Standing at the Gate of Heaven ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Harry Hawkins had not lived an exemplary life. He was frequently harsh and impatient with his wife and children, with the result that his wife was afraid of him and his two sons grew up hating him. He despised his wife’s mother and her other family members and was jealous of his wife’s devotion to them. He was intolerant of anybody whose political or religious views were different from his own. He complained and found fault with everything and everybody, nearly every minute of every day. In short, he was a joyless man who led a joyless life.
In the last few years of his life, with his health deteriorating, he was afraid of dying and going to hell. Believing that religion might save him, he joined a splinter religious group and believed everything that representatives of the group (essentially salesmen) told him. He was promised a place in heaven by these godless know-nothings, if only he would do as they told him to do for as long as he lived. Since he lived in a fine house and seemed to have enough money, they persuaded him the best thing was for him to donate, every month, a certain percentage of his income to the church. This he readily agreed to do, surprising his wife, his sons and anybody who knew of his parsimonious nature—he had always been known how to pinch a penny until it cried for mercy.
Every month at the first of the month he sat down at the kitchen table and wrote out a sizeable check (enough to support an ordinary family of four) to the church. He believed he was “storing up treasure in heaven.” (What the church did with the money was not known, but the church fathers were known for their penchant for little jaunts to Mexico.)
He attended every church service and was always on call when somebody from the church needed a service he might perform, such as a ride to the doctor or a few dollars for medicine or to pay the light bill. If a special kind of cake was needed for a church dinner, he didn’t mind going to the bakery and buying an elaborate and expensive cake made to order, which he paid for out of his own pocket. He never complained, never balked at anything the church asked him to do. If, however, his wife or one of his sons asked him to do something for them, he was always too tired or was running a fever and needed to be in bed.
For the first time in Harry Hawkins’ life, he was beloved. He wanted to love back, but he didn’t know how. It didn’t matter that he didn’t love, though; he was doing more than enough to get what he wanted.
Harry Hawkins suffered a heart attack and then another and then another. After he was discharged from the hospital and feeling much better, the church fathers paid him a call. He had never let them down. He had proven himself to them time after time. He might always be relied upon. They had decided to go one step farther and make him one of them. There was a special (secret) ordination ceremony in which he re-affirmed his unshakeable belief in the teachings of the church. After the ceremony was over, he believed he had done everything he needed to do. He would certainly be admitted into heaven. Easily.
After a few more months of precarious life, he succumbed to his various afflictions while a patient in the hospital. After a period of darkness (let’s say three days), he found himself standing outside the gate of heaven. He waited patiently with a forbearing smile for someone to come and let him in. From what he could see from where he stood, heaven was everything he expected: golden light, feathery clouds, celestial music.
Finally the gate keeper came out of hiding and peered at him through the golden bars of the gate.
“How may I help you?” the gate keeper said with a hint of impatience.
“Are you going to let me in?” Harry Hawkins asked.
“Are you sure you’re in the right place?”
“Of course, I’m in the right place! Open the gate and let me in!”
“People are sometimes misdirected, you see.”
“Well, I’m not!”
“How do you come to be here?”
“I died and then I came here. End of story. What more do you need to know?”
“Where is your spirit guide? Did he bring you here?”
“I don’t have a spirit guide! I don’t even know what a spirit guide is.”
“You shouldn’t have come here without being directed by your spirit guide.”
“Listen! Who are you anyway?”
“I’m the gate keeper.”
“I want to speak to your superior!”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to talk to me.”
“This is heaven, isn’t it? You have no right to tell me I can’t come in! You’re just a nobody!”
“I’m terribly sorry, sir, but I believe you’ve been misdirected. We’re expecting no new arrivals at this time.”
“If I could reach you through these bars, you ass, I’d push your face in! Open these doors right now and let me in!”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir.”
“You’re not supposed to be here, sir. You’ve been misdirected.”
Harry started stammering and was about to cry. “Now, listen, fella! I know you’re a right guy and I know I’m in the right place. I’ve known for years that I would go to heaven when I died. I was promised a place in heaven.”
“Who promised you?”
“Some very important people in my church, that’s who!”
“Oh, I think I’m beginning to understand! Was this promise somehow based on lucre?”
“What does lucre mean? You need to speak English here!”
“Was money involved? Were you promised a place in heaven depending on how much money you gave to the church?”
“Bingo! You’re not as dumb as you look, Jocko! You are absolutely correct! I gave mucho money to the church over the years! Look it up!”
“I don’t wish to be rude to you, sir, but you’re not supposed to be here. You’ve been misdirected.”
Harry covered his face with his hands and began crying. When he was able to speak again, he said, “So, what am I supposed to do, then? Am I supposed to stand here by this goddamn gate like a crazy person throughout all eternity?”
“No, sir. You don’t have to do that,” the gate keeper said. “Your bus will be along shortly.”
“Bus? You have buses here?”
“Yes, a bus will come along in a little while. All you need to do is get on the bus and it will take you where you belong.”
“Another part of heaven? Is that where the bus will take me?”
“Just get on the bus.”
Harry opened his mouth to ask another question, but the gate keeper was gone.
He wiped away his tears and composed himself, gratified at what the gate keeper had said. A bus would be along to take him where he needed to go. Another part of heaven, no doubt. What else could it be?
In a little while, an enormous bus parted the clouds and came roaring to a stop in front of the gate. With a smile and without a moment’s hesitation, he got on the bus, ready to be kind to everybody.
The other people on the bus were faceless nonentities, but he didn’t care. He didn’t feel like talking to anybody, anyway. He took a seat about halfway back and continued to smile, happy that his problems were over.
From where he sat, though, he could see the face of the driver in the mirror above the driver’s head. The driver, who seemed to be the only person on the bus with a face, was looking at him, watching him, in the mirror. The bus swerved to avoid hitting a porcupine and he was thrown a little off-balance. He caught himself on the back of the seat in front of him, and when he again looked at the driver’s face in the mirror he knew he had seen those eyes before: they were the eyes of his own father.
His father was a difficult and unlikeable man, dead for thirty years. It all came back to him, then: how he hated that man when he was growing up; how that man belittled him, called him names, and how he made him feel he was less than nothing.
He wasn’t looking only at his father, though. He was looking at himself, seeing himself, for the first time, as he really was.
“How cruel is life!” he said. “I never wanted to be like him! It wasn’t my fault!”
But the other passengers on the bus paid no attention. They all had problems of their own.
A sudden rain storm came up and the bus trundled on.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp