The bittersweet summer of 2010 found me living in Albuquerque, New Mexico (clarifying which state I’m talking about may, in fact, be beyond superfluous just because this piece’s readership is probably not conditioned to think of any other Albuquerque, but I digress). In the six years since I’ve lived in the Land of Enchantment, you might say that I have come to regard it much more favorably than I did when I actually lived there. I can now list off a number of positive attributes about the place with ease; for example, the architectural styling in everything from the various city wall murals to the inside of the airports is neat-o. There were some pretty good restaurants. Most days are great swimming days. The sky is an oceanic type of gorgeous, and I’ll be damned if I ever tire of smelling the desert rain.
Now—and perhaps this was already heavily implied in that last paragraph—I didn’t have a terribly nuanced view of Albuquerque at the time of actually living there. Hell might’ve been a word thrown around by yours truly more than once, and I might have made liberal use of the term shithole in reference to both the neighborhood that my family lived in and the city as a whole. You see, that was really the long and short of my complaint: our neighborhood just sucked. The neighbors were jerks, and there was not a great deal to do for fun, at least within walking distance. A good movie theater where ticket prices were relatively inexpensive? Seven blocks away, seven blocks you don’t want to walk. The library? About the same. That, and my depressive tendencies always tend to highlight the worst of things whenever I encounter a situation that I even vaguely dislike.
Before the big miracle happened, my teenage brain already had more than enough to tirelessly contemplate on a daily basis: internal identity struggles, figuring out the ending to Inception, the question of what kind of career path I wanted to pursue once high school was said and done. Regardless of the subject, my brain was always on the go and it led to difficulty sleeping in addition to suffering grades and fatigue throughout the day.
One gusty weekend night as I drifted off to sleep, something caught my attention and annoyed me. It was something I had noticed on my first night in our Albuquerque apartment. Do you know that marker ink (sometimes also available in paint form) that’s only visible when the lights are out? Somebody had used such a marker and scribbled I LOVE YOU BABE (sic; no punctuation to speak of) on the spot on the ceiling right above where I had positioned my bed.
I murmured to myself, as I regarded the ceiling, “What a bunch of stupid pieces of shit.”
A gentle voice spoke to me in the dark, “Judge not, that ye be not judged; for passionate love can engender the most shitty behavior in even the most upright of human beings.”
I thought it was just a hypnagogic hiccup that would go away if I just blinked my eyes and remembered where I was, but no such thing happened. That’s when I saw him, the beaming apparition of a man floating a few feet off of the carpet in front of my dresser. His arms were out and he adorned some type of ghostly cassock; what I really remember was his face. It was young, probably as young as my teenaged mug, but somehow rife with masculine maturity and infinite empathy. His hair was a long and curly auburn, about the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
Naturally, I asked him who the hell he was.
“Austin,” he told me. “I am an angel from some other realm of reality.”
“Wow, are you one those superstar angels like Gabriel or something?”
“No. Don’t be a stupid piece of shit, for my name is Steven.”
“What do you want with me, Steven?”
“You are a person enduring a great deal of internal conflict. As an act of cosmic charity, I am here to answer your most pressing questions about human existence, and only the most pressing one. After you have asked that one question, of course, it is unlikely that we shall ever cross paths again.”
In retrospect, maybe I should have taken longer than three and a half seconds to think about what I wanted to ask. But, you know, I didn’t. However, the first thing that came to mind just seemed too good to forgo. “Steven, what is it that happens after you die?”
“After I die, Austin Dalton? What sort of question is that, you stupid piece of shit?”
“Well, after one dies. I don’t know a lot about how that process goes for you.”
The Angel Steven cleared his angel throat and he did so in a way that I would describe as exceptionally beautiful, carrying with it that sort of innocence that has divine connotations. Angelic, even. “Ask, and you shall receive. The truth of the situation, Austin, is that many things happen after you die. Awe-inspiring socio-political changes take place in both the developed world and the less developed worlds, events of such astonishing historical magnitude that to not be alive to either comment on or vicariously take part in them is regretful. Computer bugs are healed or otherwise converted to features. Litters of puppies are born, and the same is true of kittens. On that subject, there will be dogs who will have an easier time than others of their species when it comes to coexisting with cats, depending to a large degree on how they are raised. Movies will be made and books will be written, some very good and some dreadful. Elvis Presley impersonation will, curiously, continue to be a viable career choice for some. More than likely, other people will die. Many more will be born. Ocean acidification will probably intensify. Supermarket coupons will be obtained and made useful. Hand-held technology of all shades will continue to advance in ways that are not necessarily more efficient. Insulin will continue to be a necessary and highly demanded commodity. So on and so forth. So, I hope that answers your question. Quite frankly, it’s a strange question on which to throw away your one divine inquiry. What are you, Austin Dalton, some stupid piece of shit?”
“No, no, no!” I finally get a word in edgewise. “That isn’t what I meant.”
“I’m afraid you only get one question.”
“That isn’t what I mean, either. I mean, what happens for us after we die? This consciousness shit where we can feel and see and think? Where does all of that go, what becomes of it?”
The Angel Steven seemed a bit stumped. “Oh. Well, nothing. You’re dead. I really thought that would have been a foregone conclusion.”
And in the blink of an eye, the Angel Steven called me a stupid piece of shit one more time and disappeared. For nearly every night since then, I’ve devoted at least bit of time—sometimes it’s a few minutes, sometimes it’s an hour or more—to thinking about what I learned that night and how much it’s mattered to me over the last six years. What I think about during those sessions is how grateful I am towards the spectacular rudderless quality of everything and the shadow of permanent oblivion that hangs over every seemingly banal day. A miracle like the one I experienced gives a person reason to never take anything for granted, and to see the positive in things—even a city like Albuquerque.