Rather than try to do anything truly good in life, my strategy for getting into heaven is not to do anything truly bad. The development of this passive, almost defensive game plan can be traced back to finding out, at an early age, that no good deed goes unpunished.
When I was 10 years old, there was a report on the news of a man who held his family hostage in their home with a hatchet. Finally, the police intervened and arrested him. The story troubled me and I asked my mother about it.
“Why do you think he did that?” I asked.
My mother was leaning over the stove, slowly stirring some soup. “I guess he snapped,” she finally said.
“What makes a person snap?”
My mother sighed. She looked tired, and her voice was small and sad. “Oh, I don’t know. Too much pressure, too many kids, not enough money. Being stuck in a job with no future. Having your dreams dashed.”
I thought about this and realized she was essentially describing my father. I glanced around the kitchen. “Do we have a hatchet?” I asked.
Later that night, I considered my father. He worked long hours at a car wash he owned with my Uncle Tyki, seldom spoke and never smiled. He had once hoped for a career as a singer, but that dream had died long ago. Lying in bed, I confirmed my initial fears: This guy had snap written all over him.
In an effort to delay the inevitable, I began a drive to be good, if not perfect. I thought that this might make my father’s life less miserable as well as increase my chances of being released when he took my brother and sisters hostage.
(“You can go,” I imagined him saying to me with a quick jerk of his thumb as he held the hatchet over one of my sisters.)
I hung up his jacket when he came home. I made my bed. I took out the garbage without complaint. While my father seemed oblivious to my good deeds, my mother grew suspicious.
“What’s going on here?” she asked one day.
“Nothing,” I said as I rearranged my father’s sock drawer. “Just trying to help out. Do you want me to cook dinner tonight? I was thinking SpaghettiOs.”
Despite my efforts, it wasn’t my goodness that cheered my father; it was a Fleetwood Cadillac. He had bought the car from a distant relative. It was black, had dramatic Batmobile fins, and even though it was used, still looked like a car a rich family might drive. My father beamed as he stepped out of it.
“This is class,” he said, as he ran his hand gently over the hood. I agreed and nodded approvingly. “Pure class,” I said.
After taking us all for a spin, my father decided to take a nap. That left me and my younger brother alone with the Fleetwood. We both admired it for a while longer, still amazed that we, a family who (according to my father) couldn’t afford to go to Santa’s Village, could own such a vehicle. I felt happy for my father. Still, I wanted him to be happier.
“Let’s polish it,” I said.
Using various household cleansers, some rags and old shirts with their buttons still attached, we scrubbed away. When I discovered a tiny dent on the driver’s door, I decided to smooth it out with a scouring pad, using both hands as I rubbed. When I discovered a smudge on the trunk, I applied Tide detergent. Within an hour, we had succeeded in transforming my father’s new car into a scratched and spotted mess.
I was just starting to realize what we had done when I sensed my father’s presence. I turned and saw him approaching, his face a blend of fury, incomprehension and shock.
He tried to speak, but all he could muster was a horrible, gurgling sound. His face was beet red and getting redder. What happened next is a blur. My father was not a violent man, so I was surprised when he lunged at me, hands outstretched. I dropped my Brillo pad.
“What’s wrong with him?” I heard my brother ask.
I began to run. “He’s snapping!” I yelled. I knew my father couldn’t catch me, so out of concern for his health, rather than run away and force him to chase me, I zigged and zagged on the front lawn just out of his reach.
It was then that my Uncle Tyki appeared. My mother had summoned him with a desperate phone call, and he was now magically standing on the front lawn. He grabbed my brother and me and threw us into the backseat of his idling car.
When he got in, I rapped him on the shoulder and yelled, “Hit it!” We screeched off, my father disappearing in the distance behind us.
We spent the rest of the day at Santa’s Village, along with my cousins. When we returned home, it was late and our street was quiet. My uncle told us to wait in the car, then went in our house. “Everything’s fine,” he said when he returned. My father had calmed down and was, in fact, asleep.
The next day, my father would forgive us, recognizing our good intentions (“You meant good, but you did bad”). A few months later he would repair and sell the car. But I didn’t know any of that then, sitting in the car filled with dread.
“Everything’s fine,” my uncle said again, climbing into the car. He was softly humming and looked happy, it seemed, with his good deed for the day.