So this happened. That’s how everything starts these days, though these days are pretty much over for me. You’ll find out what I’m talking about in just a minute. I know you’re not going to believe any of this, but I swear that it’s true. It started then, or maybe ended, on the highway toward the end of December. It was the first real snowfall of the year in Michigan, coming much later than usual, but it wasn’t just any snowfall. This was one of those killer Michigan blizzards that knock down power lines, send helpless families to makeshift shelters, and convince everyone present that the world will end, not with fire, but with ice. That’s kind of what happened. I was on US-131, pushing from my home in Plainwell toward my place of employment approximately fifty miles south in Kalamazoo, when it all happened. Running north and south, with several undeveloped stretches of nothing to block the blowing, drifting ribbons of snow, this highway is known to become a white hell in the depths of winter. There were weather advisories all over the television and radio that night, but I had no more vacation days to burn. I had no choice but to face my damn fears. I was already shaking as I got behind the wheel. Fearlessly charging into any situation when I was young, I had grown distinctly neurotic about driving in adverse road conditions as I’d gotten older. You could blame it on the fragility that seems to come from having children, or maybe the paranoid obsession with how I could ever afford car repairs or tow trucks that comes with being perpetually broke, but, when the white stuff started to fly, all that I could see was the snowpocalypse. Through the frantically slapping windshield wipers, the scene in front of me looked like the moment when the Millennium Falcon goes into light speed. I knew there were other cars out there somewhere, but I couldn’t see them. I couldn’t see a damn thing. Every once in a while, another set of lights would suddenly materialize from behind me. Then some brave, or possibly foolish soul would careen past me, which meant that at least I was still on the road. Taillights like red eyes would shrink and then vanish into the swirling abyss no more than ten feet in front of my car. My hands were clenched desperately on the steering wheel. I wanted a cigarette, but didn’t want to let go. I wanted to get off the damn highway, but all of the exits seemed to have vanished. I had no choice but to push on and on, my heart pounding faster, faster, palms sweating, struggling to peer into swirling chaos ahead of me. The voice of Leonard Cohen poured from the speakers, his deep baritone attempting to soothe me. That’s why I had chosen him to accompany me on this journey. But my chest was heavy, my breathing harder to push out and draw back in, the snow screaming as I spiraled deeper and deeper into nothingness. As if from above, the words fell all around me. There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. And then it all stopped. It doesn’t seem very dramatic now, but that’s exactly how it happened. Everything just stopped. I was pushing through a terrifying ordeal . . . and then I blinked, wiping it all away. When my eyes opened, I was in a hospital room and Leonard Cohen was standing beside the bed. At least that’s what I thought. One of the first things you’ll learn about this place is that everything is very fluid here, like a movie set that’s constantly being changed while you’re still walking through it. But Leonard Cohen was very real, and he was standing right beside me. If the bed was meant to be in a hospital room, then he would have been the doctor checking on his patient. That was how he appeared to me, leaning down from above, slightly blurry, as if to say, it looks like he’s joining us. Which is exactly what he said, in that smooth Leonard Cohen voice. Now, understand that I had never met Leonard Cohen before in my life, I did not know him personally, nor do I know why my mind would have conjured him as a physician. I was also aware that, as of November 7th, he was quite dead. I suppose that I must have asked about that, though I never heard my own voice. But there was Leonard Cohen, poet, singer, and, apparently, doctor extraordinaire, ready with an answer. Oh yes, my friend, I am among the departed, and I regret to inform you that you are as well. My response was perfectly eloquent, nuh-uh. Equally absurd was the Leonard Cohen baritone that bounced back at me, nuh-huh. But then, as if to remind me that he really was Leonard Cohen: I thought I saw an eagle, but it might have been a vulture, I never could decide. Then there was something in his old-man face that made me think of my grandfather, who had been gone for over twenty years. Had Leonard Cohen always made me think of him, or was this something new that I had just figured out? In any case, it was enough for me to believe what the man was saying. Then we were no longer in a hospital room, but more like the same space redecorated as an office. Where before there had been vague medical equipment at the edges of my consciousness, now there was a very rudimental desk and blurred artwork on the walls. I had the passing thought that, if I tried the drawers of the desk, they would not open. The paintings, I suspected, would be blurry no matter how close I got to them. But then the thought was gone. I’m just dreaming, I said. Leonard Cohen laughed a very Leonard Cohen laugh. We tell ourselves what we need to hear, he said. It seemed like a very Leonard Cohen thing to say, and then he said more. I’m sure you’ve read Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and I remembered one of the shimmering holidays of my childhood, the elegant house of Aunt Bev and the glittering lights of many colors, a place that always felt more like Christmas to me than any other. I remembered clawing at the shiny wrapping paper, silver and gold, hoping for something with wheels or eyes or quick-draw action, but finding a book, that book, and how seeing a stupid ol’ book only filled me with disappointment. But then I asked my mother to read the book to me when we got home, a place much less like Christmas. She protested gently, and then sighed, but she read a few lines and then she read a few more. And everything was magical because my parents were more than mere human beings and because Santa Clause was coming in just a few hours. Yeah, I still believed on that night, in the last year of believing, nestled somewhere in the delicate remains of hope. I guess you could say that I’m like that first ghost, Leonard Cohen said, but I’ve left my chains behind. So you’re telling me that I’m dead? That’s what I’m telling you, Leonard Cohen said, soaking me in that soothing baritone. I was born like this, I had no choice, he said, I was born with the gift of a golden voice, and I knew that’s why he had no choice but to be the one greeting me here. It was to soothe me. But where the hell was here? Where were the clouds and the harps, or, as so many had always warned me, the lake where only the Human Torch would dare to go swimming? And I had so many other questions. So I died on the highway? Son-of-a-bitch, I knew I shouldn’t go to work that night. Was it last night, or is time different here? Where are we exactly anyway? I mean, I’ve never been much of a believer, if you know what I’m saying, but I’ve always tried to keep an open mind. So was it a car crash, or did I have a stroke because I was freaking out about having a car crash? Because I really get neurotic about driving in that shit. Um, stuff, should I say stuff here? I mean, is God . . . well, is God? Leonard Cohen chuckled softly, still baritoning it. It doesn’t really matter how we go, he said, but we all do. If you had not died when you did, there were already other things working inside of you that would have killed you. Things inside of me. Holy shit, what does that even mean? I mean, this isn’t one of your songs, Leonard Cohen. Don’t get me wrong, your songs are amazing. I’m a huge fan, by the way. You were actually singing when I . . . well, when it happened. Leonard Cohen looked humbled by this, reminding me of interviews where some fawning journalist would go on about what a poetic genius he was. He would sit there, the most elegant man in the world, but somehow still just a man with a man’s normal concerns. The only difference was that he wore a really stylish suit while taking out the garbage. He looked at me like that now, like it was time to suit up and walk the can to the curb. Let’s go for a stroll, he said. There’s a lot to see here. Here, for the moment at least, seemed to be a place called Grace Episcopal Church. I wasn’t kidding when I told Leonard Cohen that I’d never been much of a believer. Raised without it, I had nonetheless tried to force religion down my own throat, like choking down medicine that you thought could cure you. This building, in a downriver city just south of Detroit, was where most of the choking occurred. It appeared now in the way that things often do in dreams: I knew it’s where I was supposed to be in this dream, or whatever it was, but the details didn’t match up. Like when Leonard Cohen opened the door of the rector’s office (where, at the height of our marital problems, my ex-wife and I’d had several counseling sessions), the hallway beyond stretched out much further than it should have. Memory was like that too, a long hall with too many doors. All you wanted to do was get to the end without opening too many of them. But the hall, in this case, had filled up with famous dead people. The first one was Nancy Reagan. Thin and frail, with that overly large head, she was coming right at me like a life-sized Pez dispenser. I knew she was much more than just a television appearance, but I saw her telling Arnold to just say no to drugs on DIFF’RENT STROKES. I wanted to ask her to say it now, but could only watch her wordlessly. She would have looked like a ghost, floating without distinction up the hall, but she looked up at me. She looked at me and smiled and suddenly she was as real as Leonard Cohen. Then she turned into one of the rapidly multiplying doorways that filled the hall and she was gone. She was followed by Fidel Castro, who was deep in conversation with Janet Reno. They emerged from a couple doors behind Nancy Reagan, crossed the hall, and disappeared into another room further back. George Kennedy nodded at them on his way out, looking like he did way back in COOL HAND LUKE. He proceeded away from me down the hall, encountering a man I didn’t recognize. Words appeared above the man’s head, identifying him as “Michael Cimino, screenwriter, producer, and director of THE DEER HUNTER.” Huh. I wanted to tell him that his remake of the Bogie film DESPERATE HOURS, starring Mickey Rourke and Anthony Hopkins, was much better than anyone gave him credit for. I figured he always heard how great the Russian roulette scene was and wanted to give him a shout-out for something else. But he handed something to George Kennedy – it looked like it might have been a script – and then ducked into a different room. George Kennedy looked down at the script and grinned, like he’d just gotten a better part than anything he ever had when he was alive. He almost walked into John Glenn. Both of them stopped and eagerly shook hands, mutual fans, and shared some words that I couldn’t hear. John Glenn gave a little salute and then orbited the hall past Mother Angelica and Abe Vigoda. They looked like they were debating something about religion, for they both kept crossing themselves. John Glenn just nodded at them, then joined Arnold Palmer, Gordie Howe, and Joe Garagiola in moving to another room. The old man from LAW AND ORDER walked right past me while I watched them. The words above his head flashed “Steven Hill” before they, too, were gone. Then some grey-haired guy was in my face. You know, I was going to do your death scene, that was totally going to be me, but they shut me down on that. They tried to tell me there wouldn’t be that much blood in a car accident, but what do they know, really? I mean, who’s the director here anyway? “Herschel Gordon Lewis” appeared above his head, but I had already figured him for the Godfather of Gore. TWO THOUSAND MANIACS. COLOR ME BLOOD RED. THE WIZARD OF GORE. I was thinking about the first time seeing BLOOD FEAST, finding a battered old VHS in a resale shop called ALL BOOKS AND RECORDS down in Lauderdale. Despite all the Voorhees and Kruegers I’d grown up with, that movie still felt dirty and illicit. Hell yeah, I wanted him to give me a good bloody death. But before I could say anything to him, Curtis Hanson appeared beside him. L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. WONDER BOYS. THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE. THE RIVER WILD. And, the one that helped to get me through my divorce, 8 MILE. Don’t listen to him, Curtis Hanson said, the guy’s a total hack. You can hack this, pal. But then they both started to laugh, shoving each other like adolescent boys. Like each of them had only now, in death, found his new best friend. They bantered back and forth in front of me, but their voices had already become nothing more than the nonsense words that directors give to background players. Maybe it was the first directorial lesson that Curtis Hanson was giving his fledgling new buddy. I’m going to take you to my favorite room, Leonard Cohen said. I wondered how many women he had used that line on in life, but he was already proceeding down the hall of the dead. There would be no Chelsea Hotel here for me. Turning to look back at the hospital room or office that we had just left, it had already morphed into colors without edges. It was becoming what I had always thought I would be when I died. Nothing. But Leonard Cohen was waiting for me, patiently whistling what sounded like a Christmas tune further up the hall. Well, now, this isn’t the right room, he said, but when I looked inside I wondered why he wasn’t there. There are so many different ways to go in this place. I’ve been here for a long time now, as he seemed not to realize that it hadn’t even been two months yet, and I’m still getting lost every day. But there are far worse places one could be lost. This isn’t your favorite room then? Just a glance inside had given me more departed musical legends than I could ever have seen in four decades of concerts. Sonny James was over in the corner, singing about his young love, first love, like it was still 1957. It must have been even a year earlier for Gogi Grant, who sang, in a lonely shack by a railroad track, he spent his younger days, and I guess the sound of the outward bound made him a slave to his wanderin’ ways. Both Leonard Cohen and I joined in for the chorus: the wayward wind is a restless wind, a restless wind that yearns to wander, and he was born the next of kin, the next of kin to the wayward wind . . . Bobby Vee was going on about devil or angel, I can’t make up my mind, while “pioneering guitarist and country-blues singer” Lonnie Mack was chatting up the fifth-Beatle, George Martin. Maybe George Martin was busy wondering when he might see Paul, because he seemed really distracted. On his other side, country singer Guy Clark was sing-songing a tale about his father’s Randall knife while bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley sawed away on a fiddle, finally looking young again. Paul Kantner and Signe Toly Anderson, founding members of Jefferson Airplane, looked like they were amused that they died on the same day, or maybe they were still laughing about how much their old band eventually sucked. Lennie Baker, the voice of Sha Na Na’s hit “Blue Moon”, was hitting that song’s most high and hyper doo-wopping notes. Beside me, Leonard Cohen gave the same words his subdued Leonard Cohen treatment, you knew just what I was there for, you heard me saying a prayer for someone I really could care for . . . Alan Vega, mastermind of underground legend Suicide, was busily organizing a soulful version of his song “Ghost Rider” with Leon Russell. Jazz vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and harmonica-man Toots Thielemans stood by, trying to find a place to jump in. From somewhere beyond them I heard gentle guitar-picking, then a plaintive voice talking about how Mama tried. I looked to Leonard Cohen, remembering how he once mentioned Hank Williams in a song, wondering if he knew any Merle Haggard. But Leonard Cohen was already singing him some Merle Haggard. This man will be up there, thirty floors above me, with Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen said. I told him that I didn’t know many of his songs, but there were a few that I really loved. The first one that came back to me was the one about falling in love with a black woman in the 1970s, and Leonard Cohen joined right in. If my lovin’ Irma Jackson is a sin, then I don’t understand this crazy world we’re livin’ in, but then he directed me to an even more appropriate song, all things considered. It was the one about the convict on Death Row taking that final walk. The narrator stands up in his cell, ready to say goodbye, when the doomed man asks him to play something on his guitar. So Leonard Cohen and I started singing together again, won’t you sing me back home to the songs I used to hear, make my old memories come alive, take me away and turn back the years, sing me back home before I die. I had started to get a little misty, which answered a question that I’d had for years: were there really tears in heaven? However, despite the leisurely pace of his songs, Leonard Cohen was eager to keep the tour going. We left this particular room behind for what I presumed would be the rest of the departed musicians in another. But Leonard Cohen was always full of surprises. It’s the place where all the old writers go, he said. And I knew these were the writers because I didn’t recognize a single damn one of them. But Leonard Cohen did, and he started naming them off for me. Elie Wiesel, who wrote so beautifully about being in a concentration camp. Edward Albee, he was a great playwright, and he gave us WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Michael Herr was the author of the Vietnam memorial DISPATCHES. Don Waller wrote about musicians, and probably even covered yours truly at some point. There’s Harper Lee, over in the corner. Pat Conroy wrote THE GREAT SANTINI and THE PRINCE OF TIDES. Good stuff. You’ve at least seen the cinematic version of LEGENDS OF THE FALL, everyone has. Well, Jim Harrison is the man who gave that to us. Lois Duncan wrote numerous young adult novels, never condescending to her audience. She also conjured up I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER. You might notice the old Jewish man in front of them? That’s Morley Safer, and he’s trying to interview everyone here. It was then I remembered that Leonard Cohen never planned on being a singer. He had actually started out as a writer and a poet, but quickly learned that it’s hard to keep writing when you’ve starved to death. So he sold a few songs to well-known singers, and then one of them basically said, hey Leonard, why don’t you do this stuff yourself? That’s it exactly, he said, having heard my unexpressed thoughts. But now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got quite a bit of writing to catch up on. I’ve heard that it really sets the chicks on fire up here. I’ve also heard that Zsa Zsa Gabor has arrived, and she looks like she did when she was young. Don’t worry, though, your tour isn’t over yet. With that, he turned from me, strolling into the writer’s room, just as smooth as you please. Under his breath, Leonard Cohen serenaded me one more time. Going home without my sorrow, going home sometime tomorrow, going home to where it’s better than before . . . And then he was gone. Prince. He was standing there when I turned around. Even in a puffy blouse and platforms, he was shorter than he ever seemed in my mind. The wild hair and doomed-porpoise eyes were straight out of the Little Red Corvette era, though. What’s the matter with your life? he said. Is the poverty bringin’ you down? I answered him right away. Is the mailman jerkin’ you ’round? Did he put your million-dollar check in someone else’s box? Tell me, he said, then laughed a very Prince laugh. Yeah, you’re alright. Come on now, I’ve got some things for you to see. As he winked and slinked up the same hall I had just walked, it was impossible not to notice that the corridor had gotten infinitely more funky. I’m not just talking metaphorically. It was like a bunch of color had been thrown against the wall before it was covered with plain old office-white. The place was trying to play itself off as officious and somber, but all those vibrant hues were shining through anyway. That’s how I’d gotten through a thousand days at boring jobs, with Prince burning brightly through my head. I don’t wanna ruin the moment or anything, I said, but, dude, I’m a huge fan. I mean, this might not be the place, I dunno. But, holy shit, it’s Prince. If this is supposed to be a Christmas Carol and you’re the ghost of whatever-was-next, my mind is blown . . . Prince said, in that quiet but sultry little Prince voice, this isn’t really anything you’ve ever experienced, but kind of everything you’ve ever experienced. You’re going to see glimpses of most of the things you’ve cared about here. Now shut up, Stella, and just enjoy the sights. He punctuated this with one of those dolphin-like Prince squeals. Somewhere in my mind, I was connecting the D-to-the-I-to-the-A-to-the-M, but I hushed it before I gushed it. Hell, I was dead and hanging out with Prince. I didn’t want to blow my cool. They call all of this the Waiting Room, he said. He did an amazing spin right there in the hall, arms outstretched to indicate everything around us. It’s all changing constantly, but not in a way that’ll make your ass neurotic, know what I’m saying? I did, actually. I could be pretty damn neurotic sometimes, or I was when I was still alive. He was humming some tune I couldn’t make out, probably some new Prince song that no one back home would ever get to hear. Strutting up the hall, the walls were stretching out and catching color like a psychedelic game show, and I was the only contestant. I tried my best to follow. Though my moves were much smoother here, I was never going to be Prince. I was remembering when I was thirteen, trying to master that trick from the “Little Red Corvette” video. You know the one, where he does the splits, then spins back up into the air, catching the microphone just in time to continue the song. Yeah, it didn’t work that way for me, and I’m surprised I was able to produce children after trying it. Folks are usually here until the end of the year, Prince said. Like Lemmy was already gone when I got here, because he died last year at this time. But I’ve seen a few that have hung out a little longer. They are afraid of what lies beyond, or maybe think that nothing does. A few more have come back from whatever is there, but part of the deal is that they’re sworn to silence. Literally, they don’t say a word. So they’re not much fun at the sing-along. Another squealed exclamation. Then I was trying to say all those things I was thinking with Leonard Cohen, about being ten years old and asking my mother what happened to us when we die, about her telling me that we rotted in the ground while the worms ate us. I thought about being in church and trying to force it, about wanting to believe but not knowing how to do it when there was so much bullshit, and about always trying on different beliefs to see what fit, but Prince just looked at me and said: People call me rude, I wish we all were nude, I wish there were no black and white, I wish there were no rules. What does that even mean, Prince? And I thought, maybe they don’t talk about religion in heaven. Then we turned from the hall into the nursery, where I would sometimes hide out with my newborn son during church services, my marriage and my attempt at faith already beginning to crumble. But instead of Dr. Seuss or block letters, there were words above the heads of Afeni Shakur – “Black Panther, political activist, music producer, general bad-ass, and mother of Tupac” – and Monte Irvin – “seven seasons in NY Giants, MLB’s first black executive, almost broke the color lines before Jackie Robinson” – and TV psychic Miss Cleo, who was still trying to figure out how she never saw her own death coming. That’s not a cheap joke on her behalf either, she really couldn’t figure out how she’d missed it. And Muhammad Ali was there, sparring in the corner. Dammit, I’d forgotten all about his death, and wondered how he wasn’t immortal in the first place. While he was floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee, I was thinking about my father and what a huge fan he always was, going back to the Cassius Clay days. Oh shit, how would Dad take it when he found out about me? It had taken him a few years to get used to his wife being gone, and now . . . And now we were moving on, because I was late for a date with Prince. But this was no ordinary Episcopal service, for the church was full of dead musicians making one hell of a sweet sound. If you can imagine a 1970s funk-n-soul prog-jam with an unearthly, head-nodding blues beat that came from somewhere beyond all time, then maybe you’ve got some idea what was going down. Funk was feeling the Lord, and Amazing Grace was gettin’ down, because everything here was sacred and profane at the same time. And they were all here, the ones that everyone knew. David Bowie. Natalie Cole. Sharon Jones. Maurice White. Keith Emerson and Greg Lake. Glenn Frey. And the ones that I needed a little reminder for. Bluesmen Otis Clay and Barrelhouse Chuck. Clarence Reid, from the hilariously vulgar funk band Blowfly. Mic Gillette, amazing trumpet player and Tower of Power man. Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest. Lee Andrews, a solid 1950s doo-wop singer and father of the Roots’ drummer Questlove. Megadeth drummer Nick Menza. Pete Burns, of Dead or Alive, still singing “You Spin Me Round”. Papa Wemba, aka, King of the Congolese Rumba. The Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell. Billy Paul doing his thing with Mrs. Jones. Someone named Tony Conrad, who did experimental films and was in Lou Reed’s pre-Underground band The Primitives. And that big mellow dude from PM Dawn, Prince Be. And . . . Jimi Hendrix? Prince looked at me, rolling his eyes. Jimi’s never really died, so he never goes away. In response, a few unmistakable notes from “Little Wing” fluttered up from the cacophony. Then the wall of sound rose higher and higher than anything I’d ever heard in any church. I would even have said that it was reaching for the heavens, but then, wasn’t that where we were supposed to be? Here was a celestial mash-up, words that should never have worked together, tumbling over each other. Thunder, all through the night . . . a hundred days, a hundred nights to know a man’s heart, and a little more before he knows his own . . . on a clear day, baby, I can see everyone that loves you, everyone that loves me, and I, I will be king, and you, you will be queen, we can be heroes just for one day . . . so take my hand, it’ll be alright, come on save your soul tonight. Then David Bowie, somewhere at the center of everything, raised his hands and waved everyone into silence. Even Jimi Hendrix. He turned to look at me from his center stage upon the altar. He hopped to the ground like a man in his twenties, and Prince leaned in to whisper beside me, listen up, the man wants to lay a few words on you. And David Bowie was changing as he was walking toward me. He was Ziggy Stardust and he was Aladdin Sane and he was the Thin White Duke and he was the Goblin King. And he was singing his words. It’s a lot more fun progressing than looking back, he sang, then said, confront a corpse at least once. The absolute absence of life is the most disturbing and challenging confrontation you will ever have, and I saw my mother on the gurney on the day they came to take her away. Then he sang again, there, in the chords and melodies, is everything I want to say, and then said, the truth is, of course, that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time. He stopped to stand in front of me so close that I could see his different colored eyes, and he looked at me and he said, I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring. Then that was it, he turned away and stalked back up toward the stage. Prince dolphin-called beside me. A few notes from Hendrix, probably from “I Don’t Live Today”. And then some busty brunette who looked like a porn star dropped down in front of me. The words above her head said her name was Amber Rayne. I was wondering how nasty it could get in the afterlife, when I heard do you think I’m a nasty girl? and Vanity appeared beside Prince. She looked younger and cleaner than she had in years, and she wrapped herself all around him. Prince gave me a sly wink and nodded at Amber Rayne and said, she’s not yours, because nobody belongs to anybody here, but she will take you to your next tour guide. The next one is the funkiest fool of all, he said, and in that moment Prince looked like he would live forever, even when he was already dead. In many ways, I had grown up with this man, and he could never die. There was no way I could just leave it like this. Hey Prince, I said. I pointed at him and guitar notes flew from my hand. There’s no other way to describe it. My fingers were an imaginary Cowboys-and-Indians gun from childhood, and I shot him with the solo from the end of “Let’s Go Crazy”. The notes began to pour out and I moved my fingers right along with them. For nearly a minute. Couldn’t even begin to tell you how I did it. I’d never played a real guitar, but I wailed on an invisible one like I’d been training to be Prince since 1984. When the last scorched note had faded, I laid the non-existent axe at his feet. Then Prince did the coolest thing I’d ever seen him do. He clapped his hands for me, and he laughed. Florence Henderson, really? So Prince thought Mrs. Brady was the funkiest fool of all. Damn, who knew? She didn’t look very funky, sitting at a cheap folding table with Alan Thicke, Dan “Grizzly Adams” Haggerty, and Pat Harrington, the guy who played building superintendent Schneider on ONE DAY AT A TIME. Though I’d never been much into card games, it looked like they were deep into some Euchre. Oh shit, Florence Henderson said and threw her dead cards down on the table. When she found me watching her, she changed ever so slightly, looking just a bit more like Mrs. Brady than she did the moment before. Before leaving the table, she turned back to Grizzly Adams and pointed at him, if we didn’t have to leave, I’d kick your ass, pal. We were in the open area beyond the church offices, the place they called Grace Hall. Here was a space they rented out to Alcoholics Anonymous or the Boy Scouts or to couples who got married in the church. Just like I did, seemed so long ago. Florence Henderson shooed the porn star away and sidled up beside me just like a mother would. Then, just like a mother would, she started offering advice that felt both random and knowing, if you know what you did was wrong, she said, that’s more important than any punishment. Is that what we’re supposed to do here, come clean about every bad thing we’ve ever done? Because we might be here more than a year, and then I laughed, because sometimes that’s all that’s left to do. Oh John, she said, like I was just another one of the Brady kids, there’s nothing that bad that most of us have done. We’ve all just got a few things that we’ve got to finish up. I thought about my children and my parents and about all the other people I’d loved, and Florence Henderson said, maybe you would like to think of this as the synapses in your brain completing their circuit, or maybe it’s just the last place for you to be yourself before you become something else . . . But it all ends. She tilted her head as she said it, nonetheless throwing out an immortal Mrs. Brady smile. I threw my arms around her then, not sure if it would cause the afterlife to implode or me to wake up or if we would suddenly go howling into an abyss, but needing to feel a mother’s embrace and she was the one that I always wanted when I was a child. There was a vibration, like something from a video game, and I touched her without really feeling anything solid. But everything was still there. She murmured soothingly, and I thought about the way everything on TV ended with hugs or laughter. I thought about how every plotline eventually reached an end and how even death wasn’t always permanent. It’s all an illusion, she said, and I wasn’t sure if she meant television or life. But a line had begun to form right there in Grace Hall, the same place where I had danced my first dance as a husband, then walked alone as a father, where friends and family had gathered together, and so many of them are gone, I said, and I might have been crying, but it didn’t feel that much different from laughter. And the place was the same, but it had stretched out and expanded, because there was no way that Grace Hall could have held so many people, so many faceless and blurred figures forming a line that flowed back and back and back. And Florence Henderson said, camping is fun for boys and girls. Why, it’s so much fun falling asleep on the ground, you haven’t got the faintest idea how delightful it is out there under the stars, which I knew was something that Mrs. Brady had said. But now the back wall of the church was gone and there was nothing but the grass and the sky beyond, and it was a starry night full of glittering life, like the one that Van Gogh painted, forever my favorite, and it was the same sky that was above the earth that we had all walked. Florence Henderson reached out and said, I begged them to give Carol a job. They wouldn’t do it. And those clothes, for God’s sake, just look at them. I didn’t choose those. And I said, ‘can I just hit the kids every now and then? I mean, that’s real life’, but they wouldn’t let me. And I was laughing, and she was too, but I knew it was supposed to mean something more, and she gave me more words from Mrs. Brady. The same rules apply to you that apply to anyone else, she said, and I looked at the long line of the famous dead herding into the church. More and more of them became clear, and I cursed the year that had been twenty-sixteen, a cruel son-of-a-bitch with a taste for blood. Anton Yelchin, I said, when he suddenly appeared, the first one in the line that formed behind him. He shrugged, which made him look even younger than he was, and then he smiled. I reached out to shake his hand, vibrating through whatever passed for my arm in this place, and he moved on ahead, pushing through the space where the wall had been. Pushing into the field of grass and the starry night above, while the next one in the line became clear, and then the next one after that and that. Robert Vaughn went through with Patty Duke, while Garry Shandling went alone. Character actor Jon Polito reminded me of MILLER’S CROSSING, THE CROW, and HOMICIDE: Life On the Street, but I didn’t know who Janet Waldo was until she spoke to me in the voice of Judy Jetson. She was at least part of the reason for the first time I ever touched myself, but I didn’t tell her that. Ken Howard was the White Shadow and James Noble was on BENSON and Beth Howland was Vera on ALICE. Earl Hamner, Jr., the creator of THE WALTONS, was deep in conversation with Grant Tinker, who made the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Garry Marshall had given us HAPPY DAYS and LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY, but was no more. Alan Young was once the man who owned Mister Ed, but that wasn’t all. Shaking my hand, he said, nobody but nobody double-crosses Scrooge McDuck, not even a superpower. We’ll settle this man to man. Doris Roberts, the mother on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, strolled through with Richard Adams, who had given everybody nightmares about bloody rabbits. Larry Drake won an Emmy for playing mentally-challenged Benny on L.A. LAW, but that’s not what a lot of us remembered him for. Dr. Giggles, I said with glee, and he shook my hand anyway. Angus Scrimm looked neither as tall nor as evil as the evil Tall Man, and he eagerly took my hand too. These two both made me miss all the horror movies I might never see now, for if we were going to heaven, how would there be horror? Michael Massee – oh yeah, he was in SE7EN and 24 – but he was probably best known for accidentally shooting Brandon Lee. He looked ready to request, give and receive forgiveness. Bill Backer was here, the man who came up with “I’d like to give the world a Coke”, and cult-movie man Joe Fleishaker was in a stained and bloody Troma tee, talking to Ernie the Embalmer, star of CHOPPER CHICKS IN ZOMBIETOWN, and the man with more guest appearances than anyone on BARNEY MILLER, the great Don Calfa. Steve Dillon, co-creator of the PREACHER comic was deep in prayer as he passed through with Henry Heimlich, whose name made me turn to Florence Henderson, who said, yes, that Heimlich. And then, no, he didn’t choke to death. Then Alexis Arquette appeared, stunningly feminine, with David Bowie on her arm. Transgendered trailblazer, curious eyebrow-raiser. She asked on her deathbed that this song be played as she drifted away, but here was the man with the words himself, there’s a starman waiting in the sky, he’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds, and they smiled and shook my hand and then sailed on through into the field of stars. Born in Brooklyn, died in Berkeley, the next one said, waving the words away from his head, I’d had it with war after the Navy and went to California to do some painting. I was friends with Ferlinghetti. I looked at Florence Henderson and she looked at me. I taught for thirty-one years at the university, drama and American Lit, but it wasn’t until I started doing radio in ’61 that the real money started to come. None of it’s important, don’t forget that, but what you might remember me for is, It’s a trap! Then the name was back above his head, and Florence Henderson said, who the hell is Erik Bauersfeld? I tried to tell her that he was only the greatest Mon Calamari commander ever, leading the Rebel attack on the second Death Star at the Battle of Endor, but Florence Henderson just shook her head. Gosh, I hope he’s not right about the trap, she said. Gene Wilder passed through with R2-D2. I dropped down to give my favorite droid a hug, and hoped that Kenny Baker didn’t mind still being inside the suit. Then I was convinced it was some kind of hell and began to tell a story about it in my head. But Gene Wilder said, you have no head to do anything in, and I grinned and asked him to do the scene with me, you know the scene I mean. And he said, there’s no earthly way of knowing which direction they are going, there’s no knowing where they’re rowing – I exclaimed rowing! – or which way the river’s flowing. Is it raining? is it snowing? is a hurricane a-blowing? not a speck of light is showing, so the danger must be growing, are the fires of hell a-glowing, is the grisly reaper mowing, yes the danger must be growing, ’cause the rowers keep on rowing and they’re certainly not showing any sign that they are slowing . . . He cackled in delight, and so did I, then he threw a wink and strutted away Stir Crazy-style. All with a squatty droid by his side. Oh, come on now, I said, because I couldn’t believe who else was dead. She would always be a princess to the world. But you could see the mixed-up, sarcastic girl, the one who shrugged in that Carrie Fisher style. She smiled and sighed and said, this is how I ended up dead: “drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra” . . . and if you don’t know what that means, look it up. But I knew, and if you’re a fan, you should too. One moment she was walking with George Michael, who leaned over to whisper, you gotta have faith, and then they both were heading into the starry yonder, but then it all changed again. Florence Henderson said, everything is moving around in your head (Gene Wilder’s voice said no head!), and I looked up to see George Michael looking at me. He leaned over and whispered, you gotta have faith. Again. But then Michu Meszaros was there, and I know you don’t know who he is, so I’ll say that George Michael was walking my way with the “lovable 80s sitcom alien” Alf. E.T. was a movie, this is real, Alf said, and then, now tell me you love me, but George Michael didn’t look like he loved Alf at all. So Alf said, let’s have a snack now, we’ll get friendly later, and you got a cat? But George Michael didn’t want to listen to that. He leaned over and started to say, but I whispered, you gotta have faith, and instead he said, you’ll never find peace of mind until you listen to your heart. But then Alf said I’ll make a peanut butter sandwich, where’s the blender? and George Michael sighed and I knew there could be even in heaven a kind of hell. And this time Artoo was waiting for his princess, out there past the walls of the church, where the starry sky was getting starrier, and she knelt over him like she was securing the plans for the Death Star, like she was still young and securing hope itself, and I would have shed a tear, even here, but I heard her voice behind me and turned to see Carrie Fisher and her mother coming, and she said, Ma, what the hell are you doing here? And Debbie Reynolds said, I couldn’t let you be dead by yourself, what kind of mother would I be then? and Carrie Fisher just shook her head. If I was such an awful mother . . . what if you had a mother like Joan Crawford or Lana Turner? These are the options, you, Joan, or Lana? Are you not so mad at me? I’m always not-so-mad at you, Mom. And I was back inside my head (no head!), Princess Leia was in my hand, and Han Solo had just rescued her just before she rescued him right back, and I was ten years old, with my mother outside in the garden after she had told me that we rotted in the ground and the worms would eat us, and I hated her for a moment, but the moment was gone and they were all going, and when I looked up again it was Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds going through to The End together, so I said, May the Force be with you. Then Alan Rickman went by, held up a script and read, Yippee ky-aye, motherfucker. And Florence Henderson said, time is folding out and back, then in again, it’s getting messed up in your head because you and me and we are all dead, and the end is coming near, but it looks like my escort is here. Then my TV mom jumped in line with another favorite of mine, the big-man Bill Nunn, who wasn’t the same young punk I was thinking of. He’d done a lot since then: NEW JACK CITY, REGARDING HENRY, SISTER ACT, THE LAST SEDUCTION, and Robbie Robertson in those Spider-Man movies. I was a ball boy for the Pittsburg Steelers, he said, and once I stole Mean Joe Greene’s car, but what I’ll most be remembered for, by far – don’t hate me – take it away, Mrs. Brady. Then, I swear, Florence Henderson turned into Radio Raheem right there. Let me tell you the story of Right Hand, Left Hand, she said, the tale of Good and Evil. Hate! It was with this hand that Cain iced his brother. Love! See these fingers, they lead straight to the soul of Man, the Right Hand, the hand of Love. The story of Life is this . . . and she cracked her knuckles like a bad-ass suburban gangsta about to go into battle, one hand is always fighting the other. Left-hand Hate is kicking much ass and it looks like Right-hand Love is finished. But hold up, stop the presses, Love is coming back. Yes, it’s Love. Love has won. Left-hand Hate K.O.ed by Love. Then the man who was Radio Raheem himself jumped in to finish it off. Brother John, if I love you, I love you, but if I hate you . . . I understand, I said, though I didn’t. I was trying to understand what the hell was happening, if this was all just the synapses shutting off in my brain, if tunnels of light and church hallways were just the consciousness shrinking down and down to the tiniest point, and if everything that all these people had done really meant no more to the world than whatever I had done. Except that the world knew what they had done, and very few ever knew me at all. Well, it looks like time is up, Florence Henderson said. Then I realized that there were bells going off all around us. It came to me like a retroactive memory, that they were chiming as soon as I saw Leonard Cohen, but only now did I recall hearing them, that I was hearing them even louder when Florence Henderson stopped playing cards with Grizzly Adams and I didn’t know until this moment. But the bells were ringing like it was the end of the world, like it was New Year’s Eve and everyone had to give it up, nothing left but to move on. And I was afraid. Oh, sweetheart, Florence Henderson said, everybody cares, and I bet you your baseball cards you can’t guess who cares the most. There, for just a moment more, she was Carol Brady again, and I was a child with all the world waiting for me. There were gifts of silver and gold and my mother was telling me how the spirits would guide an old man’s way and Santa Clause was coming and I would fall in love forever and live my life with my children and my family and friends and everyone all around while the fireplace roared and the snow came down and down and down and nothing all that bad could really ever happen and the bells were ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing and. Then she was gone. And Prince and Leonard Cohen were singing the song with Merle Haggard, won’t you sing me back home to the songs I used to hear, make my old memories come alive, take me away and turn back the years, sing me back home before I die, they were walking through and through, and there were still more coming, known and unknown, and they were all singing Merle Haggard’s line. Rene Angelil, Dale Griffin, Jimmy Bain, Linus Maurer, Frank Finlay, Terry Wogan, Kim Williams, Andrzej Zulawski, Angela Raiola, Umberto Eco. Sing me back home before I die . . . Frank Kelly, Tony Warren, Joey Feek, Sylvia Anderson, Frank Sinatra, Jr., Paul Daniels, Ronnie Corbett, Denise Robertson, Leandro Barbieri, Howard Marks, David Gest, Victoria Wood, Dwayne Washington, Chyna Laurer. Sing me back home before I die . . . Guy Hamilton, Madeleine LeBeau, William Schallert, Gene Gutowski, John Berry, Burt Kwouk, Peter Schaffer, Henry McCullough, Wayne Jackson, Bud Spencer, Marni Nixon, Tim LaHaye, Arthur Hiller, Hugh O’Brian. Sing me back home before I die . . . W.P. Kinsella, Dennis Byrd, Mose Allison, Colonel Abrams, Ron Glass, Fritz Weaver, Andrew Sachs, Esma Redzepova, Graig Sagar, Liz Smith. Sing me back home before I die . . . And that was it, wasn’t it? All of them really had died, and if all of these immortal ones could die . . . Then so could I. There was no one left in the field but me. As soon as I left the place that had looked like a church, all of the famous dead were gone. From further and further away, the light shone from inside the building, like the tunnel they say you see when you’ve died. But I didn’t care so much about it anymore because my toes were digging into the warm, wet grass and the starry night was all around. It wasn’t silent, nor was it loud. There was nothing but the ambient thrum of peace. And my mother was standing beside me. She appeared like things sometimes do, familiar without looking the same. She was the statue of a saint that I had seen at work one night, just an overpriced Christmas decoration with a face that, for some reason, stayed with me. Except that she seemed to be a very real, living thing, and I knew then (as I did on the night I saw her at work) that she was supposed to be my mother. I didn’t believe so much in the afterlife, in saints or in holidays, and I certainly didn’t believe in religion, but there I was anyway. She had been gone for a few years, so she was not allowed to speak now. She didn’t have to. There were tears in my eyes, like those I didn’t even recall crying on the morning she died, and I was remembering my entire life. It passed before me now as it had passed before me then, in little more than an instant. I saw all the things I had been and all the things I had seen. My parents were there and so were my children and every friend, relative, loved one, and even some that I might have hated. There were tears in the living statue that was supposed to be my mother too, and she raised her hands, quietly moving her fingers as if she were typing. She was showing me how she used to write her stories, and how I would watch over her shoulder, nothing more than a little kid. That image, and those words, stayed with me as much as all of the famous images and words would stay with me later. All of them had made me what I was. So she was showing me that to follow our muse is the best thing we can possibly do in life. Right? I mean, whatever your personal muse is, whether it’s acting or writing, or even if it’s figuring out how an internal combustion engine works. That was it, right, Mom? Was that what you were trying to tell me? Because I just watched a parade of dead artists, musicians, writers, and TV and movie stars file past me, through what was supposed to be a church, into the great wide open behind the building, and I’m kinda sketchy on what I’m supposed to be getting from all of this right now. The statue that was my mother looked at me without ever blinking. So that meant . . . that, yeah, what I was saying must be right. Because no one was disagreeing with me. Then she raised her arms like a good, dramatic statue of a saint would do, especially when it’s your atheist mother who has become the saint, and she motioned toward the starry sky above. The sky grew infinitely starrier, as more and more lights began to appear. It was like the souls of all the departed we had known were climbing into their celestial resting place. But there were so many, and, like we’ve all done on a clear summer night, there only seemed to be more and more the longer I looked, that it must have been full of regular people too. Because there’s just no way that only movie stars go to heaven, even one I’ve never fully believed in, or I’m going to be exceptionally pissed off. My mother and I stood in the grass for a long time, silently watching the sky grow bigger and brighter. I was still thinking about all those beloved people who had been taken from us this year, but I was thinking about myself too. Because that’s how we all are, and that’s why the famous dead matter in the first place because they matter to us. I wiped away a tear and turned to look at my mother. Her eyes were glowing, then her statue-face looked as though it were lit from inside. Mom, I said. She reached out to touch me, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t hugged her yet, even if she was just a ceramic decoration that somehow moved. So I tried to do that now, but the light was coming from her in brighter and brighter waves, like it must be to look upon the face of a creator, or to stare into an explosion, or when some asshole shines his bright lights right into your face when you’re trying to make it down the highway in a snowstorm – All of this light, and she’s going, going, but no, it’s not her, it’s me, I’m the one who’s going somewhere. Like tumbling down into a tunnel, one of those time-tunnels you always see in movies and TV, and then I’m waking up in my bed. And now you’re yelling at me, I can tell. I know, because that’s what I’d be doing right about now. I mean, I even swore, way back in the beginning, that it was all true. But, oh, sure, it was one of those stupid-ass dream episodes. Like some lonely guy catching a mermaid on THE LOVE BOAT. And now, like with one of those episodes, I’m going to suggest that maybe it was a dream episode, but maybe it wasn’t. Because, after I woke up from what just might have been a dream, this happened. I turned on the radio, and, I swear, there were the voices of Leonard Cohen, Prince, Florence Henderson, and David Bowie, all of them entwined in this chorus, take me away and turn back the years, sing me back home before I die. I know you don’t believe it, but I swear it’s true. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related John E. Meredith Sorry, Father Mulkahey, but we had already gone to press when you left this world (just a few short hours before the year itself expired). I would like to think that the church depicted here was where you were preaching before you died.