Escape from Heaven
Escape from Heaven
A Novel by J. Neil Schulman
To My Father Who Art In Heaven
And To My Family Who Art On Earth
Everything is different than I thought.
What I thought was my cage
was the nest I’d built for myself.
What I thought was my life
was just my basic training.
We really don’t know what’s going on
right next to us.
The universe is so strange,
Life can be exactly like
the most exciting novel
and for the writer,
how could I not jump in
to play one of the roles?
Shakespeare, after all,
used to play his characters.
But it’s different
when your character suddenly is You,
and you find out
that you’re not what you thought you were.
What had just been glimpses
through a dark glass
became an open window
for a few hours.
Do you know how long a few hours is
and what you can see
if you look around?
I wanted a glimpse
my curiosity was boundless
and be careful what you pray for
because the guy who answers
“Thy will be done”
has a real rough sense of humor.
The thing is, he climbed inside with me
and let me share the joke.
The game’s afoot!
Heinlein was right.
Yoda was right.
The universe is not what it seems
the amazing thing is
Neither are You
February 18, 1997
A Call from God
There’s an old saying that everybody wants to go to Heaven but nobody wants to die.
That’s how it was for me, anyway.
I drove a Mercedes because I was told it was the safest car in a crash. And it was a smart choice. I died of something else.
I owned a handgun so I wouldn’t die at the hands of a burglar. I was right about that, too. The burglar who broke into my bedroom ran like hell when he saw the .45 Government Model I was pointing at him … and I died of something else.
I quit smoking, did my best to keep my weight down and eat a low cholesterol diet, and practiced safe sex, because I didn’t want to die of cancer, heart disease, emphysema or AIDS, and it paid off: I died of something else.
You see, that’s the part they forget to mention. No matter what nasty ways of dying you avoid, there’s always another one waiting for you. If one thing doesn’t get you, another thing will. Everybody could have saved a lot of thought that went into bumper stickers and public service messages. All they would have had to say is, “Don’t do that. Die of something else.”
It would have saved me a lot of trouble, too. I was a coward most of my life because I was afraid of dying.
My story begins the day I died and went to Heaven.
It was a slow news day. Here in Los Angeles, no riots, no brushfires, no mudslides, no earthquakes, no celebrities being accused of child molesting, hit and run, wife-beating, trafficking in drugs, or murder. On the national and international scene, no terrorist attacks, no school yard shootings, no one holed up in a church surrounded by the Feds, no movie idol or politico getting caught with a prostitute, no husband looking for his johnson in the traffic island, no custody battles with a communist dictator acting in loco parentis.
The sort of day that strikes fear into the hearts of talk radio hosts like me.
Okay, I’m exaggerating. A little. Some of the best shows have been on slow days. I once heard Tom Leykis when he was on KFI, do a spellbinding three-hour monologue — no calls, only commercial breaks — just telling how he got into this business. Phil Hendrie is the radio equivalent of fantasy mud wrestling. But if you don’t have that sort of talent for improv — and I don’t — then you succeed or fail by the quality of calls you get.
Talk radio topics get divided between the social issues and the personal issues — the macro and the micro, as my old friend Dennis Prager calls it. As a general rule, people are more willing to talk about the personal issues with women hosts who put the word “doctor” before their first name. There have been exceptions — David Viscott, for example — but that usually requires diplomas I didn’t have.
Other talk show hosts had no problem getting the phones filled with wives calling about their husband’s cheating or gay men talking about their lovers dying of AIDS, but that wasn’t the sort of listenership I tended to attract. My listeners wanted politics, current events, controversy. I wasn’t pushing the outside of the outrageousness envelope, like Imus or Howard Stern. I was a pundit, a loudmouth. In other words, a Rush Limbaugh/Larry King wannabee, like almost everyone else in talk radio.
I could always get the phones lit up by talking about abortion, or gun control, or political correctness, or illegal immigration. But you don’t want to hit on those too often. You just keep hearing the same arguments over and over, usually from the same callers. (And yes, I know it’s you, even if you give my call screener a phony name and pretend you’re on the other side so we put you on for the third time that month.)
There are certain subjects that will light up the board with callers you just don’t want to go near. People who say they’ve been abducted by UFO’s. Callers reincarnated from Marilyn Monroe — and not just women, either. People who say they’ve figured out the doughnut assassination, or claim they know where Bill Gates is. Mysterious deaths of pets owned by powerful politicians. Waco, 9/11 revisionists, the International Space Station explosion, militias, endless conspiracy theories. Any of these calls you take, no matter how good your call screener, is walking through a minefield. And most of them are just unoriginal — bad radio. You really have to have the bizarre talents of an Art Bell to succeed in that sort of market.
I guess I was desperate. I was coming back from my first commercial break after the news, evening drive time and my second of four hours, Monday through Friday — and if you called me right now, you were not going to get a busy signal. A bad situation.
My engineer, Terry, had a cruel sense of humor. For the musical bump leading back into the show, I was hearing on my phones Frank Sinatra singing, “It’s quarter to three, there’s no one in the place …except you and me…” I gave Terry the finger and he grinned from the other side of a plate-glass window.
I hit the cough button to clear my throat and came in a half beat too late: “You’re listening to 680 K-TALK, and I’m Duj ‘Rhymes-with-Judge’ Pepperman. The time is exactly 5:19. That little musical interlude is my engineer’s not-so-subtle way of telling me I’m dying. So for the rest of the hour let’s talk about death. The big D. Specifically, do you believe in life after death? Our number again is 1-888-55-K-TALK.”
My producer, Jules, rolled her eyes heavenward. She was the one who was going to have to talk to all the assorted loose nuts who were about to call in. But it didn’t take long for the video screen in front of me to start filling up with descriptions of new callers — and some of them were bound to be airworthy.
Okay, it was a cheap trick. You don’t keep evening drive time in a top-rated market unless you do sheer entertainment once in a while.
My video screen said that line two had a 38-year-old woman who was having an affair with a ghost. I hit the private intercom to Jules, behind the glass. When the intercom button is pressed, my broadcast mike is cut off, allowing private conversations with my engineer or producer. “Line two,” I said to Jules. “Calling from the Twilight Zone?”
Jules shook her head and gave me a hand signal that I interpreted as meaning “sex”; Jules didn’t speak to me because she was screening another call.
I released the intercom and punched up line two. “Marie in Torrance,” I said, “you’re on K-TALK with Duj Pepperman.”
“Duj? I can’t believe I got through! I’ve been trying to call for weeks!”
I hit my intercom again and blew Terry a razzberry.
Releasing the intercom button again, I went back to my caller.
Marie’s “ghost” sounded suspiciously to me like Patrick Swayze in the movie of that title, but I didn’t say it. As long as she didn’t get hotter than PG-13 in her description of her romantic relations with him, I could let her go on about him a bit. Nobody was going to be punching up KRLA.
Listening with one ear, I went back to reading through my fan mail (okay, hate mail, too) and wondered why anyone in my job ever wanted to move over to TV. Sure, the money was better, but with the camera on you all the time you had to work for it. And wear a suit. And get recognized in restaurants, too. I had a monthly audience averaging a few million, yet nobody ever asked me for an autograph while I was standing at a urinal. What celebrity can ask for more than that?
I thanked Marie for her call, went to a traffic report, told Terry to cart the new Purple Web commercial, then read it live while he recorded it for posterity, and returned to the live phones. My call monitor said line seven had “God” calling from “Paradise,” and the subject was “Personal proof that life-after-death exists.” I guessed that “God” was Jules’ abbreviating Godfrey, and while Paradise, California is a few hundred miles north of our usual daytime broadcast area, we get calls from all over from satellite radio and our web cast. “Godfrey from Paradise,” I said, “this is Duj Pepperman and you’re on 680 K-TALK.”
“Duj,” said a rich baritone voice. A good radio voice. My voice. “This is God, calling from Heaven. I can’t believe I got through. I’m one of your biggest fans!”
I immediately hit the “dump” button, but it didn’t work and the call continued, “Listen, Duj, would you mind dying tonight and meeting tomorrow morning at my palace in Heaven? We need to talk privately.”
I punched the intercom to Terry. “Kill line seven!” I hoped he could wipe the call before the four-second delay finished and the call went on the air.
There are words in life you never want to hear. A doctor pointing at an X-ray of your brain and saying “inoperable tumor.” Calling your business manager’s office and having a voice answer, “Frauds Detail, Detective Smith.” Any call from your child’s school that contains the word “accident.”
The words that I heard next fell into that category. It was my engineer saying, “Kill what? There was no one on seven.”
The primal part of me gasped. I looked at the display again. Now there was nothing on the monitor for line seven. The professional in me, trained never to allow long silences on the air, took over immediately, and before releasing the intercom I said, “Not funny, Terry!”
Terry looked innocent and shrugged.
Jules looked at me blankly, and shrugged, too. It was obvious that neither of them had any idea what I was talking about.
I didn’t have time to worry about it now; the studio ON AIR light was still glowing.
I shrugged back. No reason to let my colleagues think I was losing it. “Modern technology strikes again,” I said lamely, and punched up line eight. “Bob in Long Beach, you’re on 680 K-TALK with Duj Pepperman.”
It was only after the show was over that it crossed my mind that I might have been the first talk show host in human history to get a live call-in from God.
And I had hung up on Him.
There’s something about having a few hundred thousand people listening to you that makes you feel invulnerable. Or maybe it’s that the studio feels like a fortress — the fences and guard posts you have to pass to get in, the labyrinth-like corridors, the enforced quietude of the studio when the ON AIR light is lit.
Glitches happen all the time in radio. If it was a little strange to be hearing a voice my engineer couldn’t and having a call disappear from the board, each had happened before. The only strange thing about it was both happening at the same time.
When I had a minute to think about it after I was off the air, I decided it might be a high-tech prank of some sort — a computer virus maybe. I decided if it happened again, I’d let the station’s management look into it.
The human mind is wonderful at not seeing the things it doesn’t want to see. By the time I left the studio, I’d convinced myself everything was perfectly mundane. Usually you had to be that way, if you’re going to get through the day. Just for example, you turned on the morning news and spent two seconds seriously wondering whether even a fraction of the terrible things you heard about could happen to you, you’d never have left the house. Not in L.A., anyway.
All things considered — as they say on the competition’s show — it’s amazing any of us got out of bed in the morning. Or could manage to fall asleep at night.
It’s just a ten-minute drive from the K-TALK studios on Motor to my town home in Culver City. I drove into the complex through the main gate, past the empty guard shack. We used to spend a couple of thousand dollars per unit each year to keep a rotation of guards in that shack. It didn’t stop a series of burglaries — and one rape — so there was a discussion at the Home Owners Association meeting.
First, the board voted to demand the security firm to fire one guard, for sleeping on the job. Then a lot of ideas were batted around.
One of the HOA’s directors, an LAPD cop, came up with an idea that everybody laughed at until they realized he was serious. Then a few other people said, “What the hell, it couldn’t hurt.” The board passed a resolution, adopting it.
The next day, posted on the guard shack, was a paper target showing the outline of a man, courtesy of our cop-in-residence. The target is riddled with bullet holes — big ones. Nobody’s been broken into since and we voted to get rid of the guards entirely.
When I got in I checked my phone messages and private email. The only message was a call from my ex-wife, the rock star, reminding me that the semester’s USC tuition was due. Our daughter, Felony, wants to be the next Quentin Tarantino. Before you laugh at my daughter’s given name, I have it on reliable authority that, nearing the end of Felony’s freshman year, my 18-year-old daughter is still a virgin. I dialed my business manager’s voice mail and played my ex’s message into the cordless.
You might think that, being on radio, I never had to spend a night alone. You’d be wrong. The truth is, I just didn’t get all that many opportunities to meet women. I didn’t have a lot of guests on my show, so I was pretty well sitting alone in a glass-enclosed room four hours a day. Then I went home to an empty town home. I don’t like parties or bars, I’m terrible with pick-up lines, and I think I’d have had better luck dating the first dozen single women in the phone book than the women I’d met through classified ads, the Internet, and dating services. I’d have had better luck meeting women if I’d been “recovering,” but you had to be addicted to something, first. Take my word, it’s not as easy for a radio talk-show host to get dates as it looked on Frasier.
I knew my freezer was full but I wasn’t in the mood to defrost. I jumped back in my car and onto the Richard M. Nixon Freeway to Marina del Rey—all two miles of it. Fifteen minutes later I was chowing down on a tongue and Swiss cheese on rye at Jerry’s Famous Deli.
That’s where it happened. That’s where I remembered that I was God.
Next in Escape from Heaven is Chapter II.
Copyright © 2002 J. Neil Schulman &
Copyright © 2010 The J. Neil Schulman Living Trust.
All rights reserved.
Winner of the Special Jury Prize for Libertarian Ideals from the 2011 Anthem Film Festival! My comic thriller Lady Magdalene’s — a movie I wrote, produced, directed, and acted in it — is now available for sale or rental on Amazon Video. If you like the way I think, I think you’ll like this movie. Check it out!