portion of Kenneth Pobo artwork

Kenneth Pobo

My mother told my brother, sister, and I “Poof! Disappear!” when she’d had it. Usually we’d do as she told us, maybe for five minutes. We didn’t want to be around her all that much. She was snarly, dressed us in guilt, and said the three of us were all going to hell, that she had tried her best. She’d be in heaven and then we’d know she’d been right all along.

My sister Genevieve, two years older than me, shrugged. She imagined good conversations in hell and, unlike heaven, it would be night and the houses weren’t gold. Mom wanted a gold house. Her favorite show was Let’s Make a Deal. Her life was choice and surprise: door number 3, always door number 3—it would open—but there would be no shining kitchen, no car, but a mountain. She’d cry. The audience would applaud. And Mom would start climbing, never looking down.

My brother Dave worried about hell before puberty hit. Then he dropped his hell fears off and hung out with kids our mother hated. “They look tough,” she said, correctly. Sometimes I’d hear them talk of coming up from behind someone on the street, preferably an old or a gay person, and kicking them so badly that they’d lie like crumpled paper on the sidewalk. It wasn’t to rob them. It just would be funny. Such imagery got Dave through high school.

I still fear hell. I picture my entrance into hell like this—I’m in a hospital room, lights start flashing, pain seizes me, then there’s nothing. Nothing feels marvelous, like nude sunbathing. A hallway. I start walking down it but it seems to have no end. Doors open as I walk. I see no one but feel a presence. A blinding light hits me. I think, “Oh my God, it’s God!” but it’s Satan. He’s polite, bows, says welcome. I hear Marie Osmond singing “Come with me/to my little corner of the world.”

Satan says, “I have the perfect place for you, Mark,” and he leads me to a sulfurous room with a door that is made up to look like a Christmas present. While I hate the smell, the room seems pleasant. I’ve been in worse. My dorm was like living inside a clothes hamper. My first apartment was like living inside an ant farm. So, this room, while not too well lit and stinky, seems livable. And what am I to say? “Oh, Satan, do be a dear and get me a better place?”

Feeling tired, I lie down on the bed. I don’t know if I should do this. Maybe Satan will want to be in bed with me. That’s pervy. And I don’t really know him that well. He’s just the landlord.

He says, “Make yourself at home. This is where you’ll stay forever. It’s a great neighborhood. Ronald Reagan is a few rooms to your right and, you won’t believe this, but your very own mother is next door on your left. We do have one rule here, and if you try to break it, demons will come and swat your ass—you can never lock your door. It must remain open at all times. Have a nice time. I’ll check in on you later.”

There had to be a catch. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s not being able to lock my door. I tense up when I look at the red curtains which could easily have been heisted from Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. Without touching them, I know I’ll never be able to close them. I may as well be in a zoo.

I think about my obsession with locking my door. Where did it come from? Was it when I was five years old and Genevieve walked in the bathroom and saw me peeing? Was it when I was fourteen and Dave walked in our room and saw me beating off? Was it when I was fifteen and Mom sent me to my room for failing geometry and locked me in while I studied triangles that decided they had to be proven?

Probably it’s none of these. I was born this way. Privacy and escape—the egg and the sperm that formed me. Escape reminds me of our father, not the one who art in heaven, but the Art who was our father until he started having secret meetings with Dave’s fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Kaslo, and they decided to play school several states away. I wondered what they taught each other. Mom never got over it. Many times she’d tell us, “Marriage is forever. It’s a man and a woman. God joins them together. Mrs. Kaslo breaks them apart. But don’t worry, kids, Satan has a honeymoon suite reserved for them on the most fiery boulevard in hell. Someday, when I’m in heaven, I’ll roast marshmallows on their hair.”

This calmed her. She would make herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and watch an Andy Griffith rerun. She loved Andy. Andy was all that Art wasn’t. And he always knew the right anecdote to keep Opie on the straight and narrow.

“I wish I had Andy’s wisdom. I’m not even Aunt Bea,” she said.

We were hardly Opie. Pregnant at seventeen, Genevieve had claimed to be madly in love with Robert Paul, but Robert Paul, she said, turned out to be Art. There was a certain Tiffany in his American history class who lured him during Reconstruction. By the Roaring Twenties, she was pregnant too. Opie would never have acted in this way. He’d wait until marriage to “make love to” Sharon Porter who would run the pharmacy Miss Walker used to run until Sharon was impregnated.

Dave got over his fantasy violence, sort of. He went to college and majored in business ethics. He had a string of girlfriends for whom he had two requirements: 1) they had to be shorter than he was (five-foot-ten) and 2) they had to be dumber, or seem dumber, than him. Mom told him to pray to meet the right girl. He prayed. He met Marsha. She lived for malls and make-up. This pleased Dave to no end. He said, “This is what I’ve been waiting for. Now I can get married. You need to be married in the business world, Mark. You’re a fag. Do you know what that’s going to mean? No promotions for you. Your only hope is to do women’s hair.”

Whatever. I don’t do women’s hair. I do landscaping. Give me a bed with too much clay soil and I can amend it so that lilies will tap dance and roses will wear red dresses to the Comus Ball. Hardly anyone bothers me when I’m working. My clients leave me be. A garden is like a big room. Blossoms keep it locked.

Dave joined the First Avenue Baptist Church in Lincoln. He sends cards (wait a second, he never sends cards, Marsha sends cards, the kind with cheery notes and pictures of their two kids, Brian and Lori). They all end with the same words: “God Bless” and “John 3:16.” Maybe he’s still worried about hell. He just faxes his fears to Jesus and lets him deal with them, like giving the secretary some duplicating. I used to join them all for Christmas, Genevieve and her kids, Mom, and Dave’s family, but eight years ago Dave said, “You can’t bring Tony.” That was that. Tony and I broke up. I stink with love affairs, at least so far, but there’s no reason Tony couldn’t be there.

“Mom will freak. And I don’t want Brian and Lori to see such things.”

Click, dial tone.

Mom and I made a tenuous peace. “Jesus is fit to be tied because you’re gay,” she’d say. Would I force Him to send me to hell—and after all He had done! Well, I always was ungrateful. When she got so ill, I came over as often as I could, but she lived two hours away. We’d talk very little. She preferred watching TV. Before she died she said, “Find someone, Mark, a nice woman. You’ll be happy, you’ll see.”

I am still looking, Mom. I never give up. I don’t know why. Who would want to live
in the gated community of my life? I am like a stone with doors painted on it. Just try
to enter through them. My friends seem to enjoy my company, and I theirs, but sometimes one will say, “You know, we don’t really know you. Candy asked me last week what if Mark’s a serial killer or some kind of nutcase? He seems so nice, but there’s something …”

Something. I know she’s right. I doubt I’d be a serial killer, though anyone can do anything, but something locks me away. “Please lock me away,” sang Peter and Gordon in “A World Without Love.” Please don’t. Lock me away. I come pre-locked, deadbolts in place, window locks fastened.

So when Satan says I have to live in an unlocked room, is this a lesson? Do I have to learn how to live with everyone, especially Mom, having access at any time they choose? I never thought of Satan as a teacher, more like a Marlon Brando, but maybe he’s looking out for me, trying to mop up my psychological mess from my Earth days.

Or he’s a sadist. He just enjoys torture. He’d be great in government.

Art died of a heart attack in his fifties. Mom never told any of us, I don’t think. A friend from back home e-mailed me about it. He said he was sorry. I wasn’t. Dad had long since dumped Mrs. Kaslo and was living in a small house. He never contacted any of us. It’s like we simply didn’t exist. I hate him. It’s that simple. But hating your father isn’t simple. It’s a torn-up road and traveling on it is rough going. My psychologist was helpful, but the stings went pretty deep. Mom made them worse. Mostly, I wanted to get away from both of them, but that was dangerous. Mom was a rock but rocks can crack your head open.

If I were to go to hell, as predicted, that means Art can walk in my room whenever he wants. “Hi, sport!” Oh, surely he wouldn’t say that. He probably wouldn’t show up anyway. He didn’t on Earth so why in eternity? Mom would walk in. Over and over. “Are you happy, son?” “Yes, Mom.” Centuries turn to toffee in the sun. Millenia weigh less than a gull’s wing. “Are you happy, son?” “Yes, Mom.”

Mom in hell, what a concept. She strongly believed in it, just as she did heaven. She’d be initially surprised to be there, but she made adjustments her whole life. I picture her coming to visit every day but me never going over to her room. Her door would be open too, I guess. But why go when she would be walking into my room, maybe closing her hand into a fist, and pretending to be knocking on air. Her room, a mystery. It would be better that way. I could picture it sparkling, no dust on the coffee table, no extra cups left lying on the table. I’d rather not know—hell is better with surprises.

Is heaven full of surprises? Our minister made it sound static. Happy, happy, happy, and no sleep, just blissed up like an addict, people bowing whenever Jesus walks by. Or the Father. Or the Holy Spirit sent a breeze-puff near where you stood by a window with a golden sill. Did the Holy Spirit get tired of being invisible? Maybe in heaven all is visible, even the Spirit. I don’t want visibility. I want to be the white lily-of-the-valley that blooms under a porch.

Fast forward twelve thousand years: Dave, Marsha, Brian, and Lori walking up and down heaven’s main drag. Yesterday the same as tomorrow. No one needs a winter coat. How will the hepatica bloom? They need cold temperatures to crack their seeds. No hepatica in heaven. Dave would be fine with this heaven, a boardroom meeting with straight men making all the decisions. Marsha, wearing perfect mascara. The kids riding perfect bikes down perfect avenues. Another Pleasant Valley Sunday.

Would Dave miss us, wonder if Mom’s faith was phony—or else she’d be with them—not in some small room. And me, maybe he’d miss me, even a little. When we were boys we had great fun playing Monopoly or darts. It would please him to say, “I told you so.” Dumb ass.

In my daydreams of hell, I never see Genevieve. We always got along OK. I don’t see her anywhere. Eternity would fit her like a tight girdle. I see her outside of time, even outside of death. If I put her in heaven or hell, I feel like I’m boxing her up like oranges sent from Florida to New Brunswick. So, I let her go. She never lets the concerns that drive many people—career, family, keeping up—bother her. For her, the morning comes, the coffee goes on, work comes, work goes, she has a date, she falls asleep, and wham, same thing the next day, the next night. She’s in heaven. She’s in hell. She’s nowhere. Everywhere.

I have talked to various ministers, shrinks, and religious experts about my obsession with hell, and therefore, heaven. “Believe,” one says. “Quit believing,” another says. “Sex. You need sex. If you had more sex, you wouldn’t obsess this way.”

I have enough sex, whether alone or with men. My lovers seem, like Genevieve, to be beyond heaven and hell. They’re like ice cubes left out of the refrigerator. They melt and I toss the water away. I don’t picture any of them walking in through my door in hell and saying howdy or can I hop in your bed? In my boring world lit class in college, I read Dante. He put his nice teacher in hell because he was gay. Dante was a pig. A great pig. The joke was on Dante. Maybe the teacher was happier there. He was free of teaching.

I have a tiring day ahead of me. Mrs. Crull pays me a small fortune to trim her bushes and weeds. “Hello, Mark, my what a nice job you do.” “Thanks, Mrs. Crull,” I say, a perfect Eddie Haskell. She drinks iced tea on her porch, sometimes nods off over a copy of People. Then the Andersons need me to mow and edge. It’ll be over ninety today and I hate heat. Hell probably isn’t as hot as I was led to believe. I’ll bet it’s chilly sometimes. Maybe it has long cold periods. Then spring comes and hepaticas bloom.

Before I die, I have a lot I want to do. I want to learn how to paint. I know I’ll never do this. But what if I end up in heaven after all, a place where desire is ground out and it’s all praise, praise, praise? I want to desire, not to accomplish. Or if I end up in hell, what if desire stops and what we do is sit on our beds or chairs, sleep, wait for visitors we don’t want? Better desire now, coax it like a sprout from a seed, keep it moist so it will grow.

I want to meet someone who will love me forever as I love them forever as the camera goes in slow mo and we sail over a field and don’t slip on cow patties. I think I have a better chance at learning how to paint. I’m a cynic. Maybe that’s why hell is ideal for me. In heaven, everyone is cheery. All that happiness and joy leaps on you like fleas. You can’t scratch them off.

Can you scratch family off? Some can. Some have to or they won’t make it.

Hell, heaven, where I’ll be, ultimate destinations, and in the meantime, the here and now slips away like sugar in an unfilled tooth. Throughout my childhood, Mom put heaps of eternity on my plate. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV until I had eaten every bite. She’d look sad as my beans grew cold, put her hand on her heart. I learned to see eternity everywhere—in a two-minute Dave Clark Five single, in dust flecks drifting from coffee table to floor, on the dog’s tail, in my shirt pocket.

The present baffles me. My friend Amy says that I often begin sentences with “in the long run.” I must stop doing that, but “in the short run,” who says that? A short run is often a sprint and that’s what life feels like—a sprint—there’s no stopping, just a faster and faster move toward the finish line. Which I can’t see.

She’s here again, in my room, my mom. She’s talking about her struggles on Earth, enumerates them, dices them up, and fills both hands with them.

“Let that all go, Mom,” I say.

“Why? It’s better than sitting by the window all day.”

“Poof, disappear,” I say, a bit unkindly, but she does weary me.

She stays put.

Satan drops by. He looks rather dashing today in his red blazer and yellow carnation. Sometimes he looks like he just got out of bed. I wonder where he sleeps, but I never ask. He is, after all, the manager of this joint.

“Are you both well today?” he asks.

“Yes, we’re fine,” Mom says, answering for me.

He goes, not even saying goodbye. He doesn’t stand on ceremony.

Then I’m back in the Anderson’s yard. Cindy, their eight-year-old, likes to talk and talk while I work. Kids bore me, but I try to be polite. It’s ninety-five and humid.

“Are you married?” she asks.

Poof, disappear.

“Do you have kids?”

The clipper cuts the dead rose cane at an angle.

“Well, I have to meet Sherry at the food court. We’re going to bike up to the mall. Have a nice day.”


She goes poof, at least for a while. The petunias are obscenely bright this year. The portulaca only last a day, not even a day, but they fiercely claim their time, do it with an Alexander Julian’s Colours eighties style, then go. How great to be free of consciousness—but who am I to say what they know and feel? Eternity offers them the same tiny breeze it offers me. I keep trying to cage the breeze.

There is a room. It has no lock. I want choice, choices, but there is a room. It has no lock. A flower in the window. Mother next door. Poof. She shows up. Disappear. Art shows up. Can this be? I water the flower. I sit and wait.

I grew up as a fundamentalist. While I no longer am a part of that world, the images and ideas remain connected with what I write. “Heaven” and “hell” are not just religious ideas but they can be frames for what we see as useful and not useful, ways to live and not live. When I wrote the story, I was reading Feeling Very Strange, an anthology of slipstream writing. I used to see my work as embracing “surrealism” but not “fantasy”—this book (and a class I taught on fabulism/fantasy) helped break down barriers and crusty definitions I had beforehand. I think Dante is swimming between the lines too.

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