FICTION

Have a Good Time, John

Here's one of the most unusual stories we've ever published— It's the story of a man who went to Heaven, of what he saw there, and of what happened when he wanted to come back

Alberta Pierson Hannum July 15 1944
FICTION

Have a Good Time, John

Here's one of the most unusual stories we've ever published— It's the story of a man who went to Heaven, of what he saw there, and of what happened when he wanted to come back

Alberta Pierson Hannum July 15 1944

Have a Good Time, John

Alberta Pierson Hannum

THE doctor looked up slowly. “It was his heart, Laura—”

John Jerome opened his mild blue soul eyes and blinked at that announcement of his passing. Then he looked, a little shyly, at Laura, to see how she would take it.

Laura was standing at the side of his couch, and she stiffened slightly. That was all. Then she stood very still, looking straight ahead, out the window, at the maple tree just outside. But she seemed not to be seeing it. It was more as though she were letting the fine brow'n eyes John had known in all their easily quickened moods fall on the first thing that happened to be before them, and was forgetting to take them away. John could not tell what she was feeling, or if she were feeling anything.

She still was dressed as she had been when she had come home from her club meeting and found him so unexpectedly ill. John noticed the dress she was wearing, uncomfortably. She should have had a finer one to wear to her club. Laura could set off clothes better than any woman there. He felt again that familiar, dull drag at his chest. Laura was so proud, and he had been such a failure to her always, in the way the world judges success. It wasn’t that he hadn’t

worked hard. But somehow he always seemed to throw away whatever advantage he gained —like the time he finally got his farm down the river sold, but instead of getting the money they needed so desperately he had taken stock in the little chemical plant that had bought it —because the fellow who was starting the plant needed all his cash to put in the business. Although now, if the consolidation with that big concern went through and at the meeting this afternoon it had looked as though it would . . .

“I kind of wish,” John said, looking at Laura and thinking of all the life they’d never really had a chance to Live yet, “that if I had to go it wasn’t right now— with that chemical deal coming along, and real estate starting up again for the first time in years. But then I guess it’s all right.” John had an aggravating little habit of expressing aloud a timid objection, then recalling it immediately, to the way things had been done. However, no one was annoyed with him now, for no one heard him.

Still, he hung around, awkwardly—his wistful blue eyes a little pleading. He had half a hope Laura would make some sign for him to come back. He felt he still could. It wasn’t too late yet. But she made no move. She just stood staring out at the maple tree. John’s eyelids half-dropped over a final beaten look. He tried to whistle a little as he started off. But somehow he couldn’t find the heart for it.

On his way out of town he paused, surprised that the news about him had spread so widely and so quickly, and that it was being of so much concern that he was lingering between life and death.

“My,” he smiled that sweet, kind smile even strangers remembered and the family had come to regret because it tagged him as an easy mark, “they shouldn’t feel like that, just about my going.”

Most of the interest, he supposed, was because of Laura and the children. But still, he noticed, with a little jump of vanity, a good part of the people who were shocked were men he had had business dealings with.

He hailed Jim Peters, who was standing with a sober group of men in front of the bank building talking about him. He wanted to tell Jim that just before he’d taken so suddenly sick that afternoon he’d found there wa»a flaw away back in the deed to that Fourth Street property Jim had decided to buy, which might cause trouble later on. John had worked hard to sell Jim on that piece of property, but now he wouldn’t want to see Jim take it with that flaw in the deed. But Jim was saying something about a community loss and didn’t hear.

“If you had ever asked that man what sacrifices he had made for his children,” the minister, sitting in his study but not being able to think about his Sunday sermon because of the news about John Jerome, was

Here's one of the most unusual stories we've ever published— It's the story of a man who went to Heaven, of what he saw there, and of what happened when he wanted to come back

musing thoughtfully, “he’d have said, ‘None.’ ”

That was right. He had not sacrificed anything. He only wished he could have really done something for them. They had made him mighty proud always, Herbert and Meg. His eyes softened a little, thinking about his little girl. He supposed he always would think of her as that, although she was almost 20 now. He loved her so much—the quick laughter of her, then the shyness, the glow in her eyes, the warmth of her awkwardness at times of real feeling.

Suddenly he stopped short and turned around. The Gunther boy’s convertible was pulling up in front of the house. The boy had started coming around a good deal just before he had left for the Army. John had tried to keep back out of it but he had wondered, a little uneasily. Paul Gunther belonged to a wild young set in town, that played pretty fast and free, John had heard. He had been relieved when Paul had left. But now he was here again.

Earlier in the afternoon John had watched him driving off with Meg—laughing and talking. He had seemed unusually excited about being with her again, as though he hadn’t known what he wanted until he had been away from it for a while. Now he was bringing her home—and there was a silence between them.

John’s fists clenched white and he started back. He was a gentle sort but even the gentlest can turn sheer savage and beat to a pulp a world that hurts his child. If that boy had spoiled anything for Meg . . .

And then he stopped. They had got out of the car and were walking toward the house, their hands safe and trusting in each other’s. They were smiling at each other a little, about something that had come into their hearts and brains and was making them glad.

“Everything is so right in your arms ...” Meg was whispering it, as though with the amazement of discovery, as just outside the house door, in some shared will of the instant, they drew swiftly close again.

And the boy answered her huskily, “Why shouldn’t it be? Everything right is in them. Oh, Meg, you’re sweet and fine and dear, and I love you, and will forever.”

But Meg’s amazement stayed—and John’s eyes misted a little to know that it always would, with a freshness it would never lose—an amazement at the tendernass of the loved arms around her; their strength, the goodness of the lips brushing her eyes, her cheeks; the naturalness, the seriousness then of their kiss as she lifted her lips to meet his.

John had wondered, and now he wondered why he had.

When they separated they stood looking at each other an instant, with the deep brightness of their eyes coming from so far in it showed only as a quiet brightness.

Then the boy opened the door.

“Shall I tell her?” Meg asked him softly. “Or will you?”

“We’ll tell her together,” he said and went in with her.

“Mother—” called Meg.

And John, who had forgotten during that brief space of his happiness in Meg’s happiness, felt the old sense of left-outness. They were going into the house to tell Laura. It was all right. Their mother naturally always had been the one the children went to. And while he’d understood, and never in any way been resentful, still it hurt a little, especially right now, that his little girl was not even thinking about him — that it had not occurred to her that he might be interested, too, in the most important thing that had ever happened to her.

He sighed at the truth that he had never been easily in his family’s confidence, although he had wanted to be, oh very much. But he had gone about things awkwardly, he realized, the more awkwardly perhaps because he so eagerly meant well. He could

not blame the children for having lived through and around him, as though he were not there, except for their impatience with him.

John knew he taxed Herbert’s patience especially. Herbert’s mind was so clear and he thought so straight—and John was such a hesitant sort. Backward about expressing himself anyway, when he did talk he often paused halfway through a sentence—a maddening pause for Herbert. John realized, meekly, that often he embarrassed Herbert, and that he must be a cause of real irritation with him, for Herbert was not impatient with other people.

In fact John admired very much the kind of easy iron of his son’s general makeup. Herbert was a tall fellow, and too thin, with the whole life of him in his lean, thought-lined face, and in the eyes, that could sit back tolerantly in humor, or seem to come forward and harden to glittering points of challenge. For some time now John had been holding his profeasor son in raspectful awe, but never more so than at this moment.

Herbert was still at the college, in the president’s office, when John looked in. He seemed deeply pleased about something, and as excited as John had ever seen his quietly controlled son. He was springing up quickly from the big dark leather chair opposite the president’s. He walked over to the mantel at the other side of the room and wheeled and came back again, unconsciously knocking the fist of one hand into the palm of the other. President Winans was watching him, with that light of satisfaction in his eyes of seeing a good thing starting.

“I think I’m as glad to see you have this chance as anyone else could be, probably. My son, Copley, you know, is in that class of yours of boys who’ve been over—and come back. And it’s hard for them to settle down. Even though they want a normal life —the kind they’d have had anyway—the routine spade work they’ve got to put in now to build it up again is apt to come up short— after all they’ve been through. But I hear them talking over at the house, laughing about some of the jokes you pull. And when they get restless and get in a jam—you seem to be the one they come to, and you squeak them through. They’re very young, even yet, in spite of everything—but I don’t need to tell you that.

“And when they get disgusted and discouraged—you seem to know how to talk to them and they buckle down again. Their records show they’re working hard for you, and they’ve got a bigger job ahead to work at than maybe they realize. Now, as Head of your Department, you’ll have a chance to broaden that field of activity.”

John did not hear the rest of it because of a banging in his chest and pounding in his ears.

If anybody had asked him what it was he would have said, “Pride!” He was fairly bursting with it. His son, Herbert, the head of a department at the college! He got himself out of there in awkward haste—he wouldn’t embarrass Herbert by intruding on a moment like that for anything in the world . . .

Still he felt a little at a loss after he left.

While there was all satisfaction in seeing both his children so well-established there also was a

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Continued from page 24

tion table to go over a plat where some ! new restrictions were going through, with John making a list of property owners who should be seen about it right away.

Adjoining his were other offices,

I with substantial-looking men occupyJ ing them assuredly. St. Peter explained ; that all these men would be working under John. John gave his head a jerky nod, kind of grinned, and both he and St. Peter knew that John would work much harder than any of them. Now though, since this was Heaven, maybe he would get some of the credit, too.

St. Peter took the elevator down, leaving John to fiddle around and grow accustomed to his new domain. He discovered the radiator under the window seat, ran the Venetian blinds up and down a couple of times, tried the telephone to see if there actually was a private switch at the other end of the Une, and then brought himself up short in the midst of all this foolishness, his eyes crinkling up guiltily at realization that his secretary was watching him.

She was a slim, very smart-looking girl who always had been dumpily fat in life and never seemed able to get away from her job in a smelly thirdrate restaurant kitchen long enough to go to business college. She had seen enough of the world to appreciate the honest, timid sweetness of this man who was to be her boss. She did not stare disdainfully, nor laugh at his naïveté, but said, in a friendly way:

“This is all very nice, isn’t it?”

“My shaking his head. “It is that. I wish the children could see it. And Laura - Laura’s my wife.”

“Yes, I know—” in such a way as to let him go on talking about Laura.

“You know, this seems kind of funny and not quite right, somehow, to go off someplace without her.”

“You must have been ideally happy,” and the secretary sighed, just a little.

Then John, being essentially a truthful man, had to fall silent. Although all at once he had a great desire to eulogize Laura. He wanted to say what a stanch woman she was— how if she once made a bargain she stuck to it even though it turned out to be not a good one for her. He wanted to tell how faithfully she had stayed by him through all their hard times. He wanted to tell about what a smart woman Laura was, and how pretty . . . He was remembering suddenly the first time he had ever seen her. That was the night she had come to the entertainment at the little country school down the river, where her people had a summer place. The room had been crowded, with all the seats taken, and she had come and stood beside him against the wall. He had been too shy to look at her directly, but he had been intensely aware of her there beside him, and had felt excited and happy without knowing w'hy. There was just something about Laura that had struck him that first time he ever saw her, and he’d never got over it. But somehow he’d never been in the habit of saying these things to her, and it seemed not quite the thing, now, to be glib with someone else.

He was relieved that one of the men from the other offices came in just then.

“Hello, Jerome,” he said. “Glad to have you with us,” and he and John shook hands heartily.

One by one then the other men came dropping in, and stayed around, talking of this and that, and laughing a good deal over some boner one of their I number had made. John gathered the one they were ridiculing was a cocksure sort and not popular with his fellow realtors. Altogether he got in on enough of the heavenly gossip going

around to feel fairly well in the swing of things by dinnertime.

Also, he found some people he knew at his table. There was a good-hearted but very ordinary couple for one, in whom Laura had never been interested but with whom he used to enjoy passing a neighborly half hour or so as he would go by. Invariably this would make him late on the days Laura most expected him early. He must have been a trial to Laura—in little ways as well as big ones; he was such a common fellow.

There was another familiar figure at his table—-a thin eagle of an old woman, and upper crust so thick you could see it coming. She wore her diamonds with an air, and as though she didn’t have to. Laura had known her a little, but John did not expect her to recognize him, and he was chary with his glances in her direction. But after dinner she came sweeping around and greeted him so cordially he longed mightily for Laura to be there to see.

Later St. Peter stopped by to see how he was getting on. St. Peter remembered that he liked fishing, and took him down to the river where a couple of men were building a fire and preparing to make a night of it.

In a month, or maybe a year—or maybe a moment—time being no matter up there, one way and another, John Jerome knew nearly everyone in the east end of Heaven, besides a goodly number from other sections, whom he met in a business way. John was the kind of a man who knew about folks’ families, asked how their children were getting along and rejoiced in their successes. He made a great many friends in his work from house to house on the new petition. (After all, he was working harder than his men, but he was interested in the petition and anxious that it go through— it would be a great thing for the east end.)

He walked and walked, but his feet did not hurt him up here as they had on the earthly pavements. He would not have mentioned his earlier trials except for his pleasure in small talk. He was busy, but not harassingly so. At times he frankly loafed on the corner of some fellow’s desk while they talked of matters in no way connected with business.

Although in late years John’s eyes had carried a hurt, beaten look, with their twinkle almost pathetically eager to come out from behind on only half a chance—by nature he was a friendly, happy sort of person, and he began to find himself chuckling frequently in Heaven, and to feel absurdly content. His eyes became engagingly young again, thoughtfully interested, gently roguish. And their twinkle was leaping easily again now.

Often they talked about their own children. John felt more than satisfied with his. And although he was not apt with words he managed to get in their accomplishments—about how Herbert was being made the head of his department at the college, and seemed well on the way to be one of the coming young educators. Meg had no especial talents, except that of having a good time living, in her own shy kind of way—and being bappy-—which, after all, is a woman’s way of being a success. He didn’t say it exactly like that, but he said what a nice girl she was, and that she was marrying a boy who would be good to her.

Once a discussion of legacies came up—what the men had left behind for their children to start on again, after the trouble was all over. And once again then John stood back at the edge, maddening in that wistful, selfeffacing way of his.

“I’ve never done much for Herbert and Meg, I guess. Their mother’s given them everything that matters.’

But immediately he said that he

realized it was not altogether so. He wa ?eing again down into the college prt. .ent’s office. President Winans was leaning back in his chair, now musingly—“You know, Herbert, 1 keep thinking about your father in all this. He happened to be selling some property for me when the news came that Copley was missing in action. Mistaken news, thank God. But those were black days for a while. It’s strange how different the world looks in sorrow than in gladness. It’s like seeing by night what you’ve known by day. Sorrow is a strange thing. It makes you wonder what’s real in the world, what there is that stays through night and day too— for they’re both important, and one’s as surely there as the other.

“Your father gave me an answer maybe not the answer, but an answer. He struck me as a very simple man, with a very simple trait kindness.

“In a way you’re very much like him in that. And it can be a strong trait; it can be the trait of a leader. There is a kind of simple authority about it that makes something inside people stand up. You’ve had a great heritage, Herbert ...”

And then an odd thing happened. It was Herbert who was starting a sentence and not finishing it.

“My father—’’hesaid, and stopped -as though at something that mere words sickened before.

And John had to turn away his head, for the tears that were warm and unexpectedly good to feel against his lids—not for what the president was saying that implication was so big he scarcely associated himself with it but because in that unfinished sentence of Herbert’s he heard how it was, suddenly, between his son and him.

And then he knew something else. It was something Meg did not know yet.

“Mother ...” She was in the hall now, and calling again, happily. That was what John knew. He had given his little girl something invaluable lhat inward invincible happiness of hers, along with the blue of her eyes. He, John, had done that!

John’s face was shining, and bis heart was warmed at these revelations. But, of course, he made no mention of them to the other men. They did not exactly go with stocks and bonds, and travel.

Although there might very well be those things for Laura now, if that chemical deal went through. Laura could begin to enjoy freely now all the things she loved—all that went into the gracious way of living that was so rightfully hers.

But he grew troubled as he looked at Laura. A moment is not long, but a great many things can happen in it. Nothing had happened to Laura. She was still standing there, staring out the window. It struck John then that it was strangely as though Laura was the one from whom life had gone.

A wind outside lifted. It was only a slight wind, only setting the maple to stirring a little. But the movement caught her attention. She lifted her gaze slightly, to the infinite clarity of the sky through the intricate lacing of tree branches in that moment. Then

it was not a thought, not even a sense of feeling yet; but more a knowledge that came lifting through her whole being —

Oh, John, my love, my life . . .

It came up through to John, and he felt the soul of him welling with the whole fullness of wonder. He had hoped, a little at first, that Laura would make some sign for him to come back. But he had never dreamed it was like this with her. They never had been much to say this kind of thing to

each other. But he was remembering \ again now the way she had taken her i place beside him that first night at the schoolhouse —as though something made her want to be there; something made her feel that that was where she belonged, there beside him. It had not changed for Laura then, either, even during all these hard years. He should have guessed that, though they wouldn’t have hurt each other so sometimes, if they still hadn’t cared so much.

And thinking that, John left the office the office where he was deferred to, and respected. He walked fast down the street where everybody always spoke to him, and was glad to see him. But when he found St. Peter he had to hem and haw, and say a few irrelevant things before he could make himself get around to the point, for it was quite a big thing he was asking—that he go back. St. Peter was dumbfounded, even pained. Hesaid:

“Why, John, wasn’t everything all right up here?”

All the companionable joy of his time there leaped to John’s eyes, and his head went into that sideways emphasis he had.

“Oh, everything’s been fine. You’ve been nice —extra nice—”

If the two of them had been on earth at John’s house at the moment, he would have followed his usual embarrassingly eager cordiality and insisted that St. Peter take something of anything that happened to be around —a glass of homemade grape juice, some flowers from the garden, any information about real estate that he wanted something to show his gratitude for the head saint’s kindness and his friendship. But as it was he could only shift from one foot to the other and at last come around to his reason.

“It’s Laura . . . ”

The head saint frowned, perhaps from impatience, perhaps from incredulity.

“Do you mean that Laura wants you to come back to her?”

Hearing it put so directly, John felt surprised at it himself, all over again. But he said:

“That’s it. Laura wants me to come back.” And when he said it his head went up in simple pride.

“But you’re leaving Heaven!” St. ¡ Peter did not seem to feel John quite | understood that. “You’re leaving ¡ perfect bliss. It won’t be all joy and gladness down there, even now.”

“I know that,” John said it a trifle shortly. He was anxious to get started. He was beginning to feel excited, as though he and Laura were starting ofF on a trip someplace. “We’ve had our ups and downs before, you know,” he told St. Peter, “but through it all I ; guess we’ve built up something pretty good together.”

St. Peter stood studying him. He shook his head over that incurable trick of John’s of throwing away his advantage, even to the extent of Heaven. But he was smiling a little, too, and suddenly hesaid:

“Well, why not?”

He laid an affectionate hand on John’s shoulder and walked with him as far as the gate. At the gate he called after him:

“Have a good time, John . . .” and then stood a while, watching him out of sight, and smiling a little again as he heard John begin to whistle softly to himself as he went hustling back.

Suddenly the doctor started, and swore.

“Good Lord, I might have known ; it!” His fingers tightened on John’s : quickening pulse. “I might have known that heart of John’s wouldn’t go back on him!”