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Chapter 23


I cry unto Thee, and Thou dost not hear me:

I stand up, and Thou regardest me not.

Job 30:20

SO OF course I eventually wound up in, Saint Peter's office at the Gate of Judah - having chased all over Heaven first. On Hazel's advice I went back to the Gate of Asher and looked up that co-op 'Find Your Friends and Loved Ones'.

'Saint Alec, angels don't pass out misinformation and the records they consult are accurate. But they may not have consulted the right records, and, in my opinion, they would not have searched as deeply as you would search if you were doing it yourself -angels being angels. Margie might be listed under her maiden name.'

'That was what I gave them!'

'Oh. I thought you asked them to search for "Margie Graham"?'

'No. Should I go back and ask them to?'

'No. Not yet. And when you do - if you must don' ask again at this information booth. Go directly to St Peter's office. There you'll get personal attention from other humans, not from angels.'

'That's for me!'

'Yes. But try first at "Find Your Friends and Loved Ones". That's not a bureaucracy; it's a co-op made up of volunteers, all of them people who really care. That's how Steve found me after he was killed. He didn't know my family name and I hadn't used it for years, anyhow. He didn't know my date and place of death. But a little old lady at "Find Your Friends" kept right on searching females named Hazel until Steve said "Bingo!" If he had just checked at the main personnel office - Saint Peter's - they would have reported "insufficient data, no identification".'

She smiled and went on, 'But the co-op uses imagination. They brought Luke and me together, even though we hadn't even met before we died. After I got tired of loafing I decided that I wanted to manage a little restaurant it's a wonderful way to meet people and make friends. So I asked the co-op and they set their computers on "cook", and after a lot of false starts and wrong numbers it got Luke and me together and we formed a partnership and set up The Holy Cow. A similar search got us Albert.'

Hazel, like Katie Farnsworth, is the sort of woman who heals just by her presence. But she's practical about it, too, like my own treasure. She volunteered to launder-my dirty clothes and lent me a robe of Steve's to wear while my clothes dried. She found me a mirror and a cake of soap; at long last I tackled a five-day (seven-year?) beard. My one razor blade was closer to being a saw than a knife by then, but a half hour's patient honing using the inside -of a glass tumbler (a trick I had learned in -seminary) restored it to temporary usefulness.

But now I needed a proper shave even though I had shaved - tried to shave - a couple of hours ago. I did not know how long I had been on this hunt but I did know that I had shaved four times... with cold water, twice without soap, and once by Braille - no mirror. Plumbing had indeed been installed for us fleshly types... but not up to American Standard quality. Hardly surprising, since angels don't use plumbing and don't need it, and since the overwhelming majority of the fleshly ones have little or no experience with inside plumbing.

The people who man the co-op were as helpful as Hazel said they would be (and I don't think my fancy halo had anything to do with it) but nothing they turned up gave me any clue to Margrethe, even though they patiently ran computer searches on every combination I could think of.

I thanked them and blessed them and headed for Judah Gate, all the way across Heaven, thirteen hundred and twenty miles away. I stopped only once, at the Square of, the Throne, for one of Luke's heaven burgers and a cup of the best coffee in New Jerusalem, and some encouraging words from Hazel. I continued my weary search feeling, much bucked up.

The Heavenly Bureau of Personnel occupies two colossal palaces on the right as you come through the gate. The first and smaller is for BC admissions; the second is for admissions since then, and included Peter's office suite, on the second floor. I went straight there.

A big double door read SAINT PETER - Walk In, so I did. But not into his office; here was a waiting room big enough for Grand Central Station. I pushed through a turnstile that operated by pulling a ticket out of a slot, and a mechanical voice said, 'Thank you. Please sit down and wait to be called.'

My ticket read '2013' and the place was crowded; I decided, as I looked around for an empty seat, that I was going to need another shave before my number would come up.

I was still looking when a nun bustled up to me, and ducked a knee in a quick curtsy. 'Holy one, may I serve you?' I did not know enough about the costumes worn by Roman Catholic orders to know what sisterhood she belonged to, but she was dressed in what I would call 'typical' - long black dress down to her ankles and to her wrists, white, starched deal over her chest and around her neck and. covering her ears, a black headdress covering everything else and giving her the silhouette of a sphinx, a big rosary hanging around her neck... and an ageless, serene face topped off by a lopsided pince-nez. And, of course, her halo.

The thing that impressed me most was that she was here. She was the first proof I had seen that papists can be saved. In seminary we used to argue about that in late-night bull sessions... although, the official position Of my Church was that certainly they could be saved, as long as they believed, as we did and were born again Jesus. I made a mental note to ask her when and how she had been born again - it would be, I was sure, an inspiring story.

I said, 'Why, thank you, Sister! That's most kind of you. Yes, you can help me - that is, I hope you can. I'm Alexander Hergensheimer and I'm trying to find my wife. This is the place to inquire, is it not? I'm new here.'

'Yes, Saint Alexander, this is the place. But you did want to see Saint Peter, did you not?'

'I'd like to pay my respects. If he's not too busy.'

'I'm sure he will want to see you, Holy Father. Let me tell my Sister Superior.' She picked up the cross on her rosary, appeared to whisper into it, then looked up. 'Is that spelled H,E,R,G,E,N,S,H,E,I,M,E,R, Saint Alexander?'

'Correct, Sister.'

She spoke again to the rosary. Then she added, to me, 'Sister Marie Charles is secretary, to Saint Peter. I'm her assistant and general gopher.' She smiled. 'Sister Mary Rose.'

'It is good to meet you, Sister Mary Rose. Tell me about yourself. What order are you?'

'I'm a Dominican, Holy Father. In life I was a hospital administrator in Frankfurt, Germany. Here, where there is no longer a need for nursing, I do this work because I like to mingle with people. Will you come with me, sir?'

The crowd parted like the waters of the Red Sea, whether in deference to the nun or to my gaudy halo, I cannot say. Maybe both. She took me to an unmarked side door and straight in, and I found myself in the office of her boss, Sister Marie Charles. She was a tall nun, as tall as I am, and handsome - or 'beautiful' may be more accurate. She seemed younger than her assistant... but how is one to tell with nuns? She was seated at a big flattop desk piled high and with an old-style Underwood typewriter swung out from its side. She got up quickly, faced me, and dropped that odd curtsy.

`Welcome, Saint Alexander! We are honored by your call. Saint Peter will be with you soon. Will you be seated? May we offer you refreshment? A glass of wine? A Coca-Cola?'

'Say, I would really enjoy a Coca-Cola! I haven't had, one since I was on earth.'

'A Coca-Cola, right away.' She smiled. 'I'll tell you a secret. Coca-Cola is Saint Peter's one vice. So we always have them on ice here.'

A voice came out of the air above her desk - a strong' resonant baritone of the sort I think of as a good preaching voice - a voice like that of 'Bible' Barnaby, may his name be blessed. 'I heard that, Charlie. Let him have his Coke in here; I'm free now.'

'Were you eavesdropping again, Boss?'

'None of your lip, girl. And fetch one for me, too.'

Saint Peter was up and striding toward the door with his hand out as I was ushered in. I was taught in church history that he was believed to have been about ninety when he died. Or when he was executed (crucified?) by the, Romans, if he was. (Preaching has always been a chancy vocation, but in the days of Peter's ministry it was as chancy as that of a Marine platoon sergeant.)

This man looked to be a strong and hearty sixty, or possibly seventy - an outdoor man, with a permanent' suntan and the scars that come from sun damage. His hair and beard were full and seemed never to have been cut, streaked with grey but not white, and (to my surprise) he appeared to have been at one time a redhead. He was well muscled and broad shouldered, and his hands were calloused, as I learned when he gripped my hand. He was dressed in sandals, a brown robe of coarse wool, a halo like mine, and a dinky little skullcap resting in the middle of that fine head of hair.

I liked him on sight.

He led me around to a comfortable chair near his desk chair, seated me before he sat back down. Sister Marie Charles was right behind us with two Cokes on a tray, in the familiar pinchwaist bottles and with not-so-familiar (I had not seen them for years) Coke 'glasses with the tulip tops and the registered trademark. I wondered who had the franchise in Heaven and how such business matters were handled.

He said, 'Thanks, Charlie. Hold all calls.'

'Even?'

'Don't be silly. Beat it.' He turned to me. 'Alexander, I try to greet each newly arrived saint personally. But somehow I missed you.'

'I arrived in the middle of a mob, Saint Peter. Those from the Rapture. And not at this gate. Asher Gate.'

'That accounts for it. A busy day, that one, and we still aren't straightened out. But a Saint should be escorted to the main gate... by twenty-four angels and two trumpets. I'll have to look into this.'

'To be frank, Saint Peter,' I blurted out, 'I don't think I am a saint. But I can't get this fancy halo off.'

I He shook his head. 'You are one, all right. And don't let your misgivings gnaw at you; no saint ever knows that he is one, he has to be told. It is a holy paradox that anyone who thinks he is a saint never is. Why, when I arrived here and they handed me the keys and told me I was in charge, I didn't believe it. I thought the Master was playing a joke on me in return for a couple of japes I pulled on Him back in the days when we were barnstorming around the Sea of Galilee. Oh, no! He meant it. Rabbi Simon bar Jona the old fisherman was gone and I've been' Saint Peter ever since. As you are Saint Alexander, like it or not. And you will like it, in time.'

He tapped on a fat file folder lying on his desk. 'I've been reading your record. There is no doubt about your sanctity. Once I reviewed your record I recalled your trial. Devil's Advocate against you was Thomas Aquinas; he came up to me afterwards and told me that his attack was pro forma, as there had never been, any doubt in his mind but what you qualified. Tell me, that first miracle, ordeal by fire - did your faith ever waver?'

'I guess it did. I got a blister out of it.'

Saint Peter snorted. 'One lonely blister! And you don't think you qualify. Son, if Saint Joan had had faith as firm as yours, she would have quenched the fire that martyred her'. I know of -'

Sister Marie Charles' voice announced, 'Saint Alexander's wife is here.'

'Show her in!' To me he added, 'Tell you later'.'

I hardly heard him; my heart was bursting.

The door opened; in walked Abigail.

I don't know how to describe the next few minutes. Heartbreaking disappointment coupled with embarrassment summarizes it.

Abigail looked at me and said severely, 'Alexander, what in the world are you doing wearing that preposterous halo? Take it off instantly!'

Saint Peter rumbled, 'Daughter, you are not "in the world"; you are in my private office. You will not speak to Saint Alexander that way.'

Abigail turned her gaze to him, and sniffed. 'You call him a saint? And didn't your mother teach you to stand up for ladies? Or are saints exempt from such niceties?'

'I do stand up, for ladies. Daughter, you will address me, with respect. And you will speak to your husband with the respect a wife owes her husband.'

'He's not my husband!'

'Eh?' Saint Peter looked from her to me, then back. 'Explain yourself.'

'Jesus said, "For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels." So there! And He said it again in Mark twelve, twenty-five.'

'Yes,' agreed Saint Peter, 'I heard Him say it. To the Sadducees. By that rule you are no longer a wife.'

'Yes! Hallelujah! Years I have waited to be rid of that clod - be rid of him without sinning.'

'I'm unsure about the latter. But not being a wife does not relieve you of the duty to speak politely to this saint who was once your husband.' Peter turned again to me. 'Do You wish her to stay?'

'Me? No, no! There's been a mistake.'

`So it appears. Daughter, you may go.'

'Now you just wait! Having come all this way, I have things I've been planning to tell you. Perfectly scandalous goings-on I have seen around here. Why, without the slightest sense of decency -

`Daughter, I dismissed you. Will you walk out on your own feet? Or shall I send for two stalwart angels and have you thrown out?'

'Why, the very idea! I was just going to say -'

'You are not going to say!'

'Well, I certainly have as much right to speak my mind as anyone!'

'Not in this office. Sister Marie Charles!'

'Yes, sir!'

'Do you still remember the judo they taught you when you were working with the Detroit police?'

'I do!'

'Get this yenta out of here.'

The tall nun grinned and dusted her hands together. What happened next happened so fast that I can't describe it. But Abigail left very suddenly.

Saint Peter sat back down, sighed, and picked up his Coke. 'That woman would try the patience of Job. How long were you married to her?'

'Uh, slightly over a thousand years.'

'I understand you. Why did you send for her?'

'I didn't. Well, I didn't intend to.' I started to try to explain.

He stopped me. 'Of course! Why didn't you say that you were searching for your concubine? You misled Mary Rose. Yes, I know whom you mean: the zaftig shiksa who runs all through the latter part of your dossier. Very nice girl, she seemed to me. You are looking for her?'

'Yes, surely. The day of the Trump and the Shout we were snatched up together. But that whirlwind, a real Kansas twister, was so violent that we were separated.'

'You inquired about her before. An inquiry relayed from the information booth by the River.'

'That's right.'

'Alexander, that inquiry is the last entry in your file. I can order the search repeated... but I can tell you ahead of time that it will be useful only to assure you. The answer, will be the same: She is not here.'

He stood up and came around to put a hand on my shoulder. 'This is a tragedy that I have seen repeated endlessly. A loving couple, confident of eternity together: One comes here, the other does not. What can I do? I wish I could do something. I can't.'

'Saint Peter, there has been a mistake!'

He did not answer.

'Listen to me! I know! She and I were side by side, kneeling at the chancel rail, praying... and just before the Trump and the Shout the Holy Ghost descended on us and we were in a perfect state of grace and were snatched up together. Ask Him! Ask Him! He will listen to you.'

Peter sighed again. 'He will listen to anyone, in any of His Aspects. But I will inquire.' He picked up a telephone instrument so old-fashioned that Alexander Graham Bell could have assembled it. 'Charlie, give me the Spook. Okay, I'll wait. Hi! This is Pete, down at the main gate. Heard any new ones? No? Neither have I Listen, I got a problem. Please run Yourself back to the day of the Shout and the Trump, when You, in Your aspect as Junior, caught up alive all those incarnate souls who were at that moment in a state of grace. Place Yourself outside a wide place in the road called Lowell, Kansas - that's in North America - and at a tent meeting, a revival under canvas. Are You there? Now, at least a few femtoseconds before the Trump, it is alleged by one Alexander Hergensheimer, now canonized, that You descended on him and is beloved concubine Margrethe. She is described as about three and a half cubits tall, blonde, freckled, eighty mina - Oh, You do? Oh. Too late, huh? I was afraid of that. I'll tell him.'

I interrupted, whispering urgently, 'Ask Him where she is!'

'Boss, Saint Alexander is in agony. He wants to know where she is. Yes, I'll tell him.' Saint Peter hung up. 'Not in Heaven, not on earth. You can figure out the answer yourself And I'm sorry.-

I, must state that Saint Peter was endlessly patient with me. He assured me that I could talk with any One of the Trinity... but reminded me that, in consulting the Holy Ghost we had consulted all of Them. Peter had fresh searches made of the Rapture list, the graves-opened list, and of the running list of all arrivals since then - while telling me that no computer search could conceivably deny the infallible answers of God Himself speaking as the Holy Ghost... which I understood and agreed with, while welcoming new searches.

I said, 'But how about on earth? Could she be alive somewhere there? Maybe in Copenhagen?'

Peter answered, 'Alexander, He is as omniscient on earth as He is in Heaven. Can't you see that?'

I gave a deep sigh. 'I see that. I've been dodging the obvious. All right, how do I get from here to Hell?'

'Alec! Don't talk that way!'

'The hell I won't talk that way! Peter, an eternity here without her is not an eternity of bliss; it is an eternity of boredom and loneliness and grief. You think this damned gaudy halo means anything to me when I know - yes, you've convinced me! - that my beloved is burning in the Pit? I didn't ask much. Just to be allowed to live with her. I was willing to wash dishes forever if only I could see her smile, hear her voice, touch her hand! She's been shipped on a technicality and you know it! Snobbish, bad-tempered angels get to live here without ever doing one, lick to deserve it. But my Marga, who is a real angel if one ever lived, gets turned down and sent to Hell to everlasting torture on a childish twist in the rules. You can tell the Father and His sweet-talking Son and that sneaky Ghost, that they can take their gaudy Holy City and shove it! If Margrethe has to be in Hell, that's where I want to be!'

Peter, was saying, 'Forgive him, Father; he's feverish, with grief - he doesn't know what he is saying.'

I quieted down a little. 'Saint Peter, I know exactly what I am saying. I don't want to stay here. My beloved is in Hell, so that is where I want to be. Where I must be.'

'Alec, you'll get over this.'

'What you don't see is that I don't want to get over this. I want to be with my love and share her fate. You tell me she's in Hell -'

'No, I told you that it is certain that she is not in Heaven and not on earth.'

'Is there a fourth place? Limbo, or some such?'

'Limbo is a myth. I know of no fourth place.'

'Then I want to leave here at once and look all over Hell for her. How?'

Peter shrugged.

'Damn it, don't give me a run-around! That's all I've been handed since the day I walked through the fire - one run-around after another. Am I a prisoner?.

'No.

'Then tell me how to go to Hell.'

'Very well. You can't wear that halo to Hell. They wouldn't let you in.'

'I never wanted it. Let's go!'

'Not long after that I stood on the threshold of Judah Gate, escorted there by two angels. Peter did not say good-bye to me; I guess he was disgusted. I was sorry about that; I liked him very much. But I could not make him understand that Heaven was not Heaven to me without Margrethe.

I paused at the brink. 'I want you to take one message back to Saint Peter -'

They ignored me, grabbed me from both sides, and tossed me over.

I fell.

And fell.




Chapter 22 | JOB: A Comedy of Justice | Chapter 24



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