WORKING FOR GOD
Working for God is never easy. By no means is this because he is God - it's because he's a sinner, just like the rest of us. I can't say I remember a passage in any of the world's sacred texts mentioning his debilitating substance abuse, suicidal tendencies or sexual promiscuity, but perhaps that's for the best. Granted, things were different back in the day; there's a certain amount of focus, drive and perhaps inherent goodness required in the creation of the universe and all its inhabitants. I figure he just ran out of gas after that.
Anyway, I'm called up to his office in the early afternoon by Daphne; teased black hair, sparkling blue eyes and full lips that squawk my name over the intercom.
"Mr. Kaufman?" The mesh wires distort her voice slightly, but she still sounds lovely. It feels good to hear her say my name. "Henry Kaufman? He'd like to see you." I don't have the option to respond, so I lay down my mop, head for the stairway and begin to trudge up.
If you got to know me, you'd probably figure I should be in Hell - and honestly, I'd agree with you. I wasn't - I'm not - a bad person or anything, but I certainly wasn't - again, still not - a good one. If you believe anything the glassy-eyed fundamentalists say, I should be burning right now. Instead, against all odds, I've secured myself a glamorous janitorial position in the Kingdom of Heaven. Lovely.
After the tendons in my legs have gone numb, I reach the top of the building. I don't belong to the privileged clique of elevator patrons , probably for premaritally finger-fucking Valencia Gray in the church vestibule during midnight mass on my fourteenth Christmas, or rolling a joint with John 3:16 in a Comfort Inn - both awesome, but both probably reason enough for an eternity-long tenure in the Lake of Fire. If you lived your life piously, you probably expected to be rewarded with a classless utopia, where it rains gumdrops and the roads are made of rainbows. Well, turns out you're just rewarded with the same old shit. Even bad people come here eventually; they just hang around purgatory a little longer, and purgatory is a dive bar just outside the Pearly Gates, so I don't think they mind too much. I certainly didn't. I step out of the stairwell and into the drab white waiting room.
Daphne stares vaguely at her nails; her glasses are too far down her nose, but she glances up through the small window they leave and registers my presence. I grin at her to no avail; she quickly returns to studying her nails, which are - by the way - immaculate. Her hair is tousled up in a loose bun, held in place with some kind of ivory chopstick. I realize she's not in the mood for conversation when she turns her attention to a bulging rolodex on her desk, aimlessly fingering through each name, desperately searching for someone more interesting than I am. Evidently she does. Daphne picks up the phone, absent-mindedly dials and begins incessantly yammering to whoever is on the other line. Undoubtedly a man. A man she is undoubtedly having sex with. In my mind, Daphne is having sex with every man that is not me. The afterlife is cruel, too.
I stake a claim on a relatively comfortable lounge chair, flip through the New Yorker - yes, we read the New Yorker - and wait for my name to be called. I suppose it says a lot about the experience of living in Heaven, reading the New Yorker. Our entire literary interest stems solely from a different plane of existence. There are writers here, of course - they just don't write. Hemingway's dedicated himself to becoming a full-time drunk. Fitzgerald too. Sylvia Plath cooks. The rest smoke cigarettes and read the New Yorker, mostly. Funny.
"Mr. Kaufman?" Daphne holds the receiver away from her mouth, looks over to me and gestures to the gaudy, pearlescent doors that dominate the room. "He's ready."
I dislodge myself and amble through the room. There's nobody in here but Daphne. I want to start a conversation, but I've got nothing to say. She's back to the phone, anyways. She doesn't notice me as I swing open the door with an awkward, theatrical flourish and enter God's office.
In an act of divine cliché, I'm blinded by the white, white light. My eyes adjust - barely - and there he is, keeled over a monolithic desk wrought of black marble, shaggy gray hair spilled recklessly across it. His hand is engulfed in the wiry jungle, and it follows his head as it moves forward with an exaggerated snort. He tosses away the straw and motions to a chair opposite his. I pull the chair towards me and slide into it. His eyes twinkle with a feral glint, and there's an obnoxious grin tacked onto his face. This doesn't surprise me. I'd reckon God has the best cocaine ever.
"Hello, Henry," he exhales deeply and his eyes flutter open and shut, "let's talk."
I'm not sure if he actually spoke to me, or if he conveyed his message without words. I don't know how long the conversation lasted, and I can't recall exactly how it went. I leave his office in a daze, eyes burning from the white of it - a white that makes everything after it seem pale and faded. Daphne reaches into a drawer in her desk, retrieves a sheaf of paper and straightens it by banging the stack against her desk several times. I'm too disoriented to ogle her, but - intuitive of my weakened state - she rises and struts towards me, documents in hand.
"You're to read and sign these, Mr. Kaufman." She says, without a trace of humor. She hands me a key, the same kind I've seen her use to access the elevator. I'm lead to the door, where she promptly turns around and walks back to her desk. Blue silk blouse, black pencil skirt, high heels. I'm sad to see her go.
To make a long story short, I'm being called in as a temporary replacement for one of Heaven's employees in the Acquisitions Department. Death, I mean. I was chosen because I displayed "a certain moral flexibility" when I filled out my Afterlife Application and had my entrance interview. Something like that, anyway. I'm supposed to report to the elevators in the lobby the following morning. I don't know what to expect, but I'll be pretty happy to go back.
I abandon my mop in the lobby, where I left it, and head home. I half-heartedly flip through the forms, trying to get my head around the legal jargon. I give up soon after, sign where indicated, light a cigarette, pour myself a coffee and waste away the rest of the afternoon on a new issue of the New Yorker and daytime soap reruns.
Daphne is leaning against the wall next to the elevators when I arrive. She pushes her glasses down - not up - to examine me, which I don't get. I'd seen people do that in movies, sometimes. I guess she had too.
"Good morning, Daphne." I say, messing with my hair as I approach her. "You look nice" She doesn't appreciate the compliment and shifts in her chair with discomfort.
"Uh, thank you, Mr. Kaufman. Good morning. Follow me, please." She inserts a key into a slot next to the elevator doors, and it opens with a hydraulic sigh. I follow her inside and, without any manipulation, it heaves itself downwards. I feel my vital organs careening uncomfortably close to my throat and grab ahold of the guardrail. The roof of the tiny, metal casket is clear, and I can see Heaven grow farther and farther above us; a solitary - and undeniably phallic - office building, surrounded by a network of slums, apartments, countless bodies. "It knows where your destination is." Daphne explains. "The key I've given you is your key to returning when you've finished the list. However, you should know that it will not work until the list is indeed finished. You will be compensated adequately for your services, upon your return. "
"The list?" I ask. "What list?" Daphne reaches into her skirt pocket, just above her thigh, and recovers a badly folded scrap of paper. She unfolds it and hands it to me as the elevator finally lulls to a halt. I run my eyes down the list of names, without really reading any of them. Next to each, in hastily scrawled block letters, is a cause of death, location, time and date. Daphne nods slightly and says something - I don't hear her because I'm fixated on her lips - and the realization that I'm responsible for killing each of these people sets in with surprisingly little emotion. "So how do I do it?"
"With a touch, Mr. Kaufman." She rests her hand on my shoulder, and I almost melt. The door opens, and Daphne shoves me gently into the pulsing heartbeat of a bustling, downtown boulevard and all I can think about is her lips, and how to avoid dropping pedestrians with a brush of the shoulder.
I'm not so good at this. Since I've been back, I've sent a young, healthy woman into cardiac arrest, caused a brutal bus accident (killing four), turned a simple robbery into a double homicide and spurred a spontaneous game of Russian Roulette between loitering off-duty gang members. None of my victims names were scrawled illegibly on the crumpled piece of paper. So next time you wonder to yourself, "Why the senseless carnage? What does it all mean?". It's not God punishing you, it's not fate. It's a Grim Reaper that sucks at his job.
The list starts tugging at my pocket as I duck into a dilapidated watering hole to see if I can still get drunk. I run down the names as I suck back a few vodka tonics and build the foundation of Mount Marlboro. The Bartender brings me a refill and winks when I'm too busy poring over the cramped script to thank him. There are only a few entries, and the words tell me less than I’d thought.
#1 DAVID GREEN, AUTO ACCIDENT, CORNER OF ASH AND 7TH, 9:56 PM, OCT 31.
#2 SHEENA GREEN, AUTO ACCIDENT, CORNER OF ASH AND 7TH, 9:57 PM, OCT 31.
#3 COYNE PARADIS, ACCIDENTAL SUICIDE (AUTO-EROTIC ASPHYXIATION), PH SUITE, 5624 5TH, 10:21 PM, OCT 31.
#4 VALENCIA GRAY, FIRE, APT. 27, 453 W. TULSA, 11:30 PM, OCT 31.
After the last name, my interest in the others deflates. Valencia Gray. Valencia fucking Gray, my perpetual tonsil-hockey opponent for two hours a day for nine and a half months; four fifteen-minute breaks between class and the hour lunch break all through eighth grade, long white-blonde hair that framed her face, naturally red lips, if I remember correctly. It’s a shame.
There's an older couple next to me, holding hands and leaning into each other. Very in love, clearly. The Bartender walks up to them and starts flapping his gums. Their small talk quickly bursts into riotous laughter studded with bad jokes and overly-personal anecdotes. They must be regulars. I unabashedly eavesdrop on their conversation and manage to catch their names. David and Sheena.
I scoop up my drink and saunter over to the group, patting David - a stocky grey-haired man - on the shoulder as I introduce myself. Sheena doesn't extend her hand, so I play drunk and spill the remainder of the vodka tonic into her lap. She leaps up, shocked as the liquid penetrates her dress and ice cubes slip off its satin surface onto the floor. I leap into action, patting at the front of it, veering dangerously between her thighs. Sheena starts keening, obviously distraught, spewing one-liners about how it'll come out in the wash, and so on.
"Cut it out man! It's a clear-fucking-liquid." David interjects. The red in his cheeks clashes with his hair. He looks like a puppet when he turns to his wife and barks. "Let's go." They get up and walk out, hand in hand. I order another drink and wait until I hear their car engine roar off, a sound that melts perfectly into the screech of hot, bending metal. The Bartender sprints outside and I can hear him scream, even after the door has swung back into place.
I begrudgingly slurp down the last of the watery liquid in my glass and stand and follow the Bartender out. David and Sheena's Honda Civic is wrapped neatly around a telephone pole, and the couple have painted their windshield red. Traffic is at a standstill, and someone is tending to a limp body in the middle of the intersection - maybe David, maybe Sheena, maybe a wrong-place-wrong-time sucker, it's tough to tell. I can't find a pen, so I just rip off the top of the list with their names and start walking to Coyne Paradis' penthouse on 5th. I flirt with the idea of getting a taxi, but it doesn't look like the mess I made is getting cleaned up anytime soon, so I keep pushing down the sidewalk, careful to avoid masked children carrying half-empty pillowcases.
Paradis' building is overly-extravagant. There's a doorman, smoking a cigarette absently; it's only 10:15, so I double back around the block and buy a pack of my own at a newsstand. I clench my teeth as I reach over to clutch the ornate door handle, but the burly attendant wraps a fist around it first, clearing my path. I nod to him and strut up the stairs. It's clockwork, one, two, three, four, five floors and a knock-knock. I'm greeted by a suave, immaculately groomed yuppie, who's in a tailored black suit with a white shirt splattered with red from his nose. He runs a hand - manicure - through his slick hair, and scowls at me.
"Mister Paradis?" I ask, in a lilting sing-song.
"Yeah, what?" He crinkles his nose a bit and looks down at me. He's pretty tall. I decide I don't want to touch his oily surface, so I lean back and spit right in his face, then turn tail and get the fuck out of dodge. I'm sure he came careening around the corner and maybe into the stairwell, but he's not behind me when I exit the building and pass by the doorman. According to the list, once he's back in his penthouse, he'll wipe my spit off his face, tie one end of his belt to his neck - the other to a doorknob - and accidently hang himself while whacking off.
Valencia is having a Halloween party. Scores of grad students cycle the room; English majors hang together in a far corner wearing subdued, intellectual costumes, obscure references to literary figures. Hunter S. Thompson does a keg stand, suspended upside down by a looming Dr. Gonzo and grizzled Ernest Hemingway, I think. A few tudents smoke pot out of a ridiculously large bong, furiously debating something that I can't hear over the "Monster Mash". What look like a couple of business majors cut up lines of cocaine and pop Percosets like candy. Valencia and the fine arts students dance vainly in the middle of the room, and it really is nice to see her, though she doesn't recognize or acknowledge me, which is probably good for her mental wellbeing.
When I see her smiling vaguely and forcing a weak shuffle on the dance floor, I feel bad. She's not ready; she's not old and together like David and Sheena, she's not slimy like the yuppie on 5th. She's too young, too nice, too perfect, too much. But tonight, she has to die, and I figure that the least I can do is give her some company.
I start on the dance floor, playing duck, duck, goose with the hipster girls and skinny rock dudes that loiter around it, then proceed to wrap my arms around the business students as I ask them for a line of cocaine. I snort it and throw caution to the wind, careening through the room like a whirling dervish. I don't know where or when the fire started, but it starts eating at the curtains surprisingly fast, and before I know it the ceiling is melting away to expose thick planks of wood. Valencia's the first to go down as they begin to fall, struck in the head with a sickening thud. I feel the cocaine dripping down the back of my throat as I narrowly avoid a plank that blocks the door way. The surviving students clamber towards me, and try to get to my side of the door, vainly struggling to wiggle through the flame saturated openings left. All I can see is the reflection of the flames in their screaming eyes as they lick flesh and twist the plastic of party cups until the whole place is a convoluted, sticky black mess. I shut the door gingerly and avoid the elevator on the way down. I light a cigarette and the blue smoke rises up to meet Valencia's, and the flames from the building look like they’d been painted onto the sky – but I knew better.