Angels Playing Poker


by James Wade


“Damn,” one of the angels said. “You need to repent.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

What do I know about repentance? I never went with the Worshippers.

After the Dallas earthquake split the Big D into a bunch of little ones, the Worshippers looked at the five fresh gorges in the earth and said it was the Hand of God, and people should pray. Scientists looked at the data and said it was climate change, and people should conserve. Other people looked and said other things.

Some folks went with the Worshippers after that, some with the scientists. Others went on vacation. I went to the office.

I heard, like everyone else, about the first angel. It was on the news. Some lady in El Paso saw it. I think her name was Rosa. She got out of the shower and there it was, standing in her bathroom.

“It scared me at first, because I was completely naked and soaking wet,” Rosa told the reporter, subtly pressing her breasts together and turning to each side, making pouty faces. She used the reflection on the camera lens as a mirror, ruffling her hair to give it more volume.

The angel sat in a rusted chair a few feet away on Rosa’s patio. It had no comment at this time.

The Worshippers flocked to West Texas, but the angel disappeared the same night it arrived. So did Rosa.

The next day there was another angel, this time in Nacogdoches. A tractor salesman reported it. I remember because when the cameras came the man kept trying to pitch tractors to the viewing public.

“To be honest, I ain’t real sure why this heavenly creature has appeared unto me. But if it’s in need of a mid-size tractor that can handle livestock operations, specialty farming and all-purpose agriculture, then wait ‘til it sees the deals we’re runnin’ this week on our brand new Kubota M Series.”

The angel leaned against an oversized tire in the background. It was just browsing, thanks.

The gaggle of Worshippers looked like a living ping pong ball, bouncing from west to east. I imagined them running across the state on a giant Rand McNally illustrated atlas for kids, dodging drawings of oil derricks, armadillos and the Alamo. Again they were too late. The angel was gone, and so too was the salesman.

As more angels came, and more people vanished, the yappers on the television made up theories and took sides so they could have proper battles. One group believed the angels were here to take souls to Heaven. Another was convinced they were punishing people for one thing or another. Some even thought the angels weren’t angels at all– just regular people trying to fool everyone.

Some of the Worshippers stopped praying to God and started praying to the angels. Others started killing themselves, slowly, hoping the angels would come before they bled out. Investigators were looking into all the folks who were “taken,” but they couldn’t find any connection.

Some teenagers stopped having sex, because they were afraid to sin; but even more teenagers started having sex, because they were afraid the world might end before they lost their virginity. Married couples continued having sex at the same rate, on Fridays. And, I guess occasionally on Sundays if the Cowboys won.

This was all either a miracle or the apocalypse, or both, but nobody could really make up their mind. People warred with one another– taking to social media, television and radio airwaves to attack. They became so caught up in the fight, they didn’t notice at first when the angels stopped appearing.

One day with no angels. Then another. Then a third, and a fourth. When it became clear they weren’t returning, people sharpened their tongues for the new conflict. Who was to blame for their departure?

The angel-storyline got plenty of play. It dominated headlines for months, and stayed in the news in some form for several years. There were shows and movies and Broadway plays. DiCaprio finally got his Oscar, starring in Nicolas Cage’s old role in the City of Angels remake. Dakota Fanning played the Meg Ryan character.

But as the years passed, angels had less impact on our daily lives, less of a role in pop culture; and they eventually fell out of the news cycle altogether. The Worshippers were the only ones who were still caught up in it. Problem was, they were divided into so many factions that no one outside their individual groups knew what they actually stood for.

For the most part, things returned to the 21st century version of normal. Just like the canyons from the earthquake, which were now the top tourism destination in Texas, the visiting angels would be relegated to history via textbooks and tweets.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I had not thought about angels in quite some time the night I died. I certainly wasn’t thinking about them when I decided to take out the trash.

My mind was struggling with whether or not my wife had seen me staring at her sister’s ass after dinner. She had been acting strange ever since we left the restaurant, but that could be because the sponge cake we split usually makes her gassy. Basically I was trying to figure out if I should be prepared for the Spanish Inquisition when I went upstairs.

I concluded that she probably had seen, and I should try to do something extra thoughtful to make it up to her. She was always nagging me about not taking the trash out, so I decided that was my ticket. But then I saw three angels sitting at the poker table in my garage.

They were laughing, drinking my scotch, and playing Texas Hold ‘Em. I could see that the angel nearest me was holding suited Ace/King. It raised. The other angels groaned in disapproval. The angel on the far side of the table was wearing Ray-Bans, and the middle angel was smoking a cigar. It wasn’t until I dropped the bag of garbage that they looked up and noticed me. They fell silent. We all stared at one another.

“Uh…” the angel with the good hand said. “I’m pretty sure this guy can see us.”

“No way,” said the cigar smoking angel, studying my face as I studied back.

“Hey, guy,” the angel in the sunglasses called to me. “Can you see us?”

I nodded.

There was a pause.

Then they erupted into laughter. Sunglasses-angel pounded on the table with its hand, howling. Ace/King-angel shook its head, leaning over to grab what looked like a cramp in its side. Cigar-angel was choking.

“No fucking way,” it repeated.

I was motionless, thoughtless, or maybe thought-filled. I’m not sure.

“Hey, should we, uh?” Ace/King asked the others, tilting its head in my direction.

“Yea, yea,” Sunglasses nodded enthusiastically.

“Hey, guy,” it called out again, motioning for me to join them. “C’mon, come sit down.”

I did as I was told, sitting down in an empty folding-chair. My eyes moved from one angel to another. My mouth was closed.

“So this is your house,” Sunglasses said. It was more of a statement than a question. “Nice place.”

“Shit scotch though,” said Cigar, and they all went hysterical again.

“Are you going to take me?” I asked, my voice nervous and confused.

“What? Oh, no man,” Ace/King said, still breathing heavy from the laughter. “We don’t do that stuff anymore. We, uh, I don’t know what you’d call it– retired, I guess.”

“Retired,” Sunglasses repeated, “and I still haven’t seen a penny from my pension fund!”

More laughing.

“Yea, yea,” agreed Cigar, “and they said those retirement plans were supposed to be heavenly!”

This time they laughed so hard golden tears spilled out of their eyes.

“So, what are–,” I couldn’t find the words. I didn’t understand.

“What are we doing here?” Ace/King finished the question for me. “Well, outside of playing some cards and drinking your cheap scotch, we’re essentially just waiting for Armageddon.”

“You mean, like, the end of days, from the Bible?” I asked.

“End of Days? With Schwarzenegger?” Cigar asked, seemingly disgusted at the thought. “No way, that movie was awful. It got an 11-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.”

“No, not Armageddon from the Bible,” Ace/King chuckled. “Armageddon from Michael Bay.

I was absolutely dreaming.

“I know, I know, everyone hates Michael Bay,” Ace/King said, as if the shocked look on my face were in response to the night’s cinematic selection. “But c’mon man– are you telling me you don’t get choked up when Will Patton leaves that little toy shuttle for his son?”

“And that cast, though,” Sunglasses added. “Steve Buscemi is billed like eighth. That’s how deep that shit goes.”

“What is Michael Bay’s deal with always saving Ben Affleck?” Cigar interjected. “It’s like, Bruce Willis saves him so he can live to bang Bruce’s daughter; then, in Pearl Harbor, Josh Harnett saves him so he can live to bang Josh’s baby momma.”

“Maybe it’s cause Affleck co-wrote Good Will Hunting, so he’ll always be a God,” Sunglasses shot back, holding out its arms and shrugging. “Ever think of that?”

“Alright, alright,” Ace/King chuckled again, turning back to me. “Yea, so anyway, it usually comes on STARZ! or Encore or one of the other few-thousand movie channels. But never before like 1 o’clock in the morning, so we were just killin’ time until then.”

Only then did the angel with the good poker hand seem to realize the potential intrusiveness of this encounter.

“Oh right, my bad,” Ace/King said. “Is that, is that cool with you Adam? We sort of bounced around Texas for a while after we quit, but we’ve actually been hanging in your garage for like 8 months. Nice job, by the way, on the set up.”

“You know my name?” was all I could think to say.

“Well, I mean, yea,” Ace/King replied. “We’re angels.”

The table shook with laughter once more. I didn’t get the joke.

“We’ve been here since the Super Bowl,” Ace/King said. “Of course we know your name.”

“Why haven’t I seen you?” I asked.

The laughter stopped. The angels didn’t want to make eye contact with me.

“Hey!” I demanded, sensing something was up. “You’ve been here 8 months. Why can I see you now? Is it only when I take out the garbage or something?”

Sunglasses turned away, not wanting even the lenses to look at me. Cigar looked down, ashing into a tray at the foot of the chair. Ace/King’s mouth twisted to one side, then back to normal, then opened.

“If you can see us,” it said. “You’re, uh, not long for this world, as they say.”

“Wait, what?” I asked, standing up and backing away from my chair. “You’re saying I’m going to die soon?”

“Not just soon,” Cigar said, drawing freely from the stogie, “before midnight.”

The clock read 11:41 p.m.

“No, that’s impossible,” I shook my head. “I don’t believe it.”

Cigar’s shoulders shrugged.

“Doesn’t really matter if you believe something or not,” it said, as the space around me filled with second-hand smoke. “Doesn’t make it any less of a fact. Humans are funny that way.”

“Wait, you guys can save me,” I didn’t have time for anger, so I went straight from denial into full-blown bargaining-mode. “Yea, you guys can save me, right?”

“I wish we could, Adam. Honestly,” Ace/King said. “You seem like a good-enough dude, your wife keeps this place super-clean, and you guys have a great cable package. Unfortunately though, we don’t have those privileges anymore.”

“What are you even saying?” I screamed. “You’re angels, save me! I’m Ben Affleck, you’re Michael Fucking Bay. Flip this script and save me!”

“I’m sorry,” Ace/King replied, and to its credit, the angel’s face did reflect remorse. “Our power reserve is bone dry. It’s only a matter of time before we get picked back up ourselves. He would’ve never let us stay down here this long in the old days. But overpopulation down here means overpopulation up there, so pretty much every facet of the entry process has been backlogged for years.”

“Are you telling me there is a line to get into Heaven?” I asked, incredulously. Though why I felt the need for skepticism at this particular point is still unclear to me.

“Well, there is now,” Ace/King continued. “At first we tried to just expedite everything, then go back and complete the paperwork later. But we ended up letting in way too many undesirables. Then when we tried to tighten up, there were some embarrassing discrimination incidents where the wrong souls were unfairly profiled and turned away. The department got a black eye. It was an ugly time.”

“The big fella stepped in and told everyone to cut the shit,” Sunglasses chimed in. “But we were, admittedly, a bureaucratic mess. He didn’t want to grow the size of the agency, but we couldn’t accomplish what we needed to with the limited resources we were being given.”

“That’s when we decided to bail,” Cigar said. “We came down, took a few randoms from the list, showed ourselves to the world and, in essence, told our boss to screw himself.”

“Why did you show yourselves?” I asked, looking at the clock again, wondering if there was any chance this was all in my head. “Couldn’t you have just quit?”

“That was the ‘screw you’ part,” Ace/King replied. “We figured making a few live appearances would throw stuff into even more chaos upstairs. More people believing, more praying, longer lines– you get the picture. The crazier stuff is up there, the more time we get down here. They can’t afford to lose the angels it would take to come get us.”

“Yea, ‘cause we’re not going quietly,” Cigar said, fist-bumping Sunglasses and then making an exploding gesture.

“But,” I said quietly, turning away from the table and looking at a picture of my parents when they were young, “I don’t believe. I haven’t prayed.”

I thought maybe the crushing pain in my chest was anxiety. It wasn’t.

I fell to my knees, grabbing at my heart, trying to reach it through skin and muscle and bone. I wondered if I could make it to the bedroom, to tell my wife I love her. To look her in the eyes and say her ass is just as nice as Kelli’s. One last kiss, one last lie.

“Damn,” I heard one of the angel’s behind me. “You need to repent.”

What do I know about repentance?

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