Gold Streets and Cockroaches by Kenneth Pobo

Illustration by Frank Sparrow

Yesterday, after I finished memorizing the fourth chapter of Leviticus and had repeated it to my superior Mr. Worman, I started wondering about Worman’s position in heaven.  I don’t want to be smiled at (benevolently) for eternity, don’t want to be smiled at now, but in the Colony we are happy.  We are happy.

Growing up, my parents told me gold streets fill up heaven.  You could talk with angels in many unlocked mansions.  In Parkersburg, West Virginia, we kept our doors locked.  Dad believed our house was always being watched.  If we would ever forget and leave it unlocked, even once, “somebody” would have his chance and get in, rob us blind, maybe kill us.  My mother didn’t believe in “somebody.”  She did believe in my father, and kept the house locked as tightly as he did.

They trained me well about locking things, so much so that when I left home, I never locked anything.  I didn’t worry if “somebody” showed up.  That is, until the men with the signed papers and handcuffs came—no lock could have kept them out.  They had seen through my keyhole, mapped me out on distant computers.

My parents’ heaven sounded awfully well lit, in a perpetual midnight sun.  I’ve always liked cold places—no conflict in their heaven, no racial problems since everyone was white.  Angels were always white on wedding cakes, so naturally everyone would be white, bright and shimmery.  This did not disturb my parents.

Also, there were no class problems.  The real Jesus-centered folks got the big mansions and the folks who loved Jesus but didn’t live like the former got bungalows and the folks who didn’t believe in Jesus were out of sight, out of mind.  Everyone accepted that if you had a big house you deserved it.

I don’t know where Mr. Worman or any of the rest of them live.  I’ve never been to any of their houses; in the two years I’ve been here, I’ve never been allowed to leave the grounds.  I can’t even leave my room after seven p.m.  I see photos of their wives and children, sometimes posed in front of a house.  I imagine that they have what we once called “desirable” properties, like Pacific, North Carolina or Pennsylvania Avenues on the Monopoly Board.

This is X Colony, built for gay people.  Our rooms are exactly the same, lining hallways with the same gray-colored carpet.  An electronic fence divides the lesbians from the gay men. Trans have another building.  We can’t see it.

The leaders say I’m not here to be cured; I’m here to learn to want to change because God wants me to change.  I’m not here to be tortured (though some of us are—it’s winked at, as it was in school when gym teachers saw a kid getting pummeled and said nothing.)  I’m here to memorize The Bible, line by line, and to think about my sins; how I ended up an abomination.

I’m to learn that I chose to come to X Colony, and once I fully realize this, then I will accept my punishment gladly.  Worman reminds me each day that I chose to be gay.  He, of course, chose to be straight, so he’s in the white suit behind the mahogany desk.

He smiles when I say my text for the day correctly, says I repeat the verses with real “feeling.”  I do.  Sometimes I think I would have made a good public speaker, a politician perhaps, had I not become a librarian.  Books were always my best friends.  Books stayed open; at least until the book monitors checked our holdings out one by one.  It was no use trying to defend a book once the monitors got hold of it.  I left the library and got a job selling shoes.

The authorities tell us they “know” where they’re going when they die.  They ask do I “know” where I’m going?  I’d like to say “Alaska” but I’d be given more verses, more kitchen duty.  Why do gold streets, angel choirs, and big mansions give them such hope?  Wouldn’t it be more relaxing to decompose and contribute to a few flowers and trees?  I’d rather help a leaf to burst from a bud than walk in a big mansion.

I had a chance to get married.  My best friend Peggy, a lesbian from Baltimore, and I almost did.  We even planned the ceremony—very public, of course—but we both backed out at the last moment, just couldn’t do it, even to save ourselves.  Many did marry.  The papers never arrived for them.

Worman says he’s sorry, but abominations rarely leave X Colony—it’s a lifetime sentence.  Worman’s pals have to think in terms of “lifetimes” and “eternity.”  For them, a rose is only beautiful if it returns year after year.  If it opens for a day and the wind breaks the petals off, they don’t remember how beautiful it was even for that day.

I don’t recall my parents mentioning flowers or pets in heaven.  When I was ten my dog Chance died.  I asked Pastor Ron where Chance’s spirit went.  He said “in the ground.  Dogs don’t go to heaven, Harry, only people.”   Maybe Chance got a better deal than we get.  The next Sunday, I asked him if he couldn’t be mistaken.  He said, “After all, if a dog goes to heaven, why not a cockroach?  Would you want heaven overrun with cockroaches?”

Tomorrow I will memorize chapter five of Leviticus.  I suppose if life had gone differently, I could be Worman, knowing that I could do anything I wanted and still have a mansion reserved. He says my parents each have heavenly mansions right now.  Even though there’s no marriage in heaven, my parents still know each other.  She serves him and he puts his spiritual feet up on the heavenly ottoman and relaxes into his lock-free world where “somebody” is no longer a threat.

I wonder if they miss me, if they see me here.  Do they worry about me?  I doubt it—heaven allows no worries.  Worman displays his family pictures in his office.  Could my parents have my picture on display up there?  My mother always carried a picture of me in her purse.  Did she care when the angels confiscated it?

Outside my window, dahlias, the August sun firing blossom edges.  Like the cockroaches, flowers couldn’t survive in heaven either.  If only I could slip into the salmon blossom closest to the door, sit in dusky petals and wait for winter, the time of rest, of letting go.

Dinner time, my night to help set the tables.  At ten p.m., I can let go, at least for a while—that’s when it’s lights out and dreams open, dahlias, lavender petals behind my eyes.

KENNETH POBO had a new book of poems come out in May 2017 from Circling Rivers called Loplop in a Red City. His collection of micro-fiction, Tiny Torn Maps, came out from Deadly Chaps. His work has appeared in: Amsterdam Review, Buenos Aires Review, Two Thirds North, Hawaii Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Pennsylvania with his husband and two cats. He teaches creative writing and English at Widener University.

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