Jack Weller was a fine young man if you define young these days as many men do as being in one’s mid-thirties without a wife or child. There was no wife because Jack was good-looking, a lady’s man, and exciting to be around as a successful moto-cross racer who toured the country and world, appearing in gear-head bars and taverns where attractive young women threw themselves at money-making athletes of motor sports.
His father, Paul, had been an auto mechanic and aficionado of Harley Davidsons. His son had absorbed the love of speed on the road and over terrain. Thrills, spills, swills, and Jills. What could be better?
But Paul, a two pack of cigarettes a day man, died in his early fifties, leaving Jack a career, and a nervous mother. If everything went south for him, Jack could always turn a wrench for some shop or other.
Jack had suffered numerous broken bones and injuries in racing, but that wasn’t what killed him. Jack was returning home to Mill Valley in Marin County, California after visiting friends who had a house on Stinson Beach. Highway One, that snaked around skirting the coastal mountains there, was slow and treacherous with shoulders that often merely hinted at guard rails.
Jack, driving a red Corvette (is there any other kind?), and putting his usual gusto into fiercely negotiating the sharp hairpin turns while the land dropped a thousand feet steeply down to the ocean at his right, was struck by a rusty old Ford F-150 driven by a drunken Mexican at the apex of a blind corner perched above a precipice. Pedro had the good sense to follow Jack down the mountain side in righteous atonement for his sins as both vehicles rolled down the severe incline with such force of repeated collisions that both men could be said to be luckily unconscious or dead before they hit the rocks and water at the end.
Neither fellow had much time to reflect and sing the old hymn:
O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the works Thy hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!
Although Jack certainly cried out “OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD!” amidst the terror of tumbling, falling, and spinning, heOH MY GOD!” no doubt realized he was going to die while Pedro repeatedly screamed: “MADRE DE DIOS!”
Unconsciousness and death for Jack (screw Pedro) then manifested itself into a self-aware, numb sensation of being, and then slowly that of floating above the scene of his inert and wrecked body. He felt himself dissolving upward into darkness, and yes, toward a tunnel of light above while a sense of well-being suffused his consciousness (since he lacked a true body).
“This is nice, Death’s not so bad,” he told himself. “In fact, it’s beautiful! . . . and I’m not dead. I’m still alive! This is wonderful!”
Drawn up through a tunnel, he couldn’t wait to see what awaited him beyond it, when suddenly the panorama of light, the heavenly vision vanished and he found himself lying on the cold, dusty ground in the midst of a strange, gray cityscape.
A young man knelt by him shaking him lightly on the shoulders. “Jack! Jack! It’s so good to see you, son.”
The cobwebs clearing from his eyes, Jack looked up at the young man staring down at him. Who? . . . What? . . . Is that . . . Dad? . . . Dad!
“It’s me, Jack. It’s me, sure as shootin’.”
Jack started to sit up as Paul gave him a hand. He looked at the odd world about him, and saw himself sitting on the ground, mostly dirt in a sort of small park, nearly barren under a gray sky.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“Here, let me help you stand up,” his father said as he put a hand under his arm to pull Jack to his feet.
Jack slowly rose, stood on his feet, slowly turning this way and that to try and absorb his new and present circumstance.
“C’mon,” Paul said. “I’ll buy you a beer, and explain things to you.”
Paul led Jack across an oddly empty trafficless street where they strolled along a sidewalk with a series of blank gray walls intermittently interrupted with doors. Above street level, a building rose, more like a great gray towering concrete block, whose height Jack couldn’t guess and it strained his neck to crane up to look for the top of it.
After having ambled half a block, Paul stopped at a door, opened it and ushered Jack inside.
It was a dim tavern with a long bar with many customers similar to Paul in size, shape, age, and color.
The crowd amidst the haze of smoke looked at the newcomers and in one voice shouted, “Paul!” as they held up their glasses and bowed their heads in their direction.
“Hey, everybody! I want you to meet my son, Jack. Just arrived.”
A scattered chorus of ”welcomes”, “hellos”, “how are yous” and such were thrown in their direction.
Jack looked about in disorientation and mystery at the fellows, (no women), who all seemed to be decent sorts, open and friendly, of good spirit. A crowd he was used to being among. So far, things seemed to be okay.
It was a small tavern with little tables lined against the far wall away from the bar where men sat on stools or stood.
“Two beers, Charlie,” Paul yelled as he drew Jack to a corner table and they sat down across from each other.
“How’s your mother?” Paul asked while waiting for Charlie to pull the tap and serve them.
Jack was looking away surveying the room and people.
“Huh? Oh, Mom. She’s fine I guess. I mean I suppose she’s pretty upset about things now that I’m . . . well, what the hell am I now anyway?” he said staring intently into his father’s eyes. His young father who looked a lot like him – this was weird.
The barkeep, Charlie appeared. He wore a thin smile, not pleasant, not unpleasant. Paul drew a pair of small red disks from his pocket and paid him. Charlie walked off.
Paul grasped his beer, lifted it and told Jack, “Try it.”
Jack obeyed and took hold of the tall glass, felt it wasn’t cold, and grimaced as he lifted it to his mouth to sip while Paul took a large gulp of his.
On first taste of the tepid brew, Jack almost spit it out. It was weak, almost tasteless, worse than the standard brands of the large commercial breweries he and friends called thin piss. Having become used to the rich, thick, hoppy flavors of boutique micro-breweries, this didn’t even qualify as being in the family of beer.
Paul studied Jack, and almost laughed. “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it. There is some alcohol in it.”
“So, Dad, tell me. What’s the story here?”
“Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but you’re in hell, son,” looking at him with sympathy and the certain resignation of a sad fact. He then hastened to add as the words began to strike home to Jack, “But it could be worse.”
A pall was cast on Jack’s features as the terrible magnitude of reality and his certain disbelief came over him.
“No, no. Hell is supposed to be . . .”
“. . . fire and brimstone? Demons, the Devil, torments of the damned?”
“Yeah. This,” he said looking around him, “is not so bad. Not great, but nobody’s screaming in pain.”
“So it seems,” Paul agreed. “Just bad beer, dull surroundings, kind of dull people, too.”
“So what’s the deal?” Jack asked, this time pleading.
Paul’s face was turned, looking distantly. He spoke distractedly, looking away, “You know, it’s a funny thing, but one of the few sensations that remains is that of taste. The pleasure of taste, and the memory of delicious things to eat and drink. We get that now and then. If you save up enough, you might get a good meal or a beer from time to time.” And then he barked a laugh. “You can even have sex if you want. You have to buy it, too. The women (or men) never just give it out of friendship, loneliness, or love. It’s there for the asking, but, “ Paul sighed, “take it from me, it’s not worth it. Never feels good. No relief. Not a bit. It’s like going through some weird motion you used to know that gave you some pleasure, except now without any pleasure. And no woman ever gets pregnant . . . but anyway, save your money long enough and you can have a good beer and a tasty meal. It’s not entirely bleak, ya know.”
“No, I don’t know, but it sounds terrible. And what’s this about money. What work and where do we live?”
“Yeah, that,” Paul replied, stroking his chin and pausing.
“Where’s the beer and food come from? Do we work at creating that?”
“I don’t know where it comes from. It just does. I mean, somebody is growing it, producing it, sure, but where that is, I couldn’t tell you.”
“Well, do we have to eat and drink? I mean, we’re dead, aren’t we. Doesn’t that mean something? Like we’re spirits or something?”
“Oh, I s’pose. Never really thought about it. I just get a hungry or thirsty sort of feeling. Makes sense to give in to it, right?”
“Geez, Dad, are you all right? Is that you there? I mean, for Pete’s sake, you don’t really seem like yourself?”
“Oh, don’t let that bother you, son. Eventually we all get a little tried, a little resigned to the situation. What can you do? You can’t fight City Hall. As I said, things could be worse.”
“One hears stories. There are levels, and people go down a bit from time to time. Never up as far as I know. Like I should warn you about violence. Get mad and attack someone and that will get you sent down. A different block. Not so nice. Fortunately, I’ve never been too angry about things. Like here, this bar, me and the boys, we’re all of a kind, birds of a feather, ya know? No quarrels, no worries.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“What the section boss tells me. It varies. It’s all menial, though. Making clothes, shoes, linen, beds, furniture, some kinds of gadgets, maintenance work. Gotta keep the elevators running and such.”
“How many floors are there to this block?”
“This place is ten thousand feet tall?”
“Naw. Just five thousand. Our rooms aren’t very high. You can’t stand in them. Well, why should we when we only use them for sleeping? I’m going to have to go up pretty soon. My bed will be vacant in a while. We use it in three shifts, which is efficient when you think about it.”
“Geez, Dad, this is awful.”
“Well, it ain’t no bed of roses for sure, but it could be worse.”
“Think about it, son. Maybe you and I aren’t the worst people there ever was, and if this is what we get for all our trouble . . . think about it.”
“How long have you been here, Dad?”
“That’s hard to say. How old are you? Or were?”
“And I left home,” Paul winced, “that’s what we call it, when you were what?”
“Seven years? Oh, it hasn’t been as long as that, I think, but then, who knows. Time, days, there’s no keeping track.” Paul finished his beer in one long last swallow, feeble threads of dingy foam clung to the heavy, dull and scratched glass as he set it down.
“Well, I’ve got to go up to my bunk,” he told Jack as he stood up.”
Jack looked up in dismay. “What about me? What do I do? Where do I go?”
“I’ll turn you over to the section boss. He’ll get you set up.”
Jack stared at his father, his young father, which was weird but okay, too.
“I don’t know. I think I want to get out of here.”
“Just start walking and see where that gets me. Is there anything, anyone to stop me?”
“I don’t suppose so.”
“And I don’t need to eat or drink so I don’t need any of the money to get it, right?”
“No, I don’t suppose so about that either.”
“Well, Dad, I’m a fighter. I can’t just lay down and take this, this hell like others do, maybe.”
“That’s fine, son. Do what you think best. But as I said, I’ve got to go. If you ever get tired of walking around, you can just pop in one of the doors on the street and ask to get set up. I wandered a few blocks in my time. That’s how it goes. There’s always work to be had. So, if that’s that, let’s shake hands. It’s easy to lose direction here, so we might not see each other if you go off.”
Jack hastily stood to grasp his father’s outstretched hand.
“It was good to see you, Dad.”
“You too, son. I wish you luck.”
“You, too. Wish we could work on some cars and do some racing, don’t you?”
“Can’t think about those things. Just makes one feel sad.”
“Okay, well then, take care,” he said and Paul turned away to go to the back of the room through an interior door that must have led to the elevators that would take him up to his bunk. Jack figured he had to go out the door to the street and start off on his journey.
It doesn’t matter how long it takes, he told himself. There were only so many people ever born. Things were finite. People, anyway. At some point, you had to come to the end of them being cooped up in these great gray blocks.
And if there was food, somebody had to be growing it. There had to be open land, right? Range for livestock, fields for crops. Something. It couldn’t all be housed in these dull square blocks. Right? He plaintively asked himself.
He steeled himself for his quest, hopeless, perhaps, and took steps toward the door, opened it, crossed the threshold, and then stood outside on the street in a dull blue denim shirt and trousers and cheap canvas shoes, clothes like all the others had worn that he’d seen thus far.
He looked at the sky to see if there was a sun to orient himself by, but it was a gray haze. He figured he should pick a direction and start walking, and so he did. He turned to his right and began walking, slowly at first like one absorbed in thought, absorbed in defeat, perhaps, but soon realized that the way to go was with some energy and briskness. Not exactly striding, but moving with purpose as if having to meet an appointment he had time to get to but only if he didn’t dawdle.
So much to think about, he told himself. That should keep his mind occupied, he thought, but Jack was no great thinker of any kind. He was a man of action with competence in machinery, joshing the fellows, fiercely competing, and talking to the ladies with the right amount of interest and indifference to them.
But he understood the nature of mindless repetition. That was how one trained, especially after injury and needing rehab. He knew the treadmill and standing bicycle well. You get on and start walking or pedaling while listening to music mindlessly.
There wasn’t any music, though. He didn’t realize that. He didn’t realize it to the point that it didn’t occur to him to conjure up a song or soundtrack from the past to accompany his stroll. In fact, he couldn’t try. Even if he’d tried to sing a simple do re mi, it would have no more melody than saying ‘here’s your hat’. Music no longer existed.
Nor stories it seemed. When his father had asked about his mother, he could only think to say, fine, and not tell him anything about what she was like after his death, what she did with herself or anything. It just didn’t come to mind to say more.
It’s possible to say that the information Paul passed on to Jack constituted something of a story, but certainly not a purposeful narrative. Yet, Jack couldn’t even shrug his shoulders and say, whatever. He was alive, he had a drive, he had desires, a purpose of sorts, but was under a kind of fog when it came to discursive reasoning and abstract thinking, especially not having been particularly acquainted with such mentation before.
So he strolled on and on past the great ugly blocks until he felt a need to sleep.
What now? he thought looking around.
There was only the street and the wall of the nearest gray building. He had noticed on his journey thus far that there were small little weedy and dirty lots, hard to call them parks, at crossroads occasionally. He kept walking until he came to one.
“I’ll just sleep there,” he said aloud. He hadn’t seen anyone on his walk thus far thus doubting he’d be troubled or molested. Besides, he could take care of himself, but how to mark out the direction of travel he’d been on? Ah, he scratched out an arrow in the hard packed dirt and lay down there, soon falling asleep.
Then he awoke with a sense of thirst and hunger, but without a dry mouth or grumbling stomach, just a sense he’d like something to eat and drink. Nor had he any bathroom functions to perform. Odd that, he thought.
The light of the day, the sky, was no different than the day before, but at least his arrow mark remained, so he renewed his journey. And that was no different than the day before along a seemingly endless procession of great towering gray blocks.
After a week (as far as he could tell) of procession in this manner, he noticed that his shoes had wear on them. He considered what he might do if they wore out. Go barefoot? Why not? It’s not like I get hot or cold. Will I get calloused? We’ll see.
His shoes wore out, but his feet did not. They got sore, though, until they became tougher.
Jack kept going. He was dogged. He walked in a straight line, he swore, yet the foreground, a narrowing aperture of the street, a vanishing point with its overshadowing, looming towers never diminished in appearance.
If it was disheartening, Jack hardly noticed. He just kept on. Thinking about an endless futility to his quest would doom him, he knew, so he refused to think about it and set his mind on autopilot. He was a robot, he knew, but that was fine as long as he thought there was an ends to his means. But he had to put aside the thought of an end, too, or he might become frustrated. He just let the idea of an end sit far in the back of his consciousness. That was all he had to do, he figured when he figured at all.
Yet, one day (although it’s foolish to say ‘one day’ when no day is different) or rather this day as Jack was walking along the street, one of the doors that intermittently faced the walkway flew open close to him and out wafted a billow of air from inside that stopped him dead.
So many rich scents, especially that of fried onions and garlic, a tomato sauce. What else? Bread! Fresh baked bread! Was that a sizzling steak, too? It must be.
Just as the door had suddenly opened, a man’s arm reached out to pull it closed.
“Wait!” Jack cried.
The man stopped, and Jack quickly sprang inside.
The man, a waiter it looked like, studied Jack for a moment. “What do you want?”
“I want some food,” he cried aloud. The smells had aroused in Jack the keenest longing and desire.
“Do you have any money?” the fellow asked him.
“No!” he wailed at the sudden realization. “I have nothing.”
“Well, come back when you have some money,” the man evenly replied.
Jack was crestfallen. “I need a job. I need to be set up,” he added remembering the terms Paul had used. “Is there a boss?” he asked tentatively, hopefully.
“Sure, follow me.” The waiter turned and Jack followed him to a small room with a dozen tiny tables where five people, three men and two women each sat alone, dressed in utilitarian garb not dissimilar from his own. Jack’s nose perked up at the increased richness of delicious odors as he walked through the room to the back towards the kitchen where the smells rose in concentration to a heady infusion of this one sense. He ached, yearned to taste that great melange of spice, meats, and aromatics. Oh, for a steak and onions, spaghetti and meatballs, a bowl of scampi, or heaven of heaven, a broiled lobster with butter!
The waiter led Jack into the kitchen, introduced him to the section boss, turned and went back to the small dining room.
“Lots of people want to work here,” the boss told him. “I’ll set you up on the block and put you in rotation. You start at dishwasher, work up to waiter, then a cook. That’s the plum job. You get to taste the food, right?”
And so Jack was set up and began working in the great gray block, and every fifteen or twenty turns, he’d work in the kitchen washing dishes where he could smell the food which whetted his appetite and desire all the more.
He’d hoped, as dishes were bussed back to him at the sinks that some leftovers might appear, like the bone in a steak or a pork chop, but every bit of debris was swept off the dishes and utensils by the time he saw them. The plates were probably licked clean by the diners themselves. No bottle of wine or beer or its glass had any drops left in them.
He saved his money, continually converting the currency into higher denominations, yet the price of a fine meal seemed many years away if he could remember the passage of time. And that’s what happened to Jack. Time kept passing, huge tracts of it as though he could no longer recall much of anything about himself or life. If he had any imagination, he might recall a dog he once owned who was the most patient beast in the world. He would follow Jack around all night when he was home waiting for the time he’d get a snack, make himself dinner or a late night sandwich. The dog would lay close by and wait. Never whine, draw attention to himself, paw at him. Nothing. The dog would simply wait, and sure enough, he’d get a treat of some kind. That dog could wait all day and night for the delight of a morsel falling from his master’s hand.
That was Jack now. Working and waiting, working and waiting.
One day after his shift, he felt an urge to step out the front door to the street again. He crossed the dining room, and its few diners he eyed with envy as they quietly but facially expressed raptures of pleasure in their meals’ consumption.
Outside it was dull and gray, of course, but Jack felt a little surprised to find it exactly the same after all this time. Looking around he noticed a body lying in the small dirt square at the crossroad. It was enough to make him curious to go and look at the body, a male he saw as he came closer.
Once he stood over him, he felt a twinge of recognition of some kind, and knelt down to grasp the young man’s shoulders, perhaps to wake him.
The young man opened his eyes looking at the person kneeling over him.
“Who are you? Do I know you?” he asked Jack.
“I don’t think so, but I’m Jack. You look a little familiar, though.”
“I’m dead, aren’t I?”
“Jack, huh? Well, I think that makes you my father.”
“I never had any children.”
“Yeah, you did. My mom met you at a bar, you were with her for a week or so. She never saw you again.”
“That’s possible, sure. What’s your name?”
“Okay, Tom. Let me help you up, and I’ll buy you a beer.”
“Okay . . . Dad.”
“Fill you in on a few things, son.
“Yeah, this is pretty weird all right.”
“You get used to it,” Jack sighed as he steadied Tom by the arm and led him across the street.
Food for Thought
This story explores the idea that Hell may not be very awful to the not so awful sinner (unenlightened soul), to the extent that that they may not ever seek their freedom from it a severe, yet ordinary rut of routine.
This idea connects with a question among many Christians and others as to whether Hell is forever or has a merciful means of escape? There is the notion among some that God places people in the situations in which they’ll be happiest. Or what others suggest is “water finding it’s own level”. This corresponds to life in that few people are intent on knowing the Truth, and settle for lives they find satisfying or unchallenging because there is enough hope or pleasure to sustain them where they are.
About the Author
Mark Butterworth is a writer and composer residing in Sacramento, California with his wife, Alanna. Born in Rhode Island in 1952, his family hopscotched across the country through his first twenty years until it would go no further.
A father with an adult daughter, Mark has had a couple dozen different jobs from machinist to forest fire fighter to furniture maker gaining broad experience of use in writing plays, screenplays, novels, and short stories for forty years.
He likes playing Texas Hold ‘Em, and has been winning more than losing.
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