I died last night, but no worries, it was only for about four hours. The good news? I saw heaven and was given instructions to bring back to y’all. One minute I was sitting on the couch watching Seinfeld re-runs, the next, I blanked out, just as George started whining, and I was standing before…the pearly gates?
OK, so here’s the thing; there aren’t any pearly gates, no clouds, no angels, no choirs. I stood before what looked like a DMV counter in a Kmart in some part of Oklahoma. And it wasn’t St. Peter behind the counter, it was my fifth grade English teacher, Mrs. Reilly.
“Next!” she yelled.
“Um, you’re not St. Peter—”
“Yeah,” she drawled, “and you ain’t Brad Pitt. We moved old Petey in 1919. Or, as we like to call him, ‘The Original Rock.’ We Grammarians have taken over. Do you have your ticket?”
“Ticket? For what?”
“To get in. Are you dead or not?”
“Um, I’m not sure. It’s me, Mrs. R, don’t you remember me?”
She squinted, stared. “No, I don’t. That’s part of what heaven’s all about. We don’t have to remember all you rug-rats. Here, look at this chart.” She pulled a mini-whiteboard from under her desk. “First line. Pick the right word.” She pointed with her long, cherry-red fingernail at a sentence.
I read aloud as she made a “oh-good-Lord” face. You forgot _________ toothbrush for heaven. Your or You’re. “Well,” I began, I think it’s—”
“It ain’t rocket surgery, Brad,” she tapped the board impatiently with her nail.
“Well, that would be your. Not the contraction. If you read the contraction aloud—you are—it doesn’t make sense.”
She grumbled. “Lucky guess. Here, read this one.” ____________ going to pick up _________ car.
There were three possible answers for the blanks. They’re, there, and their.
“Uh,” I began. I think this is a trick question—”
“There’s no trick,” she snapped. “We’re at the gates of heaven for Christ’s sake. Quit stalling. Or does Beelzebub have your tongue?” And she sniggered.
“Well,” I began, pointing at the blanks. “You’d start with the contraction they’re and then it would be their before car. Possessive.There is no there, there.” And I laughed. “Get it? There ther—”
Perturbed, she tossed the whiteboard aside, grabbed another mini-board from beneath her counter, banged it down. “OK Mr. Linguist. Check this out.”
By this time, a small crowd had gathered. I didn’t see any angels or wings or harps. No halos. It felt more like an English convention in Late July, somewhere in Kansas, maybe the Colorado mountains. I spotted half a dozen sweaters with apples; most everyone was wearing sensible shoes. And there were an inordinate number of tote bags with ecology slogans.
The circle closed in, intense stares, these flat smiles. I didn’t feel threatened, more this overwhelming sense of passive judgement, a seething desire by this crowd to take whatever I said or wrote and…edit it down to the jot and tittle.
Mrs. R. was smiling triumphantly as I studied the board, thinking she had me stumped. I initially couldn’t spot the error. I recognized this test as that line from the beginning of Star Trek: To boldly go where no man has gone before. Was it the man? Sexist language? No, I decided, I was pretty sure they’d changed the language after the Tribbles and before the Gorn.
Then it hit me, like a bolt from…well, heaven. “To boldly go” I began. “That’s a split infinitive.” And I smiled.
“Damn!” She ripped the board in half with an impulse of rage. There was a collective gasp from the crowd. “We’re not finished here,” she announced, turning toward the crowd, using her most officious, you’re-in-big-trouble-mister, teacher voice. She pulled out a pack of Marlboros, lit one up, blew a puff of smoke in my face. “There are many mansions in this house, mister. Hang on. You were never more than a C student.”
And for the next hour, she flashed board after board, parallel structure, passive voice, lie and lay. The cigarette butts piled up, the crowd grew. She nearly got me with affect/effect. (I remembered the old, “A is for action, action equals verb.”)
Finally, she stopped. Stubbed out her cigarette, waved the crowd away.
“So,” I began, “am I in?”
She snorted. “Not likely. You ain’t getting in, not today, Satan.” She sat back, exhaled. “We need you to go back, spread the word, let folks know the most important…” she struggled to find the right word. “The most important thing! You know?”
“Forgiveness?” I offered.
“No,” she waved me off.
“Ha!” It was a derisive laugh. “You see all those?” She pointed behind her where there were rows and rows of giant trash bins. “You know what those are? Prayers. Unanswered. Oh, we try, don’t get me wrong, but you wouldn’t believe the spelling, the grammar… it’s painful.”
“So, what message am I taking back?’
“Two things,” she said, staring right through my soul. One: Grammar matters. Two: There is no such word as ‘supposably.’ That’s it.”