Image: Photo by ÉMILE SÉGUIN on Unsplash
I arrived in hell on April 27 at 10:14 am. I knew that because I saw them write 10:16 am on my death certificate and, chuckling, I noted they got that wrong by a couple of minutes. They were always wrong. It was a bit of a surprise to arrive here but not a complete one. I was reasonably confident that I had done enough good things in my life to justify the alternative placement, but in my more honest moments I knew that I’d have a hard time stacking up. Depending on where the bar was set, of course. So it didn’t surprise me entirely to find out I underestimated the bar.
It was a bit warm, just beyond the point of comfort but nothing I couldn’t get used to I decided. If I could find the air conditioning control, it would be quite comfortable. Never did find it. The accommodations were, well, acceptable I suppose. Chairs, table, and bed were all just so-so. Fabric on the reading chair was scratchy and always made me a bit irritable when I sat in it to relax and read but I figured I’d get to town one of these days and see if I could find one a bit more satisfactory.
Not long after arriving I ventured across the street to greet my neighbors. My god, what unpleasant people. I barely said hi and they started complaining. Said they were going to sue the next door neighbor for trespassing. Apparently they saw him walk on their little patch of lawn and even though it was completely dead and brown, they took quite offense at that. Then they lit into me for all kinds of things like leaving a porch light on too long and keeping them awake. They said my arrival was the last straw and they were leaving town. They were fed up with annoying and insensitive neighbors. Moving out to the country where things were quieter. They were going to find a place where they were at least a mile or two from any neighbors. I couldn’t help myself. I said, “Good riddance to you then.”
After that I didn’t try to cozy up to the other neighbors. Just saw fleeting glimpses of them through the curtains. Seems I couldn’t take a walk down the sidewalk of that dreary place without people peeking out from behind curtains. I could only imagine the talk. Christ, these people are annoying. Maybe I should check out the country too. Feels like it would be easier to get some peace and quiet out there.
Before I arrived I had heard of the bus one could take to the outskirts of hell. There, supposedly, some creature or creatures, quite amazing ones I heard, would come and try to talk you into leaving this place. They wanted you to come to where they lived. Called it heaven. Hah, I never really believed in heaven or hell or any of that kind of nonsense. Well, I recalled once I did, but outgrew that. Now that I was officially in hell, I consoled myself by noting that it was not the lake of fire that some damned preacher was pitching in order to squeeze some more money out of my wallet. Lake of fire. Ha, this is far from it. May not be heaven, but, what the hell.
After a few hundred years I talked to a guy who said he came off the bus. Who knows how long it was because there aren’t any clocks or calendars here and one day just runs right into another without anyone really noticing. Once I chuckled when I recalled how often back there on the planet we talked about the weather, time passing, and, crazy thing, our health. I think it was the boredom that made me take a risk to talk to the guy even though he looked kind of creepy.
“I wouldn’t advise it,” he said. Then unnecessarily added, “But, you are probably just stupid enough to ignore any advice anyway. You look like you would be.”
I started to throw a punch at him but decided I’d like to get a better idea of what he learned before beating the holy crap out of him.
“How was the ride?’
“The ride? You are a stupid fool! It’s a bus ride, you idiot! You get on the bus with a bunch of people almost as ugly as you, and you settle into your seat and look out the window. It’s a bus ride, for chrissake!”
“OK, got it,” I said quietly, looking forward to pounding his smug face into the dirt. “Long ride?”
“Why am I wasting time here?” he said and started to leave.
“Wait, wait,” I said. “Just tell me what happened when you got there.”
He looked at me for a long time and I couldn’t tell if he decided to feed me a line just for his own enjoyment or tell me the truth in the hopes that I would get on that bus and stay there so he’d never have to put up with me again.
“Ok, sure, I’ll tell you. Yeah, it’s a long ride, a helluva long ride. You get past the outskirts of hell and things start to get lighter and brighter. You probably don’t know how dull and gray it is here. Well, let me tell you, it is very dull and gray, sometimes I’m amazed we can even see anything. So, you get there and people unload. It is ungodly bright. Maybe that’s not the right way to put it. But it is so bright that when I looked at the others who were wandering off into this thing that looked like a brilliant green garden, I could hardly see them even though they were as close to me as your ugly face.”
My fist closed and I had to restrain myself again.
“Hmm, sounds kind of interesting. Did you find it hard to walk on the grass?”
“Yeah, hurt like hell. Could hardly stand it. How’d you know?”
“Read about it a long time ago.”
“Anyway, those other folks were like ghosts, I mean there’s nothing much real about them. Then I looked at my hands and I noticed I could see right through them. I thought, goddamn but if I ain’t but just a freakin ghost myself! Scared the hell out of me, almost.”
“Well, did you see any of these creatures?”
“Hold your stinking horses, will you? Yeah, sure I did. I saw one I thought I recognized back, well, way back when, I think maybe when I was just a kid. Anyway, this thing, kinda scary, came up to me and said, ‘Bill, we’re so glad you are here.’” I was kinda freaked out about now because I was trying to figure out who this was and why I thought I knew them even though they seemed as tall as a house and as solid as the grass and trees in that garden.”
“Did that creature try to talk you into staying?”
“Jesus Christ, that’s it, I’m outta here!” Bill turned to walk away.
“Come on man! I’m trying to decide if I should get on the bus myself.”
Bill turned and looked at me, and now I was sure he stopped and changed his mind for the sole purpose of making sure I got on that bus and never bothered him again. The look of hatred in his face prompted me to once again relish the thought of pounding his smug smile and ugly gray eyes into the dirt or pavement.
“Yeah, you should get on the bus for sure. You’ll probably end up like some of those other suckers on the bus with me who wound up staying there. Poor saps. I even saw one jump up on the back of this huge white horse with wings and it flew up into the clouds above the garden. It was crazy! Yeah, you’d like it there for sure. But, not me. I’m not that stupid.”
“I guess you like it here.”
“Hell, no! This place is a dump. I hate my house and even though I live about three hundred miles from my nearest neighbor, just the thought of people like you out there is enough to drive me crazy. But, it’s home. It’s where I live and nothing that crazy creature said could talk me out of it.”
“What did it say?”
“It said I couldn’t come in just as I was. Ha, ever hear of that song that the old preacher used to sing at his big meetings? Something about being just as I am? It’s crap. Not good enough. Some things had to change. Well, I said, if I ain’t good enough for that place then this place is good enough for me?”
“What did it want you to change?”
“Getting a bit personal, don’t you think?” And now I wondered if he had thoughts of pounding me. “Just some things that I always believed and know are true. Like people like you, I mean you are not worth the air you breathe and the room you take up. You aren’t worth a damn thing and you are proving it every minute standing here. I wish to god I could just pull a gun on you and get rid of you, right now.”
“I understand that feeling,” I said, and something about that scared me just a bit.
“Well, this crazy shiny creature said I was wrong, wrong about people, wrong about the things that are really important. ‘Wrong?’ I said. ‘I aint’ wrong. It’s you that’s wrong! You don’t know the people I know. They aren’t worth the ground they are standing on. Why in god’s name they were ever given breath is beyond me!’”
I had to admit, listening to Bill rant on, I could see his point. I then realized that while I tended toward that attitude before entering hell, being here only confirmed my worst inclinations about my fellow homo sapiens.
“So she argued with me for awhile…”
“She? I didn’t know these creatures were one or the other.”
“I didn’t think so either, at first, but after going on for awhile I suddenly realized why she looked kinda familiar. It was my older sister, Janet! ‘Janet, I said, is that you?’ And she said, yes Bill, it’s me. ‘What in god’s name are you doing here and why aren’t you in hell with me, you wretched, hateful thing?’ You see I couldn’t stand my sister. Holy cripes, what a holier-than-thou bitch. She was always trying to tell me what to do, to straighten me out, make me toe the line. Sure, our mom died when I was pretty young but she tried to step in and be my mamma and I wasn’t having any of her bossiness. Not only that, her politics were the worst. I didn’t even go to her funeral.”
“So she was the one trying to convince you that people weren’t what you thought they were?”
“Yeah, well as soon as my eyes were opened and I saw who she was I told her in no uncertain terms I wanted nothing to do with that place if she was going to be hanging around all the time trying to tell me what to do.”
“I guess you told her.”
“Yeah, I guess I did.” He paused for a moment. He seemed a bit wistful, like he felt he missed out on something.
“I mean, I am who I am, right? I got a right to my opinions, never said I was right all the time, but by god, when someone comes around and tells me I have to change, have to give up my idea of right and wrong, and can’t even decide for myself who to like and who to hate, well, that’s just going too far, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, sure, I guess,” I said, not sure why I was hesitating.
“You guess! You guess! You don’t know squat and I am sick to death of wasting my time with you!”
His arm went back and he threw the biggest punch at me I ever saw, and I’ve had a few thrown at me before. For some reason I never felt it although I was sure he caught me square in the temple and would have knocked me out for sure but he must have missed because it was like his fist met nothing but air. By this time I went to grab him and throw his smug, disgusting face into the ground like I planned but I got nothing but air and a bit of a stench of something dead and rotting. Then, I looked around and he was gone. I was just a bit sorry because I was sure if it came down to it, I’d have him on the ground begging for mercy in no time.
It might have been just a few years after that, maybe even a thousand, I don’t know, when I decided that I actually wanted to take that bus trip. I was bored to death and what could it hurt? It sounded kind of interesting. I couldn’t quite believe the stories of grass as hard as steel and gardens so bright and green that you couldn’t bear to look at them straight on, but I was curious.
The bus was brightly colored. Hippy bus. I hated hippies and everything those lazy long haired freaks stood for. Makes sense, I thought, bunch of crazy losers riding this thing. Straight out of the sixties. There were only a few on the bus and no one I recognized, thank goodness. I didn’t want to hear about all the chatter back in hell about me getting on the bus and wondering why I didn’t stay. There’s just so many snoopy, gossipy people around here that even though I now lived miles and miles from anyone else you just couldn’t avoid the feeling that others were always butting into your business.
It started out to be a bit of a bumpy ride and after awhile I was really wondering what got into me to get on this stupid thing. I was about to get up and tell the bus driver that I changed my mind and wanted off when I noticed that it was starting to get a bit brighter. It got brighter and brighter like the sun was shining, or maybe a lot of suns. It was then I realized what Bill was saying and which I had never really taken note of before. Hell is dark, dingy and gray. I mean, that was just normal for us and you get used to all kinds of normal. Now, that it was brighter I was asking myself how I could not have noticed it. It made me feel there was maybe an answer to this feeling I always had from the time I arrived that something was missing, something big and important. I just could never put my finger on it. Now, it occurred to me that maybe what I was missing was the sun. I hadn’t thought about the sun and sunlight and shadow and darkness and the moon and stars for thousands of years. But, now I found myself thinking about them and remembering them from my days on the earth and feeling a sense of nostalgia and sadness and even a bit of grief. It wasn’t grief for just missing them, but for not even realizing that I was missing them. From that time on, even as it got painfully bright, I was glad I had made the decision to get on the bus.
Still, when it came to the smoothest stop I could imagine, I was hesitant to get off. Was this really what I wanted? What kind of torture am I putting myself through? I noticed the others were a bit hesitant as well. One got up, slowly, looked around at me and I swear concluded that if he could get away from me it was worth taking the risk. Of course, I felt the same about him. I thought if those mansions that were talked about were too close together and that ugly mutt were my next door neighbor, I’d check out and go back to my old place on the empty plain.
I finally got up and headed out the door. The light felt like daggers. I had to cover my eyes as I stepped down off the last step and as I did I gasped in pain. I opened my eyes and saw the most brilliant green I had ever seen. I was standing on grass, but, no, the grass was penetrating my feet. Coming right through my shoes and flesh, almost like they weren’t even there. Why was it hurting so then? Crazy, I thought. Nerves in a ghost? Makes no sense. Got to work on that one.
I wandered away from the bus and found a bench beneath a tree that looked to offer a bit of shade. I sat down and again marveled at how solid everything was compared to me. Do I even have a body? It reminded me of my fight with Bill which I had long ago forgotten and decided I wasn’t going to even think about any more. That jerk. Hope to heck somebody got a hold of him and taught that arrogant little nobody a good lesson.
The faint sound of crystal tinkling took me from my reverie. I looked around and saw the creature. I should say Creature because my first thought was, oh my god, it is God himself! I mean magnificent doesn’t even describe it. If I was back on earth I would have thought Zeus or Apollo or someone or something even grander. My thought went to the temple of Ephesus where the great Aphrodite was at home, but the Creature now approaching me put the grandest sculpture of her or any of those pagan gods to shame. I felt, for the first time in my whole life, like I should be falling flat on my face. Not so much in fear, but just because a Creature like this calls for exactly that sort of response.
But, I didn’t. Instead, I looked at it and asked if it was God.
The Creature laughed a laugh that sounded like all the birds in the world singing at once and all the orchestras in the world playing Mozart, Handel, Vivaldi and Bach all at once in perfect harmony. Beautiful doesn’t even describe it. And I had forgotten there was such a thing as beauty eons ago.
“No, I’m just an ordinary human being, like you,” it said. “If you join us here, you will be the same.”
Not even anywhere possible, I thought. Then, my brain kicked back in and I remembered that the Creature was here to talk me into something that I might not want at all. My guard went up. I had a heck of barrier against sales pitches and manipulation in my life and I was not about to be shanghaied here by some thing or someone who claimed to be just another ordinary human being.
“You know,” I said, “Whoever you are I just want you to know I never thought of myself in that way. Never imagined being anybody other than who and what I am. Seems kind of arrogant to think that about oneself. Don’t you think?”
“Not at all,” and again there was this laughter that I wanted so desperately to go on for all eternity and yet stung in a way I couldn’t wait for it to stop.
“All His creatures were made to be like I am,” it said.
“Then why aren’t they? I know a lot where I live that aren’t anywhere near close, and just about everyone I met on earth was a far cry from, from, well, from you whoever the heck you are.”
“It is about seeing and choosing.”
“Not buying that. You suggesting that if I chose to see differently, even on earth, I would see others like I am seeing you?”
“You could have seen more if you had so chosen.”
“I saw things as they were, I never fooled myself nor let myself be fooled, certainly not by any manipulative apparition like you clearly are.”
“Do you recall a time, Frank, when you questioned whether you were thinking about things right, about where your ideas and beliefs were leading you?”
I couldn’t believe this creature called me by my earthly name. I stared hard, trying to see past the brilliant light that seemed to enfold its entire being, and for a moment I thought I caught a glimpse of something or someone familiar.
“How do you know who I am?” And again, there was the laughter.
“We know far more than you might think my dear friend.”
The familiarity put me off, even though I found myself wanting to embrace it. Hold on, I told myself, don’t get suckered in here. It’s all a trick to take you away from your comfortable and familiar existence. And boredom, another voice seemed to say in my head.
“Yes,” I finally answered the question that hung there like a bright cloud. “Yes, I do remember, I was young then, impressionable.”
“Yes, you were twenty two. You went on a hike by yourself. You got lost and were afraid that you would not find your way home. You questioned your certainty, whether you had the answers you thought you did. You thought then that there must be something more, some meaning to your life and the lives of those around you.”
“Yes, yes!” I said, wanting to shut my ears. “Yes, I remember it well, but I was wrong, wasn’t I? I got over it. Life took over. I got busy. Got married, had kids, had a career, a great career you would admit, right? And all that was forgotten.”
“Never really forgotten, Frank. You came back to it over and over in your life.”
“Yeah, well, OK I did. But what does it matter. Life turned out for me OK. I discovered I didn’t have to answer the big questions, didn’t even have to ask them anymore.” I hesitated, thinking now with some regret about simply turning away when I knew something or someone was calling to me. “I suppose you are trying to tell me that’s why I was sent to hell instead of, well, here, where I belong.”
“Yes, Frank, you do belong here––”
“I didn’t mean that, that was the wrong thing to say.”
“Come with me Frank,” and the Creature offered a gentle hand. I found myself lifted up, no longer pained by the steely grass and when I looked down I saw that my feet floated above the solidity of the garden floor.
The beauty of those gardens cannot be expressed. The flowers, birds, animals of all kinds, the music which could not be distinguished from the natural garden sounds, all of it was so enticing that while I was guided along by the hand of my guide I forgot to keep my barriers in place. Then we saw what must be the end. There two very large beings stood and seemed to be aflame with bright light. Each held a sword of light but so much more than the sword of the Force. They burned with a brightness that just looking at them felt like they were burning all the skin, muscle and everything earthly away from my body.
“This is where your home is Frank.” And I wanted so badly to be there that I almost said, yes, take me there.
“There is a place for you here, Frank. It is prepared for you.”
“Ok, what’s the catch. I know there’s a catch.” I wanted just to say it doesn’t matter, whatever it takes I want to be there, but something held me back. Something inside said, wait, don’t be a pushover. Hold to your principles. Give up your principles and you are nothing.
“There is no catch, Frank. He wants you to be exactly as you were meant to be. Be that person and enter.”
“You saying I have to be someone different, something I am not? I have to fake it to make it?”
Again the laughter, but this time I felt some irritation. I think I was beginning to understand what was going on here and I wasn’t liking it, not one bit.
“Not at all Frank, just be who you truly are. If that is different from someone you have fashioned in your own image, then that is for you to decide. Your true self or the one you have made. The question is whose image? Yours or His?”
“What is so wrong about who I am, who I have become?”
“You are asking what is the difference between heaven and hell. One He made and is still making. The other, the hell you are in, is of your own construction.”
“You mean that where I live now is just me making things up?
“In a way, yes.”
“Idealism. Now that’s a hoot. Hell is just an idea in my own puny little brain.”
“You can decide for yourself if it is real or if it is not. One thing you can’t decide is if heaven is real. There it is.”
The Creature pointed to the gate secured by the flaming swords.
“Kinda funny, isn’t it,” I said more to myself. “We think heaven is something we made up and hell, well the hell we lived in on earth, now that was for real.”
“So, let me get this straight. The string attached to this whole deal is me giving something up, Ok, I get this. I know the story. The lust thing and the monkey on the shoulder. The mama who wouldn’t admit that her love was just for herself. Got all that. Great story. But what in God’s good name am I supposed to be giving up here? I just don’t get it.”
“I think you do. I think it is plain to you as I, your friend, am standing here.”
It was the first time I noticed that the Creature was someone I knew. But, who? I stared. It stared back. Then I recalled conversations, at least I think I did. Those were great times, I remembered them fondly, thought of them often. Oh how I wished I could go back for more of them.
“Are you–– are you?”
“It doesn’t matter who I am, does it Frank. I am here to tell you who you really are, show you who you really are and ask you to know that and accept it.”
“We went our separate paths, didn’t we? We agreed to disagree. You wanted me to think I hadn’t really had it figured out like I wanted to believe I did. But I did, I did have it figured out. I was right and you were wrong and you would never admit it! You kept up with your pollyannish ideas, your ideals, your morals, your clinging to mysteries when the answers were becoming clearer and clearer to me. No wonder we went our separate ways. I couldn’t stand it any more. You wouldn’t let me go, let me be me, admit that maybe I was right!”
Now I suddenly felt big and almost seemed the Creature was shrinking. I went back to those days of argument and debate. No, the world wasn’t so multidimensional, so complicated, so full of unanswered questions. My college profs were right. Believing all that nonsense was deadening. I wanted a life, a full life, a life of my own making, one I could look back on and be proud of myself. I would do it my way, wouldn’t rely on any crutch thrown at me in the name of some down-in-the-mouth religion. That was for children and now I was grown up. I would do it on my own or life wasn’t worth living.
“Yes, I do see it now, I see it clearly.” I turned to the Creature and felt a burning anger. How close I had come to falling for it. Sheesh, give up everything I had staked my life on? Give up being who I really was, give up all that I had strived for and worked to create? For what? To be what someone else thinks I should be. I was right, damn it all, I was right
I stopped, looked away in the direction toward the bus.
“I know my way back,” I said without looking at the Creature. I got up and now winced as I again felt the hardness beneath my insubstantial feet.
“Frank,” the Creature said. “There is but one thing I need to say to you yet.”
I turned and I saw in his eyes what I had seen before. Those piercing blue, deeply shadowed beneath furrowed brows. So stern, yet filled with such tenderness and love that I felt shaken to my core.
“What is it?”
“You know you are good.”
What? I wanted to say. But, I didn’t, I let the thought float around me.
“You know He is good.”
I knew that was coming next and my friend had found that spot that always troubled me. It made me question my conclusions about life. Ha, life. Just the accidental collection of pure randomness made possible by the cruelties of competition. That’s what life was. The universe, nothing more. Emptiness. We all know that now. Nothing to it. No reason at all. Still, there was that feeling. I could never escape it. The good. No, the Good. What was that? Why did that keep coming up, slithering from some down dark place to emerge every now and then into the light to cause me to question all my assertions, my understanding, my commitment to be myself and make my own way. I had to push it down. I did, over and over. And now, here it was. Staring me in the face.
“What is good?” I asked. Not so much to the creature, but to myself.
“You are. Because He is.”
Then, I melted. I gave myself into the good and fought no more. I felt the years of insistence on being right fall away as if they were rotting clothes. For a moment I was in a rain shower watching dirt that covered me from head to toe rinse away.. I watched it go. Then I felt my skin changing. I thought for a crazy second that I was a butterfly emerging. My whole body began to take on a solidity that I had never felt or even imagined. The grass became grass. I watched it in utter fascination. Then, finally, at last, I extended my hand to the Creature.
“Carleton, take me home.”