A Little Lower Than| Letitia Trent

A Little Lower Than

 
 
 
They showed up naked and confused in small towns and cities alike, their skin without marks or blemishes. They had no belly buttons. They knew human languages but at first spoke with difficulty, as though our words did not move smoothly enough to accommodate their thoughts. They learned quickly, though, and in a matter of hours spoke like natives of whatever place they happened to have arrived in.

The first recorded visitor appeared right here in the United States, in a small Southern Oklahoma town, his black skin naked, his speech so quick and strangely accented that the locals thought he was singing when he tried to speak. They put him in the county jail and the sheriff called the authorities in the closest city. He didn’t know if he had a right to keep the man, who had only committed only the crime of indecent exposure, though he didn’t seem to know what indecency laws were and held the jumpsuit they gave him at a distance from his body, examining the plastic zipper, until somebody showed him how to put it on.  

As the authorities tried to figure out what to do with him, the man sat quietly at the floor of his cell, ignoring the oatmeal and white bread they set before him, drinking the water and sitting in the sunlight from the window, opening his mouth to the sun as though it were food. 

A psychologist spoke to him. By then, the man spoke clearly and precisely in the idiom of the area, though his vocabulary far exceeded anything he could have learned in the jail cell with only a King James Bible and the carvings of previous prisoners, made crudely with plastic forks and knives.  

Nobody knew how to characterize him: highly intelligent but probably deranged. He told the psychologist that he was an angel who had been willingly released from heaven. 

I couldn’t feel in that body in heaven, he told them. I couldn’t feel unless I dressed in flesh and came down. And so I did. And so did others. 

They held him until the reports came in. There were more of them, all over the world. Each like him, each showing up suddenly with no identification, no belly button, no evidence of having existed on earth before that moment. 

*

I read this description out loud at the breakfast table, the kind of fatherly thing I’d always wanted to do.

Even Jeremy, my son, listened as I read. I looked up at him, probably too eagerly, to make sure that he was hanging onto my words as I’d hoped.  

I miss the child that he was. He was trying to grow a goatee, though his facial hair was wispy and unimpressive. When I wandered past the bathroom in the morning, he shut the door so I couldn’t see him raking the blade across his face. He has a love of precision that he got from his mother. I sometimes forget to brush my hair before I leave for work and Sherry must remind me to make sure that my shirts are not inside-out and that my socks match. 

He has a life of his own now. I see him slipping in and out of the house sometimes, his scent of something like musk mixed with a natural disaster  trailing behind him. 

But that morning he listened to me and it made my voice louder, my delivery more emphatic. Sherry watched, too, twisting her hair into a thick rope over her right shoulder. As they listened, I became aware of my mouth, which made me clumsy. But even I couldn’t ruin the story—the angel stumbling into that town, learning English almost immediately, sitting silently in the cell uncomplaining as the people around him tried to understand who he was and where he had come from. 

*

Soon after the first report, we learned that we had our very own angel in Franklin. I heard first by hearsay. A woman in our office came in late one morning after dropping her daughter off to school and said there was police tape strung up in a flimsy fence of  bright yellow around the town building. By morning, the paper had a full story. 

Our angel was a woman, red-headed and freckled, her hair long. She’d walked naked down Main Street, past the town employees walking up the stone steps to their offices, past the Subway shop and the diner that opened at 6:00 AM and closed by 2:00 PM. A woman from the diner rushed out to cover her, imagining she was in some kind of trouble. She spoke lucidly. She said that she had left her home and wouldn’t return. 

I’m like the rest of you now, she said. 

*

 I’m a property manager for Johnson Housing, the largest owner of apartment buildings in Franklin. We specialize in modern apartments, clean and carpeted with the same industrial blue rugs and the same chalky white paint on the walls and the same heavy glass light covers around the 10-years-guaranteed light bulbs to keep the tenants from changing them unless they call and ask specifically for one of our approved handymen.

Our apartments aren’t beautiful places to live, and they aren’t in the best neighborhoods, but they are clean and affordable and give people in our town a place to sleep at night. That’s what Clement Johnson said in the first company teambuilding event I ever went to, back when Johnson wasn’t the largest owner of apartments, but the second-largest, beat out by the owner of a great block of apartments near the Coca-Cola factory. We bought those apartments, though, and that previous building owner retired, leaving us in the number one spot. 

I know more about the history of Johnson Housing than I want to know. I know more about Johnson apartments than I do about Jeremy’s school or Sherry’s art (she paints, mostly watercolors illustrations for children’s books, but her own art too, enormous easels with paint spread across them). I am the face of Johnson Housing for 150 individual households in the P block, the block of apartments on Maple and Oak Streets. I collect their rent checks and send them warnings when the checks bounce and I go to them when I have to let them know about fumigation or seriously reprimand tenants or give notice for eviction. 

The first time I had to evict somebody, I stood in the hallway before their door, my hands shaking. I waited for a full three minutes breathing slowly and then knocked. The woman in the house had not paid her rent for three months. She didn’t have a job (according to the neighbors) and had men coming in the apartment building at all hours of night. She was loud, too—music at midnight, the television turned up all day long. She was younger than I’d expected, not even thirty, and very thin. As I told her that she had a week to leave the premises, all she did was nod over and over, smiling, her face eager to show compliance. She said I won’t be any trouble and told me thank you when I left. 

Most people get angry, though. I prefer it that way. 

*

After two months, angels became an everyday part of the news. Angels trickled into the cities until their population grew to over ten thousand, and those were just the reported angels. Some said that angels were no longer announcing themselves, finding it easier to blend in if they didn’t reveal their identities. Some groups called for mandatory self-reporting, but there was little support. The angels seemed harmless. More than harmless: helpful, even. 

They were all highly intelligent, able to learn several languages, good with computer programming and design. Some had an eye for beauty. Tom Ford hired an angel to consult him for a new line of clothing based on the garments of heaven. Apple hired an angel to design their next product line. 

*

 I’d ask angels about God, Sherry said one night at dinner, after the news of Oprah’s first angel interview came out. Obviously. That’s what we all want to know, isn’t it? About God? 

I wonder if angels have sex, Jeremy said. 

Sherry rolled her eyes at him and looked at me. What would you want to know? 

I shrugged. I tried to think of something acceptable to say at the dinner table. What I really wanted to know was how they could stand it here on earth when they had seen heaven, how they could stand to live in our houses and apartments, in our itchy, ill-fitting clothes. Also, like Jeremy, I wanted to know if they could have sex.

I’d want to know if they really like us, I said. Humans, I mean. Or if they just feel sorry for us. If they are just slumming. 

Sherry sniffed and threw her hair over her shoulder and away from the bowl of soup on the table. She’d always had beautiful hair. It made me think of our town angel and how the report had said her hair was long and lustrous, a detail more fit for a women’s magazine than an objective news organization. 

I doubt they feel sorry for us—why would they want to come down here and live on earth if it wasn’t better than what they came from? 

How could it be better here? I asked. They came from heaven. They were with God. 

The words sounded funny coming from my mouth. I’ve never been pious, never thought much about God and of what being with God might mean.

Who knows what that even means, being with God, Sherry said.  What if being with God just means being in a place that never changes? If that’s what it means, then no wonder they wanted to leave.  

 Is there no change of death in paradise? Jeremy said his voice raised and cadenced. 

Does ripe fruit never fall? 

Sherry and I both looked at Jeremy. I was almost afraid. They weren’t his words. Was this the next step—angels on earth and our children giving prophecy? 

Jeremy laughed. It’s just part of a poem. I have to memorize a section for class. He stood up, letting a napkin fall from the table, the silverware clatter back down to the plate. It’s about how boring it would be in heaven or something like that, he said.

*

Over twenty-million families watched the Oprah interview with an angel. He wore a dark blue suit with white pinstripes. He was beautiful, androgynous, his hair dark and thick, his hands thin and precise. He spoke with them, not in the nervous way of evangelicals or car salesmen, but with confidence.

The angel called himself Charles and said that his real name, the name he had been called in heaven, couldn’t be said in English. 

I can hardly think it in your language, he said, and Oprah laughed and nodded. 

Fascinating! She said, and the camera panned to the audience, who nodded with her. 

 She asked him about God, about what Heaven was like.

We have paintings from famous artists, you know, of angels in white gowns and playing harps, all of that, Oprah said. Is it anything like that?

The angel laughed. It’s not as bright as your pictures, and not so empty. I don’t know where you got the idea of harps—we don’t need instruments. Our bodies are instruments. We use them like mouths. We don’t need clothes.

So you run around naked? She pursed her lips and turned the audience who all laughed along with her mock-horror.

The angel appeared to be confused. I suppose that’s what you would call it. But we didn’t have a word for it in heaven. It just was.

She asked him about his birth.

He’d had none, he said. At least nothing like your births. We don’t emerge from anything.

She asked him how he had liked heaven.

Like was a quality of contrast, he said, and liking something implied that there were things that you did not like, that there was some state of affairs or events that made you unhappy.

We didn’t have states of unhappiness, he said, and still don’t. It was all presence, all bliss, I suppose, though the word in your language implies preference, which we did not have…The angel moved his hands to indicate a wheel, a circle turning.

Oprah folded her legs under her body and nodded. Mmm hmmm, she said. Go on.

He folded his hands in his lap. We did not move from thing to thing, saying like or dislike. All things in heaven were equal.

We watched you, he said, turning to Oprah. Not your television show, not you in particular, but people. We sometimes watched and thought what strange creatures you were, throwing yourselves from bridges and flying planes into buildings. But you were so far away.

Sherry gasped and Jeremy began to laugh.

Jesus, Jeremy said. I bet Oprah’s going to be mad that angels don’t watch her show.

He should get a PR guy, Sherry said, to tell him what not to say on television.

*

I watched the Oprah interview five times total, twice with the sound turned down, just to watch the angel’s hands move. I was watching it at work, during break, when the new intern touched my shoulder. I looked up, and she smiled. She was wearing large, hot pink glasses, the lenses almost as big as fists. 

 She opened the manila folder in her hands. Funny you were watching something about angels, she said. I have a complaint about the tenant in Apartment 12 of the Oak Street apartments. The tenant only has one name, Ginger. I think it’s our town angel.

She handed me the complaint form.

The neighbors in apartment 10 say that she paces all night, sometimes banging against the walls at odd hours as though she were moving furniture or hanging pictures. Apartment 4, just below her, complain about the pacing, too, and strange noises. Apartment 9 said a smell comes from the apartment and sometimes invades the hall—a rotting smell, like a cheeseshop, one note said.

She has enough complaints to require an investigation and then an eviction if she doesn’t follow through with your recommendations, the intern said. So I guess you’ll be meeting the angel.

*

 The morning I was to meet the angel, I chose the yellow tie to match the pinstripes in my suit, but Sherry said it was too loud, too dressy.

Do you have a meeting with somebody important? She touched the slick surface of the tie. You look like a used car salesman in that tie. I shook my head. I hadn’t told her about Ginger.

I changed into a light-blue tie. I brushed my hair back with water a pea-sized dollop of hair gel from Jeremy’s drawer in the bathroom. I looked at myself in the mirror—foolish and overdressed and old.

You look handsome, Sherry said, kissing me on the top of the head as she set a cup of coffee before me and went into the other room to finish her painting of a unicorn with a child clinging to its mane. The child looked terrified, something she had noticed but wasn’t sure how to fix.

How else would he feel, flying through the air like that? She said. I can’t just make him happy—he has to be somewhat afraid, there has to be something besides happiness. But he can’t be terrified, either.

She had squinted at the picture for hours the night before. She asked me to look at the boy.

So what should I do about it? She said. I can’t put a picture like this in a children’s book. It will frighten them.

Maybe he’s just happy, I said. Too happy to notice the danger. Maybe he can be just happy.

Sherry sighed and rubbed the anger out.

Now, the child’s face was empty and she didn’t know how to fill it.

*

I stood at Apartment 10 and knocked twice, the smell of turned cream evident even from the hallway. I heard nothing—no mumbling sound of television or feet walking carefully to the door to look out the glass to see who was out there, no shouting for somebody to get the door. I knocked again

 The door opened and the smell grew stronger but mellowed into something sweet, something cloying, like the kitchen of a wedding-cake bakery, all sugar and butter and whipping cream.

She stood at the door in a long, white nightgown, though it was hardly white anymore—it was streaked with stains and tattered. Round holes, perfectly blackened at the edges, revealed her white thighs—cigarette burns.

Hello, she said and opened the door wider. Who are you?

Usually, when I show up at a tenant’s apartment, things have gotten to the point where they know that they will be getting a visit from some type of authority, be it me or the police, and so they are suspicious: they cling to the door and peek around it, hiding as much of their apartments as possible. They keep their hands on the door, holding on to the illusion of autonomy, the feeling that they could keep back people like me merely by shutting the door.

Ginger threw the door open and let me inside.

Her apartment was at Grey Gardens levels of disorder—newspapers piled up along the walls, knee-deep, and magazines, too, the covers opened and cuttings spread out on the floor. It looked as though she had attempted to sweep—a swathe of empty floor led from the door to the kitchen. She had only a sofa and a table, but the sofa was covered in clothes, clothes of all kinds—men’s dress pants, infant onesies, and an 80’s era prom dress, the bodice scaled in sequins.

I’m David Porter, the residential manager for this building, I said, holding out my hand. I understand there have been some complaints and I wanted to come speak with you directly to see if we could resolve this.

I smiled at her as she looked at me, her gown see-through in the light slanted through her uncovered windows, which lit the dust that rose from every surface she passed. She reached out and touched my hand in return, not shaking it, but only lightly brushing her fingers against my palm.

Of course, she said. Please sit down. She motioned to the couch, where I sat down after pushing aside the prom dress. It clicked and moved in my hands like something half-alive, all that netting and bones and sturdy polyester. It made me think of when I’d first met Sherry, how tied up she’d been in her party dress that night and how it had lay in the bed almost like another person, keeping her shape even when she wasn’t in it.

Would you like tea? She turned to the kitchen, which was riddled with light.

No thank you. I don’t want to take up much of your time—I would just like to go over these complaints and see if we can address them.

She nodded and sat down exactly where she stood, in front of a stack of newspapers and amongst a flurry of cut-out houses from magazines. She crossed her legs and put her hands on her knees.

I took out my folder. It’s helpful to have something to hold when you are giving bad news or to a tenant. It makes it seem as though the news is coming from the paper, not you.

First off, I want to remind you of the agreement you signed upon moving into the residence—you are to keep the rooms in general repair and avoid excess garbage.

Ginger nodded. Yes, she said. I don’t have any excess garbage.

But what about the newspapers? The clippings?

She touched her palm to the stop of a stack. I’m studying them. I’m learning so much. She lifted her hand into the stream of sunlight and it fell down into her lap again. I like the pictures of houses and people in these magazines. She picked up a Glamour magazine, a blonde woman in a tight red dress on the cover, head upturned, her lips parted.

There’s so much to know. You all put everything in your magazines, your newspapers, your television, your movies, your paintings, your pictures. Look at this!

She jumped up and went into the light-washed kitchen. She came back with photographs, family snapshots taken on a cheap camera, the flash’s glare turning everyone’s eyes red.

Look at these, she said. I took them.

The pictures showed children playing on swingsets at what looked like a National park—a lake glittered in the background.

Each one of those people could be anywhere right now, she said, nodding.

I set the photographs down. I understand that you like to collect things, I said, but you can’t let things pile up like this. I motioned to the newspapers. It’s a fire hazard—one lit match and this entire apartment building could be destroyed. People could be killed.

She nodded.

And the smell. I looked back down at my list of complaints. The neighbors complain about the smell. I breathed in shallowly through my nose, trying to find the words for the odor. It’s just too…overpowering.

She nodded. I like cakes. I like to make cakes and sweet things. We don’t have them where I come from. But I make so many. They pile up and I have to throw them away. I can’t eat them all. Eating doesn’t come naturally to me.

I nodded, imagining her trying to eat a cake and failing.

I wished that I could put down my instructions and speak to her as a person to another person, not an intermediary between her and a sheet of paper. I wished that I could ask her why she’d come here and if it worked the other way around—could humans go where she had been, or would we not even understand it as heaven? Would we make it just like earth? I wanted her to lift her nightgown and show me the smooth place where her belly-button should be.

I understand that, I said, but the neighbors have complained. There are rules.

She nodded. I’m sorry to make them upset. I like them.

So in order for you to stay in this apartment, you need to clean up the newspapers and avoid piling up food—that brings bugs, too, which is another thing we want to keep out of the building.

She nodded. It’s hard to keep up with the rules, she said. When to sleep and when to be awake. How much of things you are allowed to have and how your house must look.

I sometimes like to walk around at night, she said. I found these shoes at the Salvation Army. She crawled on her knees to the coffee table and ducked under it. She pulled on red, strappy heels, higher than anything my wife had ever owned, even in her twenties, when she swore she’d never wear tennis shoes like an everyday person.

They’re beautiful, aren’t they? But they hurt to walk in and I fall down in the dark. That’s probably what the neighbors here at night, me falling down in these shoes.

I left Ginger with a list of requirements and said I would check back in with her in a week to make sure that she had complied. I thanked her for her time. I left and drove back to the office, the smell of sugar and turned butter still caught in my hair and clothes.

*

I had imagined that our meeting would go differently. I had imagined that she would open the door, her hair coiled and pinned away from a clean, radiant face. I imagined the apartment bare and spotless, despite the reports and complaints. I had expected her to serve me something light and bubbly—not wine, but a sparkling water, something that tasted clean and difficult to drink. I had expected her, stupidly, to give me some idea of why she had come to earth and what she had left behind. How our conversation would get to that topic, I hadn’t quite figured out. I had imagined it would drift there without much effort on my part. 

I had thought she would know what I wanted to know. As a child, my mother had told me about angels. We were not a particularly religious household, but my mother had me pray before bed to my guardian angel to protect me and my family.

Pray for mommy, daddy, and the dogs and cats, for your brother and sister…

She would lead me on in this way, blessing everyone until we’d exhausted the people we knew and had to move on to vaguer, more shadowy concepts, like the town and country. She had introduced me to the idea that guardian angels were creatures in the background, arranging things for your benefit, able to perceive your thoughts and words and to make them happen if you believe enough or were smart enough to ask.

But Ginger hadn’t known what I really wanted. She hadn’t seemed to care. She had interests and pursuits of her own, something I hadn’t expected.

When I got home, I told Sherry I had visited our angel. She had finished her painting and I found her drinking a glass of wine and reading a thick, glossy-covered novel at the kitchen table. She liked books about worlds that do not exist where people have destinies tied somehow to the decisions and movements of beings or forces larger and more important than themselves. She couldn’t get enough of them.

She wasn’t that much different than most people I meet for a pre-eviction notice, I told Sherry. A little crazier, probably. But otherwise, not what I expected.

Sherry shook her head. Maybe they don’t belong here. Maybe we make them insane or miserable.

Sherry finished her glass of wine and got another. Jeremy was out for the night so we drank and sat at the table and she told me about her own paintings, her real work, she said,  until we were tired and then went up to bed.

Look at the boy on the unicorn, she said, and led me to the living room, where his face now showed only unadulterated joy. I took your advice, she said.

*

 The first protests against the angels happened after the child died.

It was an accident, and the angel expressed his sorrow, but this was not enough. An angel who called himself Jean worked at the New York City Zoo, patrolling the polar bear area. A child asked to be lifted up on the rails to see the bears that slept in a cluster next to their concrete pool, just outside of the child’s view. Jean agreed after the child tugged his hand, cried, said that she loved bears and wanted to see them.

He set her on the railing and she squealed with happiness and then he let her go, believing that he had finished his duty, that the child would merely stay still and call for him when she wanted to come down. The child fell into the polar bear area trying to get off of the railing on her own and died from the impact. The bears didn’t wake until the rescue crews came, and then they lumbered away, afraid of the noise and the smells.

Jean said in a Nightline interview that he had not understood human children were so fragile. He didn’t know that he should have held onto the girl, or, ideally, not let the girl up there at all.

She asked, the angel explained, so I thought she could steady herself. Why would she ask if she couldn’t hold herself up?

*

 Oprah had another show about angels, this time featuring an anti-angel group and a group of angel-rights activists.

The angels themselves, though, did not organize groups. They didn’t attend protests in their honor. Most expressed a calm but bemused confusion at the packs of protesters thrusting their signs and shouting.

I’m not sure why anyone would think we were harmful, one said, her eyes wide and brown and unblinking. We do not fight. We do not cause wars. We do not hold positions of power. We are the least harmful sentient occupants of this planet.

*

 I received a memo about Ginger: I was to order her eviction in 48 hours, after an escalation of her previous behavior. I was to personally see that she left and, if necessary, find her alternate housing. Johnson Housing Company would pay for it.

Has she violated the rules I gave her?

The intern, the young woman in glasses whose name I could not remember, shrugged.

I don’t know what happened. I only know I’m supposed to give you this memo.

*

 Ginger greeted me in proper clothing this time, jeans and a blouse, though the buttons on the blouse were slightly off-track, leaving the ends uneven and one button left without a hole.

Hello, she said, and moved aside for me to enter. Come in, she said as I stepped inside, her voice nervous, tentative.

Her apartment was cleaned up for the most part—her magazines and newspapers piled in corners, not spread all over the floor. On the coffee table, her cut-outs (of dogs, cars, women with long hair and long legs, men without their shirts) were stacked neatly, the black-handled scissor holding the flighty stack down. The apartment smelled like bleach, harsh and new, and though the carpet hadn’t been vacuumed (could see flecks of paper and dirt), it had at least been cleared.

I held a folder in my hands. It contained an envelope with an eviction notice inside and a letter signed by the president of Johnson Housing that ordered Ginger (last name unknown) to completely vacate the premises in two weeks’ time, after which she would be forcibly removed if she did not comply.

May I sit down? I asked.

She nodded and I moved around her to sit down on the couch. Her body gave off a strong smell of metal, of something like tin or copper. I wanted to lean over and smell her hair, but I didn’t want to scare her.

Ginger, I said, I’m here to let you know that the terms of the agreement I gave you on—

I flipped open the manila folder to check the date, my face already red. Usually, using words like representative and terms of agreement made me feel better, distant from the room I was in and the person who sat across from me.

Ginger leaned forward as I delivered the date and finished my prepared statement. I told her that we would help her find other lodgings. We would aid her in the transition as much as possible.

She nodded as I spoke and unlaced her fingers.

But I cleaned, she said. Don’t you see? I put on clothes, too. She gestured down the front of the shirt.

I see that, I said, but I don’t really have control over the results—I’m only the messenger.

It was a cowardly thing to say, but I suddenly had the image of her rising, wings blooming from her back, and smiting me. Couldn’t angels do that in the Bible? Or was that only God? But she only nodded again.

We sat in silence. I cleared my throat.

Will you need help finding a new place?

She nodded. I think so. Somebody threw a brick through the window in the kitchen. How they did it, I don’t know—I’m on the second floor! She seemed more interested in the logistics than the brick. And somebody slipped a note under my door, she said. They said I was a demon and that my kind would be found out. He misspelled some words. I know it was a he because I could smell it on the note. The longer I’m here, the better I am at telling things like that—smells and people. I can smell when people are afraid, sometimes, like when a child in the apartment was surprised by the neighbor’s dog.

I wondered if she could smell anything from me.

I will need help, she said. I guess people don’t want me here.

I’d be happy to help, I said. I have a list of apartments here.

She took the sheet of paper and set it on the table by the cut-outs.

I cleared my throat. How is it coming, your magazines and newspapers study? Your study of humans?

She smiled. Angels didn’t smile much, I’d noticed in my obsessive watching of youtube videos of them. Smiling is a strange, half-fearful thing that humans do, like a dog showing its teeth so the larger animal won’t attack its throat. They had to learn how to smile from us.

I don’t understand earth any better, but I like it. I like how beautiful everything is, how alive and ugly along with beautiful—you don’t have pure beauty like we do.

What do you mean by pure beauty? I asked. The room was uncomfortably warm—she still didn’t have curtains and the sun slanted on the carpet, absorbing the heat and sending it up to us through our shoes.

She looked up at the ceiling, then back down at me. It’s not something I can explain with your language. So many things can’t be explained in this language. You ask us questions about God and heaven and our lives but forget we didn’t even have bodies, not like this, and the words we spoke fit the contours of the places we lived.

She shook her head, a slip of red hair freeing itself from her ponytail and trailing down her cheek.

All I can say about pure beauty is that it doesn’t leave much room for anything but itself. She gestured to her pile of cut-outs. When I look at those women and cars and cats and dogs and pies and watches, I can fit other things in my head. You can’t do that in heaven.

I nodded. I wanted to understand, though I didn’t understand.

*

Unlike the most dire predictions of political thinkers and humanitarians, the world didn’t do what it has often done with undesirables—countries didn’t round of the angels, didn’t brand them, didn’t demand that they live in smaller and smaller parts of countries, states, or towns until they were pushed to the very edges and finally, by chance or by design, largely eliminated. 

 The President of the United States addressed the angel concern as an issue of American exceptionalism.

If we won’t take in those who come in peace, who come merely to live their lives, then how can we call ourselves a country of freedom? He cited statistics—angels simply didn’t harm people on purpose, out of anger, out of passion, for any of the reasons that humans harmed people.

He suggested angel education programs and angel work programs so that angels could put their unique talents to use to benefit society.

It was difficult to hate the angels. They were quiet, logical. They didn’t fight back, they didn’t grow red and stand and shout—they’d merely stare at their foaming, fearful, white-knuckled challengers with a look like pity mixed with a dash of interest, as though the person before them were a particularly strange animal bleeding in a trap.

And then, they were gone.

*

 The day they left, Sherry and Jeremy and I sat around the television together for the first time since the angel interview. Sherry kept putting her hair up in a bun and then taking it down again, over and over, her version of a nervous gesture.

How can they just be gone like that? Where could they go? Could they just have flown back up to…

She fluttered her hands toward the ceiling, indicating heaven.

I bet they hated it here so much they had to leave, Jeremy said, doubtless thinking of his small bedroom upstairs, how much he wanted to leave it.

They probably called up God and begged to be allowed back, he said.

Called up God, Sherry repeated. How does that work?

Shh, I said. I mashed the little button on the remote control and the sound clicked up until it filled the room. A middle-aged man in rimless glasses sat in front of a fake city backdrop. At the bottom of the screen, next to his name, it said angel expert.

I found out yesterday, he told the reporter, a blonde wearing a sleeveless pink dress, her hair bright under the television lights. I found out when my primary connection went missing—he had vacated his home without a word, leaving everything behind. My other connections left, too, and by then it became clear all that this was a mass exodus of angels.

But he didn’t know why. Nobody knew why. A religious expert, more used to PBS interviews, you could tell, than prime time, blinked rapidly and all but shrugged when they asked him where the angels might be.

It’s impossible to know, he said. We don’t truly know what these creatures were, where they came from, and where they’ve gone.

*

 I told Sherry and Jeremy that I needed some air—I was going out for a drive. Sherry nodded.

I’m taking a walk, too, she said. I think I might be getting sick.

Jeremy had already left the room.

Her eyes were large and bright. She stood up and arranged the throw pillows neatly on the couch, turning her back to me.

I almost went to her, but thought the better of it. She knew me too well. If I went to her, she would look at me and might see something in my face that I would have to explain.

I stepped outside and the night was clean and cool, only the brightest starts visible in the murky light of the town.

*

 I didn’t first know where I was going. Or maybe I did, it’s impossible to be quite sure what the mind is planning. I knew for certain, though, by the time I had passed the Coke factory and saw the apartment building rising up from the otherwise empty landscape.

I had her key in the ring of keys I was supposed to keep at work but sometimes took home with me inadvertently, gathering it up with my papers and notes for the day.

She was my client, I told myself. I had a right to see if she had vacated the premises as she had been ordered.

*

 I knocked softly, and then louder. Maybe she was watching television or engrossed in her magazine clippings and clothes-collecting, I told myself. But nobody came.

The lights were off, but I could tell by the faint light that came and went from the headlights of passing cars that the room wasn’t empty. I switched on the lights.

It looked much as it had when I visited her a few days before. The list of apartments and landlords was still on the coffee table. All of the clippings were gone, though the gutted magazines and newspapers remained in piles, their ragged pages streaming ribbons of paper.

I walked to the back room, her bedroom. Did angels sleep?  Was anything in a human house really useful to them?

Her bed was made neatly, as beds in hotels were made. On the bed, a poster board the size of a card table had been laid out.

I stood over it, blinking, trying to figure out what I was looking at. It was a riot of color and texture, made completely of cut-outs. Along the bottom, she had written the words “Beauty in Heaven”.

It was circular, with shapes repeating like a mandala. The shapes were completely symmetrical, differing only in shades and things depicted, which were almost impossible to tell because they were cut into small pieces, shards of their wholes. I saw woman’s face, cut across the lips, glued to the edge of a red car with a strip of grass underneath it. Most of the cut-outs were the bodies of models—men and women as well as children. I found a child’s leg, from knee to sneaker, and a length of male chest from right nipple down where his skin disappeared into his boxers.

Looking at it made me queasy—it was something about the bodies cut at strange angles and reattached, something about the perfect symmetry of it, how when I sat it upright in the bed and stepped away, it seemed to be move like a child’s pinwheel.

I set it down on the bed, my hands clammy and hot. I felt suddenly angry; she had not left me something that I could understand. The collage was ugly, somehow violent in its sheer disregard for the bodies that composed it. It had nothing to do with me and the way I felt about her, how badly I wanted to understand. I had the urge to destroy the collage, to tear it to pieces or burn it, but I couldn’t bear to touch it again.

Instead, I turned my back to it, shut the bedroom door, and left out the front door, locking it behind me.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Letitia Trent

Letitia Trent is the author of the novel Echo Lake, published by Dark House Press in 2014, the full-length poetry collection One Perfect Bird, published by Sundress Publications, and the chapbook You aren’t in this movie, published by dancing girl press. Trent writes regularly for The Nervous Breakdown and the film magazine Bright Wall in a Dark Room. Her work has appeared in The Denver Quarterly, Fence, Sou’Wester, H_ngm_n, and The Adirondack Review.

 

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