Do you ever wonder, dear Mother and Father, what kind of toothpaste angels use in heaven? I will tell you. We use baking soda sprinkled on our toothbrushes. It tastes salty, which comes as no surprise because baking soda is a kind of salt known as sodium bicarbonate.
You never wonder about toothpaste in heaven, do you? After all, you are agnostic. But even believers seldom ponder the nitty-gritty of their afterlife. Thinking of heaven, they imagine simply a feeling of love and a sense of peace. They do not consider whether the pineapple they eat here will be fresh or come from a can. (We actually receive both kinds, though certainly more canned than fresh.)
This book I am writing to you about my afterlife will be your nitty-gritty. One day I hope to discover a way to deliver my story to you.
As you know, I died in front of my locker at Helen Keller Junior High on September 8, 1979, which was exactly one month ago today. Before I died, I had been reciting the 106 elements from the periodic table. My locker number (No. 106) had inspired me, and my goal was to memorize all the elements in chronological order. However, when I reached No. 78, platinum (Pt), Jermaine Tucker interrupted by smacking me in the head. “What the hell you doing, Boo?” he said.
I told you once that my classmates called me Boo on account of my ghostly pale skin and my staticky, whitish blond hair that stands on end. Some of them considered me an albino, but of course I am not: a true albino has dark red or almost purplish eyes, whereas mine are light blue.
“Boo! How ironic,” you may say, “because now our son is a ghost.” You would be mistaken, of course, because this is not true irony. Irony would be if Jermaine Tucker had said, “Wow, Boo, I truly respect and admire you for memorizing the periodic table!” Respect and admiration are the opposite of the feelings I aroused in Jermaine and, for that matter, most of my classmates.
Did you realize I was a pariah? If you did not, I am sorry I never made this clear, but I did not want you fretting about something you could in no way control. You already worried enough about the inoperable hole in my heart and had long warned me about straining my heart muscles.
Jermaine walked off to class, and I continued undeterred with my count as scientists Richard Dawkins and Jane Goodall watched me from the photographs I had taped to the back of my locker door. For the first time ever, I reached No. 106, seaborgium (Sg), without stealing a peek at the periodic table hung below the photos of Richard and Jane.
My feat of memorization, however, must have overexcited my heart because I immediately fainted to the floor. I could say I “gave up the ghost,” especially in light of my nickname, but I dislike euphemism. I prefer to say the truth simply and plainly. The plain and simple truth: my heart stopped and I died.
How much time passed between my heart’s final chug in the school hallway and my eyes opening in the hereafter I cannot say. After all, who knows which time zone heaven is in? But as I glanced around the room where I found myself, I certainly did not see the clichéd image of heaven. No white-robed angels with kind smiles gliding out of a bank of clouds and singing in dulcet tones. Instead, I saw a black girl snoring as she slept in a high-back swivel chair, a book at her feet.
I immediately knew I was dead. My first clue: I saw the girl perfectly even though I was not wearing my eyeglasses. I even saw the title of her book (Brown Girl, Brownstones). Indeed, I saw everything around me with great clarity. The girl wore blue jeans and a T-shirt with a decal of a litter of angora kittens. Colorful beads dangled from the ends of her cornrows, and they reminded me of the abacus you gave me when I was five years old.
I lay in a single bed covered in a sheet and a thin cotton blanket. Other than the swivel chair, the bed was the only furniture in the windowless room. Overhead a ceiling fan spun. Hung on the walls were abstract paintings—squiggles, splotches, and drippings. I sat up in bed. My naked chest seemed whiter than normal, and the bluish arteries marbling my shoulders stood out. I peeked under the blanket and saw I was not wearing a pajama bottom or even underwear. Nudity itself does not bother me, though: to me, a penis is no more embarrassing than an ear or a nose. Still, do not assume I had found the Helen Keller gym showers, for example, a comfortable place to be. That communal shower room was a breeding ground for the human papillomavirus causing plantar warts. And on two occasions there, Kevin Stein thought it would be sidesplitting to urinate on my leg.
“Excuse me! Hello!” I called out to the girl in the swivel chair, who woke with a start. She stared at me wide-eyed.
“May I assume I am dead?” I asked.
She lurched out of her chair and hurried over, accidentally kicking her novel under the bed. She grabbed my hand and squeezed. I yanked it back because as you know, I dislike being touched.
“You ain’t dead, honey,” she said. “You passed, but you’re still alive.”
“We say ‘passed’ here instead of ‘died.’ Passed like you did good on a math test.” She gave me a smile that exposed a gap between her front teeth wide enough to stick a drinking straw through. When she sat down on the side of the bed, it listed because she was heavy. I once read an article on longevity in the magazine Science that claimed that thin people lived longer. To offset my holey heart, I tried to prolong my life by keeping a slim physique. Needless to say, my efforts came to naught.
“Let me introduce myself,” the girl said. “My name’s Thelma Rudd, and I’m originally from Wilmington, North Carolina, where my family runs the Horseshoe Diner.” She asked what my name was and where I came from.
“Oliver Dalrymple from Hoffman Estates, Illinois,” I told her. “My parents have a barbershop there called Clippers.”
“Do you know how you passed, Oliver Dalrymple?”
“I believe I died of a holey heart.”
“A holy heart?” She looked puzzled. “We all have holy hearts up here.”
“No, I mean my heart has an actual hole in it.”
“Oh, how terrible,” she said and patted my leg.
Thelma went on to explain that she belonged to a group of volunteers known as the “do-gooders.” “I always sign up for rebirthing duty here at the Meg Murry Infirmary,” she said. “I like welcoming newborns like yourself.”
I asked how long a “rebirthing” took.
“It’s over in the blink of an eye.” Thelma blinked several times. “A do-gooder’s always on rebirthing duty at the Meg. We never know when we’re gonna get a package.”
She patted the mattress, and I eyed the bed, its rumpled blanket and its pillow with the indent from my head. The bed did not look mysterious or miraculous in any way. “We just materialize here?” I asked.
Thelma nodded. She gave me a probing look, eyes so deep-set I figured she, too, once wore glasses. “You know, hon, you’re the calmest newborn I ever did meet,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe the hysterics I seen in my nineteen years in Town.”
“Nineteen years!?” I said. “But you look my age.”
“Oh, we’re all thirteen here.”
This particular hereafter, she clarified, was reserved for Americans who passed at age thirteen. “We call it Town,” she said. “Us townies believe there’s lots of towns of heaven. One for every age—one for people who pass at sixteen, one for people who pass at twenty-three, one for people who pass at forty-four, and so on and so forth.”
“Thirteen,” I said, mystified. “You are all thirteen?”
“Townies never age. We stay thirteen all our afterlives. I look exactly the same as when I came here nineteen years ago.”
You will find this nonsensical, Mother and Father, but this stagnation in the hereafter saddened me more than the realization of my own death did. I would never grow up, never go to university, and never become a scientist. And, frankly, I had seen enough of thirteen-year-olds back in America—their stupidity, cruelty, and immaturity.
Thelma noticed my sudden distress. “Oh, but we grow wiser the longer we stay here,” she said. “Well, at least some of us do.”
“Segregating the afterlife by age seems logical,” I said to be a good sport. “After all, if the dead were all housed in the same place, Town would be seriously overpopulated.”
I then asked, “Will I be here for eternity?”
She shook her head. “No, us townies only get five decades here. After our time’s up, we go to sleep one night and never wake. We vanish in the night. All we leave behind is our PJs.”
“Oh my.” I said. “Where do we go next?”
“Some say we move to a higher level of heaven, one with better food, sturdier plumbing, and sunnier skies,” Thelma replied. “Others wonder if we reincarnate back to America. But the truth is, nobody really knows where we go.”
Thelma got up from the bed and opened the door to a walk-in closet. She came out carrying a pair of jeans, T‑shirts, boxer shorts, and socks, which she laid on the bed.
“What’s your shoe size?”
“Seven,” I said.
She went back in the closet to find me some shoes.
“Do you have any penny loafers?” I asked because they are the shoes you would always buy me, Mother.
“Town has no leather shoes,” Thelma called out. “Leather’s dead cow and heaven ain’t no place for the dead.”
While she was in the closet, I slipped on the boxer shorts and then the jeans, which were covered in red, white, and blue patches from the Bicentennial three years ago. “So only Americans come here?” I asked.
“Yep. We don’t get no foreigners. Just people who lived in the U. S. of A.”
I thought of absurd science-fiction films where the characters on distant planets spoke fluent American English, but never Swedish or Swahili.
“What about different religions?” I asked as I slipped on a tie-dyed T-shirt from the half-dozen shirts on the bed.
“Oh, we aren’t divided by religion. We get all kinds here. Baptists, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses. You name it, honey, we get it.”
She came out carrying a tatty pair of sneakers, which had the letters L and R inked on the toes. She handed them over. “What religion are you?” she asked.
She let out a whoop of laughter. “I don’t always have much faith in a supreme being myself,” she said.
I sat on the bed and put on the sneakers. She sat beside me and picked lint off my T-shirt.
“I ain’t religious, but I am a spiritual person,” she said. “You spiritual, Oliver?”
“I have never had a spiritual day in my entire life.”
She gave me a gap-toothed smile. “Well, your entire American life’s over, honey,” she said. “But your afterlife’s all set to begin. Maybe you’ll find yourself some spirituality here.”
Copyright © 2015 by Neil Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.