“Heaven,” a short story by Steven Barthelme
The poet delicately picks his nose while talking on my telephone, his old abraded sneakers up on my coffee table. This is authentic behavior, the poet is proving that he is a poet, at least I assume that’s what he’s doing. He glances up at me and then continues his picking and his conversation. “In this country!” he shouts into the receiver. It’s a joke; he is talking to a poet about a poet. Much laughter. He puts something in the ashtray.
Is he a good poet? He is thought by poetry authorities to be a good poet, but what do they know? I love him, but this does not blind me to his poetry. In the poem he wrote about me after my death, I wrote the only good line. He was quoting me, but the attribution was somewhat vague. I was dead twenty-one minutes before he got to the typewriter.
My sister, inexplicably, doesn’t want to sleep with the poet, though I have offered him to her on several occasions. My sister said she’d design her own therapy, thank you. He looks like he needs a bath, she said, he looks a touch gamey, gamey is the word. Poets prize that look, I said. He sleeps with women by the dozens, I said. Golly, she said. Poets get them down any way they can — liquor, B-pluses, enigmas. This isn’t winning, she said. Making up for high school, I said.
Heaven. In heaven, no hardwood floors and no baseball and poets caught talking about sports get the rack. Yesterday I saw Jesus in a leather hat.
Here is what the poet is saying on the telephone: “Back together? Really? In Vermont she and Bruno and Tige got naked in the lake and alors, voila …” Another part of it is like this: “… and so her pants were on inside out, har har har …” It’s a long distance call.
Here is what the poet says in the classroom: “Be inexplicable, but not inexplicatable. Be emendatious but not cementatious (Not in my dictionary; suspect that’s a coinage). Be abominable yet abdominal. Make it newt. (I hear poorly, so this could have been ‘Make it new,’ although he loathes Pound; it may have been ‘Make a note’ sometimes he feigns a boffo French accent.) Oh, and see me after class, Caitlin, Feta, An Li, Eschscholzia, Daisy, Zinnia, Dahlia.”
Before being admitted into heaven I suffered ninety days in purgatory, which is how I know he wrote a poem about me after I died. It was okay. Some people get the exercise bike. Apparently there’s no hell.
The poet drives a Land Rover, of course. Loves his wife. Rubs dogs with great gusto.
In heaven Scotch is blessedly harmless, and my back has finally stopped hurting, and my body’s really buffed. Didn’t require crunches, either, which are what I got into poetry to avoid. But the poet has written, “All a poet really needs is a six-pack and a six-pack. Grolsch and really ripped abs,” he explained. “But Grolsch is expensive!” I cried. “In this country,” he said.
Heaven resembles a very large Days Inn where God is always wandering around saying, “Have you seen Jesus? Have you seen Jesus?” They argue constantly. Jesus says, “‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise?’” alluding to something his Father said (1st Corinthians, I looked it up) and snaps his fingers.
“Fundamentally unserious, Dad.”
“I guess I should frown more,” his Father says, and gives a weary look. The building, heaven, goes on as far as the eye can see, into the clouds. In the lobby in the morning an enormously long white tablecloth appears, with coffee and one lemon Danish, which renews itself endlessly. Angels are everywhere, dancing.
The poet’s life has been lived on the edge, in several countries, in his friends’ apartments. The poet spent twelve years working for the John Deere Corporation, two weeks in law school in Boston, a night and day in jail on a vagrancy charge (inspiration for the poems, later, in I Fought the Law), and once played tambo in a rock band.The band got him started in poetry when he discovered deep feeling and first wore a perm. “Candy from a bebe,” he says of that period.
“Only women understand me,” he says. With the help of a wealthy coal widow he started The New Bituminous Review and filled it with uncanny and haunting work by the editors of other magazines.Then for three years he fearlessly walked up and down Sixth Avenue, filling out grant applications, winning nine. “It’s a poet eat poet world out there,” he says.
They don’t only argue. Last week, God and Jesus were in the main lobby, rolling on the carpet, laughing about Hell. “Who could have known that they’d take that seriously?” God said. “They’ve been worrying about that for two thousand years!” he snorted, and fell into convulsions of laughter. “And—and—” Jesus said, wiping tears from his shining eyes, “and we were only kidding! God, they must think we’re mean!” And they walked off slapping their foreheads and kneecaps and Jesus’ hat fell off. His eyes are intensely beautiful, blue. Very tall.
The poet is thought to have a very good gamey look, I told my sister. One of the top five, among contemporary American poets. His wife won’t mind, I said, because he’s an artist. What is his poetry about? she said.Anguish, I said. Black woe. Raw unashamed passion. Black Lung. A number of his newest poems shockingly unmask the pylorus, where a valve inextricably links man’s stomach to his small intestine.
My death came about in this way: I poisoned myself, with loathing. And envy, there was some envy. Mostly loathing.
The poet is off the phone. He has a legal pad and a blue and black German pencil, working probably on “Reflux.” It’s a new one in the Los Angeles Lakers series. “Overweight and eager …” the poem begins. He pauses, pencil to his lips. He is thinking. I ask if he will stay to dinner, and he slams the pencil down, enraged.”Oh, Christ,” he says, “can’t you see I’m working? What’re you having? I’ll invite Peesha, Pasha, and Tony. It’s all ruined now,” he says. The pencil is very beautiful. He picks up the telephone.
Jesus comes over to me when I’m out on a chaise beside one of the pools; he’s holding a fat red book in one hand and in the other, two lemonade cans from the vending machine. He hands me one. Frigid. All around us, people are getting to their feet. Music is playing somewhere.
“A hat?” I say. “You’re never in a hat in the pictures.”
“I’m two thousand years old,” Jesus says, and pats the leather hat. “I’ll wear a hat if I feel like it.” He gives a droll smile. “I have you down here for loathing and envy,” he says, looking up from the red ledger. “You must forgive him.”
“There’s nothing to forgive,” I say, and take a drink. It’s Handel, the music.
“Bo, I’m Jesus. Why are you bothering to lie to me?” “Yes, sorry, I forgot. Gosh, this lemonade is cold.” Jesus sighs. “That’s a nice touch, that ‘Gosh.’ A little foolish, considering that you’re already in heaven. Still, ‘God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.’” He shrugs “It’s in 1st Corinthians.”
“That’d be Chapter 1,” I say, “verse 27?”
He glances sharply at me for a second but recovers, nods, and slaps the red book on his pants.”You must forgive him.”
“Okay. I forgive him.”
Jesus looks at me with his brilliant eyes. It’s the sort of long, theatrically patient look one gets not from a father but from a beloved older brother.
“Okay, I don’t forgive him. Okay.” The breeze in heaven is soft, sweet, smells delicately of oranges.
The poet wants to write good poetry, I know he does. He does not think of himself as a dull, careerist predator and sham. He could be a counterfeit and write great poetry at the same time, perhaps. He wants to know awe. He wants to have important things to say to his fellows, to make cold souls warm, to ease hurt, to praise love, to give hope to the despairing and companion to the lonely, to hold the breath of wisdom in his hand for an instant, to add to what we have. He wants to see. Even a blind squirrel finds a … No, nevermind that.
“Jesus, this is hard. This is hard,” I say, “Jesus.” His eyes are terrible.
Steven Barthelme is the director of the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he is also a Professor of English. HUSH HUSH releases October, 2012, from Melville House. A version of this story first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.