Jon A. Beadle was born and raised in England until he grew tired of never seeing the sun and left for the warmer climate of California. Though...read more it turned out almost no one could understand his accent, he was able to overcome this obstacle to complete a M.A. in English from California State University, Northridge. He is happily settled in his new home, though he does occasionally miss culinary delights from back home such as sausage rolls and Twiglets.
AROUND MIDDAY ON FRIDAY, while on his way down to the lobby to pick up his mail, Smith notices an angel floating facedown in the apartment complex swimming pool. Since Smith is an atheist, he pretends not to see it and continues on to collect his mail from box 205. There’s only a single letter waiting for him and it’s a junk offer from a mail order steak company, which is especially pointless as Smith doesn’t care for red meat. Mostly he eats chicken as it’s pretty versatile. Some of Smith’s favorite dishes include chicken curry, chicken tacos, and chicken alfredo (with mustard seeds in the sauce to give it a little extra flavor).
After checking his mail, Smith returns to his room to resume work on his current project. At the moment, he is constructing a one-to-one scale replica of a telephone booth out of wooden toothpicks. He’s not doing it for any special reason; it just seems like a decent way to pass the time when he isn’t working. The booth is tall, almost up to the ceiling, and occupies the center of Smith’s apartment. Three of its sides are already finished, but, so far, it lacks a door, allowing anyone to walk right into it without restriction. Over the last few months, the booth has come to dominate more and more of Smith’s life. For instance, he keeps his hair short after getting glue in it one time and only wears old clothes so that he’s always ready to work on the booth whenever the mood strikes him.
Now that the phone booth is almost finished, Smith is starting to wonder what he should do with it. He lives in a small studio apartment and it takes up far too much room. On the other hand, considering the fortune he spent on toothpicks, getting rid of it seems like a waste. He’s putting the final touches on the change return slot and considering whether he could convince an art museum to take it off his hands when the phone rings. This strikes him as odd since it’s made of wood and not even connected to a phone line, but he picks up the receiver because that’s what one does when a phone rings.
“Hello?” he says, pausing before adding, “Who is it?”
The voice that responds is clear and loud, with an accent that sounds familiar, though Smith can’t quite place it.
“Hello, Smith. This is the angel floating in the pool downstairs. You saw me earlier. If it is not too much trouble, could you please lend me a hand in getting out?”
“Sure thing,” Smith replies, not because he cares about the angel now, but rather that ignoring a direct request would be rude.
Smith replaces the receiver back on the hook, carefully so he doesn’t break anything, leaves his room, and goes downstairs to the pool. The angel is still in the same facedown position as before, with its white robe swirling like a cloud in the water around it. With its drooping wings, it looks like a dead bird. Once, when he was a child, Smith found a bird that had drowned in his dog’s water bowl. As best as he could tell, the bird had flown into the sliding glass doors at the back of his parents’ house and ricocheted into the bowl, where, with both its wings broken, it had perished. Instructed by his father to dispose of it, Smith had gingerly fished the bird out, using a paper towel so he didn’t have to touch it directly, and then flung it down the dirt bank at the far end of the garden. Unfortunately, the dog, a well-intentioned but not too bright boxer named Rocky, saw this and, thinking it was a game, rushed off to retrieve the bird. Smith had chased Rocky all around the garden, trying to get him to drop the bird that dangled from his jaws by one crooked wing. Eventually, Smith gave up and went inside to play video games until his father yelled at him for not doing what he had been asked to do.
Since he doesn’t want to get wet, Smith crouches at the side of the pool and grabs the corner of the angel’s robe so he can pull it over. When it’s close enough, Smith lifts the angel out of the water by its shoulders. It's extremely light, like a balloon that threatens to float away into the sky if one relaxes their grip on it for even a second, which makes sense if it is an angel. Smith doesn’t believe in angels though. He sets it down on the ground and, almost immediately, its eyes open and it sits up.
“Thank you for the help. I had faith you would come for me,” it says, sounding genuinely thankful and making eye contact with Smith.
It’s an awkward moment, considering he ignored the angel before, so Smith looks away without saying anything. He finds it difficult to know how to react due to his inability to identify the angel’s sex. Its face is charmingly prepubescent, though it looks almost as tall as Smith himself, and the flowing robe conceals any other physical identifiers. Its voice is melodic and perhaps slightly high pitched, but not enough to make a definitive conclusion.
“Would you mind terribly if I came back to your place to dry off? I am afraid I really cannot go anywhere in this state,” the angel continues, showing no sign of being aware of Smith’s discomfort.
“That’s fine,” says Smith.
He leads the drenched angel up to his room and shows it to the tiny bathroom. Smith provides the angel with a spare towel and is about to leave it and go back to work on the phone booth when the angel realizes it has misplaced its halo. It asks Smith if he could possibly go back down to the pool and see if it’s there. Smith sighs in slight annoyance, but not loud enough for the angel to hear, and goes downstairs. He checks all around the pool area, including under all the chairs and inside the barbecue placed in the corner, but can’t find it anywhere. He’s about to give up when he spots the halo resting on the bottom of the pool. Typical, he thinks to himself, now he has to get wet after all. There’s no other way of reaching it and so Smith strips down to his underwear and jumps in. Before he started building the phone booth, Smith was a regular swimmer, spending most of his weekday nights swimming lengths down at the YMCA. Despite having a pool right outside his door, Smith preferred to go to the YMCA as it was bigger and organized so the casuals could splash around in their own section without interrupting the serious swimmers.
Though he hasn’t been in the water for months, the short dive down to retrieve the halo is no trouble at all. With the halo in one hand and his dry clothes in the other, Smith returns to his room to find the angel naked and busy examining the phone booth. It turns around on hearing Smith enter. Smith is unable to stop his eyes from glancing downwards to check the angel’s genitalia, expecting some clue as to its sex, but he is unable to make out anything recognizable. As best as he can tell, the angel’s apparatus is comprised of a series of small holes with the heads of several wavy strands sticking out, like a wiffle ball filled with spaghetti.
“Don’t worry about it,” the angel says, noticing Smith’s gaze.
Smith, embarrassed at being caught staring, wordlessly hands over the halo and slinks off to the kitchen area to make some coffee for his guest. He fills a small metal kettle with water and sets it on the stove to boil. In the meantime, the angel has returned to studying the phone booth, with its halo tucked under one arm. It runs a hand around the outside of the booth before stepping inside it and prodding the keys on the number pad as if it were trying to call someone.
While the angel is distracted, Smith goes into the bathroom to grab a towel to dry himself off. The angel’s wings and robe are draped over the curtain rail that runs above the bath tub. Smith can’t resist checking the status of the toilet seat, but not only is it down, the lid is too, which tells him nothing. As Smith doesn’t recall ever putting the lid down, he can only assume the angel did it purposely to confound him and this thought annoys him. The kettle starts to whistle, distracting Smith from his observations. He turns the stove off and pours the water into two identical black mugs before adding a couple of spoonfuls of instant coffee.
“Do you want cream and sugar?” he calls out.
“I am a vegan, so soy milk if it is available, please,” the angel calls back from inside the booth, “No sugar, thank you.”
As it happens, Smith does have soy milk. Several years ago, a then coworker of Smith’s advised him to avoid dairy products when attempting to get over a cold. The explanation involved something about mucus buildup, which wasn’t especially convincing, but Smith remembered it the next time he got sick. Afterward, he simply fell into the habit of buying soy over regular milk, although any potential health benefits are no doubt negated by the large amount of cheese he consumes on a daily basis.
Smith pours soy milk into both mugs, adding a pinch of sugar to his, and gives them a quick stir using a stray toothpick that’s lying about. He carries them over to the angel, who steps out of the booth to take a cup from Smith’s hand. It takes a sip.
“Yes, this is good,” it says, nodding its head in satisfaction.
The two of them slowly drink their coffee in silence, Smith in his underwear, the angel naked. Smith tries to think of explanations for how the angel ended up in the swimming pool. Though not obvious from his quiet personality, Smith is quite an imaginative person. Consequently, he is able to come up with ten different theories regarding the angel’s presence, although, on reflection, seven of them are obviously implausible. There’s no real point to this mental exercise, other than to distract Smith from the angel’s spaghetti-like genitalia, which he can’t resist sneaking further glances at. The strands seem to be waving back and forth from within their small holes, swaying hypnotically to an unheard rhythm.
“You are most likely wondering by what circumstances I came to be floating in the pool,” the angel’s voice interrupts Smith’s thoughts.
Smith shrugs noncommittally.
“It was a test,” the angel announces, “to discover what kind of person you are.”
“Ah,” says Smith, “I suppose I failed your test then, since I passed you by earlier without helping.”
The angel chuckles, or rather, Smith assumes that’s what it’s attempting to do. What actually happens is that it opens its mouth slightly and emits an eerie humming noise. Outside, several car alarms go off simultaneously.
“You ignore what does not concern you, but help when asked directly. That is a normal response for a human. It was quite reassuring to find out you were not crazy or otherwise ethically impaired, since several of us were worried on account of the phone booth you are constructing,” the angel says.
“By ‘us,’ you’re referring to other angels, right? I should have mentioned this earlier, but I don’t believe in God or any of that stuff. And the booth is just a hobby,” Smith adds the last line out of an unexpected over-protectiveness towards the phone booth.
The angel finishes the last drops of coffee from its mug and cocks its head like an inquisitive dog. Smith can almost picture a dead bird, hanging by one wing from its mouth.
“Please, Smith. You cannot lie to an angel. Do you really expect us to believe that you were not building that phone booth for the sole purpose of contacting God?”
The existence of God is too big a topic to discuss in Smith’s small room and so they decide to go out. As the angel’s wings and robes still aren’t fully dry, Smith lends some of his clothes to the angel. Smith is feeling less than charitable towards the angel at the moment and gives it an old faded T-shirt and a too-big pair of jeans for it to wear. Annoyingly, the jeans fit perfectly, seeming to shrink to the correct size as the angel pulls them up over its spaghetti ball. The old T-shirt ends up looking stylish, the faded print of a long forgotten clothing logo on the front adding a retro charm. Smith is almost certain the shirt had a hole in it too, which must have spontaneously closed up. The angel hangs its halo over its head and pulls a pair of brown sandals out of nowhere to complete its outfit. It’s now better dressed than Smith, who just put on the old clothes he was wearing earlier. He considers changing his outfit, but he doesn’t want the angel to think he cares about looking better than it.
They leave together, Smith locking the door behind them, and go downstairs, passing the swimming pool as they exit onto the street. It’s mid-afternoon, pleasantly warm with an orange tinge to the light. The angel doesn’t know the area and it’s left up to Smith to decide their destination. They go to Intergalactic Space Bowl, a nearby bowling alley. It’s loud and packed full of people. Smith doesn’t think they’ll be able to get a lane, but the angel suggests he ask anyway and it turns out a group is just leaving. Down at their lane, Smith goes to enter their names into the computer to track their scores when he realizes he doesn’t know what to call the angel.
“Hey, what’s your name?” he asks as casually as possible.
“You can identify me as ‘Angel,’” it says, shrugging, “My true divine name does not translate properly into your language and, in addition, it is far too long to fit on the scoreboard. The best approximation of it would be something like this.”
There’s a pause in the generic rock soundtrack that serves as background noise as all the speakers emit a piercing feedback squeal, followed by a storm of trumpets and voiceless chanting. Everyone throwing a ball at that moment ends up getting a strike, even the girl in lane six who was facing a 7-10 split. The trumpets trail off and the music picks back up.
“That’s a nice name,” comments Smith with obvious sarcasm, typing “Angel” and “Smith” into the computer so the names show up on the TV screen hanging above their heads.
The angel goes first and throws a perfect strike, which doesn’t surprise Smith at all at this point. Smith takes his turn, but his first ball is too far to the right and ends up in the gutter. His second attempt is still off to the right, but manages to knock down three pins on the side. The angel doesn’t gloat or give even a hint of a smirk, which aggravates Smith more than simple mockery would.
“What exactly is the issue with my booth? Why would I want to call God? I told you I don’t even believe in Him.”
“I understand your feelings. Speaking from a personal perspective, I don’t believe He exists either,” the angel replies calmly, walking past Smith to pick up a ball.
Smith raises his eyebrows as high as he can in order to give the angel an extremely incredulous look. His expression is unfortunately wasted as the angel has its back to him, but it seems aware of Smith’s reaction anyway.
“Is that so surprising? Did you think that all angels report directly to God? I am sorry to disappoint you, Smith, but no angel currently existing has actually seen God or spoken with him. We are just told that he is busy with an important task over in another universe and left us to watch over things here. You can naturally see why some of us would have doubts,” the angel delivers the news in an indifferent tone before going on to bowl another strike.
Smith has a few dozen questions to ask, with more coming to mind, but the angel preemptively interrupts him.
“We are not here to talk about me though. This is about you, Smith.”
Despite the angel’s words, they don’t talk about anything for the remainder of the game. The angel wins, throwing a perfect game which entitles it to have its picture put up on the Intergalactic Space Bowl Wall of Fame. A twenty-something employee stops them on the way out to take a photo of the angel, but all the images turn out blurred. The angel tells the guy not to worry about it and they leave him fiddling with the white balance on the camera’s settings.
On their way down the street, they pass a man searching for his lost phone in a children’s playground. The angel tells the man to try looking in the sandbox and, sure enough, the phone emerges after a little digging. The man is overjoyed to find his phone again and thanks the angel profusely while Smith stands off to the side, acutely aware of his uselessness.
After the man leaves, they continue on to Smith’s next selected destination, a small coffee house which goes by the name Cup of Boast. This place is one of Smith’s favorite haunts and he holds the status of being a regular customer, allowing him the privilege of ordering by simply asking for “the usual.” As Smith and the angel enter, he gives the place a quick scan for any of his fellow regulars, but there are only a few college students present. One student, a kid of about eighteen with a pitiful attempt at a goatee on his chin, looks up from a thick chemistry textbook. Smith sees himself reflected in the student’s thick glasses for a second before the boy returns to studying. Turning to the counter, Smith recognizes the boaster (as the baristas who work there are known) on duty and greets him with a nod. The guy is known as “Moby Dick” by the regulars, due to the fact that it was discovered on a past occasion that he had been an English major in college. There was one other reason for the nickname, such as his real name being similar or that he liked whales or something, but Smith can’t recall exactly what it was.
“Hey, Moby. I’ll get my usual, thanks,” Smith says, emphasizing the word “usual” to make his status clear to the handful of students scattered around the various tables.
“You want anything?” he asks the angel.
“Just some water will be fine,” the angel replies.
“And some water for my… friend,” Smith relays the order, pausing just long enough as he decides how to refer to the angel that it’s clear they aren’t actually friends.
While they wait for Moby to prepare Smith’s usual, which takes a while as it’s a fairly complex drink, the angel decides to pick up their previous discussion.
“Tell me, why are you building the booth?” the angel asks, its eyes focused not on Smith, but on the kid with the chemistry book.
“What else would I do?” he replies.
The angel nods without saying anything further and continues to stare at the boy. Smith collects his drink from Moby and pays for it, after making his usual joke about putting it on his tab.
“Are you good to go?” he asks the angel.
“Yes, I believe so,” it says.
Smith wants to ask what the angel finds so interesting about the boy, but he figures it’s none of his business. With drinks in hand, they head back to Smith’s room. The angel seems distracted and doesn’t attempt to speak to Smith on the way.
Smith unlocks the door of his room and enters with the angel following behind. They both stop and look at the phone booth. Then the angel walks past it towards the bathroom.
“Smith, I believe you had no ill intention in creating the booth. However, I am still required to destroy it just to be safe,” the angel says as it disappears into the bathroom, closing the door behind it with a click.
Smith immediately enters the booth and picks up the phone. His hand hovers above the keypad, ready to dial, but he doesn’t know what God’s number would be. 666? No, that’s the devil, he thinks. 777, then? But that’s far too obvious to actually work. 0 for operator? Fitting, but it still doesn’t seem right. Smith decides to use the palm of his hand to press all the keys at once. Holding the receiver to his ear, he hears it ring three times and then a voice speaks.
“The number you have dialed is not available. Please hang up and try again.”
The soothing female voice does nothing to diminish Smith’s disappointment. The angel emerges from the bathroom, clad again in its robe and wings, now dry. It places a hand gently on the side of the phone booth, almost a caress, and it disappears, the receiver vanishing right out of Smith’s hand.
“Farewell,” the angel says as it steps out of Smith’s room into the night.
“Wait,” says Smith.
But the angel is already gone. Smith runs out of his room, frantically trying to catch it before it’s too late. The night is moonless and dark and Smith’s eyes are starting to water from the feeling of having lost something important. With his vision obscured, he takes a wrong turn at the bottom of the stairs and falls into the swimming pool. The water is cold and shocking at first, but after floating there for a few minutes, facedown, it starts to feel pleasant, like resting on a cloud. This must be how the bird felt as it drowned in Rocky’s water bowl, Smith realizes, and he decides it’s not such a bad way to go.
Except, there’s an irritating light shining right in his eyes. He squints through his clouded vision and sees, resting at the bottom of the pool, a halo like the one he retrieved earlier. Smith starts swimming towards the light, down into the cold water. He goes deeper and deeper, until the halo is right before him and he reaches out to grab it. His fingertips brush against the plastic cover of a light set into the base of the pool. The halo, Smith realizes, is no more than a thin ring of light given off by the bulb in the center. The feeling of loss wells up inside of him again. There’s no halo, no phone booth, no angel. All that’s left is a fragile ring of light at the bottom of a pool.
So Smith takes that instead. He wraps his hands around the edges of the light, gently, so that he doesn’t crush it, and carefully starts to turn it like the lid of a jar. It’s stiff at first, having not been moved in a long time, but it becomes easier to turn until it pops free completely. Smith swims back to the surface, clutching the light to his chest, fearing it might disappear into nothingness at any moment.
Smith breaks the surface of the pool and treads water as he catches his breath. Then he kicks his way over to the edge and pulls himself out with one hand, the other still grasping the light. He sits on the side of the pool, not noticing how cold the air is or how his wet clothes cling to his body. He’s too busy thinking of the halo of light in his hands, a light free from any source, a light that could be shaped into anything, like a photo on a bowling alley wall or a reflection in the glasses of a student reading a physics textbook or even a distant person’s voice heard on the telephone. Smith holds the light to his face and slowly presses it against his mouth. It’s warm and soft on his lips and tastes like overcooked spaghetti.
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