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Daydreams of angels, p.15
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       Daydreams of Angels, p.15

           Heather O'Neill
 
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  She walked into a small tavern with a blue door that she and her mother used to go to. She sat down on a chair at a table in the corner, but before she had even managed to settle in, a person had sat down beside her. It was a young man with fair hair who held her hand and kissed it and introduced himself as Pierrot.

  The other chorus girls said that Violet fell in love for stupid reasons. This was true. She fell in love with Pierrot because he whistled when he got dressed in the morning. He had the intelligence and mannerisms of a very polite eleven-year-old boy. They went for a walk in the park and he walked on the cement border around the pond. He started swaying uncontrollably, as though he were about to lose his balance and fall in. Violet stood with her arms out as if to catch him, laughing and yelling.

  Pierrot was broke and came to stay with Violet in her hotel room and ate her food. The other girls in the chorus were shocked by this. Violet said she didn’t mind at all. He kept telling her that he was going to come into loads of money, but she couldn’t imagine how. He said that he was waiting for his partner to come to town so they could make a venture together that was guaranteed to make him flush.

  She just thought that Pierrot was a big talker. She liked men who made plans that they never followed through on. This might seem like a trait that was impossible to admire, but Violet liked it. It was as if he were a little boy who was making plans to be a knight and an ambassador.

  “Let’s try to keep secrets from one another for as long as possible,” she told him one night. “That way, things will always be romantic.”

  “Of course, my wonderful girl.”

  But then one night she came home and Pierrot told her his venture had been successful. They went out and ate steak and potatoes at a fancy restaurant. He was able to pay the rent for that month. She stopped working as a chorus girl. All the pretty girls stood in a row as Violet bid them goodbye at the train station. She kissed Marigold, Tulip, Magnolia, Pansy, Daffodil, Petunia, Rose and Lily adieu. And then she stayed in Montreal for good.

  For a month or so, things went really well for Violet and Pierrot. He bought her some pearls. Every time she wore those pearls, it started to rain. One night Pierrot was arrested and a detective came to see her and said that the pearls were stolen. So she gave them back.

  She went to see Pierrot in prison on Sundays. It was a three-hour ride and it was an expensive ticket. They had cut Pierrot’s blond hair short and it made him look older. He had a lovely last name: Bazil. She might like to have a name like that for her own. She hated having her father’s ugly last name. He was the one who had started this dying business in her family.

  “Will you write to me every day?” he asked.

  It was the only promise to a man that she ever kept, but she found that she didn’t do it out of obligation. She liked writing these sad and joyful letters that were filled with lies. She had a strange, funny sort of inkling that it was the one thing she was good at. She felt that she had an ease with writing that she didn’t have with tap dancing or singing or trying to twirl a baton. When she would sign her name at the bottom, she would have the feeling that it was the only thing she knew how to complete.

  Was a piece of paper with a daydream transcribed on it any more concrete than the daydream itself?

  What would she do with Pierrot once he got out of prison? He would have no money. Does it feel better to have someone with you in a lifeboat when you are cast away at sea?

  What would she do now? It was the end of the 1920s, and the Depression had hit. The company would never let her back in the chorus line. Perhaps she would end up working in a strip club with pink sequined butterflies on her nipples. What did it matter? And what on earth would happen to her when she was too old for even that? Well, that would have to end up being a good thing. It would! She was a prisoner to her youth. When she finally wasn’t young anymore, she wouldn’t be dependent on it. She would be forced to find her own way in the world.

  But in any case, Forester still hadn’t won. She would continue to hate Forester until her very last day on earth. That was the one thing she knew about herself. That was the one thing she would remain true to.

  HEAVEN

  Grandfather claimed to have been dead a few seconds once, when he was nine. The story went that he’d been so cold in his house that he froze to death in the middle of the night. Lucky for him, his mother had been boiling water for tea and porridge early in the morning and had come in to wake him when she did. Seeing that he was blue, and that his hair was frozen and sticking straight up, she put him in the bathtub and covered him with tea and hot water and she yelled for all his brothers and sisters to come and rub his fingers and his toes. And finally, he came back to life.

  “Impossible!” my brother would scream when my grandfather told his tale.

  “It’s not impossible at all,” Grandfather would counter. “You get perfectly preserved when you’re frozen. They defrost cavemen all the time. Even after five thousand years. The scientists buy them a fashionable suit, take them out for a steak dinner, and they’re as good as new.”

  My brother and I believed that my grandfather, as he often did, had mistaken something he’d seen in a Hollywood comedy for real life.

  Just the same, the time he had died was far and away one of Grandfather’s best stories.

  * * *

  Grandfather had no idea what actual heaven was like because he had never gotten that far. He just knew about the train ride there. You see, according to him, when you died, you ended up on the platform of a huge railway station. There were thousands of cars, such an impossibly long line of them that you couldn’t even see the last one. He said you don’t realize how many people die in a single morning until you’re dead and standing in a crowd among them. He said the crush of people was worse than Coney Island on the Fourth of July. The conductor had to make many stops at many platforms so there wouldn’t be a stampede.

  He said the year was 1942, so a lot of the adults showed up in terrible shape. Especially the soldiers, who were missing limbs and drinking from metal flasks. A soldier in a wheelchair was softly asking an angel if there was any way he could get his legs back, and the angel told him it wouldn’t be a problem once he got to heaven. Then he safety-pinned a little blue card to the soldier’s jacket that read “URGENT.” Quite a few people had these cards pinned to them, and despite all their infirmities, Grandfather said, they were the happiest-looking people he had ever seen.

  * * *

  The angels sorted through everyone, rushing about and chain-smoking cigarettes—for as it turned out, in heaven, smoking was good for you. They gave all the children first-class tickets that allowed them to ride in the cars at the front of the train. There were hordes of children too, Grandfather said, as children died all the time back then. They were all dressed in the tuxedos and little white gowns that their mothers had dressed them in before laying them on the living room table and weeping over them. They held the flowers placed in their hands when they were laid to rest, and their hair was combed neatly to the side. Grandfather met a child who had drowned who kept making sudden panicky swimming motions before realizing that the struggle was over. There was another child who had died in a fire who kept coughing up smoke. But other than that, they were an entirely well-groomed bunch, and they filed onto the train in a well-behaved manner.

  Animals got to go to heaven, too. There were cows and chickens and pigs everywhere. They were put into the same cars as the children, to cheer the children up. All these wheezing geriatric cats were there and an elephant that was being led by an angel.

  The angels yelled at the kids, “Move along, move along. Nothing to see here.” The elephant received its own compartment, as did a giant squid. There were compartments that were huge aquariums filled with fish that had passed away, and as Grandfather walked along the platform, he could see them swim by through the train windows.

  One little boy with two black eyes was leading a swan around by a belt that he’d looped around the
bird’s neck. There was an ostrich speaking Russian to another little boy in black boots, who kept responding, “Da, da, da,” while nodding his little head, for in the afterlife, animals and humans can talk to one another.

  There was a lone cheetah that came and sat in the same compartment as Grandfather, and the cheetah spoke in Polish and Grandfather realized he could speak Polish too. It seemed you could speak any language you wanted after you died and were on your way to heaven.

  The cheetah had been to heaven just last month when he had died of dehydration in Kenya, but then he had been resuscitated by a sudden rainstorm, only to be trampled to death by a pack of stampeding wildebeests a few weeks later. He already knew what heaven was all about and so was offering tips.

  As the train began to move, the cheetah told Grandfather that heaven would be fine if not for the angels.

  “They’re a brash bunch—so full of themselves,” said the cheetah. “And no people skills at all.” He said it was best to completely ignore them.

  All over the tracks were feathers that had been shed from the wings of the angels who ran the operation. They pulled out business cards that said things like “Ezekiel, angel extraordinaire, right arm of the Lord’s wrath.”

  “It’s useless making conversation with them,” said the cheetah. “Angels have too many anecdotes and never let you get a word in edgewise.”

  Later, Grandfather watched two angels discuss the Battle of Bosworth, and what a jerk Richard III had been.

  “A mediocre monarch at best,” said one angel, “and at night, under the blankets, a big fat blubbering crybaby.” And in response, the other angel laughed.

  * * *

  Some of the angels who carried trumpets opted to ride on top of the train. Grandfather said you never really heard the trumpet until you heard an angel playing one. All through his life, Grandfather collected records of horn players, always trying to find that wondrous sound again. There was a recording of a Hungarian Gypsy trumpet player that came the closest, and Grandfather would play the scratchy record over and over with his eyes closed.

  One of the clipboard-toting angels climbed into Grandfather’s car at one of the stations and offered him a cigarette. That’s where he claimed to have picked up smoking. He handed Grandfather his file, which covered his good and bad deeds. But, said Grandfather, it was virtually impossible to decipher the texts that angels wrote. It was like reading footnotes. They were overeducated because they had been alive so long, and their written assessments of people looked like equations that were too complicated to follow. As a result, all of your good deeds became almost indistinguishable from your bad deeds. And in the end, it didn’t matter, because everybody got to go to heaven anyway. God loved and wanted everyone. For Him, you were as innocent as the day you were born. Grandfather was certain of this because at each stop, murderers stood on the platforms weeping as they confessed their crimes out loud. Some of them felt so guilty that they didn’t even want to get on board to go to heaven. But the angels patted their backs and whispered things in their ears that only made them cry more. And eventually, they got on board.

  All that we’d learned about the rules of good and evil was finished with. Grandfather said that, as it turned out, our souls were bigger than all of our deeds, and after life was over, it was finally freed from all that we’d ever done.

  * * *

  At the next station, Grandfather saw that there was an angel on the platform that all the other angels crowded over by the window to look at. They whispered that it was Lucifer. He was wearing a top hat and had blond hair down his shoulders and in his coat pocket was a book by Nietzsche. Lucifer called out loudly that he was glad he wasn’t aboard that crowded train.

  Lucifer walked up to Grandfather’s car as it sat by the platform and took a marble out of his pocket. He held it up for Grandfather and the other children to see. There was a tiny trout swimming around in it. The children gasped in amazement and Lucifer winked and put it back in his pocket. He took off his top hat and shook it, causing a hundred doves to fly out, and all the children applauded.

  An angel shrugged. “If you think he’s impressive, wait until you meet God. Lucifer’s fun to hang out with for a while, but you get tired of all that hocus-pocus stuff.”

  And Grandfather believed it, too, because as they rode along, nearing their destination, even more wondrous things began to occur.

  Grandfather opened a book that was lying on the seat beside him and he found he could read. This despite never being able to keep up in school. Grandfather never got a single word right on spelling tests. He had started skipping school and he had come to believe that he would always be an idiot, but here he was, reading. It was such a beautiful feeling that he put his hand up to his mouth and laughed out loud.

  As the train moved farther along, the doll that the girl next to him was holding began to speak back. The doll asked for a little something to eat and an angel offered her a cookie. Another girl reached into her pocket and pulled out a red mitten that had been lost for months. Her grandmother had made such a big deal about her losing it, too. And another little boy, who had always been afraid of the dark, began to emanate light.

  Outside the windows it started snowing and one of the children put his hand out the window and declared the snow to be as warm as bathtub water.

  “Which one of you silly children wished for this bit of nonsense?” yelled an angel through a bullhorn as he watched the snow accumulate on the tracks. “You must wait until heaven before you start making your wishes. All that you’re doing now is making a big mess and delaying the schedule.”

  The cheetah addressed the presence of the miracle by explaining to Grandfather that creation was easier in heaven, as you could have whatever your heart fancied. On earth, God had made sure that no one would have that power but Him. But in heaven, the angels were always pitching their preposterous ideas—new creatures that would give humans a run for their money. For instance, one angel, he’d heard, had recently proposed a tiger that was five times the regular size and came with opposable thumbs.

  “Get out of my office!” God had yelled at that angel.

  Suddenly, Grandfather saw that outside the window of the train, the snow had been replaced with balloons—thousands of red, blue, yellow, green and orange balloons descending slowly from out of the sky.

  “One more wish,” cried the angel through his megaphone, “and so help me God, I’ll turn this train right around!”

  * * *

  Then as the train began its departure from the final station, a hobo carrying a small bundle in his arms came running along the platform. The hobo jumped onto Grandfather’s car at the very last minute and squeezed in between Grandfather and the cheetah. He placed the bundle he was carrying gently on his lap and pulled back the blankets to reveal a tiny baby’s face. It was smiling peacefully even though its cheeks were blue. The baby couldn’t have been more than a few minutes old.

  As soon as they were settled in and the train began to move, the hobo and the baby continued a conversation they seemed to have been in the middle of. The hobo was asking the baby what it was like to be in the womb.

  “You don’t remember?” said the baby. “How could you forget such a thing?”

  Everyone in the car got quiet, because they too wanted to hear what it had been like in the womb.

  But how could the baby explain it to them? How could he, having only lived a few minutes in the world, compare it to anything on earth? But the funny thing about the train was that not only could you speak any language, you suddenly knew the exact words to explain things, too.

  There were always the right words. All you had to do was close your eyes and they would come to you. The baby closed his eyes and read the hobo’s mind and described what it was like to be in the womb in a way that the hobo would best understand.

  Grandfather said he read the hobo’s mind as it read the baby’s mind, and what he read was this: “It’s a warm feeling like when Maria put her ha
nd on your leg and then left it there the whole assembly. And how nobody knew it was there. It is like the first time you drank a bottle of warm beer on the beach and everything made you laugh. And you rode back to the city in your uncle’s car and you were squashed in the backseat with five cousins. And everyone was squeezed in so tight in the car that when someone laughed, you all jostled. In the womb, you hear people talking and their voices sound like someone you’re in love with talking in their sleep.”

  Grandfather said that in that moment, everyone realized that the baby was not only describing the womb, but was also somehow describing heaven.

  Everyone understood it in their own way, and for Grandfather it would be like the time a lady from his church made him a whole box of candied apples to take home. And how he hurried home with them, thinking about his brothers’ and sisters’ faces, how they’d look when he opened the box and showed them that there were enough for everyone.

  All the passengers were waving their handkerchiefs as they neared the gates of heaven when suddenly Grandfather was back in the world, alive, his mother and siblings pouring cups of Earl Grey tea onto his face.

  “And it’s a good thing for you too,” Grandfather told us, “because otherwise, you’d never have been born.”

  “But that story’s really hard to believe,” my brother said, and I nodded my head in agreement.

  “That’s exactly what the cheetah said happened to him!” shouted Grandfather. “He wasted his breath trying to explain what went on above to the other cheetahs, but no one believed him.” Grandfather then shrugged his shoulders, leaned back in his armchair and left it at that.

  THE DREAMLIFE OF TOASTERS

  In the year 2089, due to unprecedented advances in the field of bioengineering, androids were invented and introduced into the general population. From all outward appearance, they seemed to be exactly like people. But although their cognitive skills were similar to those of humans, they were unable to experience the same feelings and sensations. Most emotions were deemed unnecessary for their specific function in the world, so rather than possessing the regular gamut of human emotions, they were instead endowed with an innate amazement at mathematical problems and repetitive actions. For this reason, to them, working in factories, laboratories and engineering plants was most enjoyable, and because of their contributions, the human workday was reduced from eight hours to two.

 
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