One Door Away from Heaven

Page 80

He misses his mother terribly, and the loss of her will leave a hole in his heart for the rest of his time in this life, though she will be with him in memory all his days. When those days end and he joins her again . . . oh, Lord, will they have a lot to share.

Among others, Aunt Gen speaks this evening, looking as young as a girl in the firelight. On other evenings she has told stories about her life with her beloved husband, gone now nineteen years; but on this occasion, she tells them something of her childhood lived along a river not dissimilar to this willow-shaded, moonlit water slipping past them in the night. The story is quite dramatic, involving her evil stepfather, a preacher who killed her mother and tried also to kill Geneva and her brother, for their inheritance. Most of those gathered here soon realize that this is not anything that happened to Aunt Gen, but is the story line of The Night of the Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum. No one raises this point, because Aunt Gen tells the story so well and with such feeling. In time, when she realizes that this is a shot-in-the-head story, not a real one, she gets sly with them and, rather than correct the record, begins to layer in elements from The Rainmaker, starring Burt Lancaster, and then characters and plot twists from Kindergarten Cop, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Soon they are having a grand good time.

Laughter and the presence of so many wonderful dogs inevitably encourages a visit now and then from other folks whose rigs and tents are tied down in this campground. After hard play, many of the dogs are sleeping. Although the family is not at work right now, they will always take advantage of an opportunity to pass along the Gift. And so before they all retire, long after midnight, the number of people who have gathered around the campfire has grown by seven, and there have been tears, though only tears of joy, and seven lives have been changed forever, but only for the better.

For the newcomers, after they have known the dreams of the dogs, Micky poses the riddle that she learned from Aunt Gen. What will you find behind the door that is one door away from Heaven?

To date, Curtis is the only one who has answered it correctly on the first try, and this evening, the seven newcomers eventually puzzle their way close to the true response, but none earns a cigar.

Leilani gives the answer according to Geneva, which everyone in the family can recite to the word. "If your heart is closed, then you will find behind that door nothing to light your way. But if your heart is open, you will find behind that door people who, like you, are searching, and you will find the right door together with them. None of us can ever save himself; we are the instruments of one another's salvation, and only by the hope that we give to others do we lift ourselves out of the darkness into light ."

Time passes as time does, and the campfire subsides to a mound of glowing coals. People and dogs drift home to bed.

Other than Curtis, the last two to leave are Micky and Leilani. Larry, Curly, and Moe have gone home with Aunt Gen. The campsites are about two hundred yards from these picnic grounds, and Micky lights the way with a Coleman lantern, held high. Woman and girl walk hand in hand, into a darkness that holds no fear for them. The murmur of their voices and their gentle laughter drifts back to him, all the music anyone could ever need. If this were a movie, and if Curtis were a film director, he would make this the final scene: woman and girl, saviors of each other, walking away from the camera into a future that together they have redeemed. Indeed, the movie would be called Redemption. Having seen 9,658 films and then some, he knows that in this final scene, as they walk away, the screen would fade to black; however, this is reality, and neither Micky nor Leilani will ever fade to black but will go on forever.

Curtis remains behind to extinguish the hot coals with river water and to stir the ashes, although he doesn't do so at once. He sits with sister-become at his side, just the two of them enthralled by the mystery of the stars and by the pearl-perfect moon, together enjoying the rightness of all things.

He is no longer being Curtis Hammond, for he has become Curds Hammond. This world is his destiny, and he can't imagine a finer home or one more beautiful. Oh, Lord, he is a Gump, all right, but he's finding his way well enough in spite of that.

A sudden whirl of wind spins up a twist of fallen leaves, sends them dancing slowly, slowly around the perimeter of the smoldering campfire until they reach Curtis, whereupon the wind expires in a puff, casting the greenery in his face. Leaves stick in his hair, dangle from his ears. He spits one out of his mouth.

Dogs laugh. At least most of them do, and this one is always ready to be amused. The playful Presence must love her even more than He loves others of her kind, and He sees in Curtis not merely one who will save a world, but also a perfect foil for His jokes.

One door away from Heaven,

We live each day and hour.

One door away from Heaven,

But it lies beyond our power

To open the door to Heaven

And enter when we choose.

One door away from Heaven,

And the key is ours to lose.

One door away from Heaven,

But, oh, the entry dues.

-The Book of Counted Sorrows

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