THE PARENTS WE DESERVE: A TIME OF RECKONING (3)
Purgatory had come a long way since Dante. How did they get there? Not by plane, that's for sure, although the delays would have been appropriate. No, they got there the same way Satan and his cronies in Milton got to Hell: God threw them. ("Him the Almighty hurled headlong down to ..." etc. etc.)
A few days after the foursome's arrival, Paul finally stopped being dizzy. Out for a solitary ramble, he was shocked to come upon a fellow who looked uncannily like himself -- rich, buff, etc. He even had a mole in the same place. Paul could see this because the fellow's pants (Abercrombie) and shorts (Brooks Bros.) were pulled down. He was stretched over a kind of bench with his hands trussed to his feet beneath it like a spitted pig. Standing above him was a massive dominatrix whose shiny black vinyl outfit made her look like a giant ant. As Paul watched open-mouthed, the whip rose and fell with a hideous whoosh and smack. But nothing happened: the man showed no mark, no pain.
"What the ..?" Paul asked.
The victim looked up over his shoulder. "You must be new," he said. "Chad Green here. Chad. Sorry I can't shake your hand. Obviously." Green wasn't even perspiring. But he did have dimples. (Dimpled Chad.)
"Uh, pleasure. Uh. Paul. But I guess I can't untie ..."
"No sweat." Chad screwed his face up so that he looked like an Existentialist, sans the cigarette. "For many of us," he pontificated, "hell is the absence of feeling."
"I'll say," the dominatrix seconded. "No pain, no nothing." And looking stupefied with boredom, she administered another thwack.
Between lashes, Green went on to describe how he still worked fourteen-hour days as a brilliant bond trader, but on a fixed salary (no bonus) now, the same wage as that of a non-union migrant farm worker. "Here you either do it for its own sake, in the hope of getting a little juice out of it, or you don't do it at all."
"But on Earth," Paul objected, "idealists claim that doing things for their own sake is the key to happiness."
"As if! Another bullshit myth of the Pollyanna tribe."
The dominatrix, soldiering on, was not amused; Paul was, a little. He wondered if he could make Green feel marginally better by appealing to what might be his vestigial -- or was it atavistic? -- vanity. ("Altruism?" Paul? More jet lag?) "Whatever," he tried.
"You look great though, Chad. How'd you get to keep your old body? That was very nice of them."
Green showed no pleasure at the compliment. " 'Nice? Of them? How did I get my old body back?' Don't ask. It was a filthy bargain, I can tell you that much." He nodded toward the dominatrix. "And I don't just mean her." If a person without feelings can look haunted, Green did -- a little.
"In a way," Paul pontificated, "it's like home here, you get to make choices. Except here they all seem bad."
"'Except here'? Don't get me started."
Basta. He and Green made empty promises to meet again sometime to do lunch and talk (whatever) business. With a sad nod Paul moved on, admiring the pretty pink and white flowers -- what were the little suckers called? -- on either side of the muddy path.
"Who's your gardener?" he thought insouciantly. "Primroses!" He pumped his fist. "Where there is no pain but the absence of pain," intoned his inner stuffed shirt, "the best defense becomes, 'Your pain is my pain.'" But somehow the insight made him uneasy. "Is this pomposity," he wondered with dawning horror, "an early warning sign? Are my feelings already turning to cement?" Shit! Purgatory was a lot like getting old.
"Mine to decree, yours only to deal," bellowed a loud Darth Vader (i.e. James Earl Telephone Company) voice. Paul did not even bother whirling around to try to locate the source. Shoulders hunched, he hung a U-ey and trudged toward "home."
The others? For Paula and Myron, it was the same old same new Paul had discovered. Paula's puns got nada reaction: no one laughed, no one even gave her the "oh, no!" look. Myron's high jinks, too, passed as in a dream, the jokes, the pratfalls, the whole nine yards of wax. How would you like to be, say, the fifty-millionth funniest person in Purgatory? And without an audience (no one listened) he was dead. Really.
One day, out for a whatever, he ran into a toothless woman comedian who had been big, really big (in Cleveland) when she was alive. Prompted by Myron's desperate "What do they do for laughs around here?" she harrowed his bones with the story of her Satan impersonation.
She had just arrived, of course, or she would have known better. Nine days into the nine-day wonder of her hilarious Miltonic knock-off (B.A., English, Bard)... "What though the field be lost?/All is not lost; the unconquerable Will/ And study of revenge, immortal hate/And courage never to submit or yield:"... she found out why everyone was paying attention. No one in Purgatory -- repeat, no one -- she was told by a kind stranger, dared to do this particular schtick. Soon after, at a cocktail party ("drink yourself sensible"), she ran into the real thing, who turned out to be, or who was turned out as, a cross between Liberace and Joe Pesci.
He eyeballed her and said, "I hear you've been taking riberties, my not so plutty [pretty]." Satan suffered from lambdacism and rhotacism, problems with his L's and R's shared by Pesci and Liberace, and sometimes indicative of a New York origin. His voice made her flesh crawl a hundred miles an hour. Then he told her why she had to "ruse" the imitation.
"You don't want to know what he said, do you?" she asked her open-mouthed interlocutor.
"No, no, not really." Even the irrepressible Myron knew when to leave bad enough alone. Besides: Liberace? His favorite! Crushed. He hoped he would never run into the big S himself.
* * *
Myrna. After several bad hair, head, brain days, weeks, months, it was she who saved everyone's figurative bacon. For starters, because senility itself often includes the absence of desire, she was the only one who was not unhappy here. In fact, as far as she knew, she might still have been in Heaven.
"I don't see what's so bad about Plugatory," she remarked, several days after Myron's encounter with the chastised comedian. The foursome was sitting around the fire in their chilly alcove, having just "eaten." (Don't ask.)
"Lucky you, Myrn!" said Paula.
"Besides, can't we just leave?" Out of the mouths of those in second childhood. The other three gaped at each other "in wild surmise." Leave Purgatory? Well, no one had seen gates or anything.
Myron remembered what Judge Cough Drop had said. "I wonder what Hell is like," he mused.
Paul: "It can't be worse than this."
Paula: "Careful, P., isn't that the point? That it is worse?"
Myron: "Come to think of it, where are all the famous nobodies? Six weeks in this place, and all I've run into are a bunch of nobody nobodies -- second-rate comedians like Cleveland and myself, dead working stiffs, farting ventriloquists, purveyors of sports clichés, a juggling chess master, and a couple of break-dancing yogis. You'd think we'd have eyeballed a few mediocre deceased celebrities, at least. Ed Sullivan? Robert Young? And a midlevel devil or two. Beelzebub? Mammon?" He grinned at Paula. "Oops, sorry, dear."
Once, when she had wondered aloud why there was no shopping in Heaven, Myron had dubbed Paula "Mammona." In Purgatory you could shop as much as you wanted, but there were no refunds or returns. And the more you liked an item at first, the more quickly you tired of it. If you saw something you loved, by the time you realized you loved it, you didn't.
One morning, afternoon, or was it night (time in Purgatory being a vexed concept), Myron made inquiries, then took decisive action. Later, coughing from the atmospheric inversion and slipping on the slimy rocks, he stumbled back into the alcove. "You won't believe this, folks. 'How do you get out of Purgatory?' Ha! You commit two sins and sign a paper!"
"What did you do this time, Myron?" Myrna's eyes were pinwheeling.
"Heh, heh, I imitated the boss. Just like Cleveland. Twice."
"There must be a catch," Paul opined.
"What kind of paper?" asked Myrna.
"A contract, or something."
"Is there a sanity clause?" Paula.
"Because I no believe inna Santy Claus." Paula, Paul, and Myron (and Chico).
"But you do bereave in me, my deahs, don't you?"
It was Satan, none other, who had sneaked (snuck?) right into the alcove. He was wearing his black vinyl bat-winged outfit with the red elevator boots. Though saddened to see that his dramatic entrance had fallen flat, he soldiered on. "So. I get the idea you folks want out? Right, Baldy?" (I'll drop the speech impediment.)
"You got it," said Myron. "What's the deal, oh Enemy of Humankind? Do we still have options?"
"Well, no, not exactly," observed the Devil. "I'm sorry to say" (ha!), "that you've exhausted those -- your real options. No, once you're here, all that free will stuff is toast."
Paula could not resist. "What a wry thing to say!" Only Satan laughed, and even he with patent insincerity.
"Not so fast!" cried clever Paul. "That sounds like we still have a fake option or two."
Satan slapped his forehead. "Whoa, I seem to have wandered into the philosopher's alcove, the cavern of genius. What a good point! Why didn't I think of that?"
Myrna: "A cavern isn't the same as an alcove."
Chastised, or feigning it, Satan shook his large masked head. "Okay, okay, you win. Listen carefully, here's the deal."
Paula: "The moment of half-truth has possibly arrived."
Satan: "When you get to Strike Three (like the old boy here), you can either go to Hell for, well, good, or you can 'escape' -- to wherever on Earth you like. Or think you like."
" 'Wherever we like?' That doesn't sound ..." Paul began.
"Not so fast! You can never come back here. And Heaven? Don't even think about it."
That still didn't sound so bad. The four dead humans looked at each other and shrugged.
Apparently sensitive himself to the fetid air, Satan cleared his throat. "Next point. Because of the nature of our enterprise, I extend this offer only to newcomers. I'll explain. As you may have intuited, Purgatory is the absence of desire."
Myron: "Yadda, yadda. How about 'absence of performance?'"
Satan ignored the interruption. "And so, if I were to make this offer six months from now, it would be an empty gesture."
"Hold on a mo," Paula said, "I think I smell a heresy. I seem to remember from my halcyon days as a clever and wildly desirable undergraduate ... European History 101, it was ... heresies, there were so many of them ... oh, yes, the one that says God controls the universe, but you control the timing."
"'Heresy'? Ha, hearsay!" Satan rejoined, knowing his woman. "Not to mention rubbish! The truth is, no one controls time. It's too complicated for a single deity or devil to control."
Myron, curious: "So what goes?"
"What do you think 'goes,' Junior? We're each in charge of time part-time, as it were. God, me, the fates, and twenty-seven other powers whose names I can't even remember. What those heretics noticed was the same thing everybody notices: time is a mess. Isn't that obvious? Example: getting old. Just when ... enough, let's not go there." He cleared his throat again. "So. I'm obliged to repeat: the Earth option is not an offer of meaningful freedom. You can go anywhere on Earth, but wherever you go, you stay."
Paul: "For how ..."
"Until Atropos steps in, at which point ... you die. Really die. Then the Earth clause allows you one last -- I hardly know what to call it -- selection, one final selection: you can become fast (cremation) or slow (burial) dust. Any further questions?"
"What a corker he is," Myrna mused, "a real Philadelphia lawyer! But tell me this, Mr. Santa, did God make you offer us this 'Earth option'? I bet that's exactly what happened."
"Give me a break, lady! God? Make me do this? I don't think so!" Somehow, of all the things Satan had said, this one rang closest to truth, or at least to anger. He appeared to collect himself. "As I was saying, any more questions?"
The four humans looked at each other.
Paul: "Just a sec. Time out."
While they huddled in a corner, Satan stared at the shadows thrown by the fire onto the back of the alcove. Soon they returned. From beneath his cloak he produced an expensive-looking fountain pen and a single-page document. Pen poised, he stood waiting while Paula read the fine print. Finally she looked up.
"All set?" asked the Devil.
"Not quite." Myrna gave voice to their last, simple question: "Why? If not God, then why?"
"I thought you'd never ask," said the Arch-Fiend matter of factly. "Real estate, everything here is real estate. Haven't you noticed how crowded it is? Well, compared to Hell, this place is Nova Scotia. And what do you think it's like for me, running both places? With my one lousy assistant, that blowhard Rhadamanthus. It's like being the Mayor of Calcutta, New York, and Mexico City put together. Any soul I can persuade to scoot back to Earth is one less ... you get the idea." Satan looked pained, but of course no one knew if he really was.
The explanation made sense, sort of. And really, who cared? All they wanted was out. So, specifying their destination of "choice" one by one, Paul, Paula, Myron, and Myrna signed on the dotted lines Satan had already X'd. There was no loud noise, no flash of light, but a nanosecond later they found themselves, a little dazed, lying in warm water at the edge of a beach on the east coast of central Florida, each of them having exchanged his/her grimy burlap robe for an age-and-gender-appropriate bathing suit.
To be continued ...