Tuesday, April 14, 2009

To Hell and Back

I'm not a writer. I'm an executive. But the time has come for me to sit down and write this story because no one believes the telling. Not that I tell the story to just anyone, mind you, because it's just too strange and would most likely get me committed than have me received as purveyor of wisdom now mine. My therapist says the thing was just a dream, but I know better. Because I have in my possession an object that came directly from Hell and there is no mistake in this.

At any rate, I will just take the chance and tell the story because it is true and I would be remiss to not pass the warnings I received from my little visit to Hell.

So how did I happen to end up in Hell, one might ask? I must respond that it was a result of a concerted effort on my part. It happened at the turn of the century, New Year's Eve, 1999. My neighbor Art is the one that told me all about it.

"Jay, I swear on my life, I'm telling the truth," Art swore to me on that hot and sunny July day. "During the turn of a century, you can really visit Heaven. My Aunt Betty went there at the turn of the nineteenth century. Before she died, she told me all about it...and get this," Art elbowed my chest in preparation for the coming revelation. I just chugged another sip of beer. Art was amusing, in the right place and at the right time, but in larger doses than this occasional shared beer at our neighborhood tavern, he can wear thin.

"About a week before she died....I guess I was about fourteen...she called me into her room. She took down this dusty box and told me it was her souvenir from Heaven." Art paused just now to take a beer sip of his own, and I smiled in anticipation of the description of the souvenir from Heaven.

"Guess what it was?" Art said after a sip, then continued with no hesitation for my guess. "It was dried angel wings."

Art stopped speech and took an especially long sip of beer. Well, I just had to take one too with this interesting revelation.

"You know how I know it was true? That they was dried angel wings, I mean?"

Indeed I did not know why Art knew it was true, but what the hell, I had another hour to kill before my wife got home to complain about the unmown lawn.

"The smell, Jay. The smell was like nothing I have ever smelled before on this earth. I know you think this is crazy, but the second that smell hit my nose I knew that what was in that box was something real special. Something that had not come from anywhere on earth. It was like...." with this Art stopped and arced his head all about to survey the tavern world. His eyes were rolling all about as if seeking words that didn't exist. I stopped in mid-beer-sip. This was most unusual for Art, to be lost, indeed, enthralled, in thought. While Art was a nice enough guy, he wasn't in the top ten in his class if you get the drift.

"It was like what clouds would smell like," Art finally found some words. Words that did, in fact, cause me to re-assess my Art neighbor. If you had told me yesterday that Art would use clouds to describe a celestial odor, I would have laughed and told you to go home. Then again, I also had to consider the concept of what clouds must smell like. The new literary Art at my right proceeded to attempt just such a description.

"Like...lilacs...multiplied by a thousand. Then combined with Poison perfume...just a little. Then add in the waft of about a thousand Spirea bushes in full bloom. You know how it is when the bushes bloom? Like the smell isn't always there, but a breeze will sometimes pick up the odor and carry it past your nose?"

By now I was holding my beer by it's stein handle, elbow resting upon the bar, head turned to face Art, and mouth hanging open. This description was so unlike my neighbor, who gazed upon my pansies one glorious Spring and responded to my exhortations of praise with a simple, "Oh, them things." But Art was not done.

"It was like all these aromas hit my nose, engulfing...just beautiful...taking me away even for a minute." Art then stopped to take a sip of beer, his brow still furrowed in thought. I admit to not even moving my beer stein, so amazed was I by Art's description.

"Anyway," Art said, thumping his glass beer stein down on the bar, "my Aunt then closed the lid of the box, which had some feathers in it, and the smell went away, just like that. Man, I ain't never forgot that."

I then asked Art where was the box of "dried angel wing" now...maybe he could let me smell for myself.

Art snapped his fingers and said he thought he knew where it was. He told me he was going to check it out, and if he is right, then he would give me a call...let me come over to take a whiff. Then I would believe, Art said.

That evening Art did give me a call. He was real excited, said he had found the box, but that he wouldn't open it until I came over. Since my wife was in a royal snit over the unmown lawn, even Art would prove better company. I headed over to his house.

"I can't believe that for all these years I never thought to check that old chest my Aunt Betty had. She used to call it her "hopeless chest", Art narrated, as he led me up the pull down stairs to his dusty attic. After we hoisted our middle-aged bodies up to the tiny roof cubbyhole, Art grabbed a small box that looked for all the world like a box in which a new wallet had once been packaged.

He held the box in his hand and gave me a warning. "Jay, be prepared, because if the aroma is like I remember, ...well...just smell for yourself."

The odor of a thousand Spireas, in full bloom, wafted in air rivulets past my nose. Before I could grasp this, I felt as if I were in a pillow of lilacs, not stifled but surrounded by the flower as if blooming in the early Spring sunshine. A tickle of blooming Paperwhite odor teased, then...the heady smell of Poison perfume? I thought that this might be how clouds smell...but no. As the spirea aroma tickled my nose, I knew that this must be how Heaven smells.

Art put the lid back on the dried angel wings and we clambered down the rickety stairs. There was no need for further proof. I was the Controller of a small manufacturer in the little town of Elkridge, Maryland, and not given to flights of fancy. But I believed there was something very special in that box and I wanted Art to tell me just how he got it.

"I told you, I didn't get it. My Aunt Betty said she got it from heaven. She told me that on New Year's Eve, at the change of the century, you can visit Heaven. What she said you do is...precisely at the strike of midnight....you hold a rosary and ask the Virgin Mary to let you visit her in Heaven. You say three Hail Marys...then...well Aunt Betty said she was in Heaven. She told me all about Heaven, Jay, but you know, I was fourteen and she was an old lady. It wasn't until she opened the box that I started to believe. By then I wished I had listened to her story because...well you know.....that smell! She got sick soon after and died a week later...so I dunno just what she saw in Heaven. But, hey, that's it...three Hail Marys. This year, Jay...the change of the century. I'm going to try it. Aunt Betty said her grandmother went to Heaven when the 1700's changed into the 1800's."

I listened with half an ear to Art's harangue. I was a Presbyterian, and we didn't say Hail Marys..but heck, I would learn it. I'd scout down a rosary too. It was six months to the year 2000, so I figured I had time. What the heck, I thought, there WAS something unusual about that box and the smells. I don't think the odors were something Art could have concocted. Chemistry wasn't a required subject in vocational school.

Only when I said the three Hail Marys at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, I didn't exactly end up in Heaven. I ended up in Hell.

I had read plenty of descriptions of Hell in my lifetime that included lots of fire and glowing embers. Hell is nothing like that. In fact, Hell resembles a little coffee house, like the kind in the "Friends" situation comedy. There were couches all about, with all sorts of people sitting and doing all kinds of activity.

I admit that initially I thought it was Heaven. I wasn't real pleased with the place when I thought it was Heaven but when I found out it was Hell I thought it was a bit of all right. For Hell, I mean.

I was greeted by a very obese woman with a very dark mustache.

"We have heard your Hail Marys and it is the turn of the century. We don't get any living souls down here except at the century change. There are a few other visitors here that learned the secret of the rosary and Hail Marys. Your friend Art is right now visiting up in Heaven."

I then asked this lovely lass that if Art is in Heaven, just what was this.

"This is Hell. Come on, let me show you around."

It must be stressed here that the discovery that I was in Hell had me momentarily nonplused and full of questions; the prime one being just why was Art up in Heaven while I was down here in Hell. There was no time, of course, because my mustached female guide was giving me a grand tour.

"This is Wanda," the chubby guide said, and pointed to a small lady then sitting on an overstuffed couch and tatting a doily. Wanda looked to be quite content, with her needles and string to occupy her. She looked quite obsessed with her task, I noted, and didn't seem to be in any sort of fiery state.

So I asked my guide just why this was Hell if you could sit on overstuffed couches and tat.

"Wanda hates sewing of any kind. She always did...in her mortal life. Now she gets to spend the rest of eternity knitting, crocheting, tatting, darning and sewing buttons. This is Hell! You don't get to do what you want you know."

We walked on past the tatting Wanda who was bent over her doily in furious concentration.

"This is Ted Bundy. I'm sure you must remember him."

Indeed I remembered Ted Bundy, the serial killer who I surely thought would be in the middle of some serious flames. Instead, he too sat on an overstuffed sofa and....well, it looked to me as if he was watching television.

"Ted hated television. Now, he gets to watch it all the time. And he is only allowed situation comedies, which he especially hates."
I was beginning to see a pattern here, but was full of questions. I mean Ted Bundy in Hell watching endless "I Love Lucy" re-runs was not the punishment I thought he deserved. Of course, I ran some of these thoughts past my guide.

"Hell is pretty much like we learned when we were alive. Forget the flames though. Burning forever...that's not Hell's style. Hell is about eternity...forever and ever and ever. With a consignment guaranteed to make every second of every day miserable. "

I asked my guide just who metes out this punishment and while we're at it, just what was her punishment. This guide thing seemed to be a cushy job.

"Punishments are meted out by all of us. The punishment is not meant to be physical...again, forget the flames...Hell isn't about physical pain. Too many of our members caused enough physical pain in their mortal lives. Hell is about misery...just misery after misery...mental anguish that will never be assuaged. I suppose you thought the punishments would be more original?"

Yes, I had thought that. Just then we passed a teenaged boy who was reading a book. I figured he was one who didn't like reading in a life before he ended up here in Hell. Still, to spend eternity reading a book?

As we walked on, I heard a loud growl coming from my guide's stomach. It was the dangest hunger pang I had ever heard.

"Yeah, I'm hungry. Yet I am never allowed to eat. None of us eat really..here in Hell. Except some of the Bulimics maybe. My punishment is to spend my eternity hungry, never to eat, never to stop the hunger pains...and worst of all....never ever to get thin even though I eat nothing."

She said this with resignation. This was weird, no doubt about it. I knew I had to be dreaming this.

Besides the people sitting around on the couches, there were large rooms full of people. There were parties even. As I was beginning to understand the concept here, the parties attendees, I could see, were those that once hated parties. A football stadium was filled with a crowd of women, all watching the game and hating every minute of it. Just this strange kind of atmosphere going on right here in Hell.

It was strange, this Hell place full of people forced to spend eternity doing what they once hated to do. And I wasn't at all sure the fire idea wasn't a better punishment. My guide explained it further.

"It isn't the punishments that matter, really, " she explained as she stroked her mustache. "The punishments, as I said earlier, are given by the inhabitants of Hell. We are, after all, evil people or we wouldn't be here. No...it's more just having to live, breathe and think...forever and ever...in this world where there is no life really...just...living on. All of us who end up in Hell find ourselves soon wishing fervently that there was no life after death, that we would have just rotted in our coffins after our rotten lives, as we originally planned."

I asked my guide what about Heaven, and also tentatively questioned just what I was doing in Hell when my original plan was to ascend to Heaven.

"The concept behind the New Year's Eve of the century change is that the person who knows about the Hail Marys will go to the place more appropriate with their lifestyle at the moment. I don't know much about you, but "Someone" has determined that you are following a direct route to Hell."

You could have knocked me over with an angel feather. What on earth had I done to deserve to end up here in Hell? Not that I was any epitome of goodness but I felt rather strongly that I shouldn't be lumped in with the likes of Ted Bundy. Yes, there was that little affair I had with the dancer a few years ago during a weekend CPA convention. And I most regretted that little indiscretion although I never told my wife. I had, if I gave it any thought, acknowledged that a higher power than me most likely knew about the affair. But I regretted it and isn't that what it's all about, sorrow and a vow to do better? It seemed to me that there should be no inhabitants of Heaven if mistakes were not allowed.

"But would you?" I heard my guide ask, to my muteness. "Would you do it again, if opportunity knocked? Sure, you can make mistakes....I made plenty to include shooting my husband with his own hunting rifle. And you can vow to do better...sure. But they are only words. Best I can advise you is that there is a good and evil mindset. "Good" being defined as , well, I don't know...or I wouldn't be here in Hell, would I?"

Indeed, I thought, would I do it again? And you know, I couldn't absolutely say I wouldn't because that weekend of lust was a lot of fun and....well, given the right circumstances I might do it again. My wife didn't find out the first time, I might reason.

"That's just it," my guide continued, leading me into a strange room bathed in a red light that appeared more in keeping with my concept of Hell. "It's not about getting caught. It's about...well think about it. I am sure no expert."

We moved into the little room and I was most amazed. It was as if carved from a granite wall. Streams of water poured from the makeshift walls. Directly in the middle of the room was a large granite chair, unsoftened by any pillows.

"This is the room we have reserved for OJ Simpson. All of the inhabitants of Hell eagerly await Mr. Simpson. And scuttlebutt has it that there is lots of plans for OJ. I heard that Ron Goldman and Nicole were scheduled to pay OJ regular visits from Heaven while he sits in this chair in his lonely Hell."

Now I was even more surprised. First at the concept of "scuttlebutt" in Hell, and second that OJ Simpson would have his own room, although when you think about it.....

So what about Heaven, I asked my guide.

"We don't know anything about Heaven. No sense in asking me, cause I don't know. None of us do. It's just another part of our punishment...this not knowing."

I shrugged my shoulders. Fine, I thought, I would ask Art. Who, I was reminded, was supposed to be spending this century-change New Year's Eve in Heaven and I wondered why was this.

And I did ask Art. Who thought I was nuts, denied any visit to Heaven, and remembered nothing of any box with the heavenly smells.

Because New Year's Eve, Dec. 31, 1999 did change into New Year's Day, 2000 and brought me back to my own mortal life.

It was a bittersweet revelation when Art denied any trip to the other life. Now I could toss the whole thing off as a dream. I could not, however, ignore my ponderings.

Art was a nice guy, IQ notwithstanding. I bet he never cheat on his wife, not that he was overwhelmed with opportunities. I looked down at my own pot-belly and ran my fingers through my thinning hair. Heck, it wasn't like I had a whole lot of opportunities either. The honest truth was that the dancer of my indiscretions was more interested in the fifty bucks I gave her after our day in bed than my own handsome self. There are always opportunities. My guide in Hell was right. It wasn't about getting caught, it was about...well... honesty and integrity and a whole bunch of other stuff they talk about in Heaven.

So I haven't been able to forget my little visit to Hell, although it's been five years and my Therapist says it was just a dream and to quit obsessing.

Only I can't. Because on any day of any year I can walk up the steps to my bedroom. I can open my dresser drawer, full of underwear, socks, and a little box that looks for all the world as if it once served as packaging for a new wallet. I can then open the box.

It is the smell of a thousand dead cows, rotting under a hot sun and providing food for the vultures. It is the odor of rotten eggs and dirty feet. It is the smell of death, rot and decay. Anytime I want, I can climb the steps, retrieve my box, and take a whiff of Hell.

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