In a locale reminiscent of a high-school gym, an audience seated on metal folding chairs abruptly hushed its confused buzz as two men entered and walked to a plain folding table at the front of the room. One of them, a gentleman in a blue pinstriped suit with a red tie, placed a reading lamp on the table and switched it on. The other — a kindly-looking, bespectacled, balding man in shirtsleeves — placed a sheaf of papers on the table in the lamplight, sat down and looked at the audience over his reading glasses.
“Greetings,” announced the man in pinstripes. “Our names are R. E. Mann and Y. A. Weih. As you may have surmised, this is the Afterlife. And as you’ve already noticed, we have provided you with your customary clothing for the sake of convenience. Otherwise, we apologize for the rudimentary furnishings. We don’t stand on ceremony here.
“Your contingent is one of many, needless to say. If you’re interested, the current date is...” The speaker took a page handed him by the bald, bespectacled man and read: “the year 3 of the 695th Olympiad, 1382 Persian, 1424 A.H., 1719 Coptic, 1995 Ethiopic, A.D. 2003, 2756 A.U.C., 5104 Old Hindu, 5763 After the Creation, the Year of the Goat, and Star Date 37826. You can probably estimate from that how long you’ve been dead.”
Suddenly a hand went up in the audience and a woman in a Star Trek uniform snapped to attention: “Sir, the last date I remember is Star Date 57821. Does that mean I’m not dead yet? Sir.” She sat down.
“Good question,” the speaker replied calmly, “and you anticipate my next point. No, you’re dead. That little list of dates does not apply to everyone. The large majority of our... guests... are in their future, but several, like yourself, are in their past. We find that telling time gives everyone a sense of perspective. For us, though, all time is present. We just choose a date arbitrarily for these meetings.
“Now,” he continued, laying aside the sheet of paper. “Why are we here? You have a decision to make about your future. You may either leave your future to us or you may choose to return to live again on earth...”
“What?!” A spry little old man jumped to his feet. “Live life over again?!”
“And for the benefit of our audience, sir, you are...?” asked the speaker.
“François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire,” said the little man, with an ironic bow to both the speaker and audience. He was greeted with a mixture of applause and groans. “As you may know from my little story, ‘The Good Brahmin’, I ask: Who would want to change places with anyone else? It follows, then, who would want to live his life over again?” He sat down and awaited an answer.
“A good question, Monsieur Voltaire. You will return to earth with your memories intact. However, you will not live your life over again as yourself. You will accompany someone else. You will find that person’s time and culture not so unfamiliar that you cannot adjust to it. I believe some of you would call it a form of reincarnation.”
A tall, bearded gentleman arose: “I am Dr. Sigmund Freud. Now, I have treated patients who seemed to have more than one personality or at least fragments of personalities. Are you proposing that we accept mental illness voluntarily? It is hard to see any advantage in that, to say the least.”
“Quite true, Dr. Freud. But the problem will not exist. The personality you accompany will be quite sane, we assure you. And that person will be completely unaware of your presence.”
“But then what is our role, sir? Passive onlooking will lead to frustration and boredom,” asked Dr. Freud.
“Quite so. But you need not worry about that. Your presence will not be limited to observation. You will be able to communicate through the unconscious the skills you have acquired in your lifetime.”
Dr. Freud nodded and sat down with a pensive air. Another figure immediately stood up: “I am Father Coughlin...” The speaker in the blue suit stared at him and ran three fingers slowly down the length of his red necktie. “We can, of course,” Coughlin continued, “communicate to these people the Truth and warn them of the dangers of...”
“No,” the speaker interrupted sharply. The single word echoed through the hall. He turned to address the audience generally: “Now let me anticipate a question here.” He raised a hand to forestall interruptions. “You will have to be an excellent teacher. You will be able to communicate only skills, and then only when and if your... host... is ready to receive them. So, Dr. Freud,” he said, turning to the doctor while the ex-priest resumed his seat with a scowl, “there was no chance that one of your patients might have suddenly become a better psychiatrist than you were.” He smiled at the doctor, who nodded in reply.
An elderly, frizzled-haired gentleman stood up: “I am Albert Einstein.” Almost as one, the audience leaned forward in their chairs, listening intently. “Since you have the power to bring us here, you must have the power to do with us as you have said. However, are you not proposing a form of time travel? And would our repeated presence — however attenuated — on earth not cause logical inconsistencies in historical cause and effect?” The audience murmured confusedly as the great scientist resumed his seat.
“You are quite right, of course, Dr. Einstein,” replied the speaker. “The answer is both simple and complex. The simple answer is that you may be able to affect the course of history as you knew it, but it will not be the history in which you actually lived. The complex answer involves parallel universes. I’m sure you are familiar with the concept, but it is difficult to explain briefly to those who are not. Suffice it to say that you would return to a world that is not the one you left but is for all practical purposes exactly like it.”
Professor Einstein seemed faintly amused by the explanation but only smiled by way of reply and asked no more questions.
The first speaker sat down and the balding, bespectacled man stood up. “I can speak, too,” he chuckled, with a smile at his colleague. “We do not wish to rush you into making such a momentous decision. You may confer with the other members of the audience and make up your own minds. You will have about an hour to deliberate.”
The audience had no trouble forming small groups. They had already found themselves conveniently seated according to profession, and many had already made the acquaintance of those next to them. In one group, Generals Grant and Lee found themselves with Napoleon Bonaparte.
“I don’t know how I feel about this,” said Grant. “On one hand, I would like to enjoy a bott... er... glass of whisky and a cigar again. On the other hand, the cigars killed me.”
“I’d probably come back as someone with a better heart condition than I had,” mused General Lee. “But will it be anyone who would want to become a military leader, even if he could? Even though my cause was lost, I realize now that my strategy was admired by friend and foe alike. I find that humbling...”
“Your strategy was brilliance itself,” replied General Grant. “But more importantly, sir, you set an example of honor for all time and for all Americans.”
Napoleon spoke up. “Do you know why I lost the battle of Waterloo? Because of my confounded piles! I had my ass in a tub of cold water rather than on my horse, where it belonged. And those damned diseases everyone caught in Egypt... Looking back on it all, I made mistakes, but on the whole I was quite successful. Besides, who could do now what I did then? And why should I help a potential rival surpass my fame?
Just at that point, a short, unlikely-looking man wandered into their group. With introductions all around, the two Americans were a little puzzled, but Napoleon ceremoniously removed his hat and bowed: “I am indeed honored to meet you in person, Monsieur de Montaigne.” Turning to the two generals, he said proudly, “Michel de Montaigne is one of the world’s greatest philosophers and a glory of France...”
Montaigne, obviously embarrassed, interrupted him with a wave of his hand. “I would like to know what decisions you have come to,” he said.
General Grant summed things up quickly: “We seem to have mixed feelings. We’d like to know what you think.”
Montaigne smiled and said, “For me, it is very simple. I consider the choice an illusion. Are we to live as someone else? Perhaps act as a kind of internal mentor? Who are we, then? And can the person we live with say he is himself? No, I made up my mind long ago: if I had to live life over again, I would do so as I have. I don’t regret the past or fear the future. What I’ve done is what I am, I can’t do any better.”
The three generals nodded in agreement. “Well said,” replied Lee. “There’s a really practical philosophy for you,” said Grant. Napoleon summed up their feelings: “You are right. For good or ill, my work is done. I will join you.”
In other groups, however, others were much less philosophical, and their faces showed expressions that were not nearly as happy...
The hour was over very quickly. The gentleman in the blue pinstriped suit and red necktie rapped on the table and called for order. “We must now have your decision. If you wish to leave the Afterlife to us, approach my side of the table one by one, in any order. If you choose to return to earth, approach the other end of the table. You will each receive your assignments on a slip of paper. Be forewarned: once the paper is in your hands, there is no turning back.”
The audience arose and formed lines. Many hesitated in between, leaving their choice till the last possible moment. The line in front of the balding, bespectacled man was headed by politicians, some eminent, some less so. As they approached the table in turn, each was asked the same question: “ Is that your final decision?” With an affirmative answer, each received a sealed envelope. A sign on the table read:
The envelopes will unseal themselves after all have been distributed. Please be patient.
When all those requesting return to earth had received an envelope, the seals broke of their own accord. The assignments typically elicited snorts of incredulity or ironic jokes. One, in particular, left former President Ronald Reagan almost speechless with laughter. “Here, look at mine...”
Assignment to Earth
Subject: Ronald Reagan
Country: United States of America
Beginning year: A.D. 1976
Location: Nashville, Tennessee
Host: Albert Gore, Jr.
“You think that’s funny,” said Al Gore, Jr. “I’m assigned to you!”
“Perhaps someone is trying to teach you something,” said Benjamin Franklin, who, without an envelope, walked over to the line passing by the other end of the table.
Meanwhile, a different politician stared at his assignment in sheer horror:
Assignment to Earth
Subject: Adolf Hitler
Year: 1943 C.E.
Location: Auschwitz Extermination Camp
Host: Herr S. Z. Goldstein
He rushed back to the table. “But... Herr Weih...”
“No,” said the balding man, putting away his reading glasses. “I am R. E. Mann, also known as Ahriman. The gentleman at the other end of the table is Mr. Weih, better known as Yahweh.” Hitler glimpsed pointed teeth behind Ahriman’s ironic, triumphant smile. He heard only his dismissal. “Goodbye.”
Copyright © 2003 by Donald Webb