To Inferno and Back
by Bill Kowaleski
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Time passed, though there was no way to measure it. The light stayed uniformly bright and milky white, nothing happened, everyone floated about aimlessly. He felt no hunger, needed no sleep, never had the urge to eliminate or have sex. From time to time, he had brief conversations with spirits, but they were so unpleasant and nasty that he just cut them off.
He decided he needed a plan. He would try to be like Mike, the spirit who had disappeared. He’d probably popped out of Hell and up to Heaven because he helped other people. Dan thought he’d look for newcomers and help them out.
His first opportunity came quickly. He saw a man with a very unpleasant expression floating toward him. The man looked at him and said, “If that jerk-off thinks I’m gonna wait for all these people to get placed before me, he’s crazy! I’m gonna find that door and go out there and just tell him to place me right now!”
“You must be new here,” Dan said.
“Yeah, and don’t think you’re gonna get placed ahead of me, asshole. Who are you? I was the Vice-President of Marketing for a Fortune Fifty company!”
“Dan Turley, and you are?”
“Jack McDermott. Tell me Dan, have you been here more than an hour?”
“I hate to be the one to tell you this Jack, but you’re going to be here a very long time. You see, you’re in Hell.”
“Only until they give me my place in Heaven. But nobody makes Jack McDermott wait. You can take your loser attitude and shove it up your ass, pussy.”
“Jack, you’re the asshole here. I’m telling you that this is not a waiting room; it’s Hell.”
“No way. You may be in Hell but I’m waiting to get into Heaven. I gave that goddamned church over a million dollars in my lifetime, and there’s no way I’m going anywhere but Heaven now.”
It went downhill from there and, if they hadn’t been spirits, there would have been quite a shoving match. Dan finally drifted away in dismay while Jack fumed about yet another jerk that he’d had to endure.
Dan kept trying, but most of the people were no better than Jack McDermott. He occasionally did get someone to listen to him but, when he or she realized the truth, Dan just bore the brunt of the resulting bitterness and anger. It was not rewarding work, and soon he gave it up.
Then he just drifted and drifted. Much time seemed to pass, and then even more. He became more and more resigned, and stopped even thinking about getting out. His awareness of the now, of the mist around him, of the nature of the spirits he passed grew until he felt totally connected to them.
He began to drift less and finally he stopped completely. There was so much to experience just where he was. He became completely resigned and content. A moment came when he sincerely felt: I can stay here, this is OK.
At that moment, he felt a gust of wind, and he was back in front of the red-clad Devil of the Rude and Impatient. “Well done, my friend. No games any more. We’re ready to pass you on to the next stage. I’m not sure where you’re going, because we operate on a need-to-know principle here, and all I need to know is that you have learned what you needed to learn in my Hell. Good luck to you, my friend! Now drift through those gates behind me.”
“Thank you, it was time well spent.”
“They all say that! You know, just yesterday, if I can call a certain block of passed time yesterday, I had one pop up here, and he went on and on about how much he’d learned and how he wished he could have learned those lessons while he’d been alive because, you know, it would have been a much better life, really, and his life was no picnic, let me tell you, what with the layoffs and the cancer and that ridiculous jerk he had for a neighbor...”
As Dan Turley drifted through the gates, the voice of the Devil of Rude and Impatient People faded away in the distance. He had to admit it: he was going to miss that guy!
* * *
The mists were thick and impenetrable, but Dan drifted forward, led by many signs, each with his name and an arrow pointing the way glowing in pale red. It seemed a good hour before he began to discern a shape in the distance. It grew rapidly in size until he could see that it was another very old man in red robes, facially identical to the Devil for Rude and Impatient People, standing in front of a large podium with iron gates behind, leading off into the mist on both the left and right.
Dan sighed as he came up to the podium. “Looks like I’m going to another Hell, then.”
The man looked up. “Yes. Hell for the Self-Important. No need for a lot of chitchat here. Just go through the door and look for Orientation.”
Again, a door appeared, and Dan sadly floated through it. Oh well, he had eternity ahead of him, and at least he was getting to see some different Hells, he told himself. He had certainly been self-important, no doubt about that, and for good reason. He really had been an important person, a senior executive, Division VP, thousands of people in his organization, nine direct reports who were themselves middle management. What wasn’t important about all of that? But why get punished for it?
This Hell was completely different. Spirits were not floating around aimlessly. Instead, it was an endless maze of corridors with signs pointing to places with names like Group Room 2 or Workshop Center 5. On the floor was a bright red line with the word ORIENTATION repeated about every hundred meters. Dan followed it until it turned into a room. He opened the door to a small, darkened meeting room with a large screen on one wall. As soon as he passed the threshold, the door closed and a projector sprang to life.
“OK, pal, you know where you are,” began the Devil for the Self-Important, his face filling the screen. “Important people like you need structure and schedules, so we’re going to provide that for you. As you leave this room, you will receive your initial assignment. You need to show up on time if you intend to ever get out of here and, by the way, you may or may not get out of here; it’s up to you. Make good use of your time, play by the rules, and listen closely. That’s all.”
Dan’s assignment appeared in front of his eyes as he passed through the door. It directed him to Workshop Center 2 at 8:00. Just then he noticed a digital clock on the wall of the corridor that read 7:58. Where was Workshop Center 2? He searched for a sign, a directory, something to guide him, but all he could see was an endless corridor, with corridor after corridor intersecting it. Well, I’ve got eternity here, he thought. I’ll just drift along until I find the place.
The numerous corridor clocks were approaching 9:00 before he saw a sign for Workshop Center 2. He turned into the corridor and pushed open the door to see a large, heavy, lacquered table with at least twenty spirits sitting at it. There was only one empty seat. It was in the middle. Everyone looked up with unpleasant expressions. The male spirit seated at the nearer end said, “Mr. Turley, I assume?”
“Yes, sorry I’m late, I couldn’t find the place.”
“Turley, we don’t need your excuses. A man of your stature needs to be prepared, not wandering around aimlessly looking for the meeting room. Where are your reports? You have nothing in your hands. Are they in your head?”
“Well, I just got here—”
“You certainly did, and an hour late and unprepared. Sit down. We need your report now. Could you start at once?”
“But I don’t even know what this meeting is about. I told you I just got here. I have no idea what’s going on.”
The room filled with gasps and then everyone began talking softly to each other, all avoiding Dan’s eyes but casting furtive glances at him as they whispered.
“Turley, this is totally unacceptable,” the spirit at the end of the table said in an authoritative voice. “You obviously cannot handle the responsibility given you by this team. What shall we do?”
He looked around the room, and a spirit on the far side of the table spoke. “He doesn’t seem to know what’s going on. I say we make him a first-line supervisor. That’s a great way to learn the business.”
The others found this quite amusing and laughed loudly. Another spirit spoke up. “Turley, are you familiar with our production process methodology?”
“Of course not! Like I said, I just got here.”
There were more gasps and whispers. The second spirit continued. “In that case, I see no choice but to put him on the assembly line. How else can he learn?”
“Well, what about a training class? I’m a fast learner, I have an MBA.”
The spirit at the end of the table said, “We are aware of your credentials, but our processes are not taught in any school or class; we learn on the job here. Clearly this is the best choice, Turley. You start immediately.”
Before Dan could respond, the room dissolved into a mist, which then re-formed into a gigantic hall full of machinery and noise. Large assembly line belts snaked from the floor into the milky mist above and off in all directions. Dan found himself floating in front of a large computer-screen control panel with many numerical settings displayed as dials. A spirit wearing a hardhat and an ID badge around his neck was standing beside him.
“You must be Turley. I’m Jackson. We need you to monitor these numbers to ensure that the product mix is correct and everything is flowing as required. Any questions?”
“Uh, yes, what are we making? What do the numbers mean? What do I do if there’s a problem? And how do I know if there is a problem?”
“Jesus H. Christ, you are a total moron. I can’t believe it! It doesn’t take a college degree to do this job, man! Just do what you’re told and you’ll be fine.”
With that, the spirit that called himself Jackson drifted away quickly, disappearing before Dan could even say a word. Dan seethed with anger and frustration. It was all so unfair. Why didn’t someone help him, or at least direct him to some set of instructions?
Finally, he just started observing the numbers and the belts that slowly and continuously transported small, brown cardboard boxes by his station. He couldn’t really tell what was in the boxes, and he had no idea what to do if the panel indicated a problem.
He tried to drift away to look around to get more clues about his surroundings, but he seemed tethered to the spot. He tried touching some colored squares on the large screen, and more mysterious electronic dials with numbers appeared. Every one was labeled with initials, EMR, MFR, and so forth, which meant nothing to him.
After a few minutes, one of the colored squares on the screen began flashing red. He pressed on it and it revealed a flashing number. He experimented with controls until he made the number change. Eventually, the red flashing stopped.
For what seemed like months and then years, Dan remained tethered to his workstation. After much time and many alarms, he had figured out what the number ranges should be for each setting.
Because he was not close enough to the belts to touch them, he never did determine what was in the mysterious cardboard boxes that majestically moved along the endless belts surrounding him, but at least he had the process under control. No spirit ever floated by, he had the entire factory to himself. The combination of numbing tedium interspersed with sudden crises would have been exhausting if he were still alive but, as a spirit, he felt no fatigue, only irritation that he could never just lose himself in his thoughts.
Eventually he felt the need to make something different happen. The Devil for the Self-Important had warned that playing by the rules was important, but Dan just couldn’t stand the boredom anymore. When the next alarm flashed, he ignored it.
For a short time, nothing happened, but then the line suddenly stopped, and thick dark smoke began filling the room. In the distance he could see flames. He tried to float away but was still tethered to his place. He felt panic but then thought, I’m already dead! What else could really happen?
And then he found out.
He was suddenly back in Workshop Center 2, facing the same group of executive spirits at the large rectangular table.
The spirit at the head of the table spoke. “Well, Turley, you really can’t do a damned thing. You know, the guy monitoring the process is about as important as anyone in the operation, as you’ve just found out. We’re going to take a huge loss on this screw-up of yours.”
Dan was at his wits’ end. This was total nonsense! “Hey!” he shouted. “This is Hell, and we’re all dead. Why does this matter? I never even knew what that place was making, and we’re spirits here, so we couldn’t use it anyway! It was all so pointless.”
“Turley, you really don’t get it. We’re all working together here to get out, but you go rogue on us and set us all back. This is all about cooperation, one for all and all for one and so forth. But you, oh no, you’re in it for yourself. Why did we have to get stuck with such a loser?”
“You could have told me, you could have explained something, but no, you just tossed me in the deep end, and now you’re mad because you didn’t tell me what was going on. Isn’t that part of working together, too? Communicating?”
This comment created quite a lot of murmuring among the spirits at the table. One on the far side spoke up, “He’s right. We made a big mistake in thinking we could hold him back and let him work his way to our level. We were all afraid of him, that he’d catch on too quickly and move to the front of the line for getting out of here. We have to take the blame. This was a failure of everyone.”
Many then spoke up, agreeing with this assessment. The spirit at the head of the table finally said with a sigh, “Yes, I think we all agree that we are all to blame. This was a failure of the team, not of any individual.”
At that moment, the conference room disappeared, and all of the executive spirits, along with Dan, stood at the gates of the Hell for the Self-Important, facing the familiar devil in red who glared at them unpleasantly.
“Hmm, you’ve all learned your lesson with uncommon speed. Not much reason for you to stay here, then. All of you drift forward through the gates. You’ll separate into different paths as you approach your next stage.”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Bill Kowaleski