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Nkima Speaks

ERB Meets Mark Twain in Heaven

David A. Adams

(ERB is wandering around in a canyon looking at the ground. He does not see MT standing near a large boulder.)

MT: Whaícha lookiní for, stranger?

ERB: (Very startled at MTís sudden appearance) What? What? Who are you?

MT: You must be new here; take a look at this white suit.

ERB: Why, youíre dressed like Mark Twain!

MT: I am Mark Twain, pilgrim. At least I was the last time I looked in the mirror, but you never can tell anything for certain up here.

ERB: Where am I? I mean, where are we?

MT: I hate to break this to you, my friend, but you are dead and this is your celestial reward. Cigar?

ERB: I'm not supposed to smoke.

MT: Son, you are dead. All the harm that is gonna come from partaking of the weed has come and gone.

(Ed accepts the cigar and gratefully puffs it alight on MT's flickering wooden match. Exhaling a thick blue smoke, ERB continues.)

ERB: The last thing I remember is laying in bed reading the newspaper.

MT: Thatís what they all say. Kind of makes you wonder about the condition of things, doesnít it? Some people remember taking a bite of fish not even thinking about the bones.

ERB: You mean I just died there in bed without getting a bullet in the brain or anything like that?

MT: Most likely if thatís what you remember. I always thought I would be hung in the end, but it turned out differently for me too. It doesn't make too much difference at the end since it is The End.

ERB: So this is heaven. I always suspected that there was something more, but I wasnít sure, so I never gave it much thought. I never worried about it anyway.

MT: What makes you so sure youíre in heaven, friend?

ERB: (Blanching) You mean... ?

MT: It all depends on your point of view. To some itís heaven, to others itís the infernal pits of perdition. I like to think of it as a kind of way station.

ERB: (Relieved) So weíre not in Hell then? I mean, I could take it, not being a believer or anything like that. Is this Hell?

MT: Look around you. What do you see?

ERB: Well, Iíve been here for quite some time now, and as far as I can tell Iím somewhere in Arizona according to the lay of the land. I was in a place like this as a lad a long time ago in the Army, you know, looking for Apaches.

MT: Well, there are plenty of redskins about. I was not really surprised to see them. The only thing that surprised me were the number of Presbyterians they let in here.

ERB: Where are we anyway?

MT: You, my friend, are where you want to be at this moment, back at your boyhood ranch or whatever it is. I am here looking for an old friend I once knew at a silver mining town way out in the territories.

ERB: Well, Iím sorry Iím not that friend, but Iíd sure like to shake your hand. Youíve always been a favorite writer of mine.

MT: Thank you, stranger. I never get tired of hearing those words no matter who speaks them.

ERB: Iím a writer too, you know.

MT: Ya donít say. Iíve been amazed at the number of writers who get in here. I always thought it would be the other way around -- that there would be a special place in perdition for all writers and their like. What did you write about anyway?

ERB: I wrote stories -- stories to entertain people after a hard dayís work at their boring jobs.

MT: Well, put it there, friend, you had a noble calling. At least you werenít a newspaper man.

ERB: Iím getting kind of hungry. Iíve been here awhile, looking for a path or footprints of horses -- anything that could lead me out of this canyon.

MT: Well, Iím your man for grub. Whatís your name anyway, stranger?

ERB: My friends call me Ed.

MT: Well, then, Ed, letís be going. We have to walk a ways to my cabin. Itís really nothing more than a shack in the desert, but thereís good food waitiní there.

ERB: Lead on, O noble writer! I can taste it already. I didnít think anyone got hungry in heaven.

MT: Well, folks do get hungry ďhere,Ē so Iíve set in a supply of bacon and beans to last me a month or so. I canít tell how long I might be up here.

(The two men walk across the barren landscape to the minerís shack without further conversation other than a ďSure is hot!Ē grumbled occasionally. When they arrive MT: starts frying bacon and puts on water to boil for the coffee and beans.)

ERB: Sure does smell good!

MT: Frying bacon always smells like heaven no matter where you are.

ERB: Nice cabin you have up here.

MT: Itís not really my place; it belongs to my partner, Whiskey Jack. Let's me use it whenever I want.

ERB: He sounds like a likable character. Had a pal like that once, name of Texas Pete. Where is your friend?

MT: I canít rightly tell. Iíve been up here for two months already waiting for him to come back. Heís an odd one, Whiskey Jack, you can never tell when he will drop in.

ERB: Now that sounds like another friend of mine, John Carter of Mars. I never knew when to expect him to just walk into the room after years being gone.

MT: Yow, does that give me a chill! We could be talking about the same man. When you said Mars I nearly jumped out of my skin!

ERB: Howís that? Did you know John Carter of Mars?

MT: Know him? Why if he's the same man, he was my partner on the best silver mine we ever laid eyes on. Whiskey Jack we always called him because he was always making up stories about going to Mars and telling the most outlandish, wild stories you ever heard. He was known to tip more than a few, and even I rarely heard such stories. I wrote a little thing suggested by his ravings called ďNo. 44, The Mysterious Stranger.Ē You never read it because it was a story I never published.

ERB: Sure I read it, Mark, er, Sam--I donít know what to call you.

MT: Call me 'Sam.'

ERB: OK, Sam, I read that story. It was one of your best ones.

MT: Well, Iím glad to hear somebody thought to publish it. I thought it was a pretty good story too.

ERB: John Carter of Mars! He was my friend too. He gave me his manuscript to publish. Had to change a few things here and there, but I made a great story out of it. I called it, ďUnder the Moons of Mars.Ē

MT: That sure sounds like Whiskey Jack to me. He told me a lot of wild stories about his Princess and all those Martians - - Barroom or something he called the place, I think.

ERB: Barsoom. Barsoom.

MT: Ya, that was it alright. There were lots of green men running around with six legs and fangs and things. I always thought he was having the DTís.

ERB: No, he had DT... Dejah Thoris! He was really there. I have the proof in his manuscript.

MT: Well, Whiskey Jack was a man for stories; thatís for sure. I never knew him to be at a loss for words. We used to get him roaring drunk just to hear another one.

ERB: I always knew Jack, er, John Carter to be a very temperate man.

MT: Well, I guess it all depends on the company you keep. Whiskey Jack was a rouser. He could roar like a thousand mountain lions.

ERB: You said you were waiting here for him. Do you expect him to show up soon?

MT: Who knows? Like I said, Iíve been here two months already, so Iím about ready to head on down to the city.

ERB: What city is that, Sam?

MT: Why the Golden City of course -- the city with the Pearly Gates and everything. I donít like to hang around there much because of all the goinís on, people making a fuss about halos and harps and other such nonsense. It seems like they donít know where they really are, so they are getting just what they expect.

ERB: So where are we really?

MT: Why we are here, of course, in the desert about to have the best meal of bacon and beans a man has ever had. There really ainít nothiní more than this worth talking about, believe me.

ERB: I think I want to go down to the city and see for myself. Is it anything like Chicago or Los Angeles?

MT: No. Nothing but picket fences painted white and manicured lawns. Sure enough to bore a body to death if we weren't already dead. But suit yourself, Ed. Iíve been there and I donít want any part of it. I spend most of my time looking up old friends and keep an eye out for Livy on my travels. It seems that she and the girls avoid the city too, so I have to just keep moviní. Iíve got all the time in the world.

ERB: Funny way of putting it.

MT: There ainít no other way. Youíll find that out in time. We have a saying up here, ďYou get the thing you expect.Ē Most of the folks down in the city are having a grand time whooping it up with hymns and taking a peek at God on his throne, but thatís all they really expected of a life after death. Iím looking for something else. I've always been a stranger abroad.

ERB: I've done a sight of traveling myself. What are you looking for, Sam?

MT: Iím looking for my friends and the ones I loved in my life, and since I havenít found them yet, Iím in Hell.

ERB: Iím sorry, Sam.

MT: Well, it's a better Hell than I've a right to know. It's not all bad, once you get used to the idea of Eternity. I hope you have a better time of it than I have. Who knows, maybe this is my punishment for my wicked life.

ERB: I donít think so. I mean, I donít know, Sam. Why am I here then?

MT: Maybe we are supposed to stay together for awhile. We both knew Whiskey Jack; that must mean something.

ERB: Isnít everything explained to you? I mean, doesnít St. Peter come up to you and explain it all when you arrive?

MT: You met me, didnít you? I must be your St. Peter.

ERB: I guess you are at that. So whatís it all about, Pete?

MT: I already told you, my friend. This is what it is about, two people having bacon and beans in a shack in the desert. Things donít get any better than this, but we both know they could get worse, a lot worse.

ERB: What do you mean?

MT: If you really want to know, go down to the city awhile and have a look around. If that psalm slingin' and glory to the High-Mighty suits, then I guess that's where you need to be instead of out here lookin'. Just in case you don't like it all that much, Iíll wait for you up here in the cabin for a month but no longer than that. If you canít tell that you need to be back here with me in that time, weíll just move on our separate ways.

July 19, 1999