Heaven Is Small

An excerpt.

Christmas, 2007 / No. 19
Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

Chandler Goods’ E-mails were always paired with subject lines that would have sent Gordon’s pulse racing, had he had one. Unfortunately, they seldom lived up to the promise.

“Your male opinion” meant she wanted to know if he had noticed Carma’s skirt, and if she should get one. “Thinking of you” meant she had straightened out his productivity report with Manos. “Speaking of romance” meant she could not concentrate at all on the business of romance publishing because Titus Bentley was distracting her. She believed he had power issues that were “affecting the Floor 12 vibe.” The subject line “A proposal” meant she needed a coffee break—could she steal Gordon for ten minutes of accompaniment?

Gordon was in no position to refuse. He resisted writing back that, now that he noticed it, Carma had been wearing the same skirt for three months, likely three years, and that Titus definitely affected the Floor 12 vibe, and that the anxiety he emitted was a symptom of his necrosis. He also refrained from letting on that that cup o’ joe had become his greatest joy and sorrow.

“Gord, what’s up? It’s Friday,” Chandler commented on his sour expression. She walked in, fast yet hesitant, the way she always did. “In a hurry,” her body said, but also, “Just passing through.” It struck Gordon as incredibly cute, since she was only about five feet four in her heels. She had almost made her way out of the kitchen when she stopped at the doorway and doubled back, won over by the mocha scent.

As usual, she didn’t have her cup with her. She scrounged around the back of the cupboards, too high for her reach. As she was going through her cup-at-the-back-of-the-cupboard routine, Gordon found himself once again swept into an appointment with her rear end that he had not known was coming. He was not the only man at this appointment. Titus Bentley, as well as a number of men from Design, all sat at the table in the middle of the room, silently sipping from their own fully possessed coffee mugs, none looking too bashful as they drank their fill, each head tipped to a forty-five degree angle, parallel to Ms. Goods’ goods. Bentley’s face in particular froze into a salacious sneer. His lewd mouth made a dark tear in his face.

Chandler’s hands crept blindly across an empty shelf above her head. Her teeth stapled her bottom lip. One knee leaned against the cupboards, for leverage, the other foot off the floor. The loose ruffles of her short sleeves fell back to her shoulders, and the muscles bunched beneath them. All of her streamed upward with effort, including her breasts. Even her eyebrows arched, a bank of effort appearing across her forehead. She glanced in Gordon’s direction, then her gaze flew back to the shelf above her.

Gordon walked over to the gathering of gawkers. He kicked the table’s leg. Coffee cups burped black liquid over their edges. The men jolted, unfroze. Gordon walked over and produced a cup for her—the one he had brought in with him. With a quick rinse, he handed it over. She blushed, the flush extending across her face and into the cleft of her blouse. “Thank you,” she said, her shoulders falling as if they understood better than she the scene that had just played out behind her.

“I don’t know why I do that,” she said, pointing to the shelf, herself, the shelf, her eyes doing an embarrassed dance between the two. “But that’s me.” She peered at the straps around her ankles that fastened to curved black heels. “And these aren’t getting any taller.” She filled Gordon’s mug, and, double-double, they walked back to her office. “I’m developing a very serious relationship with that shelf,” she yammered. “That third shelf and I.” She crossed two fingers.

“Oh, I’m sure you say that about all the shelves,” Gordon quipped, and without expressly being invited, he found himself once again inside Chandler’s shimmering office. She went through the varied motions of cleaning up without seeming to rearrange any of the actual piles. Gordon inwardly acknowledged the effort as a sign of her self-consciousness. She liked him. He had saved her. She was drinking from his mug. It was as easy as something written on paper.

When his hands were empty, Gordon knew he had his own nervous habit of digging through his pockets for lint, or that imaginary coin. He reached out decisively and plucked a handful of unsharpened pencils from a stout holder of whorled pink glass. He set about the task of sharpening them with a metal wedge. Small pulpy flowers bloomed into one palm as he turned the yellow wood round and round.

“Making yourself useful? Careful, I could get used to having an assistant.”

“A male assistant in particular? ”

“Oh, I’m really not particular,” she said, missing his invitation entirely. She tossed her hair and set the steaming mug down on the desk, kept both her hands wrapped around it as if for warmth, though one thing Gordon had noticed long ago was the building’s temperature; even as fall had turned to winter, Heaven seemed to have a flawless thermostat. It was unlike anyplace Gordon had ever worked or schooled.

“Is it colder here than in France? ” he asked, referencing her recent transfer from the Heaven Paris branch.

“Well, France is north of here, of course. But dampness, crispness, there are different kinds of cold, I’d say. France is no England for instance. But, you know,” she continued, as if it were occurring to her only as she spoke, “I haven’t had to change my wardrobe. When I left I just assumed I’d buy anything I needed when I got here, but…who has time, and I haven’t really found it necessary. I can’t complain, for a move across an ocean.” She sank into the coffee steam, getting down on level with the cup, her chin nearly upon her elbow. “You know what I do miss? ”

He watched as she eyed the cup with melancholy. “Café au lait? ”

“The sunlight. Paris sunlight is just different.”

Gordon crumbled three pencils’ worth of trimmings into the wastebasket. As they fell, he felt his thumb and ring finger rub together, and just for a second, he felt the familiar absence of his wedding ring, which was still inside a velvet golf-ball-sized box beneath the briefs with the waistband half torn away in the top drawer of the dresser in the upstairs bedroom on Russett Avenue. At least, it had been, he reminded himself. “How can sunshine be different? ”

“Oh, you wouldn’t say that if you’d ever been to Indiana. The light there is like water leaking out of a cracked glass.”

“What does Indiana have to do with Paris? ”

Chandler took a long gulp from his coffee mug as if swallowing down her own fear. “It’s where I’m from.”

The question in Gordon’s mind was how she had gotten to Heaven. The question he put forth was how she had gotten to Paris.

The way that Chandler explained it, life began in the outlying farm areas of Indianapolis. “The Crossroads of America” was her town’s grand motto, though to apply it to the rural area where the Goods resided was munificent. Chandler described herself as one of those eager, over-anxious children, the kind who are constantly spinning in circles or turning the tiniest problems over and over in their minds in order to avoid running about and biting the light circuits. By sixteen, in a whirl of summer romance, she’d gone and gotten her heart broken worse than one might think imaginable, considering she’d never actually kissed the boy—or any boy for that matter. Though she’d always had difficulty with attendance, her solution to heartbreak was to inhale the smell of the ink from every page of every textbook within the very first month of junior year. She soon skipped ahead, progressing straight to senior without passing Go. If it was a jailbreak to get out of Indiana, Chandler had decided to go the whole nine yards, treating Indianapolis and all its outlying crossroads like San Quentin. Though she applied to top schools across the country, scholarships and bursaries, her true goal was to get off the continent. A convenient, unknown uncle in Scotland emerged at this point in the story, and a letter.

Gordon paused to consider the rudimentary nature of the letter, the penmanship of one Chandler Goods, aged sixteen, in blue felt tip on airmail paper thinner than the Goods’ household T.P., the flag on the three-quarter-inch stamp frantically waving—like one of surrender—yet immobile, as Chandler’s then-lineless hands clutched it tightly. He imagined her blowing on it for luck, and dropping it finally into the dark of the box on the block where she had lived her whole life, a series of unknown sacks and baggage compartments awaiting it.

The uncle responded, also in letter form, approximately thirty days later, enclosing the most beautiful photograph Chandler had ever seen. It showed the outlying countryside of his “modest but by all means serviceable estate.” Gordon had an uncanny feeling that he had heard this story before, but he said nothing.

Though her parents objected to her choice, Chandler recalled that she had believed their protective instincts were motivated by their earnestness to keep her harnessed to a life of mediocrity. And so she ascended, hovering over the Atlantic, heart buoyed with girlish dreams—all of which would be dashed in the days to come.

An uncle with no aptitude for pleasantries retrieved her from the airport and drove her farther and farther from civilization, to his indeed “modest but serviceable” estate, the only benefit of which was the view of the neighbours’ far more lovely, sprawling, and completely unpopulated properties. Chandler recognized these from the photograph she had kept tacked above her desk in Indiana. She found herself cloistered in a small stone cottage. With no telephone and few modern conveniences inside, the exterior faÁade resembled a crumbling, forgotten prison. The interior was similarly unwelcoming. The romantic in Chandler vowed to make the best of her situation and she spent her first few hours writing postcards announcing her arrival, and even wrote an original poem on the first page of a shiny hardbacked journal she had bought for the purpose of recording her new life.

The entries that followed were streaked with tears, and Gordon sat aghast as she recounted in endless detail her uncle’s demonic behaviour, which began that very night with an unhealthy monitoring of her personal habits, and led, in the days to come, to him intercepting her outgoing and incoming mail (from her uni applications to her pleas to her parents for plane fare), building to a nightly imposition of his basest desires upon her unsuspecting, often sleeping, corpus. He had horrid whiskers, and fouler breath. Though he had lost one hand years earlier, he took particular delight in attempting to stimulate her with his most sinister clamps, stroking her feminine flesh with his unfeeling steel, and—on those days when he feared she might flee from his advances—wielded his medieval hook like a weapon, holding it to her throat as she struggled against him.

Gordon attempted to interrupt Chandler at this uncomfortable point in her story to warn her that he was sure he had read just such a thing in a Heaven title the previous week, but she patted his hand on the third word out of his mouth—as if he were attempting to console her—and rushed on.

She had fought her uncle always, though he continued to tell her how much sweeter their love would be if she would only give in to what he knew was her heart’s true desire. He took to referring to her as his American Mail Order, and ordered her about the isolated garden simply by the name “Bride.” When she found the actual marriage licence among his papers, her forged signature and the deadline of their pending appointment led her to grasp the gravity of her situation: she would need to do more than merely survive his abuse, she would need to escape now or perish into what would become a lifetime of sexual submission and servitude, a regulated schedule of eternal misery.

By the time Chandler arrived at this junction in her story, twelve proofreaders (two of the same faces twice) had trooped through to pick up ten new manuscripts, and, inside the wastebasket, Gordon had cultivated a garden of pencil shavings that threatened to drop its sooty petals to the floor—most of her pencils now nubs. At this vital point, Chandler became so ambiguous about her “escape” that Gordon began to suspect the rope or the razor.

“Maybe life is just a series of increasingly bizarre escapes,” he interjected, trying both to comfort and to prompt. A paternal desire overcame him, to reach out and stroke her elbow or her hair, but he tamped it down.

Chandler smiled that self-deprecating smile, the one that emphasized not only her dimple, but the faint lines around her mouth. No matter how long she had lived under the malicious thumb of her uncle, she could not have lived there as many years as fell between seventeen and thirty. The skin around her eyes was still lusciously unyielding, but her mouth was more pliant: she was no child.

Gordon questioned her, as congenially as one can when inquiring into absconding from incestuous rapists. He quickly determined that, in spite of what it said on her business card, Ms. Chandler Goods had never been to Paris.

Her knowledge was rooted in the vocabulary of a would-be tourist, something book-learned melding with fantasy gleaned from movies and photographs—or, perhaps, it occurred to Gordon, with the view of one stationed just slightly above the city, looking from an unchanging position, a permanent window. In Chandler’s Paris there were no beggars, no dog droppings, no confused tangle of metro lines, none of the fine filth that had covered the city and crept its way under Gordon’s nails and even into his nostrils, darkening his phlegm when he spat, during the few days he’d spent as a student backpacking around Versailles, the Louvre, the Sorbonne, Sacré Coeur at Montmartre, and, of course, at the Lizard King’s grave. Chandler’s apartment had no neighbourhood, or, if it did, it was a strange patch of land able to levitate itself and switch from left to right bank at will. She had no transit route to work, and no friends outside the office. She had never been to a nightclub. She did not know the number of francs required for a Coca-Cola or a bouteille de vin, nor the name of the boulangerie where she bought her petit déjeuner. The only thing she seemed able to detail with any accuracy was the work she’d done. And even that, strangely, was in English, as though, in spite of the prevalence of French names, Chandler’s entire department had been a flock of expats.

Whether she noticed his sudden spike in curiosity or not, Chandler meandered right back round to “Paris sunshine…” placing her chin on her palm with a sigh. “It’s like a net thrown over the sky to try to catch the clouds. In the morning, the sky was always white along the bottom, and overhead, a pale seventies blue…like my mother’s eyeshadow.”

“How…” Gordon tossed a handful of shavings—and an entire pencil nub along with them—into the trash. “How could you give two poops about sunshine after everything you went through? ” Two things occurred to him even as the question escaped his mouth. The first was that he had just asked after something he didn’t even believe. The second was that he had quite naturally reached for the phrase “two poops” instead of the beloved four-letter version he had favoured when he worked at the mall.

Chandler leaned her head into one hand like a twelve-year-old. She peered at his mug, now empty, as she hooked a pinky finger through its handle and dangled it, letting it swing, her eyes following the slight impromptu pendulum. “Everywhere you go, Gordon. Everywhere—” She glanced past the mug to him as if offering it back. “You have to find something, at least one thing, to love.”

He reached out and took the mug carefully from her fingers, which were cool to the touch. The phrase “the cool hand of a girl” came to his mind, but he banished it with a half-hearted smile.

Gordon had expected one would remember important things after dying—those emotional, life-altering moments. But what he remembered were the mundane, passing-time days of errands and meandering. What he remembered most clearly was contemplating buying a carry-on for a vacation he never wound up taking. The bag had thick black straps and leather on the handles, a thick silver zipper, and a leather logo patch—and the saleswoman, name-tagged Anita, had smiled in this super-genuine way. He remembered standing there with a riot in his stomach, wondering if he should shell out the seventy bucks so she could make her commission, deciding in the end to postpone it for the express purpose of a return trip to the store and a future conversation. For weeks Gordon had walked by, peripherally obsessed, trying to monitor her shifts so he could ask her out, but never going back and doing it in the end, and never buying the carry-on either.

His life was an urban mall. His memories were Freshly Squeezed, Bubble Tease, Jimmy the Greek, Roasty Jack, New York Fries, Made in Japan, Bagel Stop, Cinnabon, Carlton Cards, Deco Home, Payless, Radio Shack, Island Ink-Jet, H.M.V. The cherry rosettes of photograph-perfect ice-cream cups were frequently replaced by seasonal promotions tied into children’s films Gordon knew but hadn’t seen. Surf’s up! Fruit blast! Splish splash! Penguin swirl!

When Gordon tried to remember the important things—like his wedding to Chloe, or, even better, their wedding night—it was like holding one shoe in his hand and leaning over, peering under beds for the other. The memories were cobwebbed, dark. But the temperamental price gun from Gags ’N Tease still jammed in Gordon’s hands; and he could still visualize the cartoon faces on the latest batch of Simpsons T-shirts. SpongeBob SquarePants Forever Bubbles key chains retailed for four seventy-five. Add that to a movie poster for seven ninety-nine and you’ve just bought a fabulous birthday present for less than fifteen dollars—with tax! Cultural detritus floated up at him, dreamlike. He recalled bikini-girl beer holders, classic horror-movie calendars, and in the fishbowls that lined the counter, rock ’n’ roll buttons, rubber lizards, dice with sexual commands printed on their sides, innovatively shaped pencil toppers, light-up gel pens, and bug boxes with magnifying lids, perfect for catching insects in, and one of which Gordon had pocketed immediately and used to carry his magic pills. The sound the Vivatex tablets had made the first few days he carried them was like a tiny maraca teeming with beans. To the left of his heart, where he kept them even now, inside his shirt pocket, invisible, the eraser-sized see-through box rattled with the pleasure of his pain. As white as Chloe’s birth control pills, they became his own kind of control.

Gordon remembered ordering tubs of French fries and waiting. Waiting for shifts to start and shifts to end. He remembered the backroom where they cashed out at the end of the night, the rhythm of dimes trilling beneath thumbs. He remembered the big rock in the park that he had passed every day as he left work and proceeded to Brass Taps on College Street for supper (pizza, burger, or suicide wings), and he remembered the Doberman, the border collie, and the pit bull who all passed him with daft looks of doggy satisfaction, who took turns lifting their legs and spraying the rock’s grey to black.

When Gordon joined Chandler next in her office, just days later, her confessions had evaporated. It did not take long for Gordon to realize Chandler’s confidences were about as thought out as her E-mails: banged out in a frenzy and sent off with no reread, no forethought nor fear of the impression she was making, nor any hope of answer. She went into a two-hour inventory about the workforce she had left behind in Paris.

“Daniel was known for his little dog, and photographs of little dogs, and conversations of little dogs; Lizette for top buttons undone; Laurent for middle buttons undone; Eduard for worshiping Tour de France, for slinking in and out of rooms silently, his body sleek as a bicycle.”

At the end of her prattle, seemingly without any prompt, Chandler dug under a stack of folders and came out with a stiff cardboard package, which she handed him. “GORDON SMALL, HEAVEN” it said on the rectangular label. It was the book he had ordered from an on-line retailer—to test whether items could travel between the living and the dead.

“For you? ” she asked with a hint of suspicion, even though the bookseller’s logo was prominently printed in the return address corner.

Gordon nodded, and without a word he took it away. As he walked, he let his hands slip up and down as if weighing something, and enjoyed the shape the cardboard made against his skin. It didn’t feel nearly as heavy as he had expected.

In his cubicle, he tore his finger open on the staple, put it in his mouth and sucked, though there was no blood, and nothing to suck. As the cardboard gates opened, he saw that the cover was not the blue-green twilit expanse he had anticipated. The book had a mottled wine colour for its cover, and the adorning name did not belong to Gordon’s ex-wife. Half in roman and half in script, the title declared: The Purpose-Driven Life. Gordon dropped the book and its packaging abruptly on the desk and sat staring at it.

A moment later, Chandler E-mailed. Her subject taunted, “Is it good? ” The body of her message read: “What did you get? ”

Gordon used one finger to push The Purpose-Driven Life an inch at a time across the surface of his desk. It hung half on and half off then fell with a wallop into his garbage basket.

“The wrong thing,” he wrote.