Almost Heaven

The fruit and vegetable stand was all they had left to remember Aunt Sophie — but now it’s smashed to pieces.

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“Watch out!” I yelled, slamming the Land Rover’s brake pedal to the floor. Sam’s earlier caution flashed through my mind; the brakes hadn’t worked in years. He assured me the old wreck never went fast enough to need them. Sam forgot to mention the small hill I was now careening down, careening down backwards.

Yes, backwards. That hadn’t seemed so odd earlier when reverse was the only gear I could slip the ancient car into. Sam also neglected to share that the steering box was stripped, making frantic spins of the steering wheel pointless, and the vehicle was headed straight for Sophie’s Fruit and Vegetable stand.

“Move it!” I screamed as startled shoppers dove aside.

I saw the wood post just before the Rover destroyed it.

Ka-Pow!

The post was obliterated. Maddy, Sam’s affectionate term for this wayward machine, continued on as calamity exploded behind, or should I say in front of, it. Car and driver, the latter admittedly a gracious label for my role in this disaster, stopped abruptly when confronted by a wall of unyielding cacti, slamming my head against the useless steering wheel.

Coughing twice, the engine died. Steam seeped out from under the dented hood. Dazed, I struggled for consciousness.

“You alive, son?”

One eye slowly opened, squinting in the dazzling light. I saw a white-bearded head bobbing in front of my face.

“Boy, you okay?”

Of course not, you old fart, I heard my mind say, quickly losing all respect for Saint Peter. Then another thought: Shut up fool, that other guy could be welcoming you.

Kind hands gently shook me.

Damn, I thought, recognizing Sam. Now I had a lot of explaining to do.

Ka-Boom!

I jerked round to source the noise. Behind me, a cloud of dust rose sleepily into blue sky.

The scene below was anything but peaceful. It seemed a tornado had torn through the stand. Mangled fruit and vegetables and broken souvenirs were strewn throughout a pile of bent sheet metal and fallen wood. What had once been a thriving business was now a roadside garbage dump.

Only one thing still stood vertical. The sign, Sophie’s Stand, had one end planted in the debris. Smiling at me sideways between the two words, Sophie’s face gave a death shutter, and the sign slowly surrendered to gravity, crashing to earth.

“Jeez!” I wailed, wondering how I could have done all that by merely knocking down one post. “So sorry,” I whimpered, “so sorry.”

“It’s nothing, boy,” said Sam.

Nothing! I thought. Nothing?! I’d just destroyed what had been Aunt Sophie’s life for over 40 years. I pushed my face into the steering wheel and sobbed.

An arm comforted my shoulder, “Here, try this.”

I looked up. There she was again, Sophie’s face, those big brown eyes, the bright smile on a bottle labelled Sophie’s Best. The best, indeed. From what I’d heard, folks were known to drive hours to get this prized homemade hooch, said to cure everything from infertility to constipation.

I grabbed the bottle and gulped. What the hell, I needed to drown my sins. I hadn’t visited my aunt in over 10 years, missed her funeral, and now demolished the pride of her life.

With another swig, the dark cloud of guilt began to evaporate. I gulped more of Sophie’s Best. Not bad, I thought, as I was guided to the shade of a palm tree and plopped into a plastic chair.

Self-pity dissolved into drunken stupor, and I found myself staring at an empty bottle. Raising it up, I toasted Sophie: “Damn fine hooch, Auntie!”

Sam pulled another bent chair beside me, grunting as he sank down. He lifted a full bottle skyward and saluted. “Sophie!” Then proceeded to drain half the contents before passing the bottle.

In front of us, a silent army of zombies emerged from nowhere to paw through the wreckage for anything of value.

Sam spoke slowly, “Maybe it’s for the best. Sophie always wanted to give everything away.”

“Maybe so,” I added, drinking more hooch to quiet my pained conscience.

“Sophie liked you,” he said as I returned the bottle. “You’re the only city folk ever came to visit.”

“That’s nice,” I answered, trying to convince myself that seeing her once in 10 years merited my absolution for the day’s disaster.

“We had a good life, me and Sophie,” reflected Sam, as we watched hands picking through the carnage.

I remembered the visit, years ago, when I’d first met Sam and Sophie, drawn by some unknown urge to know family — not to mention the need to escape town and an irate girlfriend who’d just thrown me out of her apartment. I took another drink and recalled looking up as that angry woman, screaming abuse, emphatically hurled a stuffed walrus down on my puzzled head. Perhaps, the spark was gone and it was time to move on.

Several buses and many miles later, I was dropped on an empty road in front of Sophie’s stand. A young girl arranging fruit looked over at me.

“Sophie?” I’d asked.

She’d pointed up the hill. I started walking, suddenly aware of the bright sounds and colors of birds flying about me. I gasped in wonder as my lungs inhaled the pungent tropical air. Turning left, I entered a tunnel of vibrant green foliage pierced by shafts of streaming gold sunlight. In the distance, I spied a small cottage.

A cloud of butterflies descended on me, floating, fluttering, circling, then drifting away as I entered a clearing. Passing through an orchard, trees laden with fruit, I saw two rocking chairs sitting in the deep shade of the cottage porch, looking out on the nearby garden.

Birds flew past from all directions. The buzz of life was electric. Ahead, tending rows of vibrant plants, a stout woman in a calico dress was singing, filling a basket with the joys of harvest.

“Aunt Sophie!” I cried out hopefully.

The singing stopped and she turned around. A smile burst upon her face.

“Lordy!” she blurted, dropping her bounty and rushing to embrace me.

I’d never felt so loved.

She’d introduced me to her man, Sam. I didn’t know if they were married in the eyes of anyone but themselves, and it didn’t seem to matter. What I did know, was they were partners, friends, and playmates. You got high just being around them and their zeal for life.

Yes, I thought, taking another belt of Sophie’s Best, that was a great time, then passed the bottle to the old man sitting silently beside me.

“Well Sam, what you going to do?”

A cluster of men had gathered behind us. They seemed to be waiting in expectation. Sam turned, smiled, and handed his bottle to the closest man. As the hooch was passed from mouth to mouth, I found myself slightly miffed. I was really enjoying Sophie’s Best and wasn’t in the mood to share. However, being the cause of the mess before us, I said nothing.

“Well,” Sam sighed, “this was Sophie’s place, her way to serve the world. Now she’s gone. Seems it’s the stand’s time to go too.”

There were anxious looks between the men, throats cleared and feet shuffled in the dust.

After a long, awkward silence Sam realized the real issue at hand. He looked up and laughed.

“You all afraid I’m gonna stop making Sophie’s Best? Well, I reckon I’ll keep that going until I join Sophie at the pearly gates.”

Sam paused, then vented, “But no way I’m rebuilding that stand alone!”

Eager hands shot up and voices called out. “No way Sambo!”

“We’ve got it brother!

“No worry man!”

“Vamos hombres!”

I watched in amazement as a transformation occurred. The sad-faced group of apologetic men and the mob of pilferers became a focused army of workers. They sorted re-useable materials from the fallen hut. Squashed produce was tossed back in the bushes to rot into oneness. Before noon, what had been Sophie’s Stand was loaded onto a flatbed truck and, gears grinding, the load lurched forward.

Finishing our third bottle of Sophie’s Best, Sam and I threw our chairs on the truck, and staggered, arm-in-arm, after the community parade.

Earlier, after some discussion, Sam had decided to relocate Sophie’s stand on a nearby rise. Arriving at this spot, the convoy patiently awaited his approval. He circled once, swaying slightly, stopped, then shared, “Nice view. It’ll do.”

The crowd cheered as Sam crossed himself, then anointed the sacred ground with splashes of Sophie’s best.

More applause. Then, the work began.

Placing our chairs in the shade of a towering coolabah tree, Sam and I resumed drinking. The stage in front of us was a hive of activity.

While it can be justly said that most of the world’s problems have been caused by misguided males, I must admit that when guys get their act together, they can do a helluva lot of work in short order.

Everyone seemed to know what they had to do. Children passed wood and metal to men who began putting the building back together. Women showed up with food, pausing to hug Sam and keep his plate full. There was laughter and singing, and people seemed genuinely happy. It was community in ways I’d never felt in the city.

By late afternoon, what had been piles of reclaimed materials had become the newly arisen Sophie’s Stand. Fresh produce was being put on shelves, and two men rehung the sign under the tin roof.

Sam spoke to a young man who climbed a ladder with a brush and can of paint. Carefully, the artist added a word to the sign above Sophie’s smiling face.

“Sophie’s Last Stand” the sign announced. Sam grinned and the people clapped in approval.

“Sambo!”

I turned to see a small boy dropping a signpost at Sam’s feet. The sign board read, “Almost Heaven: Population 2.”

I remembered the story. Sophie had told it to me as we sat on those rocking chairs watching the evening sky melt into shades of orange and red.

She and Sam had been rocking, drinking in the peace of their little world. She’d said, “Honey, this is as close to heaven as I’m gonna get. I’m almost there.”

“Amen, momma,” he’d agreed.

The next day, the sign had appeared in front of Sophie’s Stand.

As all watched, Sam stooped and touched the sign reverently. Then he and the boy raised it in front of the resurrected stand. Two men quickly dug a hole and planted the post.

Sam whispered into the young artist’s ear. The painter was about to alter the number “2” when I heard my voice cry out.

“Wait!”

Almost Heaven had a new resident.

It was time for me to take a stand of my own. Raising Sam’s arm with mine, I shouted, “Almost Heaven, population 2!”

Applause erupted and hats flew in the air. Sam and I took another celebratory drink. Cars began pulling up, and life returned to normal. People came to Sophie’s Last Stand seeking fresh fruit and vegetables, great hooch, and a friendly smile.

And they’re still coming, searching for almost heaven.

 

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