. Most likely from a severe sunburn.
"From the sun," I said to Deke now. "What else?"
I hadn't had a sunburn since before I was twenty when Clark Stillson and I would go fishing. He was my boyfriend, my fiancé, to be quite honest. There was that last time right before Clark was called up to boot camp when we took the blanket out in the willows. I stripped to the waist for him and lay on top of his bare chest while the sun shined down on my bare back waiting for my courage to rise. On the examining table this morning I relived a little more of what we did, me and Clark, out there in the willows by the stream that day. The table wasn't half as warm as Clark was that afternoon back in '53, though. Not nearly as warm as Deke here beside me.
Deke said, "Hmmph. You been laying out topless, Ru?"
I gave him a disgusted look and then nearly choked on the beer I was sipping when he said, "I should set my spottin' scope down canyon from now on."
Ru thought that was pretty funny that I should want to see her topless, but it's the truth. Shoot yes. I ain't that old, despite my considerable years. Desires. Though it's been a long, long time.
She slapped her hand down on my leg and said, "Why, Deke Faldergrass, what would your mother think of talk like that?"
My mother would have turned crimson as a robin's breast. Yes, yes she would have, bless her dear departed soul.
Now it's no secret—not that it would need to be one when you know how very few people Ruellen and I are acquainted with—that we have been each other's best friend for quite some time now. Near enough to forty years to call it that. Forty years. We've known each other longer than that, but we weren't what you would call friends until we were in our late twenties. Don't know how it happened exactly. She lived down the canyon from me in her house and I was up canyon in my deceased father's old home. Well my wife left me and Ruellen felt bad and started checking in on me. Her boyfriend had been dead for some time—took a piece of shrapnel in Pusan during the armistice talks—his name was Clark. He was a chum of mine. We dallied around in high school and drank some together, dreamed our big dreams like the kids we were.
Ru was an even prettier gal back then. Most of us had a longing for her, but it was Clark who shook his tail feathers the best. I guess a respect for that claim can build in a man even if the rooster's long dead. Ruellen has always been Clark's, and I've lived with it.
Deke was sitting there in the swing and he got that gaze in his eyes, the one where he feels like he has to look away and sigh all the time. Goofy old crow. But I love him.
I said, "That young bishop that moved in up in the development stopped by last night again."
Deke sucked at his teeth and then sipped at his beer and lifted his eyebrows. "Still not giving up on ya are they?"
"No, they're not" I said.
Deke sighed and asked, "When was the last time you went?"
"Thirty years—someone's baby blessing I suppose."
"Yut, glad I weren't ever associated with 'em."
The turkeys were up on the hill moving in the brush. Deke likes the turkeys, but they give me the willies. One time when I opened the door to go down into town there was one roosting on my back porch rail and it just stared at me with its one side eye and that horrible waggling wattle. I slipped back into the kitchen and shut the door quick. Silly black turkey thought that rail was his and not mine. Twenty minutes later it was gone when I finally worked up the courage again to get out of my own home.
"Makes me wonder, though," I said.
"The Mormon's belief on life after death."
"Yeah," I said. "The whole notion that you'll have all your family around you forever—that you can become your own God."
"Your own God, huh?"
"Create your own world, an Earth of your own making, do what you will, put whatever you want on it."
"Humph. Sounds like too much damned liability to me."
"I think it sounds wonderful."
The turkeys all disappeared over the rise of the mountain.
I made up my mind then.
She put her hand in mine while she was talking about the Mormon's faith in the kingdoms of Heaven and eternal life and what all else. Her hand was cold and a little damp from holding her can of sweaty beer. I took hold right back. Then she stood up and pulled me on up to my feet. I staggered some. Old joints. She led me through the door into her kitchen. I shuffled along behind her, passed a little squeaky gas. She led me on into her front room. Down the hall to her bedroom. She told me she wanted me to look at the place the doctor had cut out the mole.
"Probably wouldn't hurt to change out the dressings," she said.
She sat down on the edge of her bed. The bedspread covering the little mattress was light blue. Put me in mind of a robin's egg. Her room smelled perfumey, and I let myself think it over a little. Made me dizzy. And then her shirt was off, and she turned some there on the edge of the bed away from me and was undoing the straps of her white brassiere, and I was confused and amazed and remembered how quick and neat a woman can remove her own bra. And then it was there on the bedspread beside her. And her back was bare except for the square of gauze and white tape in the very middle of her back between her shoulder blades. God bless me I let out another squeaker.
"There's fresh dressings in the top drawer." She lifted her arm and I saw her breast shudder, saw the dark nipple on pale flesh under her armpit as she pointed at the dresser across the room under the window. "You wouldn't mind pulling those shades, too?"
The top drawer stuck as I cockeyed it trying to pull it out. The wood squawked and I opened it. Old paper and vapor rub smell rose up out of the drawer. I found the gauze and tape beside a stack of letters held together with a length of grubby kite string. The top envelope was addressed to Ruellen and was return addressed to Clark Stillson, Sergeant 1st Class, US Army, Pusan, Korea. I touched the envelope. Don't know why but I had to run my finger over Clark's carefully printed name. The letters were so straight and flawless. Like my memory of him.
I started to tremble as Deke closed the blinds, but I turned to face him full on. I wanted this. I wanted this more than anything else in the world.
"Look at me. Deke, look at me."
He turned toward me, his hands holding the tape and gauze like twin pistols pointed at my heart. His eyes were on me but his chin was down.
"Now, Deke," I said. "It's been so long."
I kicked off my shoes and stood and slipped my fingers between the band of my pants and my underwear and pulled down the rest of my clothes. I stood there. Deke looked at me, at my breasts, my belly that carried no children. He looked at the patch of still-dark hair above my thighs. I was ready. I was waiting.
"Can you?" I asked.
He took a step toward me, the gauze hand dropped to his side. "Ru?"
He took two mores steps. So close now. I could feel the floorboards between us moving under his weight. "Well, I…"
"I need this. Will you?"
I said to her, "Hold on there—you've got to work the clasp or it'll get all skiwampish."
She had my overalls pulled down off my shoulders until they budged and had me all stuck in with my arms pushed tight against my ribs. "Hold on. I'm all bound up," I said.
"Maybe that's the way I want you," she said, and then she was down on her knees working at the buttons in my fly. Boy, but I think Ruellen has watched a little more television than I have. But then I started losing sense with the now and was floating back some years on the feeling Ru was stirring up down there. Back to my wife, Sam.
Before she ran off, Sam was a woman of passions. Passions like this. But things like this can slide over the years. Hard to remember those feelings when all you can base them on is the common touch of your own hold and your flagging memories to work up the excitement. Can get so tiresome and hollow doing that. Can make a man wonder if there isn't anything more worthwhile he might be doing with his time like cleaning out the chicken coop, composing sonnets, or taking a bath. But the touch of a woman—Sam, or now, now Ruellen—with that electric current that numbs my hands and makes my hair feel like it's coming out at the roots, there is not one thing tiresome about that. Not one thing and I am finally waking up. Yut, I'm wide awake after too many long years of slumber. And God bless her, Ruellen Smith, this lady whose dishwater hair I see is thinning on top, for being the one to pull me up out of my over-winter hole.
The taste of a man took me a bit by surprise, but I was grateful for the chance. He bade me up off the floor there in front of him and then he finished taking off his bib overalls. I was a little overcome and so I sat back down on the bed and watched him do his humble striptease for me. He left his boots on. Funny. The sun was still coming through the slats in the blinds, swirling the dust mites, and I closed my eyes for a moment, and when I opened them there was Deke smiling coming toward me, his manhood leading the way. I felt real ignorant for asking him could he just those few minutes before. He could. There was no doubt.
He was no more talkative in his lovemaking than he was in his workaday conversation. He was gentle and matter-of-fact at once. Just the way I had imagined it. His weight bent to that one place.
Afterwards we lay there on our backs looking at the ceiling and I asked him if his outlook on Heaven had changed any.
He laid there, an arm across his forehead, his sparse, silvery body hair glistening, and he said, "I do suppose I am a little closer to it."
"Ya do? You're not gonna die on me are ya?"
"No. No time soon."
And that was all he said about that.
Ruellen sat up beside me, and I saw that the bandage had come off of her back. There was a dark hole there, looked like a bullet wound. No blood.
"That hurt?" I asked her.
She looked over her shoulder down at my face and said, "No Deke. It was wonderful."
I sat up beside her and looked around the bed for the gauze and tape. They were on the floor where I had dropped them. I got off the bed and picked them up and sat down by Ruellen again.
"Let me get this for you."
She turned and I placed a square of gauze over the wound and pulled tape from the roll and cut it with my teeth and fastened the bandage. She looked at me and smiled.
"It's gonna be fine," she said.
She put her hand on my little mound of a belly, and then she patted me there, smiled again.
"Ru," I knew I was going to do an unfairness to what it was I wanted to say, "thank you."
She seemed to understand that and turned her eyes down.
"Thank you, Deke," she said, and she put her arms around my shoulders and we sat there in her bedroom like that.
About the author:
Larry T. Menlove ponders a monastic life amidst the hubbub of modernity. Published in Weber Studies, the Salt Lake City Weekly, and Twisted Tongue with forthcoming work in Dialogue, he lives a stones throw from the calm waters of Spring Lake, Utah.