Prose: Paige Riehl


Laundromats in Heaven

In heaven there are jobs. This is surprising, and I ask Moses, “What’s up with that?” He just shrugs his shoulders and goes on peeling potatoes. All those stories of heaven with golden streets, total happiness, and no need for food or shelter? Bunk. I’m kind of shocked to be in heaven in the first place, what with all the sinning and everything, and then this work stuff. It really throws me for a loop.

I wake up on the floor of the soup kitchen with a raging headache and someone who looks suspiciously like Jim Morrison standing over me. That’s how I got here. No Book of Names check in. No horns blowing. No angels to greet me with a robe of white. I’m concerned at first about where I am, particularly due to the sulfer smell and that Jim Morrison guy, but Moses assures me the smell is because he just lit the stove, and he explains that Morrison had a moment with God those last minutes in the bathtub.

I ask what my job is, and Moses says I have to figure it out for myself, that I’ll just know when I find it. As I leave the soup kitchen, I see Morrison in a greasy cook’s apron and one of those white paper hats handing trays to an endless line of people. He gives me the thumbs up.

Outside, it’s true that there are a lot of clouds, and I have a pretty good time walking through them and feeling the soft mist against my face. All that hazy white makes seeing challenging, and I run smack into someone. “You’ve got to be kidding!” I hear and see my ex-wife’s scrunched face only inches away. She hasn’t changed a bit—big green eyes and long blond hair. “This must be a joke. This is heaven, ” she says.

The slate apparently is not wiped clean.

“I am a bit surprised too,” I shrug.

“Christ,” she says.

I tell her she’d better be careful about swearing in heaven. “I’m not swearing, dummy.” She rolls her eyes. “I actually want to talk to him and find out how you got here. Your presence is going to make eternity suck.” She stomps away.

“Wait!” I yell. “I need someone to show me around.” She ignores me and disappears into the haze.

*   *   *   *   *

The clouds seem to lift in the busier areas. There are streets here, just regular cobblestone ones, tough on the ankles but pretty to look at. I walk around for a while, stick my head into a cheese shop, and see Paul Newman slicing and measuring huge chunks of golden Irish Whiskey Cheddar. The shop has dark wooden beams, and a couple of people wander around amongst the rows and rows of stilton, brie, Gouda, Havarti, and mozzarella gleaming like marble. My stomach growls. “How does this work?” I ask blue eyes.

“Well, what do you want?” he asks, wrapping the cheddar in white paper and taping it neatly.

“Anything really, well, except gorgonzola. How do I pay?”

Newman laughs. “That’s a good one,” he says. He cuts me a big slice of Gouda and throws a chunk of French bread in my packet. “You’ll catch on quickly,” he winks. “I did.”

I’d like to stay and ask some questions about Cool Hand Luke, but he’s already taking out the blue cheese for another customer. Outside the shop, I watch people walking around and realize there are no cars. There are people of all races and sizes and kids too, and a couple of dogs chase each other around a corner. I meander down the street where there is a dreadlocked busker strumming a guitar. People stand and clap when he’s done with his upbeat tune, but no one throws money. He doesn’t even have his guitar case open. No cars, no money.

*   *   *   *   *

There are so many people around and I wander aimlessly, looking into a candle shop, a Chinese restaurant, a laundromat. I see Cyd Charisse getting her shoes shined near the newspaper stand. Nothing seems that different, except for the occasional clouds hanging in the air like fog and the famous people minus paparazzi. Still, I have no sense of how to navigate the streets and no idea of my purpose.

In the laundromat the smell of soap and hum of the machines is soothing. A familiar-looking girl in a short plaid skirt and knee high socks stuffs glittery shirts into a washing machine while an old man dozes in the corner. I sit down to eat my cheese, and it feels solid in my stomach. My legs tingle, and I feel tears coming down my cheeks. My throat is tight, and I know I shouldn’t cry in heaven, but the tears keep rolling.

Someone, broom in hand, still remembers how it was.

“It was good back on earth, yeah?” he asks, sweeping up lint and used dryer sheets. The voice is calming and familiar. Tim Russert leans against his broom for a moment, gazing into space. “I had a pretty good life, too.” He smiles wide in his round face. “It’s hard at first here. I can always recognize a new guy like you by that dazed look. Anyway, you have to find your own way, and there’s a sort of reversal. Has anyone told you about that?”

I shake my head no. Nobody’s told me much.

“Do you recall Matthew 19, verse 30? No? Well, it goes like this ‘But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.’”

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“It’s a logical reversal so that those of us who had fame, or glory, or riches during our earthly lives now will live a common life. Hence the sweeping,” he says, lifting his broom as evidence. “I miss politics,” he sighs, “but I love the way the moist air fogs the windows in here, and you know, everyone needs clean clothes. There’s something rewarding about a job like this.”

He pats my back, and I wipe my cheeks with the back of my hand.

“I don’t even know how I got here,” I say.

“No one can remember the death part. Too traumatic.” He sits down next to me and stretches out his legs. “And over time, you’ll forget everything about earth. Have you seen Morrison yet?” He sits up straight and I nod. “He’s a surprise, don’t you think? I was at Woodstock, you know.”

I tell him I didn’t know that. Russert tells me there’s a nice golf course here where a guy can take a lesson from the golf pro, Gerald Ford. Still, Russert says his memories are fading now, no matter how much he tries to keep them alive by chatting with newcomers like me. Eventually neither of us will remember that Gerald Ford was once President. “What did you do on earth?” he asks.

“Roofer,” I say. Russert raises his eyebrows. “It wasn’t bad, really,” I explain. “I like being outdoors, and I was good at it. Of course, there was always the risk of falling—”

“I bet you’ll have a great job here!” he interrupts. “I’m pretty sure roofer is on the “Worst Earthly Jobs” list. Go look at the list. Have you looked at the list?” He leads me to the door and gives detailed directions. “Of course, you won’t have the best job. The people with no jobs, no food, you know, come first. Come back and see me when you find out!” He waves from the doorway.

*   *   *   *   *

My spirits are up now, and I weave my way through heaven. I notice that no one seems sick, the streets are clean, and there’s no air pollution. Even the old people don’t use walkers or canes. Everyone has clear skin too. There are lots of potted flowers, marigolds, too, like my wife used to plant. They smell heady, like sunshine and summer. I finally find “The List”—a marble wall engraved with job titles followed by a number. I find Roofer followed by the number 24. A recycling plant worker next to me squeals as she sees the number nine following her job title. “You wouldn’t believe the crap people put in their recycling bins,” she shuddered. “Tampons, rotting food, diapers. Even the occasional dead animal. All that for minimum wage.” I agree that she deserves something better.

We get in line headed for a table where a wrinkled nun sits. “Occupation and name?” she asks, and flips through a leather-bound book.

“Roofer—Kenneth Hamilton, Minnesota.” The nun flips through the book and frowns, her finger running up and down the page. “We might have a problem,” she whispers. She studies the page and then makes a quick phone call. She covers the mouthpiece with her hand and speaks so quietly I can’t quite hear her. I’m starting to feel nervous. She pivots and gives me a quick look of pity. “Just as I suspected,” she says. “You’re not in the book.”

“What?” The hair on my arms stands up. “What does that mean?”

“What do you think it means?” she asks, tapping her pencil against the page. “Let me ask you something. Were you at all surprised to be here?”

“A little,” I stammer. My heart pounds hard. Suddenly, it’s like one of those old Polaroid cameras is flashing through my brain, illuminating moments from my past I’d rather not remember. I see myself passed out with my arm draped over the toilet bowl. I see myself as a teenager stealing a pizza from the Giovanni’s delivery car. I see myself lying on my tax forms. And worse. The nun is staring at me.

“Okay, I did some bad things, I admit. I cheated on my wife; I drank too much beer once and a while. I skipped church now and again. I regret those things, really.” I ramble a bit more about my sins, just letting the truth flow out of me, and once I start, I can’t turn off my mouth. The nun’s expression remains stoic, which surprises me as my litany of sins gets worse and worse. I put my hands over my face. This is not going to be good.

She sighs, “You seem remorseful.” I tell her that I am, I really, truly am. “I guess it was our error in the first place,” she says, and I watch her write in the book with a short pencil. “Don’t disappoint me.”

My heart feels like it could explode. I thank her repeatedly and shake her hand, which is skinny as a tree branch. “Here you go,” she says.

I look down at my job description. “Termite controller?” I ask.

She raises her eyebrows. “Feel like complaining? I’ve got worse. Just ask Castro what it’s like to inspect sewers.”

I figure it’s best not to ask how Castro got here in the first place.

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