E is for Earth as it is in Heaven

“Are you going to be here long?” A woman with a wide face and the kind of hairdo you have done in a beauty shop that isn’t a chain had rolled down the window of her still-chugging car.

“No,” John said.

“Because we paid to have that spot cleaned out. So it’s just common courtesy – ”

“Well I just dug myself out over there and I needed a place to move to just to be sure I could actually get out – ”

“I have my parents here so we paid to have that spot cleaned.”

Indeed there was a sour-faced reptilian woman messing with a garbage bin nearby. She gave John a look. He swallowed the look down into his stomach acids and forced it to come back out as a smile. Can’t do that too many times without replenishing the juices.

“Are you going to be here long?”

John wanted to get into it with this wide car woman. He wanted to tell her that nobody owns the street no matter how much they pay one of the young men of color to spade up their snow. He wanted to get into it with her like one of those lady-on-lady aggression videos you see on youtube: the ladypunch one, or the rhubarb thief.

Actually what he really wanted to do was lean in, inhale the aroma of her fast food interior, and say, “Why are you still living? Because take it from me, as a man who’s seen all of Netflix and Hulu and is halfway through HBOGO, it doesn’t get much better than this, right here. There’s not ever going to be some movie coming out that’s going to finally solve everything. No new season of sitcom, or Super Bowl matchup, or Christmas morning will ever justify our existence. Now, my excuse for keeping my hat in the game is I’m still somewhat young and somewhat attractive and I can sit in my living room and drink my beer in peace and hold onto a subtle and maybe even unconscious hope that someday someone will discover me at a soda fountain and change my life into something out of the Liberace movie which by the way is fabulous. But you, I don’t know what you’re in it for. Maybe it’s the hope you’ll get a big tax return this year, or your number will finally come up in the lotto, or your husband will actually clean out the gutters this weekend. But I’d be happy to take you out for a cup of coffee and have you explain it to me. You see I’m a little worried that I’m not going to be here very long, as you so presciently asked.”

“I’m moving,” is all he said.

At least you didn’t apologize, he told himself.

He got in his car and drove the suburban streets, pinched now by snow fortifications left behind by several plowings without a melt. There was a spot open, with someone’s trash can in the middle of it. You can’t call fives on a patch of asphalt, John repeated to himself as he got out of his car and moved the trash, then slid himself unevenly into the icy spot. The climate change winter was really bringing out the heart of darkness in suburbanites.

“John! There’s an omelet in the fridge for you. I’m listening to indie music! I think I like it.” Mr. Hetherington was in the spare room. Regina Spektor Pandora wafted softly through the space between.

“Hey John do you want to see ‘Frozen’ tomorrow? Everyone gay is talking about ‘Frozen.'”

“I don’t want to see ‘Frozen.'”

“I think it might be nice for you to get out.”

“I just got a good spot on the street. I’m never getting out again.”

“But why did you dig the car out if you’re just going to – ”

“You made me dig the car out, Mr. Hetherington.”

“That sounds like an evasion of the real issue, John. Oo who is this?” The song had changed.

“Ingrid Michaelson.”

“Well she is just a little charmer isn’t she.”

“I’m going to bed.”

“There’s a matinee tomorrow at 2:10. We could go to The Cheesecake Factory first.”

“I’m going to bed, Mr. Hetherington.”

“Wait! Come and see my new digs.”

Mr. Hetherington was hanging up the class photo of each of his kindergarten classes from a thirty-seven year career.

“It’s so I feel more at home.”

All those smiling munchkins. John looked through the years not yet hung. Toward the end there was a definite shift in pigment.

“Did you switch schools?”

“Oh yeah I transferred to a place deep in the city. Really reenergized me, revitalized my craft. I’m very thankful for those little rainbows.”**

**Mr. Hetherington did not use the word rainbows. He used a word which we aren’t going to put here.

John took twice. “Your what now?”

“My rainbows.”

“Did they…ask you to call them that?”

JG2 11

“No of course not. I think they would have been quite offended. But whenever I thought about them, and how their opportunities in life had been so severely curtailed through no fault of their own, through their class or their genes or their lack of books in the house or the fact that they might be shot dead for listening to loud music in their own cars, well, whenever I thought of that, I had to call them rainbows, and believe that there was a reason for their inferior status, or else I would go mad. Which I did anyway, a few times in that first year, until I really accepted the system. My rainbows.”

He hammered into the wall.

“I guess that fits well enough,” John said, “after all this is the crazy room.”

“How’s that?”

“We call it the crazy room.”

“That’s lovely, John, you’ve gone and put me up in The Shining Suite. You might have mentioned.”

“No, it’s not crazy like talking to your finger. Not yet.”

“Then what’s the story? Ooo who is THIS piece of syrup on a stick?”

“This is Noah and the Whale.”

“Mmm. But it ought to be Jonah, oughtn’t it?”

“I’m going to bed.”

A dream woke him, a dream where he was himself but not himself. The mission of dream-John, he knew intuitively, was to reconquer Gladys, but he had to do it as someone else, since she was mad at him. So he had put on some kind of psychic dream disguise, though he still looked like himself. The seduction went well. They were on a bed, it felt like in a hotel, and all of a sudden Gladys said, “I know it’s you, love.” And they both started crying.

She spooned him from behind, just held him for what felt like, well, minutes, but good long ones. Then she said, “Do you want to talk about it?”

And he said, very quickly, “Yes.”

And then he had nothing to say. And then Noah’s whale came and carried them out of the flood. “Thank you,” Gladys whispered to its blowhole.

The morning.

The whirr of back tires spinning in the snow. The whine of a laptop waking up. John’s nose was filled with the smell of wasted gasoline, though the window was closed.

New file:

“Ways to Get Gladys Back”

1. Decide you actually don’t mind bringing a child into the world. Then try calling.

2. Perhaps the proper tense is “having brought.” ? How far along…?

3. Time machine. Go back and never have sex with Gladys Hulce.

4. Time machine option 2. Go back and have sex with Gladys Hulce and marry her but win her over first with your rational arguments against procreation.

4.

5. Are we sure we want Gladys back?

Close file, do not save. Check internet.

Mr. H. was in the kitchen making omelets. John called out to him.

“Laurence Olivier died of a heroin overdose.”

“Oh no!”

“He was the best.”

“He held the mirror, as twere, up to nature. I was so looking forward to seeing him in Transformers Five. But John come out here I want you to help me with this new phone I got so I can read this stuff for myself. I need to be cutting edge.”

John came to the kitchen.

“You know, Mr. H., I really hate the smell of eggs.”

“You do? You hate eggs?”

“I can eat them, but I can’t smell them. And sometimes I can’t look at them.”

“Well isn’t that special of you, John Lake. You could never just say simply no or yes to a thing. Do you like ketchup? I got some at the store yesterday because you don’t have any, like some kind of Frenchman or something, un-American. You live like a French bachelor, John: you’ve got an onion and wine in there and nothing else.”

“I like ketchup if it’s in a glass bottle. I don’t like it in the plastic bottle when it squirts out like some kind of diarrhea sound and when the crust forms around the nipple at the top.”

Mr. Hetherington just stood with his spatula arm cocked against his hip, letting John think about the twisted life path that brought him to this place of byzantine culinary prejudices.

“Well look don’t get your crusty nipples in a twist but I went ahead and got us tickets for the ‘Frozen’ matinee. You can even pick your seats out ahead of time did you know that? I got us seats in the handicapped row because with my knee I need the space. If anyone gives us a hard time I want you to act like you don’t speak English. That’s handicap enough.”

The car was still spinning in the snow outside. John twisted the blinds open: just to watch, not to help.

“What?” He peered onto the street, where his car was.

“What is it?”

John went to get his glasses. He looked out the window again. The garbage can he had moved for his parking spot was now perched atop the roof of his car.

John turned from the window, sat at the tiny table, and tried to interpret the message.

a) This car is trash.

b) Trash beats car.

c) Get this trash OUT OF HERE.

d) I see you.

e) Be my friend.

f) Burn in Hell, shitbag.

Mr. Hetherington slid a plate with an omelet on it in front of John. He squirted some ketchup from the plastic bottle. “No apologies,” he said.

Just then John’s phone rang. It was High School Someone.

“John! Hi! Is this a bad time?”

“I don’t know. They say every time has always made people think it was the worst time. Like the Gilded Age.”

HSS laughed. “Oh JOHN! So true, so true! Listen I’ll cut right to the bacon. As I said when we serendipitously had our little do-si-do, I’ve been working at Wife magazine, and we’re doing our big Valentine double issue, and I actually went ahead and nominated you for our new award.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, and then, well, it’s supposed to be kind of a blind voting process, so we didn’t call you, we just examined your Facebook page.”

“I have a Facebook page?”

“Guilty,” Mr. Hetherington raised his hand. “I wanted to try it out but I experimented on you first in case I did anything embarrassing like said I was interested in women.”

“And you WON, John, the editors flipped! They want you!”

“Want me how?”

“To be our covergirl! You’ve been voted The Sorriest Man Alive!”

There was a decided pause at both ends.

“I have to go.”

“There’s a stipend, John, to ease any social stigmatization, though I don’t mind telling you that I think this might be a VERY rewarding distinction for the man involved. Women sort of go head over heels for the hangdog type. It’s like a Sleepless in Seattle thing.”

“I don’t know what that means.” (He didn’t: John watched movies, but Gladys remembered them.)

“It means you could be a very busy boy once this thing runs. Or, should you be looking to reconcile, it will be great exposure – your missing wife is sure to hear about it, and then she can just look you up on Facebook!”

Another silence.

“How much is the stipend?”

Outside, John stared at his car, in his coat boots scarf and gloves. Then he stared at the trash can on top of the car. He could not bring himself to move either of them. He looked at the house facing this part of the street, waiting to see if anyone wanted to shuffle out of it, go ten rounds, and settle this thing like primates.

Then he walked to the train.

He was early for his photo shoot so he walked around central station. Gladys knew a secret passage to the subway that allowed you to avoid the crowd and thus minimize your chances of having a trash can placed on your head. John didn’t remember where it was, but he slowly walked down each of the main corridors looking. Halfway through the search he stepped into a shop and bought an overpriced Banana Nut energy bar. He received fifty cents in change from the subcontinental woman who rang him up. The bar did in fact taste remarkably like banana nut bread thanks to chemicals from a plant in New Jersey.

On the last corridor he found the passage again, and just as he turned a corner he saw an old white man hunched into a shepherd’s crook, holding out a styrofoam coffee cup.

The spirit of Gladys has guided me here, John thought, and left me with these fifty cents to give to him. He pulled the coins out of his pocket, feeling himself to be the best person alive for what he was about to do.

The weight of two quarters in the empty cup was such a shock that the man dropped his cup. John hesitated, unsure if it would be worse or better if he helped, and anyway the hunchback was close to the ground as it was. John said “Sorry” but because he had his earbuds in it came out “SORRY” as if he had not heard his own voice in years.

JG2 12 JG2 13

JG2 14John went into the park. He sat on a bench. There were no hunchbacks to give fifty cents to. There was a man covered in pigeons, but that seemed voluntary and potentially lucrative, so John paid him no mind. There was only a squirrel. John took a bill out of his wallet. He offered it to the squirrel. The squirrel stared at him.

JG2 15

 

 

 

“Don’t be proud,” John said.

 

 

 

On the commuter train back, the blonde woman who had taken the seat next to John asked the conductor if she could keep her ticket. It was a tentrip, with all ten punched out, but she wanted to keep it. Memories or something. The conductor smiled like he was head of the Polar Express. “It’s a fine ticket,” he said, “and you should be proud of it.” He gave it back to her.

She looked at the last punch. “What’s yours?” she said.

“They tell me it’s a goldfish, but I dunno.”

“Oh yes, of course, I see that now, it’s only that the two of them melded into one is all.”

Meanwhile a man was playing chess with his kid over the phone. The hits keep coming on the 9:00 off-peak.

Walking back John stopped in the store for dinner. He put his Fosters on the belt like two giant beer pellets. There was a on the wall showing the weather channel, but it was the forecast for Atlanta. “What do I care about Atlanta’s weather?” the cashier said. “Show me where I am!” The old lady in front of John joined in: “I talk to the TV too,” she admitted through a smile.

A moment of stranger joy, pure like an extract, like syrup tapped out of the tree. John wanted to add something, like, I masturbate in front of the TV too, but he couldn’t quite find the right wording. The old lady milked another laugh out of it, saying something everyone instantly forgot but laughed at, and then she left with her groceries.

“And how are you?” the cashier then said to John, with a tone as if they were old friends. As simple as that.

It was all John could do to make it past the Redbox and out the door. Oh God, he thought, how does this work? How do these things fit into the same existence? Goldfish and stranger joy and trash cans on cars and everything all at once all the time. Wife magazine.

Walking a still icy sidewalk not quite wide enough for two, a man in NY Jets sweats waited at a corner for John to pass him. “Thank you,” John said. “No problem,” the man said.

“Kiss me,” John said, but not aloud.

When he got home, Mr. Hetherington was tied to a chair. A woman, not unlike Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, and a small rabbitman, not unlike much at all, flanked him. The Chastain type held an object that resembled a cattle prod.

“I had to let them in, John, they said they were Fresh Direct. I love Fresh Direct.”

Chastain sized John up. “You don’t look so sorry,” she said.

John looked at himself. “Well, that’s your opinion.”

“Not when it’s a matter of fraud.” And then she zapped him.

Hard.

D is for Diurnal

Gladys, in Debra Winger bandana and coveralls, entered the office of the Guest Services Head Servicer.

“I told you not to wear that,” GSHS (pronounced “gishes”) said upon her arrival.

“I knew you weren’t serious.”

“Why do you know so much pop culture?”

“Everyone knows so much pop culture. It’s only that few people take the time and effort to know that they know it.”

“You mean we all have a vast library in our memories of all the media we’ve consumed over our lives – ”

“But few of us keep the card catalog current, yes.”

“And why do you?”

“Because I believe everything has a purpose. And if it doesn’t have one, like the fact that you watched Operation Dumbo Drop, you ought to give it one, like using it in a job interview.”

“Bring the elephant into the room, so to speak.”

“And acknowledge him.”

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“Do you need a purpose, Gladys Lake?”

“I am, at the moment, the human equivalent of Operation Dumbo Drop. I’m a purpose waiting to be had.”

GSHS nodded and leaned back in her very expensive ergonomic chair. “Have you ever jumped off of a very tall building?”

“No.”

“Come with me.”

GSHS led Gladys back through the hotel to the elevator bank in the lobby. She pressed the down arrow. When the ding happened and they stepped in, GSHS rapidly punched a secret combination of floor buttons and the whole panel lit up, then went black. The doors closed.

“What you’re about to see is completely confidential. If you leave my employment, you will have to sign a waiver that allows us to hit you in the head until you don’t remember your work here. You see, there’s a shadow Waldorf-Astoria.”

The ding happened and the doors opened again. But everything was upside down. Except to Gladys it was rightside up, because she too was upside down, only she didn’t know it. It’s a subtle process, turning upside down in an elevator car. It’s a little like when your ears pop as you go underwater in a subway car. But it’s also a little like throwing up.

“The Waldorf-Astoria is a place of leisure. It is a magical lotus land where people can pay for the privilege of luxury and loaf. And it can only exist by being balanced by the shadow Waldorf, where everything runs in opposite.”

They passed by the shadow concierge, whose job was to make your life less entertaining.

“How are you, shadow Bill?” GSHS asked as she past.

“I have no idea what you should do with yourself,” he replied.

GSHS took Gladys to the shadow break room, where a dozen young women were hard at work solving calculus problems. GSHS breezily told them to keep up the good work, then ushered Gladys into a small dark octagonal room.

Somebody sneezed. Then someone else sneezed. Then two people sneezed at the same time. GSHS flipped on her phone for illumination.

“This is Sneezing. Whenever anyone upstairs yawns, we balance it out down here.”

They also visited Sacrilege, where some intrepid employees pissed on Bibles and Korans anytime a hotel guest said his prayers, and Luck, where a team of ambivalent staff members found pennies when guests stubbed their toes, and stubbed toes when guests found pennies.

Finally, after Humor and Make-Up and Shitting (which was Gladys’s least favorite), they entered the shadow guest services office.

“There is at present no shadow-Me,” GSHS told Gladys. “The last one took the shadow elevator to the shadow top floor and jumped out of the shadow window.”

“Why?”

“To get to the other side, I expect. But it’s thrown the hotel off balance a bit. You may have noticed, for instance, that the Waldorf salads currently have cranberries in them.”

“Oh, I did notice,” Gladys said, “but I thought I ordered them that way.”

GSHS shook her head. “It’s a kind of minor chaos flaring up here and there. And I’d like you to help stamp it out.”

“What do I have to do?”

“You have to be my opposite. When I’m in the office, you’re in the shadow suite, which I can tell you has some very fine shadow bath salts. And when I’m in my suite, you’re here. It’s a big responsibility, but you’ll be a critical part of keeping this oasis up and running for the fine people up there who need it.”

“Like I used to be.”

“That’s right. It will also give you plenty of time to sort out whatever shadows you’ve got going on up there,” GSHS said, gesturing toward Gladys’s head.

“How do you know I’ve got shadows?”

“Every thirty-five seconds another one passes across your face. Which means someone upstairs is smiling, I hope, or else we’re all gone to hell, equilibrium-wise.”

“At least there’s a purpose to this feeling I’m feeling,” Gladys said.

“Exactly.”

“I have one question.”

“Shoot.”

“Is there a shadow obstetrician?”

GSHS’ eyes narrowed. “There will be, when the time comes.”

“I’ll do it.”

“Good, because I wasn’t kidding about hitting you in the head, and it isn’t pleasant.”

They shook hands, which is all you need to establish trust in the shadow world. Then GSHS went back upstairs, leaving Gladys alone.

GSHS went rightside up and back to her office, at which point Gladys felt herself compelled to go to the suite, which she found automatically, as if she had been born knowing. GSHS was on her feet, so Gladys decided to lie down, “just for a minute.”

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GSHS was almost always on her feet. Gladys was almost always on her back. GSHS was almost always doing something. Gladys, nothing. For a while, she was very good at doing nothing. She looked up at the ceiling and thought about her life. It seems to be true that the more you remember, the more you remember. The more you try to recall, the more you are able to. All kinds of things crept back into mind which, but for the shadow-world, would have never been turned into actual thoughts ever again.

For instance, when Gladys was young her mother once bought her a different kind of cookie at the grocery store. They were hard, chocolate cookies, and they were, believe it or not, to commemorate the Negro leagues from back in the day. It must have been a February promotion or something: Black History Month. Gladys’s mom had bought them because each box came with free baseball cards, and Gladys liked baseball cards. She did not like baseball. But the cards had a different appeal. Little frozen men in action. Statistics. It’s hard to say. Texture.

The back of the box also had fun facts about Negro league stars. That particular box of which Gladys eventually consumed all the contents contained tidbits featuring Satchel Paige, a famous pitcher.

Satchel Paige was so fast, one excited blurb went, that it is said he could turn off the light in his room and be in his bed before the room got dark.

This puzzled young Gladys, who tried it on numerous occasions, well into her adult life. She would have tried it again now except that GSHS always kept the lights on so Gladys’s eyes by now were like a cat’s, or like a pirate’s eyepatch eye.

“Did you know,” Gladys said to herself, “that pirates wore eyepatches to keep one eye accustomed to night vision, so that if they raided a ship at night they could slide the patch over to the other eye and be able to see?”

Yes, I did know that, herself said. But I’m not sure it’s true.

Gladys also thought about where the light goes when the light goes out. “There must be a shadow sun,” she said to herself, “that takes care of all the details, and balances who gets the brightness and who gets the shade.”

In fact, over the course of the next month or so, Gladys had so much time to consider this, in between bouts of drowsiness brought on by GSHS’ coffee habit, that she actually became the first person to figure out where “out” is, and what the light looks like there. But she had no one to tell but herself, and herself had stopped listening two weeks ago. There was also a bundle of cells, but it couldn’t hear yet.

“Herself might be dead,” Gladys said, not to herself. Meanwhile she was no closer to fixing her problems than she had been upstairs. “You can’t sort out your shadows when you live in a dark room.” And she felt herself would have complimented her on such a fine insight, and she hoped she’d remember it to tell herself later, on the other side perhaps.

It didn’t take long after that for Gladys to forget how to do nothing. I used to enjoy nothing. She knew that was true. There must have been rules, she thought, back when I knew how to do it. But I can’t think of them now.

She couldn’t think much, as it was a heavy tourist time for the Waldorf, with European families flooding in to capitalize on a weak dollar and GSHS constantly doing all the thinking her and Gladys’s binary stars could manage.

This is how nothing escaped Gladys. And when the last trace of nothing left her mind, when she no longer remembered nothing ever existed, she got up from the bed.

GSHS, in a meeting, suddenly collapsed to the floor. “Shit,” she said aloud, to everyone.

Gladys made her way to the shadow elevator, punched the top shadow button. The ding happened.

Outside the shadow penthouse window was an absence of wind and an absence of air. Gladys had to hold her breath and pinch her nose and close her eyes to stick her head into it, and then her whole body, and then she fell off completely.

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