Bill Schwan

Initial Impressions

fiction
He looked at the original drawings and marveled at the shortsightedness of the engineers who had planned the retention basin for the storm run-off from the residential development off to the East. While the basin was more than equal to the task of holding a summer’s worth of rainwater and allowing it to leech away at a reasonable rate, someone had managed to miscalculate the average amount of snow in this area of the country. That meant a powerful spring storm could cause the basin to fill beyond capacity and the overflow pipe, at four inches in diameter, was unable to handle the flow. After enough basements in the development flooded, the engineers rethought things and brought him

into the picture to increase the size of the overflow.

“Are you ready to get back to work, old man?” the summer help, a high school junior earning money for college, chided him good-naturedly.

“Not quite. Come over here and learn something. This has been bothering me all morning. See this topographical rendering of the original project? There was a tall hill where the housing development now stands. That means a lot of earth has been moved. I’m betting it went over the edge of that ravine over there.”

“So?”

“That means the present edge of the ravine is not where it’s shown in this drawing. This line indicates a thirty-six inch gas main at a specific distance from the edge of the ravine but I don’t think the ravine is where it used to be. The call-before-you-dig people may have marked it in the wrong location, so I want you to run down to the Circle K and call the office. I have no cell signal on this side of the mountain. Tell them I’m shutting this project down until we get some confirmation.”

The kid threw gravel twenty feet behind the truck as sixteen year old drivers do when given the opportunity to drive with all due haste. He ran across the field and reached the side of the backhoe just as the operator exposed and penetrated a large piece of polyethylene pipe.

In two seconds, a number of things happened. Five hundred cubic feet of natural gas escaped from a three-inch wide puncture. The friction of the rapid release of gas through a polyethylene opening produced a lot of static electricity at ground level. The cloud of invisible electrons quickly aligned with a ground source, the bucket of the backhoe, and the spark ignited the gas.

It was later calculated that eighty percent of the windows in the development were shattered by the concussion of the resulting explosion.

I suppose the first thing that surprised me after the gas main exploded was that I could be surprised. I mean, to my way of thinking, death marked the end of existence. I’m not sure how long it was before I began to feel uncomfortable.

There were no Underwood Deviled Ham demons with horns, pointed tails, and pitchforks. Just a stillness that was punctuated by a background droning noise whose cadence rose and fell at regular intervals. The sky, if you could call it that, was featureless and dark, like the ceiling of a very tall poorly lit cave deep within the earth.

Slowly, the droning became more differentiated. As I concentrated, I could hear variations in the sound. Eventually I convinced myself that it sounded like the voices of professional mourners whom you might see from time to time in news reports coming from any armed conflict anywhere in the world. If I was right, that meant I wasn’t as alone as I felt.

I began a search of sorts, looking for the source of the sound. As I wandered, I became aware that the air seemed unnaturally dry. Every so often, a snippet of memory would pop into my head and I would try to pin it down. Unlike the background noise of the place, the memories felt more like distinct words, and I suddenly realized where I had heard the words before.

At lunch, a half hour before the backhoe operator found a thirty-six inch gas main in the worst manner possible, one of my co-workers (I think our summer high school help), had been prattling on about how we never knew when our time might come and how I shouldn’t be ignoring the needs of my soul. I nodded in mock acknowledgment and promised to get around to it someday. Suddenly every verse from the Bible he had ever quoted to me was at the front of my mind.

Those verses that had touched on the topic of hell spoke of torment. While this vestibule area almost seemed peaceful, I had to wonder about the sounds made by the other occupants of this place. And as I marveled at the lack of actual pain I was feeling, every decision and choice I made that contributed to the mindset that landed me here was burning my conscience as badly as any acetylene torch.

Other verses spoke of the eternality of this place. This was it, forever. Or perhaps not. There was to be some sort of judgment eventually. Maybe I would have the opportunity to plead my case. Then I remembered that the only advocate worth having had to be placed on retainer, as it were, before your death. No help there, I guess.

If the path leading to destruction was so much wider than the path leading to eternal life, where were all the people who had taken it? The relative peacefulness of my little corner of hell was deceiving. I was suddenly aware of how much I missed the company of other people. Was this what forever was to feel like? To be abandoned as though my existence didn’t matter? Forgotten not only by God but also by anyone else in the same state as me? I felt panic rising up from deep inside, but I fought it down. Still, the more I considered my situation, the more reasons I saw for panic to be the most appropriate reaction.

It seemed as though the only prayer I ever prayed had been answered in spades. I had lived a life that told God I wanted nothing to do with him and then received exactly what I had asked for. God is light, God is love, I recalled. Here there were neither. And if my understanding of the story were to any degree accurate, the only time I would get to see God face to face, I would see him not as a savior but as a judge.

This time I gave in to the panic and joined the chorus of unseen voices mourning for themselves.

I have never in my life had a thought or experience that I could not adapt to language. But my initial moments here showed me how short English can fall in terms of its ability to illustrate. All the words seem so pale compared to what they are really describing. I mean, imagine having been blind from birth and then receiving your sight in the midst of one of those rare sunsets that colors the sky and landscape with a thousand shades of a hundred different colors. For me, arriving in heaven was rather like that.

I was stunned by the way I felt I belonged here. Doubts no longer nagged. Faith that was prone to waver was replaced with a growing certainty. This was what God had intended from the beginning.

I found myself with two men who seemed in some way familiar. One introduced me to the other as “our grandfather”. Him I recognized from old photos. The features were redeemed, ageless and without decay, but still recognizably the old German who had died in a construction accident three years before I was born.

But the other one, though so familiar, was not any cousin who might have made such an introduction. The only male cousin whose death had preceded my own did not share this particular grandfather. He obviously sensed my confusion and tried to help.

“Try and remember a time before you were a teenager. Big snowstorm. Your mom and dad spent two hours one evening shoveling the drive. You can remember the event. And in greater detail than you’d ever expect.”

He was right. I recalled that Dad began the effort when it was still light out and Mom had joined in an hour later. I filled mugs with hot chocolate and my sister and I carried them out to the back porch every twenty minutes to encourage the folks. After they finished and just before they came in, Mom had slipped on some ice and fallen. Dad helped her up and into the house. The following evening there had been some nervous discussion between my parents and then Mom spent a day in the hospital.

“Oh no,” I said, reasoning through the events with redeemed powers of perception.

“That’s right. The placenta had torn free of Mom’s uterus in the fall. My memories began right over there,” he said, pointing to a fountain. “Our parents kept their pain from the loss a private one.”

“I’m sorry, I never knew,” I said, feeling something like tears welling.

“This is not a place for sorrow,” my grandfather said. “This is where sorrow is made into joy.”

And he was right, because the tears I felt were more akin to those that came when my son was born than any shed in times of sorrow.

I thought of my wife and son and wondered how they were dealing with my sudden and unexpected exit from their lives. I found myself missing them, but I was also looking forward to seeing them again. It was good to have the certain confidence that I would see them again.

“Everyone has at least one meeting like ours,” my brother said as he placed a hand on my shoulder. “I’ve seen it a thousand times and have so looked forward to our meeting. I think it’s a preparatory step. We all meet someone we didn’t expect. A friend we didn’t think would be here, a sibling we never knew we had but whom we felt we should have. I think it gets you ready to see the best friend you ever had that you never met.”

His eyes filled with awe as he looked beyond me. I turned in the direction he was looking and heard myself ask, “Is that…?”

“Yes, it is,” my grandfather said. “Later you will tell me all about my great grandchild.”

Though I was fully aware of other people standing around us, I also felt like there was no one there but the two of us.

Of all the words I might have expected to hear, the two he spoke to me were not among them. “Hello” and my name. I understood in my head that my savior knew me, but to hear him speak my name drove the fact home in a very personal way. He didn’t just know me as one face in a crowd of a billion, but he knew me as an individual. And for as unworthy as I felt to be here with him, he seemed genuinely happy to see me.

As I stood there, I became aware of intense yet familiar emotions. These feelings had come at moments in church when I was particularly in tune with the worship element of the service. But what I felt at this moment were not simply my own emotions but also the emotions of everyone around me. All the redeemed were feeling the same thing toward their Savior. Was this the unity that Jesus had prayed about when he prayed for his Church?

From a distance, he hadn’t seemed nearly so tall. I thought it odd that a Mediterranean Jew would possess such stature, but then I realized I had unconsciously dropped to my knees. He extended a hand in an invitation for me to stand and come closer. As he did, I caught sight of the scars. I must have stared because I could feel him looking at me as though trying to draw my attention away from them.

“I would like you to do me a favor,” I heard him say.

“Of course, Lord.”

“I want you to remember something. What is the first plaything you can recall?”

I thought briefly and smiled. “A toy lamb. It was stuffed with some kind of sawdust packing material, had thick wool, black felt eyes, and a blue ribbon around its neck.”

“Yes, that’s what it looked like when it was new. How did it look four years later?”

“It had a little bit of wool on one ear, only one eye, and a sharp piece of the wire skeleton it was built around was sticking out of the right rear hoof.”

“But you objected when your mother insisted that Butchie was no longer a safe toy for you to play with. Considering your description of the lamb, why would you possibly want to keep it when your mother promised to replace it with something just as nice?”

“I guess because I loved it.”

“So it had value because you said it did?” he asked.

“I suppose so.”

“Then I would like you to think of this,” he said and looked down at his wrists, “as my way of saying that you have value. I can’t imagine a worse way to spend eternity than to be forever unsure of your place here. You are worthy because I say you are.”

Any remaining uncertainty disappeared. My past actions did not figure into the equation after all. I was acceptable to my creator and this was home in every sense of the word.

“You know, this is one of my greatest joys,” he said with a smile.

“What is that?” I wondered.

“When you finally see yourself as I see you. I just wanted to let you know that I’m glad you’re here. We’ll talk again later because I have some things that need to be done and I think you are just the person to do them. But for a while, you need to spend some time getting acquainted with your new surroundings. Look for a man named Ellis. He has something for you.”

I was suddenly by myself again, but definitely not alone. People who saw our meeting and had participated in the subliminal worship service came up to me, curious about my reaction to seeing Jesus face to face. After the crowd was satisfied that I hadn’t been disappointed (like that was even possible), my grandfather returned to hear about his great grandson and his granddaughter-in-law.

“Do you know where my brother has gotten off to?” I asked after there was nothing more to say about my family.

“He’s telling people of your arrival. He’s been talking about this moment since shortly after he arrived.”

“I’m pleased to see that eccentricity runs in the family. The Lord told me to look for someone named Ellis. Any idea how I should go about finding him? I don’t even know his last name.”

“The best advice I can give is to look for him. ‘Seek and you shall find,’ you know.”

I scanned the horizon and saw in the distance a man waving something above his head.

“Drake. Ellis Drake,” I heard him call out and ran to meet him.

“Amazing how that happens,” I said as we shook hands.

“Isn’t it though? Here, this is for you,” he said and handed me what looked and felt like a baseball. “Admittedly it’s not horsehide, but it will do the job. Do they still use my double figure eight design for

the covering?”

“I’ve never seen anything else. Um, thanks. Do you know why you’re giving me this?”

“Sure. Rumor has it your brother is looking forward to a game of catch.”