Photo Credit: Alberto Romero
Hal McHugh walked into the crowded, dingy waiting area and scratched his head. The last things he remembered were the antiseptic hospital smell, the masked faces of the doctors and some shots that had made him feel funny and fall asleep. Then a prolonged, annoying electronic beep had announced with apparent glee the permanent cessation of his vital functions. He’d done what they’d said and gone toward the light, but he hadn’t expected to wind up here, in this poorly lit place with a bunch of bored-looking people and no available chairs.
Had he died and gone to the DMV?
“Take a number, please,” said a frumpy woman sitting behind a window.
She slid a small slip of paper into the little metal tray beneath the slot at the bottom of her window. Hal picked it up. He was number 10,491,602. Glancing up at the large digital display on the wall, he saw that they were only currently on 533,754.
“Great,” he groaned. “Just my luck.”
He looked around for a sign indicating where the restrooms were, figuring he could kill some time that way, but didn’t see one. Then he realized that having relinquished his physical body, he wouldn’t need things like restrooms anymore. And if he didn’t need restrooms anymore, what else didn’t he need? This line of thought led him down a long, circular path of speculation that took up some time. A little while later somebody got up and he took their chair, so he was able to close his eyes and nap for a while. Napping—or rather, trying to—took a good bit of time as well, seeing how there were so many people shuffling about and arguing and asking one another for cigarettes and whining about being dead.
At last he stood up and began to wander the room again, contemplating his situation. He determined that although it was highly disagreeable, death at fifty-eight wasn’t the worst thing in the world that could happen. He’d had a respectable (albeit much-hated) mid-level management job for the past thirty years, a four-bedroom house in a good neighborhood and a wife who still wasn’t half bad to look at, even if she was hardly fit to boil water in the kitchen. His kids hadn’t wound up as cult members or with their faces on any America’s Most Wanted billboards, so he felt it safe to assume that his parenting had been equally satisfactory. His life hadn’t been the least bit exceptional, but he supposed that he’d gotten as much out of it as possible for someone who’d never sought even the shadow of remarkability. He might have lived another ten or fifteen years at most, had those clowns not botched his heart surgery.
After no certain amount of time spent wandering the room, sitting and standing again, striking up (and instantly regretting) conversations with the people in his immediate proximity, and examining water stains on the ceiling and walls with the closest to thing to scientific interest of which he was capable, Hal’s number was called. The woman behind the window pointed to a door, which he hurried through with the urgency of a man whose pants are on fire. Beyond the door was a colossal warehouse full of desks and ringing phones. He wandered down an endless cubicle corridor, overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the place.
“Mr. McHugh?” someone said.
Hal looked to the left and saw a pudgy, red-faced man in a tweed suit that perfectly fit his ideal of an IRS auditor. The man’s smile was so wide and artificial that Hal half-wondered if he were about to hear a sales pitch for a timeshare in Pensacola.
“That’s me,” said Hal.
“Name’s Dwight Strickland,” the man said, holding out a hand. “I’m your eternity officer. Wonderful to finally meet you in person.”
“Eternity officer?” asked Hal, shaking hands with him.
“I’m like a loan officer,” said Strickland. “Except this relationship really lasts forever!”
“I see,” said Hal. “So what is this place, anyway?”
“Sort of a stopover en route to your final destination, wherever that might be,” said Strickland. “Not quite what you were expecting, I take it?”
“Well, I’m not sure I—”
“Excuse me just a moment,” said Strickland, whose phone had begun to ring. He picked up and listened to whoever was on the other end with much intensity. There were a few uh-huhs and hmms and head nods. Then he thanked the caller and hung up. “Bosses!” he sighed, with an eye roll and a dramatic toss of the hands. “Just because we’re all dead doesn’t mean they’re any less demanding.”
“You have a boss?”
“We all have bosses. You might’ve heard of mine—Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, Satan, etcetera. Some of your former associates have dealings with him on quite a regular basis.”
“What?” said Hal, blinking. “Like who?”
“Stan Ridgemore, who sold you your boat, for example. Fran Wyzinski, your old boss, and Dennis Neidermeyer.”
“My accountant was colluding with the devil?”
“We try to avoid terms like collusion here,” said Strickland. “Heaven, hell, purgatory, all it really boils down to in the end is business… and a slight temperature difference. Anyway, let’s get down to it.”
“To what, exactly?”
Strickland looked at Hal as if he were an escaped mental patient. “Your debt, of course,” he said. “Got to calculate what you still owe.” He took a big calculator from a drawer in his desk and began punching in numbers. “First of all, you were still sixteen years away from paying off that second mortgage you took out on the house.”
“That sounds like a lot.”
“Perhaps, but you really needed the money at the time. Remember how Holly just had to go to that fancy New England school with lots of big oak trees around? What you’d ‘put away’ for college barely covered her first year of tuition. Then she had to join a sorority, have a monthly allowance and get an apartment all by herself.”
“Fine, I get it,” said Hal. “Just tell me what the bill is.”
“Shortly,” said Strickland. He continued calculating. “There’s also the credit card debt, of which you still have over $48,000, not counting future interest. They’ve bumped up your rate three percent while you’ve been here, by the way.”
“Three percent already! How is that possible?”
“You’d never know, but you’ve already been dead for over a year,” said Strickland. “Sense of timing differs for the dearly departed.” He punched in more numbers. “Next we have the car.”
“But I’ve had my car since 1996!” Hal protested. “And Linda only got the Subaru because her Saab’s transmission was shot. That’s been paid off for years!”
“Not your cars,” said Strickland. “You co-signed on the purchase of Kenny’s Mercedes. Remember how he insisted on five-hundred horses under the hood and an all-leather interior being essential for what he so aptly referred to as ‘networking’? Well it turns out that Daddy’s little C-student wasn’t quite the entrepreneur one might’ve hoped for. As a result, the last several payments have been missed.”
“What else?” asked Hal, groaning.
“You owe the hospital for your heart surgery. Big time.”
“Oh no, that must be a mistake,” said Hal, holding up his hands. “I had excellent health coverage.”
“You are aware, of course, that your insurance company only covers sixty percent of the cost of successful operations?”
“But I died!” Hal protested. “I shouldn’t have to pay a single dime for that operation. If I were still alive I’d be dragging those incompetent jackasses to court right now!”
“Sound logic on your part, but here’s the kicker: if you were still living, you would have only been accountable for a forty-percent deductible, or approximately $37,600 for the operation. But because you died the insurance company pays nothing, making you liable for the entire cost.”
“That makes no sense!”
“Guess you’d better read the fine print next time,” said Strickland. “Now let’s see, where were we?” Hal put his hands over his face, the infernal clack-clack-clacking of the calculator knocking around inside his skull like marbles rolling around in a wooden box. “Now, with the new roof, remodeling of the kitchen, landscaping in the front yard, last year’s taxes, gas, electricity and dry-cleaning bills, we wind up with a grand total of $702,853.47.”
“Now hold on a second,” said Hal. “I also have a million-dollar life insurance policy. Haven’t you factored that in?”
“Correction,” said Strickland. “You had a million-dollar life insurance policy.”
“What happened to it?”
“Your wife threw a wonderful post-funeral party catered by Chez Hubert and picked out a reeeeeeally nice casket for you too. Macassar ebony and platinum with an incredibly comfortable satin interior. Top of the line, really. Almost makes you want to die all over again!”
“But the whole amount couldn’t possibly have gone to my burial, could it?”
“Oh no, of course not!” said Strickland, chuckling. “Linda went shopping on Rodeo Drive, got some plastic surgery and bought a beach house down in St. Thomas. She’s getting a foot massage right now from the cabana boy she picked up earlier.”
“Why would Linda think she needed work done?” Hal asked.
“Who knows,” said Strickland. “TV, magazines, marketing… but I tell you, she’s never looked better!”
“So now what?”
“Now we put you to work until you’ve paid off your remaining balance. Keep in mind, however, that you’ll be earning considerably less than you were at the time of your death.”
“We subtract what you would have normally spent on food, which for you was a considerable chunk of your paycheck,” said Strickland, standing. “Now I’ll show you to your desk. Come with me, if you would.”
Hal followed him down the corridor for what seemed like several miles. After an uncertain number of turns, they arrived at an empty cubicle. On the desk was a rotary phone, a pen, an ancient typewriter and a yellow notepad. Strickland snapped his fingers. A huge metal cart overloaded with files came rolling their way. He stopped it with his foot.
“You’ll be reviewing these reports, and then reporting on what you’ve reviewed,” he said. “All you have to do is read through each file, type up a recap of the contents and place what you’ve typed into a new file.”
“Sounds pointless and dull,” said Hal.
“This job calls for a very particular skill set. Thirty years of mid-level management made you the perfect candidate.”
“So how long will I be here, then?”
“Shouldn’t be longer than fifteen or twenty years,” said Strickland. “About the time you would have retired anyway, if you’d made it that long. Then it’s on to good old ‘Rest in Peace’.” He looked at his watch. “Wow, getting to be that time. Enough witty banter for one day. I’ll let you get to it then. Good luck!”
Strickland spun on his heel and took off in the direction from which they’d come. Hal watched him disappear around the corner. Then he picked up one of the files, sat at his desk and began to read through.
Erin Charvet is an Atlanta native who studied journalism and psychology at Georgia State University. She’s been writing poems and stories ever since she can remember, and hopes to continue for as long as possible. She comes from a large family with whom she is very close, and currently lives in Paris with her husband. Email: erincharvet[at]gmail.com