Douglas waves. He calls out her name. He’s just about to run towards her when St. Peter claps him on the back. The gesture is hard, forceful, and not entirely friendly.
“How you doing, Douglas?” St. Peter asks.
“Is it really her?”
“Can I go to her?”
“First, we need to talk,” St. Peter says. He turns Doug around and leads him towards a wooden ramp about a hundred feet away. Their steps pick up tiny white wisps of cloud as they walk. St. Peter keeps silent. His hand remains on Douglas’s shoulder, which makes Douglas feel like he’s being arrested, or at the very least taken in for questioning. They reach the ramp and walk to the top of it. St. Peter hugs him, tightly, then holds Douglas’s shoulders. He looks deeply into Douglas’s eyes in a way that should be uncomfortable but isn’t.
“You were not a very good husband.”
“Inattentive, self-centred, conceited. You flirted with everything in a skirt.”
“But I never slept around on Beth. Not even once.”
“Up here, adultery lives in the heart, not the deed.”
“But, near the end, you tried to redeem yourself.”
“I did. I really did.”
“You bathed her, changed her, cared for her. Gave her hope when she had none. Convinced her to let go when the pain was finally too much.”
“It was … a hard time.”
“Do you think it was enough? Do you think it redeemed you?”
“Why are you asking me?”
“This is very important. Look into your heart,” St. Peter says, then jabs Doug in the chest with his index finger.
Doug looks down, closes his eyes, and looks into his heart. This seems much easier to do just outside the Gates of Heaven. He sees a sequence of moments, and in each one, he has put her second: the numerous times he worked late, let her go to bed alone, gave birthday presents devoid of meaning.
“I’m still not sure,” Douglas said.
“Well, we’ll know soon enough,” St. Peter says. He hands Douglas a helmet. The helmet is painted red, white, and blue, just like the platform Beth is standing on. The moment Douglas takes it into his hands, a motorcycle appears beside him — or perhaps it was always there and he, at that moment, noticed it for the first time. The bike, a chopper, has high handlebars, lots of chrome. It is also painted red, white, and blue.
St. Peter snaps his fingers and the hoop Beth holds over her head bursts into flame.
“Do you want to get into Heaven?”
“I didn’t even think it existed.”
“Is that a yes or a no?”
“Is it really Heaven? Like in Sunday school?”
“Yes it is.”
“Then yes, yes I do.”
“To get into Heaven, you must ride this motorcycle down this ramp, jump into the air, and fly through that burning hoop held by your wife. Should you make it, you will land in Heaven.”
“That’s the deal.”
“But I’ve never driven a motorcycle before.”
“Douglas, only you know whether you deserve to get into Heaven. Your conviction will carry you through. Or it won’t. It’s all up to you. Put your helmet on.”
Douglas puts the helmet on. St. Peter helps him with the strap. Then he gets onto the chopper. He looks at Beth. Her smile is gone. A bead of sweat runs down her forehead. Douglas hopes it’s from the heat of the flames.
“How do you do this?” he asks St. Peter.
“A bike has two sides. The left side is for gears. The right side is for starting and stopping. Clutch is that thing your foot is on. Shift gears with your left hand. At the bottom is first, half-click goes into neutral, then it’s half-clicks to second, third, and fourth. On the right, the silver handle is your break, just like a ten-speed. Twist the black part away from you to accelerate. Clear?”
“How does it start?”
St. Peter reaches over and presses a red button on the right handle. The motor starts, a loud blasphemous roar that reverberates off the Gates.
Douglas turns the throttle. St. Peter steps backwards. Douglas puts out the clutch and the motorcycle starts forwards. He wobbles to the left, he leans to the right, corrects, then he goes down the ramp. As he gathers speed, he shifts into second. The ramp is much longer than it looks.
“She really did love you,” Douglas says, quietly. He doesn’t realize he’s using the third-person as he shifts into third.
Douglas continues down the ramp. The end is in sight. He isn’t going fast enough. He shifts into fourth and twists the throttle but it sticks—or maybe it’s that his hand, his will, his conviction isn’t strong enough to turn it. He tries it again, still can’t move the throttle, looks into his heart and sees that it’s filled with doubt. He remains unconvinced that he’s worthy of Heaven.
This is why he cannot twist the throttle. It isn’t the machinery: it’s him.
The end of the ramp is coming up fast. Douglas needs to double his speed if he’s going to make it. He looks up, sees Beth, tries to think of a memory, a good memory, something to prove that she loved him. He pictures their wedding, their children, buying their first car, their first house. He still can’t twist the throttle. He hits the curve of the ramp, starts going upwards, gravity already winning, reducing his speed. He looks up, sees Beth, and even in this moment, the sight of her makes him smile. It stretches across his face and sits there in a unique way. The last time he felt it there—not any smile but this smile—was three days before she died. He remembers sitting in front of her bed, reading, looking up, and smiling this smile at her.
That does it. A flood of memories: insignificant breakfasts with dry cereal in bowls, windows-rolled-down car trips and bad seats, and in each of them, it’s this smile and no other smile that he’s smiling. Each memory triggers another one, memories falling over themselves to be remembered, and in each one he feels it.
“I loved her,” he says.
There is less than four feet left of the ramp. He twists the throttle, hard. It will twist no further. The motorcycle’s front wheel lifts a little. The bike’s increase in speed is sudden and jarring. Then the ramp disappears. He is flying. He flies through the air. He enjoys the speed, the slightly seasick feeling in his stomach. He looks down and sees Beth looking up at him. He feels a sudden heat and doesn’t realize it’s from the flaming hoop. Douglas has already begun to descend before he notices that he’s over the Gate, that he’s done it, he’s in.
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Ways Into Heaven
An online microfiction serial by Andrew Kaufman