*// Author’s Note: Story originally penned in late January, 1994. //*
Jack sat in the blue plastic chair, one of a long row of ugly, uncomfortable, blue plastic chairs. Occasionally, Jack squirmed in the chair in an effort to make himself a little more comfortable, as his eyes strained at the video screen.
“Shit, shit, and more shit.” Jack said, switching through the channels.
After checking his watch, Jack realized that his lunch break was nearing an end. Jack stood up, clicked off the television, and exited Gate 99, on his way back to the Purgatory Judgment Omniplex, Jack stopped into the men’s room to have a smoke. Jack looked at his reflection framed with the curling cigarette smoke, and he still could not get over it.
“I guess I look pretty good, don’t I,” said Jack, smiling at his reflection, “not bad for being dead.”
Jack further studied his reflection. He really enjoyed the fact that the scar on his face was gone, one of the only things that he considered to be good about the afterlife, no blemishes. Noticing the scruff on his face, Jack grabbed the wall-mounted electric razor, and began to shave. The razor was a Norelco 950. How Norelco got the contract to supply razors here was a mystery to Jack, but here they were nonetheless. Checking his watch again, Jack finished shaving, put out his cigarette and left the restroom.
The majority of the residents of Purgatory worked in the judgment division, as did Jack, Work consisted of sitting in a small office cubicle, about the size afforded to temps at large firms, and scrolling via computer monitor through both the good deeds and the sins of those individuals who appeared close to the borderline of going to the bad place. Once familiar with the good and bad elements of each individual’s case, each ‘judge’ is to offer his judgment on the matter with supporting argument, and include a proposed judgment.
As a rule of thumb, people were given the benefit of the doubt, although no one was allowed to pass judgment on their friends or loved ones, thus preventing preferential treatment.
Jack arrived at his cubicle, slid his “Purgatory Express” card through the time creditor, and resumed his work. The work wasn’t without its rewards. Jack was often touched by good deeds, as he was both Intrigued and disgusted by the bad ones. During the first few months on the job, Jack was continually surprised by the things that people do. The sex and violence that he saw at his job made the stuff on television lame by comparison.
Another perk to working in the judgment division was that they were afforded to peek into the near futures of each individual, so that their judgment files would he ready if they died unexpectedly. Initially, this confused Jack, because he did not understand how something unexpected could happen if they could already see into the future. After a chat with his supervisor, Jack figured out that there was a basic plan for Earthly events, but that sometimes they are altered for various reasons. After work, Jack went down to the entertainment district. The neon sign above the nightclub read “ALEXANDER’S BABYLONIAN BAR & GRILL” Alexander’s was Jack’s favorite haunt, as he often met his co-workers there to relax, enjoy a drink, and discuss their day’s caseload.
Although it had been nearly two years that Jack had spent in purgatory, he was reminded of his death every time he entered Alexander’s.
Jack joined the crowd that was entering the bar, as he had done many times before. Just inside the entrance were three teller machines. Jack reached into his wallet, pulled out his Purgatory Express card, and inserted it into the machine.
The Purgatory Express card enabled the user to check the status of their account, credit it, or charge something to it. Rather than having a monetary balance in one’s account, the account that Purgatory Express offers deals with the length of one’s stay. As each day goes by, one day is subtracted from each individual’s account. When a person finally reaches an even balance, they are issued a ticket on the next flight out. The problem that many run into is the fact that each time the person indulges in an earthly vice, their stay in purgatory is prolonged. For example, a pack of cigarettes or cover charge at Alexander’s will extend one’s visit for another day.
The teller machine notified Jack that he still had accommodations in Purgatory for another 287 days. After making two more entries, the total went up to 289 days. The machine then dispensed one pack of Marlboro cigarettes and a rainbow-colored arm band. He finished his transaction, frowned at the new total, and retrieved his card.
Jack put on the arm band, put his wallet back in his pocket, and went straight to the bar. Jack winced as he glanced over at Elvis on the stage, crooning “Love Me Tender” as he had done on a hundred nights before. He had previously been the house act at a different establishment in the entertainment district, but had gotten kicked out after getting drunk and shooting all of the television sets. Somehow he had worked out a permanent gig at Alexander’s, sans pistol. Every night that he came in there and saw Elvis made him further inclined to frequent a different club.
“Hi Jack, how are you?”
“Just lovely Ray,” said Jack, “scotch and water, please.”
“You sure you don’t want to try our shot, the Nancy Kerrigan Knee Slammer?” said Ray.
“No thanks, just a scotch and water,”
In addition to the drink, Jack bought a copy of the Dallas Morning News so as to keep up with events in his old hometown. The Dallas Cowboys had just won their second Super Bowl In a row, and he had not been there to see either one of them. Jack’s thoughts wandered back to the night of his death. The memory was fuzzy. He had been at a sports bar watching a Cowboys game. Jack remembered being pissed off because the cowboys had lost, and he had lost a lot of money betting on the game. In an effort to soothe his mood, Jack decided to have a few more drinks. After leaving the bar, Jack sensed that he was heavily intoxicated. His vision was poor, and his reflexes were very poor. The road became treacherous, and Jack didn’t remember much more, except that it was hard to stay on the road.
“Fucking drunk drivers, huh, Ray?”
“Yeah Jack, whatever,” Ray said. “Need another?”
After not making the curve, Jack remembered being jostled around, then darkness, then waking up in a crowded passenger airliner.
“Can I get you something to drink, sir?” asked the stewardess. “What?” said Jack.
“Would you like a drink?” repeated the stewardess. “What the fuck is this, and where the hell am I at?” asked Jack. “Not in Hell, sir,” said the stewardess. “Perhaps you should read your pamphlet, it may explain things.”
Jack looked down at the silver and blue pamphlet in his lap, it was entitled: Purgatory: Living in the Hereafter. Checking his surroundings, Jack realized that he was dressed for the occasion; He was dressed in a regal black tuxedo, with a blue cummerbund and tails. Looking through his pockets, Jack found his wallet, his engraved Zippo lighter, and a new pack of cigarettes. Jack would have felt extremely dapper considering his attire, but the few handfuls of dirt that had been thrown on him ruined the effect.
Jack brushed at the dirt on his sleeves, pocketed the pamphlet, and ordered coffee. The plane arrived at Purgatory International Airport soon after he had finished his second cup. As Jack and the others filed off the plane and into the jetway, a flight attendant greeted each person with a friendly smile and a handbill.
“Welcome to Purgatory, we hope your stay is enlightening.”
Jack paused for a moment, looked at the flier, and then decided to move along. The flier was for a free evening at “ALEXANDER’S BABYLONIAN BAR AND GRILL.” Jack pocketed the coupon, lit up a smoke, and headed off in the direction of the bar.
Jack got his drink, and proceeded to the table where a few of his coworkers were gathered, and sat down in the seat that his friend had saved for him. Jack noticed that his friend was looking troubled.
“What can I do for you, Stan?” asked Jack.
“Jack, I’ve got some bad news for you.” said Stan. “It’s about your brother.”
Jack and Stan had an arrangement that they would do their best to keep each other informed about the lives of their respective family and friends. Although such an arrangement was against the rules, many people shared the information anyway.
“What’s the deal, has he gotten himself in trouble again?”
“Big trouble,” said Stan. “I’ve got to give a final review on him, because he will be dead in two days.”
Jack stared into his drink as he digested the news. Of his entire family, he was mainly concerned with his younger brother, Marc. Jack felt bad that Marc was going to die, but it seemed to him that it would be nice to see his brother again.
“Do you know which flight he’s coming in on?”
“That’s the bad part, Jack.” said Ray. “It doesn’t look like he’ll be coming here.”
Somehow Jack convinced Stan to show him the file on his brother. Currently, his brother was on track for an extended vacation in Purgatory, but the glimpse of the next two days revealed that his brother was to be shot to death by a police officer. Apparently, the officer had witnessed him committing arson, and had shot him when he had refused the order to freeze.
By researching the file, Jack learned that his brother had set fire to his warehouse property in the downtown district in order to collect the insurance money. However, unbeknownst to Marc, there were a group of five homeless people who had been living in the back of the warehouse, who were to perish in the fire. It was the incidental deaths which were to weigh heavily against Marc.
“Stan, there has to be something we can do. He had no idea that those people were in there.”
“Jack, I can’t interfere because I am one of the ones judging his file, and you can’t go and save his life because he is your brother, and they will find out how you obtained access to his file, and we’ll both be in very deep shit.”
“Look, help me get down there somehow. You’ve been here for a long time, and if anybody knows how to pull this off, I’m sure you would know who it is.” said Jack.
“Hold on, Jack. You don’t want to mess with this. There is a great penalty for messing with the given plan. Besides, there is a slim chance that he will be given the benefit of the doubt in this.” said Stan.
“It’s worth it to me, Stan.’ said Jack. “I’ll take the chance, and whatever punishment, because I know I could never be happy if he were condemned to such a horrible existence.”
“I’ll try to help you, Jack. I really will. You’ve just got to understand that you can’t directly influence with your brother’s fate, and that it is 99.9% likely that you will be found out. You know that the Big Guy very rarely misses things.”
Closing time at Alexander’s found Stan and Jack at the back of the bar. The other patrons had left, and Ray was locking up, and turning out the lights. Elvis stretched out a couch on the back wall with a bottle of Kentucky Gentleman and a peanut-butter sandwich.
Stan had explained the situation to Ray, who had sent note to Alexander himself to explain the situation, and Jack’s request.
Ray finished up, went to the back room, and returned a short while later.
“Alexander will see you now.” said Ray.
Ray led them through the back room, down a few flights of stairs, and finally into a dim smoky office. Jack was surprised to find that this was THE Alexander – Alexander the Great – whom was now seated with his feet on his desk, chomping on a Cuban cigar. He did not appear to be much older than Jack, yet had existed over two thousand years longer.
“Welcome,” he said, “How do you like the place?”
Jack and Stan stood in amazement, unable to speak. Finally, Jack found the words with which to explain the nature of his request,
“Surely you are able to do this, considering that the supplies for your establishment come from Earth.” said Jack.
Alexander laughed for a moment, “What is it worth to you?”
“I’ll do anything you ask, just get me there.” replied Jack.
“If I grant you this boon, then you must stay here and work for me for the next 1,000 years, or until Armageddon, Whichever comes first. Agreed?”
“Fine” said Jack.
“Although it’s not as easy as it once was,” said Alexander. “I used to enjoy greater freedom to return to Earth for supplies for my establishment. But recently they have become more strict even with me about who may make the trip in order to restock the shelves.”
“What does all this mean?” replied Jack,
“It means,” said Alexander, “that the only person I can send for supplies these days is Elvis!”
Jack ducked as he boarded the Earth-bound flight. Everything looked funny through his thick rose-colored sunglasses, and he felt like the world’s biggest asshole wearing that white sequined jumpsuit, and those fake pork-chop sideburns. The plane landed in Las Vegas of all places, where Jack caught a connecting flight to Dallas.
According to instructions, he was to go nowhere near his brother, much less anyone else that he knew.
The flight landed in Dallas, and Jack exited the flight. The plane ride had been bad enough, what with the people craning their necks, and the old lady sitting next to him who happened to be a big Elvis fan, but the people in the Dallas airport snickered and laughed as he strode by. Although he didn’t like being the recipient of so much attention, he realized that there was one good thing about his costume; he had no problem getting a cab.
Jack arrived at the warehouse with little time to spare. Soon enough he found the door that the homeless people had forced open. When he found them in the back, he understood why they had been unable to get out. All five homeless men were passed out in their respective comforts, with their favorite bottles of cheap wine held close to their bodies. For a moment, Jack figured that they might be better off dead, and then he commenced dragging them out of the place one at a time.
As soon as he had dragged the last one out, Jack ran from the building in the opposite direction to where he had instructed the cab driver to wait. As badly as he wanted to go to warn his brother, he realized that it was too late as he saw the flames licking skyward from the far side of the warehouse.
The shots that he heard sounded distant, and he heard no cry for help. The cab driver stared at him as he jumped in the back seat of the taxi. Jack realized he was crying, “Just drive man.”
Copyright © 1994-2012, Joseph Wooldridge