THE LAW PROFESSOR
The winter weather was getting more and more fierce. Chalk it up to climate change unless you were a “climate denier,” similar to “Holocaust deniers.”
He found it increasingly difficult to live without his former wife. She left him, saying, “I’m sick of being married.” Why was he not surprised? His colleagues, both male and female, shared similar ideas.
The blonde woman, Rhona Halligan, whose eyes rolled when she spoke to him, said, “Ronald, you are quite simply, a pushover. Why don’t you stand your ground?”
They had dated twice after his divorce. He took her to his favorite Starbucks in downtown Philadelphia, where his sorrow was apparent. He looked at her the way a floppy-eared dog looks for approval to his master.
She was certainly attractive, with long red-painted fingernails. She looked a bit like a call girl, but that was the way women in their forties appeared nowadays.
He couldn’t stand her, yet wondered if he’d still go out with her to quell his loneliness.
Only a week was left in the first semester of his class, “Contracts Law.” He affixed his bicycle to a black bike rack and hurried up the stairs to his classroom. Before he entered, he heard the chatter of the students, which raised his spirits a bit. Glancing about the room, he saw the eraser board was as white as his dead mother’s hair had been, and that a world globe on the window sill was swiveled toward Nigeria.
“I’m not late, am I?” he asked, looking at the 40 or so students sitting in their chairs.
A murmur recited “not at all.”
“Have you enjoyed my class?”
“It’s not a question of enjoyment, Dr. Berger,” said one Miles Matthews. “The class is forced upon us, but, yes, I’ll give you top marks when we fill out the evals at the end of the term.”
Ron laughed and gave him the “thumbs up.”
Rhona flashed before his eyes. But something else did too. For no reason at all. He could barely make it out.
At home in his fashionable apartment which had once been an oven factory, he lay in his bed staring at the high ceiling. As a kid growing up in the suburbs, he remembered lying upside down and pretending the upside-down-world was the “real” world.
His father, back then, owned Hershel’s Sunoco. Cars and trucks would line up to get service. “There is service and there is Hershel’s Service” read a blinking light that could be seen as far as the Pennysylvania Turnpike.
Suddenly, Ron had an idea.
His car awaited him in the covered garage of his townhouse, an older Nissan Maxima, in prime condition.
He drove all the way to Hershel’s Sunoco. Would it still be there?
As he sped along the freeway, he passed the poor side of town: smoke stacks were belching the black smoke of industry - no wonder the poor had more cancer than the wealthy people like himself - and also saw leaping flames from burning petroleum.
As a Jew, Ron always thought of Bergen-Belson and other concentration camps from The Holocaust. Nearly every Jew knew someone who had died by the worst torture and death possible: his Aunt Sadie and her family from Hungary.
He punched on his radio where something unknown was playing. The male soloist had a most expressive voice. He was singing in Spanish. Ron would have to memorize the name if he wished to buy it. There it was: A Mass in Memorium to the Lost Children of Generalissimo Franco by one Joaquin Perez.
His spirits began to perk up as he remembered the gas station. Those were the happiest days of his life. His mother had been thoroughly embarrassed by his father’s career. When asked, she told her high-society friends, he was in the “petroleum profession,” refusing to elaborate.
There it was! The same as he remembered. But like a run-down house, it had deteriorated and been abandoned. An orange hazard fence was wrapped around the property. A couple of old jalopies were inside the fence. A ’48 Hudson and a small rusty tricycle tipped onto its side.
Bright-colored graffiti stained the walls of the office. Ugly, not like Keith Haring and other talented artists.
“You’re still here,” he breathed. From the side pocket of his Nissan, he grabbed a black Bic pen. “La Beek” he knew it was pronounced en francais. First he wrote down Joaquin Perez. He would definitely buy the CD. Next he wrote down the phone number of “Albert Connors and Sons,” who now owned his father’s property.
Tears coursed down his cheeks.
How dare they take it over, the bastards. A few neighbors sauntered by.
“Mister,” said a thirty-ish dark-skinned man in a black cap. “My papa said this was the best gas station around.”
“And what’s your name, sir?” asked Ron.
“Victor,” he answered.
“My father, Hershel, was the ‘Hershel’ who owned the gas station.’”
“Where did he go?” asked Victor.
“To heaven, I assume,” said Ron, imagining that his mother had bickered him to death.
On the way home, he began to sing. Childhood songs he had long forgotten. Deck the halls with boughs of holly, Good King Wenceslas, Joy to the World, and his favorite “The Twelve Pains of Christmas.” He sang “The first pain of Christmas is sending out Christmas cards, trying to rig up Christmas Lights.”
Most Jewish people don’t put up Christmas lights but his family drove around the suburbs viewing spectacular lights. On Kirk Road, there were the Blue Lights. The house was large and immersed in lights of blue. Blue as the Caribbean Sea.
Ron pulled into the parking garage of “Country Towers.” He whistled as he walked up the cement back stairs, where he always thought, would be the perfect place for a murder.
When he reached his townhouse on the third floor, he flung his notes from his pocket, and sat in the rocker of his late father.
“Dad? What do you think I should do?”
The silence let in the sounds of a few cars and buses on the street outside.
A bell was ringing, undoubtedly the Santa Claus for the Salvation Army.
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’ Dad.”
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian. The Smithsonian selected her photo to represent all teens from a specific decade.
bells and skates
"It's finished," Leona uttered as she snipped the last thread from the hem. The circular velvet skating skirt sewn from left-over master bedroom drapery material was her mother's idea. Leona didn't like the ready-made black velveteen with red satin lining; none had enough flare when skaters twirled. This would fling upward showing the rose silk lining she carefully hand-sewed in place and her self-created rose silk panties.
After stuffing leftover cloth into a sewing basket, Leona held it up by its wide waistband. Glancing in a mirror, she made faces and giggled. The skirt looked wonderful even though she hugged it above her plaid, pleated one now covered with lint.
The telephone bell startled her. "Leona. It's for you," her sister Nancy called. "Don't stay on long," she threatened. Her body tensed and her pale face reddened as she mustered up anger. She didn't like being sixteen, overweight, the brunt of her sister's taunts, and now having to baby-sit Leona while their parents were in Washington, DC for the weekend.
Leona walked down the hall, lay flat on the grey carpet, put her feet through the spindles of the staircase's upper bannister, and pulled the heavy phone downward from its shelf as far as the cord would extend. "Hi."
"And don't think you're going out. There's supposed to be a snowstorm." Nancy shrieked up the stairs to her sister. To herself she muttered, "I'll show that self-impressed, all-around athlete who the boss is this weekend. She won't get away with wiggling her skinny hips, batting her eyes, and getting Mom and Dad to do everything she wants. I'll show her!"
"You heard?" Leona whispered into the circles of the phone. "And don't think you're going out," she sarcastically imitated using a high-pitched voice. "She's in love with the power Mom and Dad gave her since they went to Washington. Gone one day and she becomes a matron in a prison movie. Looks like one too. Sure. Great Neck ice rink. No, not the outside one in Flushing's Bowne Park. I want to wear my skirt and skate-dance. Can't do that outside. Great Neck has the fireplace to warm up my freezing legs and music, too."
"Get off already," Nancy yelled.
"Get off already," Leona muttered. "Julie? You still there? Sure. I'll meet you in the third car. The third. I'll sit on the right so when it stops at Auburndale I'll wave. Okay. Leaves Broadway at 1:12."
The black receiver cradled itself back in its slot. Leona lifted herself from the floor, lifted the phone from the floor back onto its centralized hallway shelf, and went into her room. She removed and shook out the wool skirt, then her blouse and full slip. Standing before the mirror, which fastened with tiny glass rosettes to her closet door, she admired her figure and legs. "You'll freeze, legs, but I'll show you off."
"Where do you think you're going?" Nancy barged in as Leona was putting her silk skating panties over her cotton underwear.
"Great Neck. Ice skating. I always go on weekends." Leona was annoyed at having to account to her sister.
"Not today, kid. There's a blizzard coming and I'm responsible for you," Nancy was hostile.
"I'm fourteen. This is New York not the midwest so I doubt there'll be a blizzard. Anyway, I can take care of myself." Leona disliked her sister under normal circumstances; as a substitute parent, she felt Nancy was obnoxious.
"You're not leaving this house." Nancy's small aqua eyes became slits.
"Geez, you're jealous. Just because you don't skate, have no friends, and would look like a yuk in anything, you don't have to always take it out on me." Leona regretted saying that. Nancy sometimes got violent and slapped, especially when no one was around to see or hear.
"I hate you." Nancy grabbed a handful of Leona's long, pale, yellow hair. Because it was silky from the chamomile final rinse, it slid from her grasp. Leona giggled. Nancy's fist found Leona's ear.
The pain was intense at first. Only a red ear showed... Nancy's favorite spot to hit because, when Leona tattled to Mom, nothing really would be obvious and it was one word against another.
"Get out of my room." Tears began to well in Leona's eyes. She didn't want to give her sister the satisfaction of seeing them.
The pain became an ache as Leona resumed dressing. She put a cotton turtleneck shirt on and then her beautiful velvet skirt. It would be worth freezing. She pulled a wool sweater over her head; it touched and stirred up her ear pain. She knew she wouldn't wear the sweater skating as her tiny waist wouldn't show. The white leather skates, with bells through the base of its laces, were on the floor of her closet; sharp blades were covered with rubber guards. She knotted the laces together so the skates could be carried on her shoulders. Cotton socks and penny loafers went on her feet, and wool anklets were dropped into her skates.
Nancy was in the living room listening to a Frank Sinatra song when Leona tip-toed to the hall closet for a jacket, hat, mittens. She knew once she got out the door, Nancy couldn't run and actually catch her. The 78rpm whirred for a second indicating the recording needed to be manually re-started. Now. Leona ran. Nancy jumped up screaming "Get back here. You'll be sorry."
"I'm taking the 1:12. I'll be back for supper. Be at Great Neck. Julie's coming too." Leona shouted from the concrete sidewalk. The cold air hurt her ear.
Running the two city blocks to the Long Island Railroad, Leona got rid of some of her anger. Her parents never doubted her ability or trust. Why was Nancy so bossy? She settled into a torn seat in the third car.
Julie was not at the Auburndale stop. Maybe she'll get on at Bayside, Leona thought. "Bayside next stop." Then Douglaston, Little Neck, Great Neck, Leona said to herself. Well, I don't see any snow.
The walk from the Great Neck station to the rink was along a quiet road. Julie never appeared. Maybe her parents will drive her, Leona thought. It was not like Julie to just plain not show up. She was certain, however, her other school friends would be skating.
Excitement at the sight of the rink always came. She loved the wood smell, the hot chocolate, the music, the free feeling of skating, her friends. "Hi, Lenny." She hugged the boy who often rode her home from school on his bicycle’s crossbar. "Oh, hi, Sylvia, and Marty, and Jane. What train did you get?"
"Let me see it," Jane pulled open Leona's jacket. "It's gorgeous. Swing. God, your panties show. I've never seen such a circle...even at Rockefeller Center."
"First couples-skate, you are mine," whispered Lenny. He hung her jacket and hat on a wooden peg in the ‘coat area’. "Beautiful sewing."
Leona blushed. Lenny liked her more than a friend; she just liked him. It embarrassed her that he noticed everything and complimented her sewing and designing ability.
The session went as she'd hoped, especially doing backward turns in the center of the ice, reserved for such feats. Leona was stared at by other skaters who were dressed for warmth, or girls in the classic black velveteen but with heavy long knee socks. No one knew it was snowing as the rink had no windows. It was 5 PM and time to leave. All her friends were to take the same train, but get off sooner, so they exited together. Two hours of blizzard had already taken place. They laughed at the trek to the station.
The train wasn't going anywhere. Leona put a nickle in the pay phone, and called Nancy to tell her she was going to sit on the train, was safe, was with her buddies, and she'd eventually get home.
She and her friends sang summer-camp songs. The train struggled leaving the depot, but hours had passed and only a mile or so had been covered. Their singing ceased.
"My folks are away. I'm glad they don't have to see this blizzard. Guess I should have stayed put," Leona said. "My sister will be in heaven with her holier-than-thou attitude."
It was already eleven at night. Hunger had told all that. The train finally made it to Bayside. "Let's walk," Lenny said. "It'll be faster."
"But you live in Bayside," Leona replied.
"You're not going alone," the sixteen year old insisted.
They left the train. The other friends hiked to their Bayside homes. Street lights looked eerie. Lenny carried both pairs of skates and held Leona's arm. Penny loafers and legs bare from the ankles up made the walk in the volume of snow even more difficult. Lenny would have to make this trip back on foot once he got Leona home. She suggested he sleep over. He smiled and declined.
"I've learned how capable I really am," Leona said. "I sure didn't fall apart, you either, when things got off schedule. My mom always said she had faith in me. She's right." The front lights of her house appeared. It was nearly one in the morning.
"My I'm glad to see you." Mrs. Gray stood at the open door as snow blew in.
"What're you doing here?" Leona was startled to see her mother.
"Nancy called us, long-distance, in Washington and said you were stranded in Great Neck. How could you go skating in a blizzard? How could you?" She seemed to demand an answer.
"I was always safe," Leona defended. "I thought you knew me. I knew I was okay. I can manage. Lenny took care of me also."
"I got in from Washington in a faster time than you made it from Great Neck!" Mrs. Gray was relieved but upset.
"Lenny, call me when you've arrived home. Here. Let me give you a pair of my dad's socks and rubber boots. I'll keep your skates." Leona turned from her mother and spoke to her friend. "Imagine Nancy calling them in Washington to say I was stranded even after I phoned her. No way to let them know I didn't want to ruin their vacation, is there."
Lenny shrugged from fatigue. Her question had no answer. Blame was less important than trying to make it two miles home in deep snow. His wet wool jacket had the characteristic odor only wet wool has; he embraced Leona and left. Each leg disappeared as he lifted and then put down in the thigh-high covering. He waved.
published June 1997 Rochester Shorts
MADE IN TAIWAN
The boy’s feet barely touched the floor as he sat at the dining room table. He was staring at his math book, but he couldn’t focus on the problem in front of him. Illimitable distractions kept him from finding the solution, the clanking and sizzling of pots and pans, his mother cursing dinner into existence. The smell of roasting meat, potatoes, carrots, and fennel collected along the living-room ceiling. He hated fennel. The smell signaled the nightly congregation at the table he currently occupied all by himself, his papers, books, and binders scattered across the surface. He was on guard for his mother’s command to set the table.
He heard the A6 gear down outside, undeniably his father’s. He straightened his spine, bowed his head towards his math book and picked up his pencil. He began counting. One, two, three. He scribbled some numbers in the blank spots of his homework, underlined the fictitious answers. Twenty-five, twenty-six. He erased a few of the numbers and replaced them with neater looking ones. Forty-four, forty-five. He heard the key unlock the door at fifty. The boy summoned a smile and threw his father a careful glance when he saw him appear in the door and close it behind him. The father put down his briefcase next to the shelf with all the shoes. Earlier that afternoon, the boy made sure that none of his shoes were out of line, that all the mud was cleared from the linoleum floor in the hallway. His father hung up his sport coat, took off his loafers, and slid into house slippers.
“Hi Dad,” the boy mumbled. He bowed his head back into the book after meeting his father’s arctic eyes.
“Boy,” the father nodded in his direction. “Doing homework?”
“Yes,” the boy said. Just like every time you walk in the door, he thought to himself. He noticed his father cradling something shiny-blue in his arm like a football. His eyes latched onto it, onto the thing. It was the replica of a racing car, a Porsche, its windows blacked out, its sponsor’s logos plastered across the hood and the doors. His father never came home bearing gifts, except on the boy’s birthdays. This last birthday, his tenth, his father gave him an unwrapped science book, illustrations explaining basic principles. He browsed through the book once or twice, then lost it on his bookshelf. He didn’t care about symbiosis, or photosynthesis, or Pavlov and his dog. He wanted a soccer ball he could take outside and join his friends from school, chase after it until he was out of breath and then chase it some more. He wanted to get his pants green from sliding on the grass, maybe even score a goal.
The boy waited for his father to stop, to say: “Oh, by the way, here you go, boy,” and hand him the toy. He placed the words “thank you, Dad” on the tip of his tongue, ready to deploy when the time was right. The car filled him with the desire to play, the urge to race it across the living room floor. He wanted to hold it up, to admire it, to take it in, as he rotated it in front of his face.
The father passed him, continued muted to the kitchen, opened the door and closed it behind him. He always closed the door behind him. The boy couldn’t make out the words mumbled between his parents. He thought about getting up and knocking on the kitchen door to ask about the car. He wiped a mustache of sweat from his upper lip. The boy knew the risk of asking when he didn’t know the answer. Questions were dangerous in this house.
He returned his attention to the papers in front of him, erasing the numbers he’d jotted down in haste just in case his father checked them. He read the first problem, but the car’s mere presence in the house kept him from focusing. It must’ve just escaped his father’s mind to give him the car, the boy thought. He was just curious about dinner. The boy would have to wait for his father to offer him the toy. He could do that. He could wait.
He heard his mother shout his name through the closed kitchen door and jumped from the chair, shuffled his papers on top of his book, then shoved the pile into his backpack. He wiped the tiny shards of rubber from the eraser off the table and took a deep breath. His mother shouted his name again, louder this time, angrier. He entered the kitchen and picked up the place-mats, the plates and napkins and silverware his mother put on the counter for him. The boy was still too short to reach the upper shelves. His toes barely touched the floor when he sat on chairs.
The father closed the door. The boy spotted the car sitting on the opposite counter as his parents talked about some guy at his father’s office. Tim was his name. Tim this, Tim that. Tim is unqualified, Tim is dumb, Tim shouldn’t be in charge. Tim, Tim, Tim. Same story every day. The boy picked up the table setting, but he couldn’t reach the door handle carrying everything with both hands. He pushed it down with his elbow, terrified of dropping the china and shattering it into a million pieces. Things weren’t supposed to get broken. The father closed the door after the boy and crossed the threshold without a word about the car.
The boy set the table the way his mother had instructed him. Napkin folded into a triangle and placed to the right of the plate. Fork on the left, knife laid atop the napkin, sharp side facing the plate. He checked his work, adjusted his mother’s fork a few millimeters, picked up his father’s knife and flattened the napkin some more before carefully placing it back where it belonged.
Dinner was pot roast with carrots and potatoes, fennel on the side. The mother poured herself a glass of red wine while his father had a beer. The boy drank apple juice. There was some grease smeared on the father’s chin. He was a messy eater, gobbling up his food deep in thought. The mother emptied the glass of wine in three greedy sips and refilled it from the bottle. The boy had trouble resisting the car as he swallowed a piece of fennel with the help of some apple juice. His mother knew how much he despised fennel. Or Brussels sprouts. Or asparagus. Still, she continued to feed him these disgusting vegetables day in, day out. She liked them. She was the one cooking, so she was the one who decided what was on the table.
The boy imagined himself kneeling in the living room, racing the car, chasing after it. He saw himself with his tongue poking out of his mouth, his knees burning red from sliding across the carpet.
“Well,” the mother said, snapping the boy back to the table. “How is it?”
“Good,” the father said.
“Yes, good,” the boy added.
“Good,” the mother said. “I cooked all afternoon. The least you could do is tell me you like it.”
“Yes, it’s good,” the father said again.
“Yes, I like it all right,” the boy said, stabbing the fennel with his fork. “A lot,“ he added. “What did you have for lunch today?” he asked his father to crush the mounting uncertainty, to engage him, to summon his giving spirit.
“Oh, I don’t know,” his father said. “Fried chicken, I think.”
“Was it good?” the boy asked, feigning interest.
“It was mushy,” his father frowned. The boy had microwaved left-over pasta for lunch, but he kept it to himself.
The boy picked up his plate and carried it into the kitchen. Only coagulating fat remained in the emptied pots and pans. After rinsing the plate and placing it into the dishwasher, he stepped toward the car. It had his father’s company logo plastered across the hood, some other logo emblazoned on the doors. It was football-sized and had rubber wheels. Just as he was about to pick it up, his father walked in carrying his plate, the sauce now dried on his chin.
“Close the door,” he told the boy, then rinsed his plate and placed it in the dishwasher. The boy did as he was told.
It felt right to ask now. His father was satiated. He’d had his beer.
“Is this for me?” the boy asked.
The father opened the fridge, searching for any kind of dessert. “What?” he said. He loved his desserts. “Where’s the pudding from last night?”
The boy finished the pudding in his room earlier that day. He cringed, remembering the empty bowl he’d left upstairs in his room.
“The car,” the boy said. His father slammed the fridge shut. He looked at the boy.
“Oh,” he mumbled, “No. It’s from the merger.” The boy didn’t know anything about a merger. He didn’t even know what a merger was.
“Did you finish your homework?” the father asked.
“Yes,” the boy lied. “Can I try it out? Can I play with it?”
The father stared at the car and sucked in a breath through his teeth. “OK,” he said, “but don’t scratch it. I’m going to put it on the shelf.” He meant the one in his office upstairs.
“I won’t, promise,” the boy said, then picked it up with both hands to prove his caution to his father. “Do it in your room,” the father said. “You’ll scratch the furniture down here.”
The boy picked up his backpack on the way upstairs and closed his bedroom door behind him. He always closed his bedroom door behind him. He tossed his backpack on the floor, set the car on his desk, made the bed and shoved the pudding bowl beneath before flattening the comforter, running his hands across the fabric. He exhaled as he picked up the car, felt the coldness of the metal hood, its heft in his hands. He turned it over. The chassis was made of black plastic. A “Made in Taiwan” sticker was plastered between the front wheels. It had moved a little, exposing some sticky glue. He could see some kind of wind-up mechanism underneath. He rotated the wheel, let it go, watched it spin out.
The boy dropped to his knees. He pulled the car in reverse across the carpet until the mechanism clicked. He whispered, three, two, one, then let go. The car dashed forward, faster than he could’ve ever imagined, doing a Porsche justice, then crashed into the wall, blue metal on white plaster. It spun through the air, the spoiler smearing another blue line across the paint before it landed on its roof. The wheels continued to whizz until they ran out of energy. The boy held his breath, listening for the thump of footsteps. No footsteps came. He was safe, for now. His heart kept pounding.
The boy crawled towards the crash site. He didn’t dare to look at the damage on the car. He zeroed in on the blue discolorations on the wall, tried to wipe one off with his sleeve but only smudged it more. He rubbed some spit on the blue, wiped again and again. It only darkened the white paint. He pushed his head against the wall, temperature rising. He felt the redness glow. He picked up the car and shook it, heard a clatter within its guts, a clanking piece dislodged during the crash. The wall had transferred its white paint onto the bumper. He scraped it off with his fingernails as much as he could. He opened the car’s doors to shake out the loose part, but found that it was stuck in the space between the cabin and the chassis. He placed the car beside him, closed his eyes, and tried not to think. It’s impossible not to think in the face of danger. His cheeks blazed as violence flickered before him. He tried to think happy thoughts, but he didn’t believe them. Instead his mind’s eye filled with the memory of his father’s hairy knuckles blackening his eye, of rust-colored blood dripping from his nose and splashing onto the bathroom rug, of his father’s belt biting his naked ass over and over while his mother watched from a distance, arms crossed, frozen, crack, crack, crack.
The boy grabbed the car and stood up. He had an idea. He could still save himself.
The boy slowly pushed the door open, listened for the blabber of the news on the television. His father liked to remain informed and his mother liked to drink another glass of wine before her shows came on.
His father’s office was behind the last door down the hall. The boy tip-toed across the carpet. He pushed down the door-handle and nudged the door open, stopped just short of the creaking noise he knew would come. The crack was big enough for his feeble body to slide through. Soon he’d be too big to make it without activating the creak.
The toolbox was on the bottom of the floor-to-ceiling shelves next to a stack of old National Geographics. He opened the box and picked out the smallest screwdriver. Within less than a minute, he was back in his room. He was pretty good at being stealthy, at remaining unnoticed.
He got on his knees and tried to fit the screwdriver into the tiny screws on the bottom. It didn’t fit. It was too big. He thought of returning the office to look for a smaller screwdriver, but he knew he was out of options. A silent tear collected in his eye. His cheeks began to fire at the imminent reality of his father’s palms connecting, his spasming body about to be left behind in the dark as his mother’s show flickered across the television screen downstairs.
He wiped the tear away with his sleeve, snorted, and let go of the car. It bounced off the floor and landed in between his thighs. The boy looked at the undamaged roof as another tear wrung from the same eye. He let it run down his cheek, across the chin, and drop on top of the car. He tried to suppress his sobs in the face of destruction. He picked up the screwdriver, held it against his temple and pushed until it was too painful to bear. Then he slammed the Phillips head into the hood. He knew nothing would save him from the onslaught. It didn’t matter how much or how little damage he caused. Things weren’t supposed to get broken. The impact dented the hood and chipped off some paint. He slashed the screwdriver through the plastic windows, into the roof, into the doors. He turned the car around, ripped the sticker from the plastic, rolled it into a ball and put it in his mouth. He pounded the screwdriver into the plastic chassis, cracking it, splintering it, opening up a hole. He shook the car with both hands as he chewed on the sticker, squeezing the bittersweet taste of glue from the paper, until a fly-sized plastic culprit fell from the hole. He picked it up and flicked it against the wall, ripped the plastic chassis from the metal, tore out the steering wheel, the seats, the rearview and side mirrors. He tried to bend the metal frame but he didn’t have the strength. Instead he pulled the rubber tires off the plastic rims, ripped them apart one after the other. He picked up the screwdriver again, slashing and slashing the metal roof until he tore through. The door opened, but the boy didn’t turn around.
“Let me look at your homework,” the father said. The boy swallowed the sticker, gripping the screwdriver tight, his knuckles whitening around the handle.
Waiting for Godot at Campo di Carne
Instead of meeting my son Neal at the international airport as planned, I was marooned in the boonies somewhere south of Rome. I sat waiting at a railway platform for the next train back to the city, with no idea when it might arrive. In 2004, I didn’t have a cellphone, not even the flip-open kind, so I couldn’t just call or text to get a ride. There wasn’t a taxi in sight, or I might have hijacked it to get back. I was that desperate.
While on leave from my U.S. university, I worked at a United Nations organization in Rome. My wife Marie and I found a two-bedroom apartment near the Vatican to rent. Our son Neal, on winter break from college, would be the first of many visitors to use the second bedroom.
When Marie and I first arrived in Italy, we’d taken an expensive taxi ride straight from the airport to the apartment. It seemed more a necessity than a luxury, since we had a lot of luggage for our extended stay and doubted we could find the place on our own. Smartphones with maps right at your fingertips were still several years away.
Our rental flat didn’t even have a phone, because getting one installed was costly and a long wait. We were concerned that if Neal had difficulty finding the apartment or other problems, he had no way of contacting us, which is why I wanted to meet him.
I checked on my computer at work on public transportation to the airport, the Aeroporto Internazionale Roma-Fiumicino “Leonardo da Vinci”. That morning, when I headed to meet my son, Marie said, “Now, are you sure you know how to get there?” I replied, “No worries, it should be a piece of cake.”
I started by taking the subway from a station near our flat to the central rail terminal, Roma Termi. Once there, the overhead display in the main hall showed that the Leonardo Express to the airport departed from Track 23. After buying a ticket, I headed there.
As I approached Track 23, there was a train ready to leave, but it didn’t say Leonardo Express or Aeroporto anywhere. As I looked for someone to ask, I walked up as far as the engine that had “Leonardo da Vinci” emblazoned on the side. That was good enough for me, and I hopped aboard as the doors closed. I took a seat and pulled out the International Herald Tribune I’d purchased on the way.
Since the train ride ended at the airport, there was no need to pay attention to getting off at the right stop, so I relaxed and read the newspaper. After half an hour, we should have been approaching the airport, but there was no announcement, nor could I see any sign of it out the window.
I found an English-speaking conductor and asked how much longer before the airport. Before answering, he grimaced and held his hands up, palms outward. I’d learned this was a universal sign Italians made, if they were going to give you some bad news. “Signore, is not the right train. Wrong train for the airport. Must go back to Roma Termi.”
After berating myself, I got off at the next stop which was Campo di Carne, which means “field of meat”, or “cattle pasture.” It was such a small town that there was no station building, only an open-air platform, and fields with grazing cows on the other side of the tracks.
There wasn’t even a train schedule posted anywhere, nor was there a public phone kiosk in sight. Three elderly Italian men were sitting on a nearby bench, carrying on a lively conversation. Greeting them, I learned they spoke no English, and I knew too little Italian to find out anything, though.
I discovered later, when I checked a map, Campo di Carne was about 20 miles south of Rome and less than ten miles west of the airport. Campo di Carne was on a rail line connecting some dozen towns to Rome. It primarily served commuters, which explained why there were few trains in the middle of the day.
After waiting over two hours, I was feeling like one of the main characters in the famous absurdist play by Samuel Beckett, “Waiting for Godot,” In the play, two men wait for someone named Godot, who never arrives.
An Italian gentleman, wearing a suit and tie, showed up a bit later. I assumed he was going to Rome and greeted him, “Buongiorno, signore. Parla Inglese?” (Do you speak English?). He replied, “Un po,” (a little). With a few words and by pointing at his wristwatch, he let me know a train would arrive in five minutes.
When it came into view, I wanted to scream, Hallelujah!
I didn’t get back to Rome until three hours after my son’s plane had landed. Thankfully, he didn’t know I planned to meet him, so he didn’t wait, but found his own way.
When I got back to our apartment, my wife looked relieved and asked, “Where on earth have you been for the last four hours? Neal got here fine and is in taking a nap, but we were worried about you.”
Like a seasoned traveler, my son had taken the Leonardo Express to the central station and then got a taxi. He’d written out the address to our apartment and shown it to the taxi driver. After getting dropped off, he used the intercom in the lobby to call Marie from downstairs.
I sheepishly explained what had happened to me, although I still didn’t understand how I got on the wrong train. For my wife and son, it was more evidence that I was the perfect archetype of an absent-minded professor.
What I found out later from my Italian friends was that trains other than the Leonardo Express might use Track 23. When I said that the train’s engine had “Leonardo da Vinci” painted on its side, they explained that ItaliaRail sometimes put names of famous Italians on its train engines. It also might have been leftover from a special commemoration for Leonardo.
Or maybe it was all a big plot to get me “Waiting for Godot” at Campo di Carne. In our always-connected world today, Vladimir and Estragon, the two men in the play, couldn’t be expected to wait long for Godot without one of them pulling out their cellphone and calling or texting him, asking when he’d arrive.
Eleanor and the Body Stretcher
The year was 1953.
After school on Thursdays and Fridays and all day on Saturdays, Eleanor worked in the hosiery department at Farley's Department store. She wore her hair tied up in a ponytail, painted her lips cherry red, and brushed her eyelashes with her spit-moistened Maybelline mascara.
Saturday afternoon; people were milling all over the store. Eleanor made $1.63 an hour. Not fair that the boy selling in the men's department is making more than I am. She knew this because it was policy; boys always made more than girls for doing the same thing. He earned $1.85.
It didn't matter if women were short or tall or their legs were shaved with a two-edged Gillette or not. They all wanted beautiful legs.
Around three — on the first floor in the hosiery department — Eleanor stood at the back of a sales counter. Behind her, was an open-faced shelf stuffed with boxes of stockings.
A woman around thirty walked up— and Eleanor asked, "Would you like to see the latest fashion in leg wear?"
"Yes, I would." The lady fingered through stocking samples hanging from an arm rack. "These are full of snags," she said, wrinkling her nose.
"Oh, I know. Just there to show shades."
"Say, you're awfully young to be selling ladies hosiery. How old are you?"
"I'm fifteen, but I'll be sixteen in a couple of months."
"Well — I guess you're old enough." She raised a brow. "I'd like to see some sheer stockings, tan ones. You know, something that will show off my legs."
"You mean like Betty Grable's. She was a pin-up girl during World War II, famous for her legs."
"Yes, like hers. " The customer tossed her head back and ran her hand through her long blond hair.
"I've seen pictures of her in magazines, and you know what?" Eleanor declared. "You look alike." Except for that ugly mole on your face.
"You think so? You're very observant. Now, can you show me some stockings?"
After opening a Berkshire hosiery box, Eleanor checked her nails for rough edges, curled her fingers into her palm and gently slid a fist into a nylon stocking. Slowly turning her wrist right, then left and right again, "Beautiful, aren't they? Do you like the color?"
"Yes, they’re lovely. The shade is perfect. I'll take a pair."
"How about two? You know just in case, you might get a run."
"Okay, you've convinced me."
Not long after the blonde lady left the hosiery department, Zara, the manager, showed up. "Eleanor, I couldn't help noticing how well you handled that customer. You're a fine sales clerk."
"Thanks. I like my job."
"Do you have any questions?”
"Yeah, I'm curious, what are those bongs coming through the PA system? They never stop ringing."
"Oh, those are administrator codes. Three bongs is a call for security. Did you notice a big woman, carrying a black handbag, walking around pretending to look like a customer? She's the store detective."
"Wow!" I wonder if she has a gun in her purse.
"She's watching for shoplifters."
"Gee, I never knew."
Zara looked down at Eleanor’s shoes. "Eleanor, would you mind not wearing saddle oxfords? We're trying to sell hosiery, not bobby socks."
"Okay." Eleanor's face reddened. Maybe I can borrow my mother's shoes. We're the same size.
"I'd like you to go up to the second floor and ask someone in the notions department for a body stretcher," Zara said. "I'll cover for you."
"What's a body stretcher?" Eleanor thought but didn't ask.
Eleanor left the hosiery department and sauntered over to the escalator. She grabbed on to the hard rubber handrail, halfway to the top--this thing moves too slow. Deciding to hurry things she sprinted up. As she was stepping off, she caught her foot in the steel teeth and tumbled onto the second floor. A crowd gathered.
A man, the tallest she'd ever seen, reached out and offered his hand.
"No, no thank you, I'm okay." She got up, straightened her skirt, and looked into the face of a kid pulling on a long piece of licorice in his mouth.
"Ha, ha," he chuckled, turned, and ran off.
"Are you okay, girly?" asked a woman with a thin face and a pointed nose.
"I'm fine. Can—can somebody please help me find the notions department?"
"It's on the other side of ladies underwear," someone called out.
Eleanor, rubbing her right hip, limped away.
"Hi, I'm Eleanor. I work downstairs in the hosiery department. I was sent here to pick up a body stretcher."
"Oh," a saleslady laughed and called out to a co-worker. "Ellie Mae, have you seen the body stretcher?"
Ellie Mae came out from a back room, scratching her head. "My gosh, let me see? Where was it?" She glanced at Eleanor. "The last time I saw that contraption was when Billy used it. About a week ago, just before the poor guy died.”
"He died?" Eleanor felt sick to her stomach.
"Now, Ellie Mae, don't go scaring this pretty young girl. You know he didn't die from using that body stretcher. He dropped dead in the stockroom while counting inventory."
"That's right, he sure did. By the way, who wants the stretcher, anyway?"
"Someone in hosiery."
The woman looked at Eleanor. "Who sent you?"
"Of course, Zara." The lady bit on a hangnail. "Honey, we don't have a body stretcher. Tell Zara to stop playing practical jokes, especially on someone as young as you."
Feeling like a fool, but pretending not too, Eleanor asked, "What about Billy?"
"He works here, but he didn't die. We were just going along with the prank."
“Oh, I see.” Eleanor took a deep breath. No— body stretcher. No— dead Billy.
Eleanor returned to her station. She told Zara: "The lady in notions, couldn't find the body stretcher, said it might still be in the stockroom where Billy died."
"Billy died? My God, I didn't know. Excuse me, I think I'm going to be sick."
"I'm sorry. I thought you knew." And, I’m not changing my shoes.
Eleanor and the Body Stretcher was published 8/4/19 with CafeLit
Mahala Spillers is a published poet and essayist, studying for a Creative Writing BFA in Winter Park, Florida.
You can find her work at Literary Yard and Down in the Dirt magazine.
“Why did you let me smoke that stuff?” Meg asked Chloe as she exhaled a billow of smoke.
Chloe patted her on the back. “We smoked the same stuff and I’m fine. You can choose whether you have a good time, or not. Stay out of your head.”
“I don’t want to have a bad time. I just know that it’s not going to end well.”
“You’ll be okay.” Chloe continued in a hushed tone. “I was wondering about Arliss. Is he single?”
Meg made eye contact with Arliss across the room. His sympathetic gaze held on hers. A small smile upturned the corners of his mouth. Her pupils dilated.
“Last I heard. I haven’t seen him in a while. ”
Chloe gave her a clued-in look. Meg winced at her friend’s pity. “Don’t you think your kids might look too master-race with the blonde hair and blue eyes?” Meg said.
Chloe sighed. “Not looking to be impregnated, Meg. Just put in a good word?”
Meg softened at her friend’s pleading and nodded. “Oh god. My lungs are collapsing!” she exclaimed with her hand on her chest.
“You’re fine. Breathe. Then go talk to him.” Chloe swatted at her and stood up from the couch to leave. Arliss quickly replaced her.
“Are you baked?” he asked with a laugh.
“As a pie, my friend.”
“Are you going to be okay?”
She paused too long before she responded, “I’m fine.”
He studied her face before speaking. “So, you’ve been handling everything well?” Arliss asked as he sat beside her.
“Yes and no. Have you talked to your brother about everything?”
Arliss’ eyes widened and shifted. “He’s mentioned it-- and you. I wouldn’t worry. My opinion of you hasn’t changed.”
“He hates me. Doesn’t he?”
“Hey. He hates me too.”
“I really hurt him, huh?”
“We really hurt him.”
Meg sighed deeply and hung out her bottom lip like a dog. Arliss noticed this and scooted closer beside her. “What’s this about?” he said as he playfully nudged his knuckle against the protrusion of her mouth.
She flinched at his touch and sucked it back in. “It was a caricature of a sad person.”
“Why are you sad? You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I did a lot wrong,” she said quickly, shifting to another subject. “What do you think about this party? Anyone catch your eye?”
Arliss inhaled and smiled, eyes fluttering across her face. He exhaled before he spoke, “I like how red your cheeks get when you’ve been drinking.” His hand returned to stroke her face.
She allowed it at first, eyes closed at the sensation of his skin against hers, before she pulled back with a nervous laugh. “I have some gossip. Want to hear?”
Arliss eyed her sadly as he brought his hand down but indulged her with a nod.
“My friend, Chloe--”
“The little blonde one?” he asked, glancing at Chloe who was smiling happily.
Meg’s shoulders dropped. “Well.uh. She thinks that you’re real attractive and she wants to make little blonde Aryan babies with you.”
He chortled with amusement. “In those words, exactly?”
“No. Actually. She just wants to put her mouth on your mouth.”
“You want me to sleep with your friend?” he asked.
“I’m presenting this information to you in a total Choose-Your-Own-Adventure kind of way. Purely optional. She wanted me to mention her to you.”
“I don’t know her, so, I’m not interested.”
She relaxed her shoulders just to tense again. “That’s why you should talk to her. You talk to her, get to know her, sleep with her, pop out a few kiddies...”
“Look, Meg, I’m not looking to be a father and I don’t want to have a one-night stand. I like to sleep with people that I’ve known for more than a night. Girls that I like?” His voice dropped up and down with hints
“I’m sorry. You can choose who you want to sleep with. You don’t need my screenings.”
“It’s not that. You’re avoiding the problem here. It’s not just that you want me to sleep with someone else. You’re avoiding the conversation.”
“What is there to say?”
“There are things that can be done. Things we can change.”
“I just know that this will end badly because it already did end badly.”
“How’s that? Nothing even began?” He shook his head in disbelief.
She eyed him back so that he would know. She shifted her sadness back to the catalyst.
“Chloe plays guitar and piano,” she said, pointing to her friend.
He didn’t look where she coaxed. He kept his eyes darted on her, but she refused to look back. Finally, after avoiding his attention, he looked at Chloe. She smiled and gave a little wave.
“Maybe she should just pick one,” he said, returning his attention to her.
Meg bit her lip, on the verge of tears. She continued to avoid his stare.
“I can understand why he resents you,” he said coldly.
She couldn’t help but look at him when said that. She searched his eyes for proof that he meant it. She brought her hand quickly to her chest as her breathing became irregular. She eyed him with disbelief.
“And what about you?” she said after a long breath.
“We already jumped the fence. What’s the apprehension about? We don’t have to take it so seriously. I’m willing to take it slow.” His voice raised with hope. He grasped at her hand.
She slid away from him once more. “I don’t think I can take it. Period.”
“You really want me to hook up with Chloe?” he said as a test. His eyebrows were raised, awaiting a response she couldn’t give. Through a shaky breath, she said, “Yes.”
He sighed and slipped up from the couch. He gave her one last knowing look before he sat beside Chloe across the room. Meg clapped her hand over her chest. She wasn’t sure what was collapsing now.
I keep running, trying to get away, covering my ears trying to drown them out, but they would be there at every turn.
“Get back here you little shit!” said my father, chasing after me.
“You’re worthless. Why did I even give birth to you?” said my mother, her voice echoing in my head. I kept running trying to get away from them but as I got to the door it wouldn't open. I turned around and saw my father, looking at me with pure hatred and my mother, looking at me with pure disgust.
“You're not going anywhere,” he said grabbing me by my hair.
“Let me go! Someone please help me!” I said.
“Why would anyone want to help a pathetic thing like you?” she said. My father started hitting me and with every punch I just kept begging.
“Please stop!” I said, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. As my father was about to hit me again, he suddenly said,
“May, wake up!” I suddenly find myself in my bed and next to me was my sister, Abigale.
“May are okay!?” she said, looking at me.
“Abi!” I said, immediately grabbing on to her, with tears running down my face. “They were after me again I kept running away but they kept coming!”
“The nightmares again? May you poor thing.” she said, holding me. A few months ago, Abigale and her father adopted me as her little sister. My parents were very abusive both physically and mentally to the point where I ran away in the middle of the night. I kept running until a cop found me and brought me to the station. The cop was Abigale’s father, Jack and when I told him my story, he had my parents arrested and offered me a place in his family, however even with my parents gone they still left me with scars and I would often have nightmares like tonight.
“Why won't they leave me alone? What did I do to deserve this? I just wanted them to love me!” I said, still crying in Abigale’s arms. “My mom was right I really am worthless!” I said, after hearing that Abigale then said,
“May, look at me.” I looked at her and she rubbed the tears off my eyes and said, “You're not worthless you’re a beautiful and smart little girl and your parents weren't deserving of your love. I wouldn't even call them your parents their just horrible people that will never hurt you again.”
Hearing this I started crying again.
“You’re safe now you've got me and dad with you now and if anyone tries to hurt you again they'll have to deal with us.”
I just couldn't stop crying. I was so happy to have a new start with Abigale and her dad.
“Feel better now?”
“Yes… thanks, Abi.”
“You’re welcome, sis, now let's get you back to sleep.”
I was about to get back into bed but I was reluctant.
“What's wrong, May?”
“I...I don't want them to find me again.”
Abigale, then picked me up and said, “Want to sleep with me tonight?”
“Sure, let’s go.” Abigale then brought me into her room and we got into bed. “You ok now, May?”
“Alright.” Abigale gave me a kiss on the head and said, “Goodnight, May.”
Attila O’Ross is a Hungarian-born author, technical writer and software developer, living on a remote river island with his partner and three rescue puppies. When not busy running his software company, Attila writes about technology, meditation and breathing techniques, alongside stories that are sometimes weird, often genre-bending and, most of all, thought-provoking.
For quite some time there was nothing, not even time, which made it feel like an instant, really; and when Dante opened his eyes again, he saw before him a frozen lake and in it a gigantic three-headed figure, whose size he could only describe so:
And better with a giant I compare
Than do the giants with those arms of his."
Before he could have continued with detailing the size and appearance of this Emperor of Hell, the hideous creature broke his awe.
“Ah, Dante! I have been expecting you!” said the Devil, and changed his form into a more human shape, which would have been, if Dante was in the capacity of making such observations, that of a typical politician, or corporate director.
As Dante was not accustomed to seeing such abominable apparitions, he was equally frightened, and probably even more puzzled than he had been at the sight of the Devil incarnate in its infernal form. Horrible as that had been, Dante at least knew where he was standing with that kind of evil; but the sight of the smiling, smooth-mannered well-groomed man dressed in what Dante would have called a business suit if he knew the words, sent cold shivers down his spine.
He had no time to ponder upon this change of representation, however, as Satan continued addressing him:
“I’m a huge fan of your Divine Comedy, I have to say. You got almost all the details right. But, I’m afraid your work had become a little outdated after my latest additions to my great work, and thus yours is in need of some amendment.”
Dante then asked whether the place was Hell.
“Hell it is, indeed,” replied the King of the Underworld. “Allow me to show you around.”
Upon inquiring whether Virgil was not still leading the guided tours, Dante was informed that, unfortunately, having had difficulties to keep up with the latest developments, Virgil had to be let go half a century earlier. Then, following the Devil wearing a well-tailored suit of a well-known brand, Dante began to reacquaint himself with Hell.
Gone were the circles and the sinners with their sins so plain Dante was already familiar with, having invented them in the first place; and what he saw now puzzled him beyond his powers of description. He was looking at a scene so unfamiliar, he was for the first time in his life—or rather after it—lost for words.
The Devil, seeing Dante’s bewilderment, offered a ready explanation.
“What you see before yourself, my trusty chronicler, is my new design for Hell. It has been going on for a little over a century now, quite fresh, you might say.”
Dante replied that he would never say such a thing. The Accuser continued, ignoring this.
“See those tall buildings? Skyscrapers, I call them. The tower of Babylon would have looked like a puny cottage, compared to these. Those chariots with no horses? Automobiles. They travel so fast, you’d need a hundred horses to produce the same power. The fat birds in the sky are aeroplanes. They fly all across Hell and take people from place to place, where they willingly go to find new ways to suffer. And all those people you see? Seven billion of them. And all mine. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Dante said he wasn’t sure what it was, but ‘beautiful’ would have been the last word on his mind right now. Then he asked how so many people could be squeezed into such a limited space, to which Satan replied thusly:
“You are quite right there, this is but a single city. There are many like this and even more smaller settlements. Let me show you.”
And with a swoop that made him feel like his intestines were suddenly trying to escape through his mouth, Dante found himself looking at a blue and green and white marble, on which no more activity could be discerned.
“This’ the globe. The whole of my empire. It rotates slowly around its own axis, creating day and night dynamically without my intervention. Besides giving people something to do, it takes away the burden of maintenance from my shoulders. Much better than the flat disc He created in the first place,” said the Adversary, pronouncing the word ‘he’ with a defiantly mocking tone of voice.
“Some people still refuse to believe in its new shape, and who could blame them, having lived for millennia on that boring flat dish. But come now, there is so much more you need to see.”
And with this, they began to descend with such a speed that Dante’s eyes felt like they swelled to the size of his head, and his intestines were again keen on escaping his body, this time for good.
It did not last long, however, and as suddenly as the descent began, and before he could even start wondering about the shape of the world, Dante found himself in a room, where a family of four were staring at a slab filled with flashing images.
Not allowing puzzlement to set in—seeing that the writer was a little slow on the uptake when it came to his latest inventions—the Devil began to explain at once.
“What you see now once was the typical pastime for a typical family. In many places it still is. What they are looking at is called a television, or TV for short, and the dumb expression on their faces perfectly illustrates their mental and emotional states. These people stopped thinking, or processing any real information, all their remaining attention being focused on the pictures coming from the screen. I first thought I’d make them drool and dribble saliva a little, but hey, look at what I made them do instead.”
Dante did look and saw items he could not recognise, being drunk and eaten in a monotonous, mindless manner. Dante remarked how horrible a sight it was.
“Thank you,” said the Lord of the Flies. “But we’ll cover mindless consumption later, let us now focus on the images they are looking at.”
Then Lucifer proceeded to explain as Dante watched, all about celebrities, and reality shows, and the sugar-coated lies drip-fed to the watchers, so that they would believe everything they see, and would strive to live like that themselves, or at least support the latest patriotic invasion of another country in pure self-defence, continuing to worship false idols.
Dante agreed that it was, indeed, an ingenious way of torture, but could not comprehend how it was beneficial to torture people in a way that did not allow them to be aware of being punished.
“It all connects with the other bits, you will see. For example, through the same channels, they are also fed other lies, called advertisements, that make them buy things they don’t need, pursue happiness in possessions, and generally over-consume everything, destroying themselves and their world in the process. Supporting war and aggression is a direct way to suffering, while wanting to consume causes suffering to people they do not even know. We will get there in time, do not worry.”
Dante was amazed, although he did express his puzzlement over phrases like over-consumption. The Devil continued.
“There is something else here, it’s the next step in the evolution of mass media, something called the internet. It’s far more evil than TV ever has been as, besides feeding even more lies and propaganda, it induces narcissism and a sense of self-importance, causing people to believe their own opinions are the only ones that matter and that their ignorance is as valuable as other people’s knowledge. It makes them vile, hostile, and lonely while kindling the illusions of freedom and opportunities. But its workings are too intricate to try and make you understand in this short time. For now, it is enough that you know it exists.
“Oh, but I almost forgot my latest invention, the direct descendant of the TV!” exclaimed Abaddon, and ushered Dante into another room, where a family of five sat and lay in various positions, looking at small slabs in their hands, which kept flashing colourful images at them. None of them ever talked, their expressions were blank, their backs bent over the hand-held apparitions, and their appearance bore every recognisable trait of the deepest misery.
“See those devices? They work just like the TV, only everybody has one on their person now, and feels they could not exist without them. Looking at them is the only reason they exist, or so they feel. They can access every falsehood the TV feeds them, and the internet I just told you about, right on these devices. If anything every alienated people successfully, this little device does. It is the pinnacle of my genius and in more than one way. But come now, I have so much more to show you.”
Dante, bewildered and still in awe, followed the Devil as they exited left.
“What I want to show you next, is a somewhat dramatised representation of something that I would not be able to display in its real form. Watch first, then I will explain,” said the Antichrist, and by his sleight of hand two men materialised.
The two were arguing hotly, debating something Dante could not quite follow. The Devil chimed in:
“They are arguing about politics. See, the one on the right side is supporting the political left, and the one on the left side is all for the political right. What’s most interesting about their argument is that both of them are equally wrong about everything they say. Their opinions are based not on facts but on emotional responses to what they have seen or read in the news. Lies, basically, carefully constructed by yours truly, to make people like these believe in them. Now watch.”
Dante said something about not knowing what political left or right meant, but soon fell silent and watched the argument with growing amazement. The two were now positively yelling at one another, shaking their fists at the other, but never taking a step closer. Now, they were shouting over one another, neither of them listening to anything the other had to say. When Dante thought this could hardly get any worse without turning into a full-blown duel, one of them picked up some mud from under his feet and threw it at the other. Then the other responded in kind and the mud hurling continued until one of them found, unlikely as it was, something similar in colour but much more aromatic than mud and threw that at the other. Suddenly everything was covered in the foul-smelling material, and the two kept throwing it at each other with two hands.
Dante looked at Moloch in utter bewilderment, but the Devil only smiled and said:
“No, wait, there is more. Just watch.”
At this moment, a third person—unspoiled yet by the mud and the other substance, calm and reasonable in manner—appeared. He started talking to the first two, and in a calm, measured tone, explained to them why they were both wrong. Some of the words he used were long and complex and this apparently puzzled the two dirt throwers as much as they did Dante. The two, in turn, looked at the calm one with increasingly open hostility, and when the calm and clean man presented some documents which he said would prove his point and disprove the other two’s opinions, they physically attacked him as one, just like they were the oldest of allies, and beat the poor fellow to death, shouting unprintable insults at him.
When this was done, the two talked a little about how idiotic the third one had been, and ridiculed all his arguments in the greatest of understanding, after which their old debate seemed to have re-ignited right out of nowhere, and within moments they were back at throwing at each other everything they could lay their hands on.
The Devil took Dante by the arm, and pulled him aside, explaining as they went:
“What you have seen was obviously staged, yet what it represents would look exactly like what you have seen, would people decide to do it in person. Where they choose to do it instead is this fine social medium I have created, called Screecher. It’s a really simple concept, people basically write very short, very ill-informed, but very much hyped opinions, in as few words as possible. These are called screeches. Then another person reads the screech, and either likes it or hates it. Those which they like they re-screech, and help it spread like a bad flu. Those they hate (and the majority are these), they will start screeching about in a hateful manner, often organised as mobs, screeching in chorus, until the whole of Screecher is aloud with only their screeches, drowning out all reasonable voices. The rest plays out exactly as what you have seen. The real victims are usually the innocent bystanders or those who try to apply a modicum of reason to stop the madness. Neither side likes reason or facts. Hype and opinions rule everything.”
Dante said he was sure it was an ingenious invention, but he was quite lost as to what to make of it.
“Don’t worry, with time you’ll not believe you could have ever lived without screeching at everyone all day, every day. But it’s time for our next scene.”
And then the curtain fell, although where from, or where to, Dante could not tell.
They were now on a street, where a group of people were abusing another group, calling them names, like ‘immigrants’, ‘terrorists’, and worse, none of which did Dante really understand, but the manner in which these words were hurled at those people made it obvious that they were insults. Some also accused the group of hating them for their freedom, and similar mind-numbingly dumb assumptions and accusations they heard somewhere else and didn’t really understand, but repeated nevertheless.
“See, these people have come here to find refuge from a war those other people are waging in their country, and are abused for it. Let me show you.”
And, at that very moment, they were at a far-away battlefield, where people very much like the former group of abusers—wearing fantastic looking military outfits and wielding weapons that made a lot of noise and killed from a distance—were fighting against people who resembled the group that was being abused in the previous location. Flying machines came and showered death and explosions over children and women. Towering monsters on wheels destroyed buildings. The air smelled of smoke and blood and was filled with loud explosions and screams.
“Now, this is quite a condensation of the whole, but you can at least have an idea what modern warfare means here. Those weapons are more effective at killing than anything you have ever seen in your lifetime. Those flying drones are operated from a great distance by people who have never even been here and will destroy everything and everyone, indiscriminately. Those vehicles of destruction are capable of demolishing buildings faster than you can recite a verse from your great epic. The beauty of all this is, on the whole, that never are two armies of the same capability matched against each other. The world had tried that too. It did not work, in fact, it all ended that way. Now, this is a much better system, where the stronger and richer attacks the poorer and weaker, and calls it self-defence. Then they destroy their country and their people, and take their resources, and all the remaining wealth, and call themselves heroes, and tell those people they have solved their problems and liberated them. Oh, yes, and when the survivors seek refuge, they abuse them and call them names.”
Dante then asked how it was that the people in far-away places would willingly support such horrific wars.
“Simple enough, it’s through something called propaganda. You have seen the television and you have heard about the internet. There is something I call ‘the news’. It’s a great invention. In it, I can feed even more lies than through advertisements. See, the people back in their homes only know what they are told. And they are told that these poor people are evil, that they hate them and their freedom, that they must be punished and killed and destroyed. Then, to stop them worrying about all this horror, they are told about precision strikes, and that only military men from the enemy’s side ever die or suffer, and are carefully shielded from the torture war truly means to everyone else. Then they will happily support any war, and call it patriotic, believing it truly is defending their freedom, even as they are destroying the lives of others.
“And, of course, there are other people who, through the various news channels, keep feeding them lies and telling them what to think or believe which, if you remember the drooling family, is not a difficult task, really. I call these ones ‘news anchors’. Most of them work for me directly.”
Dante thought about this for a long time. Then he asked why not let two real armies of equal strength collide. Surely it would cause even greater destruction on the whole and require less effort to convince other people about the necessity.
“I did have plans for some more global wars at the beginning, like those they had towards the end,” said the Devil, “but ditched the idea as the original ones never did deliver the desired results. Sure, the suffering was immense, but it did not last. After the first two global wars were over, the people came together to sing Kumbaya for a short while, and everything looked as if the world preferred peace. Then the third one came and ended everything for good. So you see, it was not really sustainable.”
Seeing Dante’s horrified expression, the Father of Lies remembered he had forgotten to explain.
“Yes, Dante, your world has ended in a crescendo of war, at a scale of both destruction and brutality you could never have imagined. Nobody much could, even as it was happening. But you see, the story of the apocalypse is nothing like you’d expect from that holy book of yours. There were no angels, no trumpets, and definitely no second coming of anyone. And, least of all, rapture. No, the end was swift, even though it took some time to prepare.
“There was a great war at the beginning of the last of all centuries. It had rocked the world, but probably not enough, because a generation later there was an even greater one, towards the end of which one nation decided to drop bombs that destroyed entire cities in a blink of an eye. Two of them, in fact. It was beautiful. Those fools not only believed their actions to be somehow justified, but even took it upon themselves to lecture others on ‘democracy’ and human rights afterwards, which, being the only nation to ever use true weapons of mass destruction and that on civilians too, was the most beautiful hypocrisy I had seen to date, it was truly heart-warming.
“Anyway, to cut a long story short—because you know I’d love to talk to you more about it, this is my favourite topic, but we have limited time here—the war ended eventually, and the world pretended to be at peace again. Our friends with the bomb decided to turn their talking into action, so everyone who disagreed with their idea of freedom and democracy—which in real terms meant racial segregation, financial oppression and a two-party system that served one financial interest, falsely classified as a ‘democracy’—began to find themselves invaded and waged war upon, in the name of freedom, democracy and peace. Best thing? The rest of the world cheered for it and even encouraged it. It was amazing, I really enjoyed those times.
“But all good things must come to an end and so did this era of perfect disharmony, which many of its inhabitants would probably remember as a time of peace and prosperity, was there anyone left alive. See, others also liked the idea of having weapons that can wipe out entire cities with a single strike. They built their own arsenals, and the two greatest opponents in this arms race started threatening each other. First only in words. They called it a power-balance, but what it really was could be called something like mutually assured destruction waiting to happen. And that is just what happened next.
“It was so predictable I wasn’t even there to orchestrate it, everything just went its own way. The two of them started dropping bombs on each other, wiping out all major cities, and when that was done, began targeting everything that seemed habitable. Most of their weapons systems were automated enough by this time to continue firing even when the people who started the war were long dead. Soon, smaller nations surprised everyone with their own smaller arsenals, nobody expected to even exist. It was a matter of hours, believe it or not. The previous war was fought for years. This one started at nine o’clock in the morning and was over by two in the afternoon. The fallout—that is the poison that remains after using those weapons—took another year or two to finish everyone else.
“That’s the true story of the apocalypse. John was a raving lunatic, but even he could not come up with something nearly as horrible as it really was. And there was a vacancy too, so I moved in. Not wanting the entire planet to go to waste, I set up my den right here and built the new version of my empire on the ruins of the old world. It’s set up as a straight continuation of the world that had ended, so I made it look like that final war had never even happened. That was quite easy, nobody really could remember it, could they? There was a bit of a strain to ensure seamless continuity. In the first couple of years, there were glitches and even the colours went missing, which is evidenced by the films and movies of the era. Some people even noticed the discrepancies, but the majority dismissed their claims as conspiracies. And so, now we are here.
“Anyway, now I’m going with smaller local wars, and powerful states engaging in wars against other, insignificant countries far from home, which cannot really defend themselves. All the while preaching peace and equality, as seen from the last days of the world. I like to keep the best ideas, and I do not wish to claim them as my own. I do give where credit is due.
“Not only is this a more sustainable model, but the opportunities it creates are endless. For example, I can have people supporting war for what they think of as righteous reasons, even cheering for it, feeling all content and good about themselves for being patriotic, while all they really do is enable the suffering of their fellow men. In the end, everybody works for me. They even volunteer. But, of course, this does more than just cause suffering to the victims of war. It keeps the people who support these wars from ever succumbing to decency. Meanwhile, there is a constant fear of a larger conflict, which I ensure will never happen again, as what they have now just works so much better. See, small wars are profitable, but big ones are expensive, but fear is for free! Ingenious, isn’t it? And there are still people who insist on singing Kumbaya, as they continue to destroy themselves by other means, but more on that later.”
Dante agreed that it was ingenious, also admitting that he had not the faintest idea how the song Kumbaya went.
“It still needs some work, apparently,” said Satan, ignoring Dante’s remark, “as the two countries that are still able to annihilate each other and many others—as they already did—seem to produce somewhat less tension between one another lately, but I’m working to solve that. Anyway, I will not bore you with any more technical details.”
To this Dante replied that he did not know what ‘apparently’ meant or what a ‘technical detail’ was, but otherwise he could see how all that could be problematic and assured the Devil that the last thing he felt was boredom.
“But enough of this. Admittedly—although I’m sure you’ll have an issue with this word too—this is my greatest invention yet, but far from being the only one. Let me show you more.”
Faster than he could say ‘Inferno’, Dante then found himself in a great hall, where the lights were a blinding bluish bright, and people were milling around, pushing strange hand-carts, or holding uniformly coloured baskets. There was so much food there, arranged on shelves and in heaps, Dante at first thought it was some great nobleman’s or even king’s kitchen, but none of the people around really looked like peasants; besides, nobody seemed to be cooking anything.
The people were, instead, picking items off shelves, all individually packaged, and putting them into the carts. Every single person’s cart was so heavily loaded, Dante thought they were preparing for some great famine to come. When he asked Beelzebub about it, the latter replied that the people were simply shopping for a long weekend, as the next Monday was a holiday, so they could spend some quality time with their families. Dante quietly wondered whether every single person there had a family of fifty or more, all starving, although the general circumference of the shoppers suggested otherwise.
Then they left the store in a whoosh, and Dante found himself in some kind of tailor’s workshop, only no tailor could be seen, but endless shelves filled with clothes in every colour Dante could imagine, and some which he—previously—could not.
People of every shape, size and colour were looking at merchandise of every shape, size and colour, and posturing before mirrors of mostly the same shape and size—while colour did not relly apply to those—wearing some of them. Most of the items they picked looked as if they had been made by tailors that should be, if not necessarily hanged, but at least expelled from the guild for their crimes against common decency. Dante’s taste of fashion was deeply offended, but before he could remark on this, there was another whoosh and they found themselves in yet another store.
There, everything was white and the lights even more blinding then before. Shelves were replaced by otherworldly-looking stands and the people were looking at some of the little devices the Serpent had introduced him to earlier, those that people kept in their hands and stared at all the time. A stylised image of a pear was visible on almost everything.
Then the Devil turned to Dante and said:
“We could go on and on, but these three examples should suffice just fine.”
Dante replied that all he could see was luxury and riches, and while the people were not exactly wearing purple and gold and their tastes in clothing were questionable, to say the least, that alone should not really qualify as either punishment or suffering. Although it certainly qualified as both to anyone with a modicum of taste, he did suspect that was not the point.
“Very well put, and you are right, that is definitely not the point,” said Satan and, with his sleight of hand, they were gone from the scene and into a new one that left Dante speechless.
They were now outside, among mountains of trash and a stench like no other. A vast landscape was filled with waste, although mostly it was as alien-looking as anything he had seen before Dante immediately recognised it for what it was. Among the mountains—for the heaps of trash were, without exaggeration, the size of mountains—strange machines were pushing the waste up higher and higher. Crows and seagulls scavenged among jackals and mangy stray dogs. Here and there he could even see people picking up items for the devil only knew what use.
Dante looked at Belial, bewildered, his expression a demand for explanation. The Devil understood immediately and explained:
“Remember that first shop I showed you? Where all the food items were packaged individually? Yeah, this is all the packaging. And more. Everything, or nearly everything, ends up here after a really short time of use. Most of the things people use today are made to break after a couple of years, or even sooner. Clothes go out of fashion, electronics get outdated and undesirable, packaging is for temporary protection, and so on. After that, it all ends up here. People buy them, then throw them away only to buy a new one, which they will once again throw away, and this goes on ad infinitum, or at least until these mountains will cover everything.
“Of course, most people never see this. They put their unwanted stuff in neat little containers, and other people come and take it away, so nobody needs to worry about where it all goes. The ones that pride themselves in ‘caring about the environment’ and similar self-indulgent ways of reinforcing their sense of worth, practise something called ‘recycling’. That means they separate their unwanted stuff into categories, and then send it here, all sorted. Maybe not all, but most of it ends up here nevertheless. Meanwhile, they go on buying stuff just like everyone else, continuously, because nothing they can buy will last. And because they think that they somehow live clean, they feel justified in buying things they don’t really need, and they even sleep better.”
When Dante said that this was insanity, the Devil thanked him wholeheartedly.
“It took me decades to design this, and I have to say it works rather well. With the last bit, that is of the illusion of recycling, in place, I think I can call it a masterpiece without sounding immodest.”
Dante agreed that it was, but before he could say anything else, the scenery changed. He now saw endless rows of benches, where women and even children were bending over fast-moving weaving looms that made a rhythmic, upsetting noise. Dante recognised the tasteless items of clothing being made.
“See them? They make the clothes those people were so happily shopping for, only to discard after a couple of months. One of these workers earns less in a month than a single shirt she makes will cost to those who buy it. Now, to the last bits.”
They then visited two scenes in quick succession. In the first one, young African men and children were mining the earth in conditions that slaves would have considered cruel. Their backs were bent, their limbs thin and fragile. Armed guards with weapons similar to those Dante had seen the soldiers use before, were watching their every step.
“Make no mistake, these guards are not here to protect the miners,” said the Lawless One, noticing Dante’s expression. “If somebody tries to steal, or leave without permission, they just get shot. Before you ask, these people are mining for the raw materials those gadgets are made of that you’ve seen in the Pear(tm) shop. Now the next bunch...”
The Devil here paused for a moment and made a gesture that turned the scene into another one of those endless halls of benches, but instead of looms, here Dante only saw dirty-faced Asian children in ragged clothes, bending over small pieces of something he did not recognise.
“...is assembling those same gadgets,” continued the King of the Bottomless Pit, finishing his sentence, not even waiting for Dante to take in all he was seeing. “These children are slaves, just like those miners before, or the women who weave the threads. Their labour is so cheap, it’s almost free. Of course, all the profits go to my devils—you will meet them later—who make sure it never re-enters the market so that new items have to be made for people to consume mindlessly.
“Picture this,” said the Angel of Light proudly. “They now have all the technology to end hunger and most diseases for good. They have all the wealth necessary to achieve this and make everyone’s life comfortable nay, even rich. Can you guess what they do with it?”
Dante replied that he could not really guess, but he did have some ideas after seeing all that.
“They use the technology to create weapons—you’ve seen that already—and items nobody needs but everybody wants, as you saw just now. Then they sell these to the people, who queue to buy them and then wield these items like so many badges of honour. All the wealth then goes to a few who work for me and, as is their nature, they hoard it and guard it from those who need it. My devils keep all of it all nicely locked away for themselves. Of course, they never use all that wealth. Couldn’t really, even if they had some use for it, it’s just too much for so few people to own. What they have amassed in a few short decades is more than a larger country could spend in two lifetimes, but all the poor masses do is worship my demons for their wealth.
“Still, and this is most interesting, it is not my associates who keep the system working. Of course, their oversight is essential, but the people who buy all those things that are designed for the sole purpose of being bought then discarded—those people who create a demand for even more after having bought already far more than could be justified with a sane mind—they are my greatest helpers in this whole machinery, they make it all go around. They do my bidding, and even my work for me without ever realising it. I call this market economy, automation, and capitalism. What these words really mean are over-consumption, scarcity and pathological hoarding. I have to admit, even I don’t quite understand the dynamics there yet, but you as can see I have not actually done any of this, they do it to themselves.
“Of course, I do my best to help wherever I can. For example, some influential people would sometimes come up with a ‘great disruptive idea’ of how to solve it all, which basically does nothing beyond giving them the publicity they crave. You could say they are hell-bent on saving the world, but only as long as doing so does not threaten their wealth and profit. Then everyone can once again sleep better because the situation will surely be solved, and it is no longer their problem. Meanwhile those who could really do something about it all, continue to exploit the people’s gullibility, sell them single-use plastic, and talk about going to the Moon or Mars, or creating the latest ‘disruptive tech innovation’, that are usually solutions looking for a problem, while continuing to ignore the real-world problems they actually have. It’s quite sophisticated in its simplicity. Anyway, I don’t want to go that far over your head, I see you’re already confused.”
Dante admitted that his head was indeed spinning and such waste and so much misery truly made Hell look like what it really was, although he also had to admit that it was just a little too much to process at once, but apparently some things never changed, not even in Hell, it would seem, and that it was probably just human nature.
Upon asking the Devil what happened to the system of circles and whether Hell still had some resemblance to its previous structure, Dante was assured that they were going to examine just that next. It was dark for a while, then everything lit up. Glittering gold and diamonds and crystals filled Dante’s vision, as what his eyes now beheld was luxury befitting a king or emperor. A bent old man was sitting on what looked like a sofa from Dante’s own life, such that he might have seen in a king’s court. The old man was looking out a window, untouched by all the beauty surrounding him.
Maids and servants rushed in the background, noiseless and efficient and below, an army of gardeners tended the grounds. The old man said nothing, never even blinked, just stared out of the window with an unmovable expression.
Smiling to himself, Dante declared to the Devil that he, at last, did understand something without needing any explanation. Upon being urged by the Power of Darkness to provide some of his own, Dante proceeded to say that he saw the old man was being punished for his greed in his lifetime, by being provided all the luxury the world can afford, yet unable to enjoy a moment of it. He suggested that the old method of torture seemed to work more efficiently as well as being more befitting to the sin when the Son of Perdition interrupted him.
“Oh but you misjudge the situation, my trusted chronicler. This man is not being punished. He is one of my demons.”
Replying to this, Dante explained that he could not possibly believe that, or why a devil would live in such luxury. The Proprietor of Hell explained:
“It’s all to do with perceived social mobility, or rather a wish for it, and to provide a structural rigidity to the new levels of Hell. This man here is one of the richest people alive. He owns several banking corporations, two large pharmaceutical conglomerates, a holding that controls so much of the natural resources such as oil, gold, and rare earth minerals that it can basically create a market just by its own corporations trading between themselves, and the whole of the operation is so extensive, nobody knows it all concentrates in the hands of a single person. Admittedly, this is my most trusted associate, but there are others like him too, although not many.”
Having only time enough to mumble something about the repeated use of the word ‘admittedly’, Dante then found himself in front of a big house, before which there was an open air pool filled with blue water and two slick looking horseless carriages on one side. The grass was freshly cut and immaculate, the house would have looked like a small palace, if not for the lack of battlements.
“Now these people are still close to the top, although not quite at the top, and this level or class reaches downward somewhat. They are the directors, managers and leaders of the people you will see next, some maybe even entrepreneurs, but all of them still work for the one you have seen before or someone like him. These directors and leaders and entrepreneurs live off their subordinates’ achievements, which they claim as their own. They generally are not really good at anything, but they have the right connections and the right frame of mind, which is, always to blame someone else, never to claim responsibility, but always own success. They are what those below them call successful people. Often they spin off on their own, smaller corporations which eventually (and inevitably) end up being controlled by the same demons they once worked for. Obviously, they look down on the ones working for them, and admire their own superiors, aspiring to be like them one day. The more cunning ones might even achieve this after having tried long enough, although that is rare. They are not really all that interesting. Most of their lives are filled with trying to become more than what they are, while hoarding as much as they can, in a lame imitation of their betters. Let us move on.”
Dante then found himself on a busy street, looking in through a large window to what looked like a tavern, only the people were drinking neither ale nor wine, but something from paperish looking cups.
“Now these guys here,” said the Devil in a matter of fact tone, “are the next in the linear succession, if we skip a few uninteresting intermediate levels. Just watch.”
Dante did, but could not make much out of the picture before him. The people were seated individually, each of them engrossed either in the small hand-held devices like the ones he had seen earlier, or tapping their fingers into weird looking L-shaped slabs, that made clicking noises. They wore scarves that looked as if they had been pulled off other people and strange looking eye-glasses that made the wearers look like village idiots. Some wore badly designed hats, and nearly all the men had bushy beards. Dante’s impression was that despite their best efforts to become the most unique looking scarecrow in the whole room, they really looked all the same.
“I can see the recognition on your face,” said the Wicked One. “Yes, they really try with all their might to be the most unique among each other, and all they can achieve is looking more uniform than any group of mindless trend-worshipping numbskulls in the history of hype.”
Dante murmured that he had no idea what trend or hype meant, but if these people worshipped them, they must be the greatest invention in Hell yet. To this, the Serpent of Old heartily agreed and commended Dante on his perceptiveness.
“But this is only the surface. The best part is what’s in their heads. They despise the poorest and the workers below themselves. They envy the rich, secretly wanting to belong to them, although some might not be so ready to admit this. They imagine themselves to be unique, and enlightened, and generally better than anyone. They drink overpriced coffee at an over-hyped café and think they are doing something fashionable. They buy the latest gadgets they have no need for and feel they are unique for owning a device everybody in their group also owns. They practise a bastardised version of ancient traditions and feel they are somehow more spiritual and wiser than the sages of old. Truth be told, this is the single most abhorrent bunch I have ever created. I’m really proud of them. But we need to move on now.”
Before Dante could say anything, they found themselves in a small apartment, where a family of four was crowded in a room, watching one of the boxes Dante had seen before. For all he knew, it could have been the same people.
“Now these ones here do a little better off than the poorest, but only just,” said the Devil. “They make enough to pull through every day, then every week, then every month, until they run out of money, but the next salary arrives just in time. Whatever means they have to change this make no real difference but they do at least wish to live differently. All those pictures they see in the box make them yearn to be something they never could be, which in turn prevents them from doing what they can to really improve their situation. Dream too big, and your dream will always be beyond your reach. See, this yearning is even more dangerous than the apathy of those you are to see next because this makes them scorn those below them and worship those above. These people here truly admire the rich, and love to imagine themselves in their place, which allows the rich to grow even richer at their expense. And they cheer for it. But let us be off, there is still more to see here.”
Dante was then ushered into a house, which barely passed for a hut. In it, a family of ten lived. The children looked miserable and dirty, their father was snoring hard, although it appeared to be only just past midday, and smelled of strong alcohol; while their mother was cooking a thin soup.
The house was in a general state of disrepair, the roof seemed to be collapsing, the walls were peeling plaster. Outside there was a yard, filled with junk, and what once was probably a garden, overgrown with weeds.
“See these people here?” asked the Devil, not expecting a reply. “They have every opportunity to provide for themselves and their children. They have a large yard and a garden. They could grow their own food and even keep animals. Hell, this place could produce enough to even sell some for a profit. Naturally, with less hungry mouths to feed, they would be even better off.
“Yet, look at how they live. The father is a drunkard, the mother has given up on life a long time ago. This house has not been cleaned in years. And the children? They’ll have no chance to change anything they learn here. But this is a poor area, and such is the power of scarcity. It means that nobody ever sees a way out, even though it’s right in front of their noses.
“From here, the people above are barely visible, the ones you have seen in the café and all of those beyond could live on another planet, as far as these people are concerned. Of course, this is reciprocal, those in the café have no idea these poor ones even exist. And yet, this is how the majority of people live. Not all are this miserable, and not all are that apathetic—I’m showing you the ultimate of both to make an example of the extremes—but most are the same hopeless.
“I believe you see the pattern already. I’d wager, nothing much really changed since your time. It was a good system, really, I only had to modernise it for the new environment. The poor being miserable and hopeless, the rich being careless and discontent, everybody looking down at those below them and worshipping those above. It all just works. It keeps everyone from being content with what they have, yearn for what they might never attain and be generally as miserable as you would imagine such people being. Also, all of those you have seen now are equally responsible for all the environmental destruction I have not even had time to show you. They all consume beyond their needs and definitely beyond the capacity of this place to allow for. And probably, apart from the poorest, they all are capable of changing this, but nobody seems interested in real change. That apathy is what I call a hell of a way to live in Hell, if you excuse the pun.”
Dante was silent. The Devil continued.
“Of course, this is not everything. There are a lot more layers and levels, and different ways this all manifests in, but the base idea is the same. Anyway, these few examples seemed sufficient to illustrate the workings of the whole, while the finer points would need many lifetimes to pore over.
“So what do you think? Ah, and before you ask, because I know you would, there are of course the more straightforward cases, like murderers and their victims, or indentured labour, which is just a fancy word for slavery, and sex workers, drug dealers and addicts, criminals, gamblers, alcoholics, rapists and their victims, and all the general population of what one would imagine Hell would be filled with, but those are kind of obvious in their own right, no need to specifically show them to you. Besides, most of those people know they live in Hell, even if they might not call it that. The oblivious masses are of much more interest, aren’t they?”
Dante said that indeed it was the same across the ages but, of course, in the end, it all worked in the Devil’s favour. Yet, fortunately, there was still religion and spirituality that would give them hope and keep them on the right path. To this, Apollyon replied with almost choking on laughter. After several minutes, with a shaking voice, tearful eyes, and a grin as wide as his whole face, the Snake managed to say:
“You don’t seriously believe anything you’ve just said, do you? You do? Come with me then. Come on, chop-chop,” and exited left, although where he exited to was far from obvious. Dante followed nevertheless, having no better idea what to do with himself.
“Look, and look closely. Here is your mighty religion, all in one picture,” said the Devil, opening his arms in a spread that swept across the changing landscape.
Now a whirlwind of different scenes and images appeared, in it people of all religions of the world spoke at once, over each other, yelling at one another, their faces red, their eyes filled with hatred.
Christians of so many denominations it made Dante’s head hurt were yelling the name of Jesus and shouting ‘love’, while kicking Muslims, and punching Jews with closed fists, eyeing Hindus suspiciously, while apparently making friends with Buddhists.
The Jews whom the Christians were beating were, in turn, punching the Muslims, and convincing other Christians, who appeared to be more tolerant towards them, to buy them weapons, so they could defend themselves against the same Muslims they were crushing under their boots.
Meanwhile, some of the Muslims were beating up everyone, but mostly Jews and Christians, yelling that they were the only true religion of peace.
Serene Buddhists were stabbing Muslims, and spitting at Hindus, calling Christians devils and kicking the Jews before sitting down to meditate on serenity on peace. The Christians that were farther away and weren’t getting kicked directly, largely ignored this and continued to regard the Buddhists as their best friends, some of them even calling themselves Buddhists, without even appearing to have the slightest understanding what that really meant.
Meanwhile, the Hindus were just beating everyone around them, yelling the names of one thousand gods.
The whole fracas continued in the background, while Dante was flying through churches and temples of all religions where the followers of each doctrine prayed with an ethereal tranquillity on their faces, and were convinced that they and only they were following the one right teaching.
Dante was horrified but said that surely, Christianity must be the one true religion of love and that those who took part in the fighting were misrepresenting it and taken to following the misguided oath of false gods, when the Fallen Star changed the scene again, without a word.
Now Dante saw a priest, dressed in all black, and wearing the cross. Before him, a child, no more than six years of age, was kneeling in prayer. Dante smiled. He expressed that his faith never for a moment faltered, and one could at least trust the clergy, but then the priest did something that burned into Dante’s mind forever.
Smiling, and with a most holy air, the priest approached the child and told her that he had sinned and that all men were sinners, but she had to take away his sin by accepting him into herself because only her innocence could save his soul.
Dante wanted to turn away, as the priest proceeded to sodomise the child, but the Ruler of the Darkness did not let him.
“This is your most holy clergy. And I have to tell you that I did not do this. It disgusts even me, yet it is happening in the name of your religion.”
The Devil spat, and continued:
“This, and so much more. Look at her.”
Dante then saw an elderly nun, among sick, ailing people. At first, it looked as if she was providing aid and support, praying at the feet of their beds and holding their hands, and Dante began to say that at least the cloisters and monasteries could still be trusted, but the Beast interrupted him.
“Just look closer, will you? Look at her smile. She’s enjoying this.”
Dante looked closer and agreed that she was rather joyful.
“She calls it ‘beautiful suffering’. See, these people are in pain, malnourished and in need of medical attention. Yet all they ever get is a smile and a prayer. Some of them would be happy to at least be able to wash or have their bedsheet changed. But all she allows is a prayer. With that beatific smile on her face. The world adores her, you know, she is worshipped as the true face of Christianity, they call her a saint, the call her Mother... I could not agree more with that, I must admit. She is popular and receives more monetary donations than her clinics would ever need, but what really happens to all that money, God only knows. Not that He cares...”
Dante was speechless. The Devil wasn’t.
“That’s what’s become of your precious spirituality,” he said. “And at least three of the main religions call themselves the religion of peace, and/or love, depending on who you ask. Most also preach tolerance, but only towards those they like, much like the people you’ll see next. Just look at that bunch over there,” and with that, he indicated a group of people who were nowhere to be seen only a moment before. “They are often atheists, meaning they don’t really have a religion, at least not one they would call as such. What is religion to the zealot, would be ‘identity’ to some of them.”
The group in question was a colourful procession of men and women, all dressed in bright, happy colours, marching together in what seemed like a truly gay procession, many holding flags or wearing clothes of all colours of the rainbow. When Dante expressed his puzzlement about how that peaceful procession could even be compared to what he saw the religious zealots do in the name of love, the Devil said:
“Oh, but it’s not them! Look at the sidelines!”
There was, a little removed from the colourful procession, another group which seemed to be a lot louder. In it, some women were yelling at men, calling them names, and shouting words like ‘tolerance’, ‘acceptance’ and ‘patriarchy’. Men, who belonged to the same group, were quietly accepting the abuse, turning their anger towards other people instead, who happened to be near. Others, both men and women, yelled—with faces disfigured by rage that wanted to explode—’tolerance’ and ‘acceptance’ in the faces of innocent passers-by, spitting at them, and even kicking some people who were just trying to mind their own business. All the while they were screaming their support towards the colourful procession, the members of which seemed happy enough for the encouragement, in spite of the anger and hatred displayed by the supporting group.
On the other side of the road, another crowd was worshipping a flag and some weapons, yelling at both the procession and the hate-filled preachers of tolerance, with the same hatred burning in their eyes and the same anger distorting their voices.
Before Dante could make deeper observations, Leviathan began talking again.
“The people in the procession there are harmless, although I can see how it seems easy to castigate them for all of this, and flag-worshippers do just that, simple as they are. But believe me, they are not to blame. They are too busy finding their peace and identity to ever really trouble others. They’re a peaceful bunch, meaning no wrong to anyone, and only wanting to be accepted and happy. At least that much can be said in their favour, even if their eternal quest to find the correct gender pronoun is as futile an attempt at making sense of this chaos as buying the next smart gadget and expecting happiness from it would be. Still, they are few, and they are peaceful. So they aren’t exactly interesting to us.
“But those next to them, who claim to be on their side, and abuse everyone who doesn’t belong to the group, are the real deal. They talk about nothing but ‘justice’ and ‘tolerance’ while hating with all the rage they can muster, and make it appear as if the world was revolving only around their self-righteous indignation. Naturally, they ignore everything I have shown you. War, poverty, environmental destruction, and the suffering of others mean nothing to them. All they care about is their own nigh-sanctimonious outrage, to which they are addicted. They are even fewer than the group they claim to represent, but their loudness and intensity make it look like they are the absolute majority, which is as false a narrative as that of tolerance, which they use to mask their hate of otherness. See, this is what the ideal of acceptance had become. And, I have to say, this is once again their own doing, I had no hand in this but, as before, I am truly proud of them.
“Those flag-waving idiots on the other side of the road? Those are an attempted response to the tyranny of the pseudo-tolerant. They are weak-minded and without much thought. They worship ideals and symbols but lose sight of their meaning. Regardless they are fuel to the fire like no other.
“Needless to say, both groups are most active on Screecher, often collating their ideologies with a political side of their preference, adding to the already prevalent confusion of what those sides even mean, heightening my pride even further if that is possible.”
Dante then said he could not even begin to think what to think of all that, it all appeared to be just too confusing, but as such, it was surely as befitting of Hell as anything.
“Oh, but believe me, this was only the surface. This might have been the most obvious show of hypocrisy when it comes to love and tolerance, but I could show you more examples of parallels in duplicity, like nursing homes where the elderly are abused, just like those poor suffering souls before, or entire nations focusing on the symbols of freedom, turning them into objects of worship, their freedom having been non-existent for generations, but I fear you would not be able to understand just yet.”
Dante agreed that he probably would not, but expressed his confusion as to how it all pertained to religion and spirituality.
“See, religions and their gods and their principles, are just like all ideologies. They all really are the same, but they hate each other for their sameness, calling it a difference because their frame of reference and misunderstood symbols seem to contradict one another. It’s even worse when there is no contradiction because then everybody wants to be either the original or the one and only, and they will naturally hate everyone who aspires to the same. See, I am the only sure thing, and the one to be trusted to always do what’s advertised,” said the Deceiver, smiling. This is not at all restricted to religion, really. I mean it is, but official religions don’t condone this type of thinking and behaviour, and the non-religious would never associate themselves with the bigots, but under the surface it's the same force and sentiment driving all of them. I call it human nature.”
Dante was struggling to process all of what was revealed to him, but could not dwell upon this confusion too long, as the scene before him once again changed.
“There is so much more I should show you, but to really cover it all, we could go on forever, and I have other plans for you, my trusted chronicler. So we will not cover politicians, although I believe, since you’ve been involved yourself, you would be interested in what became of them, and how corruption distorted politics to be unrecognisable and indistinguishable from corporate interest. Or the police who, tasked with keeping the order, and pursue crime, are so often busy with keeping said politicians ‘safe’ instead, meaning safe from the wrath of the people they so habitually betray. Or the bankers and money loaners, who discovered something better than alchemy, that does not even involve gold anymore, just making money out of thin air and charging interest on it, it’s disingenuous, really. Then there are all the illegal drugs, and the prescription drugs, that are the same, but with different names, numbing and slowly killing people, so that the few at the top can profit. Or should I mention the abuse against the elderly, and the orphaned children in institutions tasked with keeping them safe and healthy, and care for them? Run by your favourite Church too, more often than not. Or have I already talked about that? I forget.
“Yeah, I could really go on forever, but time is precious, or it would be if it were real, and there is so much more to do. So, however I enjoy this little sightseeing, the conclusion of our journey is imminent.”
Dante then thanked the Devil for his hospitality but expressed his slight confusion over the design decisions he had made, and all the radical changes to how Hell was working now, compared to what he had written about.
The Angel of the Bottomless Pit then, feeling compelled to explain, began to describe his reasoning thusly:
“The whole issue with the concept of a Hell where people suffer for eternity for their sins they have committed is that they get used to it. They know they are in Hell, and why they got there. This gives them a sort of resignation, which in turn makes them numb. If you cannot change your fate, if you have no hope, the fires will no longer hurt, not really. It’s the hopelessness of your situation and the insatiable need to change it that’s the real torture.
“So, after experimenting for some millennia with the Hell you had so eloquently described, I gave up on it and came up with...” at this point the Prince of the Power of the Air spread his normally winged arms as he said, “...this. A real masterpiece, don’t you think? OK, right, I know, I took inspiration from the real world, and the Apocalypse conveniently happened just at the right moment to allow me to redecorate, which sometimes makes me feel like I had a little help from above, but still, I call it pretty decent.”
Dante considered this for a while and came to the conclusion that it, indeed, was. Only one thing troubled him still, so he asked the Devil his last question, to which latter replied:
“When they die? Why, of course, they are born again. No, not in the ‘real world’, as you know that was permanently destroyed. They are reborn right here, in Hell. There is no escape. We give them hope, seeding various religions and ideas that keep their spirits up. Maybe there is an afterlife, maybe the next life will be better, and similar silly notions. They never give up hope, so it’s now a self-containing system.”
Befuddled, Dante then asked about the issue of salvation, to which the Liar replied thusly:
“Oh, but salvation is still a thing, surely. ‘Livest thou as thou shouldstest and thou shaltst be savethest’, or whatever gibberish they wrote in that book of yours. Well, you know what I mean, the principles are the same as ever. But look at these people. They could not really save themselves if their eternal lives depended on it. Which it really does, when it comes to that.
Dante then expressed his admiration for the project and said that it was, indeed, magnificent. He then asked the Imp what would happen now he has been shown around.
“Now comes the good bit,” said the Devil. “See that house over there? It’s waiting for you. Furnished with the finest tools for your trade, that will be the one that you so love: Writing. You will live an eternity here, knowing all this, remembering everything I have shown you just now. This was, of course, only the surface, but during your many lives, you will discover more and more of the intricacies of my great design, adding to your already unparalleled knowledge and your urge to warn everyone else about it all. You will keep trying to raise people’s awareness, trying to let them see it too, and you will fail every time. Your books, essays and writings will be popular. You will be successful, you will be rich, but you shall never succeed in your only true goal in all the lives you will live here. People shall never heed your words, never follow your advice, and they will continue making the same mistakes, again and again, until the end of time, even though you will write about it all in various forms, under different names. Everybody will love your words, but nobody will understand or follow them. That is your punishment, Dante.”
When Dante asked which of his sins was the one that granted him such hideous punishment, the Ruler of the Darkness simply replied:
“If you really need to have a specific sin to blame, it’s up to you. Just pick one, whichever you want, whatever you like or despise most. I’m liberal like that. After all, just describing me the way you did in your Divine Comedy would have granted you the opportunity to enjoy my hospitality. As I told you when you arrived, you had almost all the details right, but not all of them.
“Go now, Dante, settle in. Unlike you, I don’t have all eternity, hahhhahhhahhhaha...”
And with that, the Devil vanished.
Dante stood there for a while, confused, and dazzled by all of what happened in such a short time, his head buzzing with all the new information he was supposed to absorb and later write about. There was only one slight problem. He did not understand anything of what he had seen, it was all so alien, so otherworldly, Dante did not know what to think of anything Satan had just shown him.
He thought for a while about the few things he did comprehend, that he was supposed to write and that he would be famous and probably even rich. He decided, at length, that if what the Devil said was true, and nobody would heed his warnings even if he did manage to write about the reality of Hell, there was no reason to bother. He would, instead, write just whatever came to his mind, for once. He’d always wanted to do that. Not to worry about the morale, and all the meaningful, if high-browed metaphors, just write for the fun of writing.
“Aye, that’ll do,” he said at last, and started towards his new house, his new life and his careers over many lives, his head already full with plans for stories, and characters. Boy wizards, women discovering their womanhood though gentle violence, clichéd cowboys covering their unoriginality with mysticism, spies, detectives and space aliens followed him, all waiting to be written, as Dante slowly descended into blissful oblivion, as the Devil watched with a smile spreading on his face.
LOIS GREENE STONE
LORD MCCONNEHEAD III
MUHAMMAD NASRULLAH KHAN
RUTH Z. DEMING