Hell Is Where The Heart Is
The senior executives who had been the object of Peter Pecker’s wrath agreed afterwards that it had been a most spectacular way to go. One instant angrier then they had ever seen him, spewing vitriol and profanities, eyes popping, face turning redder and redder, neck veins bulging, the next instant crashing face down on the dark oak conference table that he had just been pounding. Despite attempted CPR and the arrival of an EMT team that had to ride an elevator up eighty stories to where the corporate office penthouse was, his brain had been fried by a massive stroke, brought on by underlying high blood pressure, poorly controlled, and further elevated by the surge of his rage.
So what happened, where am I, Peter wondered as he looked around a large minimalist room, no furniture, with grey-white walls that seemed to almost glow. The hospital? And where is the staff? Shouldn’t there be staff to take care of me if I’m at the hospital?
A figure appeared at the far end of the room and walked towards him, male, medium hight, forty-fiftish?, dressed in a summer weight blue sport jacket, soft grey pants, open collared pink shirt, well trimmed greying beard, carrying what looked like a laptop under his left arm. “Hello Peter Pecker,” he said as he came to a stop.
“Are you the doctor? What happened to me? I just remember chewing out those idiots who work for me and then I wake up here,” said Peter.
“You’re a realist so I’ll give it to you straight. You died of a stroke and so here you are,” the man replied. “Take some time to let that sink in,” he added as he watched the expression on Peter’s face.
“So there really is an afterlife,” Peter said slowly. “I was always an agnostic.”
“No, you were really an atheist,” corrected the man. “You can’t change your bet after peeking at the hole card.”
“And there really is an afterlife,” Peter repeated in wonder.
“But.” said the man cheerfully, “If you were right, as an atheist, then this could all be a hallucination of your dying brain cells that will shortly end.”
“No, you were right the first time. I’m just yanking your chain a little.”
“Then who are you? Are you Saint Peter? Am I at the pearly gates?” asked Peter.
“Depending on the culture and religion I’ve been called many things. Saint Peter, Anubis to the Egyptians, Qin Guang Wong to the Chinese, Minos to the Greeks. But my purpose is the same. To examine a person’s life with him or her and direct that person to the appropriate afterlife,” said the man. “If it will make you more comfortable, you may call me ‘St. Pete.’”
“So these are the pearly gates? I would have thought something grander. And where is the book where you look up our lives?” asked Peter.
“The physical appearance and surroundings are tailored to the experience and the expectations of the humans of that period. For the Greeks there was a river with a boatman to ferry them over from life,” replied Saint Pete. “For your time, I come attired in business casual, use a laptop instead of a book, and dispense with the gates. Shall we get started?” He waved his right hand and a chrome and glass table materialized on which he placed the laptop, then opened it. As he touched the keys, there appeared, projected on the facing wall, the words, “THIS IS YOUR LIFE, PETER PECKER.” “If you’re wondering,” said St. Pete, “In Biblical time I would have used flaming letters in the night sky.”
“So here’s the setup,” he continued. This will be like your standard business powerpoint presentation, except that you will see vignettes of your life at various stages. We will look at them together, and make a determination about each one to score as a plus or a minus in your life. There will be no excuses. You will give an honest answer after each. Do you have any questions?”
Peter said nothing, just slowly shaking his head from side to side.
“All right,” said St. Pete. “Here’s the first one.”
“Why that’s me at four,” said Peter.
“Yes, and you are trying to smother your baby sister in her crib with your teddy bear, but your mother walks in and stops you. You tell your mother that you are just trying to share your teddy. Tell me your real thoughts at the time.”
“I don’t remember.”
“Come now Peter. In your present state, all your memories and emotions are available to you. Answer now. There are no lies here.”
“I was jealous of all the attention that she was receiving,” Peter said reluctantly. “I was used to being the focus of the family and so I tried to get rid of her.”
“Very good Peter. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now shall we count that as a plus or a minus?”
“I guess I’d have to count that as a minus,” Peter said slowly.
The scene shifted and Peter is a ten year old, extorting the lunch money of a six year old first grader on the school playground who is left crying.
“So Peter, plus or minus?”
“Yeah—-a minus. But aren’t you going to show any of the positive things that I did?” he objected. “How about in high school when I helped Clarence pass his AP physics class so he wouldn’t flunk?”
“That might merit a plus, except that you violated the school honor code by helping him cheat. So, a plus or a minus?”
“Can I at least get a plus/minus?”
“All right, let’s go with a plus/minus,” agreed St. Pete.
More episodes from life followed and despite his objections, the minuses were adding up.
His admission to a “highly selective” college was eased by a significant gift to the school by his father; attempted sexual assault of a college date was only averted because he was too drunk to continue and fell asleep; and later—infidelity? certainly; cheating his first business partner?—settled legally to his benefit; illegally dumping toxic waste from one of his factories into the Missouri River.
“Well what about the charitable foundation I set up?” Peter asked.
“To which you contributed 0.01% of your profits each year for five years, after which your contributions became more irregular,” replied St. Pete. “Tell me why you decided to start the foundation.”
“Well—it was to help society.”
“Sure. Now the full reason. You must be completely truthful.”
“Okay. I must. So it was a structured pay out of hush money to a mistress so that she wouldn’t sell her story about our kinky relationship to a trashy magazine. But that was a just part of the money that was dispensed.”
“True, sixty percent each year went to her and forty percent went to legitimate charities. And when the five years of payments to her were done, the amount you contributed and distributed each year shrank considerably,” said St. Pete. “You thought you were being clever when you put her payouts under the category of ‘rehabilitation of sex workers.’ So, plus or minus?”
“Consider your primary motive again. Take some time to think. If it were a business rival, would you conclude a plus?”
“Damn!—er, darn you. Minus.”
“Good Peter. You were contributing 0.01% each year. For contrast, now let’s show one of your workers Anna Smart, who worried that she could not tithe to her church and charities last year because you squeeze wages to the minimum that you can get away with without unionization.
“Look St. Pete, this is taking up a lot of your time. Don’t you have other souls to—ah—interview?”
“Your human scientists are trying to grapple with the paradoxes of how something can be infinitely large and infinitely small simultaneously, how time can be finite and infinite at the same time. or how some thing can arise out of nothing. So I have all the time that is needed for all the souls. To continue.”
Peter’s life review went on for what seemed like hours if not days and when it was finally done, the tally showed a few pluses and plus/minuses amidst a sea of minuses.
“Peter, you have participated in reviewing your life and in the assessment of its various circumstances. It is time to assign you to your destination. I ask you, do you believe your life qualifies you for what most religions designate as some sort of heaven? You know now you can only be truthful.”
“St. Pete, I can only say that no, I do not qualify to enter heaven. That means I must be condemned to hell,” said Peter calmly, now scoured free of excuses and objections.”
“Peter, you are right, you are assigned to hell,” St. Pete said. “You will be returned to from whence you came, not as a privileged tycoon, but as an ordinary soul.”
‘From whence I came?”
“Sorry, I sometimes mix up the phrasing of different eras,” said St. Pete.
“I wasn’t surprised by your speech, but did you mean a return to earth?” asked Peter, incredulously.
“But how, but why ….?”
“You and other humans have turned earth into hell. You took Eden and made it a place of fire and flood, disease and famine, unrelenting war, filled with hatred and distrust, growing ever hotter, the air near unbreathable, the waters polluted. It is only fitting that you return there to be tormented by what you have wrought— sorry, done.”
“Tormented. Like by Satan?” asked Peter.
“Yes, by the Satan that each of you carried within you and that you nourished each day by the things that you did or did not do. Your vision is now clear and unsparing and you will be forever tormented by guilt and remorse. Now it is time for you to go.”
And with that St. Pete returned Peter to hell on earth.