The Wrong Heaven


By Amy Bonnaffons

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For fans of George Saunders and Karen Russell, an “amazing, wildly inventive” collection of stories that straddles the line between the real and the fantastical (Kevin Wilson).

In The Wrong Heaven, anything is possible: bodies can transform, inanimate objects come to life, angels appear and disappear.

Bonnaffons draws us into a delightfully strange universe, in which her conflicted characters seek to solve their sexual and spiritual dilemmas in all the wrong places. The title story’s heroine reckons with grief while arguing with loquacious Jesus and Mary lawn ornaments that come to life when she plugs them in. In Horse, we enter a world in which women transform themselves into animals through a series of medical injections. In Alternate, a young woman convinces herself that all she needs to revive a stagnant relationship is the perfect poster of the Dalai Lama.

While some of the worlds to which Bonnaffons transports us are more recognizable than others, all of them uncover the mysteries beneath the mundane surfaces of our lives. Enormously funny, boldly inventive, and as provocative as they are deeply affecting, these stories lay bare the heart of our deepest longings.

Including the story Horse, as heard on This American Life.


The Wrong Heaven

Evidence in Favor of Jesus Being on My Side:
  1. Word of God, as appears in Bible (obv.)
  2. Tomatoes
  3. Pipe organs
  4. Meditative feeling brought on by needlepoint
  5. Rodgers & Hammerstein
  6. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (existence)
  7. flowers/constant renewal of life cycle
  8. Billie Holiday (singer)
  9. Billie Holiday (dog)
  10. Theory that everything exists for purpose, pain and trouble sent as trials, all to bring us closer to God, etc.
  11. Way students say “Oh!” when pet caterpillars turn into butterflies
Evidence Against:
  1. Genocide/wanton destruction
  2. Insomnia
  3. Evolution
  4. Animal cruelty
  5. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (world’s treatment of)
  6. Dimpled thighs
  7. General lack of love in life
  8. Early death of Billie Holiday (singer)
  9. Early death of Billie Holiday (dog)
  10. Dream in which I slap Jesus’s face
  11. Dream in which Jesus slaps my face
  12. Dreams in which Jesus and I sit mutely on folding chairs in a blank room, as in group therapy, but with no therapist, wanting to slap each other’s face but unable to rouse ourselves to action
  13. Looks on students’ faces when caterpillars die unexpectedly
  14. Looks on students’ faces when caterpillars die expectedly (different and somehow worse)

Evidence Against seemed to grow longer every day. Plus, a growing number of items appeared on both lists.

So on my lunch break, I went and bought some new lawn ornaments. Neither Home Depot nor Safeway had the kind I wanted; the Safeway guy referred me to a place called Tony’s Catholic Bonanza, on the East Side. I arrived back at school out of breath, four minutes late, carrying an Electric Jesus and a Flashing Virgin.

My class was waiting for me at their little desks with folded hands, like anxious orphans. They’re the “remedial” class (as opposed to “regular” or “gifted”), and they know it; they’re always afraid of being one step behind, of discovering that something that seems like a joke will turn out not to be.

“Who’s ready for marine-life dioramas?” I sang. I placed the lawn ornaments on my desk and hung my purse on the back of my chair. Then I plugged in Jesus and Mary, because I thought this would cheer them. But two of the children immediately started to cry.

I unplugged the statues, and made a mental note to add this to Evidence Against.


I stayed late to grade spelling tests, but I couldn’t focus. Jesus and Mary kept staring at me.

It’s not that they were lifelike—they were made of shoddy translucent plastic, their features colored in with already-flaking paint. But there was something about them. Mary had a calm, serene expression on her paper-white face, her large imploring eyes floating above her swimming-pool-blue robes, her palms folded demurely across her middle. Jesus, on the other hand, had a sort of intense, burning stare. He held His white-robed arms out to the side in a way that could have been an embrace or a pantomime of crucifixion—I wasn’t sure. I’d never thought about how similar the two looked.

I leaned over and plugged them in. The electric glow shot through their translucent skin, and they lit up like fireflies against the dusky room.

“You are loved,” said Mary.

“Probably,” said Jesus.

“We know you have questions,” said Mary. “And we have answers.”

“But we’re not just going to give them away for free,” said Jesus. He held out His palms. “Look at the marks where the nails went in.”

I grimaced.

“Come on,” said Mary. She shot Jesus a reproachful glance. “We’ve talked about this.” Then she smiled sweetly. “So,” she said. “How can we help you today, Cheryl?”

“Well,” I said. “I guess I’d just like to feel like you’re on my side.”

Mary nodded sympathetically. “I think you’re doing a bang-up job,” she said, “under the circumstances.” She had a slight British accent, like Julie Andrews.

“Look,” said Jesus. “Don’t take it the wrong way, what I’m about to say. It’s just my personality. But have you considered the lilies of the field? The birds, and wild beasts? Do they wonder who’s on ‘their side’?” He made air quotes.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“They don’t,” he said.

I waited for Him to say something more, but He didn’t. He just stood there with His arms folded, apparently waiting for me to say something. Mary rolled her eyes.

I leaned over and unplugged them. Their lights went out, and their faces hardened into frozen masks of cheap colored plastic.

I picked them up, took them out to the car, and drove back to Tony’s Catholic Bonanza.

“They don’t work?” said the young man behind the counter. He had eyes as green as marbles, and black hair neatly parted down the middle.

“They work,” I said. “That’s not the problem. The problem is, they’re judgmental.”

He nodded. “Ah, I see,” he said. He folded his arms. “A lot of people complain about that.”

“So can you take them back?”

“No, ma’am.” He shook his head. He pointed to a large handwritten sign that said NO REFUNDS ON STATUES.

I sighed. “Where do these come from, anyway?”

“Papa’s Plastics. It’s the only factory located partially inside the Vatican City.”

“What do you mean, partially?”

“Half of it is and half of it isn’t. Vatican City is very small. They make statues and rosary beads and shovels. For burying the dead.”

Plastic shovels?”

He shrugged. “The soil is very loose in that part of Italy. Anyway, it’s all been blessed by the Pope.”

“What do you mean, blessed? Does he sprinkle holy water on it or something?”

“No, but his car drives by the factory sometimes and he gives a little wave.” He demonstrated by limply raising his hand, then letting it drop.

I sighed. “Thanks for your help.” I picked up the two statues, one under each arm, and headed back out to the car.


When I got home, I placed Mary and Jesus in front of the rosebush, which provided a nice color contrast with her blue robes and His white ones. I did not plug them in.

Instead, I went into the kitchen and opened the freezer. There was Billie Holiday. She was in a plastic bag, but I could clearly see the shape of her through it. One of her little paws stuck out of the bottom. She had died a month ago, but I still couldn’t bring myself to move her. I stood in front of the freezer and looked at her for a while. Then, I reached to the left of her stiff body, took out the gin, and closed the door. I filled a glass nearly to the top, and threw in a little tonic water. I took one delicious sip and then went over to the living room, lay down on the rug, and tried to balance the glass on my chest. I had read about someone doing this, in a novel or something. It was harder than it looked. When I breathed, the glass tipped forward and spilled down my front, soaking my torso and crotch.

Lately, everything was harder than it looked. Things had turned out so disappointingly for me. Beauty had not turned into happiness. It hadn’t even turned into beauty (see, in Evidence Against, item 6: Dimpled thighs).

I shouldn’t have been so stuck up in the bloom of my youth. I turned away six objectively impressive men. They were all just so boring. But it’s also boring, I now realize, to be alone.


Let me tell you about Billie Holiday. I’m not even a dog person. But when I saw her face on the flyer, I knew she was mine.

The flyer was on the bulletin board at ShopRite. It said FREE DOG, and underneath there was a picture. She was an unclassifiable mutt, with deep cocker-spaniel eyes and matted terrier fur and a wrinkled bulldog brow; she looked both anxious and mournful. My heart lay down, rolled over.

I didn’t rip off one of the detachable slips at the bottom, I just took the whole poster. I even took the thumbtack. I’m not sure why. I called the number and drove over immediately.

The owner’s directions took me to a trailer on the edge of the woods outside of town. A woman answered the front door. (Is “front door” the right term, or are trailer doors defined like car doors, driver and passenger?) She was extremely pregnant, but also extremely fat. You couldn’t even have told except that the roundness of her belly had a convex tautness, a definition that the rest of her lacked. The rest of her was slack, weary, blurred. Two small children played on the floor in diapers.

“There she is,” said the woman. She gestured toward a card table that apparently served as the family’s combination dining room table and changing pad. A bowl of congealed SpaghettiOs stood next to a steaming diaper. Beneath the table, Billie Holiday cowered, shaking like a leaf.

I crouched down. “Come here, darling,” I said. The dog took a tentative step forward, then retreated. She began to whimper.

“She’s a nice dog,” said the woman. I looked up at her. Her hands rested on her high belly. Her eyes were even sadder than the bowl of SpaghettiOs, which is saying a lot. “Not much trouble. But my boyfriend said someone had to go.” She looked down at her belly and shrugged.

I coaxed Billie Holiday out of the corner and picked her up. She stared into my eyes with a humanlike intensity. It was clear what her eyes were saying. They were saying: I still have hope. They were big, quivering, Liza Minnelli eyes.

But I didn’t name her Liza. I didn’t name her anything until a week later, when I put on “Lady Sings the Blues,” and I watched her stop what she was doing—which was batting around a toy rubber martini glass I’d bought her—and listen. She actually listened. She cocked her head to the side and her ears perked up. Then—and here’s the amazing part—she closed her eyes.

I watched her listen to the rest of the song, with her eyes closed. When it was over, she lay down and fell asleep. In her dog-dreams, she moaned a low dog-moan, full of tenderness and pain.

I played the song several times that week, and always the same thing happened. And so I had no choice, name-wise. Billie she was, and Billie she would always be. Until last month, when she died of dog leukemia. That’s when I started making the list. Because what kind of God would give leukemia to a dog? I often tell my students to marvel at the small and myriad wonders of the world. A caterpillar’s many feet, the tiny veins of a leaf. I have them look at the veins in their hand, then back at the leaf. Hand. Leaf. Hand. Leaf. After a while, are they that different? Does it matter? I don’t say this, because it would be anti–separation of church and state, but I believe—or want to believe—that the world is full of these miracles, little filigrees personally added by the Creator. But that would mean that the self-same Creator also came up with dog leukemia. And what kind of a filigree is that?


I fell asleep that night on the living room floor, in front of World’s Most Interesting Autopsies. In the morning, when I pulled myself up and went outside, my clothes were stiff with the gin and tonic; it had soaked through them and dried overnight.

I stared at the statues for a moment, then plugged in only Mary. I couldn’t deal with the other one right now.

“Good morning,” she said. “Sorry about yesterday. He sometimes gets carried away.”

“It’s OK,” I said. “I was a bit rattled, though.”

“You poor thing,” she said.

“Can you answer some questions for me?”

“Maybe later,” she said. “Right now, I’d rather sing.” She took a breath and began: “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow…”

It was “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from Oklahoma!, which is one of my favorite songs, which she probably knew. But her voice was wispy and wavering, and she was a little flat on the high notes. Plus, it sounded odd and wrong with her British accent. Still, I thought it would be rude to interrupt her. So I stood and listened until she finished.

“Thank you,” I said. “That was lovely.”

She smiled and gave a slight nod and curtsy. I unplugged her and went inside to get ready for school.


In case you’re wondering, I wasn’t that surprised that they could talk. My view of the universe is Christian but not narrow. On TV once, I saw an elephant and a dog who were best friends; the elephant rubbed the dog’s belly with its foot. A woman in my church had a horseback-riding accident and saw the white light at the end of the tunnel, and after they brought her back she was able to accurately predict the results of every midterm Senate election. My brother James had a spiritual conversion in his twenties and is now a Yoruba priest. Anything can happen.

This is why my students like me, why I’ve received the highest ratings of any second-grade teacher at Two Trees Elementary for eighteen years straight: I believe the world is malleable, that our understanding of it is provisional, improvised, subject to a change of rules at any time; that sometimes the magician pulls out the tablecloth and the dishes all stay in place, and sometimes the magician pulls out the tablecloth and everything is gone, including the table. I don’t tell the children how things are. I don’t condescend.

But lately, it’s all too much. I’m starting to believe that maybe, like other adults, I should start pretending to know more than I do. I don’t know a single other adult who recently woke up in gin-stiffened clothes clutching a rubber martini-shaped dog toy. I would not wish this on anyone.


That day, one of my students turned eight. Her mother brought in cupcakes for everyone. There were so many allergies in the room that parents weren’t allowed to bring in anything with peanuts, wheat, sugar, milk, pineapple, shellfish, strawberries, soy, or Red Dye No. 9. Among other things. What remained was basically spelt flour and water. The cupcakes were made with spelt flour and water and they tasted like spelt flour and water. The children and I played a game while eating them where we imagined a world without allergies. We discussed what we would eat for people’s birthdays in this allergy-free world.

“Chicken nuggets,” said one.

“Soy sauce,” said another.

“Red eggs and ham,” said the child allergic to red dye.

“What if there was this magic dinosaur,” said Maddox, my favorite, “that ate everything in the world and vomited it back up, but its vomit was actually really delicious food with no allergies?”

Caroline N. raised her hand. “What would the dinosaur keep in its stomach?”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“If it vomits everything up, it doesn’t get to keep anything in its own stomach.”

“I guess it dies,” said Maddox. He looked stricken. He clearly had not considered this question.

“Like my caterpillar,” said Josephine. “My caterpillar died.”

“My baby brother died,” said David G., “before he was born.”

I looked out at the sea of faces grown round with fear, spelt crumbs strewing them like dark freckles.

“Nobody dies for real, ever,” I pronounced. “There’s just a different place where dead people go. Like how we can’t see Ms. McClosky’s class right now, but we know they’re next door.”

My students looked relieved, even hopeful; Ms. McClosky’s class was “gifted.”


When I got home, it was dark already. I poured myself a G&T, drank it standing up, and then poured another. I went outside and plugged the statues into the outlet at the base of the porch. They lit up against the darkness.

“I saw what you just did,” said Jesus. “I saw how strong you made that drink.”

“You are loved,” said Mary. But she sounded a little strained.

“I was just a normal human like you, and I got through life’s trials without stimulants or depressants,” said Jesus. “Do you need to see my hands again?”

“You don’t need to keep reminding people,” said Mary.

“It was very traumatic,” said Jesus.

“Look,” I said. “I’m a mess. I admit it. And the worst part is, I’m supposed to be guiding people.”

“How can we help?” asked Mary, smiling and spreading her hands.

“Well,” I said, “for starters, I would feel better if I just knew that there was a Heaven. That Billie Holiday was in a better place. And the caterpillars, and David G.’s baby brother.”

“It’s not so much like that,” said Jesus. “It’s not really another place.”

Mary cleared her throat. “Let me explain it to you,” she said. “Think of caterpillars. Hedgehogs. Carrots. Dogs. Babies. There’s a Heaven for each one, and they all exist in the same airspace, like all the radio signals from all the world flying through the air, constantly. But you need the right equipment. Is your Heavenly Radio tuned to the right station? You might be picking up Carrot Heaven, or Hedgehog Heaven.”

“The radio is a metaphor,” said Jesus. “The metaphors are given out at birth, like names. Some people get the wrong ones. You can get another, at Customer Service, but there’s no escalator. This is the only body you’ve ever had. Use it, and walk up the stairs. You get to Heaven by willpower and thigh muscle.”

“Call this toll-free number from a touch-tone phone,” said Mary, “if you believe you’ve selected the wrong Heaven for your species, gender, socioeconomic status, and weight class. You are loved. You are loved. You are loved.”

“Possibly,” said Jesus.


I turned and walked inside, without unplugging them. I lay on the couch and felt their faint glow through the curtain. I couldn’t believe that Jesus had mentioned my thighs.

Outside, Mary softly murmured the toll-free number, over and over and over. I got up and called it.

It was busy.

I went into the kitchen and opened up the freezer. I took out the gin bottle, but it was empty. I stood there with the bottle in my hand, tapping its cold heft against my thigh, trying to decide whether it was worth a trip to the liquor store. Then my eyes fixed on Billie Holiday.

I thought about how we used to spend time here together, doing the dishes. I’d taught her to stand on the counter with a clean towel wrapped around her; I’d rub the dishes against her towel-clad body to dry them. She loved to help out. She loved the attention, and the togetherness.

No one knew about that but she and I. No one but me could remember. The responsibility was mine, and no one would help me with it: not even Our Lord and the Holy Mother. They might know about the various levels and frequencies of Heaven, but I was the only one who could lay my friend to rest in the earth.

I knew what I had to do.


When I got to the store, its door was shut and the lights were off. But when I peered through the glass door, I could see one light on in the back—probably in some sort of storage closet—and the silhouette of someone moving around.

I rapped strongly on the door. The silhouette stopped and stood still. I knocked again, and in a few seconds the green-eyed man was at the door.

He turned the lock and opened it. “We’re closed,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “But I really need your help.”

“With what?”

“I want one of your shovels.”

He sighed. “Why do people always wait till the middle of the night to decide they need one of those?” He stepped aside. “Come in.”

I came in. He pulled a string, and a lightbulb on the ceiling clicked on. “Wait here,” he said. “I’ll go get one from the back. Which color do you want? We have white, blue, and black.”

“Black,” I said. He disappeared into the back for a moment, then returned carrying a black plastic shovel, about as long as my forearm. The image of a single wing was embedded on the flat part.

I looked up at him. His eyes flamed like emeralds. A small pool of light encircled us against the hot, breathless dark.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Why should I tell you?”

“Because I want to know.”

He shrugged. “Felix,” he said. “Felix Ramirez Johnson.”

“Felix,” I said, “can I ask you something?”

“Go ahead.”

“Will you be my witness?”

“Your what?”

“I’m going to hold a funeral, right now. For my dog, in my backyard. And I need a witness.”

Felix looked like he had seen everything. He shrugged. “I’ll get my coat,” he said.


In the car, I said, “So. Felix. Where are you from? Mexico?”

“Actually,” he said, “I’m Nicaraguan. But I was born here.”

“Oh. Nicaragua. Is that where they have the Galápagos Islands? With the turtles?”

“No, that’s Ecuador.”

“Oh.” I pulled into the driveway. Mary and Jesus were still lit up in front of the rosebushes.

“Well,” said Felix, “they look nice.”

“Thanks,” I said. “But they’re really just being such bullies.”

He nodded. “I know what you mean.”

As we approached the statues, Mary said, “You’ve brought a friend!”

“What’s up, Felix,” said Jesus. He gave a little nod.

“Sorry, guys,” said Felix. “I’m gonna unplug you.” He reached out and pulled their cords, and that was that.


Felix and I took turns with the black shovel. It was a surprisingly excellent instrument. It felt good to dig, and to watch him dig; different combinations of muscles surfaced in his arms as he moved the shovel up and down. We had a hole in no time.

I had chosen a lovely spot beneath the oak tree in my backyard, and when the hole was large enough, I placed Billie inside. I’d dressed her in her favorite tartan rain jacket and boots, and wrapped her in her favorite blanket. I threw in the rubber martini glass and my copy of “Lady Sings the Blues.” Then I stood back up and folded my hands. There was a feeling of momentousness in the air. Something important was happening. And I had no idea what to say.

“I should say a prayer,” I said, finally. “A eulogy, I guess.”

“Sure,” said Felix.

“Before these witnesses,” I began. “Before these witnesses, God and Felix Ramirez Johnson…”

Felix stood with his head bowed respectfully. How was I supposed to continue?

“Before these witnesses,” I said again. “Before these—”

And then I burst into tears.


On Sale
Jul 17, 2018
Page Count
256 pages

Amy Bonnaffons

About the Author

Amy Bonnaffons’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Kenyon Review, among other places, and has been read on This American Life. She is a founding editor of 7×, an online journal that publishes collaborations between writers and visual artists. She holds an MFA from NYU and currently lives in Athens, GA, where she is pursuing a PhD at the University of Georgia.

Learn more about this author