Photo by Jim Gourley
John and Marsha White sat in matching cloth-of-gold Lane recliners watching Daily Praises on a wall-sized flat-screen HD television with Dolby surround sound. Neither could say how long they'd been there. John's second wife Elizabeth was out on the deck singing praises and pulling pork for a barbecue they were throwing later for a few close friends and family. John's first wife, Natalie of the Angelic Voice, was leading the Daily Praises choir on television. Marsha's first husband, Trevor, was in hell.
John picked up the remote and changed the channel to Devotional Praises.
Marsha frowned at the new choice of music. "Again? They always sing that song," she said. "Every time you turn it on, they're singing it. You'd think they could learn a different song."
"It's a good song," John said, but he changed the channel to Joyful Praises, which Marsha seemed to prefer.
"If Jesus Christ were standing before me right now," John said, "You know what I'd ask? I'd ask Him to let Hank Williams out of hell."
"You know what I'd ask for?" Marsha said. "Xanax."
"You don't need Xanax," John said.
"I know," she sighed. "I just thought it would be nice."
Nicolas, their third child, crossed the room headed for the door, a book bag slung over one shoulder. "Where are you off to now?" John asked.
"Down to the square to sing praises," Nick said.
"I thought you were staying for my party," Marsha whined motherly.
"I promised I'd meet Phillip at the square to sing praises," Nick said.
"I was wondering where he was," Marsha said. "He's been away for ages."
"He's singing praises, Mom," Nick said. "You know how he gets."
"Of course," Marsha said. "I just would like to see... my son every once in a while."
"You can't complain if Phillip seems distant, dear," John said as he changed the channel to Reverent Devotions. "After all, you did arrange his murder." Phillip was Marsha's much-lamented abortion from her foolish teenage years. It had taken a fair quantity of the Blood of the Lamb to wash that sin from her immortal soul, but she'd managed to pull it off before the end.
"That was a long time ago. Whatever happened to forgive and forget?" Marsha pleaded heavenward, out of pure habit more than anything else.
"Nobody's holding it against you, Marsha," John said. "After all, if the Lord has forgiven you, that's good enough for me. Phillip's still a little sensitive about it, but can you really blame him? You were supposed to be his mother."
"I was young and foolish. I didn't know what I was doing and the Lord wasn't in my heart. Besides, my father would have killed me if he'd found out I was pregnant," Marsha argued.
"So in your cowardice you chose to murder your own child," John said. "Perfectly understandable, although I hardly see how that distinguishes you from your father. May he burn in hell forever."
"Praise! But I've paid for my sin, haven't I, John?" she said. "I'm forgiven, aren't I?"
"Of course you are, dear," John said. "You wouldn't be here otherwise. If you're good enough for the Lord, you're certainly good enough for us."
"Well, I'm off," Nick sighed. He'd stood through this argument a thousand times before.
"OK. Say hello to your real dad if you see him," John said.
"Will do," Nick said. The door closed quietly behind him. John switched the channel to Devotional Interludes.
"You always have to bring that up, don't you?" Marsha snipped.
"Bring what up?" John asked.
"My infidelity," Marsha said.
"Well. You're forgiven, aren't you? I don't see why we have to pretend it didn't happen," John said.
"One time, John. Just one time in all our years together was I ever unfaithful to you."
"Once was enough, wasn't it, Marsha? Nick was born, wasn't he? And I got to spend the rest of my life thinking he was my own flesh and blood. But I'm not complaining. I love him like he was my real son. Besides, if you're good enough for the Lord, you're good enough for me."
"Please stop saying that," Marsha said. She reached across the gap between their chairs to touch John's hand. "I hate it when you say that."
He smiled at her. "Stop saying what?"
"That thing you always say, about me being good enough for the Lord," Marsha said. "Aren't I good enough for you without the Lord's blessing? What if He hadn't forgiven me? Would you still love me?"
John flicked through several channels until he reached the 600s. Visions of Hell appeared on the screen and blasted through the speakers at a deafening decibel. Souls writhed in torment, tortured by devils, consumed in flames, drowned in rivers of blood, screamed paeans of agony Marsha secretly found more musically relevant than the same rotation of five songs on Devotional Praises. John continued to click through the channels until he found the one he was looking for.
Trevor Black, Marsha's first husband, hung upside-down from a rusty hook stabbed through the heel of his left foot. His stomach was split open and his entrails were wrapped around his arms, head and neck, strangling and smothering him while he tried to scream for mercy. A slow fire burned on the floor just below his head, roasting his skull to an even black char.
"Still love him?" John asked.
"Turn it off, John," Marsha croaked. She wrenched her gaze away. "Please!"
"OK." John changed the channel again, to a biography about the antichrist called "The Last Days of the Antichrist."
"You ought to watch more Visions of Hell, Marsha," John said. "It reminds us of how lucky we are to be in heaven. Plus, it's fun to find people you know, see what kind of torments they're enduring."
"It's horrible," Marsha said. "If you don't remember, we have children there, John! I don't see how you can find joy in watching people being tortured."
"Sinners," John reminded her. "Not people, sinners—the unforgiven, the unshorn, the unrepentant. They deserve everything they get."
John clicked to the Divine Comedy channel in time to catch the beginning of one of his favorite shows, The Kikes of Hazzardi.
Esau enters, rubbing his belly.
Esau—Man, I been out all day herding goats. Am I starving! What's in the pot, Bro?
Jacob—Some grits, but it's all we have and I haven't eaten yet. Find your own food.
Esau—Brother, I'd sell my soul for a bowl of them grits.
Jacob—What am I going to do with your soul? Can I feed my family with your soul? Can I wear your soul when it gets cold? Get out of here with your soul.
Esau—But I'm starving!
Jacob—If you had something real to offer, something tangible, like, say, your inheritance, that would be different.
Esau—Please, Jacob! Anything you say! You know I'm hypoglycemic. Look at my hands shaking.
Jacob—Here. Sign this contract.
Esau quickly dashes his name on the sheepskin, then sits down and shovels grits from the bowl into his hungry mouth. At first, he makes yummy noises. But as his stomach begins to fill, he slows, and a frown appears on his face.
Esau—Hey. Wait a minute!
Jacob—You signed the contract, Esau. We have an agreement. What do I look like, your lawyer? You're a grown man, you can make your own decisions. If you want to be so foolish as to trade your birthright for a bowl of grits, who am I to stop you? So I profit by it. Is that my fault? I'm only being smart here, looking out for my future family. Don't you know God has made a covenant with me? My family will one day be like the grains of sand on the beach. How am I supposed to support all those kids without a birthright? If you have a problem with that, talk to God, don't talk to me. Ape!
John dissolved in laughter. "Kee! Kee! Kee! I love it when Jacob calls Esau an ape," he said between guffaws. Marsha wasn't laughing. "Get it? Esau's all hairy. So Jacob calls him... what's the matter with you, Marsha? You used to love this show."
"That show," Marsha said in disgust. "It's racist and anti-Semitic."
"Honey, it's OK to make fun of Jews now," John said. "They're all in hell."
"John, what if we are in hell?" Marsha said.
"What if this is hell?"
"What are you talking about? We were Raptured, or don't you remember?" John asked.
"No, now that you mention it, I don't remember. Do you?" Marsha asked accusingly.
"Of course I remember!" He clicked the remote control again, changing to the Left Behind channel—back to back repeats of the Left Behind movies staring Kirk Cameron. Mr. Cameron had promised to come to their party this afternoon, and they were looking forward to finally meeting him.
"What was the Rapture like?" Marsha asked.
"Well, I... well. You really had to be there, Marsha. I don't know how to describe it. It was just too beautiful for words," John said.
"Sure. That's what all the praises sing, too. This is too beautiful for words, that is such indescribable joy, blah blah blah. But are you happy, John? Are you truly happy?"
"Of course I'm happy, Marsha," John smiled. "I'm here, in heaven, with my family, singing praises, streets of gold, praising the Lord, being in heaven. How could I not be happy in heaven?"
Marsha slid out of her chair and knelt beside her husband. She looked up at him, begging with her eyes for him to understand what she was really trying to say, just this once. She couldn't keep her doubts bottled up any longer.
"When you were alive, didn't you think there would be more to heaven than this?" she asked hopefully.
"All we do is sit around singing praises, going down to the square to sing praises, watching praises on television. That's all that's ever on TV—praises this, praises that, make a joyful noise. And if it isn't praises, it's Visions of Hell so we can watch people we loved being torn apart and raped by demons. Or we watch racist comedies, or documentaries about the Last Days, war, nuclear explosions... "
"Don't forget the gnashing of teeth," John said.
"And these idiotic Left Behind movies! It... it's Rapture porn, John. And it's rotting our souls!"
"I'm not rotting. Do you see me rotting?" John said.
"I feel it in my heart of hearts, John. Take the praises. Praises, praises all the time, morning, noon and..." She almost said night, but there was no night here, only eternal glorious neverending day. "...and all day long. You'd think even God would get bored. Is God so insecure, he's got to have ten billion souls gathered around him every minute of the day telling him how wonderful he is? It's pathetic!"
"Marsha, you're treading awfully close to blasphemy," John warned.
"How can it be blasphemy, John?" Marsha shrieked, her voice tinted with growing hysteria. She clutched his knee, fingernails digging into his skin. "This is heaven. There's no sin in heaven, so technically I can't utter a blasphemy if I'm in heaven, can I? By definition, nothing I do here is a sin."
"Even angels fall, Marsha," John said.
"Don't you remember the nights, John? Starlit nights by the lake, how beautiful they were? But there's no night here, John. Only day."
"The glory of the Lord outshines..."
"Everything! Nothing changes. Nothing grows. There's no rest, no sleep. Food tastes like ashes because we never hunger. Wine has no sweetness because we do not thirst. Is this how heaven is supposed to be?"
John noticed Marsha's grip on his knee was becoming quite painful, and in heaven, there wasn't supposed to be any pain. Heaven was supposed to be perfect, yet here they were arguing like beings of corrupt flesh. Marsha was clearly unhappy, and this was making John unhappy. He'd been promised an eternity of unbroken happiness and had traded all his earthly pleasure to get it.
So John was relieved when the front door of their mansion burst open and three samite-clad angels entered, blonde hair flying angrily, flaming swords drawn and snow white wings sweeping from floor to ceiling. Two took Marsha under either arm and dragged her from the floor.
"But I'm saved! Saved! All my sins washed away!" she screamed as they carried her through the ceiling. The third angel remained behind, appraising John with a cold, unforgiving blue eye.
"How do you feel, John White?" the angel asked after an uncomfortable silence.
"Better," John said.
"S'gone now," John said.
"Very much. Praise the Lord."
"Do you think you'll miss your wife?" the angel asked.
"Lucky for me, I have two others," John said. He heard the sound of Elizabeth's voice singing praises out on the deck.
"Good," the angel said. "Praise the Lord."
"Praise the Lord," John said.
As the angel faded from sight, John entered 666 on the remote—the New Arrivals Channel on his Visions of Hell Premium Package. The screen filled with a panoramic view of the newly-damned being dragged through the pitiless iron gates of hell. There was Marsha, the angels handing her over to a pair of squat, leering, Priapic demons. Elizabeth entered the den with two pulled pork BBQ sandwiches and took a seat in Marsha's empty cloth-of-gold Lane recliner.
"Praise the Lord, what happened to Marsha?" she asked as she handed a sandwich to John. He ate it like he hadn't eaten in ages.