Can't Wait to Get to Heaven (8 page)

BOOK: Can't Wait to Get to Heaven
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The Elevator Ride

E
lner was wondering when that elevator was ever going to stop and let her out. This was the craziest elevator she had ever been on in her life! Not only did it go up, the thing zigzagged, spun around, and went sideways. When it finally did stop, and the doors opened, she didn’t recognize the place at all. Nothing looked familiar. “Lord, the crazy thing must have taken me clear over to some other building.” This was certainly not the hospital where she had been, and it was a nice enough building, but she had no idea where she was. For all she knew, she could be clear across town, all the way over to the courthouse. “Well, I’m for sure lost now,” she said to herself as she headed on down the hall, looking for someone to help her get back to the hospital. “Yoo hoo!” she called out. “Anybody here?” She had walked for quite a while when she suddenly saw a pretty blue-eyed blond lady rushing down the hall toward her, carrying a pair of black tap shoes and a white feather boa.

“Hey,” said Elner. The lady smiled at her and said, “Hello, how are you?” but she went by her so fast, Elner didn’t have a chance to ask where she was. A few seconds after the lady passed, Elner thought to herself that if she hadn’t known better, she would have sworn the woman was Ginger Rogers! She knew exactly what Ginger Rogers looked like because she had always been Elner’s favorite movie star, and Dixie Cahill, who had run the Dixie Cahill School of Tap and Twirl in Elmwood Springs, where Linda had taken dancing, had a big picture of the dancer up in her dance studio. But the more she thought about it, she realized that even though the woman was the spitting image of Ginger Rogers, it couldn’t have been her. What in the world would Ginger Rogers be doing in Kansas City, Missouri? It didn’t make any sense, but then she suddenly remembered, Ginger Rogers was originally from Missouri, so even if it wasn’t her, it was for sure one of her relatives.

Elner kept walking and was admiring how clean and white the marble walls and the floors were. “Norma should see this,” she thought. “This would be a building after her own heart.” So clean you could eat off the floor, that’s what Norma liked, but why anyone would want to eat off the floor was a mystery to Elner. A few minutes later, she began to see a little speck of something way down at the end of the hall, and as she got closer, she was relieved to see it was a person, sitting at a desk in front of a door. “Hey,” she called.

“Hey, yourself,” the person called back.

When Elner finally reached the end of the hall and got up close enough to actually see who the person behind the desk was, she could hardly believe her eyes. It was none other than her youngest sister: Norma’s mother, Ida! There she sat as big as life, all dressed up, wearing her fox furs and her good strand of pearls, and earrings.

“Ida?” she said. “Is that really you?”

“It is indeed,” said Ida, eyeing Elner’s old brown plaid robe with disdain.

Elner was flabbergasted. “Well, heavens to Pete…What in the world are you doing here in Kansas City? We all thought you were dead. Good Lord, honey, we had a funeral for you and everything.”

“I know,” said Ida.

“But if you’re here, who was that woman we buried?”

Ida instantly got that certain little look she got when she was displeased, which was most of the time. “Oh, it was me all right,” Ida said. “And if you recall, the last thing I said to Norma was ‘Norma, when I’m dead, for
God’s sake,
do not let Tot Whooten do my hair.’ I even gave her the number of my hairdresser to call, paid the woman for the appointment in advance, and what did Norma do? The first thing she did when I died was to let Tot Whooten do my hair!”

“Oh dear,” thought Elner. At the time, she and Norma had figured Ida would never know about it, but they were clearly wrong.

“Well, Ida,” Elner said, hoping to smooth things over a bit, “I thought it looked very nice.”

“Elner, you know I never parted my hair on the left. And there I was, on view to the world, with my hair parted on the wrong side, not to mention all that rouge she put on me. I looked like a clown in the Shriners’ parade!”

If Elner had entertained any doubts for a second that the woman before her was her sister, she didn’t anymore. It was Ida all right.

“Now, Ida,” she said, “try not to get yourself in a snit. Norma had no choice. Tot is a good friend. How can you tell somebody something like that and not hurt her feelings? She showed up at the funeral home with her supplies and everything. She thought she was doing you a favor. Norma didn’t have the heart to tell her she couldn’t do you.”

Ida was not sympathetic. “I should think a dying wish trumps hurt feelings, any time of the day.”

Elner sighed. “Well, I guess so, but you have to admit, you had a really nice turnout. You had over a hundred people, all your garden club friends came.”

“All the more reason to want to look my best. I should have just gone over to the funeral parlor and handed Neva all my details in person, that’s what I should have done.”

“Well, anyhow, honey, I’m awfully glad to see you again,” said Elner, trying to change the subject.

Ida managed a tight little smile, even though she was still upset over Tot ruining her hairdo. “I’m glad to see you too, Elner.” Then she added, “I notice you’ve put on a few pounds since I saw you last.”

“A few…but that comes with age, I guess.”

“I suppose so. Gerta put on weight when she got older.”

Elner looked around at the white marble hall and said, “Ida, I’m not clear about what’s going on. If you’re not dead, why didn’t you just come on back home?”

“Oh, I am dead. This is my home now,” she said, fingering her pearls.

“Where is this anyway?” asked Elner, looking around again. “And what am I doing here? I’m supposed to be in the hospital, you’ve got me all confused.”

Ida looked at her, with that maddening little know-it-all look of hers. “Well, Elner, if I’m dead, and you can see me, what do you suppose that must mean?”

Now Elner was starting to get upset. “How should I know, Ida? I just fell off a ladder, I’m so addlebrained at this point, I thought I just saw Ginger Rogers go by…and now you’re telling me that you’re dead, when I can see you plain as day. I must have knocked my brain out of whack because none of this is making any sense to me.”

“Think, Elner,” Ida said.
“Me? Ginger Rogers?”

Elner thought for a second; then it dawned on her. Ginger Rogers had been dead for years, so had Ida; not only that, she suddenly realized that she could hear every word Ida was saying without her hearing aid! There was definitely something odd and peculiar going on. Then it hit her.

“Wait a minute, Ida,” Elner said. “Don’t tell me I’m dead too?”

“Bingo!”

“I’m dead?”

“You certainly are, my dear, just as dead as you can be.”

“Oh no!…Am I dead and buried?”

“No, not yet, you just died a few minutes ago.”

“Well, for heaven’s sake. You don’t mean it?”

“I do. In fact, you just missed seeing Ernest Koonitz, he just came in yesterday.”

“Ernest Koonitz? The one who used to play the tuba on the
Neighbor Dorothy Show
?”

“Yes.”

Elner felt a little light-headed. “I need to sit down a minute and think this over.” She went and sat in the red leather chair by the door.

Ida looked concerned all of a sudden and asked, “Are you terribly upset, dear?”

Elner looked at her and shook her head. “No, I don’t think so, I would say surprised more than anything.”

“That’s to be expected, we are all surprised. You know it’s going to happen but somehow you just don’t believe it’s going to happen to you.”

“Oh, I never doubted it would happen,” Elner said. “I just wish that I’d had a little more warning. I just hope I turned off my stove and coffeepot.”

“Yes…well, we all have our regrets, don’t we?” Ida said pointedly.

In a moment, after gaining her composure and coming to terms with what must be true, Elner looked at her sister. “Oh, poor Norma, first you and now me.”

Ida nodded. “Into each life a little rain must fall, as they say.”

“Yes, I guess so, but I hope it won’t hit her too hard, and I am pretty old, so I guess it could not have been too unexpected, could it?”

“No…not like it was when I died, I was just fifty-nine. Now that was entirely unexpected, I was still in very good shape, if I do say so myself.”

Elner sighed. “Now that I’m dead and gone, I just hope Sonny will be all right, Macky said he would take care of him if anything ever happened to me but I don’t think cats miss you much anyway, as long as they get fed.” Elner looked down at her hands and said, “You know, Ida, it’s a funny thing, but I just don’t feel a bit dead, do you?”

“No, not like I thought I would feel. One minute you’re alive, the next you’re dead, not much difference. It’s a lot less painful than childbirth, I can tell you that.”

“No, no pain at all. As a matter of fact I feel better than I have for years, my right knee had been giving me some trouble but I didn’t tell Norma, or else she would have jerked me in for a knee replacement, but it feels just fine now,” she said, lifting it up and down. “So what’s going to happen next? Am I going to see everybody else?”

“I don’t know all the details, I was just given the word to meet you and take you inside.”

“That was mighty nice of you, Ida. Seeing a familiar face right off makes it easier, doesn’t it?”

“It does,” Ida agreed. “You’ll never guess who met me when I died.”

“Who?”

“Mrs. Herbert Chalkley.”

“Who’s that?”

“Just the past president of the Women’s Club of America, that’s all.”

“Ahh…well that must have been nice for you.”

Ida stood up and opened the top drawer of the desk and began looking for something as she spoke. “By the way, they called me so fast, what was it, a heart attack?”

Elner thought about it, then said, “I’m not sure, I might have gotten stung to death by a bunch of wasps, or maybe just the fall killed me, who knows, and I was hoping to die in my own bed, but you can’t have everything, I guess.”

Ida said, “I’ll bet it was a heart attack. That’s what killed Gerta and Daddy. Of course, my heart was just fine, but then, I was younger than you and your death was sudden…mine wasn’t. The doctor said I had a rare blood disorder, although it had been quite common with the royal families of Germany.”

“Oh Lord,” thought Elner, “Here she goes again, dead twenty-two years and still putting on airs.” She had been at least seventy and died from leukemia, but Ida always had to have something one step up from everybody else. She had been that way her whole life. Their daddy had been nothing but a plain old farmer, but to hear her tell it he had been a baron with personal ties to the Hapsburgs and with ancestral lands deeded to the family. After Ida married Herbert Jenkins, she only got worse. From time to time Elner had been forced to remind her where she had come from, but Elner figured that there was no point to saying anything to her now, not at this late date. If she hadn’t changed by now, she was never going to change.

Ida rattled around in the drawer and finally found the key she was looking for.

“Here it is,” she said. She stood up and went over and began unlocking the big double doors behind her. Finally she got it unlocked, and turned to Elner. “Come on, let’s go.” Elner got up and went over, ready to follow her, but then stopped in her tracks. “Hold on a minute, this is the good place, isn’t it? I’m not headed to the bad place, am I?”

Ida said, “Of course not.”

Elner was relieved to hear it. But then on second thought, she figured if Ida had made it, then everybody must have a pretty good chance. But she still had one more question.

“What’s going to happen when I get inside?”

Ida turned and looked at her like Elner was crazy. “What do you think is going to happen, Elner? You’re going to meet your Maker. That’s where I’m taking you, silly, to meet your Maker.”

“Oh,” said Elner. “And wouldn’t you know it, here I am in this old robe with the pockets falling off and not a stitch of lipstick on.”

“Now you know how I felt,” Ida sniffed.

“Yes…I see what you mean.”

“Are you ready?”

“I guess I am, or I wouldn’t be here, would I?”

“No, you wouldn’t, and now that you’re here, do you have many regrets?”

“Regrets?”

“Things you wished you had done, before it was too late?”

Elner thought for a second, then said, “Well, I never got to Dollywood…. I would have liked to have done that, but I did get to Disney World, so I guess I can’t complain too much. What about yourself?”

Ida sighed. “I wish I had spent some time in London, visited the palace gardens, maybe had high tea with the royals, but alas, it was not to be.”

And with that Ida threw open the doors with a flourish, stepped back, and said, “TA DA!”

Verbena Wheeler Spreads the News

11:25
AM

D
own at the Blue Ribbon cleaners, after the call from her husband, Merle, Verbena was so upset that she started calling everyone she could think of to tell them Elner was dead. Her first call was to Cathy Calvert over at the newspaper office, but her line was busy. She knew that Elner’s friend Luther Griggs would want to know as soon as possible, but there was no answer. She called Cathy again but her line was still busy. Frustrated, she sat there and thought of who else she should call, and picked up the phone to call Elner’s favorite radio show. She knew they would want to know.

Over the years, Bud and Jay’s early morning farm report on WDOT radio had slowly turned into Bud and Jay’s drive time news, weather, and traffic report, geared to the early morning commuters who lived in the suburbs and drove to work in the larger cities. There were not many farms left in the fifty-mile radius, but Elner had remained a loyal listener to the show and was a regular call-in to the program. Bud and Jay always got a big kick out of her. For as long as they had been doing the Question of the Day contest, she’d always tried to come up with the answer, and sometimes her answers were the best thing on the show. When nobody got the right answer, they sent her a prize anyway. One of their sponsors was PETCO, and she got a lot of cat food for Sonny that way. Bud also did the eleven to twelve
Shop and Swap
show and took the call from Verbena during a commercial break.

A few minutes later he made the announcement on the air. “Well, folks, just got a mighty sad phone call from over in Elmwood Springs, and we are sorry to have to report that our good friend Elner Shimfissle has passed away this morning. She was a special lady and one of our favorite callers here at WDOT, and we will sure miss her…don’t know when the funeral will be, but as soon as we do, we’ll pass it on. OK, let’s see what we have next…. Rowena Snite over in Centralia says she has a man’s briefcase with the initials B.S. on it, she will swap for any back issues of
…Crafts Made Simple,
or a lady’s watch. Now here’s a word from the Valerie Girard Chiropractic Group.”

At that moment, Luther Griggs, wearing a white T-shirt and a baseball hat, was driving on Interstate 90 in his eighteen-wheeler truck, headed to Seattle on a six-day run. He was having his breakfast, a Coke and a bag of salted peanuts, and when he heard the news come over the radio he immediately pulled over to the side of the road, shut the truck down, and sat in a daze. Luther was an unlikely friend for an eightysomething-year-old woman to have, but Miss Elner was about the closest person in the world to him. They had just spoken last night about whether or not he should go back with his old girlfriend who he thought was too skinny, but Elner had advised him to go back with her anyhow.

As he sat there and the impact of the news really hit him, his throat started to hurt and he felt sick to his stomach. He did not want to go to Seattle now, he wanted to turn around and hit the nearest truck stop, get himself some pot, drink a case of beer, and knock himself out, but he had promised Miss Elner he would quit that. He also had a load of produce in the back that would spoil. Besides, Miss Elner would have wanted him to go. She had co-signed the loan to get the truck so he could have a good-paying profession, and the thought of disappointing her even now made him start up and pull on out.

As Luther drove farther out of town, and reached the Kansas City turnoff, it was all he could do not to get off. What was he going to do now? The best friend he’d ever had was gone.

The friendship between Luther Griggs, a chunky six-foot-three trucker, and Elner Shimfissle had started in a most unusual way. He had been around eight years old that day, twenty-eight years ago, when he had walked by Elner’s house and she had run out on her front porch and called to him sweetly.

“Yoo hoo…little boy…come here a minute.”

He stopped and looked at her and remembered she was the same old woman who had given him that terrible fudge a few days before.

“Come here, honey,” she said again.

“No, I ain’t coming up there,” he said. “You ain’t my mother, I don’t have to do nothing you say.”

“I know you don’t, but I want to give you something.”

“I don’t want no more of that candy, it wasn’t no good,” he said, making a face.

“It’s not candy, it’s a present, and if you don’t come over here, you’re not getting it.”

“What is it?”

“I’m not telling you, but it’s something you’ll like, and you’ll be sorry if you don’t come here and get it.”

He narrowed his eyes at her and wondered what the old lady was up to. He was highly suspicious of anybody who was nice to him. He had thrown rocks at her stupid cat, so maybe she was trying to get him to come close enough so she could hit him. But whatever it was she wanted, he was not taking any chances.

He called back, “You’re a liar, you don’t have nothing to give me.”

“I do, too.”

“What is it, then?”

“That’s for me to know and for you to find out.”

“Where’d you get it at?”

“The store.”

“What store?”

“I’m not telling, but I bought it just for you, you don’t want me to have to give it to somebody else, do you?”

“I don’t care. I don’t care what you do.”

“Well…it’s up to you, if you want your present, come over here and get it, and if you don’t, don’t, that’s fine with me too,” and with that Elner went back into the house and shut the door.

Luther walked over and sat on the curb in front of Merle and Verbena’s house and tried to figure out what the old lady was up to. He did not go back over to her house that day, but a few days later Elner looked out the window and saw him skulking around across the street, kicking at the ground. She wondered how long it was going to take him to make up his mind. Finally about three days later, when she went out to pick up her paper, he was out in her yard there and said, “You still have that damn present you said you had?”

“I might, why?”

“I just wondered.”

“I still have it, but if you are going to talk ugly, then I don’t think I want to give it to you. Now if you ask me nicely, I’ll give it to you.”

She went back inside and waited. About ten minutes went by before she heard a little knock on the door, and it was all she could do to keep herself from laughing. She had shamelessly bribed an eight-year-old child, and she knew it, but what good is it being an adult if you can’t outsmart children. Besides, she really did have a nice gift for him. A few weeks before, the minute she had given him that Ex-Lax candy, she had been sorry, and had prayed to God every day since to forgive her.

At the time, she had been so mad at him for hitting poor old Sonny in the head with a rock, and almost killing him, that she’d wanted to get back at the boy, but now she felt so horrible about what she had done, she wanted to try and make it up to him. After that day, when she gave him the big red kite she had bought him at the hobby shop, the two of them spent hours out in the fields behind her house flying it. When Macky asked what had made her pick a kite instead of something else, she said, “Well, Macky, the boy was always looking down, and I wanted something that would make him look up for a change.” After Elner bought him the kite, Luther would come by and see her almost every afternoon. She was the first person who ever gave him a gift, the first person who treated him nice. His father was a lowlife mean drunk who could never hold down much of a job, and according to him, if he hadn’t had to marry Luther’s mother because she was pregnant with him, he might have become a famous race car driver like his idol, Junior Johnson. When Luther was seven, his mother, tired of being beaten up, had run off with some stranger she met at a bar, and had been killed in a car wreck six months later. No wonder Luther had been throwing rocks at everybody and everything.

And it did not get better. When he was thirteen, his father had gotten drunk and thrown him out into the yard in the middle of the night. Luther had gone over to Elner’s house, and later, when his father, still drunk, had come banging on her door looking for him, she had run him off with a broom. The next morning, as he sat at her table in the kitchen, he had been so despondent, he’d said, “Don’t nobody want me. I’m gonna go back over and get his gun, and shoot my brains out. The hell with it, I’m no damn good nohow. I don’t have nothing, never will have nothing.”

Elner let him talk on and on, and then said, “All right, Luther, if that’s what you want, but don’t say you don’t have anything, because you do.”

“What? I don’t have a damn thing.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, you have something nobody on this entire earth has except you.”

“What? A daddy that’s a no-good bastard from hell?”

“No, honey.”

“What, then?”

“I’ll show you,” she said. She then opened up a drawer in the kitchen and pulled out a piece of paper and an ink pad. “Give me your hand,” she said. She took his thumb and pressed it down on the pad, and then pressed his thumb on the piece of paper and held it up. “Look at that, your fingerprint is one of a kind. Never has been one like it before and there never will be another.”

He looked at the paper. “So what?”

“So what? You are a one of a kind, put here for some purpose. Now me, I couldn’t kill myself, I want to see what’s going to happen to me next. Besides,” she said, as she poured him more coffee, “you can’t kill yourself today, you have to help me pull all my Christmas things out of the attic and decorate the house before you do.” Luther stayed with her that Christmas, and on and off up until he graduated from high school.

And he might not have graduated if it had not been for her. He had been failing every subject but shop. One day she said, “I want you to bring me your grades and let me have a look at them. OK?”

Nobody had ever asked to see his grades before, and it had made him want to do better for her.

He never did make anything higher than a C minus average, but at least he went every day. He had made her a birdhouse in shop, and now that he thought back on it, it wasn’t a very good birdhouse, but she had put it right in the front yard for everyone to see, and she had bragged on him.

In high school Luther had been two years behind Elner’s great-niece Linda Warren. Besides being cute and having perfect skin and beautiful teeth, Linda was an all A student, head majorette, president of her senior class, and dated only football players. Not only was Luther a big nobody, he also had to have a tooth missing, and the worst case of acne of anybody in school, or at least it seemed so to him. On the high school pecking order scale, Linda and her crowd of clean-cut preppy-looking kids probably never would have even noticed him, but because Aunt Elner was a friend of his, whenever she passed him in the hall, she always smiled and said, “Hi, Luther,” and all the other misfits and losers he hung out with would be impressed out of their minds. Just the fact that someone from the top echelon of high school royalty like herself spoke to him in the hall made high school at least bearable. He had even gotten a few dates with a couple of the halfway decent loser girls that weren’t whacked out on dope, because they thought he was Linda’s cousin. Secretly he even began to believe it himself, and when he’d heard Dwayne Whooten Jr. make some sexual comment about Linda, he had hit him in the face and broken his nose for it.

BOOK: Can't Wait to Get to Heaven
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