One day Jan met Bob. And they got to talking.
“What’s your favorite food, Bob?” asked Jan.
“Broccoli,” said Bob. “I like the green taste.”
“What green taste? How can a color have a taste?”
“It just does,” said Bob. “You can taste smells, why can’t you taste colors?”
“Because it doesn’t work like that,” said Jan. “You can taste smells because they interact with your taste sensors through your nasal cavity that goes into your mouth. Colors stay in the eye where they belong. You can’t taste a color.”
“But I eat broccoli and I know that it’s green, just from the taste,” said Bob. “I know what green tastes like, and it’s broccoli. Just because you don’t have that ability, don’t say it doesn’t exist. Can you tell what note I’m talking in? Because some people know that just by looking at the vibrations.”
“That’s because…” Jan started, but she decided to give up on this argument. There was no point, she decided, in pointing out that vibrations caused sound while colors had nothing to do with the taste.
“What about lettuce?” thought Jan suddenly. “It’s green, but it tastes different. What do you say to that?”
“It’s a different color of green,” said Bob. “It’s lighter. And besides, lettuce has too much water, and that’s clear. So it’s different.”
“And green apples?” asked Jan, hopefully. “They taste different from lettuce, and any other green plant, but they don’t have that different a color.”
“Apples are a fruit, so they have sugar. That’s a difference,” said Bob, picking up a grape from the bowl on the table and turning it around between his thumb and finger, peering at it as if entranced, before popping it quickly into his mouth and returning to his thoughts about colorful food. “Grapes can be green, too, but not quite the same color, and they aren’t quite the same taste. Everything is slightly different colors, so they taste different, but spinach and broccoli are closer than carrots, aren’t they? Broccoli is the real green because it’s my favorite.”
Jan was exasperated. “It’s the chemicals in the plants that make them taste so similar. The pigments. It’s not the wavelength that happens to be emitted from the food, it’s the composition. Tasting color is ridiculous.”
“Just because there’s a reason for the color doesn’t mean that you can’t just call it the color. I mean, the sound is really the vibration, but we call it based on the sound. Everything is really something else, but we call it by what it looks like because it’s easier, and it’s still true. I can taste green, and that’s the end of it.” There was a finality to his tone that, with his current preoccupation with his shirt button, allowed Jan to simply sigh and let the matter to rest. She would bring it up later, she was sure, but not just yet. It was a ridiculous argument, anyway, they both had to know it.
“What are you doing here today, Bob?” asked Jan, her head tilted towards the blinds on the window, looking out onto a garden with an oak tree in the center, framed by vines crawling up the adjacent walls and small hedges along the outside. There were toadstools that formed circles underneath the tree, perhaps the playing-ground of fairies in some time long-past. A beetle flicked its wings and examined the dirt in front of it, before flying off to some other place. The clouds moved quickly overhead.
“I’m waiting,” said Bob. “What about you?”
“What are you waiting for?” asked Jan, ignoring his question.
“You know, I ask myself that question sometimes,” answered Bob absently. “I should probably just get it over and done with, but I’m just too nervous about what will happen if I do it too soon. So I wait until another day, for another day.”
Puzzled by this cryptic answer, Jan decided to answer her side of the question. “I’m here for the hockey,” said Jan, looking at Bob out of the corner of her eye to see if he showed signs of understanding. He remained extremely interested in his button.
“What hockey?” asked Bob. “Do they have hockey in heaven?”
“I don’t see what heaven has to do with it,” said Jan, “but they do have it here, at the skating rink just down the way.”
“It’s not like heaven really exists, anyway.”
At this, Bob seemed to suddenly lose interest in the button and instead was transfixed with a spot on the wall, just above the doorway, near a hanging dog and cat that together held a sign that read, “It’s raining.”
“Why do you say there’s no heaven?” asked Bob. “There’s always heaven in stories—it’s a message.”
“Not in this one,” Jan assured him. “The author of this story is an atheist.”
“Really?” Bob asked, legitimately surprised. He looked straight at Jan and asked, “Where are we, then?”
“Where?” asked Jan. “We’re at the public library bus stop. Route 102, Tuesdays and Fridays at 5, 5-fifteen, and 6-thirty. It’s just outside. Where else could we be?”
“I didn’t know,” said Bob, absently again. “I was too busy pondering whether to wait or just do it before I found myself here and sat down. A bit of a distance off, though, wasn’t I?”
“You were so far away it became imaginary,” said Jan. “How could you be in heaven, you would have to die first.”
“I could have died and not known it, like Bruce Willis,” said Bob. “Anyway, I’ve never been here before. It could have been heaven.”
“This wouldn’t be heaven,” said Jan. “Where would God fit into it? And everyone else who has died? There’s only a couple of rooms, not enough room for all of that.”
“I don’t know,” said Bob. “I still say it could be heaven.”
He was watching the shadows of his feet moving across the floor and trying to make animals and airplanes with them. “What do you think heaven would be like?” asked Bob.
“It’s in the clouds, isn’t it?” said Jan. “I mean, according to the story of it. God’s got a beard and he sits on a throne and he has a little minion man with a pointed hat who has a book with all of the people in the whole world, and your name is in it, and you get to hear everything bad you ever did, and then all the good things, and then God asks you a question, and decides whether you go to heaven or hell. There’s no limbo anymore, after all.”
“I always pictured it differently,” said Bob. “I thought it would be more like a forest where there was a babbling brook from a little waterfall, and a tree and a snake—“
“That’s the garden of Eden,” interrupted Jan.
“Oh, right,” said Bob, slightly injured. “Well, I pictured them the same, anyway. Heaven is like the beginning of everything, too, so that’s why I think of it like that, I guess. And you look in the pool, and you see God, and if you can look at him without being ashamed of your life, then you belong in heaven, because all of heaven is God and you have to be able to live with yourself in his presence.”
“I’ve never heard anything like that,” said Jan. She looked out the facing window, which framed the bench and overhang where the bus would stop. She shifted the large bag which had been leaning uncomfortably against her leg, and stayed quiet for a moment.
“If I die, I hope I go to heaven,” said Bob. He was now gazing at the ceiling, which was covered with the white, textured popcorn covering often found in homes that were built or decorated in the 80s. “I think it would be nice to see all the people who you miss again.”
“I don’t miss anyone,” said Jan. “I mean, my mom and dad died before I got a chance to meet them, and I don’t know anyone else who died. I mean, there are people I’d like to see, but they aren’t dead, so going to heaven wouldn’t help that.
“And after all, how would you find the twenty or so people you know in all the people who ever died? Wouldn’t you still be alone?”
“No,” Bob said quietly but decisively. “You would be with them, because they would be waiting for you.” He had a furrow in his brow as he looked at his knuckles through his spectacled eyes. “There would be no point if heaven was just a big hospital waiting room, or a concert hall. It has to be a place for people who love each other to spend time together and just talk and see each other again.”
“Would you really want to be with the same group of people your whole life?” asked Jan. “I mean, haven’t you gotten tired of most people by the time you die anyway? Or at least at certain points in your life you get tired of people and change groups or move. Infinity is an awful long time.” She leaned forward in the cushioned armchair, bringing her legs up to sit on them.
“I would,” said Bob. “There are people I love, and I always will.”
“It stinks we’re in a story, now,” added Bob. “I would have liked to go to heaven.” And with that, he flicked his latest object of interest, a rectangular plastic piece, and instantly lit into flames. Jan screamed and jumped back from the table where they had been sitting and covered her eyes. She grabbed her pack from where it had fallen beside the chair and then backed away from the now-subsiding flames, still aghast. There was a lingering scent of gasoline, and Jan had a vision of his stringy, seemingly greasy hair.
Through her fingers, she noticed that the bus had appeared outside the window. Still befuddled, Jan hoisted the bag on her shoulder and hurried out the door, but looking almost lost as she made her way to the bus and found a seat near the front. As the bus pulled away, she looked back at the building but could see nothing inside, blocked from view by the oak tree.
Breathing deeply, Jan tried to put the horrifically bizarre event out of her mind. She shifted in the seat and peered out the window at the mix of run-down and just-built businesses beside the road. Sams Auto: You Pay, We Repair and Dots, Donuts, and Dunces passed by as the bus made the five-minute ride to the ice rink. As Jan stepped off the bus and the bus drove away, she caught a whiff of smoke from a charcoal grill and cringed. She put her head down and stepped through the door to see the familiar desk where skates were rented and entrance tickets purchased. Jan walked purposefully towards it and asked for a single entrance ticket, greeting the cashier Ryan in the meantime.
“How have you been lately?” asked Ryan, taking the twenty-dollar bill and sorting the thirteen-thirty-three change.
“How lately?” Jan mused. “All right, I guess. How about you? Did you decide to try out for the opening?”
“Nah, I don’t have the time,” replied Ryan, counting out the bills and coins into her outstretched hand. “Just answer me this one thing, though.” He reached into his pockets and pulled out a stick of Juicy Fruit gum, still in a slightly worn wrapper. “Would you say this has more of a red or pink taste?”
Jan, who had been putting away the money in her wallet, looked at him suddenly. “What?” she asked.
“Red or pink, taste it,” repeated Ryan. He plastered a smile on his face and thrust the gum towards her, which she caught clumsily, and hesitatingly opened. It was a pinkish color, but covered with that white coating that comes with older gum. She placed it in her mouth, allowing it to bend, surge with flavor, and mix with the juices of her mouth. She thought, chewing slowly.
“Red,” she decided. “Definitely red.”