Live! Learn! Worship! Shop!
— The Paradise Chamber of Commerce
1 The town might as well have been called Spit in God’s Eye or Dare to Strike Us Down Dead. Naming anything Paradise is just asking for trouble. The Promised Land Mall. The Elysian Fields Spa. The Shangri-La Delicatessen. Of course it got out of hand. Who wouldn’t want to make a buck or two off the other world? Take a right at Celestial, go straight past Olympus, Valhalla, and Nirvana, and you can’t miss Harry’s Heavenly Hot Dogs. Galilee Plastics. River Jordan Wingnuts. Mount Sinai Waste Management Corp. Sure, Paradise has its share of embezzlers, check forgers, inside traders, wives who sleep with their gardeners, but mostly it’s just a working-class community. Children, tired of their homework, listen to acid rock while they load and unload their father’s collection of antique guns. And everyone goes on being born and dying at the appointed times on Apostle Drive and The Blessed Martyrs Boulevard. 2 Imagine buying up so much land you’re free to name every body of water, every hill on it, turn what was a Sodom and Gomorrah of sumac and poison ivy into a heaven on which anyone could put down a deposit, uproot the degeneracy of vines, their illicit embraces. Where God, in his limited vision, saw only pine and spruce, the architect of this paradise pictured carports and storm doors and kitchen appliances, boys playing catch and girls busy at hopscotch long before they were born. They’d go to schools not yet built but already bearing the names of saints. Even in Paradise there had to be a system: so in Nightingale every street begins with N; with an O in Oriole Glen; in Periwinkle no road’s allowed if it doesn’t start with P. What fun to be in charge of the language, to have the alphabet all one’s own to do with as one wishes. 3 It’s not April, yet on Frosty Hollow Drive a boy’s already half naked, on the theory that perhaps if he acts like it’s spring, then spring will get the picture and come when the boy wants it, which is now, while he’s shooting hoops in his driveway in a town someone had the hubris to name Paradise. He could be any boy in Paradise, tossing baskets against his father’s garage, tired of gravity, its incessant nagging and bothersome responsibilities, though right now he’s the savior in gym shorts who’s leading his team back from certain defeat, leading his people out of Egypt as the ball finds its way through the hoop and back to the promised land. What’s sweeter than hitting nothing but strings? The bonus to a jump shot: watching it jostle the net, the space still filled by what’s just fallen through it, that lovely illusion of closure, and the boy wants it again and again, and he’ll shoot hook shots, layups, free throws till he gets it back, no pleasure ever enough even in Paradise. 4 When he lived in the city, he was Apt. 3-B. He grew so used to worrying it stopped being worry. It’s what he did: he woke the kids up, got their breakfast, made sure they brushed their teeth, and pulled them out of the way of oncoming cars. But now he’s 42 Linden Boulevard, and here the streets have such pretty names — Lily of the Valley Lane, Honey Locust Hollow — it’s a wonder cars dare drive down them. What if now he lost his job and had to explain to his kids why they had to say goodbye to the friends they’d made? 42 Linden stands just outside the door to his children’s room and, because he can’t hear anything, listens even harder, convinced that it’s out there, whatever wants to hurt his kids, and he’s got to be ready to throw himself in front of it. So 42 Linden works all the time. The way a blade of grass does, reminding itself, every second of every minute, not to loosen its grip on its little piece of property. The way a babbling brook does its full-time job rushing in the same direction day in and day out. You can’t be too careful. Even in Paradise. Especially in Paradise. 5 As soon as their wives and kids drive off to church the men on streets named after flowers and fruits head for their cellars and their train sets, the track they’ve laid, the hills they’ve sent so softly rolling to the sea that not even God himself could have done a better job. On the seventh day none of them rest; instead they search the house for the right screwdriver, the precise wrench size, as if every week comes down to this: oiling the tiny gears that keep the world and its railroads running. The milk car must deliver its miniature silver cans at 48 Fleur-De-Lis. The cattle car has a quota it must honor at 76 Hyacinth. Tiny sacks of mail. Tiny logs. Tinier coal. Beneath the streets of Paradise there are mountains to be raised, tunnels to be dug through them. Fields expect their fair share of flowers; rivers demand to be carved out of the land. The sun must be set in the heavens and the moon can’t wait. It’s got to see to it that the tides come in and go out on schedule. 6 Because 42 Linden can play with his children only so long, he makes up excuses to get up from the floor where he’s been crayoning with them and go into another room and busy himself with something broken he’s been meaning to fix. Put in Paradise, how many of us wouldn’t return to our old occupations: testing the locks, trying the windows, making work out of the smallest of jobs, worrying, second-guessing all we do, undermining our best intentions? On Monday 42 Linden packs lunches for his kids; on Tuesday he leads his Cub Scouts in the Pledge of Allegiance; on Wednesday he visits a friend in jail. Thursday morning he stops outside his classroom as if he’s forgotten how to open a door, much less teach a class. On Friday he drops off his wife at her job at the homeless shelter. On Saturday, while she types her reports, he and his son make time late in the afternoon to throw stones into the river till it grows dark and they can see distances only by hearing them, the splash each rock makes. Sunday he marks his students’ essays — B+, B/B-, C+, A++ — the crazy enterprise of pretending that one can put a grade on anything. That night his wife’s hands move over him with the quiet authority of water, the way water’s able to find every hollow and crevice and fill it. Is it all right in Paradise to dream of still another paradise? That’s what 42 Linden would like to know. He’s a child being rescued from a sinking ship. He’s a boy carried off by a bird and set down in the lap of the clouds. He’s a young man plummeting through a sky so immense he could fall forever.