Spoofs & Satire

Soju Tao, Death, 2008. Courtesy the artist and Take Ninagawa, Tokyo

Incentivize Your Exciting New Death

You’ve died and gone to heaven. Well, unemployment is bad there, too. Sensitivity training, immigration snags, and the smell of bishops in paradise.

Of course you’re glad to be here; that’s the first thing you notice, even before you begin looking for work.

You can’t help feeling some smugness, and the only thing you wonder is: At whose expense? Because everyone is here; you can’t think of anyone who isn’t, except those obvious culprits who have “The Red” or “The Hun” or “Der Führer or “The Donald” in their names as a clue to their damnation.

You soon realize, as you begin to get your bearings, that in fact there are as many in the Other Place as here; their plaintive cries form a background chorus when the infernal breeze blows your way, like distant cats in heat. Still, you understand that what makes them cry out isn’t pain but outrage. Because everyone, the blessed and damned alike, feels entitled to the Garden of Delights. Most if not all of those sentenced to Hellfire have an appeal going, and lawyers, here as elsewhere, hold the field. What, turned down at Heaven? How racist/bigoted/unconstitutional/elitist/anti-me is that? “It won’t stand,” the tormented ones and their legal representatives protest, and very often, it doesn’t. The Supreme One is egalitarian to a fault, and you find that the person sitting next to you on the bus or handing you your dry cleaning is as likely to be a spouse-cheating senator or defaulting stockbroker recently freed from the Lake of Brimstone as he is a mahatma or saint.

Also contributing to the moral mix is the broken border. No comprehensive immigration policy is enforced with neighboring Hell, and an estimated 1,000 damned souls sneak each day through the porous Pearly Gates, which lack barbed wire, locks, cameras, or angelic surveillance of any kind. The border is simply an open invitation to eternal bliss, and you think, Maybe I should be a guard? Does someone expect me to be a guard? Is being a guard the right call? But then you get an unshakeable vibe that the Big Man just doesn’t care about the border. He only wants to be loved, security be damned.

If you’re like many, the next thing you notice, after you’ve confronted your good luck and heard the murmurs of the indignant shades and still haven’t found the right job, is the soundtrack. You’re not supposed to notice it, perhaps, but you do. You can’t help it. The unrelenting rock music by some angel band that sounds vaguely familiar but that you can’t name, with the loud guitar buzz and screaming vocals, is short of earsplitting by a good measure, but intrusive enough. Who needs that? Does it impart an extra portion of esprit? Not for you, and not, you suspect, for any number of others, who go on about their business as if they were deaf to it, or perhaps wishing they were. The best you can say for it is that it drowns out the protests of the lawyered-up souls, and probably that’s what it’s for. Still, you would like to say, “Turn that off, for Pete’s sake,” but there’s no one to say it to. Fortunately it’s not everywhere, and there are a few places like churches and pharmacies and tax offices and job fairs where you can hardly hear it, but in most spots that unrelenting thump-thump-thump is waiting for you. How heavenly is that? Maybe next you’ll see Jesus moonwalk. The only thing worse, you decide, is that all-pervading smell. What is it? An old woman’s cleavage? A bishop’s handkerchief? You decide you could do without that inescapable aroma, too. If you had employment, sniffing that all day sure wouldn’t help you do your work.

No comprehensive immigration policy is enforced with neighboring Hell, and an estimated 1,000 damned souls sneak each day through the porous Pearly Gates.

The next impression you incur as you pound the golden pavement, after your fleeting sense of good luck and the chorus of angry appellants and the music you’d rather not hear and that smell, is one—there’s no getting around it—of tedium. The greatest indicator of this is the unending thanks you feel required to offer up in your strained heart. Thank God I’m here, you think, and mean it, but you resolutely refuse to hold hands with those on the street who are forming circles and reciting prayers, or to unselfconsciously join in the impromptu choruses of “Hosanna, Hey-sanna, Hosanna, Hey,” or whatever the words to that Jesus Christ Superstar song are. You’re tired of that album already; in fact, you came to Heaven sick to death of it, having worn out the grooves on your vinyl version 50 years ago, and you’re ready for new praises, or just some blessed quiet. Maybe you can find work in a heavenly library?

But there are groups who won’t give up on the gladness idea. Like costumed cartoon characters at Disney World sent out among the hoi polloi to remind them that they are in an enchanted realm, cheerful motivators and greeters line the streets of precious metal exhorting all the dazed and glum passers-by, “Come on, people! This is Heaven! How about showing some cheer?” They do have a point, you have to concede, but how many times a day can you sing “I do know how to love Him” or sit on a cloud studded with roses and strum your harp to Bach’s Mass in B Minor? You think, It’s a tough job, getting these people to display their gratitude, especially the new arrivals, many of whom are completely befuddled and look as if they just crash-landed in an exploding airliner or woke up having a heart attack with no aspirin at hand. But it’s kind of dull and confusing here, and without some kind of motivational input from cheerful souls, everyone would just stare at the glittering ground and mumble weak and insincere thanks. Those already praying and singing look as if they’d rather be somewhere else, when you get close to them. Maybe you could be a motivator or greeter? It would give you a meaningful career. But what makes you think you’re qualified for that job? And what would the hours be?

At about this point you really do start to worry about where you fit in, what your career will be on the Isle of the Blessed. You don’t have to work, you understand, since jobs are scarce, just like where you came from, but here the unemployment benefits never end. Still, there’s the matter of an eternity of time on your hands. And you came here to find work, didn’t you? After all, there’s nowhere else to look.

Perhaps the tourism industry is an opportunity. Lots of folks like to tour the Lower Realm—not to gloat over the misfortunes of others, though it’s only natural to gloat a little—but to grab a bite to eat. Over by the border you can actually look down into Hell, and the first thing you notice there, if you’re at all literary, is that Dante had it wrong. You can see all the circles of Hell from High Avenue in Heaven, and it’s nothing but wall-to-wall gluttons. OK, Dante had it partly right. At Pluto’s Pancakes everyone waits for a table at least 30 minutes, and then suffers from acid reflux the minute the food arrives. The Evil One himself, Old Scratch, is this fat guy permanently wedged in a small booth at a restaurant called Circle Three, the table pinching him almost double at the stomach, shoving burgers two at a time down his rippling, red throat. You pride yourself on your thinness, and shudder at the average waistline in the Nether Regions. Doesn’t anyone go in for a good workout down there? Not by the look of things.

Life with Hell’s gourmands can’t be this bad, you think.

Well, if the tourism industry isn’t your dish, you can, believe it or not, work in an oil field. Energy is scarce everywhere in the universe, it seems, and in Heaven they’ve found an immense pool of sweet crude one mile down in Purgatory and are pumping it up. But who wants to get dirty and grow blisters in Heaven? A job scrubbing things down and eliminating that smell might be more to your liking, but who’s to say that wouldn’t also lead to epidermal damage?

Searching for inspiration, you make a date with your ex-girlfriend, who is so relieved to be where she is that she agrees to go out with you again. A former law student with no blemishes on her record that you know about except 19 parking tickets, a single DUI, and some minor shoplifting, she looked for work for all of two weeks before she landed a job prosecuting gluttons in the Legal Department, making sure that overeaters and the superrich get the punishment they deserve. She knows how to make herself useful and atone for her sins at the same time.

You take her out to Christmas City in a rented car, a new Chevy Malibu. Christmas City is decked out year-round for the holidays, and is about 20 minutes away on the freeway. If you’ve ever been to Santa Claus, Ind., you get the picture: colored electric lights, decorated trees, gift-wrapped boxes, smelly candles, and faux Amish fudge on every shelf. Your girl isn’t too pleased to see you, it turns out. No doubt she’d prefer someone with enough enthusiasm to match hers, which is considerable, not to say effervescent. She observes your glum expression, rolls her eyes, then orders two nectars-with-mead and imparts an idea.

“You know what your first job is in Heaven?” she asks.

You haven’t a clue.

“Get happy. I had to enroll in a week of sensitivity training when I first arrived. Sure, it was nice to find myself strolling in Gilded Park with the other elect when I got here, but a lot of those people are self-righteous and moralistic, and I was yawning in their faces. I needed to realize the extent of my good fortune. I’m damned lucky to be here, in fact. There are things in my past you don’t know about—awful, shady things that got overlooked or forgiven—but I wasn’t feeling all that saved. Some of us aren’t as sensitive as we need to be to the everlasting bliss around us, and need to wake up our sensibilities.”

So that’s the secret to tolerating this place, you think: Like your girlfriend, you have to take a special class. Probably those people you hear on the street corners, promoting the general gladness, were her classmates. And you thought all her jollies came just from frying gluttons.

You point to one of the Christmas City elves, some teen in a tight red suit giving cartoon humps to a young lady similarly clad. You imagine that both of them, inside their suits, are bored lifeless.

“Like that?” you say. “It’s not me.”

“It doesn’t have to be like that. I’ll show you. Right now your lack of sensitivity and happiness is like deafness. What you need is a hearing aid to boost your joy.” She grabs your head with both hands, leans across the table and screams into your ear, “LIKE THIS!”

Life with Hell’s gourmands can’t be this bad, you think—you’re pretty sure that, with the right connection there, you can make a killing selling Girl Scout cookies—and you plot your escape.