Monday, May 23, 2011

The Rapture at Hardware Depot: A Story

I wrote this story several years ago. Events of the past week brought it to mind. 

The Rapture at Hardware Depot

            Nobody was ready. I mean, some people might have been “prepared” but nobody was ready. It’s like having a big plastic tub full of emergency supplies in the basement, being prepared, and then, when disaster strikes, your house caves in and all your preparation is buried under the rubble. Nobody’s ready for that.
            Arguably, it was worse for those of us who just plain didn’t believe any of it, like me.
I mean, I’d flipped through a couple of paperbacks while I was waiting for checkout at the grocery store. There are always a few books on racks they have there are to encourage impulse buys, you know? A person with a medieval mindset might see the Seven Deadly sins: Gluttony slathered with chocolate and promises of easy weight loss; Envy posing as celebrity gossip; and plenty of Lust—always popular, Lust. It’s a triumph of 21st century marketing, the impulse buy.
Anyhow, there, among the well-oiled torsos and must-have fashions for spring, I noticed a couple of items that didn’t fit the pattern. I picked up a chunky paperback and flipped it over. The back cover was less ambiguous than the front. It was fiction about the “end times.” Impulse buy failed. I was not the reader they were looking for, and this book was not my cup of apocalypse. Couldn’t be, since I don’t see the point in brewing apocalypse at all.
As is often the case, my brain was now primed for coincidence—miracles by any other name. Miracle number one: The next day some guy who played in a straight-to-DVD movie adaptation of the books started crawling the circuit of the morning and afternoon talk-shows plugging his movie and the books. Products don’t sell themselves, not even paperbacks that package timeless truth in a page-turner. (The guy actually said “timeless truth in a page-turner” more than once.) Miracle number two: I saw a bumper sticker while I was waiting for the light to change. It said, “When the rapture comes, can I have your car?”
Unlike the actor, who exuded serious sincerity through his smile faster than venom could be milked out of a cobra, the bumper was supposed to be funny.
Or maybe it was a very subtle message written in the ink of angels, because, as it turns out, that bumper sticker was touching on a very important matter. Hardware and material possessions were way more involved in the rapture than any of us, prepared or disinterested could have imagined.

I said that “arguably” the rapture was worse for us nonbelievers, but there really wasn’t much argument at the beginning. It was definitely very bad for the raptured.
Things would have gone smoothly if it hadn’t been for the body. The body, that pile of soggy hardware, was a first big glitch.
            The roll-out of the rapture was staggered in time, not immediate, and that proves that some careful planning went into it. And the prototype worked, apparently, all those years ago. “When the rock was rolled away.” At least that’s the story—and they seem to be sticking with it. I guess that’s admirable.           
            But the problems with the current roll-out, I should tell you about them.
Turns out that the rules of physics apply even in the case of bodily ascension. That makes sense, I mean, the whole universe operates according to those rules. While it might be handy to have an exception in this specific case on this little wet planet, there are a lot of balls in the air and physics is juggler, not a magician.
Anyhow, if a body is lifted up toward heaven and a ceiling is in the way, the body bumps into it. It’s kind of like waving a big old magnet over some iron filings, a sheet of paper makes no difference to that kind of attraction. There were many, many cases where the spirit was willing, apparently, but the flesh was weak. Those poor souls were stuck to the ceiling pretty hard. They could roll, or creep along like a spider, which some of them might have done for minutes or days until they died of heart attacks or thirst. Once that happened, the body would come crashing back down. Dropping a body eight feet or so makes a considerable noise, which sometimes alerted downstairs neighbors to the event. More often though, the only clue was an overflowing mailbox or a bad smell in the building.
            So, at first, the rapture was reported as a rash of deaths among the elderly and shut-ins and used to illustrate the generally callous nature of our society, as a rash of deaths among the elderly and shut-ins usually is. There might have been others, not so elderly, less isolated, but those instances went unremarked. They didn’t fit the pattern. Things that don’t fit the pattern are invisible, white noise, non-events. Those isolated events were totted up as heart failure or household accidents, and it would have taken months for anyone poring over the morbidity statistics to notice the least blip in the numbers.
            There were no plane crashes because of disappearing pilots or deaths in the operating room because the brain surgeon evaporated leaving nothing but a pile of sweaty scrubs on the tile floor. Like I said, there was evidence of planning.
            Eventually, though, there were a couple of successful raptures outdoors, and those were witnessed and reported and even documented on shaky cell phone movies that made it onto the evening news. At that point, the experts stepped in and said it was the rapture.
Well, there you go. You’d think that would have settled it, but no.
 It was 24-7 where you couldn’t watch a rerun of Will and Grace without a crawl along the bottom of the screen reminding the rapture-ready audience that they ought to get their butt outside and avoid standing under power lines. How many of the rapture-ready watch Will and Grace? I do not know. But I know I wasn’t among them and that the whole thing was an irritation to me.
So at that point, I’d have to say the whole rapture was just an irritant equal to the shopping channel. I was clearly not the audience, but it was there, taking up bandwidth and making my channel surfing less productive.
Of course, the 24-hour news channels didn’t limit their coverage to a crawling warning along the bottom of the screen. Let’s just say the rapture was dominating the news cycle. Nothing else—not even surfing dogs or squirrels on water skis—could get any traction. It’s impossible to compete with people milling around naked in cornfields and crowded on rooftops of cities.
Seriously, you haven’t seen that much TV news footage of people of roofs since Hurricane Katrina. I don’t know why the people in the great fields of the Midwest came in for less camera action. It’s probably nothing prejudicial—the networks just have quicker access to the metropolitan areas. And nudity on the news, well, a helicopter angle from a certain distance is just plain easier to negotiate than glimpses of grub-like white bodies twinkling between the leaves of corn.
            OK, so there’s the nudity. I’m not sure where that idea came from, but before long those hoping to be raptured decided that clothes would get in the way. Here’s how I see it. If you think that the rapture is a big magnet and the raptured are sort of like paper clips, you can see how a barrier, like a ceiling, would gum up the system. It would have been less problematic when we were all sleeping in tents out in the desert or on the roofs of mud huts, but there you go; times change. Anywho, I don’t see how clothes would have ever been much of a barrier between the raptured body and heaven. But the rumors went around and “naked” was the hot tip. So they all got naked.
            As a person who never gave modesty much of a thought. I can point out that there are some really good reasons to wear clothes—outside at least. Cold, sun burn, bugs crawling on your wazoo. If you’ve ever used an outhouse full of mosquitoes, you know I speak the truth. Those are good reasons for clothes. None of that made a bit of difference to the hoping-to-be-raptured. On the other hand, being naked on a roof or in a cornfield didn’t seem to be the most persuasive argument in favor of rapture, either. Plenty of people just got cold and rashy.
            There was pretty much no knowing who was going to be raptured or when. This was disconcerting to the faithful, who thought they had their tickets punched, but it was way more disconcerting to the likes of me, who hoped we could sit the whole thing out—like an argument about who should get Grammy for Best Country Single. I just do not care, but it looked like that would be no defense.
            Still, you can’t go around nervous as a cow pissing on a hot rock all the time. No matter how weird, the situation becomes the new normal. So it wasn’t long before I was able to conduct my life with the thoughtless confidence of somebody visiting the Baghdad pet market on a spring day. Sure, suddenly everything could all blow up, but kittens are cute and life must go on.
            It was in this frame of mind that I went to the hardware store to buy a new fluorescent bulb and a pack of picture hooks. Found the light bulb, which isn’t a simple task anymore with the shocking explosion of light bulb species recently. Found the picture hooks. Went to the check-out stand.
            While I was there, getting my items rung up, suddenly the checkout chick cries out, “It’s happening!”
My first thought is that her water’s broke. She’s pretty round: might be a baby, might be the obesity epidemic, you can be sure? Or it could be some marketing campaign so next thing is she’s going to offer me a store credit card with a ten percent discount on this purchase. But no, not this time.
            “I’m being raptured!” she is all ecstatic. “Help!” Suddenly the ecstasy turns to fear, “Git me outside!”
            I look up and see the high ceiling and the fluorescent light tubes and the metal scaffolding of the warehouse hardware store.
            “Please don’t let me hit those lights!”
            By now her feet are hovering above the check-out counter and she’s trying, hopelesslessly, to swim through the air toward the automatic exit doors.
            I grab her foot, and I have to say, I’m impressed at the strong attraction heaven seem to be exerting. I had imagined something sort of like a helium balloon, but hell no, this has weight. It’s like I’m trying to keep her from falling of a cliff or something. It takes some doing.
            Before too long, though, a couple of sales associates turn up and they grab her too. Between the three of us, we get her out the door and then let her go, into the wild blue yonder. Her speed is unwavering. Her trajectory true.
            Then the three of us who had been left behind on the pavement of the parking lot went back into the store.
One of the employees paused to make sure that I’d paid for my purchase before he bagged up the light bulb and the picture hooks and said, “Thank you for shopping at Hardware Depot. And thank you for helping with Shelli. She’s the third cashier we lost this week.”

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