Chapter 1: Coffee
The Devil sat in a very small office which, by the way, was not hot. Not in the least. Truth be told, not all of hell is of the fire and brimstone, boiling cauldrons type thing. They regulate the temperature in much of it, forced air, thermostats, etc. People are generally impressed by the heat references which is the main reason they’re highlighted with such prominence.
At any rate this was not within the Devil’s purview. He cared nothing about PR. People typically came to him and not vice versa.
The Devil’s desk was terribly undersized almost to the point of cruelty. He was much too large for it and he seemed to be in a perpetual struggle to keep his office supplies from falling off, which included an old typewriter, a calculator, a number 2 pencil, and a small yellow pencil sharpener with shavings spilling from the little hole where the pencil goes. The typewriter was missing a few keys including the “S” which created the ceaseless need to press down on the key extra hard which irritated him to no end. So much so that sometimes he opted to skip the key altogether or replace it with a “z” and so his note would read something like:
Dear Je u ,
With all due re pect I cannot agree with the latezt change in protocol. It make no zense to give a “credit” for good behavior when the only reward I can give the recipient iz -- what??? One lezz day in eternal damnation??
P : be t to your Dad.
In the center of the Devil’s desk was an enormous red spiral bound ledger that took up most of the desktop. The ledger was open and he was squinting at it, running his long hairy finger down a list of names and addresses.
Across from the Devil sat a very confused-looking old man who wore huge coke bottle glasses. He had thinning white hair and his pale bespeckled head was as shriveled as a dried fig. He wore an inexpensive looking light blue cotton jacket and white tennis sneakers. A price tag was dangling from the jacket’s zipper. The man was staring at a beautifully framed photograph that hung on the wall behind the Devil. It looked like a family portrait.
A phone rang on a file cabinet behind the Devil’s desk. As he turned to take the call he knocked over a cup of coffee.
“God Dammit!! Melody!!”
“Yes boss!” responded a tiny goblin from the office doorway practically before the “dy” in “Melody” left the Devil’s tongue (which, by the by, was not forked). She was no taller than a miniature collie and impeccably dressed in an outfit you’d fully expect for an office that was business casual, including a modestly priced pants suit that was navy blue with pin stripes and practical low heeled patent leather shoes. Her hair was pulled back in a tight bun at the back of her large head, which was green.
A brilliant multi-tasker, the Devil picked up the phone while pointing to the cup on the floor, whispering “I need another.”
She whispered back, “No. You’ve already had three this morning.”
He was absolutely beside himself and ignited a large banana plant that sat in a glazed clay pot in the corner of the office. Despite his theatrics, she seemed unfazed.
He barked into the phone receiver, “Who is it?! Well tell him I’m too busy. I’m in the middle of intake with a customer and there’s three hundred thousand and thirty-two more in the queue.”
A fire alarm rang. He pointed at the flames desperately while Melody made a casual show of watering a pot of petunias that sat next to the banana plant. He threw the number 2 pencil at her.
“It’s nothing,” he continued, “must be a car alarm . . . Well if he’s all knowing he knows I’m too busy to talk right now!!”
He slammed down the phone while Melody put out the fire by creating a small gray storm cloud that hovered over the banana plant. This was one of the few tricks allowed to goblins of her rank and she was thrilled to utilize it in front of a guest. In order to make the cloud disappear she made a complete show of things by waving her tiny hands in an “abra cadabra” sort of way which actually mattered nothing at all to the logistics of the operation. She picked up the coffee cup and marched out the door, mumbling “decaf” before exiting.
The Devil sighed and looked over at the old man, who still looked confused.
Chapter 2: New Jersey
“Do you know who I am?” he asked the man.
“I have no idea.” said the man.
“Hmm,” said the Devil. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
The man frowned. “I remember being in a store and trying on this jacket. Looking in the mirror. My wife didn’t like it.”
“She told me to take it off. And when I did I felt a sharp pain in my chest, saw a white light, and bingo the next thing I know I’m sitting here with you watching your pet chihuahua water the plants.”
The Devil nodded thoughtfully followed by a somewhat awkward silence. It may seem surprising to some but this was the most difficult part of the job for him, breaking the bad news. He had never become totally at ease with it and often thought with dismay that his creeping guilt was simply one means that management had of ensuring that Hell was both hell for him as well as its residents.
He fumbled a bit with his calculator then fell back on one of his jokes.
“I have some good news and bad news.”
The man waited. The Devil cleared his throat. “The bad news is, you’re in Hell. The good news is you’re not in New Jersey. Ha ha.”
“Tough crowd,” thought the Devil. He tried another tack. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“Yes, anything to bring back your adorable puppy dog.”
She appeared in a puff of blue smoke in front of his desk holding a tray with two steaming hot mugs.
“You called?” With the utmost show of deference she placed one cup on the Devil’s desk and handed one to the old man. “I made yours light and sweet just as you like it, Mr. Warren.” In what seemed like one fluid motion she managed to bow while tucking the tray under her tiny green arm and exiting the office.
“What a nice dog.” said Mr. Warren.
“If you only knew,” thought the Devil.
Chapter 3: The Kiss
As the Devil continued to stare at the report summary he became more and more concerned. His thick brow was creased and sweat began to form around his horns. He read it through once then re-read it. For the third time he hit the buttons on his calculator. “It’s not adding up,” he thought.
He looked up at Mr. Warren who seemed to be vaguely enjoying his coffee.
He even re-read the report’s footnotes. But they seemed to offer no clarification. Nada.
He sipped his coffee while perusing footnote 3532. A glimmer of hope.
“I see here Mr. Warren that you kissed Marci Adams in the playground in third grade.”
For the first time since he sat down in the Devil’s office, Mr. Warren’s face lit up. His pale blue eyes sparkled with remembrance. “Yes sir, I certainly did!”
“Which of course was innocent enough, and yet just prior to that you peeked up her dress while she was climbing the monkey bars, didn’t you?”
“I may have sir, though I can’t swear to it.”
“Yet you remember the kiss?”
“What’s that sir?”
“That you’d so definitively remember a kiss that happened 84 years, 231 days, 5 hours, and 21 minutes ago and yet not remember the peek?”
Mr. Warren began crying -- tears of joy. The Devil handed him a box of tissues that Warren managed to accept between wet sobs. He began wiping the tears from his drawn face and then blew his nose loudly. “I think not sir,” he said and went back to sipping his coffee.
The Devil waited for further elaboration. None came. He sighed. “And why is that, Mr. Warren?”
“One quite easily remembers the first kiss of a girl that became your wife. I think so, at least, sir.”
“Hmm” said the Devil, reading. Footnote 3533.
Chapter 4: Innocent Mistake
“I don’t give a good Goddamn if he’s busy tell him it’s important. And yes, you can tell him I used his name in vain!”
As the Devil stood outside his office shouting into his cell phone he watched Mr. Warren through the office window. Warren appeared to be admiring the half-burnt banana plant. The Devil had been completely stumped both by the report on Warren and the extended interview with him. The more he read and the more he heard from Warren the more he was convinced that a mistake had been made.
The man absolutely did not belong in Hell.
“First off I have no idea what the protocol is for this type of . . . snafu. And second . . . “
He sighed and looked over at Melody.
“They put me on hold again.”
She looked as concerned as he did. “Should I bring in another tray of cookies?”
He shushed her. “Yes, yes, I’m still here. As I was saying, second, I need to know what to tell this man. If he’s supposed to be up there with you we certainly don’t want it getting out that someone nearly spent an eternity in Hell who didn’t belong here!”
He was put on hold again. He thought with dismay how being the Master of the Underworld seemed to mean nothing to the angels in the Chief Executive’s Suite no matter how piddly their rank including the ones who answered the phone.
“On hold again by some pee-on,” he whispered to Melody.
“Who by the way is likely a summer intern!” she reminded him with hushed urgency before marching back into the office.
And yet there was not a thing he could do about it. Rank, rules, protocol, etc., were established well before his existence. He was simply part of the greater design over which he had no control and was not the maker.
He looked back into his office and watched as Mr. Warren provided what appeared to be some vital bit of instruction to Melody about the banana plant. Warren pointed to the base of the plant then dug his pale bony fingers into the soil prodding it a bit before lifting up a clump and crumbling the dirt back into the pot. She nodded while chewing on a sugar cookie.
And just like that, in a flash, it came to him.
Chapter 5: Horticulture
“These peonies need more sun! You’re lucky they’re still alive, in fact. Atrocious. Did you get that?” Melody nodded and took notes while Mr. Warren continued to walk her through the garden outside the Devil’s office. “And here, these azaleas are practically on top of each other! You’ll have a Devil of a time keeping these alive unless you spread them out. No pun intended.”
The Devil watched the two proceed through the garden while reclining on a lawn chair, enjoying an iced tea in the shade of a flowering magnolia tree. It was footnote 5,652 of the report on Warren that he recalled while watching Warren toy with the banana plant, which made reference to Warren’s means of livelihood. He had been a horticulturist for nearly the entirety of his fifty working years. And an enthusiastic one at that!
(Relegating one’s profession in life to a footnote may seem counter-intuitive. On earth one’s “job” is typically front and center in terms of understanding who the human being is. Not so in the afterlife unless the means of livelihood is somehow relevant to the overall good/evil assessment. For example, “He was a local politician in the thriving suburb of . . . ” or “She was an esteemed lawyer working for the law firm of . . .” would never be dropped into a footnote.)
The Devil knew full well that the best way to hide the truth was to make up a plausible lie, and of course to deliver it properly which is where most humans fell short. Even more effective is the lie that is somehow attractive to the unwary recipient (think apple). And so it was that he came up with a plausible reason for Mr. Warren’s presence in Hell: the old man had not been sent down for full time residency but merely a limited visit. The garden outside the Devil’s office (named the “Garden of Heathens” on an iron post at the entrance gate serving what the Devil had hoped was a small reminder that he and his staff were not completely devoid of humor) had been in the utmost disarray with dying shrubs everywhere, weeds sprouting through the pathway cracks, bug problems, etc. And so what better way to explain to Warren the reason for his visit than have him provide expert advice on sprucing up the grounds?!
Chapter 6: Going Up
“Goodbye Mr. Warren! Goodbye!” shouted Melody while both she and the Devil waved in unison from the garden’s exit gate as they watched the old man enter the huge brass and wooden elevator. The elevator was located twenty yards away from the gate and sat on the ground completely freestanding and unattached to anything else, looking on its own and rather lonely. Mr. Warren turned around after entering the elevator and waved his free hand at them. In his other he held a plastic baggie filled with cookies.
“Remember to push the ‘up’ button!” shouted Melody.
And he did.
Chapter 7: An Aside on Money
On the issue of people’s livelihood, it was unfortunate in terms of the after-life that the concept of money was introduced into the scheme of life. “So what do you do for a living” could just as easily have gone the way of “So what do you do for living?” In fact there were few issues in Heaven that created such a heated and unyielding debate as the introduction of monetary value. Half the members of the Committee on Human Affairs thought the need to earn money to survive would leave an insufficient amount of hours for most human beings to commit damnable offenses and the other half knew better. In fact 98% of damnable offenses are directly or indirectly tied to money. The other 2% are purely the fun ones.
Chapter 8: A Final Note
Dear Je u ,
All iz “good” in Hell. Re pecting the Warren incident that I called in about thiz morning, matter rezolved. Undoubtedly it will come up during your weekly creening of Hell’z Affairz. I believe you’ll find when you review the footage that Melody and I performed with the utmo t profezzionalizm and all-in-all maintained our compozure throughout the near-cata trophic event.
Regarding the diverzion of truth, pleaze conzider: if you check the Demeritz Manual you’ll zee it waz relatively minor and arguably would warrant a “0” were we being con idered for upreme Entry (a “white lie” iz the term utilized by your beloved human beingz), and it eemed abzolutely necezzary in light of the exigency of circum tancez.
Alzo, I expect you’ll find during your Fall audit that we’ve been able to materially improve the condition of our garden in the exchange.
P : regardz to your Dad.