To Inferno and Back
by Bill Kowaleski
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Dan Turley was annoyed. The stupid deli clerk had just served that pretty young woman out of turn. Dan had clearly come to the counter before her. Dan was a busy man, an important man. Couldn’t the deli clerk see that he was wearing an expensive suit and a Rolex?
He growled angrily when another deli clerk asked him what he wanted.
“A pound of the boiled ham.”
“Sliced or shaved?”
“For chrissakes, you ask me that every time, and you’ve served me for years. Sliced!”
“Sorry, sir, we’re supposed to ask. I’ll get it right away.”
Ham in hand, Turley headed for the checkouts. Every one had at least four people waiting. Couldn’t this stupid store get a few more people to help at peak times? It wasn’t like they didn’t know that the store was busy at five in the afternoon every day. People were unemployed. Put them to work!
With just one person ahead of him — an elderly lady dressed in a heavy coat despite the pleasant spring weather — there was a new outrage. Like all the old geezers, she had to shoot the breeze with the clerk.
“Oh, honey, I like what you’ve done with your hair? Did that cost a lot?”
“Oh, no, Stella’s did it. They’re very reasonable. You should ask for Judy. She works on Mondays, Wednesdays and, wait, I think it’s—”
“Hey!” shouted Dan. “There are people waiting to check out here!”
“Tuesday through Friday ten to six. Here’s your change. You have a nice evening, Mrs. McCaskill.” The checkout clerk never acknowledged Dan.
By the time he was heading out the door to his car, Dan Turley was in a rage. Couldn’t people just get the common, everyday things done in a reasonable amount of time? Why did he always have to wait for everyone? People were so rude and inconsiderate that it was just unbearable.
The walk to his car was uphill and, after a few steps, he felt a shocking pain in his chest. He couldn’t catch his breath. He stopped and panted, but the pain just kept getting worse. He fell to the ground, and his bag spilled its contents all around him. Now he was on his back, looking up at people who were staring down at him with concern. But the pain continued until the world swirled around him, and he fell and fell into an inky blackness.
* * *
Soon, the blackness dissolved into a milky white haze. He was floating toward something very small, but it grew in size quickly, resolving into a very old man, bald but with a flowing dark beard, wearing long, bright red robes and a red skullcap. Behind him were large iron gates, at least two meters high, that continued to the left and right until they faded into the mist.
The man looked up and smiled in a friendly and inviting way. “Mr. Turley, I see you have arrived. It is so nice to meet you.”
Dan Turley looked around and then down at himself. He seemed to be very insubstantial, almost like smoke in a human shape. “Am I dead? Is this Heaven?”
“Yes, Mr. Turley, you are most assuredly dead. Should have done a little more exercise, eaten better, all that stuff but, I know, no time. I hear it every day.” The man giggled and looked down.
“Well, you know this is a big place, and we have to find the right part for you to get started. This may take a few minutes but, hey, you’ve got eternity, so what’s the rush?”
“Well, I would like to see what Heaven is like. It must be really something. I can’t believe I really made it here!”
“You are definitely here, Mr. Turley. You know, we just have so many different areas for you to choose from for your initial placement. Just the other day I was talking to someone who asked me to recite them all, and what must have been hours later — of course, the concept of an hour doesn’t have much meaning here, what with this being eternity and all, in fact there are levels of eternity, did you know that, just like the mathematicians call different levels of infinity, and infinity is a good way of thinking about this place—”
“Uh, maybe you could just place me, and then you can get on with your day?”
“Well, I certainly will. Your impatience reminds me of some people I placed back in the Middle Ages. There was this big Black Death thing going on and, my oh my, there got to be a backlog. I was working day and night, but then I always work day and night. I’m a spirit; I don’t need to sleep!” He seemed to find this hilarious and laughed for some time.
Dan thought it best to hold his tongue and just smiled.
The man in the red robes looked down at his book again and then looked up behind Dan. “No rush, nobody coming. I love to chat with the newcomers. Really, sitting here all day is boring in a way, but in other ways it’s fascinating....”
He then proceeded to talk at length about the many different types of people who came through, how they changed over time, how natural disasters, plagues and famines had created backups, how people sometimes argued with him. It seemed that hours had passed, and Dan really was at his wits’ end. This was ridiculous. He couldn’t even get into Heaven without having to wait forever.
Dan was just about to try again to hurry the procedure when the odd old man looked beyond Dan and said, “Oh, here comes someone. We haven’t placed you yet, Mr. Turley. Please step through the door over there, and I’ll get back to you real soon.”
A large wooden door appeared in the mist to Dan’s left. “Wait a minute. I was here before this person just coming. You should place me first!”
“Procedure, Mr. Turley: I must always greet the newcomers immediately. See you soon!”
Dan was determined not to budge, but he felt himself floating toward the door. He couldn’t stop himself and, as he approached the large wooden frame, the door opened, and he passed through. Before him was a vast room full of floating spirits. The “room” was actually a boundless space; it went on and on in all directions, fading into the distance. He could not see any walls, ceiling or floor, just the same milky mist far in the background. He whirled to try to go back through the door, but all he saw was the same endless room full of spirits. There was no door at all.
He found that he now had control of where he was going. He floated through the room, looking at the spirits. They all had smoky bodies with shapes that made it clear whether they were male or female, and translucent faces that must have been the shadows of their living faces, as each one was distinct and recognizable. Most seemed very angry, to judge by their facial expressions, which all seemed pinched and annoyed. He tried to make eye contact, but they ignored him.
Dan floated for a while until a spirit smiled at him and spoke. “New here, I’ll bet.”
“Yes. I’m Dan Turley.” He tried to extend his hand for a shake, but it just went through the other spirit’s body.
The spirit laughed. “Mike Hargrave here, Dan. Handshakes don’t work too well in this part of the universe. Did people ever call you Dan T.? That would fit this place perfectly.”
“Not sure I understand what you mean, Mike but, no, it was always just Dan. So, how long have you been waiting to be placed?”
“Oh, did he pull the old ‘got to find a place for you’ stunt? He’s such a trickster, that guy. Never tells you the truth.”
“I, uh, I don’t understand.”
“What I mean is that he isn’t really trying to place you anywhere; he’s just pulling your chain, annoying you because he knows you’re impatient.”
“Well, he succeeded at that. But if he wasn’t trying to place me, just where am I right now? Is this a waiting room, or something else?”
“OK, let me just give it to you straight, Dan T., in twenty-five words or less: you are in Hell, and that guy in red out there is Satan. The red robes are a dead giveaway. Get it? ‘Dead’? Oh, never mind. St. Peter would be wearing white robes, I would think. To be more specific, we are in the Hell for the Rude and Impatient, one of many Hells.”
“Hell? No, that can’t be! What did I ever do to deserve this? Isn’t there some way to file a protest? I’m not going to be sitting in this waiting room for eternity then, am I?”
He had never felt so deflated. It was unbelievable! He hadn’t always been particularly nice, but he wasn’t a mass murderer, a drug dealer, a rapist; he’d never even hit anyone.
Mike slowly shook his insubstantial head. “You need to go to orientation, Dan. Let me give you the summary. Hell isn’t always forever, though nobody ever knows for sure whether the stay is temporary. Just the other day, or week — the passage of time doesn’t mean much here — I was chatting with some spirit and he suddenly disappeared. That’s how it happens, when you’re ready, you leave. Myself, I have no idea whether I’ll be here forever or leave. I’ve really resigned myself to the fact that there just isn’t anything I can do about it. So I spend my time looking for the new faces and try to help. It’s all I can—”
And just like that, Mike Hargrave was gone. Dan looked all around him and saw only unfamiliar faces. He waited and waited, but Mike never reappeared. He floated around the endless room and soon found himself approaching an area surrounded by tall metal gates much like those he’d seen when he first entered the spirit world.
A sign appeared through the milky mist: ORIENTATION. He floated through the opening in the gates, wondering what purpose they served and found himself in a small dark room with a screen. No one else was there but, as soon as he was fully inside, a door closed behind him, a projector in the ceiling sprang to life, and a movie began.
There was swelling, sappy orchestral music, and then the familiar face of the devil appeared, filling the screen.
“Welcome to the Hell for the Rude and Impatient. I am the Devil for Rude and Impatient People — you can call me the DRIP for short!” He giggled for quite a long time at this bit of cleverness.
“Mine is a very specialized job, but there are a whole lot of you in the world, so I do keep busy.” There was that sinister giggle again. “Here you will spend all your time doing absolutely nothing, being completely bored and waiting for the possibility that you may someday leave and either go on to Heaven or, if you’ve got other problems, on to another Hell.
“You see, there are a lot of Hells, I’m not sure how many, myself, but I think that there’s maybe fifty, or twenty, or three thousand... Oh, I don’t know, I’m always here! Of course there are some spirits that have been here since the beginning, which was when Adam and Eve ate that fruit in the garden, a really dumb thing to do, but they were curious and, hey, God made you that way, and then he punishes you for it, which is just too weird...”
He went on in that vein for quite some time before coming to his conclusion. “There are no diversions here, no tribal dancing, no public hangings, no bear-baiting and, for you newer arrivals, no TV, no Internet, no pornography. Nothing but all you rude, inconsiderate, impatient spirits, all together, birds of a feather. And so, my friends, enjoy your stay, which of course you won’t, since it’s all really designed to make you miserable, because after all, this is HELL.”
The screen went blank, the door opened, and Dan floated back into the massive room. He was angry and bitter, his features pinched in rage, fuming inside at the unfairness of it all, looking and feeling like most everyone else around him.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Bill Kowaleski