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Dennis Must

The News From Heaven

I know Jeremiah didn't expect it. Probably hadn't crossed his mind
since he was a kid. We never talked about it, even then. Except the day
David McKensey slipped into the pool of acid wash runoff at Blair Strip
Steel. A cortege of freshly-washed family sedans paraded down our street
that morning. I remember Jeremiah didn't want to go to Castleview with
the rest of us. Actually, I was curious. My first experience with
somebody I knew leaving this world and never returning . . . so they
said. Hard to believe that when you are a kid. I wanted to see how they
made sure he wasn't coming back, how deep they were going to drop him
into the earth. I'd seen Houdini have his helpers stuff him into a milk
can, cinch it up with big chains and locks, then toss him into the
water.

They'd closed little David in a copper casket and were about to drop
it into the ground deeper than a grown man could climb out if he had no
ladder. Didn't appear they were giving him much of a chance. But I
wasn't convinced like the rest of them that one day he wasn't going to
show up on one of our front porches. And did we have an extra orange we
could spare.

Just like they told me, my dog, Shadow, had gone away. Nobody was
too happy the day I found him following me home. Nearly three miles I
kept telling him "Get away!" but he wasn't about to turn back. Must've
come from somebody in the circus. I got to imagining he belonged to the
freak I saw drive sixteen-penny nails in his feet and dip cattails into
kerosene, ignite them, and stick them into his mouth--for the cur wasn't
afraid of anything. Cars, nothing. I'd get mean with him, knowing it
wouldn't be easy to keep him in our house . . . but to no effect. Right
on my heels.

Often I'd look out the classroom window seeing him lying in the
grass, probably as bored as I was. Our day didn't begin until school was
out. He slept beside my bed, too. But they didn't want him. Tried to
find any excuse for me to get rid of him. I knew if I couldn't come up
with one, they would. So the day I came home from school and told Ma
that Shadow wasn't waiting for me, she confided that Father had taken
Shadow for a ride.

"A ride where, Ma?"

"A ride in the country, Westley. Out to a farm where there's lots of
room, acres and acres of room, and all sort of livestock. Cows, pigs,
chickens, turkeys, and children like you--lots of them. Think of the fun
Shadow will have. He won't have to be cooped up here in the house, or
waiting outside all alone while you are spending your day in school. He
can help herd the cows into the barn at night. Sleep in the hayloft and
keep the fox out of the chicken roost."

"Whose farm is this that Pa took Shadow to, Mom?"

"Some friend of a friend of his at the plant."

"How far away is it?"

"Oh far, very far, your father said. I don't expect him home 'til
dark."


I knew down in my heart how far. About as far as heaven is from the
earth. Old Shadow was never coming back. It was dog's heaven what she
was describing. Sounded just the sort of place Shadow would speak of
retiring to if he could dream like us. Probably in a stream somewhere
now stiller than a stone, all balled up in a burlap sack with a rope
wound tight about its opening.

Near a week later I was walking home from school and Ned Jenkins, my
friend--I can see him running toward me from down by Potter's grocery
store. He's hollering, "Westley, hey, Westley! C'mere, quick!"

And I go running to him, when he yells he thinks Shadow's lying down
on the curb in front of Potter's.

"Is he dead?" I cried.

"It don't look like he's dead. Just dead tired. He's lying their
panting and keeping his eye on me. I know it's him, Westley."

We both ran to the bottom of the street, and yessir, there was old
Shadow with a brown spot and black spot on his white coat, panting for
dear life.

"Run into Potter's and get a pan of water, Ned. Shadow's dying of
thirst."

I bent over him, and the animal licked my face. His tongue was dry
as composition paper, but the tail began beating against the granite
curb. "Oh, Shadow, you've come home. You and Houdini. I knew it. I
promise I'll never believe them again. Jesus, I thought you were gone
for good."

Ned held the pan of water up to his snout, and as Shadow lapped up
the cool liquid, I scooped handfuls onto his head and rubbed his dusty
eyes. I examined his paws. They were all bloody, as if he'd been
crossing a hot macadam road back from wherever dog heaven or hereafter
is. Like scabs, the tar roads . . . the hundreds of miles that he'd run
coming back to me . . . must have pulled the pads off his feet, leaving
the fiery, oozing mess.

When Shadow walked into the house with me, it was like Ma saw a
ghost. Up to then she always had an answer for everything. Shadow had
come back from the dead, traveled for days from that bullshit farm in
the sky that they tried to feed me, and there he was walking up to her
and licking her legs.

Ma was speechless. Finally she said, "Your father will be
surprised."

I could keep Shadow now. Nobody in their right mind would dare toy
with the gods. You might return something twice to a store. But you
wouldn't send a dog back to the celestial dog farm for fear more than
one would come home the second time.

~ ~ ~

I figured it wasn't no different with my brother, Jeremiah. I got
the call about noontime. It was from his wife, May.

"Westley, Jeremiah's gone."

"Gone where?" I said.

"He was helping a neighbor build a deck on his house. Came home for
lunch half hour ago. Opened the screen door into the kitchen, looked at
me kind of strange. 'What's wrong, honey?' I say. 'I'm feeling sick to
my stomach all of sudden,' he says. I could see it, Westley. He got
ghost-white, and I drop a plate on the floor. By then he'd collapsed.
'Jeremiah, speak to me! What's ailing you?' But he's looking right
through me, Westley. As if somebody were standing behind us--he nodded
like you do in church when the preacher says something you know is right
and you just haven't wanted to admit it to yourself?"

She was going on and on. "Jesus Christ, May, is my brother dead?"

"He is," she sobbed. "What are the children and I ever going to do
without him?"

Then I started bawling. I had a woodlot up in Maine, and Saturday
nights, late when our women were in bed, our kids were sound asleep, he
and I'd get on the telephone, hundreds of miles apart, open a six-pack,
and discuss just where among the hemlock we were going to situate the
two cabins whose logs we'd already peeled and notched inside our heads.

Next Saturday night we'd palaver about the '46 Indian motorcycle
he'd bought and kept stored in his garage for the day we could get
together and rebuild it.

Just a question of how soon.

Now here this ups and happens. Like Shadow, my brother's been hauled
off to heaven, the preacher solicitously told me. "It's where he is for
certain, Westley. Weren't no better man than Jeremiah Daugherty on this
old earth. He's up there waiting for you all to join him." He lived in
Virginia when he left us. I wondered if I'd meet him in a Virginia
heaven or in our Pennsylvania heaven.

Of course the hardest it hit anybody beside May were Mom and Pap.
(Jeremiah's son dropped a sixteen-oz. hammer into his father's casket,
suggesting his respect for the doctrine of earthly departure.) May
didn't want to test the hearts of either of our parents, so she phoned
over to Rudy in Harmony to get the news to them. Rudy's an alcoholic and
Jeremiah's and my brother-in-law. By noontime he gets excessively
maudlin over even the most trivial matters. Well, he rushes up to the
house and gathers Mom and Pap into the living room.

"What is it, Rudy?" they importune. "Why are you doing this?"

"Just trust me. Pap, you sit over there. Here, Mom, you sit right
down next to me on the sofa." Mother's arthritic, so it takes her some
time to bend down and get seated. Pap has cataracts and feels his way
into the overstuffed chair.

"Well, I've got some bad news to share with you."

Rudy is trying to be brave about this, but starts blubbering and
grabs onto Mother like he were her son. Pap gets alarmed and stares at
Ma. "What ain't you telling her and me, Rudy?" Rudy is bawling so loud,
Pap has to get cross with him . . . to break him out of the jag. Pap had
experience with this kind of thing.

"Rudy, now goddamn it, straighten up! Why did you come up here? What
is it Mother and me should know?"

"Jeremiah fell over in his kitchen dead this very noon," he sobbed.


It was like lightning leapt off the telephone pole outside our
house and jumped right into the living room. Ma dropped onto the sofa.
Pap, he got suddenly cold and motionless, staring at the Vitrone's house
across the street like he was trying to pierce through their drapes that
were always closed.

Rudy stood and staggered toward the door. A low moan began to build
in Mother's breast. As it rose, so did she. Ma crawled into Pap's lap,
clutching him for dear life. He returned the embrace, but it was limpid.
Soon the two of them mewled. A kind of old-folks
we-shouldn't-have-to-do-it dirge for having to bury their youngest
son--still the blue sky in her eyes. Rudy got in his car and hurried off
to a saloon.


Well, Jeremiah and I hadn't made our plans lightly. I was convinced
that late one afternoon somebody was going to be phoning me up saying
they saw my brother. "I know it's him . . . lying alongside a curb,"
maybe not in Harmony, but some town like Ashtabula or Cincinnati, Ohio,
lying there, panting with a dry tongue and waiting for me to bring the
water. Not the water of tears. Been enough of that.

And I'd carry it, no matter how many miles or days I'd have to
travel, I'd have a sack of it cooling on my back like the water bags of
burlap used to hang off chromium car bumpers, thirst quenching, as
families headed west, motoring across Arizona and the hot sands of New
Mexico. When I'd come upon him resting there near naked in the gutter,
I'd stoop over and kiss his damp forehead, take his dry tongue, dry as
the parchment of his phony death certificate where the doctor lied about
the cardial infarction, dip it into my water bag and watch the light
return to his eyes.

"Remember, the Indian in your garage?" I'd say. "Well, I fired her
up this morning. And she runs good as new."

Then I heard him gurgle, not the catarrh of death creeping up in his
throat, but the phlegm of life about to rise out of his lungs, clearing
it for new oxygen. And I took his feet in my hands, his bloody feet that
he ran all the way back from Hell on, and they were on fire. Bloody
fire. And I licked them with my wet tongue. Licked the fire right off
them. Jesus, they were hot and salty. Salty as cur's weep wetting us
both.

"Fuck the dog farm in the sky!" I yelled. "Fuck the dog farm in
heaven, Jeremiah. You've come home. My brother. My sweet fucking shadow.
Don't ever leave me again."


© Dennis Must