I'm not sure whether I'm dreaming or whether I'm dead, but sure enough, I'm standing at what appears to be the pearly gates of heaven feeling very light and ethereal. And who suddenly materializes from within a large slow-moving white cloud drinking a J & B on ice and dragging on a cigarette but Dean Martin!!
"Hello, Pally," Dino greets me, his trademark baritone oozing cool verve and relaxed confidence.
"Dean Martin?" I say in disbelief.
"He was here a second ago--I'll get ‘em," Dean jokes as he wrinkles his eyebrows and draws on his cigarette.
"What's going on here? I mean . . . am I in heaven?"
"It sure ain't Steubenville, Ohio, Pally."
I remember reading that Dean always used the term "Pally" to refer to friends and associates.
"Well, it certainly looks like the stereotypical view of heaven," I admit, surveying my new celestial surroundings. "Of course I never believed in heaven or hell. Well, maybe hell sometimes, but in any case, I never thought I'd see somebody like you here. I mean with all the drinking and womanizing and everything. I thought heaven was just for purists, you know, like Perry Como or Mother Teresa."
"Oh, they're on the other side of heaven," he says, sipping his scotch. "They come over here once in a while to see a show."
"Jesus . . . " is all I can say, an odd choice of words under the circumstances. The truth is, the whole situation seems quite preposterous and surreal to me, yet oddly--and I don't have a good explanation for it-- I accept the reality of it quite easily, as if Dean Martin is an old friend and I'm hanging out with him on a street corner just shooting the breeze.
"Dean," I say to him, "let me ask you a question."
"Why, am I in town?"
I recognize the line from his act and chuckle. "Are you speaking metaphorically about heaven or do you mean it literally?"
"Does it matter?"
"Well, I . . . "
"You see, Pally, you take things too seriously. That's why you weren't happy back on Earth."
"I was happy some of the time," I say, defending myself.
Dean makes a dyspeptic face, then flips his cigarette butt into a cloud and sticks his fingers in his ears as if the butt is about to explode.
"Come with me." He opens the front gate and we saunter through several large floating clouds until we come to what appears to be a giant nightclub in the sky with a flashing neon sign at the top that says "Transcendental Grand." Under the sign is a marquee that reads: "Now Appearing: Dean Martin."
We walk into the club and I survey the crowd. I immediately recognize several famous dead people, including Pablo Picasso, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Ernest Hemingway.
"Wow!" I say to Dean. "I can't believe all these famous people are here."
"They're not always here, Pally. They came to see the show."
I keep looking throughout the crowd and recognize several more luminaries from Earth, including one patron who resembles the pictures I've seen of the Buddha.
"Dean, is that guy over there . . . the Buddha?"
"Sure, he comes over here all the time. Want to meet him?" He doesn't wait for me to answer. "Hey, Buddy!" Dean calls across the room and waves his hand. "Come on over."
"Buddy?" I look at Dean incredulously as the Buddha walks toward us.
The Buddha observes the shock on my face as he approaches.
"Buddy, I gotta get ready to go on," Dean says to the Buddha. "Take care of this poor soul, will ya?"
"Sure thing, Dino," the Buddha says. Dean leaves us and heads for the hallway by the stage."
"It's an honor to meet you, sir," I say to the Buddha and shake his hand awkwardly. I'm not sure whether this is the right protocol. Maybe I just should have bowed and not touched him, but he doesn't seem to mind.
"Call me Buddy," the Buddha says. "You're a new arrival I take it."
"Yeah, I just got here." I pause and try to think of something profound--or at least insightful-- to say, but nothing comes to mind, so I just stare at him like a dopey teenager out on his first date. Buddy looks at me with bemused detachment. His face has no wrinkles or lines on it, a baby's face really, and he seems totally serene and calm.
"Wait a minute!" I say, thinking I have a flash of brilliance. "I remember studying Buddhism, and as I recall, Buddhists don't believe in heaven. They believe in nirvana, and nirvana is not a place but a state of mind."
"Well, if that's true, then why are you here?" I say, quite pleased with my logic.
"Heaven is also a state of mind," Buddy replies as he grabs a Ramos Fizz from a waiter's tray and tips the waiter a fin. "And I came here tonight to see Dean's show."
"So none of this is real. This is all imaginary."
"What do you mean by real?"
"You know, something that is physical, something that has substance."
"Everything has substance," Buddy says and sips his drink. "And everything comes from the same substance. If you look at everything in its purest form, there is no difference between the physical and the spiritual, no difference between the subjective and the objective."
"And so-- no difference between metaphorical truth and literal truth," I say, realizing the folly of the question I had asked Dean earlier.
The Buddha smiles and nods his head. "But you knew that all along, didn't you?"
It was true. I had figured that out for myself during an epiphany I had at one point in my life, but I had a hard time believing it as a practical matter. Perhaps that's why I had forgotten it.
"How did you know I understood that?" I ask Buddy.
"You wouldn't be here if you didn't."
"And that's all it takes to get to heaven?"
"You know the answer to that question as well," Buddy says.
"Yeah, I guess so," I reply.
Suddenly a set of overhead lights go on and illuminate the stage, then there's a distinct drum roll followed by a friendly voice that announces: "Ladies and gentlemen, direct from the bar, Mr. Dean Martin!"
A moment later the orchestra strikes a chord and Dean pretends to stagger out on the stage. Then he straightens up, looks quizzically at the audience, and says, "How did everybody get in my room?"
The half-soused crowd roars with laughter and I feel right at home, as if I had never been away and had been here all the time.
"I think it's time for me to get a drink," I say to Buddy.
He points in the direction of the bar and drains his Ramos Fizz. "Get me another one, too," he says handing me his glass. "We're going to have some fun tonight."