I’m in Southside Park sitting on a bench at 7 am Saturday watching five Southeast Asians fishing in the pond that we locals have promoted with the title of “Southside Lake.”
) Dawson comes loping toward me, shouting my name. “Oslo, Oslo, Oslo, Negro, my man. They said you was as dead as a doornail or the five-cent stamp or happy endings. But here you is looking as ornery as ever. Did you really die?”
Handy is wearing his thin San Francisco Giants jacket and cap, jeans, and flip-flops. At 63, he is a year younger than me and a friend since the second grade.
I stand to greet Handy, and he gives me a quick, hard hug that tests my ribs.
“I did die for less than five minutes. But I remembered you owe me $30, and I came back to life to collect from your sorry ass. You got my money?”
“Damn! I had it, Oslo, but I spent it on flowers for your going home service. Ain’t that ironic?”
“Yeah, I bet you did. You got a receipt?”
“Oslo, you know I’m an environmentalist. I refuse receipts to save the rainforest and reduce the landfills and—”
I see our neighborhood priest and my off-and-on-again brother-in-law, flying across the park toward us. “Oh, shit! Here comes Father Mateo Hernandez. He should be doing mass.”
“He’s moving like a speeding bullet. Oslo, you must owe him money He probably wants to catch you before you die again.”
Father Mateo has tears in his eyes as he hugs me and nearly knocks me over. Mateo and I played high school baseball together. His sister, Valentina, and I have two daughters (Lucia and Renata) and two divorces together. We still occasionally find the time to get together long enough to break up again.
“Oslo, Oslo, you are blessed, man. You are a modern Lazarus. Oh, my God. We have things to talk about. My God! My God! I knew you were special back in high school.”
Mateo tries for another embrace, but I straight-arm him.
“Mateo, I just got out of the hospital two days ago and you and Handy keep trying to put me back in the emergency room. Aren’t you supposed to be conducting mass?”
“I heard Handy calling your name, and it was as if God was directing me to you. I saw a light above you and the sky—”
Handy is yelling at Young Hee, the Southside Market’s owner and my son’s mother, Marcus. Young is sweeping up around the front of her store when Handy hales her. She sprints across the street at a fine pace for a 55-year-old, but she is bringing the broom with her. That is a bad sign.
I snap at Handy, “Handy, why the hell did you—”
It’s too late. Young stops within striking distance, and I take a step back.
She has the broom on her shoulder like a baseball bat. She bares her teeth as she hisses at me. “Oslo Raymond Jennings, you son-of-a-bitch. I have life insurance on your half-steppin’ Black ass, and you can’t even die right. I should get something! You did die, right?”
“Hello, Young. You’re looking awful spry this morning. I did die.”
“Then where is my fuckin’ money?”
Mateo tries to explain the situation. “Young, I think you need a death certificate to collect on—”
“Shut the fuck up, Hernandez. You ain’t a fuckin’ lawyer. Valentina is the damn, stinkin’–rat attorney. Not you.” She takes a step closer to me. “Oslo, if you die, you need to stay dead. I’ve been paying on that damn policy for thirty years. That’s part of my retirement plan.”
Handy, as usual, is less than helpful. “Young, Oslo, has a bad ticker. The end could come just like that.” He snaps his fingers. The three of us give him our, “Did-you-really-say-that look?”
Young sighs and shakes her head. “Well, there’s always that.” She takes the broom off her shoulder and leans to look at me closer. She sniffs me.”
I take another step back from her. “What are you doing?”
“You don’t smell like smoke, brimstone, or shit like that.”
Mateo understands immediately. “Yes, that is part of the reason I’m here, Oslo. Did you go to Hell when you died? What was your death experience? Did you see a bright light?”
All three look at me like I’m a sideshow freak. I start to sweat, my heartbeat races, and my mouth is as dry as Death Valley.
Handy grabs my arm and guides me back to my seat. “Hey, Oslo, man, you okay? Sit. Sit down.” He turns to Young. “Young Hee, get him some water, okay?”
Young bites her lower lip, weighing the odds of collecting on her insurance.
Mateo yells, “My God, Young, do you want the father of your only child’s death on your hands?”
She gives Mateo the finger, tosses the broom, and is back to top speed in seconds.
Handy is fanning me with his jacket.
Mateo is saying some prayers in Latin.
The southeast Asians land a big carp.
I’m trying not to remember being dead.
I feel better after drinking the cold water from Young’s store. But I’m trapped at the table we moved to. Mateo is at my side in some hyper state, waiting to interrogate me on the afterlife.
Young and Handy are sitting across from Mateo and me. They are staring at me like they have bets on when I will croak. Handy has always been sweet on Young; I can see he wants to get closer to her.
Young returned from the store with chips, dips, and water for us all. She glares at me. “This is not free. I’m keeping a tab on you, Oslo. And don’t you dare to die before—” She reconsiders her competing priorities. “Well, preacher, you need to cover for your brother-in-law’s debt. That’s the least you can do.”
Mateo ignores her. “Oslo, are you feeling well enough to—”
Young will not be ignored. “Hey, that collar may let you freeload off poor people, but you can’t pull that shit on me.”
Mateo grits his teeth. “For God’s sake. He’s the father—alright, the church will pay you to shut up. I have important work to do today before Oslo—we’re wasting time.”
Now I grit my teeth. I want to pop Mateo right in the chops, but I go in another direction. “Thanks, Mateo. You know, I think a beer or two might help me relax. I mean it could kind of break the tension.” I give Handy a sidelong glance.
Handy adds, “Yeah, you on the money there, Oslo. A little wine and beer bring good cheer, and we need that.”
Mateo purses his lips and glares at Handy. “Oslo may be on alcohol restrictions—”
I interrupt. “Not at all. My doctor recommends a little libation to ease my anxiety.”
Young smiles. “Not a good idea on an empty stomach. Maybe some breakfast steak, bacon, and eggs. We got the grill right here.
Handy slides closer to Young. “Hey, you still got that sausage from North Carolina?”
Mateo shouts, “Wait, hold on. This is getting out of hand.”
I wave to the Southeast Asian fishermen. “Hey, are you guys hungry? We’re going to be serving breakfast in a bit.”
We have an excellent breakfast. The fishermen and a couple of unsheltered people join us. There is a lot of laughter, joking, and grubbing down. This is the best I have felt since I left the hospital.
Three hours later, our guests departed.
Young is actually smiling as she adds up the cost of our breakfast on her phone.
Handy is snoring comfortably under a nearby oak tree.
“Ha. The total is $165.75. And priest, I didn’t charge you for the napkins, paper plates, plastic tableware, and toothpicks. Those were my treats.” Young is beaming as she speaks.
Mateo points a finger at Young. “Outrageous. You have inflated you’re already inflated prices. The Church will not pay this preposterous amount. You are an affront to God.”
Young slaps Mateo’s hand down and snarls, “Hey, you nun fuckin’, children rapin’, child-murderin’ motherfuckers ain’t in any position to judge anyone.”
Mateo balls up his fist. His face is five shades darker than normal. “You fucking heathen cunt! I will—”
Handy, The Peacemaker, jumps up from his resting place and shouts, “Stop! Stop right now. Or, or just keep on going until you kill each other. But I want to hear about heaven and hell from the only person I know that has really been there.”
I can actually see the air cooling down around Mateo and Young. Slowly, all eyes turn back to me. At times like this, I wish the fuck that Handy Randel Dawson had never been born.
We resume our seats at the table. Mateo places a small audio recorder on the table.
I swallow, wipe my forehead, take a deep breath, and begin.
“There is no Heaven or Hell. —”
Mateo screeches, “What are you saying, Oslo? Where did you go when you died? You went someplace.”
“I did, Mateo, but there were no streets paved with gold, milk, honey, angels, or none of that. Not at all. I visited a cruise ship. I talked to the cruise director.”
Mateo snarls. “That makes no sense at all. You must have been dreaming. You were delirious.”
Young yells. “Mateo, do dead people dream or have hallucinations? Let Oslo tell his goddamn story, asshole.”
I start over. “The cruise ship director told me that the concepts of Heaven and Hell never worked out in the first place. She said that most of those accepted into Heaven rejected the central idea of a reunion with loved ones. They preferred the pains and perils of Hell to an eternity with so-called loved ones. So, you see, the whole concept of Heaven was flawed from the beginning. It seems most of us were dying to get away from relationships, not to renew them for all eternity.”
I take a breath and a drink of water.
Mateo is fuming.
Handy is full of wonder.
Young is sucking her teeth and giving me her “You-better-not-be-fuckin’” with me look.
“So, the administrators of Heaven and Hell got together and formed Heaven and Hell Enterprises, a luxury cruise ship line. And the whole cruise ship approach was a smashing success. About 90% of the deceased chose to sail on one of these H&HE ships.”
Mateo looks incredulous. Handy has a huge smile on his face. I can’t read Young’s reaction.
They all have questions, but I resume quickly.
“The out of a horror story cruise director, Dr. Sally Ann Ryan, MD, said each ship carries about a million passengers and crew. Every cruise director is a licensed MD with a history as an administrator of a state mental health facility. The cruises are designed to help the passengers reach the state of mind where they are willing to live with their loved ones for eternity and create the heaven of our myths and dreams. These are supposed to be transformative journeys.”
Mateo is full of rage. “Bullshit! This is not what is meant by, ‘In my father’s house are many rooms.’ Why are you telling us these lies?”
Young is equally fierce in her response. “I don’t think he’s lying. Shut the fuck up and listen, shit for brains.” Young turns to me. “Oslo, you better not be lying.”
I reach out and grab Young’s hand. She doesn’t yank her hand away. For that, I am grateful. I take a deep breath and steady myself.
“Okay, this is a little sketchy, but this is what I remember. The captains of these ships are persons with enormous social impact. A committee from Heaven and Hell selects the captains. Dr. Ryan was a cruel bitch, but she did explain the cruise ship operations and give me a peek at my future ship.”
I take a deep breath and proceed.
“Jim Jones, yes, that Jim Jones, is going to be the captain of my cruise ship.”
Young squints at me.
Mateo’s face is a Halloween horror mask.
Handy looks like he wants to puke. Handy lost relatives in the Jim Jones massacre.
Mateo jumps up and slaps the water bottles off the table, and stalks away from us. He about faces and screams at me, “Why? Why are you doing this? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
I go back to my story. “The H&HE Committee was trying to be fair, to compromise. Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, Confucius, Buddha, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr, and Gandhi got ships. But Dr. Ryan says all the ships run the same, no matter who the captain is.”
Handy stutters, “Do, do, do, Hitler Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, and other mass murderers get ships?”
I nod, yes.
Young whispers, “Where do the ship’s crews come from?” I whisper back. “Every 200 years or so the crew and the passengers switch roles.”
Young is squeezing my hand.
Handy is on the other side of his oak tree vomiting.
Mateo is sitting in the grass crying. He looks up at me. “You want us to believe that the afterlife is a cruise ship led by physicians from state mental hospitals and captained by some of the most heinous people in human history? You expect us to believe that shit?”
“I don’t care what you believe. Mateo, I don’t want to believe it myself.”
I return Young’s squeeze.
Later, Young and I are sitting side by side at the same table, still holding hands. Handy and Mateo are long gone.
I released her hand and slip my hand under the table between her thighs.
She looks at me as if I have lost my ever-loving mind.
I look back to let her know that she is absolutely right.
Young sighs. “You have to tell me the rest. I know you, Oslo. I know you didn’t tell us everything. I want to know everything. You understand?”
I nod yes.
As we hold hands walking toward her store, she firmly announces, “This is a one-off that never happened, understand? And Marcus can never know about this.”
I again nod yes. “I don’t discuss my love life with our son.”
“This ain’t love, Oslo. It’s just sex, understand? You’ve rocked my world. I don’t know what to think.”
“Understood, and I do feel you.”
In her bedroom, above her store, after our savage salvation fuck, she decides she doesn’t want to learn more about H&HE—ever. “Oslo, I don’t want to know everything. It’s going to turn out bad, isn’t it? You need to go now. Don’t tell me anything. Just go.”
I leave. But I know I have to tell the rest of this story to someone. It is a hell of a story.