Fiction: Angels Out of America

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January 26, 2015

“This was not our agreement.”

The angel said nothing.

“This was not our agreement,” said Jay, trying a different inflection, as though if he stressed the right word he could force his point through. “Our contract said nothing about my family.”

“Except that it would be protected.”

Jay hadn’t realized he had been pacing until he stopped. With a deep breath, he let his hands drop to his sides. The angel’s marble floor was an ancient translucent white, veined with blue, and across from where he stood he could see himself in the floor-to-ceiling window, the huge dark grid of which placed his head in one box, and his neck and shoulders in another. Michael, in his black trench coat and derby, lounged on an antique red velvet loveseat behind him, framed by a carved ornamental fireplace and a life-size portrait of a powdered, well-endowed young woman in a Regency era gown.

This was his first time in the angel’s apartment. Jay had been surprised, when he set out in his chauffeured Town car to confront the angel, that he knew where to direct his driver. Once he arrived, despite his roiling anger, Jay felt compelled as a New Yorker to say,

“This is an incredible loft. How on earth did you find it?”

“The Almighty requested that I situate myself in the city. Please, have a seat.”

Summoning all the authority he could muster, Jay faced Michael. “I don’t want angels talking to my son. He’s eleven years old, for Christ’s sake.”

The angel raised an eyebrow but not his voice. “What the Almighty does is the Almighty’s concern. If we are talking with your son, we certainly do not need your permission.” His tone’s softness coated its finality.

“He’s a minor. I need to sign forms for him to go on field trips. How can you tell me I don’t have a say?”

“This is his destiny.”

“Destiny,” scoffed Jay, shaking his head. He started pulling at the knot of his tie, staring off to the left where he could see a state-of-the-art stainless steel and granite kitchen. Track lighting glinted off copper pots and pans suspended in the air like notes on sheet music.

“Does anyone even cook in that kitchen?”

Michael watched him. Jay finished wrestling with his tie and pulled it through his collar with one hand. With the other, he rubbed the back of his neck. “I forbid it,” he said.

“You’re hurting him.”

“He’s strong.”

“Strong? He hasn’t been sleeping. It’s affecting his performance at school, his friendships. It’s changing him. You have to stop.”

“”Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?’” quoted Michael. His smile was small, the compassion in it well contained. “Your children are part of the plan. Otherwise we would not be speaking to them.”

Silence. Jay could no longer hear the murmur of traffic from the street; the hum of the kitchen’s appliances froze in the air. He stared into the angel’s colorless eyes.

“Children?” he said, his voice that of a general informed he has to fight a two-front war. “Children?”

Some time after Jay stumbled out of the apartment building and turned down Broome to elude his driver, he realized he was walking in the wrong direction. He couldn’t imagine going home and facing his wife, the woman who had given birth to the children he had put in danger and now, worse, couldn’t protect. He walked up Broadway, eyes on the Chrysler Building, fists filling the pockets of his coat. This was his first solo walk since his press conference, after which he had been informed he would be driven where he needed to go for his own safety and comfort. The Town car made him feel like he was in a padded coffin; still, he only needed to be mobbed once by reporters before he acquiesced, for convenience’s sake. But there was no one to notice him tonight.

Raindrops ran over his head like fingers on a keyboard. He flipped up his collar and checked his watch, a present from Abby. Destiny, he thought, in the same contemptuous tone. Americans don’t believe in destiny. That’s why we moved here. His great-grandparents had had destiny back in Poland, destiny to be chopped up and fed to ovens like wood. Destiny was part of the world they left behind.

His great-grandparents would be shocked to hear he had been spoken to by God; and yet he felt relatively untouched by the experience. No holier, no closer to creation. He knew nothing more than he had known at the end of the summer about the mysteries of the universe. His contact with the divine was professional. As for what his children’s contact with the divine would be, it chilled him to consider the possibilities. No. No, it couldn’t be allowed to happen. Somehow he had to make it stop. Jay wanted to scream into the rain, to pound through the windows of that Duane Reade and start throwing the showcased bottles of shampoo left and right. But he hadn’t gone crazy, not yet. He had to think of a plan.

The wind picked up, directing raindrops into his face with the assurance of a traffic cop. As soon as he could turn uptown again, he did, rounding the corner without glancing up to take notice of the street sign. Traffic ran lighter on this avenue, allowing him to listen to the soothing noise the rain made as it disappeared into the asphalt. If he stepped into traffic, would it stop for him, would the guardian angel to which Michael had alluded whisk him out of danger, or would Jay get killed for his trouble? Maybe his getting killed would turn out to have been part of the plan. Well, if it is, damned if I’m going to help it along, he thought. Someone’s going to have to push me in front of a car.

His hands were cold.

He walked and walked. Through Washington Square Park, past the late-night skateboarders and the furtive drug-dealing couples on the benches; up Fifth, as buildings got taller, statelier, more regal, and back to the commercial crudeness of Broadway. Through Union Square where three portly, bearded activists, impervious to the rain, held up an old banner that read, “Peace now! America out of the Middle East!” More current banners, which made Jay laugh despite himself, demanded, “Angels out of America!” Newsstands blared the picture of him in his gray suit, mouth slightly ajar, forehead wrinkles forming. Everyone liked that picture, that same one. Passing by, he never knew whether to slow down, the same way he used to wonder sometimes about pausing to examine his reflection in a store window. Jay hurried on, his shoes grabbing his ankles through his dress socks.

Half an hour and thirty blocks later, he found himself on the balcony facing the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. Tourists jostled for the best angle to view the massive chunk of nature held captive, as though King Kong stood there bound with chains of light. He let himself pause, lean against the three-rung banister, slick from the rain, and catch his breath, watch the universe of steady lights burn against the darkness. A street vendor approached him, offering an umbrella. Jay waved the man away.

As he leaned on the banister, breathing unevenly, shifting his weight to his forearms, marveling that he had walked sixty blocks, the tree exploded into flames. Hellish light distorted the faces of the ice skaters and the tourists, carving jack-o-lanterns of them. Jay told himself to keep calm even as a low frightened moan slipped out of him and he knew he could never keep calm; howling fire stripped the word calm of meaning.

Maybe his eyes were playing tricks on him, turning tourists to demons. Maybe this was a stress-produced hallucination. He closed his eyes and sniffed for smoke, listened for the snap, crackle, pop. Nothing. He knew the fire shouldn’t exist, yet there it was when he opened his eyes, directly across the rink, the captive tree burning vividly against the night sky, its chains of lights a memory. If his mind hadn’t been so soggy, it would have snapped in two.

From the flames, a voice called out, “Yehuda.”

His knees gave out and he felt the hardness of the pavement crunch against them. His forehead fell against the lower bar of the banister, cold against cold. Trembling, he left it there. He wanted to pray but couldn’t think of words.


The voice vibrated from the flames. He swallowed, keeping his eyes on his shoes, before he could force sounds to emerge. “Hineni,” he croaked, the biblical Hebrew word Michael had taught him wrapping around his tongue. Here I am and ready to serve you, the correct response to the voice of God.

“Take off your shoes.”

Now I must be hallucinating, thought Jay. A quick glance proved him wrong and relief swept over him with the rain. Beside him, the angel knelt on the cement.

“I don’t know if I can,” Jay said, close to laughing with embarrassment. The combination of fear and cold had petrified his fingers.

“Put them in your shirt,” said Michael. “When you remove them, they will function. Do you have a head covering?”

Amazingly enough, he did. Ultra-Orthodox Jews from deepest Brooklyn had been sending him boxes of yarmulkes, furious that a Jew would dare speak for God with his head bare. He had taken one from the first box and slipped it in his pocket, and ever since had kept the flimsy black cloth with him, transferring it with his wallet from suit to suit. He dug it out and tented it awkwardly on top of his rain-slicked hair.

“Take off your shoes,” said Michael. “Quickly. This is holy ground.”

“This is Rockefeller Center,” said Jay. He shifted his weight and after a second or two, unsure of an alternative, sat down hard on the splattered concrete to reach his shoes. Ignoring the wetness seeping into his legs, he flexed and curled his socked toes like a child, trying to remember when he had last seen them outdoors. Then he caught another glimpse of the fire that consumed nothing, that showed no signs of abating. His giddiness evaporated. “Should I stand?”

“Kneel,” said Michael. “This is a great honor for you, you know.” Jay resumed his position with his head on the railing. Without warning, the angel unfolded himself to his full height in fluid movements that called to mind a space shuttle launching.

“Holy holy holy is the lord of hosts!” he called into the darkness.

Directly came an answer from figures rising on all sides of the skating rink and from behind the paltry tin angel silhouettes, throwing Jay’s heart into a beating flurry again. “Holy holy holy is the lord of hosts! Is the whole world not filled with His glory?”

These were not Christmas tree angels. Darkly, simply dressed, extraordinarily tall, these creatures moved as one, stepping so lightly they glided, to form a closed circle around the skating rink. Untroubled tourists, meanwhile, remarked on the cold to each other, lifted their faces to gauge the rain, fastened each other’s coats and began to walk away. On the ice, girls in fluttering, inconsequential skirts continued skating backwards in lines or forward with their arms extended, every once in a while throwing themselves into a jump.

The circle of angels struck a chord of silence.

Michael, still standing and looking out at the flaming tree like the prow of a ship towards the ocean, said to Jay, “The Almighty will speak to you now. I will translate. Don’t be afraid.”

“Should I stay like this?” asked Jay.

“You’re doing fine,” said Michael, which Jay couldn’t help but notice didn’t answer his question. Still, like all men, he thrived on praise.

“I am the Almighty, God of thy fathers. Be not afraid. I send thee to the children of Israel, to the children of Abraham, and to the children to Noah. To rebellious nations, that have rebelled against Me; they and their fathers have transgressed against Me, even unto this very day. They are brazen and hard-hearted, but they will hear thee.”

Jay’s head nodded of its own accord.

“I know their works and their thoughts; the time cometh that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come, and shall see My glory. And I will work a sign among them, and I will send such as escape of them unto the nations, to Tarshish, Pul and Lud, that draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the isles afar off, that have not heard My fame, neither have seen My glory; and they shall declare My glory among the nations.”

“Are you getting this right?” Jay whispered to Michael.

“And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me.”

The magnificent voice paused.

Of its own accord, Jay’s hand shot out and grabbed Michael’s arm. Bad idea, thought Jay. What am I going to do, make him fight me? But a decision once made had to be adhered to. The angel didn’t flinch; Jay sensed he was letting himself be held.

“My son,” he said. “What about my son?”

“That subject is closed.”

“It’s a condition. I’ll do what you want, but only if you let Eli go.”

The angel’s face looked pensive to Jay, although perhaps the firelight played tricks on his eyes. “Perhaps. We make no promises.”

“Thank you,” said Jay. The fire, he noticed, continued to burn. “Do I need to say anything?”

Tali! He remembered. He had said Eli, not Eli and Tali. At that moment, the flames vanished. The tree looked diminished, shaken, but otherwise unscathed. It took Jay a minute to catch his breath and notice that every light on the tree, and every light surrounding it, had burnt out. Rockefeller Center had gone dark. Skaters and tourists sent up a rousing, indignant cry.

This story originally ran in ZEEK in July 2014.

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