“Keep your voice down. I don’t want either of us to get into trouble. There are some things that aren’t talked about up here.”
Jebediah Senior and Jebediah Junior were meeting in heaven for the first time since the former’s death thirty-five years earlier in a car crash and the latter’s recent shackles-shedding on account of congestive heart failure.
After the initial joy of seeing one another on the other side, they quickly reverted to the relationship they’d had when Junior was a tadpole.
This was particularly awkward since Junior was now, in a peculiar oddity of cosmic timekeeping, 10 years older than his father. Such were the logical contradictions one had to surmount on a daily basis in the afterlife.
From earliest days when Junior was a young-un, the competition between the two of them had been fierce. Supposedly in an effort to toughen up his son and prepare him for the real world, Jeb Senior had never let his progeny win a ping pong game, horseshoe contest, wrestling match or spelling bee.
Jeb Junior fully understood the argument but he suspected the motive. He knew very well his father had a taste for winning that could never be sated.
When Jeb Senior insisted on making comparisons between their life journeys, Jeb Junior couldn’t help but respond, “Can’t you leave it alone, Dad. We’re in heaven, for heaven’s sake. Isn’t everything supposed to be sweetness and light?”
“Yes, but I’m curious. You’re here now and we’ve got time to kill. I want to know how you made out after I was gone. Had a lot of success, did you?”
“I did okay. I was lucky in having a public sector job that led to a great pension. I was able to afford a cottage for my family every summer. You know I was married to Lucinda. We got hitched a few years before you died and eventually had a child, a wonderful girl.”
“Good for you. Of course your mother and I raised a son. That was a little harder. Boys are ruffians. And the economic times were tougher.”
“Girls are more difficult to nurture, Dad, everybody knows that. It has something to do with their wayward hormones. And then you’ve gotta beat off the boys with sticks when your daughter becomes a teenager.”
“Yeah, see, that confirms it. Boys need to be kept in line. Like you, for instance.”
“There you go again, always trying to one-up me. If you’re keeping score on the number of children we each had, the fact is I also had another child. It was under circumstances I’m not proud of when I was in my 40s.”
“Shsh. We don’t usually speak about such things around here.” Jeb Senior was now whispering. “You had a girlfriend behind Lucinda’s back?”
“Yes and I treated her with dignity. I set up a financial package to take care of our out-of-wedlock son. And I made sure Lucinda would never find out. I had that written into the legal agreement. I did what I could to the best of my abilities. I can only assume that’s one of the reasons I was let in here.”
“Well if you were nice to both women and you took care of your love child that certainly does count for something. But it’s a grey area.”
“I like that. I bet there are a lot of grey areas between heaven and hell.”
“That’s for sure. Just a head’s up, watch what you say. You never know when the wrong angel may overhear you.”
“Huh?” Junior was incredulous. “Are you telling me one’s ‘membership’ can be revoked? That’s something I never would have considered.” He looked worried.
“It doesn’t happen very often, but it is possible. I’ve seen it happen.”
“A while ago.”
There was a nervous twitch in Jeb Senior’s manner that propelled Junior back to earlier times. It made him suspicious.
“Knowing how you used to operate, did you play a role?” asked Junior.
“How could you think such a thing?” said Senior.
“I recall the way you often manipulated things behind the scenes. By the way, where’s Mom? When she passed on seventeen years back I assumed she’d be coming to this place.”
“She didn’t make it.”
“No, why not?”
“Well actually she did make it, but then she was sent down.”
“What? She’s the one whose ticket was pulled? What did you do?”
“Ticket? Interesting choice of words. Come on, I couldn’t see myself spending eternity with your mother. She’s a terrific gal and I’d never deny it, but enough is enough. She spent us into the poor-house. Until the day she died, I was always chasing around trying to cover her credit card overdrafts.”
“But surely no-one was coming after you for money up here?”
“Are you kidding? Financial companies have phone operators who can track you down anywhere. They’ve never heard the phrase, ‘You can’t take it with you.’”
A sly look came over Senior’s face, “Besides, we have access to certain assets that can be bartered for cash. Examine closely and you’ll see my gown is a knock-off, not the original.”
Junior couldn’t help himself. He felt the fabric. His father was telling the truth. It was rough gabardine, not the usual filmy gauze.
Jeb Senior continued, “I suppose I could have gone to the celestial credit manager and arranged to stagger re-payments under an umbrella loan, but I didn’t feel like it.”
“So what did you do?”
“Instead, I casually mentioned to Gabriel that your mother had a drawer full of unpaid parking violations back on earth. She’d stiffed municipal authorities from one end of Ontario to the other. Surely that was a punishable moral offence.”
Junior remembered coming across his mother’s stash when she died and the sizable chunk it had taken out of her estate to settle the arrears.
Still, he could only shake his head sadly. “How do you live with yourself?”
“Well of course I don’t really have to, do I? I am dead, after all.”
“I suppose you think that’s an additional feather in your cap. A further reason to crow about your great accomplishments.”
“I’ve always tried to be modest about my achievements.”
“Shsh. Don’t say that word.”
“Another grey area?”
“You can get away with saying the hades word depending on the context. But it has to be pretty clear you’re speaking of the place with contempt. Don’t ever use the word lightly.”
“I see. It’s the location that shall remain nameless. Doesn’t that make it more special?”
“ I have to admit to a certain curiosity about what goes on down there. I’ve noticed most of my former friends are nowhere to be seen in these parts. And by friends, I also mean ex-girlfriends.”
“You heard about my indiscretion. I don’t want to hear about yours.”
“That would be indiscretions with an ‘s’. Okay, okay, maybe I’m bragging again. Did you get to see the world in your lifetime? That’s one of the things I really enjoyed, traveling to far off shores.”
“As I remember it, you never took any trips until after you retired. Then you always got sick whenever you landed somewhere exotic and medical help was hard to track down. Mom dreaded those excursions. And there were few foreigners who really made a positive impression on you.”
“That’s true. And you know what? There are a great number of foreigners up here as well. I don’t understand the rationale.”
“Must be another grey area,” Junior kidded. Then he paused for a moment as another thought came to him. He decided not to go where the subject of color might take him. He’d spent a lifetime pedaling away from his father’s prejudicial inclinations. It would be a low blow to introduce the matter in this contest for experiential bragging rights.
“But you must have some pretty good memories from when you were a child,” said Jeb Senior. “I certainly remember those years with affection.”
“I do admit there were many things you did that were pretty special. I can’t believe you used to take me to play hockey every weekend year after year during the winter. Remember how we’d get up at 5 a.m. Saturday mornings and drive out of the city to an arena in some far away farming community. That was really nice of you.”
“But then I’d score a couple of goals for my team and all you could talk about on the drive home was how I had to guard against becoming a sports bum. I should concentrate on my school work because I couldn’t count on becoming a professional athlete. You couldn’t let me enjoy my moment in the spotlight.”
“There are important lessons each of us has to learn and I was trying to keep you on the right path.”
“Sure, that was it,” Junior said sarcastically. No, I’m not being fair. You may have had your faults, but you were a pretty good father to me in many ways.”
”A better father than you were to your children?”
“Perhaps. But who knows? Can we ever know? Maybe now I’m the one being generous.” Junior pondered for a second. “Where’s Grandpa? Did your father make it up here? Do you ever see him?”
“He’s around somewhere. But he has his own set of friends, a pack of old bridge-playing cronies. You wouldn’t believe how hard he was on me when I was a child. He never cut me any slack. Now we wave a greeting when we fly past each other. That’s about it.”
Junior gave his father a fleeting smile. “I think I do know one thing. I’ve got more self-awareness than you.”
“And what good has that done you? We all end up in the same place.”
“Not exactly. I don’t see Mom anywhere in the vicinity.” That brought the conversation to an awkward standstill for a while.
“What drove me crazy was how you always had to be the centre of attention,” said Jeb Junior.
“Yes and you always took a superior tone. You knew better than me about everything.”
Junior surprised his father when he said, “I agree. That is annoying. I got the same attitude from my own children. As you grow older, it becomes harder and harder to keep up with things and the kids have no patience. That’s the way it is. Anyway, so you know, I stopped blaming you for my problems a long time ago.”
“Yes, I realized I had to take responsibility for my own actions. Every time I did something stupid, I couldn’t simply blame you for leaving me damaged. I had to repair myself.”
“Good for you. Maybe I did have a good effect on you after all. You know I did always look out for your best interests.”
“Well, you were obviously a better parent to me than your father was to you. There’s that to say, at the very least.”
“Thank you. You don’t know how much that means to me.” Jeb Senior might have had a tear in his eye.
Undeterred by his father’s earlier admonition against bad language, Jeb Junior added, “Okay Dad, tell me honestly. How the hell did you manage to get past the Pearly Gates?”
“I guess I can tell you the truth. But keep it under your halo. I used to run into angels when I was selling life insurance. Because I was kind enough to write some policies I probably shouldn’t have, I was able to call in a favor or two. What about you? Have you figured out how you managed to get accepted?”
“It’s been mystifying me, no doubt about it. But I think I’ve finally discovered the answer. My old man pulled some harp strings.”