It was late, and cold, and dark, and wet, and generally dismal when Liz left her 4:00 South East Asian History class. Her mind contemplated the bewildering politics of six centuries of competing factions in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos. China, Malaya, Thailand, Burma -- whatever the hell that was called this week -- the Philippines, Japan, the US and every European power that had ever floated a gunboat. She focused on the lack of forethought that had gotten her into a late Friday class in a subject in which no reasonable person could possibly have one whit of interest. A howling Northwesterly gale drove a mixture of sleet, snow, and freezing rain across the icy walkway and icier parking lot. She never saw the humongous SUV piloted by a distraught young Associate professor of Comparative Literature. The AP was trying to juggle a cell phone, the news that his contract would not be renewed, the details of a failing marriage and two sputtering love affairs (only one with an underage student). Not to mention his $32,000 debt to Bennie -- the Hammerhead -- Jackson -- loanshark extraordinaire. He had a lot on his mind. He never saw Liz.
Just as the AP finally got his bookmaker's phone number keyed in, he felt a thump. It briefly crossed his mind to stop to see if the SUV was damaged. To hell with it. It probably wasn't his SUV anymore anyway. Yesterday it was his. Today it belonged to Bennie the H as did -- it had been made clear by two Samoan dudes the general size and shape of Godzilla -- his ass.
It wouldn't have mattered if the AP had stopped. Liz was dead, dead, dead.
(Do not waste too much sympathy on Liz although she is -- as we shall see -- a quite sympathetic character. Had she lived, she would have met and married a young divinity student who would have learned the art of oratory, become embittered at his inability to provide even the slightest bit of aid or guidance to his compatriots, backslid, infected Liz with several loathsome diseases acquired by consorting with tarts and Republicans, and would eventually have become a politician who, elevated to the Presidency, would have presided over the repeal of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. Without her, he stayed stoned until his money ran out, became a dishonest Volvo mechanic and was killed while trying to drive a motorcycle up a power line guy wire under the drug fostered illusion that he was Mighty Mouse. No, dear reader. It is best for all, that Liz dies painlessly right here.)
Liz's soul was picked up roughly 187 seconds later by members of the crack 8763d Spiritual Rescue Unit. 187 seconds is only three minutes. But that's time for a modern computer to make millions of errors. The Celestial Admittance Server -- dealing with the catastrophic consequences of an omitted semicolon, in fact, made exactly 87,326,225 egregious mistakes during that period. William Jefferson Clinton was awarded a celestial knighthood for 20 years of public service without telling a lie. George W Bush was awarded a St Aquinas prize for extraordinary compassion -- a word he was eventually was to misread off the teleprompter as "concupiscence" four times in his acceptance speech. Ronald Reagan's records were inextricably mixed with those of a welfare queen named Roxanne who actually did own an (inoperative) Cadillac. Hermann Goering was placed in charge of a reception hall for Jewish orphans. And Liz's records were completely erased. Totally. Gone beyond any possibility of recovery. The full story of this fiasco is tangential.
Liz's soul arrived at the pearly gates roughly two hours later where she was unceremoniously dumped at the bottom of a huge marble staircase that climbed upward between puffy cloudbanks to a humongous marble wall set with two gargantuan mother of pearl gates. Figures -- perhaps two dozen -- trudged up the steps toward the gates.
A angelic figure ran up and squeaked in an eerily high pitched voice. "paper, papers".
Liz, not entirely together, said "Huh?"
"Your papers, transit forms, ticket .. whatever."
Liz said "Huh?"
The Angel stopped muttered something under his breath. Then he said much more slowly, patiently (and an octave and a half lower.) "You were given some papers at the transit station. May I see them?"
Liz said "Huh?"
"Never mind. I'll get it off the transit pack." He/she/or it picked up the transit tube that had carried Liz to this edifice. A frown crossed his/her/its handsome face. He/she/it muttered something that sounded a lot like "Ah, shit." Then he brightened. He handed Liz the transit pack. "Go up to steps. In the door. Turn Left. Follow the orange line to the door marked 'Personal Interviews' take a number. Wait. ... Got That."
Liz said "Huh?"
"Left. Orange. Personal Interview. Take Number. Wait. ... Oh yeah, Welcome to Heaven. Enjoy your Visit." He/she/it raced off.
Liz said "Huh?"
She went back over the conversation -- if that is what it was. In the gate. Left. Personal Interview. Wait. Take a Number.... No. Switch the last two.. What was missing? Oh yeah, Orange. Left. Orange. Personal Interview. Take a Number. Wait.. Left. Orange Personal Interview. Take a Number. Wait.. Left. Orange Personal Interview. Take a Number. Wait. ... She set off up the stairs..
Fifteen minutes and 456 stairs later, she arrived breathless and somewhat irked. at the Pearly Gates. Exactly why, she wondered, could her magical transport not have dropped her off at the top of the stairs rather than the bottom? It's not like she was having all that great a day. She needed additional aggravation? She guessed that her current mood might be more typical than not of the mental state of new arrivals.
The Pearly gates were about 40 meters tall. The right one was closed. The left one was wedged open with something that looked like a Kentucky Fried Chicken box. In fact, she observed as she came closer. It WAS a Kentucky Fried Chicken box. She went through the gate and found herself in a lobby about the size of a football field filled with a huge number of kiosks. About half seemed to be dead. The other half showed shat appeared to be identical displays in white and bright cheery colors. She approached one. Across the top it said "Welkommen auf Himmel" Below were four buttons. One showed a crown. A second showed what appeared to be a broken wagon. A third showed a melted watch draped over a branch. The fourth showed a flower (probably). Except for the German (surely that was German) title, it couldn't have been more baffling. After considering a while, she tapped the crown. The icons flickered and were replaced with the Chinese characters for one through seven. At least that's what Liz -- who had taken a High School Japanese course -- thought they were. Pushing San(?) -- the one with three parallel bars - produced a set of five icons with different shaped tree leaves.
Screw this. She turned left and strolled down an aisle between kiosks. Most were inoperative. Those that were live held displays similar to the first in a variety of languages. A couple in English confirmed that the title was "Welcome to Heaven". She encountered only one person. An elderly woman whose English was confined to "OK" and something that probably was "GI buy me a drink?". Through sign language the crone conveyed that she couldn't make any more sense out of the console than Liz could. She was pushing icons at random leading only to more baffling icons and occasional changes of language. Liz watched for a while and concluded that nothing reasonable was going to happen. She waved goodbye to the old woman and marched to the end of the row.
At the end of the row, she found a commodious hallway with numerous colored lines painted on the floor. Sure enough, one was Orange.
She followed that line for what seemed like, and probably was, miles. It traveled through corridors, up and down stairs, through an empty hall, past bathrooms and vending machines, under an overpass, past what appeared to be a gymnasium, around a park. It went on and on. Lines of other colors branched off and merged. Finally the orange line lurched left and ran up to a door. The door was marked "Admissions".
Liz took a deep breath and walked in. She found herself in a small room with three empty chairs, a machine that looked like it belonged on the control deck of the Starship Enterprise, two other doors marked, "Admissions HRP Simon Peter presiding" and "Annex" and a screen. The screen said "Welcome to the admissions office for the afterlife. We are open all days except high holidays from 0800 until 1430. In order to better serve you we ask that you please take a number. Below that in a different, somehow more utilitarian font, it said "Now serving number 262734".
She turned her attention to the machine. There were roughly 26 controls of various shapes and colors. There were about 200 lights -- many colored -- most of them blinking. There was not one single word of explanation. Liz tried pushing buttons -- first singly, then in combination. Nothing happened. She raised her foot and kicked the machine ... hard. The machine clucked and somehow dispensed a pasteboard tab. The tab said "Thank you for your patience. Your number is 13,267,315. We are now serving number 262734."
Liz pocketed the tab, thought for a moment and tried the door to Admissions. No surprise. It was locked tight. She looked around the room and observed that the chairs were securely, if unobtrusively, bolted to the wall. In fact there was nothing in the room that offered much promise of assistance in an attack on the Admissions door. She kicked the door a couple of times noting that the door moved not at all under her assault. Moreover, it sounded solid -- very solid.
She shrugged and tried the door to the Annex. It opened smoothly.
To her surprise, the door opened on a vast alpine scene reminiscent of a granola advertisement on television. A great meadow sprinkled with wildflowers swept down toward a river. In the far distance, snow capped mountains soared into a pristine blue sky. In the middle distance she could just make out a village with smoke trickling up from its chimneys. A path swung away to her right around the curve of the hill. Oddly, along with the buzz of insects and chirps of birds, the unmistakable sound of heavy metal rock music could be heard in the not too great distance. It seemed to be coming from somewhere in the general direction that the path led.
Warily she tested the outside door handle and verified that it turned and that the door latch retracted when she turned the handle. There was possibly some chance that she would be able to return to admissions. Nonetheless, she looked around for something with which to wedge the door open. Nothing inside or outside presented itself. Finally, her attention fell on the transit pack she had in her hand. She wedged it into place, stepped outside and gingerly closed the door verifying that the pack held the door open a few centimeters. Wondering if the village might be at the end of the path, and if there might be food and drink (especially drink) there, and if they took MasterCard, Liz set off down the path.
The path led around the shoulder of the hill. The door to Admissions was quickly blocked from view. It was a gorgeous day and Liz found she was quite enjoying the walk. The music slowly got louder. That, Liz didn't like. She'd have preferred something classical or mellow. Beethoven or Simon and Garfunkel. Even Kenny G would have been OK ... maybe. But thankfully, if perhaps inappropriately, the music morphed into "Stairway to Heaven" which Liz found to be quite acceptable. She started to whistle.
Shortly the path entered a defile which turned into an altogether delightful flowery glade. Another turn and Liz found herself looking out on a large amphitheater. On the stage three musicians frolicked with guitars while a fourth banged out intricate rhythms on drums. Groupies swayed about with tambourines. UV lights pivoted and flashed. There was an audience of about thirty in a venue that looked to be capable of seating thirty thousand. Half of them appeared to be asleep. The air smelt of the flowers of the glade with faint overtones of burnt cannabis. Liz wondered if there was a lavatory. Her stomach growled. Maybe there was a concession stand?
"There's a restroom 40 meters down the path. It's clean. No concession stand. Yes, the inn in the village has food. The food is mediocre, but there is lots of it. No, they don't take credit cards, nor cash come to that. But they'll let you work off your bill washing dishes. Yes they have beer and wine. No, they don't have a license for hard liquor. No, they won't fix you up with an agreeable young man ... or woman -- not until they know you better, anyway. "
The voice came from behind her to her left. Turning quickly she found its source to be an attractive young man with abundant curly hair. He was wearing jeans, ragged sneakers and an orange tea-shirt inscribed with the words "I'm getting my act together and taking it on the road." He spoke with an English accent with occasional Teutonic overtones.
"I know," he continued, "How did I know? I didn't. Those are just the answers to the most common ten questions from people coming down that path. I'm Karl". He extended his hand.
Liz shook the hand. "I'm Liz"
She thought a second then asked, "Look, if I go down and use the restroom, will you still be here when I get back?"
"Most assuredly. One place around here is about as good as another, and I'm probably not going anyplace else for a long, long time."
The restroom turned out to be clean and brightly lit. And Karl was still on his rock when she returned. "Pull up a rock and set a while" he intoned directing her to a ledge a meter or so from his perch.
She brushed off a spot as best she could and sat down. "OK, can you set me straight on a few things?
"What is this place and what am I doing here? How long am I going to be here? How do I get fed? If I'm not leaving immediately, where do I sleep? Is there a laundromat. ... and you might as well fill me in on getting fixed up with that agreeable young man ... or girl.
"Well," said Karl, technically, we are in a corner of the Alpine section of Elysium. The noble savages mostly hang out West of here where there are more olive trees and grapes and the fishing is better. This part has pretty much been taken over by souls who can't get into heaven ... or hell ... or purgatory. They are hanging out waiting for someone to straighten out the administrative glitches. It's turning out to be a long wait.
"Yeah ... Hey, look. We're going to be here a while. Would you like a sandwich or some wine?" Karl reached back, behind his rock and pulled out a malshaped backpack sewn from several ill matched fabrics using large, irregular stitches. "Made the bag myself. Dig in."
Liz took the bag graciously deciding not to comment on Karl's skills as a seamstress. At least not until she saw what was for lunch. She hoped he was better at cooking than sewing. And indeed, she found a couple of excellent roast beef -- hopefully, she decided not to ask -- sandwiches wrapped in napkins and a boda bag filled with an excellent rose.
Liz handed one sandwich to Karl and tore into the other. Karl handed the sandwich back. "I've already eaten. And I can always conjure up another. But I would like a sip or two of that wine." Liz passed him the wine.
"Where were we? Oh yeah. Administrative glitches.
"Well, it's like this. You probably know that Simon-Peter is the gatekeeper of Heaven. Problem is, Peter has not the slightest interest in being the gatekeeper of heaven. Never has. Never will. First thing he did when he was appointed gatekeeper was appoint a committee to handle admissions. He showed up for the first meeting. Told them they have carte blanche -- handle it. He never came back.
"So, we have a bunch of bureaucrats told they have carte blanche. What do you suppose they did?" Karl paused and waited for Liz to answer.
"Meetings?" She offered.
"Meetings -- you betcha. And they wrote procedures. And they had meetings about how to write procedures. And they wrote procedures about how to have meetings. And they brought in more bureaucrats. And had more meetings and wrote more procedures and they bought computers and hired consultants and bought software that didn't work and glued it together with software that didn't work either. And they had meetings about that and wrote more procedures. Let me tell you, that was a time ...
"Meanwhile people started dying and showing up at the Gates of Heaven. Turns out the only people to meet them were the janitors. Everyone else was in meetings, or writing procedures, or fixing software. But the janitors weren't stupid. So they looked at each descendant's permanent record and let the people who clearly belonged in Heaven into Heaven. And sent the ones that belonged in Hell to Hell, and most of the rest to Purgatory. And the few they couldn't figure out, they sent here.
Anyway, the bureaucrats kept up their meetings and wrote their procedures and meantime the janitors honed their procedures and got everything working pretty smoothly. The one big problem other than the large percentage of religious leaders they were sending to Hell was the folks they were sending here. They tried to get Peter to provide some direction. Not a chance -- didn't return their calls. Scheduled appointments then didn't show. You know the drill. So finally, they got Saint Cajetan to come in on Tuesday afternoons and deal with as many of the special cases as he could.
"Saint Cajetan. Italian. Fifteenth Century. Patron Saint of the Unemployed, gamblers, job seekers. Cajetan is a decent guy and does his best. Terribly sincere. Trouble is that every time the libertarian, free market mudheads blow up the economy, he gets way overloaded in his normal job. And he can only handle a two or three admissions cases a week at best ... if he can get here at all.
"A couple of cases a week was plenty back in the old days. There weren't that many people. And they lived a long time. There were only a few deaths a year and 99% ended up someplace else when they died. By the time of the Great Flood, Cajetan had cleaned up the backlog and was able to play golf three Tuesday afternoons out of four. Great golfer. Seven handicap. And of course after the flood, he was able to take most of the next century off.
"But that be fruitful and multiply thing kicked in and lo, the children of men were fruitful and did multiply. You savvy "exponential growth?
"No matter. Anyway, one gal turned up here about 60 years after the flood. And another about 40 years later. By two centuries after the flood, someone was showing up every other year or so. By three centuries it was one or two a month. Then one a day. Which was about twice what Cajetan could handle. The backlog started to build. They kept on coming -- faster and faster. And the backlog grew and grew. ... and that's how we got to where we are today. Cajetan and the Janitors have got the admission problem rate down to a fraction of 1%, but we're still getting five or six folks an hour and we're processing maybe three a week. So the backlog is growing by maybe 50,000 cases a year and being worked off by about 120 cases a year. See the problem?
"Your number is what? 14,000,000 or so?
Liz dug out the slip she had gotten in admissions. "13,267,315"
"If nothing changes, your case should get reviewed and disposed in about 100,000 years. Give or take a little. But when you have all eternity to work with, what's a hundred millenia or so?
Liz didn't say anything for a while. There didn't seem to be a lot to say. Karl -- wisely -- sat quietly. Finally, he passed the wine to Liz who slowly and methodically drank three large mouthfuls. She sat for a minute then shook herself down in a very canine manner. "OK ... A hundred thousand years ... OK ... well, then. ... What does one do here for a hundred thousand years?
"Well, you can do just about anything you can do in heaven or hell. You can party. A lot of people do that. Most folks get tired after a decade or three. You can join the chorus and sing Hossanas to the Lord. Most people sour on that pretty quick. You can learn things -- I'd avoid learning embalming or gravestone carving. Not a lot of use for those in a place where no one dies. And not so obviously, I'd avoid learning too much about Buddhism. Some people get hung up on the fact that life around here doesn't seem to have a lot of reality to see through and the cycle of rebirths is suspended for all eternity. It's not clear to me what that has to do with Nirvana, but what do I know?
"For that matter, sometimes you can get residence permits to visit heaven or hell or purgatory or pretty much anyplace else you want. A lot of people do that. Getting the permit is major aggravation because they keep on automating and improving the process. But once you have one, you can just pick up and go. If waiting 17 weeks for a fancy computerized ID that is twice as hard to counterfeit as something you can make on an office copier, You can always take a tour with a registered guide and just slip away while everyone is gawking at the lake of fire or the golden throne. The return rate on some of those tours is under 60%.
"Let me get this straight." Liz interjected. "You can just walk out of hell and move to heaven?"
"Sure -- mostly. Hell is primarily a state of mind. Not everyone is cut out for heaven. It's sort of like Minnesota or New York City. Either you like it or you don't. There are border checks and all, but unless they have their back up about something, the border demons in Hell just wave you through. The border angels in Heaven don't care. Your papers could say that you are Vlad the Impaler or Rasputin and they'd let you enter. They are too busy thinking beautiful thoughts. And the border guards elsewhere can always be bribed to look in the other direction if they care enough to hassle you at all.
There was another long pause while Liz pondered the implications of an afterlife without borders. "So, you can live pretty much wherever you want to? Why are you living here?". Liz passed the wine to Karl.
"Great Question. I'm originally from Prussia, a place called Trier. It's nice enough. Forests. Old stone buildings. It's cold and rains a lot. I kind of like cold and occasionally damp. Hell is sort of like the San Fernando Valley -- too hot most of the year, dry, dusty. Impossible traffic. Ticky Tacky buildings stretching forever.
"Heaven is nice enough, but they have rules and rules about rules and rules about rules about rules. I suppose if you are a naturally good person, you'd never break a rule anyway. Apparently I am not a naturally good person. When I visit heaven, I find myself constantly being stared at disapprovingly for chewing gum after 2:00pm or wearing white shoes where I shouldn't or not wearing white shoes where I should or ... To be honest, I really don't know what they are disapproving most of the time.
"I don't feel comfortable there.
"There are lots of other options. The Happy Hunting Grounds are great if your idea of a good time is trotting around bareback on a horse 14 hours a day. I'm a city boy. Horses make me nervous. Sort of like defensive linemen. Big and not all that smart.
"The landing place on Venus might be OK if it weren't full of batshit crazy Scientologists being reprogrammed to screw up yet another session in meat body land.
"The moslem paradise? Nice architecture. Too damn many virgins ... and goats. Never much liked goats. And no alcohol ... none." Karl shuddered, paused for a bit of wine and passed the bag to Liz
"Mount Olympus? Hundreds of sociopathic quasi-deities wandering around without keepers. Like Dodge City before they hired a Marshal. Good place to get cured of Libertarian tendencies. Not healthy for real people.
"Anyway, I like it here. It's peaceful. I have an Internet connection. There are fish in the river. There's a library and a bowling alley in the market town and a couple of congenial bars with good music. What more do I need for the 10,000 years until my case is dealt with? I may come back here after I'm dispositioned. Who knows?
"And why are you here anyway?" Liz asked. She sipped some wine and passed the bag to Karl.
"Would you believe that they misspelled my name on the admissions paperwork? 'Carl Marks'. I reckon it'll take about three minutes to handle the case once I get it to the attention of a human being."
"And why am I here?"
"Damned if I know. Let's look at your paperwork". Karl swallowed a mouthful of wine and handed the bag to Liz
"My paperwork? Oh yeah. My paperwork. I think I left it back up at Admissions." Liz sipped some wine.
"Perhaps we ought to go get it. Might need it."
Karl stood up, swung his backpack on, and offered Liz a hand which she took. ... and did not drop after somewhat unsteadily rising to her feet. Hand in hand the two of them walked up the trail toward Admissions. Karl regaled Liz with his tales of an imaginary kingdom of virtuous workers ruled by wise, competent, and honest rulers whose only concern is the good of the governed.
In about fifteen minutes they arrived at the door to admissions. Liz's transit pack had been removed and was neatly leaned up against the wall of the building next to the door. Liz picked it up and handed it to Karl who scanned it. His happy and mildly dazed smile faded and was replaced by a deep frown. He muttered a "shiese" under his breath followed by a string of epitaphs in a variety of languages. He looked at Liz, thought for a moment, then said, "I think you -- we -- have a problem here. Unless you happen to be a 1300 year old werewolf with bipolar disorder, Tourette's syndrome, leprosy, and a severe addiction to ginger snaps, these aren't your papers. I don't think they are anyones' papers."
Karl thought for a moment. "I think that you need to go back through the pearly gates and grab one of the soul transport angels. Feel free to knee him in the crotch if necessary to get his attention. Show him this mess. Tell him that he needs to take you back to the transit station to get proper paperwork. You may have to tell him several times. Those guys aren't great minds. But eventually you'll get through. When you get to the transit station, stand in the middle of the assembly hall and yell "I want to talk to whoever is in charge of this dump -- NOW!!!" That should get you an audience with someone who can straighten this out.
"I'd go with you, but I'm sort of persona non grata in the Admin area. I'm on the list of troublemakers right between Ralph Nader and Martin Luther. My presence won't help your cause and might hurt it. ... Simple Misunderstanding ... but this isn't the time to clean my problems up.
"Anyway, You'll have to tackle this on your own. I wish it could be otherwise, but I genuinely can't help and I might hurt. When you get it sorted out, meet me at the bowling alley in the village and we'll see where we stand. OK? I'll be there every Tuesday evening for the next decade or so.
Liz blinked, sighed, kissed Karl on the cheek, then turned and marched into Admissions carrying her transit pack. It was only after she had progressed hundreds of meters down the orange line that the thought crossed her somewhat alcohol impacted mind that Tuesday was probably when Karl's team bowled.
Copyright 2006-2012 Donald Kenney (Donald.Kenney@GMail.com). Unless otherwise stated, permission is hereby granted to use any materials on these pages under the Creative Commons License V2.5.
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