Just Heaven

Sean McElhiney
Jan 11, 2016 · 21 min read

I sit in an upholstered chair near the exit at Barnes & Noble. The boy’s mother approaches and I rise to meet her but the security guard puts his meaty paw on my shoulder and forces me down.

“I’m sorry,” I say to the woman. “I would be angry, too, if I didn’t know me. If I didn’t know why I did what I did.”

“Do you need me to sign anything?” the woman says, ignoring me.

“You’re free to go, Ma’am,” the security guard says. “We have your information. The police are on their way.”

“Thank you,” she says, turning back toward the children’s department.

“Please,” I plead. “If you hear me out, you’ll understand.”

She turns to face me.

“You might even forgive me,” I say.

“Why should I bother?” she says.

“Have you ever stayed at the Madonna Inn?” I ask.

Her face flushes.

“What business is that of yours?”

“Please. My crime is pardonable,” I say, attempting to stand again. The security guard holds me down.

“You’ll want to get back to your son, ma’am,” the guard says, “You really can’t leave him unattended again.”

The woman stares daggers at the polo-shirt-popping guard.

“He’s with my mother,” she says. She lifts her chin toward me.

“My story is brief,” I say, diving in. “It starts two weeks before my father died, when he asked me to scatter his ashes on the sheets on the bed in a honeymoon suite at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo.”

The woman flushes again.

“You have until the police get here,” she says.

*********

“It has to be a honeymoon suite,” Dad said. “Moments before some newlyweds consummate their marriage.”

“What?”

“Catholic newlyweds.”

“What are you talking about, Dad?”

“Catholics don’t use birth control.”

Throughout his final weeks, my father enjoyed keeping me guessing about the integrity of his intellect. I humored him.

“So you think somehow you’ll get sucked up in the excitement?”

“Exactly!” he said, delighted.

“You know that’s impossible.”

“I know nothing of the sort. And it beats the alternative.”

“What alternative?”

“Oblivion,” he said, fighting off a cough.

“Oh, Dad.”

“I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”

“You’re dying. Of course you’re thinking about it.”

“Then do as I ask,” he barked.

“No. It’s absurd to think your ashes will be eligible for some express trip back to life. That is what we’re talking about, right?”

“It’s absurd to think that quite soon this will be offal,” he said, pinching his yellow skin. “It’s absurd to think that I will be memory.”

“I’ll keep you alive in memory, Dad. That’s all any of us can hope for.”

“That’s nice, Andy,” he said dismissively, “but I’d rather be part of a new life than the empyrean idea of an old one.”

“Listen to you,” I laughed. “You don’t even believe in God.”

“Aha!” he said, as if he’d caught me in a lie. “But I do believe in life.”

He was remarkably good-natured for a man staring down his own mortality; he had been all along. He was a few years shy of eighty — a young seventy-eight — but that meant nothing in the face of the cancer that had apparently been setting up shop in his liver long before the first symptoms had made themselves known.

“I’m sorry, Dad, I can’t do it,” I said. “Ashes on hotel sheets? It has no merit. It’s childish. It makes no sense. Plus, I’m sure it’s illegal.”

“I insist,” he said.

“And besides, how would I do it?”

“You’ll figure it out,” he argued.

“It’s foolish,” I said. Dad clenched his jaw and closed his eyes. He hated that word and I knew it. I piled on. “I can’t do it, Dad. I won’t do it. It’s foolish.”

“Foolish or not, Andrew, I’m asking,” he said, his voice as firm as I had ever heard it. Not strong — he had little strength left — but adamant. “Father to son. This I ask of you. Do this for me.”

“No, Dad.”

I knew it was crazy. I knew it from the start. But he kept on.

“I haven’t asked a lot of you, have I?” he said.

I shook my head. He had not.

“Do this for me,” he repeated, pinging out words like they were tiny finish nails, his voice a small hammer. “When I’m gone. It’s what I want. It’s all I want.”

Dad lost his breath. I opened my mouth to object again while he fought a cough and wagged his fingers at me as if he were a clergyman blessing a throng.

“If you don’t, you’ll only have to answer to yourself,” he finally managed. “No one else is here,” he went on, gesturing with a slow, room-encompassing sweep of his arm. “You’ll only have to lie to you.”

I grunted.

He raised his pathetic voice.

“You will just have to live with the thought that you denied your dying father’s last request.”

“Okay. Jesus, Dad,” I said. What else could I say? “What do you want from me? Exactly?”

He perked up.

“I want you to sprinkle my ashes in that rock room at the Madonna Inn. You know. The one in that movie. What was it? The one with Buck Henry.”

Aria,” I said. The movie, a series of vignettes, had been in and out of theaters more than twenty years earlier. Dad and I had gone to see it shortly after Mom died. He’d loved it; I’d found it tedious. The room Dad remembered was featured in the segment called “Rigoletto,” based loosely on the Verdi opera. The hotel is nearby — I think you know it — its monstrous pink sign is impossible to miss off Highway 101.

“Or another room,” Dad said. “Any room with newlyweds.”

The Madonna Inn has more than a hundred kitschy theme rooms with names instead of numbers, names like Cloud Nine, Barrel of Fun, Floral Fantasy, and Time of Your Life.
“So, what?” I said. “Cover the room in ashes?”

“Yes!” he said. His eyes sparkled and he sat up a bit, buoyed by a sudden influx of energy. “Sprinkle me in the shower! Scatter me on the floor! On the dresser! In the dresser drawers!”

He apparently saw this as some sort of grand finale — Arnie Malzone’s Powdery Farewell — this mushroom cloud of delusional grandeur.

“But mostly,” he added, pausing for effect. “Coat the sheets with me!”

“So you said.”

“Get me in there with my new Mom and Dad.”

“It’s impossible.”

“Here’s what you do. You dump about a cup, no, two cups of me right near the top of the bed, under the covers a bit. Then hold it down, and whip the sheets some.”

He lost his breath again. It was the thought of all that ash, I figured — psychosomatic wheezing.

“Whip the sheets, Dad?”

“You remember how your mother used to make a bed? How tight it was? Well, I imagine the Madonna maids won’t be nearly as efficient. The sheets will be loose enough for you to get me under there and then to grasp the part that’s folded down right where our newlyweds will be climbing into bed. You grab it,” this he demonstrated by clutching his sheets with his skeletal hands. “You get some air in there. Hold it down tight. Then whip it. Spread me out. So I won’t be obvious.”

Winded, he held the sheet up for me like a kindergartener showing off a drawing of the sun. His hands, so near their useful end, quivered with excitement.

How could I say no?

“You’re crazy, you know that,” I said. I believed the words as I spoke them. For the first time.

“Just this side of sane,” he said, beaming.

I smiled. This had been one of Dad’s favorite lines. Arnie Malzone. The local actor. The music teacher. The director of plays. The thrower of parties. He had spent most of his life living, little of it, as far as I knew, ruminating on life’s meaning. And people — friends, co-workers, cast mates, students — oftentimes had reason to look at him and say “you’re crazy!”

“Just this side of sane,” was his stock response, delivered with wide eyes and a jester’s grin.

It was this type of performance, a drunken colleague of my father’s had once confided to me at a faculty party at our house, that made my father a good teacher, but kept him from being a great one. He was too flamboyant to be a great educator, this supposed friend of Dad’s had told me in a loud, Drambuie-coated whisper. “He is,” the man went on, his attempt at discretion lost in the briefly crestfallen look on my father’s face, “too foolish!”

That’s why I used the word, you see. I knew it was the only word my father would hear, but even that didn’t matter, and this surprising little razzmatazz flash of Arnie the Entertainer — just this side of sane — made me think of my mother, who had always been a more serious person than my father. She was never dour — a dour woman could not have loved Arnie Malzone — but she had been aware that life held as much disappointment as it did joy. She would tell my father, I was sure, that death was just more of the same.

“What about Mom?” I asked.

Dad’s smile drooped.

“What if she’s waiting?” I said.

He wagged his fingers at me again dismissively, with little zeal.

“If our souls are meant to meet, they will,” he said.

“I could scatter you at Hearst Castle,” I said.

Dad’s smile returned, a softer smile. “Remember that?” he said. “Talk about illegal.”

We’d had some history with ashes, Dad and I.

He’d had my mother cremated, and we’d set out together to honor her request to be scattered on the beach near Big Sur. But we stopped first for lunch at a restaurant in Templeton where we sat at the bar and toasted Mom’s memory with a shot and a beer, her ashes before us in a pair of Ziploc freezer bags tucked inside an old fruitcake tin. The bartender overheard. It was novel to him, I could tell, a story he would later share. He re-filled our draughts and joined us as we threw back another shot, on the house, then another.

Back on task, feeling no pain, Dad felt somehow compelled to pull off the highway in San Simeon, miles shy of Big Sur, where we joined a tour group at Hearst Castle, Mom’s ashes freed from the tin and divvied up between us, tucked into our coat pockets. In the middle of that tour we broke off from our group under the pretense of having to use the bathroom.

We wandered instead toward the Neptune Pool, where, when no one was looking, we found our way around a barrier and sprinkled Mom directly into the unnaturally blue water. That stunning pool, once the focal point of celebrity-studded parties hosted by William Randolph Hearst — a grandly foolish man if ever there was one — enjoys as impressive a view of the California coastline as I have ever seen.

“And it’s more theatrical than the beach,” Dad had said. “Your mother will love it.”

Although I did not wholly agree, I didn’t argue. Mom was not as showy as Dad, but what did that matter? They were ashes, after all, and what we were doing was ceremonial, not binding. Mom, of course, was elsewhere. (I had no reason to believe otherwise, and neither did Dad.) And although I believed that my mother would have disapproved of our choice to sprinkle her remains there, I was sure she would have applauded our cool reaction to the diligent docent who caught us peppering the pool with the last of the ash.

This large boy lumbered toward us, all wrists and bowed knees, shouting in a wispy tenor, “Excuse me, gentlemen! You can’t be here! Sir, sir!” He missed the majority of the act and asked only “what’s in the bags?”

To which my father and I replied, in dissonant unison: “it was my wife,”; “it was my mother.”

“Please, Dad?” I now pleaded, making one last attempt. “It was good enough for Mom. I’ll sprinkle you in the Neptune Pool. You’ll be together.”

Dad sighed. He took a long breath, slow enough to ward off his cough. “That wouldn’t put me any closer to her, Andy. And certainly no closer to life.”

“Closer to life?”

“As I said, I’ve been thinking about it. A lot. Your mother’s gone. Her ashes rejoined the collective long ago. Wherever they are now, it’ll be millions of years before they separate again and become part of a new life. Eons, Andy. And even then, there’s no guarantee.”

“What’s your guarantee?”

He managed a small shrug.

“I’m just speeding up the process,” he said.

He slept a lot in the end, little of it peaceful. I tend bar nights, but mornings and afternoons I sat at his bedside and watched his body react to things he encountered while he slept. He struggled. He mumbled. He flailed. I wish he had shared more about this gradual separation; I wish I had asked. Who did he encounter there in his sleep? Demons? Angels? Old friends? Was this late dream-life — so near the surface — a rehearsal for death? Or was it just a graveyard for memories?

He was in and out of consciousness on the morning of his final day; in and out of the here and now. He held my hand for a while, and then as he began to fade, I held his hand. At one point, I noticed that he was talking, stressing points unheard with his once animated hands, his index finger tapping my palm at precisely the same snail’s pace as his lethargic tongue, which struggled to form silent words.

The last time he opened his eyes, he looked up and stared right at me. Just so there would be no mistake.

“The Madonna Inn,” he said.

Those were his last intelligible words.

Human ashes — cremains in the colloquial — aren’t really ashy at all. They’re denser and more gravelly, like concrete dust. I had to specifically request that the funeral home process my father’s ashes for scattering, which they did — cheerfully — but the sifted result they handed back to me in a boxed-up plastic bag was still far from the powder I had been counting on: The granular substance was still too gritty to spread inconspicuously on sheets where an unsuspecting couple would, in a perfect world, consummate their marriage.

I contemplated asking the folks at the funeral home to further pulverize my father, but could think of no legitimate reason to make such a request. Instead, I took it upon myself to make sure Dad was as powdery as possible by purchasing a heavy-duty mortar and pestle.

As I stood at my father’s kitchen counter — we’d shared the house, but it had always been Arnie’s kitchen — grinding his earthly remains, it dawned on me that I’d never really noticed the consistency of my mother’s ashes. We’d been more than a little inebriated when we poured her into that pool after all.

Mom had died in a car accident near Los Angeles while returning home from a visit with Shelley, my father’s paranoid schizophrenic sister, who lived — where she still lives, twenty-five years later — in a long-term-care facility in Pasadena. Shelley had been in and out of state hospitals as a child, diagnosed from an early age with a number of ever-evolving, never-improving mental disorders. My father might have played at it, but for his sister, crazy was never an act.

My mother had usually navigated for my father on those monthly trips — three-and-a-half hours down, a one-hour visit, then lunch, and three-and-a-half hours back — but that fateful day Dad was in the final weekend of performances in a starring turn as Billy Bigelow in a local production of “Carousel,” and he’d been unable to get away. My mother, who had grown close to her sister-in-law, told my Dad she didn’t mind visiting alone.

I was living in the Bay Area at that time, in Alameda, where my marriage was grinding to an end. In those days, when my wife Karen and I spoke, we argued; when we weren’t arguing, we simply weren’t talking. So as I prepared to drive down to the Central Coast to mourn with my father, when Karen suggested that I stay there, I could only agree.

I’ve lived in my father’s house ever since.

I ground Dad down. The sound, like chalk on a sidewalk, soothed me. The small bag of crushed cremains that I created — though not exactly powdery — was fine enough, in my estimation, to spread on bed sheets. I didn’t measure it, but I think it was about two cups, give or take a tablespoon. It all fit nicely in a small Ziploc bag.

I spent hours thinking about how I was going to get Dad’s ashes into a clean bed in a suitable room at the Madonna Inn. I considered everything from breaking into a room, to simply borrowing a key to inspect a room with an eye toward a later stay. I called to inquire about the latter, and the clerk informed me that she would be glad to show me a room or two.

I decided finally that it would be best to stay in a room the night before it was to be occupied by a newly married couple. That way I would have a built-in excuse to re-enter the room the next day, after the sheets had been changed and the room had been prepared for the arrival of the newlyweds. It was, I believed, the best chance I had of honoring my father’s request.

After searching The Tribune for wedding announcements, I made a handful of phone calls to local wineries and other wedding venues, posing as an out-of-state uncle looking for accommodations. I eventually discovered a Bakersfield couple that had set aside a block of rooms at the Madonna Inn. I remember apologizing aloud to my father because their names sounded too Swedish to be Catholic, but I don’t remember the names themselves, which proved too simple to remember: an Olson or a Johnson marrying a Swenson or a Carlson.

*********

I watch the woman’s face for signs of recognition but she betrays nothing. I have her attention. She sits in a chair opposite mine now. The security guard checks his watch.

*********

I called the Inn, posing again as the uncle of the bride inquiring about the rooms that had been set aside for family. I asked the woman on the phone which room the newlyweds would be staying in — “I’d love to be right nearby,” I said — but she would not divulge that information. She told me that all of the rooms they’d set aside were in the same building — building three — and she gave me a list of rooms that were still available. I thanked her, hung up the phone, then looked at the inn’s website where I plotted the rooms on a map.

The rooms she had mentioned surrounded two rooms that were conspicuously absent from her list: Love Nest and Just Heaven, a pair of rooms that seemed ideal for a couple spending their first night together as husband and wife. Each had a private tower and offered a unique bit of privacy. One would undoubtedly house the newlyweds, Love Nest I assumed, while some other important members of the wedding party would stay in Just Heaven — the maid of honor and her fiancé, perhaps, or the best man and his girlfriend.

I called back, identifying myself as a tourist, and asked to book Love Nest for the night before the Bakersfield wedding, which took place that Saturday. It wasn’t available. Just Heaven was.

I booked Just Heaven.

The brochures indicated that Love Nest and Just Heaven were architectural mirror images with differing décor: Love Nest a panoply of pink, Just Heaven a bastion of blue. I arrived at the Madonna Inn at half past four that Friday afternoon, early enough to experience the blue of Just Heaven lit in part by the waning sun: bright blue walls, deep blue wingback chairs, a blue lamp and a blue blotter on a blue desk, which stood upon blue carpeting of a different, no less dramatic shade of blue. A blue carpeted spiral staircase wound up to the top of the blue tower, which afforded a sweeping view of the green pasture below. Just Heaven’s great variety of blues, a cacophony of gradated shades that clashed one-to-one, somehow blended into a soothing whole.

In addition to all that blue, there were angels. Gold angels. Little gilded statues atop the room’s dressers, larger ones on shelves, and arrow-wielding gold-leaf cupids suspended from the ceiling. Everywhere the blue was accented with gold (including the illuminating gold of the setting sun), but it was the blue, not the gold, that announced itself when I first entered the room — that, and the room’s antiseptically clean smell. Somehow Just Heaven even smelled blue.

I carried my father’s cremains into the room in a shirt box — the small bag with the ground ash and a larger bag of the remaining pulverized granular ash both tucked inside — and spent the better part of my first hour there searching for a hiding place. It had to be a spot where I could leave the box where the maids wouldn’t find it, yet someplace easily accessible. I eventually decided to simply center the box, which I wrapped in a concealing black t-shirt, under the bed.

Then I waited. I turned on the TV, briefly. I climbed the spiral stairs again. I used the toilet; bounced on the bed; opened and closed all the drawers on the dresser and the desk; and gazed out the window at the field below and the gradually appearing headlights on the freeway beyond. Somehow I felt like a man who had been stood up — like I had booked a romantic retreat for myself and a girlfriend who had simply not shown.

Just Heaven chewed me up and spat me out into the cool evening where I wandered around downtown San Luis Obispo for a few hours until most of the stores had closed. On my way back to the room, I stopped at a market and bought a double bottle of local zinfandel.

Back in Just Heaven, I drank the wine in its entirety, plastic cupful by plastic cupful, while watching a series of forgettable movies before falling asleep on top of the still-made bed.

The next morning I double-checked my stashed ashes and departed the room just before ten o’clock, hanging the door card on the doorknob, “Housekeeper: Please make up this room.”

I checked out at the front desk then went to the dining room where I sat down and pushed around some eggs and bacon.

About an hour later, I walked back toward Just Heaven. The door card was gone.

A few doors down — inside the room called Whispering Hills — I saw a young woman stripping a bed. I overheard her say something in Spanish. Another voice answered from further inside. I approached and stood in the open doorway.

“Excuse me,” I said.

“Yes, sir,” the young maid said. An older woman appeared, scowling, at the bathroom door.

I held out my paperwork from checkout.

“I spent the night in Just Heaven. I think I may have left something there.”

“No, sir. No thing there,” the old maid said.

“You don’t understand,” I said. “I left something there. If you would allow me to look.”

“Go to the desk,” the younger maid said.

“It’ll only take a minute,” I said, reaching for my wallet. I held out a twenty dollar bill, offering it to the younger woman, who looked toward her older companion. The old maid nodded and ducked back into the bathroom.

“I let you in,” the young maid said, reaching for the twenty.

“No,” I said. I pulled the money back and held my hand out for the key.

The maid cocked her head, briefly considering her options, questioning my motives. I smiled. She shrugged and traded the key for the money.

Just Heaven’s antiseptic smell was back, stronger than ever. In the bright light of morning, the blue was just as blue, but somehow less polished. It was like being backstage at one of my father’s plays where scenery looks like so much paint and canvas. I closed and chained the door behind me.

I slid Dad out from under the bed, pulled the t-shirt and the lid off the flimsy cardboard box, and removed the small bag of ground ash from inside. I rested that ash on the floor near the bed as I peeled the bedspread back from the pillows, revealing the top of the sheets where they met the blanket.

I then removed my shoes, picked up the bag of powdered ash, and climbed onto the bed.

I took a deep breath and let it out, staccato, like a child exhaling at the end of a good cry. This surprised me. I did not see this as an emotional act, this scattering of ash, but some part of me apparently did.

I carefully opened the bag, brought it about a foot under the sheets, which were tight but not so tight that I couldn’t get my hands and the ashes under them (just as Dad had predicted), and turned it upside down.

I let the ash spill out.

When I felt the weight dissipate, I gave it one little shake, then withdrew the empty bag and stuffed it into my pants.

Then I heard my father’s voice.

“Whip the sheets,” he said.

I grabbed the folded top of the sheets as Dad had demonstrated, my hands about two feet apart, and pulled them taught, side to side. I pushed them down onto the bed, and whipped them. And after they had settled a bit, I whipped them again, resisting the urge to peek underneath to see if the cremains had spread properly, afraid they would billow out into the room.

I covered my tracks, patting out the pillows and pulling up the covers, leaving the bed exactly as I had found it. Would they notice? I wondered. Would Just Heaven’s next guests be upset by the grit in their sheets? Or would they make love like nothing was amiss, commenting perhaps on the strange, tenacious talc that darkened with their sweat?

I took the larger bag of ash and sprinkled a scant handful of it into a dresser drawer, but dust puffed up, and I stopped there.

I had done the deed, the most important part, and the messy business of the rest of the ash could wait, I thought, for another day. A return to Hearst Castle, perhaps. Or a trip to that beach near Big Sur.

I still haven’t decided.

That all happened three years ago: two years, eleven months, three days to be exact. In some ways it feels as if it were just yesterday; in others, it feels as if it were a lifetime ago. At times it seems as if it happened to someone else. And sometimes I even allow myself to think it never happened at all.

But I drive by that garish Madonna Inn sign nearly every day on my way to work, and not a week goes by that I don’t talk to Dad at least once or twice. I ask him for advice about this and that. And occasionally I hear his voice. It’s usually his crisper, younger voice that answers — when he answers — but sometimes it’s the broken, wheezing voice of his demise. That’s when I ask him where he is now, but he doesn’t answer.

And I do the math. Two years, eleven months ago; minus nine months; equals twenty-six months, which is how old he would be if…

I’ve tried not to entertain the idea that he may have been onto something; that maybe — just maybe — it worked. But as I make that effort, as I fight off the thoughts, I find myself thinking not so much about the efficacy of the act, but about the implications of my genetic makeup. I am my father’s son, after all, my institutionalized Aunt Shelley’s nephew: I am the guy who scattered the ashes; I am the one who did the deed; I am the man who carried out the plan that was, in a word, foolish, in a series of actions, crazy.

*********

“Is it clearer now?” I ask the woman.

The police have arrived, a man and a woman.

“Over here, officers,” the security guard says.

The woman holds up her hand.

“I was looking through the DVDs when you and I met, as it were, searching for the restored edition of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ for my Aunt Shelley. Her birthday is coming up. Shelley loves her Disney. I am not in the habit of spending time in the children’s department,” I say, turning my attention to the police. I turn back to the boy’s mother.

“And I wasn’t there to accost your son. It was not my intention to scare you. Or him.”

“Ma’am,” the policewoman says.

“Let him finish. Please.”

The policeman dismisses the security guard; the policewoman nods at me.

“I was thumbing through the DVDs when your boy made a noise and I glanced down toward the sound and your son, sensing my movement, looked up at me from his spot on the floor, and we locked eyes.

“And there was Dad.

“He was chewing on a board book that looked like a sandwich, each thick page a layered ingredient, he was crying without effort, sobbing out of apparent boredom, gnawing on a cardboard tomato. He looked up at me and stopped crying. I stared down at him, transfixed.

“After some time — it may have been seconds; it may have been minutes — he raised his brow. It was a decidedly adult gesture. There was a twinkle in his eye. As he pulled the fake fruit from his mouth, a trail of drool tethering the book to his lower lip, he smiled at me and laughed.

“He laughed at the sight of me. Not because I was funny. Not because I did anything to amuse him. No. He laughed because he knew me. He laughed because he knows me. He laughed because he knows what we did!

“That’s when I raced over to him, lifted him into the air, and laughed along with him. That’s when you first saw me, I’m sure, as we laughed, Dad and I, and I hugged him to my chest, then held him out in front of me, and spun him around, and drank him in, his blue eyes speckled with gold — hints of Just Heaven — his laughter informed by something richer than life, something deeper than death, something beyond your understanding but within our grasp.

“That’s why your boy cried when you came to take him away.

“It’s why I wouldn’t let go.”

“Ma’am,” the policewoman says. “Shall we take him in? Do you want to press charges?”

THE END

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