She's an Angel
“Why did they send her over anyone else?”
—The Might Be Giants
One moment the wooden bench next to me is empty, the next she’s there, pressed so close our arms almost touch. I don’t want to make a scene about it, and she seems friendly enough, if quiet. I try not to move.
I’m at the dog show for the skills competition, where the dogs run an obstacle course. Over ramps and through tunnels. There are bars they have to jump, raised up for the taller dogs, lowered for the little ones. I love Aussies and Border Collies best. They’re the natural born athletes of the dog world. Quick and lithe. Most importantly, prone to boredom. Whenever I watch any sport it’s with the realization of how bored the game’s inventors must have been to come up with something so ridiculous. Yes, the dogs are trained to run the course, rewarded with treats at the end, but you can’t fake that sort of excitement, the energy that bursts from them with every step. I envy the dogs that: looking forward to something so much they actually do it.
The obstacle course is arranged on Astroturf rolled out over the civic center’s basketball court. I watch from the wooden benches of the bleachers, bolted directly into bare concrete. Both wood and concrete are worn shiny with age. A cinderblock rim, four feet high and painted the same gray as the cinderblocks underneath, surrounds the whole court. The arena always gives off a musty odor, but now that’s twined with the earthy smell of the competitors. In the adjacent arena, a round of applause rises as the winner of the next category in the dog show is announced. I imagine the proudest of Schnauzers.
Now the woman is holding my arm like we’re some sort of couple. Anybody who looks over would see us and think: those people are together. My cheeks turn hot, palms clammy. I don’t like to think about what other people think about me. You might call me a loner. Nobody’s looking at us, though, what with the dogs running obstacles and soaking up all the attention.
“I really love you,” she says.
She says it like we’re an old withered couple with a lifetime of love between us, twenty-thousand-million shared experiences. She says it like I should know what those words mean.
In a way, love makes perfect sense. Here she is holding my arm, gazing at me, her eyes blue to the point of clarity, closer than literally every other person. Closer than anyone, ever.
“I really love you, too,” I say.
It feels like the right thing to do, responding in kind. A lot of my life has been repeating what others say, in agreement. Most people want nothing more than to be agreed with.
From the other arena, more applause. In this arena, the announcer bellows into a microphone, her voice emerging like thunder cracks from bullhorn speakers hung by wires from the ceiling. The dogs have lined up along one of the cinderblock walls, trainers standing behind them like faithful courtiers. An Aussie is called up to the third-place platform. Applause. Another Aussie in second. Another round of applause. The winner is a black and white Border Collie, my favorite of the competitors. I hadn’t really paid attention to the times the dogs were posting, but you could see how much this one dog wanted to complete the course. She wears pride like a jeweled collar. On the podium she receives a laurel wreath and a dog treat. She prances in place. She has so much energy left to give.
The dogs and their trainers depart single file through a door in the back of the arena, the same one basketball players use at halftime. I’ve been coming to the civic center since I was a kid, and I’ve always wondered what’s back there. I bet it’s mainly sweaty towels.
The audience members exit toward the other arena. It must be getting near time to announce the grand champion, the doggiest of dogs. I’ve already experienced the epitome of dogdom, though, in my perfect Border Collie. I don’t need a panel of judges to tell me anything.
I get up and the woman stands with me, still holding my arm. Connected like that, it’s an awkward descent from the bleachers and then an awkward ascent back to the main level of the civic center. On the other side of the lobby are the theater and concert hall. The lobby was designed more with orchestras in mind than basketball. There’s nothing sporty about the twin looping staircases, the burgundy carpet, the brass chandeliers. Music comes from the concert hall. It’s too early in the day for a concert, I think, so maybe a rehearsal. A single deep tone repeats three times: doom, doom, doooooom. The woman nods her head along as if she knows the song. The tones repeat again.
Outside, we happen upon a parade passing directly by the civic center. It’s one of those parades for one of those holidays you forget there’s a parade for, a holiday that exists solely for the sake of having a parade. A band marches by. It sounds as if they’re playing the same song as the group rehearsing in the concert hall. It’s possible that it’s just a similar song. I know squat about music.
After the band come Shriners, the Dune Cats unit in those little fancified go-karts. The karts’ decorative fenders are painted blue, flecked with a glittery material, shimmering ethereal in the sun. The woman leads me by the arm to the side of the parade route. Few other people watch the parade, just some bored-looking parents and children who perk up at the arrival of the Dune Cats. The karts’ little engines rev louder than full-sized cars. Noxious exhaust spews from their tailpipes.
The clouds part, and the sun shines full force, sparkling like mad off the Dune Cats’ karts. One of the Shriners sees the woman holding my arm. He steers free from the intricate, knitted pattern the Dune Cats have been maneuvering and stops alongside the parade route, directly in front of us. He gets out of his kart, bows to the woman, and then gestures for her to take his seat. Another Shriner comes up behind the first and gives his kart to me.
The woman races away down the street. It takes me a moment to figure out the workings of the kart. Basically a car, but also basically a riding lawnmower. I catch up with her as the woman surges through the marching band. They’ve changed their formation to leave a path right down the middle of the street. They repeat the same three notes of the same song.
The woman swerves her kart up onto the sidewalk. Children scatter before her. Panicked screams. But she’s so in control, not just of the kart but of the situation. I don’t worry for anyone’s safety. She would never strike a pedestrian. Nothing bad can happen when I’m with her. At the next block she flips a U-turn and heads in the opposite direction on the sidewalk. We make laps up and down the sidewalk, our own parade parallel to the official one in the street.
After countless laps, she veers left, off the sidewalk onto a wide, empty street. I almost don’t have time to react. I almost lose her. She slows just enough for me to catch up. The street ahead dead ends into an office building. She drives straight at it. She speeds up. The doors part as she approaches, golden light shining from within the atrium. She brakes only once she enters, tires squealing, marring the marble floor with twin black lines. An elevator dings open on the other side of the atrium. She pulls right into it, leaving room for me to pull in, too. The doors slide shut behind us.
A Muzak version of the song the marching band was playing tinkles down from a small round speaker in the ceiling. The walls are mirrored, creating an infinity of us in every direction. The elevator dings. The woman stands up and abandons her kart, so I do the same. We exit onto the building’s roof.
The sun seems much closer here, the light glaring. I can feel the heat not just on my skin but in the deeper tissues of my body. I should have worn sunscreen.
The air is thinner up here, too. I have a hard time breathing, as if I’ve just finished a long run. As if I’ve ever run more than a few steps at a time. I try to hear the song that was playing in the elevator, but nothing. The elevator doors pinch shut. No ding.
I walk to the edge of the building and look down. It’s a normal distance to the ground, exactly what one would expect. I can see the parade passing a block away, just a small segment of it at a time. But that’s how parades always work. The grander the parade, the less of it you can see at once.
What am I doing up here? I don’t even know this person’s name. I barely know the sound of her voice. I know her fingers, where they pressed on my arm, her skin softer than any expensive fabric. Was that touch all it took? I’m not usually the kind of person to steal a Shriner car. But I’m also not the kind of person who knows what kind of person he is.
I extend one foot beyond the edge of the rooftop, dirty Chuck suspended midair. I don’t really think about it. I don’t think: I’m going to throw myself off this building. I think nothing at all.
The woman grabs my arm to stop me. I pull my free foot back to the firm, black-tarred surface of the roof. Heat rises up through my feet. The heat of the sun surrounds me.
Suddenly, I feel trapped. The woman’s fingers remain on my arm. Instead of the softness of her skin, I focus on the surety of her grip. I know that if she chooses to hang on, she’ll never let go.
Two perfect white clouds approach the sun from opposite directions like closing gates. This is not how wind is supposed to work, I think. The clouds look more like something from a cartoon than actual clouds, too fluffy, too white. Behind them, the rays of the glowing sun create geometric shapes, a semicircle atop a square. The light glows brighter, rays coming down in torrents. I think: a parasol and an umbrella work basically the same way.
A golden halo now surrounds the woman’s head like an astronaut helmet. I wonder if we’ve been wrong about haloes all this time. If heaven is in space and in space there’s no air, maybe the angels and saints all need special breathing apparatus. Thinking about breathing, I realize the air is getting thinner. I pant, gasp, fall to one knee. I think again of jumping off the building, if only to reach an atmosphere thick enough to keep me alive.
What the hell am I doing here. I say it out loud, but the words fail to emerge from my mouth. A thousand answers resound in my head. Voices like plucked harps sing my praises, speaking the nicest things about me, about the small kindnesses I’ve offered over the course of my life. They say so much, so approvingly, that I wonder if they’ve been paying attention. The catalogue of my virtues should be much, much shorter.
One voice soars louder than the rest. I single the voice out in my mind and direct my thoughts toward it. I’ve given up speaking. There’s no air. But my gasping has ceased. I’ve gotten used to not breathing. I marvel at the adaptability of humankind. I doubt our divine origins, but I don’t doubt that we might contain some divinity.
The woman holds my arm more tightly, cutting off circulation. My fingers tingle, go numb. A golden staircase materializes in front of us. It’s a gawdy piece of shit, if I’m being honest, one hundred percent solid gold. Little ornamentations blur every corner. The railing is etched so intricately it would hurt to hold, all sharp edges. At the base of the stairs, a desk coalesces as if from particles of sunlight. Photons, I think. The desk’s surface gleams silver. An old bearded man sits there.
Saint Peter? I ask.
Who’s Peter? he replies.
I’d like to talk to you-know-who.
He’s taking prayers at the moment, so it might take a while. A couple billion prayers every day here on Earth alone, you know? Don’t even get me started on aliens.
Can I make an appointment?
Usually, the appointment’s made for you.
But I have a bit of a situation. I hold up my arm with the woman’s hand still gripping it. She’s grown downy wings since I last looked. She spreads them wide, lit from the sun behind except the sun is overhead. She appears ready for flight. I’m sure I give off a similar impression.
Not-Peter nods. I can see that, he says. He turns his attention to a register on his desk. It’s full of names, some in alphabets I assume to be non-human. If you’re willing to wait for a long, long time, we can probably accommodate you.
The situation’s kinda pressing, I say. The woman now floats beside me. She doesn’t flap her wings or anything, just sort of levitates. I wonder what the wings are even for.
Isn’t love, always? asks Not-Peter.
There’s that word again. When I spoke love earlier, I used it like I always have, not really knowing what lay on the other side of speaking it, the word a curtain blocking my view of the future. An object I’d never thought to look on the other side of.
Thanks, I say, but I don’t really mean it. The desk dissolves, melting in the sunlight, Not-Peter with it. The stairs roll up and away, and escalator that only rises, that never loops back to where it’s been.
I step to the edge of the building and leap off. The woman is right there behind me, grabbing me by the armpits, holding tight. We fly over the civic center. We follow the parade route. Shriners wave at us and honk their comical horns. The marching band repeats the same three deep notes. And then the next marching band. More Shriners. Another band. We enter a part of the city I’ve never seen before, at least not from above.
Yes, this. This is what wings are for.
Tabs open on your screen right now: My email, the Zoom launch window for a class at George Washington University I spoke to this morning, the preorder page for the forthcoming book by my friend Hannah Grieco from Summer Camp Publishing (though I already preordered weeks ago), “You Are A Tyrannosaurus Rex” By Annesha Mitha at The Offing (unread), “This Is The Way: Fanaticism and Found Family in The Mandalorian and She-Ra” by Elyse Martin at Tor.com (eager to be read because I love the heck out of the new She-Ra), and “Duck,” a new story about Daffy Duck by Dave Housley in Coal Hill Review (unread). Basically, my tabs are a TBR list.
Your writer crush: Tope Folarin’s novel released on the same day as mine, so we’ve done a couple events together, and I think he needs to just go ahead and accept that we’re best friend soulmates.
Favorite lyric: Appropriate to this story, here’s a line from another They Might Be Giants song, “Don’t Let’s Start”: No one in the world / Ever gets what they want / And that is beautiful / Everybody dies / Frustrated and sad / And that is beautiful
Any place in the world: Pinkie Masters in Savannah, GA. Can a bar be home? Quite possibly!