The Trouble with Angels
When the angel appeared to Gordon Berryman, he had just finished hanging his string trimmer back in the garage. He was a little surprised that she looked just like Pamela Anderson in a white Spandex body suit, but he wasn't complaining.
"Wow," he said. "That's a really nice set of wings."
"Thank you," the angel said.
"Where'd you leave your harp?" he said.
"Lyre," she corrected. "The same place I left my bra."
"Wow," Berryman said. This time he took a really good look.
"Light as air," she said.
"Like a cloud to the touch. Like a feather. Like ermine."
"Don't obsess, Gordo," she said. "Are you hitting on me?"
"I guess so," he said.
"That's a bad idea," the angel said. "We're in parallel dimensions. Very dangerous."
"Do you have a name?" he said.
"Fawn," she said.
"Oh," he said.
"You have a problem with that?"
"No," he said. "I was just expecting something more Biblical. Or maybe Dawn, that would be a good angel name."
"I'm named for Ollie North's secretary. My mother thought she was a stand-up kind of girl."
"You have a mother?"
"Everybody has a mother," she said.
"So you're a really young angel, then? The Iran-Contra deal, that was like, what, ten, fifteen years ago?"
"Look, let's skip it," she said. "It's really hard to explain the whole angel time-space thing. My name's Fawn, okay?"
"Okay," he said. "I spent a little too much time in the sun, right?"
"No," she said.
"Have I been in an accident? Had a heart attack? Am I dead?"
"No," she said.
"What are you doing here?"
"You're at a crossroads," she said.
"Like, 'To be or not to be, that is the question'?"
"Like, 'Ours not to reason why, ours but to do or die'?"
"Like, 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country'?"
"Jesus," he said.
"Name in vain," she said. "That's a warning. Second time's a fine."
"Look, if I wanted to have a conversation like this, I could have it with my wife."
"There you go," she said. "Chronic irritability. Increased alcohol consumption; i.e., self-medication. Classic male mid-life crisis."
"What's that?" he said. "Angel Psych 101?"
"Well, maybe, Gordo, but any way you look at it, you got ennui up the tailpipe. Plumbing's clogged. You need the royal flush. The Big Guy's worried. How's that make me look?"
"Everybody hits a rough patch once in a while," he said. "It's not like I went out and bought a Datsun 240Z. Or ran off with one of my students. What's He worried about?"
"That He might have to revoke your soul."
"What, is it like a learner's permit?"
"He gave you a good one, Gordo. You don't shape up, He may just take it back."
"Hey," he said. "I'm a good person. I maintain the house. I'm good to my wife."
"That why she called you a 'jerk shit' at the dinner table last night?"
"That's a term of endearment," he said. "And that was a private conversation."
"And the part where she called you a 'raging asshole'?"
"She has a temper," he said. "We always fight when we talk about money."
"Well," she said "He's disappointed. You were given a top model. We're talking Nobel Peace Prize. Beatification. Eagle Scout leader, at least. Remember Gary Gilmore? He got his soul the same week you got yours. Boy, did we have problems with that model. Anyway, got anybody you want to talk to?"
"Anybody at all. Socrates. The Apostle Paul. Blaise Pascal. Mrs. Altizer."
"Mrs. Altizer? Why would I want to talk to my algebra teacher?"
"You need help with the unknowns, Gordo, you need to find the value of x."
"I'm not talking to Mrs. Altizer," he said.
Berryman looked up the driveway and saw a small woman in a print dress admiring his peony bed. Her black glasses were shaped like butterfly wings and dangled from her neck on a silver chain. She lifted the glasses to her face and looked closely at the flowers.
"Pink Imperials," she said. "Gordon, how did you know they were my favorite?"
"I didn't," Berryman said.
"Gordo," the angel said. "Behave."
"There is simply nothing more lovely on a dining room table," Mrs. Altizer said. "You always were such a thoughtful boy."
"I don't want to talk to Mrs. Altizer," Berryman said.
"You could at least be polite," Fawn said.
"She wasn't even my favorite teacher," Berryman said.
"Gordon has a real aptitude for mathematics," Mrs. Altizer said. "He just wouldn't apply himself."
"I want to talk to my father," Berryman said.
"This is a very nice place," Mrs. Altizer said. "Is this your home, Gordon?"
"Gordo, that's just so... predictable," Fawn said.
"That's who I want to talk to," Berryman said.
"Well," Fawn said. "I guess that's better than the last guy. He wanted to talk to John Wayne."
"Is anyone listening to me?" Mrs. Altizer said.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Altizer. Would you excuse us for a moment?" the angel said. "Gordo has some issues."
"Why, of course, dear. I'll just go back and work a while on that value approaching infinity. Isn't she just the sweetest thing, Gordon? Her wings are lovely."
"Yes, they are," Berryman said. At the base of the willow oak next to the garage he noticed a man sitting, his back against the trunk, his legs splayed out before him. A spinning rod and a cane were propped against the tree. Slowly the man eased himself forward onto both knees, then, one arm against the tree, he pulled himself up, balancing against one leg. The other leg hung withered, dangling with the man's effort to straighten himself. Then he took the cane and leaned his weight against it. He tucked the rod under the other arm and started to hobble toward the driveway.
"Dad?" Berryman said.
"Where are you going?"
"To that pond down there. I'm going fishing."
"That's my pond," Berryman said.
"You own your own pond?" his father said. "Now that's the way to do it."
"Well," Berryman said.
"You've really grown up," his father said.
"Grown up? Dad, I'm fifty-three years old."
"That should be really grown up," his father said.
"Jesus," Berryman said.
"Gordo, I warned you," the angel said.
"How old were you when I left?" his father said.
"Which time?" Berryman said.
"Departed," his father said. "You know, when I drove the big DeSoto to the sky."
"Nine," Berryman said.
"That was a hell of a car," his father said. "Remember the fins on that sumbitch? Remember that V8?"
"Yeah," Berryman said.
"Remember when we drove to that lake in Utah? I put your big boots on, and you waded out in the shallows? The rainbows were spawning, swimming all around your feet?"
"I remember," Berryman said. "Remember the smell of the pines?"
"Yeah," his father said.
"You brought egg salad sandwiches, and we sat down on a rock at the edge of a snow bank and ate them, watching the trout."
"Remember how I used to take you to the airport out in the desert? How we'd count the planes? Military planes counted times two?"
"Gordo, I'm sorry about the drinking."
"That whiskey just got hold of me, Gordo. Like a cottonmouth in a swamp."
"If you cared about us you would have given it up."
"I cared about you, son."
"I look at your pictures, even when you were little, and you always looked sad. And angry. Like you wouldn't forgive God for giving you polio. Hell, you were smart. You could have done anything you wanted. But you just stayed angry."
"Aren't you angry?"
"Hell, yes, I'm angry."
"Well, you need to get over it. I been dead forty-four years, for Christ's sake."
"Mr. Berryman, with all due respect," Fawn said. "I'm going to have to ask both you and your son to refrain from taking the Lord's name in vain."
"Gordon, is this your angel?"
"Now that's what I'm talking about. You got this nice place here, you got your own fishing pond, you got an angel that would give a dead man a woody, and you're pissed off because your old man drank himself to death. I'd say you've done just fine without me. Probably better. You got any fishworms?"
"Just a minute," Berryman said. "I'll get a spade." He went to the garage, the angel following.
"Gordo," she said. "Is this doing any good?"
"My soul is rejuvenated," Berryman said. "I feel the Nobel Peace Prize coming on. I can see the headline: 'College professor heads up Middle East peace initiative.'"
"That's not funny, Gordo."
Berryman picked up the garden spade from a corner of the garage, then rummaged around until he found an old coffee can.
"Look, Fawn," he said. "If I've been given this high-performance soul, then maybe He should take it back."
"Don't say that," she said.
"Why? Do you get demoted or something?"
"No," she said. "It's just that each angel is assigned a specific soul. I mean, who knows? I might get stuck with a bigger loser than you are."
"Now I feel better," Berryman said.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean that the way it came out. Not everybody gets the big prizes, Gordo. Some people just live their lives. They're issued good souls, and they live good, plain lives."
"Can you carry the spade?" he said. "I better bring along this canvas chair, too." At the oak he motioned to his father.
"Come on over here by the garden, Dad. Sit down in this chair."
His father was heavy and he wheezed as he limped along, just the way he remembered. The split shot on his leader ticked against the barrel of the fishing rod. He eased into the chair, and it creaked with his weight.
"I'll leave you two alone," Fawn said. She handed Berryman the spade. "I have to go make sure the cherubim aren't acting up."
"Okay, sweetie," his father said.
Berryman dug the tines of the spade deep with his foot.
"That's pretty lettuce," his father said. "And that's a good idea to set those cucumbers so they climb the trellis."
Berryman turned a clod and broke it open. Two big worms slipped back into their holes, but he caught them both. He sprinkled a little earth in the coffee can along with some blades of grass. His father grinned.
"Now you're talking," his father said. Berryman sank the spade again and turned another clod, but there was nothing.
"You remember the last time I saw you?" Berryman said.
"Macon, Georgia," his father said. "I was night auditor at the Rose Bower Hotel."
"The blind man who ran the soft drink concession. Gave me a free Coke every day of my visit because I returned a nickel when the machine made the wrong change."
"Vernon Wright," his father said. "A character. Always wanting to swap canes even up. Good ol' Vern."
"You got the minor league baseball team staying at the hotel to autograph a baseball for me."
"I saved it for a long time. Then one day I used it with a friend for pitch and catch. Then one day we shagged grounders with it. All the names wore off."
"Well," his father said.
"I don't know why I did that."
"The past is past, son." His father gazed beyond the garden toward the pond. "Some days I'd load up the tackle box and poles, go out in a boat by myself, figure, 'Just do it now.' Tip her over. Game leg, fat man like me, I'd sink like a rock. But I never did it. Drowned in whiskey instead. Who knows why? No insurance money in that, boy."
Berryman turned the earth as his father talked, capturing worms and dropping them in the can.
"I appreciated the gravestone," his father said. "You didn't have to do that."
"You kidding?" Berryman said. "I was rich as Croesus. Time and a half for overtime, double time on Sundays, had enough money for tuition and board half-way through the summer." Shadows were beginning to creep across the edge of the garden. Berryman liked the way the cooling air felt on his skin.
"That's plenty, son," his father said. "Come over here and sit down."
Berryman stuck the spade in the ground and propped the can against it. He sat down in the grass next to the arm of the chair. His father lifted his hand and placed it on his head. Berryman could feel his father's fingers on his scalp.
"Your hair's thick," his father said. "Got a wave to it."
"Like yours," Berryman said. His father's hand was still. They sat for a while in silence, looking out into the garden. His father cleared his throat.
"I ought to get down to that pond," his father said. He put his hand on the chair to raise himself.
"Wait a minute," Berryman said. "I'll go in the house and get my rod." He stood up.
"I better not wait," his father said. "The light is just perfect. I'm gonna hook me a whale."
He gathered his rod and cane. Berryman handed him the coffee can.
"Thanks for the worms, son. I really like your place here." His father turned away.
The air in Berryman's chest was on fire, and he could feel his eyes brimming. He watched his father's limping gait, listened to the rattle of the split shot against the rod shaft, the clink of the coffee can against the cane. He watched for a long time, until his father's figure was below the brow of the hill at the pond.
"Well, I'm back! Don't everyone cheer at once," the angel said. "Gordo, are you okay?"
Berryman wiped his face.
"Yeah, I'm fine," he said.
"Mrs. Altizer is beside herself. The cherubim keep stealing her chalk."
Berryman heard the crunch of gravel and looked up the drive. His wife Maria's car was approaching.
"You better get out of here," he said.
"Too late," the angel said.
Maria pulled up in a cloud of dust.
"Can you help me with these groceries? I'm running way late. Are you done in the yard?"
"Not yet," he said.
"Not yet? Who's this?" Maria said.
"This is my angel, Fawn. Fawn, this is Maria, my wife."
"Pleased to meet you," Fawn said.
"She looks like the kind of angel you'd want," Maria said. "Gordon, honestly."
"We'll only be a minute, Mrs. Berryman," Fawn said.
Berryman grabbed the other groceries from the back seat of the car and scurried up the steps to hold the door for Maria. She took the bags from him and let the screen door swing shut in his face. He came down the steps.
"Thanks a lot, Fawn. She's totally pissed."
"Remember the rock, Gordo?" the angel said.
"Yeah, the big rock overhang where you dammed up the creek after your Dad died. Green moss on the stones, the way the water sounded like a little bell. Lying belly down on top the rock, the way the lichens felt like leather against your cheek."
"You remember that place?"
"Sure," the angel said. "The way the creek meandered through the birch saplings. The way the sun glowed in the yellow leaves of the birches in the fall. I loved that place, Gordo."
"Yeah," he said. "And the coons would fish out the bluegills I brought from the pond. Remember the night Ervin Goad brought the bluetick? His uncle's prize coon hound, we were afraid to let him off the leash, and when he caught the scent, he dragged us through brambles for it seemed like an hour till we got his legs out from under him. Remember?"
Berryman looked around.
"Fawn?" he said. She was nowhere to be seen. He looked at his watch.
"That's the trouble with angels," he said. He retrieved the lawn rake and tarpaulin from the garage and hurriedly cleared the grass clippings in front of the back porch. Then he got out the lawn chairs and rinsed them with water and bleach. He dried them with terrycloth. He rolled the gas grill into place and took off the cover. He hefted the propane tank to make sure it wasn't empty. Then he removed the grate and washed it clean. He replaced the greasy ceramic briquets with fresh ones.
Now that the grill was prepared, he loaded soft drinks and ice into the cooler and placed it in the shade on the back porch. He found an old copper watering can, filled it with water at the well spigot, then left it on the back porch. Retrieving his cutters from the garage, he clipped a few of the peonies, dusting off the ants with his fingers. He arranged the peonies in the watering can and placed it on the picnic table. He paused for a moment, listening to a pair of wrens quarreling in the woods. Then he went inside.
Maria had already showered and her wet hair hung down to her shoulders. She was breaking lettuce leaves from the garden into pieces. The kitchen smelled of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. He crept up behind her and kissed her on the back of the neck.
"Did you get everything ready?" she said.
"I think so," he said. He draped his arms over her waist.
"Gordo," she said. "Don't get me dirty. You better get in the shower yourself. They'll be here any minute. Where's your little friend?"
"Important meeting," he said. "She had to fly."
"Uh-huh," she said. She opened a drawer, took out the teak salad utensils, and shut the drawer with her hip.
"Honey," she said. "Don't take this the wrong way. I just don't think it's a good idea for the drama students to show up here unannounced."
"I agree," he said.
"That was some kinky Christmas pageant outfit," she said. "I saw you looking."
"I'm looking now," he said. He reached up and pulled a lock of damp hair behind her ear. A blush of color rose on her neck.
"Well, mister," she said. "You cook this marinated pork loin to perfection, and who knows? Tonight you might get lucky. Now get in the shower."
The hot water felt wonderful on Berryman's chest and he let it run for a while. Then he lathered his hair and soaped himself. He rinsed, and let the water run on his shoulders and back. He felt young, refreshed. He felt ready for his guests. He shut off the water and slid back the shower curtain to reach for his towel.
Her face was incredibly close.
"Gordo," Fawn said.
"Jesus Christ," he said. "You scared the shit out of me."
"That's definitely a fine," she said.
"What kind of fine?" he said.
"The worst Monday morning you ever imagined. The worst graduate seminar you ever endured."
"Thanks a lot," he said.
"Gordo," she said. "Kiss me."
"I thought you said that was dangerous," he said.
"It is," she said.
He was still wet from the shower, but he leaned forward and pressed his lips against hers. It felt as though a bolt of lightning had struck him, and his feet melted into the porcelain of the shower in shimmering blue light. Then a golden aura washed over him, and he looked into her serene face, at her full lips.
"Wow," he said.
"Parallel dimensions, Gordo."
"Sign me up for some more of that," he said.
"No can do, Gordo."
"Fawn," he said.
"As the philosopher John Lennon wrote, Gordo, all you need is love."
"Fawn," he said.
"Sometimes it gets scorched or dented or cracked or spilled or pent up, but all you need is love, Gordo. Love is all you need."
"Don't go," he said.
"I never go," she said. "Here, dry off." She handed him a towel, then vanished.
Berryman wiped the water from his face and pressed the towel against his chest. For a moment he looked out the window, at the violet light deepening at the edge of the woods.
"Honey, are you ready?" Maria called from downstairs. He scrubbed the towel briskly over his shoulders.
"Not yet," he said. "But I will be."
Ross Howell Jr.
When 53-year-old Howell had the idea about an angel visiting a middle-aged man, he says he thought it would be funny. Making the angel look like Pamela Anderson? Even funnier, he says.
The judges felt Howell hit the mark and honored his story, "The Trouble with Angels," with runner-up status.
This isn't the first time Howell has earned honors in a fiction contest, but it has been a while.
Back in 1972, as a UVA undergrad, Howell took third place in the Atlantic Monthly's collegiate writing contest. He went on to other writing acclaim, studying literature at Harvard before ending up at the University of Iowa's writers' conference.
"It was a phenomenal time to be there," says Howell, who recalls sitting in class with such big names as Jane Smiley and Allen Gurganus, author of The Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All.
After a few academic appointments (and a story published in the Virginia Quarterly Review), Howell started the Howell Press in 1985. The Press puts out about 10 coffee table-type books annually, which in past years have included Mary Motley Kalergis' Charlottesville Portraits, and Coy Barefoot's UVA history tome, The Corner.
But it wasn't until Howell joined a writing group two years ago started by now-UVA news editor Kathleen Valenzi that he again "got serious" about his own writing.
Since finishing "Angels," he's hard at work on two, more serious, stories. Getting them published may pose some difficulty, but he stays lighthearted.
"My writing career is going well," he jokingly tells friends. "My work has been rejected by some of the finest publications in the world!"