When the Lord gave Mendelsohn one wish he had no trouble deciding. His wife of 53 years had died of a long and dreadful illness. “My wish is to have Zelda returned to me for a day.”
“That is not an easy thing to do,” said the Lord.
“You said one wish,” said Mendelsohn.
“I thought maybe a trip to the Caribbean. . . .”
“My dear departed wife for one day.”
“All you ever did for 53 years was argue,” said the Lord. “I can arrange something nice in Aruba.”
“Hah, Aruba. What am I supposed to do in Aruba?”
“The beach, the palm trees. Maybe you’ll meet someone.”
“Forget Aruba,” said Mendelsohn, “but I might consider something in Miami.”
“Instead of Zelda?” asked the Lord.
“It was just a thought,” said Mendelsohn.
“Okay,” said the Lord. “I’ll bring back Zelda for one day, but you have to promise, no arguments. If you have even one argument, she goes back to heaven. That’s the deal.”
And so the Lord brought Zelda back to Mendelsohn for a day, and after some abbreviated hugging and kissing Zelda said, “How do I look?”
“You look wonderful,” said Mendelsohn, “maybe a little older.”
“You expected me to look younger? I’ve been in heaven for three years. You know, it’s not a spa.”
“I didn’t know what happens up there,” said Mendelsohn. “Do people grow older?”
“Of course people grow older, the same as here on Earth.”
“But if people grow older, how much older do they get? Do they keep on getting older forever?”
“This is what you want to know about?” asked Zelda. “Don’t you want to know how I’m feeling?”
“Yes, of course . . . how you’re feeling . . . but other questions come to mind.”
“I could send you a brochure,” said Zelda.
“No, no, but I can’t help wondering, if you don’t stop getting older do you eventually die?”
“Again?” said Zelda.
“Well, I don’t know. I’m just starting to think about it.”
“One doesn’t ask that kind of question in heaven. You know I’ve only been there three years. I have to get along with everybody.”
“Well, how’s the food?” asked Mendelsohn, trying to show interest.
“There’s no food,” said Zelda.
“Nothing? Don’t you get hungry? I could send you something U.P.S.,” said Mendelsohn with a smile.
“You know, Morris, I’ve been here for two hours already and you’re asking me about the food. I only have 22 hours left and I know you’re going to watch the football game.”
“It’s the Super Bowl,” said Mendelsohn.
“What about the grandchildren, Morris? Two hours have gone by and not a word about the grandchildren. Only whether they have pastrami sandwiches in heaven.”
“You don’t want to hear about the grandchildren. Our wonderful daughter-in-law takes them to church every Sunday.”
“That’s because you don’t stand up to her,” said Zelda.
At this moment an ominous gray cloud darkened the sky and the Lord appeared to Mendelsohn. “Remember our agreement,” said the Lord.
“She started it,” said Mendelsohn.
“It matters not who started it,” said the Lord.
“Listen, Zelda, I have to explain why you are here for a day. The Lord gave me a wish and this is what I asked for. The Lord said I could have a week in the Caribbean and I chose this instead. But I had to make an agreement with the Lord; the agreement was that we wouldn’t argue, or else you have to return.”
“I’m not arguing,” said Zelda. “It’s just that we have been here for three hours and you haven’t even asked about my mother.”
“She’s there?” asked Mendelsohn.
“What? You thought the other place? You know, it’s just like you. You never got along with her.”
“She didn’t like me,” said Mendelsohn. “She always felt you could have done better.”
“Well, Arnold was very interested in me, and his father was a dentist.”
“If she’s up there I’m not sure that’s where I want to go. I thought I was finished with her 20 years ago. How long is she going to be there? Maybe I can hold out.”
“You know, you never gave her a fair chance. She tried hard; she cooked your favorite dishes. Matzoh ball soup. . . .”
“A person could die on the spot from her matzoh ball soup. If a matzoh ball accidentally fell on the floor we had to call a carpenter to fix the damage.”
“And your mother — she should rest in peace — who lived with us for 14 years?”
“And did the dishes, and went shopping, and cleaned the house.”
“Cleaned the house if you don’t count not picking up the dirt.”
Suddenly there was a low rumbling in the sky, more like a groan perhaps — a groan of despair — and Mendelsohn knew who it was.
“Zelda, we only have 19 hours left and the Super Bowl starts in 45 minutes. I thought we could — you know — maybe spend a little time together.”
“This is not together?” said Zelda.
“You know what I mean.”
“Of course I know what you mean. That’s all you ever thought about for 53 years. And Edna from across the street said you flirted with her. Don’t think I don’t know.”
“Maybe if you had been a little more agreeable.”
“Agreeable? What you call agreeable the rest of the world calls sex mania. It’s probably why I got sick . . . from exhaustion. I might have lived another 20 years.”
At that moment Mendelsohn left for the bathroom and when he returned Zelda was on the phone. “So, Sadie, you’ll never guess who this is . . . right, it’s Zelda. Yes, I’ve been away for a while but I’m back for a visit. What’s the difference where I’ve been . . . away . . . away is good enough.”
“Sadie, don’t start in about the twenty dollars. Morris told me he paid you. . . . He didn’t?”
Just then Morris returned. “You’re here for 24 hours and you have to call Sadie?”
“You were in the bathroom. With you it could be a half-hour. You wanted me to stand outside the door waiting?”
“And how come you’re wearing your coat?”
“I have to go to the hairdresser.”
“This is the way you spend your 24 hours on Earth, at the hairdresser?”
“I can’t go back to heaven looking a mess,” said Zelda.
Alas, it was becoming clear to Mendelsohn that the extraordinary visit somehow wasn’t working out, and just as he was wondering, there was a flash of lightning, and Zelda disappeared before his eyes.
And the Lord appeared before Mendelsohn, and he said, “I have given you the greatest gift any man has ever received and you did not enjoy one minute of happiness.”
“She was going to the hairdresser; can you believe it?” said Mendelsohn.
“And the Super Bowl?” asked the Lord.
“I wasn’t really going to watch it,” said Mendelsohn. “Maybe the first quarter.”
“You have destroyed my faith in mankind,” said the Lord. “Never again will I grant such a wish.”
“You didn’t grant the wish,” said Mendelsohn. “The wish was 24 hours. The wish is still coming to me.”
“Be aware, Mendelsohn,” said the Lord, “you will soon get what is coming to you.”
And so the Lord was angry, and offended by Mendelsohn’s impertinence, and he thought long and carefully about how Mendelsohn should be justly rewarded. And while he thought, the heavens turned dark and the angels cowered among the clouds.
He had almost decided to send Mendelsohn to the other place when a new idea struck him. He intercepted Zelda on her trip to heaven and brought her back to Earth. Not for a day and not for a year, but for ever and ever. And there she would live with Mendelsohn until death did them part.
Leonard S. Bernstein, a resident of Westbury and Amagansett, is the author of “The Man Who Wanted to Buy a Heart,” a short-story collection published by the University of New Orleans Press. His stories have also been published in The New York Times, Prairie Schooner, and New York magazine, as well as previously in The Star.