‘Welcome to HECK!’ the billboard sign said when I walked in here, what? A week ago, I guess? That’s per ‘local time’ I guess. It feels like about a billion years. The bottom of the sign had said:
‘Somewhere between Purgatory and Hell is HECK!’
HECK is neither ‘hell’ nor ‘purgatory,’ and it most certainly isn’t heaven of course. Not a lot of people even know about this place I suppose.
Hell is, as I understand it, a place of eternal damnation, torment, and despair. There is no possibility of ‘parole’ from hell.
Purgatory is, according to one man I meet here early after I arrived, was like a very long clinic one went to purify oneself enough to enter heaven. It was deep, intensive therapy and was about as much fun as a root canal. There is a release from purgatory, that is why one is there I was told.
HECK is somewhere in between these two extremes. To me, it feels like some bureaucratic screw-up though. Some orphaned, disconnected agency that had been started millennia ago but whose mission statement and overseers had been lost somewhere along the way. Some of the people here feel there must have been a clerical mistake and aren’t sure why they are here. Occasionally people are released from here. We believe they go to heaven when released but it’s all so random and capricious, who can say for sure?
HECK is arbitrary, bland, tedious, monotonous, gray, sunless, timeless, colorless, and joyless. Yeah, at least we don’t have lakes of fire and gnashing of teeth, but it is a boring place to be.
“Hey, didja hear? Frank got out. Really?! This place is crazy! What possible reason would … ‘management‘ have for granting him redemption?” she says.
‘Management‘ is how we refer to … you know! The magnanimous, white-bearded man upstairs. We don’t dare risk lengthening our stays here in this drab plane of existence by anything as risky as using one of ‘his’ names.
I’m in the only bar in HECK that I can tolerate: Monkeyshines. She, the woman with whom I’m ‘enjoying’ a warm, odorous, vinegary beer is telling me about a recent release from HECK.
I had to agree with her. The guy in question, I want to say his name was ‘Frank’ something or other. The dude was a total bore. Self-absorbed. Always prattling on and on about what his life had been like. About his workout routine, his diet, a woman he had gone on two dates with, trivial little projects that he had started and never finished.
Yet today, when I walk into the least gray, least smelly bar in HECK and I hear he’s been ‘pardoned.’
“Did you happen to hear the things he was saying last Friday?” she goes on.
(I don’t know who started this convention. It makes no sense whatsoever. We live in a timeless realm and yet we continue to parse our existence into the perception of non-existent days delineated by an arbitrarily invented ‘time.’ So we each fabricate our own clocks and calendars, our own, tailor-made system of tracking a time entity that has no independent, verifiable existence. Sometimes our quaint, disparate timekeeping systems sync up but usually, they do not. So, when someone here says something like ‘Okay, So, I’ll see you at Monkeyshines next Tuesday, there’s a better than average chance, that you won’t!’ Time is a fabrication. An abstraction that man has laid onto reality. There is no ultimate truth to time. Yet our souls are so steeped in the tradition that we still adhere to it. For the most part, I never talk about any days other than today and tomorrow. I come to Monkeyshines every day – it’s just the easiest way. If someone wants to see me next Tuesday, I just come every day and depend upon them to tell me when Tuesday arrives. And Monkeyshines is the only place I come for the same reasons. I believe I have a place I go when I’m not here, not in Monkeyshines – I guess you could call it my ‘apartment.’ But when I think about that place my thoughts dissipate and I space out for minutes until I wake back on my barstool.)
I ramble on. Where was I? Oh yeah! Frank whatshisname.
“What was he saying?” I ask the woman.
I believe her name is Sheila.
One of my ‘sins’ that I believe landed me here was being too self-absorbed. Not valuing relationships above everything else. I see that now. I let friendships go. I let family members go for the most asinine, inane, trivial reasons.
It’s not that I don’t want to remember ‘Sheila’s name, it’s just that I have the momentum of habit behind me. A propensity for ‘not remembering’ names has followed me here into my afterlife. My ‘baggage.’ I fight against it – if anything will get me out of HECK, I’m hoping that it’s overcoming this pattern.
“You were saying … Sharon?” I prompt.
She just looks at me incredulously. Just like she has the hundred other times we’ve sat on these stools and I’ve called her the wrong name. I wish I remembered why she was here but hey, I’m still working on the names thing. Baby steps I guess and all that jazz.
“It’s Betty. Say it with me, Betty. Betty, Betty, Betty.”
I think I’ve shared this with her before. But existence here is wispy. My nonexistent ‘brain’ in this realm feels especially sluggish, foggy, gray.
“Betty, Betty, Betty!” I say. Ideas of going the way Frank went zip around the perimeter of my mind.
“Good! Now just start every sentence with my name and let’s see how that works,” she suggests.
There is a spirit of shared cooperation here that I think we want to see others released from this most tedious of places. HECK. Not quite purgatory, and definitely not hell but a boring place to be nonetheless. Sometimes I wonder if this ‘spirit of helping each other here is rooted in some altruistic compassion or it’s just that we are tired of seeing each other. Tired of being in this bland, colorless existence, we will do anything to alter the terrain from day-to-day. The only changes that occur here are the arrivals and departures of souls and both happen far less quickly than one might imagine.
My first instinct had been to laugh off Sheila-turned-Betty’s suggestion but I know where that’s got me before. It got me here!
“Betty, no, I hadn’t heard what Frank was saying last Friday, Betty. Could you tell me, what was it he said Betty?” I cringe at how that must sound. But that’s the fate of the self-absorbed souls in HECK.
“Scott, I appreciate your efforts to memorize my name. What’s more affirming than hearing your name? Eh, Steven?”
And just like that, I get it.
Betty is right. It is affirming. Hearing her call me Steven sent a discordant note of disgust down my imagined spine. And this is how I’ve treated people my whole life; not just my life here but also how I treated people when I was alive on earth.
“Well played Betty. I get it.”
An unfamiliar optimism and expectation flow into me; I look around as if expecting to receive my ‘pardon’ now. No doors open. No tunnels of light appear. I’m still in the bar with Betty.
I don’t know how many lessons I need to learn here before I receive my redemption. Maybe it’s random?
I have been told by the old-timers here that the path in purgatory is strictly through to perfection. Well if Frank Houseman (his last name was there the whole time – some of my brain fog has dissipated) is any judge, then maybe HECK isn’t about perfection. Maybe it’s just about progress?
I turn and consider the other patrons in Monkeyshines, scanning their perceived faces. There’s Earl at the end of the bar chatting with Maggie who misses her cats. There’s Shawn on the stool alone, drawing his obscure, esoteric plans on a napkin.
There’s Meredith, Keith, Marcus, Fiona, Maureen, Lionel, Doug, Sinclair, Beth, Bob, Adam. I make my way to each of them. I greet them. Ask them how they are doing. To each one, I make a point of saying their name as I shake their hands.