While in lockdown for the coronavirus, I know that many of us are looking for some free entertainment these days–or at least some distraction. So I wrote a short story in case you could use a bit of diversion in your day. Writing it was a nice, creative distraction for me too.
You may have heard of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a famous 18th century sermon by Jonathan Edwards. I know I read it multiple times over the years in English class because it’s supposed to be a great example of different rhetorical devices. The title of this story is inspired by that sermon, but the content is entirely different. Let me just say as a disclaimer that this is not meant to be any sort of literal theological declaration on my part. It’s just a story. Have fun.
I suck at this job. I don’t think I’ve been at it for very long—couldn’t tell you when exactly I started—but I can tell you this: I fully suck.
It’s not that it’s that hard, mechanically speaking. All you have to do is press these three little levers, and any Jim-Bob or Joe could do that. The setup’s pretty sweet, too. They’ve got me in this chair that looks like solid gold, but feels nice and soft on the tush, and there are no walls, so I can look around and see everyone floating up and down and sideways and diagonally while they do their things. Bitchin’. I never thought I’d dig an office job, but it doesn’t really feel like an office when you’re out here dangling.
No, the reason I suck at this job is I can’t make up my mind. Used to be I couldn’t even decide between Burger King and Wienerschnitzel for lunch. Usually I’d end up moseying down to Wienerschnitzel because of that cute pointy roof. It was sort of homey, no? I didn’t really know how else to pick. But now I’m responsible for choosing where people end up for eternity. Like, whoa.
This isn’t my normal job. I’m just filling in for Clotilda, who’s a saint, so she’s like, way qualified. Guess she’s off at some special saints and martyrs meeting. I floated by one of their meetings once—absolute respect, but those dudes are intense. A lot of singing and wailing for my taste. A lot of use of the word “scourge.” Anywho, they pulled me off cloud duty to sit in for Clotilda today. Cloud gardening sounds way sicker than it is. You use these golden paddles and shears and stuff to shape up the clouds. At first I thought it was the bomb. Working outside all day, catching some rays, shaping the literal clouds. I even went the extra mile and tried all sorts of fancy shapes, making poodles and palm trees and stuff. One time I made a cloud that looked like my local Wienerschnitzel. But no one really noticed. People up here are pretty busy, what with managing the universe and souls and shit, and people down on Earth didn’t notice either. No one really looks up, you know what I’m saying? Everybody’s always looking ahead. So after a while I stopped trying, and I’ve just been doing the bare minimum for years now. At least, I think it’s years. We don’t really do “years” here. I croaked in ’85, and it’s starting to feel like it’s been a while.
Oh, shit. Here comes Mortimer.
I better get busy. There’s a stockpile of balls waiting in the chute in front of me. I press the white button, and the bottom ball falls into the tray, with the name “Yves Thibault” on it. When I pick it up, this dude Yves’ whole life just washes over me at once like a monster wave. Looks like Yves was kind of like most people: some good, some bad. He cheated on his college girlfriend, he lied about his expenses at work, he drank major wine, even for a Frenchie. But he was also a pretty bodacious granddad, and he designed city parks that a lot of people enjoy. I look over the three levers: red, yellow, and green. I press the yellow one in the middle, and Yves’ ball tumbles down the track for purgatory. Au revoir, my dude.
I smile at Mortimer, expecting him to be impressed that I’m working, but instead he zooms over faster, waving his little chubby hands. Mortimer looks like a walrus working undercover as a librarian.
“Stop, stop!” he cries. “You can’t keep doing that!”
“I’m doing what you told me to. I’m pressing the levers and deciding where people go.”
“You’re doing it wrong, Todd,” he insists, panting. Not sure how you can pant when we don’t technically breathe up here, but Mort makes it happen. “Of the last one hundred souls you’ve assigned, you’ve sent seventy-eight to purgatory.”
“The average rate is 2.73%, not seventy-eight! Purgatory is for special cases!”
“I thought purgatory was for anyone who’s not a definite heaven or hell.”
“No, no, no.” Mortimer shakes his head. “It’s not that simple. It is for those who perish in grace, but require further purification, from the cleansing fire, or perhaps through the prayers and intercessions of the living.”
I’m frowning now. “But wait, isn’t it also for like babies who die, and people in jungles who’ve never heard the gospel, and stuff?”
“It is—well, it’s not—I mean, one could say—I’m not here to teach you about purgatory!” Mortimer splutters. He steadies himself, breathing in and drawing his squat little body up tall. “The point is, it is not a catch-all. Your function here is to pass judgment: heaven or hell.”
“See, that’s the thing, Mort.” I swivel toward him on my gold chair. “I don’t know how to do that. Most people aren’t good enough to go to heaven or bad enough to go to hell. They’re somewhere in between.”
“It is not just a question of good or bad, Todd. It has more to do with intention and faith, an accumulation of life choices as an expression of will, a desire to move toward or away from God—” I must be staring at him sort of blankly because he sighs and closes his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I never have this problem with Clotilda. Clotilda grasps nuance.”
“Then wait for Clotilda to get back.”
“I can’t. The business of souls never stops. Souls cannot linger untended in space, another fact which you yet fail to comprehend—”
I’m generally a fairly chill guy, but even I am starting to un-chill. I press the button and the red lever a bunch of times in a row until Mort finally stops talking. He gasps. “You just sent six souls to hell!”
“Isn’t that what you want?”
“I want you to make equitable decisions, not just wash everyone into purgatory because you don’t care to examine the situation more deeply.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, man. If we’re being honest, this sounds like some pretty heavy stuff, even for Clotilda. Passing judgment on souls. I can’t make that kind of decision. Isn’t this a job for the Big Kahuna?”
“The Lord,” Mortimer says pointedly, “gave you a sense of judgment. It’s your job to use it.” He starts to fly away, then turns back. “Until Clotilda gets back.” Then he peaces out.
Now it’s my turn to sigh. I think something about asshole angels, but I don’t say it out loud. I just swivel back to the switchboard and summon the next ball. Agnes Trumbo. I can’t really decide what to do with this chick, so to be safe, I send her to heaven. Hope she doesn’t get up here and start acting a fool.
Yeah: I suck at this job. I don’t know why they pulled me in for the day. Honestly, I don’t even get why I’m up here at all. My life was nothing to write home about. I figure it’s because my death was pretty heinous, so I got to come to heaven as some kind of compensation, like a pity thing. Not that most people have some sweet death, but I was young when mine happened, and the whole deal was pretty bogus.
I had just gotten hired a couple weeks prior at Vic’s Chicken Fryers. Vic always wore these double-breasted pea green suits, and he smelled like cheap cigars. I had asked him when I started why he called the place “Vic’s Chicken Fryers.” Couldn’t you fry other things in them? Wouldn’t you sell more if people thought they could use the fryers for more stuff? He kind of grimaced and said this proved how little I knew about chicken fryers. “You’ll never get a floor sales job knowing so little about chicken fryers.” I asked how I was supposed to learn about the fryers if I wasn’t working the floor. Vic looked at me real hard and said “Welcome to capitalism, son.”
So I stuck to what I had been hired to do: being a human billboard. Not that I was stellar at that either, but like, who is? At least standing outside the shop, holding a sign, was better than some of the other gigs I’d had. I used to change jobs a lot back in the day. Never really knew what I wanted to do or be. My old man would say I’d never get anywhere on the road of life if I kept stopping off at life’s gas stations to shit. Wonder if I would’ve ever proved him wrong. You know, if I’d lived. But hey, working for Vic, I got to chill outside, blast some Beastie Boys on the cassette, snag some midday Wienerschnitzel, and check out any babes walking past me on the sidewalk to the beach, then head there myself at the end of the day to catch some waves. It would’ve been a pretty wicked gig if it weren’t for Vic riding me all the time.
I don’t know what he thought would happen when he paid a beach bro four dineros an hour to hold up a sign outside his shop. Like, some magic explosion of business? Everyone and his aunt would suddenly need a chicken fryer? He kept coming outside to check on me, and he’d run over like “No, no, don’t just stand there, Todd, wave the sign, spin it! Get people’s attention! Make them excited about chicken fryers!” So I’d start spinning that sign like it was Dorothy Hamill, but people still weren’t getting jazzed about chicken fryers. Vic would groan every time he walked out of the store and saw me, or when he drove past me into the parking lot in his big old creaky land-boat of a Camaro. It was bright mint green, with little rust spots around the wheelbeds, and one of the side mirrors was broken clean off, but he was too cheap to fix it.
He slowed and cranked the window down on his way into the parking lot. “Do you know how much I paid for that sign?” he yelled at me.
I looked at the sign, which said Fried Chicken 2nite!!!! Some of the letters were already peeling off. Looked kind of lame, honestly. “I don’t know. Three bucks?”
“Three bucks? That there’s a buck fifty per letter, son! You carry that sign high!”
I frowned, looking at the sign. “Is that why you didn’t spell out ‘tonight?’ They charged you by the letter?”
“Exactly. Now you’re finally using your noodle.”
“But you could’ve just used fewer exclamation points instead.”
Old Vic didn’t like that. He groaned so loud I could hear it over his big-ass rattly engine. “This is why you’ll never be a local entrepreneur,” he shouted, and drove past me into the parking lot.
Things went on like this for a few weeks, by which point I was getting ready to bounce. All that sun gets pretty hot with no waves to cool you off. And Vic was making me feel real low, like I wouldn’t ever amount to anything in my whole life. Well, turned out he was right.
There I was, giving the old sign a wiggle, when Vic pulled out in that nasty green Camaro. He stuck his head straight out the window at me. “Get into the road!” he yelled.
“No one’s noticing you at all. You have to get off the sidewalk and stand in the road.”
“Dude, I can’t just stand in the road.”
“The side of the road. Don’t be chicken. How do you think empires are built?”
So I took my sign out into the street and waved it around a little, looking back at Vic to see if he was satisfied. “More! Go on, don’t just stand there!”
I danced a little, hopping from foot to foot, but I felt totally lame. Cars kept honking, and I had to jump out of their way. “Everyone’s gonna have to swerve to get around me,” I cried back to Vic.
“Good. That means they’re noticing you.” And he cranked his window up and started pulling back out. I looked away from him back to the street just in time to see it: a big red truck, right on top of me.
“Shit!” I jumped back out of the road, the truck horn blasting enough to split my eardrums. There was a weird second there where everything was kind of, like, suspended, like I didn’t know where I was or how much time was going by or what was happening. But then I came to and looked down and my body was there under my neck, just like it’s supposed to be, and I kind of thought “Huh. I could have died.” I started to feel this mega rush of relief. Hadn’t even knocked a single exclamation point off the stupid sign.
But then something blasted into me from behind, like a wall of water taking me over. It was the nose of that green Camaro. Maybe Vic hadn’t seen me move, what with his missing mirror and all. I caught one look at his surprised face through the window before I was pushed into traffic and, well, you get it. Presto. Here I am.
So yeah. Raw deal, if you ask me. Not that I was doing anything much special with my life. But it would’ve been nice to have more of a chance to try, you know?
I start noodling over this as I get back to the balls. Bao Chin: 86. Started a successful grocery store chain and had twelve grandkids. Heaven. Adankwo Oni: 74. Became a beloved minister and traveled to ten countries. Heaven. Wallace Pine: 82. Robbed three banks and never got caught. Lived in a mansion. Hell. Cliff Thomas: 79. Big-name comedian who made racy jokes, but made a lot of people laugh. Oh, what the hell? Heaven.
I’m getting faster and faster, the balls rattling down the chutes with this satisfying wood sound. I’m being decisive. Okay, maybe a little reckless. Okay, maybe even a little pissed. All these people got long, full, happy lives. Whether they used it for bad or for good, they had a chance to really do something with their time. Why didn’t I? I’m a nothing. A blip. I’m not even supposed to be doing this job now; Mort would rather have Clotilda here than me. I’m supposed to be off messing with the clouds, which will just get out of shape again before anyone ever stops to see what I’ve done. I’m just the gardener, sitting in this throne for a saint.
I kind of got sucked into my thoughts there, but I get sucked back out real quick when I see the next ball. Vic Snobbergrass. How many Vic Snobbergrass’s can there be? I hesitate to pick the ball up, taking my time. But when my fingers touch the surface, I know right away that this is my guy. Old Vic, from Vic’s Chicken Fryers. The very same dude.
A bunch of things wash over me at once:
Vic as a little kid, his old man yelling at him.
Vic at twenty, turning over the savings from every job he’d worked to buy that green Camaro.
Vic waiting at a diner for a date who never shows.
Vic working in an office late at night while all his coworkers leave to get drinks without him.
Vic painting the first sign for Vic’s Chicken Fryers by hand.
Vic moving into a nice big house in the suburbs.
Vic in that house alone, watching commercials on the TV.
Vic stepping out of his car and standing over my dead body in the road, his face white as sand.
Vic selling the green Camaro, packing up, and moving to Maine.
Vic visiting his little old ma in a nursing home.
Vic working in the nursing home cafeteria, making fried chicken for all the gals and geezers.
Vic meeting a blonde chick who’d come to visit her dad. Vic smiling at her.
Vic running the nursing home now, giving bonuses to his employees.
Vic at home with the blonde chick, who’s more white-haired than blonde now, snuggling together on the couch to watch TV.
I take a second to let all that sink in. First of all, shit, I really had been dead a long time. Secondly… whoa. My dude Vic. Who knew? Maybe things turned out better for him than I would’ve guessed. And maybe, just maybe, I had something to do with that.
I think a second longer. Then I press the green lever.
I’m back on cloud duty now. Guess Clotilda finished singing “Happy Birthday” to the pope, or whatever the heck. At first, it felt a little like a letdown, I shit you not. The clouds seemed like kind of small potatoes after ball duty. For a while there, judging souls, I was really doing things.
But hey, I look at it this way. There’s a lot going down that I don’t know about. Maybe someone will look up and see my cloud when I’m not looking, or my cloud will get spotted by someone who’s like, way far away.
So I decide to try some shapes again. At first I make a ginormous cloud dick. It’s freakin’ awesome, but I don’t want to get caught, so I shape it into a hot dog instead, like my old fave, Wienerschnitzel. A cloud shaped like a hot dog. I float back a little and check out my handiwork and grin. Hey, it’s silly, but it’s got to make someone smile, right?