"A Small Indulgence" attempts something in the slipstream between commercial genres and literary traditions for the fantastic that have appealed to me since I was a kid. It looks and sounds like Comic Fantasy, but it upsets expectations like Absurdism, but it wrestles with big ideas like Magic Realism, but it's sort of like Campy Gay Fiction, too. Here please find something for an open mind.
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featured as one of the best short story collections of the Fall 2001 book season by The Washington Post Book World
"This is experimental fiction meant for wide audiences -- very accessible and entertaining. It is also queer fiction that has grown up past adolescence; it's affectionate and funny, but reasonable."
-- City Pages (news and arts weekly of the Twin Cities in MN)
All was well in the Afterlife until Mrs. Thelman's youngest son, Derek, who was still alive, made an appearance in the cupboard right before teatime.
Mrs. Thelman, Sarah to those she did not wish to exact respect from, had been dead for twenty years by the time she looked for another bag of sugar and found Derek instead. She and Mr. Albert Thelman dwelled in a nice Victorian three-story-and-garden house in an area of Anglican Heaven not terribly close to the City of Light -- as well it should be, they thought, given their mild if not unpleasant natures, not too given to all manner of singing, whooping, bell-clanging and other heavenly celebrations. Their activities consisted of nice-novel reading, living-room lounging and garden-puttering. They would have, on occasion, dead people over for canasta, or would visit friends or long-dead family members they had not had the opportunity of looking down on while living. Sometimes they waited at the Pearly Gates for the Incoming, to whom they had a duty to welcome by nature of relation, some of which they never heard from again.
No, they did not wish to embrace most of the choices their status accorded them. They did not wish to look into the Living's lives from their cloudy perch, they did not wish to visit earthly planes and shake chains or noisy things around in people's attics. They chose not to take another lifetime, not to go to Heavenly Choir tryouts, not to change their face or social status. This was their peaceful repose -- a stable, quiet life without risks or surprises, looking forward to nothing but the next pot of tea, spot on time.
The afternoon of the uninvited appearance of their son, Cousin John dropped by with a tin of biscuits. John was an entertaining if slightly unseemly relation to whom they owed thanks due to his role in the family structure, circa 1921, when he charmed the couple's respective parents into accepting their then recently uncovered courtship. John had taken full advantage of Heaven's spoils. He'd had another lifetime between visits, tooted horns with the angels, traded shape and gender and genus at his wont. Somehow they found his folly a matter of amusement and even envy, and they were not genuinely displeased with his shifting until he dropped by for tea as a gnu. And he always had news from the world outside their home.
John -- this time as a vaguely Persian prince of a man -- lit Mr. Thelman's cigar in the smoking room with a fiery sword.
"It's been bandied about," John said, "that Earth's current economic boom is soon to end. Lots of people going broke -- I'm sure it'll be fabulous watching. One gets bored watching the basic tedium of the fleshlife..."
"What year is it now?" Thelman asked.
"Oh, I don't know, somewhere around the turn of the century. In any case, the pub's running a gambling pool."
"I can't see why anyone would spend so much time looking at people's lives like that," Thelman said.
"It's just something to do," John said.
"I find it altogether unpleasant," Mr. Thelman said. "If I were alive, I would not like to have my privacy intruded on by nosy ghosts."
"You sure didn't know it then, though."
"Beg your pardon?"
"Nothing, nothing," John said. "Look, you go to the pub, you drink, you celebrate your well-earned rest by reminding yourself of how miserable and pathetic most people's lifetimes are. Besides, there's much more to do at the Wing & Halo."
"Darts, Albert," John said in a tone of voice like eyes rolled in resignation.
Sarah appeared through the smoking room's doorway with the tea-cart. Thelman and John noticed that there was no sugar bowl on the cart and that the teapot was missing its multicolor tea-cosy.
There was something terribly amiss.
"Are you well?" Thelman asked.
"Oh, yes, yes I am," she said. "Just a bit under the weather."
"Darling," John said, "you look as if you've seen a...well, you don't look too well."
Mr. Thelman grabbed her hand. "You just sit down and I'll get the sugar -- "
"No, don't fret, dear," she said. "I'll just go right back and fetch it -- "
"No, no, you sit down and I'll get the sugar." Mr. Thelman meant he was not to be dissuaded.
Thelman found the sugar bowl on the counter top with only a few shallow spoonfuls' worth in the bottom. He opened the dry goods cupboard to find, between bottles of spice, his son's head.
"Hello Father," he said.
"Derek," Thelman said. He was more surprised he'd used that name, more than that he'd seen that head in such an inappropriate place. But he wouldn't stand to think that for too long.
Thelman grabbed the bag of sugar and closed the cupboard. He refilled the bowl. He opened the cupboard. Derek was still there.
"May I have a moment with you?" asked Derek.
"I'm afraid I can't speak with you," Thelman said.
"What, should I write?"
"You could have paid a call to your mother first."
"I can't," Derek said. "I'm not dead yet."
A light breeze came through the window, rustling the curtains, filling the space between words.
Thelman did not know how to further address his son. Thelman was a man whose social skills were, in moments of unease, limited to understanding bank statements. It did not help that he did not wish to speak to him. It had been so long since he'd spoken to him, long before he'd died. He didn't know why he'd even looked him in the eye, just then. He'd refused to set sight on that face. And yet, he was surprised by his son's countenance -- jowly, white-haired, bespectacled respectability -- and was surprised that he wanted to look.
"Your mother looks awfully upset," Thelman said. "You shouldn't just pop in on her like that."
"I didn't mean to...It's the best I could do..."
Thelman turned his eyes away, and felt the resolve that had fueled him to silent grimness in the face of disquiet. Derek was dead and done, as far as he'd been concerned, and that would not substantially change.
"Please leave my house," Thelman said.
Thelman hated to see people begging.
And he would not have Derek speak to him.
"Alright, Father," Derek said.
And with that Derek vanished, leaving behind a smell of rusted pennies and thwarted intentions.
Thelman put the lid on the bowl and carried it to the smoking room, pacing his breath.
"You must tell me what happened," John said, taking his cousin's hand.
"I do not want to bother you with the details," Sarah said. "It must have been just some momentary lapse of mind -- are they supposed to happen? I thought these kind of things would be over, now that we've made our place in Heaven..."
"I'm afraid they don't," John said. "Unless you want them to. This...thing you're referring to -- "
She had a habit of looking down on the floor when someone spoke to her about matters she was not willing to contemplate. This had helped her observe with intense acuity at sections of carpet, corners of tile and cracks in linoleum during the expanse of her life. The cigarette burn on the brown and burgundy garland-patterned carpet, which they hadn't bothered to will out of existence, became her item of study.
"I'm afraid that the matter is closed," she said.
"It is not curiosity, but concern that drives me to beg you to let me hear you out," John said.
"No, I am well," she said, "Let's just drop the subject."
The burnt circle on the carpet...she hoped it would loom large like a pit and swallow her...her fear as a young child of walking through old houses, of seeing things others would not believe. Maybe she should just get a new carpet after all...
"Alright," John said. "If you're not going to bother to give me a shred of your attention, I might as well not bother to be kind."
"I do not mean to decline your kindness," Sarah said. "I just don't think it proper subject for discussion."
"What, you found a corpse in the cupboard?" John said. "Like it could happen here."
"Precisely," she said, and she poured tea for three, avoiding dwelling on the though of how much Derek spoke like her cousin.
Her husband entered the scene, bowl in hand.
"I see you all started without me," he said in his usual even tone of voice.
"Thank you, dear," she said, her calm restored by her husband's apparent obliviousness to the apparition. "I just knew you wouldn't be long, and I wanted it to be ready for you. So sorry to be so distracted."
"Not at all, darling," Thelman said. "It's bound to happen. You should get some rest."
"I'm sorry to spoil it for you," John said, "but you are dead. This is your rest."
"Because we are in it doesn't mean we have to overstate it," John said.
Sarah poured sugar into the cups. Thelman put some cream in his. John stared at them, watched them having tea in silence, all the while unable to feel scorn for them.
John was surprised when Sarah called him up to give her a ride to the City of Light. She rarely crossed over to the other side of the hedges, much less leave her neighborhood. Sarah, as usual, counted on him to baby-sit her through some situation she'd found slightly difficult to go through. John drove his MG up the Thelman's driveway and honked his horn.
Sarah walked out the door. Her black dress and hat seemed to John a mite too sensible. Sarah at first didn't recognize him. John smiled quietly until it registered that this elderly Chinese woman in the red MG was her cousin.
"Oh, John," she said, and slipped into the car.
"I just wanted to seem wise and inscrutable for a change," John said by way of an explanation, and started off to the Highway. "So where do you want me to take you?"
"I understand that the Bureau of Information is somewhere in the City Center."
John noted she wasn't precisely comfortable with the trip. "What," he said, "looking for some useful information?"
"Nothing special," she said, "I was thinking of looking up Maude's Incoming date so as to have a nice dinner party in her honor. You know her, she was so kind to us during the war..."
"Oh, I remember, Maude Akins? Last I heard she was blubbering away at a nursing home."
"Must you be so vulgar?"
"Yes, I must."
They drove toward the hazy outlines of bright, shiny gold and glass domes and boxes, like curves and lines twirled on a slick piece of paper. Traffic was getting tighter as the City of Light loomed closer. Traffic from the Mormon subdivision spilled into the road, and John and Sarah found themselves in Joseph Smith-lock.
"Traffic jams are forever," John said.
Albert Thelman hoed his own personal piece of paradise, keeping up his hobby of award-winning flower gardening, working on beds of jack-in-the-pulpit, love-lies-bleeding, Dutchman's-breeches and phlox. He was turning over a new bed to plant some less exotically-named vegetation. An interruption came in the shape of a well-shod foot in the way of his swiftly-swung hoe.
"Ow!" Derek shouted, and hopped about a bit. "That was rather painful, Father."
Father went on turning soil, minding the worms he'd raised from the underground, careful to ignore Derek completely. He stood to wipe his brow with a handkerchief, and looked at the sky.
"Father?" Derek said, shaking worms off his shoe. "It's me. Derek."
The sky was clear, with only a few clouds and a few low-flying seraphim and cherubim floating in the glassy sea of Heaven.
"You cannot possibly imagine how hard it has been for me to concentrate and think of you, as a presence, in my mind," Derek said. "It seems so phony to me."
Mr. Thelman put down his instrument and took step towards the house.
"Father," Derek said, "can you give me your attention?"
Mr. Thelman walked steadily to the backdoor. For a moment he felt the impulse to stop. To turn back. But he wouldn't go back on his word.
"I know we haven't spoken for a long time," Derek said. "But, after all, I'm only visualizing you..."
Thelman opened the backdoor and closed it behind him.
Derek let a short, slim breath leave through his nose, and took himself out from his mind. He couldn't even imagine his own father speaking to him.
A small consolation to Sarah and John was the ready availability of parking space near the Bureau of Information. They entered the tastefully-appointed lobby and Sarah shyly asked the information booth as to the whereabouts of Incoming services.
Sarah started to feel some apprehension at her deceit, which always tinged her resolve with timorousness. Her husband did not know where she was. Her cousin thought she was looking for someone else's Incoming date. She was not accustomed to lying -- just to withholding certain things. All to cover for her curiosity...
"I hope this does not take too long," she said as she entered the elevator. "I must be home for dinner."
"Don't worry," her cousin said, "we're still on schedule." Not that there really was one.
The Incoming Reference Library was a vision in dark wood and bronze fixtures. People floated up and down the tall walls, pulling out folders, floating down to have them be inspected at leisure on quaint desks with slots where inkwells used to sit.
John enjoyed watching Sarah glow in awe and blush with confusion. It drew him back to their youth, and drew him to believe that she had not completely turned into a decisive yet seemingly compliant full-time hostess to existence in decent society. It made what would seem like an annoying dependency feel like trust and complicity.
"Oh my goodness," she said.
"Just think of the filing," John said. "I understand that if you go to the desk at the far corner of the room you can ask for help. Or I can do it for you, if you wish."
"Thank you, but no," she said. John heard her struggling not to be curt. "I would rather inspect them on my own."
John looked at her thin-lipped composure. "Very well," John said. "I shall be out on the street. I trust you can find your way out."
He turned to the elevator. He was accustomed to letting Sarah determine just how much he intruded on her existence. It had not been the first time she had excluded him, it wouldn't be the last. Strange how he would defer to her, as if she held some power over him; strange how he would allow her not to let him in. As if he didn't deserve her trust. In other situations he could exhort, negotiate, persuade, seduce, charm and draw people out into his confidence. Not as a power play, but as a measure of his desire to be, to put it simply, close to them. He could not stand to be separate from others, he lived for closeness, for involvement. For no other reason he was an attaché from the Celestial Interborough Agency, envoy to the suburbs of Heaven. For nothing but this he was known as a valued member of the celestial community, and of the intelligence community. Troubleshooter, celebrant of diversity and harmony, a communiqué of peace in the shape of his presence. But hands off Sarah when she said so.
He thought she could be unnecessarily secretive about the most unimportant things. He guessed even close relations would need to keep something to themselves, but...well, he was not going to turn back and ask her to satisfy his curiosity. It would be too much to ask.
He went to a public phone and called Portia, his associate, to check on his schedule, even though he didn't need to.
"Derek Thelman?" the clerk said, looking through a catalog of the existing.
"Yes," Sarah said. "Perhaps you can fetch me his file?"
"Sure." The clerk floated up like a spaceman through the vacuum of space and reached a shelf-level way too high for Sarah to follow with her eyesight. He dropped back down and handed her a thick envelope tied with string.
"You may look through it to your heart's content," the clerk said, smiling broadly.
"Thank you kindly," she said. She carried the heavy file -- so long a life, she thought -- towards a desk, and sat down to peruse it.
She cared not to read the file so much as to confirm the status of her son. She skipped through the documentation his guardian angel had already put in his file -- it wasn't up to date, only covering until last week. She reached the most recent entry -- a prayer he had posted up to heaven.
Yes, he was still alive.
The news that her son was, after all, not dead, was, strangely, good news. She had not spoken to him for many years, since he...since he did what Mr. Thelman had shielded her from knowing. But it was good news that he was alive.
It was, the records said, about twenty more years to go for Derek to kick the bucket.
How could have he gotten through to her? What did he want? What could she do to keep him from speaking to his father? It would upset him. And she would have to bear seeing him bitter and curt and quiet for many a day. He would have her pay for her son's imprudence. And she did not wish to be stuck in the afterlife with what she was stuck in life. No. She would not pursue the matter further. She would not look forward to seeing her son, nor think of it.
"I'm ready to go," Sarah said, walking up to the bench where John sat crosslegged, pensively.
John looked up to her. "Oh, I'm sorry," John said. "I was thinking of something."
"Shall we go?"
"We shall, Your Majesty, the bloody Queen."
Now, where did that come from? Sarah asked herself. Oh well.
John was leaving the Thelman's house, about to step into the MG, when he was assaulted by Derek, the apparition.
"Um..are you a friend of the family?" Derek asked.
"Derek!" John said. "Old chap, I'd hope to hear about your demise so as to welcome you to this next world, but, let me welcome you now, none-the-less -- "
"Who the hell are you and how do you know my name?"
John had forgotten that he was in the shape of an elderly Chinese woman.
"Oh, I'm sorry," John said, "give me a second to change."
Hunched back straightened, shoulders spread, breasts turned to muscles, arms and legs grew long and lanky and hairy, short, black, straight hair flowed over his ears, turned wavy light brown with blonde highlights, forehead stretched back along to meet with a receding hairline, thick lips became thinner, less pouty, until he practically had no lips, round jaw turned square, dark brown eyes turned cornflower blue. With quite a few less lines than what he had the last time he lived in flesh, he was state-of-the-art mid-thirties John Abbadon Raithe in a dandifying dark gray piped velour jacket and a wide red silk neck accessory tied up in a thick, flowery bow. It was anachronistic -- he was a glint in his father's eyes in the age of absinthe -- but it suited him.
"Right you are." John went to slap his unofficial nephew. His hand went through him.
"I'm not quite the ghost yet," Derek said.
"You're not?" John said. "How charming. May I ask how you've accomplished this?"
"Well," Derek said, "I'm not really here, this is just my visualization. You see, I'm imagining that I'm having this conversation with you so as to deal with unresolved feelings on my part that haunt me. You, in a sense, are just a figment of my dramatization."
"If I didn't know you well I'd be insulted," John said. "But no, I'm afraid I'm a very real experience to myself."
"I'd imagine you'd say that," Derek said.
"No matter," John said. "What can I do for you."
"I want you to ask Mother and Father to speak to me."
"Why don't you ask them that yourself? After all the trouble you've gone to be here -- "
"I have," Derek said. "They won't acknowledge my presence. I'm invisible to them. I begged and pleaded Mother for a response right in her face."
"Was she looking at the floor?"
"Father's no good either. But him not wanting to see me, at first, I can understand."
"I'm afraid that's a personal matter."
"I guess I'm no good to know, heh?" John said.
"Look, it's nothing personal, and it's nothing I'm terribly proud of."
"Very well," John said, "but I'm afraid that your Mum and Dad don't consider me as the voice of reason, not to mention compassion."
"I beg you to speak to them," Derek said, "intercede in my behalf. I really wish to speak with them. I am too old to carry old grudges...indulge me, please. I know that elysian fields are not for the living to visit, but I must speak with them."
"I'm afraid that's beyond my reach," John said. "Your mother and father, to be honest, don't keep me in their confidence, and they don't listen to me unless it's a function of how useful I am to them. My situation is compromised."
"But can't you do this for me," Derek said. "Can't you just ask them for me. It won't take anything, not so much as a blink of an eye."
"The dead don't blink," John said.
Derek looked exhausted. It evidently took a lot out of him to be here. All of his energy, all of his faith. John felt terrible that Derek had wasted his time.
"I just want to tell you," Derek said, "when you died, I always thought you watched over me. That you could see everything I did and thought and felt clearly. And that somehow terrified me, and thrilled me. It made me feel loved."
"I did," John said, smiling, slightly embarrassed. "That I did."
Derek could be so charming...
"What is it that you want to know," John said. "Why must you speak with them?"
"I just want to know if they're happy. I wouldn't know how to ask them."
"This is Heaven, you know."
"Are they happy?", Derek asked.
"Of course they are," John said. "As you know, they live what they consider is happy -- "
Something flickered inside John.
No, they're not bloody happy. He knew he was lying.
Derek looked at him, so much hope in his eyes.
" -- they like their house, and they enjoy their stability."
"Are you happy?"
Funny, how nobody ever bothered to ask him that question.
"I don't know," John said.
The sky above...
"Some kind of Heaven this is, then," Derek said.
The sky above them turned to dusk.
"I don't know," John said. "I don't really know what this is, sometimes."
They stared at each other.
Derek soon disappeared, and night soon fell after.
A few months later, Sarah and Albert wondered why John hadn't paid them a call at tea time, or at all. They passed the sugar to each other, quietly.
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