The phone rings. I hear a click when the old man answers. But no voice.
“Hello?” I say.
But I only hear rustling on the other end of the line. “Hold on!” says the elderly voice. “I’ve dropped my dang phone in the couch!”
So I wait. And wait. I can swear I hear a hand grasping, searching for a dropped phone. Finally the voice comes through. “Phew! Sorry, my phone dropped between my cushions, and I was trying to put my hearing aid in at the same time. Sorry.”
“Is this Stuart?”
“Hi, Stuart. I’m calling because your wife said you had a story for me.”
“Yeah, I got a story. Are we ready to start? Do you have a pencil ready?”
“Actually, it’s a gel pen.”
“You gonna ask questions, or should I just start talking?”
I’m thankful he says this because interviews are hard enough for me as it is. But phone interviews are WAY harder when I have to think up more leading questions while simultaneously taking notes. It’s a lot like trying to walk and chew bubblegum while reading Marcel Proust in the original French at the same time.
“You know what, Stuart? You just start talking, I’ll listen.”
He clears his throat. “Okay, but you’ll be sorry. My wife says when you pull my string I can talk for hours.”
Then he proves his point.
“You see, it’s a long story. I’s a kid when it all happened. I fell off a patio balcony, almost two stories down, I don’t remember much. All I know’s I was out cold.”
“So then I hear screaming from my mom, and my little brother, and something’s off, ‘cause I can see them, but I’m floating above them.”
“Floating.” I stopped writing.
“That’s right. Floating. Didn’t anyone warn you I was crazy?” He laughs.
What in God’s name have I gotten myself into.
He continues: “Well, now, it gets kinda weird. I figure I’m dreaming or something, it never registered that I’d fallen. Suddenly I see this nice-looking kid, he’s floating beside me. And I know something’s wrong when this kid tells me he’s my OLDER brother. See, I only have one brother, a younger brother, and he didn’t look anything like this floating angel person.”
Floating angel person.
“So then I says to him, ‘Hey, you’re not my brother.’ And he says, Yuh-huh, my name’s Paul.’
“I’m like, ‘Nuh-uh.’ And then it hits me, where am I? So I say: ‘Hey, wait, am I dead?’ Because at this point, you know, I’m starting to get worried.
“Then Paul says, ‘I want you to follow me.’ So I do. He holds my hand and, well, it wasn’t like—I don’t know—it wasn’t heaven like you think of it, not like in the movies or nothing.”
I ask him to explain.
I hear the old man sigh as though he’s trying to figure out how to explain the mysteries of the cosmos over an iPhone.
He says, “All right, it’s like this. You know how everyone thinks heaven’s up there and we’re down here?”
“Well, in my experience it was like heaven, if that’s what this place was, was all around us, like being in a big aquarium, like heaven’s happening right here, at the same time everything else is going on, not up there far away, but, you know… Here.”
I don’t answer. I don’t know how. I was raised Southern Baptist. We adhered to God, Graham, and Gloria Gaither. We did not talk of celestial aquariums.
So he tries another approach. “Okay, look. You know how bugs have their own tiny world going on? Way down below our feet? And they probably don’t ever think about all the giant humans walking around?”
“Well, then you have outer space, the bugs don’t know about space, do they? No, a bug can’t comprehend Uranus, can he?”
Insert off-color joke here.
“Well,” he goes on. “How about all the micro stuff, bacterial stuff, stuff we can’t see? That’s another world, too. And it’s ALL happening right here in our universe. We’re not aware of those things, but they’re real. In a way, I think heaven’s like that.”
This guy is either a lunatic or brilliant. I can’t decide which.
“So,” I ask, “what was this—ah—new world like?”
“Love. That’s what it was like, brother. It was swimming through the most profound love I ever knew. And this Paul guy, who said he was my brother, he was holding me in his arms, flying, and I’ve never felt more love. Never.”
I’m leaning toward lunatic.
“After a long time, this Paul says to me, ‘Okay, we’re done here. Now go tell your mom what you saw.’
“Only, I don’t wanna go back, I’m lovin’ it here. But Paul says, ‘You gotta go back, you have a job to do.’
“So then—boom!—I open my eyes and I’m covered in blood, and my mom and my REAL brother are standing around me, but I’m okay, just cut up bad. And when I tell my mom about what happened, about the angel and everything, she turns white. Then she starts crying.
“I ask, ‘Mom, what’s wrong?’ And she tells me that before I was born she had a six-month-old baby who died. She named him Paul, but she never told nobody she named him that. Not even my dad.”
He finished his story with a long exhalation.
“Anywho, it happened seventy years ago, I keep thinking about what Paul said to me. Said I had a ‘job’ to do. But I’m old, and still waiting, ‘cause, far as I know, I haven’t done any important job yet.”
“Yes, you have,” I said.