Humphrey had just turned 100 when Bret, 16, was a guest at a party for this man he didn’t know. Bret went along to help an old neighbor lady who had known Humphrey all her life. He didn’t mind standing in line with her to shake Humphrey’s hand along with all the other guests who appeared to number in the hundreds.
The line moved slowly because Humphrey talked a little with each guest as they bent over his wheelchair while shaking his hand. Bret didn’t mind because he figured at his age, Humphrey might indeed know something Bret didn’t know. Besides all that food on the buffet table looked very good.
When it was Bret’s turn, Humphrey shook his hand, laughed and looked up at the boy and told him not to be so serious because life is short no matter how long it lasts and after death no one goes to Mars.
"Look at it this way, young fella. We either go to heaven, hell or nowhere whether we believe there's an afterlife or not.
"If we go nowhere," Humphrey said, "it’s like being one of those pandas they try so hard to save in China while letting people die. No one thinks pandas go anywhere when they die but pandas are cute. Many people aren’t. And if there’s no difference between pandas and people, why not save the cute?"
Bret didn’t know much about pandas in China but he kept listening. It was the least he could do as Humphrey continued. And the buffet table was crowded with people filling their plates.
“And if there’s a hell, young man, and we go there, we damn well earned it. Who would send someone to hell forever if they didn’t deserve it?
“And if there’s a heaven and we go there, we damn well didn’t earn that either. We simply fell off a boat into a tsunami of grace sent for all who accept it.
“And if we ignore that tsunami of grace, no wonder we go to hell or nowhere. Think it over. You’re a young man. Maybe I’ll still be here next year and they’ll throw another party. Come back, will you, and tell me what you think then.”
After listening to Humphrey's unsolicited advice, Bret didn’t know what to think so he headed for the buffet table and chowed down on all the wonderful food. Then he took his neighbor lady home. She was tired from all the activity and Bret didn’t talk about what Humphrey had told him. Still, Humphrey had made him think.
Bret had seen a few pictures of pandas and indeed they were cute. But he didn’t know what to think about heaven, hell or nowhere, never mind a tsunami of grace. He’d have to Google some of that stuff and give it some thought. And he really hoped Humphrey would be there for a party again next year. Maybe he’d have some questions to ask him.
Donal Mahoney, a native of Chicago, lives in St. Louis, Missouri. His fiction and poetry have appeared in various publications, including The Wisconsin Review, The Kansas Quarterly, The South Carolina Review, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chicago Tribune and Commonweal. Some of his work can be found at http://eyeonlifemag.com/the-poetry-locksmith/donal-mahoney-poet.html#sthash.OSYzpgmQ.dpbs=