~ I ~
In his forty-seventh year, in a small coastal town south of Portland, Professor Robert Gaines had dreams of Heaven. A balding and overweight professor of English literature who insisted on wearing blue jeans and tweed jackets to his lectures, Gaines was beside himself, for he could not understand how these dreams could occur. The timing, he thought, was bad.
Intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, Bob Gains had nearly extinguished his capacity to feel remorse over the commission of any wrongdoing. It was something he'd worked on for years.
The movement towards a "constructive sociopathology," as he humorously put it to his most intimate friends, had been a life-long task. Since turning away from his grandparents' Presbyterian church, Gaines had immersed himself in reading works by the best minds of the twentieth century. Angered that he had been duped into studying a God that was alternately vengeful and merciful, he had zealously studied the naturalists under the now deceased Professor Walter Wright, and during his intellectual/spiritual pilgrimage had been led to accept David Hume's argument, made two centuries earlier, that miracles could not occur in a universe governed by natural laws of cause and effect.
As a young pot-smoking Ph. D. from one of the best California universities, Gaines had embraced the existential universe and Sartre's atheism, at one point nearly committing to heart the original French version of Albert Camus' L'estranger. A few years later, he found Pychon's application of the second law of thermodynamic-the theory that entropy begins once a body of energy reaches critical mass-a suitable replacement for the Christianity of his grandparents. After all, the tendency towards disintegration meant that chaos was absolute. Consequently, the claims that in a universe of shifting signs no belief could have a basis rang true as a church bell. And so he had burned into his heart the premise that any religious construction was an imaginative tool used to deny the existence of the Void.
Devoid, therefore of any conviction in the forty-seventh year of his life, he had determined to murder his younger brother Ruben-always the family favorite-and seize the family wealth. Any act, Gaines reasoned, was morally equivalent to all other acts in a universe lacking absolutes; killing a zebra, for instance, was no worse and no better than frying an egg. "Hats off to Charley Manson," Gaines had been overhead to say at faculty parties.
He and Ruben had not liked each other from a very early age, but a seemingly small disagreement over whether to provide care for their aging grandparents had divided them years ago; and so Robert Gaines had neither seen nor heard from his brother for over twenty years. His mother was dead, his father teetering on the brink, both his grandparents were gone-acting out of no conviction, he had not attended family funerals-and his brother believed all good things came from God. Certainly, Robert reasoned, Ruben did not deserve to inherit the small fortune that would be left by the father, at one time a wealthy investment banker in San Francisco. Additionally, the very randomness of the act of murdering his brother appealed tremendously to Gaines; while Ruben had done nothing to deserve annihilation, the very senselessness of such a brutal act proved to Gaines that it must be done.
~ II ~
The dreams of Heaven, therefore, were infuriating, particularly since they came when Robert was finalizing plans for Ruben's demise. Once the dreams started Professor Gaines could not stop thinking about them.
Perhaps, he reasoned, the dreams were caused by the stress of murdering his brother; but he felt only pleasure in planning to extinguish Ruben. He considered the possibility that he had a brain disease, but a check-up with his doctor quickly removed that suspicion. As far as the possibility that the dreams were of divine origin-well, to Bob Gaines, God was out of the question.
Yet, one day, as he was ploughing through the first book of Paradise Lost in his British Literature class, he found himself entertaining the notion that Milton's writings were predicated not upon a denial of traditional Christian belief but upon a reserved acceptance of a God who would throw one of His own creations out of Heaven. Upon another occasion, as he read Donne's Holy Sonnets alone to himself in his small house overlooking the coast, he found himself moved to tears as images of the City of God flooded his mind; he thought about his brother living alone in a cabin in northern California; for an instant, he even missed his grandparents.
~ III ~
I must be losing my mind, Bob Gaines told himself as he sat one late night at the window of the diner overlooking a small Oregon bay. He rubbed his sore neck and wondered if he were catching a cold.
It was late November. Waiting for his dessert, he puffed on his pipe, wondering if he should make an appointment with a therapist. The steady rains of the last forty days had abated, and the small town had been wrapped in thick fog since late afternoon. Maybe, he thought, I need to take a good long walk down the coast, find some attractive promontory, and throw myself headfirst into the ocean.
Later, as he drank his coffee and worked on his cherry pie, he thought of how easy it was going to be to have his brother murdered: Ruben lived in a cabin in the woods without a telephone or a computer. Robert planned to hire a killer through a third party, to whom he would never reveal his identity. He had set up the chain of events, as logical as Aquinas' argument for a Prime Mover, and it would be impossible to trace. Professor Gaines liked to imagine his brother's final agonizing moments, the rope pulled tight around his throat by someone three time Ruben's strength; the pain and suffocation his brother would experience would be extreme.
"Why, then, the dreams?" he kept asking himself as he rose from the table, walked to the front desk to pay, and exited the diner. "Why these fucking dreams?"
~ IV ~
The dreams had begun several weeks before, on the night marking the fifth year of his divorce from Helen, who had moved out with their obese and pimply-faced son Reinhart as soon as Robert began experiencing severe depression.
Gaines remembered that, in the first dream, he had stood on a promontory overlooking the ocean when he had glanced up into the sky. As he had stared upward, as if on command, he had seen the darkening blue sky crack like an egg; as the two halves of the sky pulled away from each other, another sky, similar to the first, again cracked like an egg, its two halves pulling apart and revealing yet a third sky. In his dream, he had found this spectacle terrifying yet awe-inspiring. As he had watched, waiting for another splitting, he saw the image of a golden city. It struck him, even in his dream, as a reflection, like something glorious seen only through its shadow on water.
The beauty of the reflected city had overwhelmed him, and he had heard a distant singing; as he had strained to listen, he knew that it was the most harmonic, the most moving music he had ever heard. The song, in fact, reminded him of a waterfall, an analogy that during his waking hours would strain his own logical capacities to the breaking point. Finally, in this first dream-which continued over three nights-standing on the turret of a building near the wall of the city stood a man who resembled his brother.
When he had awoken from this dream in the middle of the night, he had felt shaken. He had forced himself out of bed and gone downstairs to pour himself a drink and, hopefully, clear his mind of delusion. As he drank into the early morning, he couldn't stop thinking about Ruben, imagining Ruben kneeling and praying for him.
"Jesus Fucking Christ," he muttered to himself again and again as he put the bottle of Scotch to his lips, hoping the alcohol would burn away the dream. As he drank deeply, Robert tried to force into his mind the picture of his brother gasping for breath. The thought made his own throat and neck hurt.
The next day following his last class at 3:30 PM, Gaines hopped in his Toyota and drove to a nude bar in Portland to escape the images of the City of God that had filled his mind that day as he had lectured. He stayed at the bar until midnight, when he met a dancer. She had been one of his students several years before.
"I'm very depressed and lonely," he had told the young woman as she sat next to him at the bar. He rubbed his neck. Her stage name was Rose. He couldn't remember her real name. "Jesus, I'm lonely. Kind of fucked up, too."
"Most people are," Rose answered, slow, pensive. Gaines wondered if she were working him for a series of lap dances. "Lonely and fucked up," she added for clarification.
"I have these dreams at night..." he began, taking a sip of warm beer, not sure what he was saying.
"I have dreams, too," she said, putting her hand between his legs. Gaines was immediately aroused.
"Not like these." Just for the hell of it, he explained the dream and found that she was interested. As she listened, she massaged him.
"Don't bet on it, Professor," she said, sure of herself. He squirmed, and she removed her hand.
"Do you believe in God?" he asked. He wasn't sure why he asked.
"It's not a question you get asked in a place like this, y'know?" she commented, smiling, and he was sure at that moment that this woman could have earned no more than a C in his class. "I mean, the fact I'm now a stripper . . .?"
"Just the same..." he began and paused, rubbing his neck, his throat sore and parched.
"Yeah, I do," she said, finally. "Mama always said, 'Put the damned cards on the table, Elizabeth.' Anyway, I grew up Pentecostal. Hard to forget God, even when I dance. Gave myself to Jesus when I was fourteen. Hallelujah and praise the Lord and all that crap. Big mistake."
What the hell am I doing, Gaines wondered. I mutter some inane words and this girl, who dances naked and screws for a living, launches into fundamentalist theology.
"Why a mistake?" Gaines asked. He had done something similar when he was sixteen, just before he got fed up with his grandparent's church.
"Because you can't ever get away," Rose said.
"From what?" Gaines asked. Rose's remark made him feel, for some reason, as if things were suddenly closing in around him.
"Jesus. God. What d'you think? It's like one of those seals they use in space crafts. Can't break the fuckin' seal."
"Jesus," Gaines said, more as a swear word than anything else.
"'Fraid so," said Rose. "I need a drink. Several maybe."
Gaines considered pinning this girl down like an insect onto cardboard and demonstrating his intellectual prowess as well as her incredible stupidity. Instead, he bought Rose several drinks and, half an hour later, he asked her to come home with him.
~ V ~
On the Monday of the third week after the dreams began, just before he left for work one morning, Rose asked, "What about those dreams, Bobby Boy?"
She had started calling his "Bobby Boy" the very first night they'd slept together. He wasn't used to such informality, but he liked it. He preferred to call her Rose.
"Dreams?" said Gaines, sitting at the breakfast table, chewing French toast and drinking coffee. He was having trouble swallowing. "What dreams?"
"Dreams of Heaven, dumb shit, of God. You told me about them when we met," Rose said him, slurping her orange juice. She sat across from him.
"Oh, those." Gaines had not dreamed of Heaven for two weeks. But now that the question was asked, he did remember the awful dreams of the last several nights. In these dreams, he told her over a breakfast of cold oatmeal, he had found himself wandering alone, endlessly, through a maze of darkened hallways, searching for his brother and Rose. The hallways smelled smoky, made him think of smoldering flesh, and he sensed the presence of snakes and bats.
"These dreams scare the hell out of me, Rose," he said, feeling suddenly helpless. "I wonder if in these dreams I am in Hell."
She reached across the table and took her hands in his. Looking into his eyes, she said, "They're only dreams, Bobby Boy. But y'might be in Hell. Y'never know."
"That's what I keep thinking," he mumbled.
That very night Professor Gaines dreamed again that he was standing on the promontory overlooking the ocean, gazing into an infinite sky, at the center of which stood a city. The golden city occupied the entire sky, and as he studied the buildings, he noticed that each structure contained colorful etchings that wove themselves into intricate arabesques and, from there, that each arabesque was connected to others in one splendid, eternal design. If you looked at part of the design, you might get the impression of chaos; if you considered the whole, you were struck with the orderliness of all things.
Overcome by beauty, he wanted to touch the buildings, their designs, to study the larger patterns that they formed together. In his dream, he felt in the presence of someone greater than himself. And, as in the other dream, he heard the singing, constant, eternal, incredibly beautiful and pictured within his mind, within the dream, a host of angels. Within the dream, he envisioned a choir of angels, his thin and bespectacled brother Ruben standing in their midst, singing joyfully.
He awoke from this dream at 4:30AM and decided to dress for class and stay up. As he walked downstairs to the kitchen to pour himself a drink, he couldn't erase the images from the dream. The dream within the dream-the vision of Ruben-was unnerving. Massaging his neck, he decided to turn his thoughts to his brother's murder. After all, this would be the day that he would make the contact that should end, two or three weeks later, in his brother's death.
It was just as he was tipping the new bottle of Scotch that Rose came into the kitchen. It was 7:30AM, and Gaines seemed distant, almost crazed to her as she cooked his bacon and eggs.
Then she slowly turned to look at him. "I had a dream, Bobby Boy, you wouldn't believe."
Gaines looked up from his coffee, broke into a cold sweat. "What? Tell me." He had to know.
"You got a brother, right? Well, in this dream, you take him out into some old vacant lot and, as he kneels, you bash his head in with an aluminum bat. Pretty fuckin' bloody."
Robert nearly choked on his coffee but said nothing. He felt that he had been caught and envisioned, for a second, himself standing condemned before the throne of God.
"That it?" he asked, hoping to take the conversation anywhere else.
"What?" he said. "What? What?"
"At the end of the dream? Well, Professor," she paused, looked around the room, sipped coffee, "a rope is put around your neck and you are hanged until dead. Very fucking dead."
Gaines rose from the table, picked up his brief case, and headed for the door. "I'll be home at three," he said, closing the door behind him.
~ VI ~
In his dreams during the next two weeks, the professor once again found himself wandering an endless maze of darkened halls. He could hear cries and moans coming from behind the locked doors, and he became aware that someone following him.
Whomever it was gave him chills, and as he struggled to wake up, he found that he could not break his slumber and so he spent the night in his dreams wandering dark passages, sensing the presence of something truly evil on his back, wondering what had happened to Rose and Ruben. He thought he could hear his brother's voice calling to him, but the doors to the hallways would not open. He looked for Rose to ask her for advice, but couldn't remember where she had gone. Just before he woke, he saw a hangman's gallows at the end of the corridor.
Two weeks and a day after the last series of celestial dreams, having been informed that afternoon that his brother's decapitated body had been found stuffed into a mine shaft, he dreamed of a huge, towering mountain covered with forest. Out of the top of the mountain flowed a stream, whose waters ran downwards, covering the mountainside with creeks, rivers, pools, and lakes. The water would always run over, around, or maybe even through the impediment, whether in the form of a fallen tree or a boulder, and make its way down the mountain. For three successive nights, he had this dream.
He knew, too, that the water flowing out of the top of the mountain was the grace of God and that the streams of water, by the time they reached the bottom, had crisscrossed and formed a single intricate design that recalled to him, as he dreamt, the buildings and their designs he had seen weeks before. By the third night, the presence of the being standing near him filled him with joy, and looking at the mountain he saw his brother standing near the mouth of a cave, waving to him. Desperate, sensing that he and not Ruben was in terrible danger, Robert reached for his brother, knew that not in a billion years would he ever traverse the space separating them.
In the dream, his throat hurt terribly; it felt parched and swollen, and he wished his brother would give him drink of water. Suddenly, he realized he hung from a noose suspended from a gallows.
When he awoke with a jerk at five in the morning, he got out of bed and frantically stumbled into the kitchen. He felt dead inside, and depression hung upon him like a heavy cloak. He hated these dreams of Heaven. He noticed that his hands shook and he felt sick to his stomach. As he tried to force the dream out of his mind, he made himself some strong coffee mixed with alcohol. He thought about mixing in some strong anti-depressants. Slurping coffee, he fought to extinguish the growing flame of remorse over having Ruben killed.
"Where the hell did this guilt come from?" he asked himself. With the return of the depression that he thought had fled with his wife and son, Gaines felt bound forever to the pain of having killed his brother. The more he fought it, the stronger the remorse grew. Finally, Robert Gaines set the cup down on the table, buried his head in his hands, and silently wept. He wept because he couldn't stop the dreams and because he figured that if God did exist He was communicating through the dreams. He wept for his brother, whom he suddenly missed.
Rose found him sobbing as she entered the kitchen.
"What's the matter, honey?" Rose was dressed only in a Seattle Mariners sweater. Sensing crisis, she walked over to him, put her arms around him, and held him like a baby.
"What it is, Punkin?" She had never called him "Punkin" before. It was a name his mother had used on him and Ruben. He felt himself melting inside.
He didn't answer, fighting to control himself. He wished he were dead.
"Hey," she said, turning his head towards her, "ya gotta tell me, Punkin. I'm the only one you got."
He hesitated. His brother gone, his grandparents having passed long ago, his father barely hanging on, his colleagues always distant with him, he sensed an overwhelming need to confess. This isn't the goddamned middle ages, and I don't have anything to confess, he thought.
"I had my brother killed." The words poured out of him in a rattle that Rose had only heard from a dying aunt years ago. "I murdered my brother, Rose."
Rose held him then ever more tightly, kissed him on the forehead, and stroked his hair. Still sobbing and trembling, he was glad she was there. Then, as he gradually got a hold of himself, he told her the story: how he had gone through an acquaintance of a local attorney to contact a guy in northern California that made a living hiring killers; how when he learned that his brother's body had been found in an old mine shaft he had lost his lunch; how he had seen his brother waving to him in dreams; how between the celestial dreams he always found himself walking an endless, dark corridor, something evil at this back; how in last night's dream he had been a hanged man watching his brother wave from the Kingdom of Heaven.
Rose sat and listened, drinking coffee, showing occasional surprise but never seeming shocked that she had been living with a murderer.
"So what you gonna do?" Rose asked gently, patiently as Gaines came to the end of his story. "What you gonna do, Bobby? What're we gonna do?"
It had never occurred to him that Rose considered their relationship as anything but temporary. And he knew then that he needed her.
"I don't know," he answered. "I think I'm not a suspect. Cops never called."
"A positive sign. But what you gonna do is what I asked you. What we gonna do?"
"What you gonna do?" The words stuck in his head, flashing on and off like an advertisement, and he knew his life depended upon the answer. He felt incapable of giving an answer.
"Like I said, Rose, I haven't the foggiest. Turn myself in and wind up going to prison? No thanks. Maybe even get the death penalty. Nothing I can do. Except wait and maybe pray." As soon as he spoke, he knew he had used the wrong words.
"What?" she said, squinting as if looking into a bright light. "What'd you say?"
"Maybe pray? I think I said that."
"Pray?" she'd never heard him used that word before. "You pray?"
"Yeah," he said, sighing and rubbing the sides of his forehead with both hands. "That's about all I can do. And I don't even know how to do that any more."
"Y'don't know how to pray?" Rose said. "Grew up in the church and don't know how to pray?"
"Been a long time, Rose. Too long," he said, wishing that he could pray.
He looked at Rose, who smiled. And then this woman who had likely been a mediocre student surprised him.
"Let me show you," Rose said in a voice so soft and sweet that he was reminded of the picture of an angel that had hung on the wall of his grandparents' bedroom. "Lemme show you how to pray. "
"What?" Gaines began, unsure how to take this offer. No one had prayed for him or with him for a long time.
"I'll pray," she said, looking him in the eyes and then reaching across the table and taking one of his hands into hers. She closed her eyes and bowed her head. "Close your eyes and bow your head, Professor," she said in a soothing tone. He did as she told him.
As Rose began, Professor Robert Gaines found himself hoping that God was real. As he listened to Rose's passionate prayer, his mind began to form images: first, of birds flying over the ocean; next, of a man preaching to thousands along the lake that Bob Gaines figured was Galilee; finally, of an enormous field of rich green grass and flowers of all colors buffeted by a wind that blew gently.
"Jesus Christ," he breathed, and as he uttered the words he saw the Man of Sorrows hanging bloody on the cross, the clouds behind Him black as night. It was as if, with his eyes closed, Rose muttering a prayer he was no longer listening to, he was standing at the foot the cross. He could feel the hard parched soil under his feet, hear the weeping of women near him, feel the presence of something magnificent sweeping with the wind over the landscape.
Gazing up at the cross, he saw the man's eyes closed, realized the man hanging from the cross was dead, and noted that a crown of thorns woven around this man's head.
Sick at heart, Professor Robert Gaines knew the man hanging on the cross had died for him; he reasoned in his vision that if he, Robert Gaines, could be transported to the foot of the cross, that if the dead man hanging on the cross was who scriptures claimed He was, then it was a certainty that the bloodied, hanging man could rise from the dead. Yet, try as he might, he could not plead in his heart for forgiveness and thereby receive the assurance that he had been cleansed of all unrighteousness.
When he opened his eyes, he looked at Rose. As he stared, the sense of the vision slowly faded and he felt returned to himself.
"What?" she asked, and he wondered how she couldn't know. "What happened? I heard you say 'Jesus Christ.' What happened?"
Gaines looked at Rose, realized she still held his hand. Saying nothing, he forced a smile, and then rose from the table.
"I dunno. Jesus, I just don't know," he finally said, barely audible, images from the vision rapidly disintegrating as he moved away from Rose. He stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the family room. "Everything seems gray." He realized that, somehow, he must accept responsibility for committing a sin for which he had not asked forgiveness.
As he remembered seeing his brother waving to him in his dreams, Robert Gaines walked into the family room and over to the phone. Sitting down in his black leather chair, he reached under the table, grabbed the phone book, put the book on the coffee table in front of him, and found the number he wanted. He started to dial his lawyer and then slammed down the phone.
"What the hell am I doing?" he asked himself, wrapping the phone chord around his hand and wrist several times. What in the hell am I doing? He glanced at Rose, who studied him. His lawyer had been the one who had made the contacts that had resulted in his brother's murder. Besides, he knew confession would ruin his professional life.
That night in bed, as he struggled to sleep, he thought about the imperatives seemingly attached to the "vision"; accepting responsibility for the murder entailed confession, and confession was unthinkable.
The image of the cross seemed more distant by the second, almost as if it were pulling away from him. He had said nothing about the "vision" to Rose, who slept next to him; while the scene had seemed real, he found himself now convinced that he had become delusional in the months leading up to and following his brother's murder. Quite clearly, he was marginally psychotic.
Then, with the suddenness of fire, he knew what he must do. The dreams, in fact, had made his only alternative quite clear.
Gently sliding out of bed so as not to wake Rose, Professor Gaines crept downstairs and walked to the kitchen. There, he stood several minutes wondering if he should drink. Fearing that in a state of mild inebriation he would not be able to bring this period of his life to an effective close, he turned off the house alarm and opened the door to the garage just off the kitchen.
Standing on the concrete floor in his bare feet, enveloped in darkness, he wondered for a second what he was doing. Then, flipping on the light, he strode to the cabinet that he had built against the far wall years ago, reached up over the cabinet, and grabbed the thick rope coiled around a nail. He paused long enough to make a simple but very solid noose. This one could not break, he assured himself.
Next, he walked to the aluminum step-ladder kept at the back of the garage behind the garbage can, and seized it with his free hand. Carrying rope in one hand and the ladder in the other, he walked to the middle of the garage, to a point between his work bench and his car, positioned and opened the ladder, climbed, and threw the rope over the beam. Next, climbing down, he walked the three short feet to the workbench, where he secured the rope around the middle leg, making sure that the noose dangled a perfect distance from the beam. This rope will hold, he told himself. The rope would hold since the bench had been built into the wall.
Everything set for take-off, he considered going inside and drinking a fifth of whiskey to toast his journey. Thirst can wait, he told himself, slowly mounting the ladder, grabbing and yanking on the noose to make sure it would hold.
Then, half expecting to see Rose open the door leading to the garage, trying to remember the vision he had seen earlier that evening, he put the noose around his neck, tightened it, took a deep breath and in one motion stepped off and kicked away the small ladder.
Now let's see what happens, Gaines said to himself as he felt his neck crack and the light of life slowly extinguish. Wondering if dead men dream, he hoped his brother could forgive him.