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Columbia College Chicago
The Wait Before Paradise
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The Wait Before Paradise

By Otten

She waited for her salvation with the tenderness of someone whose heart was unacquainted with the cruelty of an empty highway near dusk. She wasn't asking for a flaming chariot; she only needed a plain woman, driving alone. A young mother who'd feel a pinch in her Samaritan heart when she noticed the girl dangling her legs over the crumbling wall outside the Ainsley pool club. Reverend Pickering's granddaughter in her borrowed floral-print maillot, pale as seaweed in the maple twilight.

Her imagination burned into the visual, almost deceiving her. A '68 Volkswagen sweating fumes and clearing its throat of oil. A baby girl's milky stare from the backseat. The mother's—her mother's—smile, her cheeks aglow like a jack-o-lantern.

If her mind could hunger for it, that meant it must exist somewhere. Like Heaven.

Behind her hulked the sandstone club, its windows cave-dark, ready for the autumn hibernation. Wind waded through the parking lot, shuffling leaves and Eskimo Pie wrappers where earlier dozens of Chevys had gleamed like ivory tusks lined on a hunter's mantel. The wall, a rind of concrete, clasped a hillside where girls—mostly those who came to the pool club without their parents' blessing—awaited the offer of a ride from a female stranger.

Below her feet the darkness began to char away the shadows of drinking fountains and wire trash bins, crouched like ribcages guarding their strange organs of litter. Her heartbeat stumbled with anticipation; thunderous music and the scent of chlorine coated her senses. Her trust in providence obscured any thought of what would happen if her grandfather discovered she'd been here, that someone stole the new pink cotton blouse and skirt he'd gotten her with collection-plate money, sweat sipped right from the brows of working people. Or if he found she stayed behind to search for her clothes in the changing room's immense hive of lockers, and Joanne, the high-school senior she came with, left without her.

Released from its ponytail, her hair swished over her slick neck as if urging her to run. After a half hour the sun's blazing pearl melted below the hilltops. The serpentine cold of night glided over the crescents of flesh exposed at her thighs.

She pushed off the wall and landed five feet below without dizziness. She was one of those girls gifted with a fickle grace of the body, when she didn't think about what she was doing. She padded toward the soot streak of the highway, still barren of hope and headlights. The flesh at her ankles rippled with goosebumps at the cold vegetable tickle of the grass.

She stared into the inhumane black a little too long, and something cracked in her nerves. She turned, almost twisting her foot in a rut, and ran along the highway like a spooked gazelle. Her breath seemed to flee ahead of her as a living thing, taunting her to catch it.

Her grandfather would be waiting on the porch, and he had no pangs about checking her room to see if she was sleeping or reading a faded issue of Seventeen she'd slipped beneath a loose swatch of carpet near the baseboard. Pickering, a name like a sour lime peel pressed to your mouth, in her case softened a little by the name Joyce. In her mind she squashed the dread of his anger by pounding out her fear through her running feet, into the pavement at the highway's hem. Soon the speed strained her mind too much to even recall his face. Heaven must feel like this, almost. Running through a warm, sluggish night, all worldly shapes streaking into fantasy. An anesthetic not of Earth.

 

Where are your parents? Joanne asked during the drive.

Heaven she said, as she always did. A little defensive, trembly, as if doubting before her tongue even molded the word.

She hadn't expected the parsonage's windows to be dark, or the Adirondack chair near the veranda's white railing unoccupied. Her grandfather's habit on summer evenings was to sit there for the slow bronze hours of dusk, his palms cupped rigidly on the handrests. His left knuckles tapped, like Morse code on a telegraph, as he watched neighbors, or Pastor Delaney, the church's librarian, who sometimes offered to clip the Reverend's hedges.

He would look at her too, if she was on the porch swing across from him. He had a pharaoh's burdensome eyebrows and mottled tan, which she suspected was why he damned the Egyptians a bit harsher in his sermons whenever he'd studied himself in the mirror lately.

Sometimes, though, the knuckles stopped, and his eyes somehow altered without widening or shifting, just became like copper rivets, thoughtless, oceanic. You'd think he was tired but know this wasn't the reason; you'd squirm in that raw-fetus part of yourself no one wants to acknowledge, and you'd know he was thinking about you, just as you know when a black widow is lurking behind the paint can you reach for on a shelf in the garage. You'd know.

Then the knuckles would resume their telegraphing, and the dread would leave. If not for those moments of pause in the tapping, she believed she'd never contemplate leaving the old man who helped her with algebra and cooked her pancakes for breakfast, a little burnt like she loved. But that wasn't what she thought about as she brushed her teeth each night, wary of the slice of hallway captured in the bathroom mirror, for no reason alert to see if he might be there. 

She found the screen door unlocked. Its rusty chuckle comforted her, but the slam which came after it sent an electric terror through her core, waking her to the possibilities of reprimand. She damned herself for using it. The enchantment of chlorine had faded, and her fear put a taste of rust in her throat. Today was Thursday—he wouldn't be at the church. Maybe he was dozing on his daybed, his chest ballooning and falling as it did, with the rhythm of a fungal bloom in a tropical jungle. Despite his seventy-five years, rheumatism had yet to lull him into frailty. His age seemed only an aggravation, a gnat bite, one more vexation to bear down the lane to eternity.

Shadows blued the inside hallway. She groped for a light switch, and her fingers traced the batskin surface of the Reverend's umbrella, dangling from the closet coat hook. Somehow this invisible reminder of him, its brittle wire skeleton and canvas flesh, convinced her to abandon the search. She tiptoed on, fumbling her palm over the pores in the walnut walls, and found the entryway to the parlor—an old word like seersucker that made you think of horse carriages and silver candelabras. She didn't realize her thumb had settled on the switch. A single twitch snapped it downward and startled the room into existence.

Amber drapes, faux stained-glass lampshades, an elephantine oak dresser that smelled of rainstorms a hundred years old. A handmade Indian quilt on the daybed where her grandfather lay like a sheik, apish hands hugged over his heart, his eyes copper-riveted.

She froze. Her fright rebounded against her stony outer stillness and provoked her heartbeat into a fury, driving blood up the ladder of arteries to her head. Her vision splintered with darkness, her nerves twisted like a snapped clothesline. For a moment her awareness spun and she saw herself as he would—a dirt-smeared girl awkward as an ostrich, pearled with sweat, in a swimsuit she didn't own.

He didn't move, either.

Finally instinct made her speak, her voice quivering. "Want some tea?" Immediately her cheeks became firecrackers. He always wanted a glass of Lipton when he woke—he said the brown warmth pedaled his blood back into the spots it left during sleep.

But he still hadn't blinked, like some kind of desert lizard basking on a boulder. She approached him, extending her arms. Unease spread cold petals in her heart. "Grandpa?" Then, thinking the word might revive him, "Reverend?"

The blood had paled from his face, hollow skin tented fragilely on cheekbones. The whites around his pupils were the color of shark gills. She studied him for a second, wondering if she should try to close his eyes with silver dollars, as he'd told her undertakers once did before they learned it tempted grave robbers. She straightened the quilt where his rigidity rumpled it. Then she fixed the collar of his checkered nightshirt, as if he were the centerpiece on their dinner table. Her face stiffened with tears too numb to release, a passionless pressure. Instead of a spread of arthritis mossing through his limbs day by day, as she expected, he had simply ceased, as an antique clock will at the first lick of rust.

The mantelpiece clock still ticked, though, crouching owlishly over the cool fireplace. The victory call of the ancient cogs which had outlived the Reverend, still chopping the dry seconds as grain into a bottomless silo, its Roman numerals meshing, in her bleary gaze, to form a black parade of hieroglyphs in neverending orbit.

From the fireplace she retrieved a poker, kept there only for ceremony. So much devotion to ritual. So much.

The years had thinned the clock's wood. It required only three swings to shatter into a brass puddle of springs and levers, still trembling with the inertia of their mockery.

She didn't know she hated the clock until after she did it. Its beat seemed now like a thorn in her secret self that she had never found. A distant axe-thud echoing even through her dreams. She dropped the poker, watched the springs stop writhing. For it to continue after the Reverend was gone seemed unnatural, as if her grandfather's heartbeat had driven the gears.

Now she would have to call the funeral home. She didn't know the number. Maybe she could find Dr. McConnell in the Reverend's address book. But he wouldn't be at his office, and no one would be at the church either. And she'd have to clean up the clock's remains, and hide the dented poker. She would seem nervous. Her body still clammy with heat, and sticky. In Joanne's younger sister's swimsuit which she seemed now to have stolen.

Plus, her grandfather was too hearty to just disappear from himself like this. She once imagined that if he lost a finger to a butcher knife, the stump would be the color of a pencil point. Lead in his veins. He seemed unbound by the mortal worries of sickness, cholesterol, heart attacks. Concerns too petty for a man whose trade was the business of Heaven.

She retreated from the copper reproach of his unfocused eyes and left the room. The anxieties and tasks multiplied with an amoeba's ferocity, melding into each other. Laundry. An empty refrigerator. School, homework. Changing the lightbulb she couldn't reach in the kitchen. Orphanage. Kenya, graves in the heathen dirt of Kenya. Fragments of her life flurried around her in a blizzard of silver pine needles, all released by this old man's death. The force seemed to crush her like the walls of a screaming throat.

The fuzz fled her vision. She found she'd staggered onto the veranda. In the abyssal dark the purple calls of whippoorwills strummed against her nerves. Hypnotic. The slow cunning night. She cocked her head, as if she'd receiving a message, then descended the steps. Some magnetic force inside her died, and around her the needling worries fell to nothing. She moved from the parsonage with the looseness of a boat just unanchored. Leaving behind her the parlor where the open-eyed husk of meat rested.

She staggered without awareness or destination down a lane silent but for the misty chatter of lawn sprinklers. At a sagging sewer grate she swung across the street and past a grove of honey locust trees through whose leaves strolled the newly woken wind. Its aquatic whispers brushed her skin without even raising a goosebump. She couldn't sense her heartbeat, but didn't feel any panic at this, that sensation of her ribcage splitting wide. For the first time she felt her body held no importance, or permanence. All at once she ceased to cherish her breath, her pleasure in the tautness of her calf muscles. Water left her eyes and pressed a flavor of salt onto her lips. For a moment she couldn't even recognize what this was.

The Reverend's gaze gave her a strange truth about what she was—a web of atoms, a puppet stitched out of slippery muscle. She couldn't understand this, these words that rose to name the revelation. Her mind only grasped at snowflake because that was her, a frail masterpiece of flesh, poised to plummet into a void after grandfather and evaporate into what? Into nothing. Eternity gaped before her.

Running now, dashing. 

Nursery-tale visions filled her memories—picturebook drawings of angels, crayoned harpsichords, archways of pearly watercolor. Painting softened the tears and frays in the canvas of the live lived off the sketch pad. Hundreds of drawings beginning when she was four, crusty paintings that bone-crackled when you touched. And her grandfather was in the doorway, first curious at her frenzy, and then disturbed, the man who preached of cherubs and talking serpents.

But the angel paintings became her anchor after Kenya. Sometimes she thought of that country with such intensity she was certain she'd been there. Her parents served in the Mission League, were last in America in 1962 and last on Earth two years after that. A tribal conflict in Baragoi, the Reverend told her. Then came influenza and malaria, tetanus and typhus, these grasshopper-bristly words that became the pillars of her life's facts. The jungle from which Heaven had been meant to rescue her, once her body finished its long wait.

Her toes' raw pleasure at the cool of ragweed and gravel, soft as talcum from summer heat, led her to church. The belfry's shadow lorded over Thomaston Avenue like an idol of the dark continent, submerging the parking lot in the black gulf of its promises.

The chapel was wedged between Corrigan meats and the intimate white chill of Greenup Cohen's drugstore. Her reflection glossed the windows as she passed and circled toward the church custodian's unlocked backdoor. Asphalt peppered her feet. She strode beside a little girl whose eager trot was a kind of hunger, her eyes luminous as kerosene just seeing the church's scaly spire. She knew the girl as Joyce and knew herself as nothing, as though she'd already perished back in the parlor, raising the poker and crashing it onto the eternal clock. The faithful keeper of the countdown to Heaven.

She was awed dimly at this building she'd attended each week for ten years but seemed to have never seen before. The sandstone bricks bloodied with the day's dust, with centuries of wasted Sundays. The soft thwack of wind on windowpanes where in shards of rainbow glass, the ancients were frozen like the victims of Pompeii. Eve plucking her harvest, the wicked in Noah's deluge, Pilate scrubbing his hands.

She ascended the utility stairwell, her palm skittering over the grimy banister, and pushed into the library. The bookshelves seemed solid curtains hung across the muffled interior. Theological encyclopedias and children's picture Bibles languished on study tables around the armchairs, which crouched like tattered eagles in the moonlight. No mystery to these shapes now. No memories of cocoa warmth or caroling parties in the winter.

Breath escaped her in a fluty whisper. She marveled that she'd come here—been led here? Wandered here? The one place that seemed to contain all she'd lost. The evenings of Scripture. The laughter with her grandfather, who loved to chuckle at the apostles' bickering.

Her heart pressed against her lips, its beat a long pendulum. Maybe the church's attraction was only the empty temptation of comfort—after all, this was her second home. The only native habitat she knew.

The lights snapped on overhead. The brightness pinched her retinas tight together. She gasped and spun away from the study tables, stumbling into a chair. It toppled with a hideous bang that spiraled around the room. The meager carpet hissed under her feet as she retreated between two rows of bookshelves, backpedaling up the aisle to the sill of the window at the end. Her hands possessed their own electric life, shuffling tomes and bookends from the shelves to seek a glimpse of who had entered.

A slender man with cheeks stained scarlet from climbing the stairs too fast. His blunt, gaunt fingers plucked at his jeans pocket as he scanned the shelves, bobbing on his heels, noting the fallen chair. Her memory finally overtook her eyes. Pastor Delaney. He raised his head as if he'd heard her realization. His voice seemed to arc over the shelves and impale her. "Hello?"

She craned her neck downward to watch. He strode up the aisle nearest her row, righting overturned dictionaries and crumpling used stationery. He seemed to be having a conversation with himself, but she couldn't hear the words. Then he straightened and said, "Anyone home?" He waited, then laughed. "Not feeling cordial, huh? Don't think I'm real? 'Come hither and feel my wounds.'"

Delaney was the most amiable pastor, but his ease unsettled her. An insult to the midnight possibilities of vagrants, vandals, arsonists. Even now she felt as if he'd already teased her out to stand beneath the lights, was standing close to her. He was approaching her shelf now, whistling without tune. And yet it seemed a hymn just beyond her memory.

He paused. She heard him listening. "I'll have to turn off the lights when I leave, you know," he called. "The roaches get cranky if you keep them up." He laughed to himself again, and she wondered if he really believed anyone was with him in this tomb of books, if he was only muttering for his own peace. But she couldn't make herself believe that—he knew his words were striking ears, somewhere.

She had no words to explain why she huddled on the sill, her wan limbs crusted with sweat. She didn't think Delaney finding her would mean her death. That would happen only if he overlooked her and she willed herself to lay curled here, dehydrating among the cobwebs until by morning only a rind of humanity remained. Gazing out with parched eyes from the second-floor window. She wanted to answer, to cry to him. Maybe he would recognize her voice, if not her face.

She couldn't imagine how he might save her—when he heard about the clock he might even think she'd killed her grandfather. Like everyone would. Or maybe Delaney wasn't even here, maybe he was just a ghost of her thirst, a desperate splinter of memory rising up in her fever. She pushed herself up onto the sill and her fingers meandered over the window's brass fasteners. Her lungs heaved thinly against the flyspecked ice of the windowpanes dewed with her sweat and the sweat of the night. She discovered the lock's mushroom shape and twisted it open, pushing herself back, imagining the relief of night air and concrete, of weedy asphalt.

Delaney passed between the two bookshelves. He halted. His brow twisted as he discerned her. The light grayed his face with pockets of shadow, little dead spots of uncertainty.

With her body clenched like a catcher's mitt on the sill, she almost forgot she wasn't falling. Her hands clawed the lock again, trying to open it, but a resin of years had sealed the brass tight. Grace in a rusty window, if there could be any at all.