Authors: Anthony C. Winkler
Tags: #General Fiction
“When I found out that there was no hell,” a young mother said with a quaver in her voice and a tremble to her lip, “I thought I would die.”
“There, there, Alice!” her husband comforted her.
“I realized that all I’d worked for on earth, all the good I’d tried so hard to do all my life, meant nothing. Everyone is ruthlessly happy here, even vicious, drunken Mr. Leonard from the old neighborhood in Iowa who used to beat his wife.”
“Mom!” their little boy cried at her distress, cuddling up to console her.
“All the Girl Scout cookies I sold! The blood drives I organized! The Meals on Wheels I delivered to the homebound!
The no-sex-on-Sunday rule I put my poor husband through.”
The husband sighed over woeful earthly memory.
“For what? To share heaven with nasty Mr. Leonard, who beat his wife, who was always drunk, who never did an honest day’s work in all his life, and who probably had sex twice on Sundays? And you know what’s even more infuriating? I’m happy! Right now, even as I cry about my wasted, unappreciated Christian life on earth, I’m happy! I’m deliriously happy!”
Here she burst into an uncontrollable sobbing broken by maniacal bursts of laughter. Her husband struggled to comfort her, as did her child, and all three of them soon dissolved in a show of family merriment through the streaming tears.
“Never mind, ma’am,” our landlord said philosophically.
“One day our scientists will figure out how to capture God.
We’ll make Him pay. And we’ll make Him change things, too!”
“You leave God alone!” I snapped.
“Oh, you’re one of those foreign God-lovers, eh?” the landlord said sarcastically.
“God is my friend!” I growled indignantly.
“I wouldn’t say that too loud over here, if I were you,” one of the diners at the end of the table muttered darkly.
A tremor of grumbling rolled around the table, especially among the clotted groups of robed Americans. Several diners glared at me. On earth, they would have definitely charged and lynched me from a lamppost. But up here, the dogs-inthe-manger spitefully decided to withhold the pleasure of the rope.
The uncomfortable silence was broken by our landlord.
“We Americans are an enterprising people!” he boasted patriotically. “Our scientists are working on a vaccine to instill real pain even as we speak. We’ll have pain up here, sooner or later. We’ll have our hell. Its fire will sear fl esh, singe hair, and really hurt. Sinners will shriek. Fornicators will howl. Adulterers will tremble and shake. Just wait!”
“Do you know,” remarked the philosopher, turning to the old gentleman from Turkey, “the most amazing thing, now that you mention it? I have a fully grown belly button, too.”
He peeled open his shirt and exposed a knobby belly button as thick and swollen as Miss B’s had been.
“Oh,” exclaimed the old Turkish gentleman, “that’s a big one. Want to come out with me tomorrow? I can promise you a good beating. You might even get kicked in the head by the police horse.”
The philosopher shook his head and muttered that there was no sheep, no policeman, and certainly no pleasurable beating.
I asked the Turkish gentleman what he did to provoke the beating and kicking, and he chuckled and said he unzipped his fly and flashed the sheep.
“Exposing yourself to peaceful Christian American sheep?” the mother challenged nastily. “That’s a wholesome hobby?”
“It’s a pastime,” the old gentleman shrugged, adding modestly, “I don’t have much time left up here. I think the sheep like it. Especially the ewes.”
“Our sheep do not like it!” the woman shrieked, red-faced and glaring. Then she added with a high-pitched laugh, “And hearing your sick story makes me very happy, too! I hate this heaven! I want to go back to Iowa!”
“No pain,” our landlord sighed. “How can you have heaven without pain? It’s impossible!”
Egbert leaned over and whispered, “Baps! What a weird set of people, eh?”
Everywhere we travelled in New York we heard the same complaints from Americans: They couldn’t stand that there was no pain in heaven; that they always felt happy even though they had the constitutional right to feel miserable; that a crook got the same size backyard cloud as a baptized Christian; that a murderer executed on earthly Texas would brazenly walk the streets of heaven among decent citizens like the wretch had belonged to the Dallas Chamber of Commerce.
I met a gentleman from Chicago and he explained to me that without a hell, there was no point in heaven. He told me that on earth he had been a loyal Republican, a taxpayer, a war veteran, and if he had known he would die and go to Democrat heaven, he would have killed himself. I asked him what difference killing himself would have made, and he said that suicides went immediately back to earth, taking the shape of the first available body—whether human, worm, animal, or bug. He was quite bitter and said that even if he had recycled back to earth as a dog and ended up in a Chinyman’s stew pot, it would still have been better than to find himself in a nasty Democrat heaven where thrifty wage-earners had to enjoy the same pleasures as hardened gas-guzzlers and crooks.
I asked him why he kept calling it a Democrat heaven and he growled and said because it was just like the kind of heaven a pork-barrel Democrat hog would think up: freeness everywhere; compulsory laughter and joy; no struggle or pain. He said that in Republican heaven every man would have a different size cloud depending on his own initiative and sweat. None of this ugly standardization of cloud, sheep, and harp. If a soul worked hard, he would earn a bigger cloud, louder harp, fatter sheep. If he was idle and good-for-nothing, he would end up on a mashup cloud with only one scrawny sheep for company. And if he didn’t make his monthly payments, the bank would repossess his cloud and pitch him out on the street.
“You can’t have homeless man in heaven!” I objected.
“Why not?” he growled.
“Because de man is dead. Him reach heaven!”
“That’s just a technicality,” he snapped. Then he added, “Maybe God isn’t moral, but America is!”
And even as he was grumbling about this, he was laughing for he was happy—poor chap.
One morning we came out of our lodgings and found crowds milling about on the sidewalks. We asked a passing stranger what was happening and he told us that today was “Hell Day,” and that everyone was waiting for the grand parade to start.
At first I thought he was running a joke, but as we mixed up with the throng, we kept hearing excited chatter about national “Hell Day,” about how it was even better than Thanksgiving, and realized that we were witnessing the festivities of an American federal holiday. Berobed citizens and their flocks of sheep milled about on the sidewalks, wearing an air of revelry and excitement.
We jostled our way into the crowds and gawked as floats sponsored by various civic organizations and drawn by harnessed sheep lumbered past, depicting scenes from an imaginary hell.
For example, I remember that one float rumbling past showed a fiery dungeon of torture in which horned demons chopped off the heads of sinners over and over again, causing the volunteers playing the parts of the damned to squeal with delight at each whack of the axe and ruin an otherwise horrible spectacle. The float rattled down the cobbled street drawn by about forty sheep draped with signs notifying the public that it had been constructed by the Kiwanis Club of Brooklyn at its own expense and donated in the spirit of good citizenship. Applause rippled through the crowd as the axe cut off the sinner’s head, causing it to bounce on the floor of the float like a beach ball, until it snapped back onto the bloody neck stump.
Another float, put on by an association of American women, featured a damned male fornicator hanging upside down from a wooden pole and being lowered into a pot of boiling oil by stern demonettes. One demonette had clamped the volunteer’s imagined privates (he had none, for he had been governmentally dehooded) with a pair of red-hot pliers and was pretending to crack his earthly balls. Naturally, the young man playing the part of the upside-down fornicator was quite jolly, and every time he was dunked into the scalding oil, his peals of laughter rolled over the parade route, causing some disgruntlement among the crowd of onlookers who understood, however, that the poor fellow could not help expressing compulsory bliss.
Float after float showed similar scenes of wicked torture and cruelty that the sponsoring civic group thought belonged in hell. The parade of rumbling hell floats brought out my indoor parson from where he had been skulking, causing him to occasionally bawl, “Yes, sah! Now you talking!” much to the delight of nearby spectators, some of whom clapped me jovially on the back and congratulated me on having good sense for a foreigner.
As the parade clattered slowly past, the only incident to mar the festivities was the uncouth behavior of rude-boy youths who charged the floats and demanded that the costumed demons torment them, too, or they would stone the parade. The demon volunteers, for the sake of peace, would dutifully lash out at the rudies prancing beside the rumbling floats, slashing them with butcher knives or pouring molten lead over their bodies, causing them to dance and squeal with sheer joy, spoiling the solemnity of the occasion.
“Juvenile delinquents!” I heard an elderly gentleman grumble.
“What an ugly generation,” a well-dressed American lady sighed.
The crowd occasionally booed these spirited youngsters, and once in a while an indignant member of the clergy or bearded civic leader would charge among them and add to their merriment with a few good thumps.
Egbert, meanwhile, through all the confusion and noise, had curled up against the wall of a building and fallen asleep, snoring so loudly that he attracted glowering stares of disapproval from some in the crowd. One man standing next to me suggested to the others that they lynch the impious foreigner, and another hurried off, saying he was going to get a rope.
I elbowed my way through the crowd and warned Egbert to wake up, or he would presently be lynched. He stirred and peered up drowsily at me just as the grand prize–winning float rumbled past, showing a mechanical worm gnawing its way into a sinner’s wide-open eyeball, its tail wriggling in the air and batting against eyelash, while the sinner shrieked and laughed from all the fun. On a platform in the rear of that particular float perched four harpists who played a hymn about “Gnawing Out Eyeball of Sinner on the Appointed Day,” drawing rounds of goodhearted, patriotic applause from the keenly watching citizens.
“A worm eating out a sinner’s eyeball! Is this a great country or what?” a matronly American lady squatting on the pavement beside Egbert chortled, her chest bursting with national pride.
“Egbert!” I nudged God, leaning over to whisper. “Wake up! Dem gone to get a rope to come lynch you.”
He rubbed his eyes sleepily. “What me do?”
“You snore on dem parade. You hurt dem patriotic feelings. Come! Make we go before dem come back wid de rope.”
He stood up unsteadily and peered around at the endless sea of bobbing heads gawking at the passing floats. I could see the gang of glaring patriots still scowling at us. The philosopher ambled over and sniffed.
“I don’t quite know what to make of this,” he confessed, looking bedraggled with confusion. “I was never a religious man.”
“Shut up and help me with Egbert,” I hissed. “Patriots coming to lynch him.”
“Baps,” Egbert mumbled, weaving like he was drunk from too much rum or spectacle, “dis is a funny people. I want to go home to Jamaica.”
The patriots saw that we were slinking off, and one of them shoved his way angrily over to detain us. I gave him a quick kick in his crotch, feeling nothing but an empty spot where hood and balls had once roosted on earth, and he doubled over and gasped, “Ohhh! That was good! Do it again!”
I did as he asked, this time dropping him flat on the sidewalk, where he sprawled against the thick cluster of legs, while we wormed our way through the “ohhing” and “ahhing” of onlookers.
As I shoved Egbert ahead of me I caught a whiff of white rum on his breath.
“You been drinking rum!”
He mumbled that he’d found a bottle of white rum on the pavement and had had a tups.
“Will you kick me again, please!” the patriot begged, catching up to us and grabbing at my shirt.
“No! Brute!” I snapped in his face. “You was going lynch me friend. Go home!”
I had my hands full with Egbert, trying to push him through the crowd, but the patriot continued to chase after us, begging a kick. Finally, I snarled at the philosopher, “Make yourself useful and kick de wretch for me, nuh?”
He said that he’d try his best, and as we eased away I heard a wishy-washy thud followed by an indignant squeal, “You call that a kick?”
Then we were out of earshot and darting across the street between the clattering floats.
I had to laugh. “You know,” I told Egbert, “I can see why dese people vex with you. Taking away pain and suffering ruin deir American way of life.”
“Baps! Make me go drink a rum.”
The crowd exploded into a jubilant cheer and I turned in time to see the Lion’s Club float rumbling past, showing a man wearing a sign that said “Murderer” around his neck. He lay on his back, his naked belly torn open, while a flock of mechanical vultures buried their beaks in his exposed liver, making him laugh like they were pecking his funny bone.
“I don’t understand why you kick so much better than I do when everything is inside my head,” the philosopher grumbled,
We travelled to Chicago and then to Detroit. Everywhere we went we encountered sheep, backyard cloud, rampant harpplaying, and daily manna drizzle.
We drifted north to Maine, where me and the philosopher had it out one night as we were camping out in a woodland.
It began when I said that the Maine sheep baaed through their nose, while the New York sheep had a throaty baa like a gargling, and the philosopher said that it was the same baa and he should know for all baaing took place inside his head.
Egbert, meanwhile, had propped himself up against the trunk of a pine tree where he was drinking rum and gazing around the campsite like a Boy Scout leader looking to molest a tenderfoot.