I could count the openings in the radiator grill of the truck that killed me and as I lost conciousness I noted with satisfaction that it was a good old-fashioned International Harvester of a kind that I had seen thousands of times but never from that close.
And then the cool darkness closed around me and I slept.
After what seemed like years I was awakened by a faint white light in the distance. I saw someone beckoning to me from the light which became brighter as it drew closer and I was afraid. Afraid to leave the comfortable darkness. Afraid of the long swim to the light which now burned with a cold incandescent fire.
“Come into the light,” said the voice and as I rose towards it I recognized the speaker.
“Uncle Jedidiah?” I said, “Is that you?”
“None other,” said the voice as he extended his hand to pull me firmly out of the darkness.
“I haven’t seen you in forty years,” I said in wonder, “Since you died, I mean. Aren’t you dead?.”
“Oh, I’m dead, as dead as a doornail. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you but so are you.”
“I figured as much,” I said, “Where am I? Is this heaven?”
“Not quite,” Replied Uncle Jedidiah, “You’re in the Purgatory Room.”
“Purgatory Department!” corrected a winged creature carrying a flaming sword, “It’s a department, not a room.”
“Uh, right…anyway, you’re in the Purgatory Department waiting to be admitted to Heaven,” said Uncle jedidiah, “And I’m afraid it’s going to be a while.”
“You mean you’ve been waiting for forty years? What gives, Uncle? I remember you were a pretty good Catholic, went to mass every week, said your prayers. Even the priest thought you were a pretty righteous guy. If anybody could get to heaven quickly surely it would be you.”
“Oh, I did all right when I was alive,” said Uncle Jedidiah looking down modestly and pretending to examine his fingernails, “I ate a little meat on Friday and cursed a little. I wasn’t perfect you know.”
“Yeah, but surely a couple of Hail Marys and a few Our Fathers could have covered it,” I was incredulous, “Fifty years? Come on now. What chance do I have?”
“Well, it’s not exactly merit-based anymore now that they’ve gone to a Single Penance system so your chances are as good as anybody else’s.”
“Single Penance? What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s new. Instead of being responsible for your own sins, somebody repents for you so you don’t have to do it yourself. It’s supposed to ensure equal access to Heaven for the under-repentant,” Said Uncle Jedidiah.
“So that explains the wait.”
“At first it wasn’t too bad,” said Uncle Jedidiah leading me around a group of bikers eating vending machine locusts and honey, “They started with the Protestants which was all right, I guess. I mean I could see the rationale for that. But then they decided to start letting in the Hindus and the Moslems. I don’t have to tell you the penance problems that posed.”
Uncle Jedidiah motioned me to a place at the end of a line which stretched for miles.
“Pretty much anybody can get in now,” He continued,”You really have to have committed some kind of major crime against humanity not to…which explains why the Back Street Boys might not make it. But pretty much no matter what you do somebody else will do your penance. About the only people they don’t let in are the Methodists, for obvious reasons, but other than that it really makes no difference what you have done.”
“Can’t we just repent ourselves and eliminate the wait?” I asked taking a number from a brazen tripod which gleamed with a holy luster.
“Well, of course not,” said Uncle Jedidiah looking puzzled, “That wouldn’t be fair, now would it? That would give people who were responsible and self-disciplined an unfair advantage compared to, oh, let’s say pedophiles. Surely we can’t have that.”
“I don’t know Uncle, it sounds good but who’s doing all of the repenting if nobody is expected to do it for themselves?”
“Well, there’s the rub,” said Uncle Jedidiah ruefully,”There is apparently a distinct shortage of pentinents. At first they had the Archangels do it but there are only so many to go around. Then they started using Saints but even they have their limits and I know I don’t have to tell you how long it takes to make one. Eventually they started using mid-levels like Saint Assistants and Saint Practioners.”
“How’s that working?” I asked looking far into the distance at the line ahead of me which wound around pillars of clouds upon which, written in blazing letters of English and Spanish, were admonishments keep all manna in closed containers and to rate your sin on a ten-point scale.
“Here comes one now,” said Uncle Jedidiah, motioning to an officious looking fellow making his way towards us, “Ask him yourself.”
“Hi, I’m your pentinent-providor,” said the fellow, “I’m not actually a saint but I am just as well trained despite the fact that unlike saints who toil and suffer on earth for many years, often enduring martyrdom for their faith, I went to a rigourous two year program which cut out all of the useless stuff.”
A Seraphim, six-winged, rolled his many eyes and shook his head sadly as he flapped by.
My providor shot him a dirty look and just as he opened a book which looked suspiciously like a gold-plated DSM-IV, I felt a slight tingling in my chest like a distant electric shock. Then another which felt stronger. The Purgatory Department started to fade.
“Oh well,” said Uncle Jedidiah, “I guess i’ll be seeing you later. Just some advice. twenty years from now don’t ignore that rectal bleeding. I’m just saying…”
And then I gasped. The pain flooded over me and I was back.