Murray, the Short Order Cook
Murray, the short-order cook, found himself at the Pearly Gates on a Tuesday evening. Tuesday was always a slow day at the restaurant, but not this slow. The gates were locked, no one was checking a list or tickets, and weeds were sprouting at the base of what he took to be heaven. Or was this hell? He’d committed some sins in his day, but surely he wasn’t a bad man. He showed up for work on time. He had loved his wife, who predeceased him.
Fuck, he said, immediately clapping a hand over his mouth.
He stepped gingerly off the path of righteousness to look around the side of the fence. Maybe there was another gate.
In the fenced-off field, a tall man with a white beard called to him. Murray walked over. Do you play tennis? the bearded guy asked.
A little. I’m not very good, Murray said. I’m better with a bat.
The bearded guy handed him a racket and Murray crawled under the fence.
Are you an angel? Murray asked.
That’s what I thought when I wound up here. Everything’s so run down.
I mean I’m God.
You’re— But where is St. Peter? Where are all the angels?
I let them go. God was bouncing a tennis ball with his racket.
It was never a very good plan. It just didn’t work out.
Murray thought of something. My wife used to say it was a hell of a way to run a railroad.
I made all those creatures, wolves and lions and bears, and then they began to eat one another. Go figure.
Well, a body’s got to eat, said Murray the short-order cook.
I didn’t think it through, God said, pointing his racket to indicate where Murray should stand.
Murray exchanged a few easy hits with God, then God slammed the ball to the right while Murray was on the left.
They met at the net. “Forgive me, Lord,” Murray said. “It’s not my game.”
Softball. He’d belonged to a team who called themselves The Crazy Nine. A play on Crazy Eight, if not a very good one. We should have called ourselves The Old Farts, Murray said to himself.
I prefer tennis, his opponent said, because it’s faster.
But you have all the time in the world!
And it weighs on me. Believe me, it’s no fun. Thank God for tennis.
Murray thought sadly of his wife. He could have used a little more time with. Without thinking, he said aloud, I miss my wife.
That was a mistake too.
My wife? My wife was not a mistake!
Death. Your death. Death was a mistake. Though not even I could think of a way to keep my creatures motivated without death. Look at me. What the fuck am I doing with all the time in the world? Playing tennis.
You do seem to enjoy it. Why are the gates of heaven closed?
I’m on vacation.
You can’t take a vacation!
Sure I can. I’m God.
But what about—
What about what?
What about all the people who believe in you?
Yeah, that’s a problem.
You told them to believe in you.
Yeah, that’s another problem.
Well, fix it!
I’m not you. You’re the one with the answers.
Sorry. As I said, I’m not.
Murray walked over to the side-court and set his racket down. I don’t feel like playing tennis anymore, he said. Muttering. He didn’t usually mutter but he didn’t want to tick off God. He reached in his pocket and drew out a stick of gum. Minzy must not have checked out his trousers before his body arrived at the funeral home. He loved his wife but she’d gotten a little addled or scatterbrained recently.
You don’t have to play tennis. Did I say you had to play tennis?
Murray shook his head.
I offered you an opportunity to play tennis. That’s all. Jesus.
So you’re going to open the gates?
I’m probably never going to open the gates again.
But—but—won’t other people show up?
I hope not.
Are they going to hell?
There never was a hell. And now there’s not a heaven.
I’ll never see my wife again.
Oh, that! Okay, here’s your wife.
Minzy was at his side. She had never come up to more than his shoulder and she didn’t now. Murray felt a quiet joy as he looked at her. She was near-sighted and, without her glasses, the blue of her eyes was tinted with gray. Her hair, sleek and straight in the sixties, had turned curly with age. Also white. Age had filled out her figure some. She was soft and pillowy, her hair billowy.
Minzy, he said, draping an arm around her.
Oh, Murray, it’s just like the Bible said! We’re together again!
Was that in the Bible? Murray wondered. Of course, he’d never read the Bible. When did short-order cooks have time to read?
Minzy, this is God, Murray said.
Minzy shook God’s hand. Pleased to meet you, I’m sure, she said.
Do you play tennis? God asked her.
I’m afraid not, she said, looking a bit abashed, thinking I ought to have learned to play tennis so I could play with God. I bet he gets lonely.
God has shut down heaven, Murray explained to her. He’s on vacation.
Everybody needs a vacation now and again, said Minzy.
A permanent vacation, Murray said.
Oh, Minzy said, turning to God, you can’t do that.
I’m sorry? God said. I can do anything I want.
No, I mean if you take a permanent vacation, how will we ever find our little daughter?
Murray was shaking his head, trying to signal to Minzy that she shouldn’t bring this up.
Our little daughter, Minzy said again. She was only four when she died. Pretty and sweet and funny and full of life. Full of life. Minzy was weeping now, her blue eyes going grayer, tears tumbling down her face, which creased with sorrow. She tried to wipe them off with her blowzy white hair. She’s supposed to be here! Minzy wailed.
When I closed down the operation, God said, I sent everybody to Kansas City.
Why Kansas City? asked Murray.
Why not Kansas City? You have a better idea?
No, no, Murray said quickly, Kansas City is fine. Can we get there from here?
No pro-blem-o, said God. It’s just a jump, skip, and hop. The jump gets you to New York, the skip to the Mississippi River, and the hop to Kansas City.
Murray and Minzy were delighted to hear this. Their small family would be together again! Holding hands, they jumped.
Sure enough, they landed in Kansas City, and their daughter was waiting for them. In a park. Maybe a four-year-old shouldn’t be alone in a park, but she was, and she didn’t seem to be any the worse for it. Her moplike hair had been combed and her face and teeth were clean and shiny. The only way in which she looked a little dated was that she was wearing a pinafore. Nobody had worn pinafores for forty years, which was how long she had been dead. Minzy and Murray wept and touched, and touched and wept. “Murphy, Murphy,” Murray kept saying, for he and Minzy had named her after the television character Murphy Brown, not because she was at all like the television character but because the name began with an “M,” and they preferred “Murphy” to “Mary.” It occurred to Murray that God might not like to hear that.
As for God? He never went back to work. Why should he, when people paid so little attention to him? He did lose interest in tennis, though, or rather, his knees gave out. He took up handicrafts, carving replicas of all the creatures he had created. This kept him busy. Occasionally he thought about Murray, whom he remembered as a pretty nice fella, polite and game.