Why didn’t he ever get to sit in church? The last time he’d been in one, he had served as a pallbearer at his friend Nick’s funeral. It hadn’t been a fair fight. Nick hadn’t known the other guy was packing, and so Jerry helped bury his fellow Hells Angel. The minister hadn’t been amused when they all wore their colors, those sleeves-ripped-off-at-the-shoulder jean jackets turned into vests and embroidered on the back with the motorcycle club’s winged death-head logo.
Thirty-years ago, Jerry opened a motorcycle repair shop. He fixed most of his friends’ hogs for free, making his living off the paying customers since Harley Davidson had become fashionable. The club members were pissed-off knowing techie nerds owned more expensive bikes than they did. That was life in the new millennium. Yuppies ruled, geezers drooled. Yep, on his last birthday he’d turned sixty-five. Where had the time gone?
Jerry didn’t belong in this cathedral with all these nice folks. But he shuffled forward as the line moved ahead. Lined up, waiting for what? He was reluctant to ask. The others in line kept their distance and stared at him every so often. When he looked down at his feet to make sure he didn’t bump the older woman in front of him, his favorite biker boots winked out from the cuffs of his pants like a comforting old friend. Why was he here?
“Dang it,” he said aloud. He would have said damn, but he stopped himself before uttering a curse in church.
The older woman in front of him turned around. If her creased forehead and grim, tight lips were any indication, she sure didn’t like him much, but then her eyes darted around the cathedral as if remembering her place. Her frown changed into a contrite smile and the lines on her face melted. Even if a bit quick to judge, she was probably a nice lady. Her eyes moved over his shoulder, and she turned to face front. He wondered what she had seen, and he jumped when a hand grabbed his arm.
“How are you doing, Jerry?”
The man next to him looked familiar. “Okay, I guess. Don’t know why I’m here. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was coming off some hallucinogenic.”
“Hey, the name’s Mike.” Mike put out his hand, and they shook.
Mike wore jeans, boots and a worn-out tee shirt revealing his bulging tattooed biceps. His tattoo, partially covered by the tee shirt sleeves, looked like wings. Jerry wondered if Mike was a club member, but church wasn’t the proper place for that conversation. At least he wasn’t the only Budweiser in the group. Mike’s skin glowed, much like the golden gowns, giving him a youthful look. He also had long hair and a beard reminding Jerry of the hippie past. Out of the corners of his eyes, Jerry watched Mike. He also seemed ancient. How could he look young and old at the same time? Ageless—that was Jerry’s best guess, which didn’t make any sense at all.
“So why are you here?” Jerry asked.
“Assisting me to do what?”
“Get your wings, Jerry.”
“Wings? I got my wings.” Jerry turned and pointed to the winged death-head emblem on the back of his vest.
“Not those wings, the next set is real.”
“Look, I appreciate your help and all, but I gotta go.”
“We need your help.”
Shoot! When people asked Jerry for help, he always caved. Big, Mr. Badass crumbled like a big cookie. But in this cathedral, out of his normal element, he felt spooked. “No way,” Jerry said. “I’m out of here.”
As Jerry walked out of the confining cathedral into the expansive night, he realized there was nothing beneath his feet. Catching hold of the door handle, he hung by his arms as his feet dangled over empty space. The cold permeated his clothing. His body started to shake from the cold, he told himself. But he knew his reaction was fear. He breathed in deeply and tried to pull himself up, looking inside the church as he struggled. The people in line were staring at him now. He noticed none of them volunteered to help him, and they still wore that little grin, but when Mike came to the door, they all turned back to face the church altar like misbehaving school kids facing the blackboard and trying to look innocent for the teacher.
Mike grabbed his right arm and swung the door toward the narthex. “No, you don’t. Not yet, without your wings.”
Jerry swung his feet up from the void until they reached the cathedral’s stone floor. Using the door for support, he stood, but he couldn’t let go of the door handle.
“It’s okay to let go,” Mike said.
“Where in hell are we?”
“Not hell, that’s for sure. We have to talk, man.”
“It looks as if we’re lost in space, a cathedral in the middle of nowhere,” Jerry said. He wondered how a dream could seem so real. He stared at Mike. His heart pounded.
With a sweep of his arm, Mike motioned Jerry to a side door in the narthex. When Jerry didn’t move, Mike pulled him forward. Jerry’s knees locked in fear. Walking was impossible. He had to get his act together and stop acting like a ninny. Clenching his teeth, he forced his knees to bend, damned if he’d allowed himself to be intimidated now. Nothing had ever scared him before—even in ‘Nam.
As if hearing his thoughts, Mike said, “Ah, yes that’s the key.”
Jerry overcame his terror and walked through the side door. “What key?”
“Pull up a barstool.”
Mike pulled out a barstool and sat down. Jerry left the stool next to Mike empty, choosing the next one. Once seated, he noticed a window through which he saw the stars shining brightly, but the appearance of the star’s warm glow was deceptive. He knew that the beautiful indigo sky was cold, so cold it had felt lonely during his quick venture outside. Gazing out the window at the distant planets, he recognized Earth. His blood ran cold.
Jerry turned to face Mike. Jerry’s fist slammed the countertop as his eyes bore into Mike’s eyes. “What key?”
“You led a brave life.”
Gravity seemed to double. Jerry felt his weight bare down on the barstool compressing its wood fibers. He exhaled. “Like, it’s over. I’m dead.”
“It’s more accurate to say ‘no longer of the flesh,’” Mike said.
Jerry walked over and placed his hand on the window’s glass. It was cold, as cold as his hand. He stared at his hand as if studying a foreign object, then he looked out the window. The glass wasn’t what separated Jerry from the Earth’s warmth and from the living. It was death. “I need a drink.”
Like magic, a bartender appeared and asked Jerry what he wanted. “I’ll have a cognac,” Jerry said, for the sake of perversity, which seemed oddly appropriate. He plopped down on the barstool.
Mike laughed. “I’ll have the strawberry schnapps, Pete.”
“How can I be dead? I feel solid.”
“You are solid, Jerry, in more ways than one.”
The bartender came back and placed their drinks on the bar, then left them alone.
Jerry took a small sip of the liquor. It burned his throat and warmed his belly. “What’s this all about?”
“You’re about to become an angel.” Mike gestured with his hands as if he had laid his cards on the countertop.
“Angel? I already am.”
“Yes, but you aren’t an angel in the way you think you are.”
“I’ve been a Hells Angel since 1966.”
“In name only.”
Jerry stood up, breathing hard, and grabbed Mike by the shirt pulling him off the barstool. “What do you mean by that?”
Mike grinned that little grin Jerry was getting tired of seeing. Everyone knew something that he didn’t. He felt confused. People usually came to him for advice. What disturbed him more was that Mike had implied he knew better than Jerry, who was a leader. He’d earned that spot in rank. Jerry released Mike from his grasp. Here, Jerry was outranked.
“Sit down, Jerry. I know you’re Mr. Badass motorcycle club, but that status didn’t get you anywhere.”
“You’re not telling me something I don’t already know. But I’m no Heaven’s Angel.”
“Yes, you are,” Mike said, like it was fact.
Jerry looked away. “Am not.”
“Some of your club’s members were bad. You won’t see Nick here. But you never were. I thought sometimes you were acting, because when push came to shove, you immediately came to the right decision. Your nature.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Mike laughed. “You hid it well.”
Jerry scowled at Mike. “Did not.” Jerry knew he sounded like a stupid kid.
“What about that blonde back in high school?”
Jerry smiled at the memory. “She sure was sweet.”
“Yep, I know. I was there.”
Jerry narrowed his eyes, looking at Mike. “I thought you looked familiar.”
“I was only there for an instant. No one else saw me except you. I left because you took charge and rectified the situation. They would have gang-banged her if you hadn’t acted like she was all yours. You got her away from them. When you drove her home, she never told her parents how close she’d come to being a victim of violence, but her thankfulness in prayer was heard in heaven. You were responsible for all that goodness.”
Jerry looked down at the countertop, rubbing his finger back and forth over the surface. “Wonder whatever happened to her.”
“She’s a grandmother of five now. Makes cookies. Retired after teaching for thirty years.”
“That’s nice.” Jerry smiled.
“Yes, one of the many you helped.”
“That doesn’t qualify me for Heaven’s Angels.”
“You gotta be holy or something.”
“Saving people, their souls, is our job. You helped us often. And what makes you think you’re not holy?”
“I’m just not that good. I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life.”
“Broke a woman’s heart one time.”
“Yes Jerry, you did. But isn’t it also true you broke your own heart out of sacrifice?”
“She loved you too.”
Jerry unclenched his jaw to speak. “It was for her own good. I know I hurt her, but it was the right thing to do.”
“You’re right. It wouldn’t have worked out during your lifetimes. She got married and became a surgeon, helping burn victims recover. But she never stopped loving you either.”
Jerry swallowed the lump in his throat. “I’m glad.”
“All things work according to His plan, which is always for the good.”
“If you say so. It wasn’t so good for me.”
“You lived the life you wanted.”
“Yeah, guess so, but I lost a lot too.”
“If you’re a good soul, it goes with the territory.” Mike’s eyes glistened with tears as he looked at Jerry. “You sacrificed a lot for His will to be done.” Mike paused and took another sip of his drink. “Do you remember how you got here tonight?”
“Think Jerry. It’s Christmas Eve.”
Jerry sipped his cognac while thinking. “A baby.”
“Yes, a baby. What happened?”
“I came out of the hospital after chemo. Some nut aimed a gun at a pregnant woman. And then this cathedral appeared, and I met you.”
“You took the bullet for that pregnant woman.”
“I had cancer, Mike. Sooner or later I would have died anyway. Doesn’t make me some saint.”
“You would have recovered, but you sacrificed your life.”
“Oh but it does. Every sacrifice has a reason even if on Earth it can’t be understood. The pregnant woman you saved is the daughter-in-law of the woman you loved. You saved her grandchild, a child who will be very much like you and serve God.”
Jerry stared in disbelief at Mike.
“There are no coincidences.”
“It was all worth it then,” Jerry said. Tears ran down his face.
“Yes, Jerry. When your doctor-lady arrives at your funeral, your friends will be quite surprised.”
Jerry laughed through his tears. “That should be some wing-ding.”
“At this moment, she’s very thankful for your presence in her life, not once, but twice. She always knew you were a good man.”
“Oh crap. If she goes to my funeral, my friends will know.”
“Too damn bad, Jerry. The truth always comes out. Own up. You were a good man, and there aren’t that many.”
“I don’t want to stick around to see that.”
“No, didn’t think you would, which is why you have to get your wings. We have work to do.”
“You think I’m going to fly around with fluffy wings.” Jerry swiped at the tears on his face.
“It’s a little more technical than that and a bit less fluffy.”
“Will wings mess up my ‘Bad to the Bone’ back tattoo?”
“No, but I have to warn you. We may get caught in backdraft and flying dung.”
“It’s Christmas Eve, Santa’s sleigh and the reindeer.”
“Oh come on, you’re pulling my leg.” Mike smiled that Mona Lisa smile again. Jerry shook his head, “Son of a—"
“God works in mysterious ways. You’ll find out. Come on, down the hatch,” Mike gestured to their glasses. They finished their shots, and then Mike ushered him out of the bar to the narthex. At the entrance of the cathedral’s nave, everyone in the cathedral looked at Jerry smiling and applauding. The nave was empty all the way to the altar, and Mike disappeared.
“Time to get your wings, Jerry,” he heard Michael say.
At the altar, Archangel Michael bestowed on Jerry angel wings as the bells of Christmas rang. His wings felt heavy and strong. When Jerry turned to face those in the pews, he caught his reflection in a window, blackened by the night. His skin glowed with youth, but he also appeared old. He frowned.
“New heavenly body stuffed with an old soul. You’ll get used to the look,” Michael said.
“How do you get through doors with these wings?”
“There are tricks, Jerry. You’ll learn. Let’s go, you’re the best angel for this job.”
“And why’s that?”
“You’re familiar with the Pacific Coast Highway.”
“Rode it all my life. Know every twist and turn.”
“Good, we’re on accident prevention. There’s a family traveling down that slick road tonight. The driver’s angry and going too fast.”
“Not happening on my shift,” Jerry said, but when they reached the cathedral doors and he looked out into the void of space, he felt sympathy for fledgling birds on their first flight.
“Don’t worry, got your back, bro.”
“There’s a trick I have to learn. How do I fly without fear?” Jerry asked.
Michael turned to Jerry and smiled. “Have faith.”