My Heaven Only

By Eric Le Roy

Content 18+ I remember back when I had an assistantship for teaching English Comp and World Literature back in 1980 at the University of Florida, we had been studying Sartre’s play No Exit, and I came up with a brilliant idea. (Well, I am sure it had been thought of thousands of times before, but for me it was new and therefore ‘brilliant’ – haha).

Remember, please, that Gainesville, Fl, was still very much in the Southern tradition (with William Faulkner the presiding deity of all aspiring authors), and therefore, in the nest of conservatism and ‘traditional values’ (which I increasingly support, I have to confess) the ‘real’ God with all His promised glories and threats of fiery incinerators was at the peak of His celebrity. As a matter of fact – as I recall – the Born Agains were proliferating like celestial rodents, exercising their voluminous lungs on many street corners and near the doorways of the various intellectual kingdoms (School of This and Academy of That) on the campus of the University itself. Of course, this was before Political Correctness, which meant that Freedom of Speech was still allowed.

I used to make fun of them. I felt scorn for them in fact, not because they were preaching the gospel in public (which took some balls, I always thought), but because I know America and Americans, and I understood that for most of them it was just a fad. A very brief period of remission from the studied assholery that had defined them in the past and would again in the future.

I remember hearing one of them standing in front of a bar where I used to get soused. There seemed to be an extraordinary amount of gibberish pouring from his machine gun mouth, and at first I thought he was just drunk as hell, like I was. But it turned out he was ‘speaking in tongues.’ Evidently, when you do that (if you want to try it yourself, then simply imagine you are standing in the middle of a swamp at midnight and start up a loud conversation with the crickets and frogs), nobody except God can understand you. And God gets the message completely. As Leonard Cohen wrote in one of his memorable songs, “The maestro says it's Mozart, but it sounds like bubble gum.” Close to the truth, I suspect, but what do I know? God has never spoken to me in English, let alone in ‘tongues’. Or maybe He has, and I was just out to lunch or too bombed to grasp the point.

Anyway, to this vehement legion – at least in those fashionable days – Hell was flamboyantly real, its red dogs snapping at your heels, its blazing trolls pinching your ears, and the road to Salvation was peppered with hissing serpents blocking your way.

Nevertheless, Heaven, which one might have assumed to be far far away from this flotsam of avid Evil and orgiastic Sin, was actually just around the corner. If you ‘accepted’ Him, all your sins were instantly forgiven. Eradicated and forgotten like ‘booble’ wiped from a baby’s bottom. Clean Slate. It was like a Happy Hour of the Soul, drinks all round and for free. Just admit that you were a bum and accept the Lord Jesus as your Savior. New Ball Game.

The ultimate American Quick Fix.

So I came up with the idea – inasmuch as Sartre’s vision of Hell centered on the much repeated but hotly debated view that “Hell is Other People” – of assigning my students a paper in which they could choose either Heaven or Hell and simply describe (in detail) what they thought it would be like. The catch was (enter my stroke of genius) that they would need to describe these ‘places’ in modern terms. In other words, no harps and angels, no red-hot pliers and pitchforks. Totally modern (a bit like No Exit).

Hell proved the more popular of the two. Indeed it was almost unanimous. This definitely caught my attention because I have seen it elsewhere: Dante’s Commedia for instance. Hell is one hell of a Night Spot. How many Circles? N-i-n-e. It’s jumpin’. Sure, the party animals are suffering – because it’s Hell – but, let’s face it, the joint is ‘dancin’’ and prancin’, ‘stylin’ and profilin’ with LIFE because, evidently, Sin and Sinners are more interesting than a congregation of beatific eagle scouts.

It’s like when I was in the 6th grade. We had a big book shelf in the corner at the back of the room, and you could take whatever ones you wanted (all carefully screened I had assumed) – except that one day, among the Junior Classics and Sci-Fi tales, I came across a volume called The History of Torture. Someone must have put it there as a joke. That was the book for me, so I tucked it away before anyone could raise an eyebrow. The chronicle pulled no punches. I was left – then and now – in a state of amazement at the i-n–c-r-e-d-i-b-l-e creativity and ingenuity that the human race has utilized in coming up with instruments designed to inflict hideous pain, shrieking agony, gasping heart failure. Diabolical. There is no other word for it.

But unless you suggest The Kamasutra, which offers great happiness of a kind and is undeniably elaborate, I can’t think of an extended manual for ‘inflicting’ pleasure. Sure, there’s a lot of affirmative rah-rah stuff like getting in touch with your inner child, saying hello to five absolute strangers every morning (crying ‘Have a nice day!” if one of them kicks your ass), and ‘smelling the roses’, but nothing in the same league as the rack, the thumbscrew,the Iron Maiden, and the Duke of Exeter’s Daughter (where they had you stand inside an erect iron locker and when they slammed the door on you a pair of well-adjusted spikes put out your eyes). The pain these 'ahead-of-their-time ‘gadgets were engineered to produce seems beyond belief. I mean, can you imagine elephants, rabbits, sea cows or squirrels doing that to each other? But of course they have no chance of accepting Jesus at the last gasp and flying off instantly to Heaven.

Maybe it’s because Happiness is nebulous, whereas Torture is specific. That is why so many people arrive at a point only late in life or when they are near death, that they earnestly deliberate on whether they were happy or unhappy along the way; it’s all in retrospect. But pain leaves no time for speculation. It is what it is. And it is always lurking in the present; it doesn’t suffer at all from nostalgia, nor is it redeemed by any such thing.

Studying history – as I do because now on top of everything else I am a history teacher – one sees that ‘His Story’ is a fairy tale told by the authority of Power and thus forever a tool of manipulation; it is never the truth of the conquered, but rather of the conqueror. Nor is it the story of those who carried the water buckets through the centuries, those who dug the dirt, mopped the floors, and took out the garbage. They were there – and necessary of course – but their lives didn’t matter. They were only ‘extras’ like the thousands who used to get slaughtered in the big budget Cecil B. DeMille movies starring Charlton Heston.

There is no curriculum at any university I know of which focuses its attention on courses like “Peasants Through the Ages” or “The Almanac of History’s Have Nots and Nobodies”. What we read in history books tells the tale of the elites, priests, noblemen, and blood-thirsty tyrants (empire builders from the start), and how whole civilizations were put to the sword by dint and whim of Hackafuckus the ‘Great’. History in the classrooms represents the gore-drenched chronicle of 10% of the population and how they affected the other 90%, usually involving massacres carried out in the name of some ethnic-cleansing crusade or whatever Holy War they happened to have been obsessed with at that moment. A score of names and dates, popes and kings. No wonder students hate it.

Out of this bloody pudding, this beetroot salad of blood, this Filet Mignon cooked R.A.R.E and sitting atop its platter of ‘corpuscle matter’ – I return now to Heaven and Hell and the assignment I gave my students.

I was hoping, desperately hoping that one of the Evokers of Heaven would seize it at a glance, somehow catch its ephemeral winking eye, its leaf-strewn doorway leading to only God knows where, up creaking stairs that curve into faint candlelight at the top. Or in a vision of galloping wild horses fjording a stream, or the sudden knowing exchange of glances when two people realize that they are in love. I was hoping that at least one of them would describe Heaven as a journey rather than a destination, and certainly not with ‘perfection’ as its goal. For perfection is very very dull. I wanted a single observer among them to tell me that Heaven is epiphany, the soliloquy of a songbird briefly anointing the evening air from atop a fence post, a privileged moment when the sky truly opens and you see, as Rilke wrote ‘the depths turned toward you; or — as Auden wrote – a condition of Soul: “Heaven and Nature reconciled: the Lion and the Adder; the Adder and the Child.”

I wanted to hear of the possibility that when we die our spirits are free to create their own heaven, building, as it were, a feast of all things and people and animals treasured on earth during their lives. For You, it might be spending eternity under the hood of a car, tuning up those spark plugs. For someone else, an endless fishing trip with good buddies and a self-replenishing chest of beer. Maybe someone would prefer to bask in an eternity spent doing nothing but picking his nose and devouring the emerald guacamole that he extracted from it.

For me, it would be a cabin near a mountain lake shrouded beneath nest-swarming treetops with breakfast smells coming from the window and smoke from the chimney. It would be spent with a few guy friends watching football while my lover with her women-friends mingled among us, coming and going with their ineffable laughter. Everywhere dogs would be barking, cats meowing, birds singing, and the wind blowing. Then, as the game ended and the guys went home, my lover would stand before me.

She would seem to beckon with eyes as playful and confident as young jungle cats on a windy savannah and there would be panther movements in her fluid hair. She would approach me with a wanton gaze – some Mediterranean or Slavic girl from a picture book, a great and wonderful and fabulous whore indeed and proud of it in the way of a Roman courtesan, walking on sumptuous naked feet like a classical goddess. We would pour out love and wine and wine and love and laugh like bawdy old friends in an ancient Inn. Oh, there we would be in the morning, meandering amid eye-popping dew at dawn, then comforted by spirit-swaddling zephyrs at dusk. Day after day. Lovers and friends forever.

But the true ingenuity of this artifice would be that this was only My Heaven, and it was my privilege to choose who would be there. My chosen lover would of course be entitled to her own heaven, and maybe there would be no place in it for me. Maybe she would bar the door if she saw me coming. Maybe she would choose someone else, man or woman. Or many others. Maybe she would decide to spend her Forever in a convent, or calling out numbers at an auction; perhaps teaching braille to the blind, or enjoying an endless porn session with Gusher B. Tall or Tyrone the Godfather of Climax.

Her heavenly prerogative.

But they never wrote about those things. They kept fooling with light shows and nuggets of glinting gold, talking of some sort of ‘Bliss’ that they couldn’t describe. They seemed to be saying that it was a place where you arrived if you had been Good, and that you couldn’t express it but would know it when you got there. Or maybe there would even be road signs along the way: Paradise 500 kilometers.

They didn’t conceive of Eternity as Ephemeral and Infinity as a single detail captured exactly. They didn’t see the magic in a mouse, nor hear the lullaby of total silence, nor feel the rocking cradle that is absolute darkness. They didn’t see that Light is a Tiger. What they wrote didn’t seem like much of a cocktail to me.

Predictably, Hell was rendered in more visible, practical terms. It was as though Hell was palpable, knowable, even familiar. In fact, I got the feeling that you didn’t even need to die in order to get there.

I remember a young woman named Sarah Poole who wrote on the subject of Hell. I recall only her name and the fact that she said she was going to major in journalism. She wore glasses that set her off in a not unattractive way (specks look sexy on some women). Typical smart, bright young college student. She’d be about 60 now, and who knows what became of her.

She described herself sitting in an auditorium full of people in the middle of the day. The weather must have been hot outside (wherever that was) because inside the auditorium the air was close and tight and she could smell the faint underarm odor from those sitting near her.She had to pee, but, since this was Hell, she was not allowed to get up and go to the toilet. So there she said among the sour-limbed multitude, and a theater stage stood in front of them. A man was standing on the stage reading the Greater Manhattan Telephone Directory (this was 1980, remember) from cover to cover, not missing a single name. Needless to say, it took a long time to complete this task.

Then he started again, but now he began singing the names to the tune of an old song called “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” (Believe me, it gets nauseating pretty quick) This went on until he reached the end of the Greater Manhattan Telephone Directory.

And then he would start again. Meanwhile, she still had to pee. But they wouldn’t let her.

This was eternity. This was Hell. A humid auditorium full of people with smelly armpits, and a man on a stage reading a phonebook out loud forever and ever and ever to a girl who had to pee.

I gave Sarah Poole an A+.

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