The Lord’s Work
Copyright © 2005 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.
Elmer roused himself from a dream.
He had been at a church picnic, sitting at a weathered cement table under a tree and eating fried chicken, pork and beans, buttered white bread, and green jello salad off a soggy paper plate. The pork and beans kept running into the jello salad, and he periodically tried to dam the salad with his plastic fork while wiping up bean sauce with his bread.
Also at the table sat his wife Dotty, looking as she had in her mid-thirties in that blue-and-white checked summer dress that had almost been new then, along with their daughter Mary Beth at thirteen and son Billy at ten.
Elmer stuffed half a slice of bread into his mouth and washed it down with a swig of orange soda.
“I’m done,” announced Billy, already clambering back over the bench. “Can I go play ball?”
“You don’t want more jello salad?” Dotty asked him.
“No.” He was on his feet. “I want to save room for dessert.”
“Well . . . ” Dotty glanced at Elmer, seeking his approval. “I suppose you can go play, if you don’t run yourself sick. Remember you’ve just eaten.”
With a cheer, Billy ran off. Elmer followed with his eyes to the adjoining field where a number of the dads and boys had a touch football game going. It was presided over by Reverend Larry himself, who acted as referee from the sidelines, looking like just another church member in a short-sleeved shirt with a large sweat stain between the shoulderblades.
Elmer experienced a passing thrill of joy at the sight of all those true Christian men just like himself, with all their wives and children and aging parents at the other tables around him. At this precious moment they were all full of food and the spirit of the Lord, all content and comfortable in each other’s presence.
“Anyone want more orange soda or white bread?” Dotty asked. “Remember, this will be our last meal today, and we have a long night ahead.”
Mary Beth took more orange soda, Elmer both soda and bread. It didn’t get better than this, he thought, as he dabbed the bread in his leftover sauce. This was his idea of Heaven — one long church picnic, going on for all Eternity.
Upon rousing, Elmer peered around him, the tenuous images fading like tendrils of mist. It was white everywhere — a cloudy white that shone brightly but not hurtfully to his spiritual eye. Dreams of life passed for sleep here, and slithered away even more quickly.
He was here now, and for evermore. Amen.
A pair of his peers glided out of the ubiquitous fog, sailing weightlessly past in uniform gowns only a shade dimmer than their surroundings. As they glanced beatifically in his direction, he found himself wondering whether they had been male or female in life. Given the shapeless gowns and an absence of hair of any kind, it was hard to tell.
A shiny turquoise globule erupted from the cloud floor some distance — it was impossible to say how far — in front of him. Ponderously oscillating like a heavy bubble, it rose out of sight.
Elmer, came a voice that was at once an androgynous fluting and an organ bass rumble.
He turned to face the glorious entity, its gown like a silver flame, brighter than the fog, with twin fountains of gold arcing wing-like from its back. Elmer could hardly look at the face, which beamed so luminously he could barely make out its individual features. But he knew they had to be beautiful.
You are ready to resume doing the Lord’s work, it said, the words not voiced — never voiced — but like a thought in his own head.
Elmer did not need to reply.
He drifted in the seraph’s wake through the endless mist and the everlasting silence. After an immeasurable but moderate interval a narrow beam of orange-gold light shot obliquely through the clouds, and a little further another of bright yellow. The seraph subtly adjusted their path, and the next beam — a clear, lucid green — flashed vertically straight ahead.
They reached a portal. Elmer recognized it as such right away: the column of cerulean brilliance that looked at first like revolving water or heated air. Taking his position alone, he stared into it and waited. In no time — since time meant nothing here — he saw the expected figure form within the column: dim and distant, then growing in size and detail, as though moving toward Elmer, until it became a rippling, full-sized human form.
He extended his hand. The being took it, and Elmer drew him out of the portal. Elmer knew it was a man even before it spoke; he had a man’s flat, nippleless chest.
“Where am I?” said the newcomer, his voice soft and breathy. “Is this . . . ?”
“This is the Afterlife,” said Elmer.
Elmer lowered his eyes in a gesture not quite a nod.
“Come with me,” he said. They floated away from the portal.
“You mean I made it?” said the man. “I can’t believe –” He glanced aside at Elmer. “I mean, I — I do believe . . .”
“You have nothing to fear now,” said Elmer.
“But — isn’t there a judgment of some sort?”
“You have already been judged.”
“Without a chance to defend myself? I mean . . . ”
Elmer turned to him. “Are you questioning the ways of the Lord?”
“No! Not at all. It’s just — well, it’s not exactly what I expected.”
“It is what is. Your expectations don’t matter in the Eternal Awareness of His Presence. You’ll eventually forget them.”
They continued through the white mists. Others drifted by, similarly bald and beatific.
“So, are you all angels?” the man asked.
“I am not a seraph. Just another Soul in Bliss, doing the Lord’s work.”
“Do I get something to wear like you? I mean, I don’t have to spend eternity like this, do I?” He gestured with a nod toward his hairless, naked form.
“You’ll get what you need when we’ve reached your destination.”
A fraction of eternity later the man added, “You know, I can’t quite get my head clear. This feels a little like being asleep — or drunk.”
“That’s your sense of the Peace Which Passes Understanding. You’re also probably a bit disoriented. You’ll get used to it.”
A cluster of oscillating globes, two large, two small, floated past them on an upward angle, evolving from sea green to violet. The man muttered something that sounded like “lava lamps,” but his words meant nothing to Elmer.
“Shouldn’t there be a lot more — uh, souls here?” the man said. “I mean, I would think Heaven would be a crowded place after all these eons, all those — you know — departed.”
“The Afterlife is vast,” answered Elmer. He himself had long ago ceased wondering why he never saw anyone he knew here.
A series of light beams — blue, green, violet, gold — shooting through the medium informed him that they approached the next gate. He adjusted, making certain the last beam was vertical.
“And just what do you do with Eternity?” the newcomer asked.
Peering through the white mist, Elmer made out the gowned figure of the next intermediary ahead.
“You’ll find out,” he said.
A slender cherub awaited them, clothed in silver with silver wing sprays, not so tall or luminous as a seraph. It reached out for the man, who hung still and silent in sudden awe. As he took the proferred hand, he acquired a robe of plain gray. Like Elmer, then, he would have work to do before his Eternal Rest. Without another word, the newcomer drifted away with the cherub. There were no goodbyes in the Afterlife.
Elmer dreamed, remembering.
It had indeed been a long night, but it was almost over now.
Even now Elmer could see the dawn’s earliest light bleeding away the darkness in the western sky. From where he sat — on a picnic blanket on the lumpy, unkempt lawn outside the prison gates — he watched Reverend Larry’s silhouette rise against the glow. The Reverend stretched, his shadow arms lifting almost in a gesture of worship, then dropping as he consulted his wristwatch. While Elmer watched, the halo of morning around the Reverend turned faintly orange.
“Okay, Christians,” Reverend Larry suddenly announced, clapping his hands. “We have less than a half hour. Time to wake everyone up and make a prayer circle.”
Elmer roused Dotty, who had been lightly snoring under a spare blanket, and together they stirred the kids in their sleeping bags. Mary Beth’s initial response was, “Go ‘way,” while Billy offered a nasal moan and promptly dropped off again. But another five minutes of effort and some punch from the Thermos got them sitting up.
The prayer circle ended up a bit close and ragged since many huddled against the dawn chill. But when the time came the Reverend bowed his head and everyone followed suit.
“Lord,” he began. Several yards away, a chant erupted from that liberal group that was also keeping vigil. Elmer could not make out the words. Something that ended with “should not kill.”
“Shut up!” yelled someone from their prayer circle.
“Never mind them, brother,” said the Reverend. “The Lord hears only us true Christians.” He resumed: “Lord — we feel You with us this night, and this morning, in this holy cause. We praise Your justice with all sinners, and Your mercy and goodness to all who truly walk in Your path.”
At this point, a sound like the beating of giant wings announced that a cluster of media people were approaching their encampment. Elmer tried to ignore the harsh white lights and the videocams and the microphones, even as he thrilled to them and lost track of what the Reverend was saying.
“Turn around,” he hoarsely hissed to his son. “Don’t look at them.”
“Are we going to be on TV?”
“Hush! You’re supposed to be praying.”
But as the Reverend Larry continued, Elmer found himself slipping out of time. He found himself remembering that they did later see themselves on TV, along with an interview with Reverend Larry about this vigil outside the prison, where a man was about to be executed.
None of the parish’s other good works — not the months-long blockading of that bloodstained women’s clinic, not the hounding of that lesbian high school principal out of office and out of town, not even the bonfire of those blasphemous biology textbooks from the local community college — had gotten the Reverend Larry and Calvary First Evangelical this much media attention.
Elmer found himself remembering, anachronistically, the latter career of Reverend Larry. After this prayer vigil made the news, the Reverend would find himself embraced by both the greater religious and Republican Right. He would lead more campaigns against homosexuals, against the teaching of evolution and sex in public schools, against the distribution of condoms in the community, and other causes dear to true Christian men and women. Eventually he would leave Calvary First Evangelical for wider, greener pastures — even to leading prayer breakfasts for the Republican Congress, where as a prominent insider he helped lead the Christian case against aid to the poor. He was on his way to becoming — many insisted — the most powerful religious figure in American conservative circles when the private jet he was on went down during a Mission to the Middle East. He died a martyr.
Elmer had considered Reverend Larry the greatest of men, and had always boasted about once knowing him. He would have followed him anywhere.
The Reverend’s prayer concluded with the words, “Let this act of divine justice we celebrate this morning be a reminder to all sinners in this sanctified land, this land founded by God-fearing men but now threatened with a multitude of evils, with the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, and of blasphemy and disbelief. Let there be many more mornings like this, when we can glorify Your ultimate victory and look forward to sharing in the triumph of Your Holy Kingdom, in Heaven and on Earth. In our Lord Jesus Christ’s name . . . Amen.”
They all joined in with “Amen.”
When, about a quarter of an hour later, the announcement came from the prison that the convict was dead, the prayer group broke out in spontaneous cheers.
Elmer woke to the Afterlife, the mortal memory fading. A seraph hovered before him, all shining silver and gold.
You are ready to do the Lord’s work, it said in his thoughts. Although here, Elmer knew, all thoughts were the Lord’s.
“As always,” he replied.
He sensed Yonder, as the seraph pointed. Elmer turned and drifted. In a timeless while, he approached a place where light beams shot past, flickering blue and green. Another portal . . . He sought direction from the seraph, but its luminous form had already melted into the mist.
Once more Elmer watched a watery column rotate within the beams, and an indistinct figure — like a reflection in a mirage — take human shape. As always. Elmer extended his hand.
A woman emerged, her naked body hairless and without blemish, like all who entered the Afterlife. It was, nevertheless, very much a woman’s body. As soon as her eyes fell on Elmer, she abruptly stopped, releasing his hand.
“Where is this?” she asked after a pause. And after another, “Who are you?”
“This is the Afterlife,” he said. “I am here to guide you.”
She closed her eyes.
“It’s the morphine,” she said. “It’s all the drugs the doctors are pumping into me to kill the pain.” She opened her eyes, dark green eyes, again. “This is some sort of lucid dream, isn’t it?”
“It is the Afterlife,” he said. “You’ve passed on.”
“But I don’t believe in this shit.”
Elmer stared at her. No response came to mind.
“Or am I allowed to say ‘shit’ here?” she added.
“Come with me,” he said then. He turned, floating forward.
“Okay, I’ll go along,” she said. “But if this really is the Afterlife, I must admit I’m surprised I’m here. I never was much of a believer. I mean, I lived a good life, I think. I gave to charity, worked for the homeless and poor. But I was basically a humanist. You could even say I lived morally — in my fashion — but because I thought it was the right thing to do, not because I expected any rewards in Heaven. Well, ‘morally’ if you exclude my sex life, which was, well . . . ”
Elmer found himself formulating some pointed responses, but volunteering them was not part of his job.
“This dream isn’t ending,” she said quietly. “This is all wrong.” And after another hesitation, “I’d guess I’d better keep my mouth shut.”
He saw no need to reply. He thought he noticed a slight quaver in her voice when she followed with, “Where are you taking me?”
“To the next portal,” he answered.
“So are you telling me there really is a Heaven and — a Hell? I mean, how does this work?”
“You have already been judged,” he said.
There was a short pause, as short was measured here.
“But I did lead a good life,” she insisted. “I really did. I would say that I practiced better, more humane principles than many people who considered themselves believers. I just couldn’t accept that garbage that . . .”
Elmer sensed a grim smile forming behind the white mask of his sempiternal face. He suspected a special judgment awaited this non-believing harlot, this mocker of faith. His privilege in escorting her to her doom had to represent an election of some sort for his excellent service to the Lord. Perhaps he was being prepared to advance into the angelic orders.
“Oh, God . . . ” she muttered before falling silent.
Too late to pray now, he thought, as an iridescent cluster of wobbling globes drifted by.
A fraction of eternity later, a broad violet beam obliquely pierced the mists. It was like the beams that marked other portals but larger, even more coherent, clearly cylindrical. Elmer oriented himself parallel to it, just as another of clear, searing blue flashed by. He heard the woman at his side gasp. About the time a third beam appeared–this one vertical and a brilliant green, with smoky tendrils within it giving it the look of living marble. But it did not instantly disappear, and Elmer saw that it was in fact a column, a column of solid light. As the ubiquitous white mists thinned, he saw more columns just like it. He led the woman, who had fallen wholly silent.
Suddenly, the mists rolled apart. Two pillars of blazing light stood before them, of a color that was not visible but a golden searing of the eye.
Elmer had never seen anything quite like this before. Dutifully, he guided the woman toward the immortal portal. As they approached, the faint mist between the golden pillars gradually turned greenish, the greens gradually sharpening and differentiating into separate shapes. He realized he was peering through a gateway.
In fact, the pillars of light marked the yawning entrance to a garden, almost a jungle, made of varicolored light, with jade and emerald greens predominating. It was breathtakingly beautiful — or would have been if Elmer had had any breath to take — and peace and order reigned within. He stood with his charge just inside the gateway, staring in the first amazement he had felt since — well, since he had first arrived in the Afterlife.
“It — it really is Paradise,” the woman gasped. “I never thought . . .”
If she said more, Elmer did not hear it. He had just spotted a couple of human forms emerging from the illuminated foliage, hand in hand. Both were naked, their flesh glowing with divine white light. Both were male.
Elmer drifted forward along a broad road of gold fluff that stretched straight through the garden, his feet finding purchase of a sort on the cloudy, cottony surface. The woman followed. He heard what sounded like water flowing somewhere. He realized it was the first background noise he had heard in some time; he had grown accustomed to the absolute silence of the mists.
Movement to one side drew his attention. He noticed white limbs writhing in the garden growth and veered toward them. His eyes picked out the surface of a small, clear pool, surrounded by giant flowers of phosphorescent yellow, magenta, violet, and blue, and iridescent fruits that shone with their own light amid the leaves. On the near side of the pool several luminous nude bodies intertwined. Stunned, he stopped to count one, two, three, four souls — both male and female — with flesh like soft ivory caressing and being caressed.
“Oh, sorry,” came a man’s voice from the sensuous, sinuous heap. One figure disentangled itself and rose. “I should have met you at the gate.”
A tall, well-built form turned to the woman; he pressed himself against her, embracing her and planting a deep-felt kiss on her mouth.
“I am Mateu,” he said upon drawing back. “And you?”
“Sylvia. Is this really the Afterlife?”
“For some of us,” said Mateu.
He stroked her hip with one hand while guiding her toward the pool and the others. On the mossy ground, the caressing had evolved into something that Elmer had never seen in the Afterlife and had never expected to see.
“Ozzie’s going to love this,” the woman said. “If he makes it.”
“The man I lived with.”
Mateu drew Sylvia into the others.
Forgotten, Elmer watched only a little longer before pivoting and lurching away. No sooner had he reached the center of the road of golden floss than another couple floated by, a woman wrapped around a man, the two slowly spinning in a copulative embrace.
Elmer was long unused to thinking, but he tried now. He gazed far down the broad road until it vanished in the general emerald green. He peered above the vast, paradisaical garden to skies of pale violet with misty streaks of yellow-gold. Far, far off in the distance he detected the ethereal strains of voices and pure instrumental tones. And everywhere he looked more souls lounged or strolled or floated, nude and blissfully intertwined in twos, threes, fours.
As if trying to wake from a nightmare — dimly remembered from life — Elmer squeezed his eyes shut and tried to scream.
The scent of sweat, bus metal, and exhaust. The jostling vibrations of the road. The susurrus of snores and whimpers above the diesel engine.
They dozed beside one another all the way home — daughter Mary Beth tucked into Elmer’s armpit, son Billy lying across his mother’s lap in the seat in front of them — all huddled under the Reverend Larry’s charismatic umbrella, cuddling drowsily and smugly in a warm glow of weary consummation.
“Daddy,” said Mary Beth. Elmer was surprised; he had thought she was asleep.
“I’ve been thinking. Are you sure it’s right for us to pray for someone’s death?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, that prayer vigil last night. We were praying that the criminal would die and go straight to –” She hesitated only a moment. “– the bad place, weren’t we?”
“He was a sinner.” He saw Dotty rustle in front of him and lowered his voice. “Besides, you don’t think Reverend Larry would lead us wrong, do you?”
“No, but –” She stirred against his chest. “A couple weeks ago Mrs. Beakins at Sunday school talked about the Bible story of how the Jews were going to stone Mary Magdalene to death,”– she raised her voice at the end of each phrase, as though each were a question. “– but Jesus made them stop, saying that only people who were without sin could cast stones. She said that meant that according to Jesus we weren’t supposed to judge others because then we would be judged.”
Elmer thought a moment. “I’m sure that doesn’t mean we can’t judge sinners. It just means we shouldn’t judge other true Christians.”
“So we can, like, judge Jews or Catholics?”
“Sure. Or atheists or liberals or Unitarians.”
Mary Beth stared straight ahead, pensively chewing her lips.
“I’m sure that’s what Reverend Larry would say,” he added. “But we can ask him if you like.”
“Okay,” she said after another moment’s thought. “Maybe later.” She settled into the wet ribcage of his shirt and soon dozed off again.
Elmer squirmed in the heat of the bus, adjusting his damp arm around his daughter. He peered ahead at the seat behind the bus driver, where the Reverend, still only their Reverend, sat alone, his dark blond head dangling loosely in semi-sleep.
The scent of sweat, bus metal, and exhaust. The jostling vibrations of the road. The susurrus of snores and whimpers above the diesel engine.
He woke to the silence of the mists. A seraph hovered in front of him.
Why do you disturb the Peace? blared its words in his head.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“How could those sinners be enjoying Paradise, while I continue lingering in this . . . ?” He glanced around the blankness for a descriptive word.
Void? the seraph suggested.
“This isn’t Heaven, is it?”
All receive the Afterlives they deserve from among those they expect. You were not one of the best of souls, nor one of the worst.
Elmer did not dare note aloud that this hardly answered his question. But he knew the seraph could read his thoughts.
“But why? I did the Lord’s work on earth, didn’t I? I have done it here.”
How do you know what the Lord wants you to do?
“I have never questioned.”
Elmer fought to make sense of the seraph’s responses.
“I still don’t understand.”
Are you doubting the ways of the Lord?
“No!” A fraction later, “But . . . ”
You long to see Eternal Justice at work.
The seraph, its brilliant face as always unreadable, studied Elmer. With a shudder of both fear and pleasure, Elmer felt its thought penetrate him.
You want the Afterlife of rewards and punishments. The Afterlife you had come to expect.
There are many ways to do the Lord’s work. You will go wherever you can best serve Justice?
“Oh — yes!”
The seraph, without moving, seemed to nod.
In a thunderclap of cosmic illumination, Elmer received a three-word command he had never expected to hear here.
The thick smoke around him glowed red and orange with the ubiquitous fires, the blazing rock walls. He knew it was hot, but he was surprisingly comfortable in a scaly red suit that clung to him like an extra layer of skin. The sulfurous reek had not troubled him at all after the first minim of eternity.
A lost soul reeled into view through the smoke. The human figure was covered with scabrous burns, blisters, and boils, like a too-grilled sausage. It was not possible to distinguish male from female here, not even from the pitch of the screams. Elmer thrust his many-pronged spear at the sinner. One of the prongs pierced the tortured flesh; a crusty red wound on the damned’s chest burst with a thick yellow ichor that sizzled and bubbled.
The soul shrieked and fell face-down on the glowing, semi-molten floor, where it writhed with an agonized wail. As it rolled to its back, Elmer readied his tool for another jab. His sight fell on the seared and oozing patchwork of the face, and recognition dimly glimmered in his sempiternal mind.
“Reverend?” he heard himself muttering.
The haunted eyes jerked in Elmer’s direction. But the eyeballs were the opaque gray-green of overboiled yolks and caked over with cooked juices, preventing any recognition. Elmer paused, murkily pensive. He realized that he understood nothing, but that it was not his job to understand. Then, in the ferocious heat, all thought evaporated.
He would perform the labors the Lord decreed.
Elmer plunged his prod into the steaming belly.