Little Joy and the Matter of Heaven
The first time Little Joy saw a dead body she was six, and very tall for her age--that's why everybody called her "Little," because she wasn't. She’d had a whole mug of hot black coffee that morning, and then it was nighttime and visitation. When she looked into the coffin at her Uncle Pete, it seemed to her like he lay sleeping in a grown-people crib. But she knew that Uncle Pete, who was really just a love-uncle, was not sleeping and was in fact good and dead and gone. She figured they pushed his eyes closed so to make him look like he was sleeping but she wasn’t fooled for nothing.
The satin lining of the coffin was white; so was the skin of his forehead and thick, clay-looking cheeks, and the paleness of the two made his young beard look very, very dark brown and shiny. He was 35 and had died of dyed beets, she’d heard tell, but that part didn’t matter much to her. What mattered to Little Joy was that Uncle Pete wouldn’t come visit with her every Friday, or drink Mt. Dew with her on the porch in the hot Midwestern summer evenings, or bring her nice presents anymore. Because he was dead. Since she was tall enough to do it privately, Little Joy had a long, quiet look at the remnant of her Uncle Pete and made sure she knew what dead was and what it looked like.
While she stood there, her freckled, gawky neck protruding over the edge of the casket just so, an old lady with a big puffy church hat straight out of a movie came up behind her. “If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, huh, huh, huh,” was what hat-lady said. To which Little Joy twisted her gawky neck and stared her plain in the face, then turned on the heel of her right patent leather Mary-Jane shoe, and stomped away. But the next morning she was fairly satisfied with the service; the preacher spoke with a good soft voice of heaven and the angels, and the organist played nice songs that Little Joy could swing her feet to under the edge of her seat. Although she didn’t really see the point of singing songs for a person’s body. It wasn’t like Uncle Pete could sing along, after all.
On rainy days at the country schoolhouse the children got their exercise by tracing the gravel circle drive out front of the school that the buses used. One by one Little Joy's classmates jumped the puddles, alternately singing or chasing or pushing one another as they walked the giant circle in the slow rain.
"And so I says to her, well, you big know-it-all sister, you just leave it to me. I'll fix Mario up right quick." Amanda Marie was Little Joy's next door neighbor and best friend. Mandy Marie’s voice was loud like a boy and she could run very far without losing breath. Her big sister Kathy was a pain in the “b-u-t-t,” Mandy Marie liked to say.
"And so I took the cat, an' wha'dya think I did with him?"
"What?" breathed Sara, the preacher's daughter. " Oh good God and Jesus and Mary, did you save the kitten?"
"Well, I'll tell you what I did, I will." Mandy Marie threw out her chest and tossed her curly head into the brown-gray air. "I put him in the oven, and warmed him up. Used the dials and ever'thing."
"You what?!" Little Joy couldn't believe what she was hearing. Surely Mandy Marie didn't mean she cooked the nearly-drowned animal to eat it for supper.
"Well, yeah," Mandy Marie said, as if it were the most sensible thing in the whole wide world, "I sure did. Warmed him right up."
"But," said Sara, "didn't that, uh, kill the cat?"
"My grandma says curiosity is what killed the cat."
"Well I think she lied." Sara was the kind of girl who wore ribbons in her hair every day but it didn't fool her friends. In reality she was a bit of a monster.
“Well maybe she did and maybe she didn’t.” Mandy Marie’s nose went up in the air.
“So what’d it look like? Did you see the light go from its eyes? Did you see angels?” Little Joy couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to see angels. It was that nice-voiced preacher at Uncle Pete’s funeral last year that did it. He’d went on and on about their pure white robes and their pure bright voices and their pure gold hearts. It made quite the impression on Little Joy.
But Mandy Marie lowered her head.
“I didn’t see nothin’.”
“That’s because animals don’t go to heaven, stupid. It’s in the Bible like that, you can ask my papa. He knows all about it. And so do I. Ain’t no drowned and baked cat gonna get into heaven.”
“You shut up, you mean ole preacher’s-kid-know-it-all,” Mandy Marie screeched in that loud voice of hers. “You don’t know nothin’! You do cartwheels down the sanctuary and kiss boys behind the swing sets at recess! Oh, I know all about you, you and your blasphemin’, and your ways of sin! You and yours is goin’ t’Hell!” Mandy Marie then launched herself at Sara, and the two went down with a splash into a luckily shallow puddle.
“Ain’t no animal gettin’ into heaven with the angels, you stupid Lutheran fool! Heaven’s for people, not cats! Gettoff me! You’re so stupid!” Somehow the two scrambled apart before the teachers got over to them.
“Reason I didn’t see nothin’ is they wouldn’t let me, Mom and Grandma pulled me back and made me go outside” Mandy Marie told little Joy in confidence as Sara stomped off ahead of them. “But I dunno … you think she’s right, Little Joy?”
Little Joy watched as Sara disappeared into the schoolhouse a ways away. Sara had a showy manner of walking that was more like a bounce. Plus, Mandy Marie was right; Sara did do cartwheels during her father’s sermons and kiss boys on the playground behind the school. Everybody knew that. Which meant she wasn’t necessarily a believable person on matters of heaven. As far as Little Joy was concerned, going to heaven was a matter of a preacher saying you was going to heaven. And that happened at funerals.
“I dunno either,” Little Joy said. “But we better do somethin’ about it, just in case.”
That afternoon Mandy Marie and Little Joy sat quietly on the long brown sofa of Mandy Marie’s grandmother’s parlor, biding time. Their feet swung above the orange shag carpet. Soon they knew, Grandma Esther would pad by them slowly, smile, and then go watch recorded soaps in her bedroom like she did every other afternoon. After she was out of sight, the girls seized the chance and scurried for the front door, careful not to let the screen slap as they left.
Out back, under the shadow of a particularly large bush they found a mound, and under the mound, a very cat-shaped heavy pillow case. Just like Kathy said they would — which was good, because Mandy Marie had promised to do the dishes for a month, and Little Joy had promised to give over her lunch money for a month. Because this was serious business. This was the business of heaven. This was the business of God.
Taking the pillow case, they ran down the hill and jumped the barbed wire fence that marked the cow pasture, and then ran some more to where the pasture sloped gently back into woods again. When they reached the pond they stopped for breath. There, in a dark gold light that filtered through the oak trees at the edge of the pond, Little Joy dropped the bag and looked around.
“Yeah,” she said, grabbing at her ribs for breath, “this is perfect.”
“Sure is.” Mandy Marie clutched at her ribs too.
After a few minutes, they pulled the cat from the pillow case and arranged it carefully. It wasn’t quite a full-grown cat, really, but it wasn’t still a kitten either. It was a sleek but crumpled orange thing with thin white stripes and then two big white splotches on its ears. It also, Little Joy decided, didn’t look like a dead body. She knew dead when she saw it, and this cat didn’t look it.
But seeing as how cats were supposed to have nine lives, they’d accounted for this possibility by bringing along a stick of dynamite and a lighter they’d found in the barn. Carefully, Little Joy tied the stick of dynamite to the cat’s tail with the lace from her left shoe. Mandy Marie brought over the makeshift raft they’d built earlier that day, right after school and in the dark safety of the barn with the dynamite in it. With what could only be called reverence, they placed the possibly departed Mario atop the threshed-together raft. Then, lifting slowly, they shuffled down to the pond with the cat suspended between them, and slipped the cat’s raft into the cattail reeds where the water met the mud of the bank.
“You goin’ do the preachin or am I,” Mandy Marie asked.
“Well, you killed it. I reckon I oughta do the preachin, to be polite.”
“Yeah. That’s fair.” Mandy Marie smoothed her shirt down and stood up nice and straight, then clasped her hands behind her back like they had to do in school when reciting their multiplication tables. Little Joy stood up tall as well. She cleared her throat.
“In the presence of God, Miss Amanda Marie Hoermann and Miss Virginia, Little Joy Wilson do solemnly swear to bear witness to this beloved friend, pet, and mouse killer—”
“Mario,” Mandy Marie hissed loudly.
“Mario,” Little Joy continued, “as he makes his way to his lawfully pearly white and gold heaven.” Truth be told, Little Joy didn’t remember much of her Uncle Pete’s service, and she so desperately wanted to get this right that she tacked on whatever important sounding phrases she could remember. All in all, she was quite pleased with the results, this far at least. At the word “heaven,” Mandy Marie stooped, and solemnly lit the dynamite fuse with the old blue lighter. It sizzled and popped as it burned. The two girls looked down at it for a moment, then at each other, then stoically back to the pond’s surface.
“We shall miss Mario,” Little Joy continued, her voice heightening in volume to drown out the sizzle of the dynamite. “But we know he goes to a better world than the one he leaves.” At the word “leaves,” Mandy Marie prodded the raft hard with her foot, and it floated loose of the reeds and into the open water of the pond.
“We bid you farewell, oh Mario, and pray that the light of this flame,” and by now Little Joy was practically yelling, for over the sizzle of the lit fuse, a low caterwauling sounded from the raft now a good thirty feet into the pond, “will show you the way to heaven and the angels and God’s gracious arms!”
“He’s alive! He’s alive” Mandy Marie jumped up and down, half laughing and half crying. “He’s alive! It’s a miracle! God and saints and angels! It’s a miracle! He’s alive!”
“Go into the water,” Little Joy yelled, casting her arms wide above her head, the cat now whipping back and forth across the mess of sticks that made the raft, his base of his tail flinging one way and then another as he tried to shake loose the heavy dynamite stick, “and revel in it, for it is the baptism of the spirit that will take you straight to God!” Now she knew this was pretty straight close to sin, but it fit the moment so well Little Joy couldn’t resist.
“Straight to God,” Mandy Marie screamed in echo. They were now both jumping up and down. The cat went this way and that on the tiny sizzling raft, and then there was a very loud and fiery bang!
And the cat and the raft were no more.
It was by far the most successful endeavor they’d ever managed. They finished the service with a loud rendition of “This Little Light of Mine,” for Little Joy finally realized the song part of a funeral was not for the dead after all, but for the living. Then the two girls had a good long laugh about it, and their hearts were gladdened with the knowledge that Mario the cat was now certainly in heaven.