<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> Hell Is Only Temporary
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Hell Is Only Temporary

Nowadays with college degress leading to temp jobs, there is no telling where a guy could end up. Hell may be a very good option ... and at $15 dollars an hour, we're buying.

by Zachary Houle
Illustrations by Daniel Carter

November.6th.2001

Inspired by Jonathan Carroll’s The Jane Fonda Room (1982).

"This isn’t quite what I expected," said Henry, wincing slightly at the pain in his feet as he walked beside Lou down what seemed to be an infinitely long, white corridor. He glanced over at Lou, who was practically gliding on air over the floor, whistling happily to himself. Henry was a bit envious.

"Yes, a lot of the new arrivals say that," said Lou. "But the whole caves of fire thing went out a pretty long time ago. You’d think The Bible would get updated a bit more often, but no. "Why tinker with a bestseller?"

"God really said that?"

"You didn’t hear it from me, but yes. He never listens to me. That was always His problem -- but I’m blathering. This way."

The pair turned a corner at an intersecting tunnel -- one that snuck up on Henry in the pure blinding whiteness that was Hell’s corridors -- and Henry groaned. It was yet another long hall, like something out of THX-1138.

Henry had been anxious about his decision, even losing sleep the night before his first day at his new job in Hell. He expected the worst, but had been relieved to learn that the downtown office tower that was home to the underworld (which really fronted as a major chartered bank) wasn’t quite how they made Hell out to be back in Sunday school. In fact, the administrative offices looked a lot like any other big business to Henry: lots of cubicles, bright white lighting, and a photocopy room every hundred feet or so. And then there was his new boss, Lou, who didn’t quite look like anything out of the Bible. He was dressed in business causal attire -- cream-colored pants and a black business shirt with a silk Daffy Duck tie. Lou also had the hint of a British accent, which made him seem a bit more sophisticated to Henry than a first glance might make him appear.

Understandably, Henry was like a kid in a candy store on his first morning, curious about every little thing around him. He spent the entire morning being ping-ponged between departments to get his necessary work clearances, asking questions to the staff about the inner-workings of Hell. Some were answered ("Bathroom’s down the hallway, third door on the left"), others -- like what job he would be doing here -- were not. He felt a little uncomfortable about that, but at least Lou didn’t keep his office staff chained up while working to the beat of a drum.

But by mid-afternoon, while walking with Lou to his new work room beneath the tower, Henry was tiring thanks to the blisters forming on his heels. He was wearing tight flame-retardant work boots that he’d bought specifically for the job.

"No worries. It isn’t much further to go," said Lou, almost reading Henry’s mind as the two passed by a door. Henry caught a glimpse at the sign above it -- something about a Jane Fonda screening room -- and shrugged as he tried to keep up with Lou.

Even the large university Henry had just graduated from with a worthless anthropology degree paled in comparison to all the secret passageways and rooms of Hell. He was simply in awe of the place, though the sheer perk of working here wasn't why he didn’t want to complain about his sore feet, he really needed money to make next month’s rent. The cash flow would also keep him from having to go on welfare and/or move back in with his bickering parents. And he’d rather swim in a river of molten lava than have to put up with them again.

"A lady at the temp agency said Hell was only temporary," said Henry. "Is that true?"

"Well, we have to move buildings every few years -- once the tabloid reporters start sticking their noses in. Ah, here we are."

Lou smiled as the pair stopped in front of a large red doorway with AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY written on it.

"Bet you’re all excited about this," said Lou.

He twitched his forefinger, and the door effortlessly slid open. Mist flooded the hallway from the open entry way.

"Go on in," said Lou, pushing Henry gently into the room.

Henry nearly stopped dead in his tracks. The large greenhouse-like room -- which was about as warm as a sauna and filled top-to-bottom with just about every flowering tropical plant known to mankind -- was home to about a dozen of the underworld’s most beautiful women frolicking in the near corner of a small pond. They were all wearing bikinis so small that they were mere millimeters from simply not existing at all. The girls ignored the two men as they entered, seemingly engaged in what appeared to be a game of water polo.

Henry swallowed.

He had just entered Lou’s version of the Playboy Mansion.

"Uh, Lou, is it just me or is it rather, um, hot in here," stammered Henry.

"Ooooooh, he has wit," laughed Lou, slapping Henry on the shoulder. "You should have no problem fitting in with these ladies, then. They can be sharp with their tongues, you know. Though -- come to think of it -- they’re all kind of like that, aren’t they."

Lou laughed, while Henry stood with a puzzled expression on his face. Seeing that Henry didn’t quite get the joke, he quickly rolled his eyes so fast that his new employee didn’t even register.

"Anyhow, this is my recreation room. This is where you’ll be actually doing most of your work."

"Work?"

"Yes. But I think you’ll find it to be rather pleasant work. My servant girls, you see, come here to play water polo and relax after a hard day’s work. They’ve been around since I had my falling out with the big guy upstairs."

Lou pointed upward, which Henry understood to be a reference to the Almighty himself.

"So you can imagine that they’re become rather bored playing the same old game for the past, oh, few thousand years or so, and they just want someone to show them a good time. Naturally, I’d have no problem with this, but ... you know ... most of Hollywood is trying to renegotiate their contract with me these days: the writers, the actors, the lapdogs at the studio. And that’s on top of everything else I have to get done. I just have too many hands on my time."

"So, that’s all you want me to do?" asked Henry in disbelief. "Show them a good time?"

"That’s it."

There was a brief pause while Henry contemplated the offer in Hell’s hospitality industry. The only sound in the room was the splish-splashing of the water in the pool and an alluring giggle here and there. Normally, Henry would jump at such a one-in-a-million deal. But this was the King of the Underworld here, and he was tired. He didn’t want to make too rash a decision.

"This is a trick, right?" said Henry. "All I have to do is sign on the dotted line and I ...."

"Look," sighed Lou, glancing at a gold Rolex that seemed to appear out of nowhere on his wrist, "I don’t have a lot of time here to dicker over details. Either you want the job or not."

"And you’re paying ...."

"Fifteen bucks an hour. Of course, the agency takes a cut of that. But most guys would jump at the opportunity to ... you know ...." Lou nudged his head at the frolicking girls, "... for free," he whispered. "And, you know, they’re not above mixing a little business with pleasure now and then."

Lou poked Henry in the ribs. Henry arched an eyebrow.

"Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, Lou, but doesn’t the labor board have something to say about stuff like that?"

"I have no idea what you’re talking about," said Lou, suddenly looking uncomfortable. "Do you want the job or not?"

* * * * * * * *

"You didn't tell me those girls were entirely anti-social," said Henry, weary from an afternoon of caddying Lou around the private golf course -- unofficially dubbed Hell’s Back Acre -- on the fringes of the city. "I think you kind of misled me there."

"Hey, you shouldn’t take anything they’ve said too personally," shrugged Lou. "A tough guy like you should be able to handle them, no problem-o."

Lou smiled a devil-may-care grin at Henry, then looked down at the golf ball in the dirt to line up a shot. As Lou swung the club backward, Henry frowned. This was not the reaction he expected from his boss -- it was a serious matter. As soon as Lou left on that very first day, the girls simply eyed him with the utmost contempt.

"Oh, we know why you’re here," snorted a cute blonde that Henry tried to strike up a conservation with. "You’re going to replace us if we start to slack off. Admit it. That’s what Lou really told you, right?"

Henry denied it, but the girls didn’t believe him and kept themselves enwrapped in their little game. They even forced him to sit with his back to the pond the entire time they were in the room. Even though Henry wanted nothing more but to soak his sore feet in the water, he agreed to their demands. Besides, he thought that it might actually win his fellow employees over if he sort of played by their rules and was as unobtrusive as possible.

A few "accidental" water polo balls to the head seemed to kibosh that theory, not to mention the odd well-placed insult behind his back. This frustrated him to no end. His first few days on the job -- as a temp, no less -- and already the hired staff was worried he was out to poach their positions right out from them. He put up with these unpleasant women for at least three days, a stretch that seemed mind-numbingly long simply because, well, he was doing nothing, really. He was thankful whenever these servants were called upon by Lou to perform an odd job. Toward the end of that third day, Henry decided he was so useless at his appointed "task" that he should quit. A little voice of guilt had crept into his head, telling him he could be actually earning that $15 a hour elsewhere.

Then Lou appeared out of nowhere with the caddying job. Henry, eager to do something useful, leapt to the challenge. So here he was on the fairway helping Lou practice for an upcoming invitational tourney in Heaven. He was already regretting his decision -- his feet were almost literally on fire in his boots. But he stayed silent, not wanted to offend the head honcho.

Lou’s golf ball flew a couple hundred yards, bouncing a few times as it reached the end of the green. It seemed to be headed for an easy hole-in-one, but then eked to the right of the flag at the last possible second and slowly rolled toward a sand trap.

"Damn, damn, damn," whispered Lou under his breath. "Don’t go there, do not go there. Please don’t -- great. Just great. Could you pass over some Evian? Thanks."

Lou took a gulp of water, set the bottle down beside him and held his hand out. A soft pop! and a whiff of smoke filled the air as another golf ball materialized in Lou’s outreached palm. Henry stifled a yawn, and mopped his brow. He’d watched Lou made a mockery of himself on the golf course all day, but Lou had a seemingly unending reserve of energy. The tournament was obviously important to him -- an annual dinner with Aphrodite was apparently at stake, for starters. Lou had also professed to Henry that he didn’t want to be humiliated again in front of the world’s major deities this year by Jesus, who had beaten him at the game for well over four centuries. Lou was cramming like a student at exam time, since he couldn’t fool anyone with fancy tricks at a competition of full of gods.

That Lou couldn’t play a decent round of golf shocked and astonished Henry to no end, because Lou certainly would have had years of practice. But Henry bit his tongue when it came to Lou’s golf game, as there was no need to tick him off with an unintentional insult.

"I think I’ll just retake that shot," said Lou, dropping the ball to the ground. Henry yawned again, and tried not to concentrate too hard on his feet.

Lou took a swing at the new ball. It, too, swooped up into the air and slowly arched toward the same sand trap. Lou cursed under his breath, and dropped the club to the ground, narrowly missing the water bottle.

"That’s it," Lou said in disgust. "Think I should call it a day." Lou picked up the water bottle and walked back toward the cart. Henry began to straighten out the clubs in Lou’s golf bag.

"I really need to get Tiger Woods to sign on with me so I get some half-decent lessons for a change," he grumbled as he went around to the passenger side. Offhandedly, he added, "If it weren’t for his agents, always wanting more money .. ." He shook his head, placing his hand on his brow.

"Anyhow, you can meet me back here bright and early tomorrow morning, and -- oh -- by the way, I’ll have something else I need you to do for me by the end of the week."

Henry’s eyes lit up at this, hoping that the new job might involve sitting down. He added Lou’s club to the bag and asked, "What else do you need me to do?"

* * * * * * * *

"What’s the matter?" asked Lou. "I mean, I had Sasha, John Digweed, Paul Oakenfold, and Max Graham give you private DJing lessons and all. You know how many kids would kill for that opportunity?"

Henry and Lou stood in a DJ booth in the middle of the Regressed Childhood Disco Room. It was a large black room filled with seizure-inducing strobes. It was also filled well beyond capacity with animated corpses that Lou had swiped from various graveyards around the world. (There was also a large pile of dormant ashes in one corner, representing cremated souls.) Henry was dressed up in blue cargo pants and a T-shirt that said Moonshine Records on it. He wore a backward cap, and cool Italian shades were perched upon his brow. He was sweating profusely and was fanning himself with a slightly warped vinyl record. Lou, on the other hand, was dressed in a leisure suit and drinking a concoction of vodka and orange juice that he had picked off a tray by one of his serving girls -- who glowered at Henry as she delivered the drink.

DJing was the fifth job Henry had held down in a month. First came the short, meaningless stint standing guard in front of the door to the Jackson Pollock room, which had been practically welded shut. ("Try staring at his stuff for an eternity without going a bit stir crazy," said Lou as the pair had walked down the hall to the door. "You never know when clients will try to escape this room.") Then Henry had spent a few hours ordering multiple 35mm film prints for the upcoming Pauly Shore and Steven Segal screening rooms. Just as Henry was finishing that job up, Lou decided that he would need more chairs -- in case he got a load of requests from the ex-mortals wanting into those theatres. Not just any seat would do, of course; Lou wanted the most uncomfortable chairs that could be found. And then when Henry managed to solve that problem by finding some old wooden ones with nasty-looking slivers coming out of them, Lou asked Henry to spend a few hours shredding outdated contracts. It was sort of an interesting job at first because Henry came across the names of a few prominent dead Hollywood stars. However, he quickly found out that paper shredding can become one of the most mind-numbingly boring jobs on the planet.

"At least they’ve stopped throwing their glow sticks at you," said Lou.

"But that’s because I’m not playing music," sighed Henry, fanning himself with the waffle of black plastic in his right hand. "I only have one record. How am I supposed to mix with one record?"

"Didn’t I set you up with more than that?" said Lou, taking a slurp from his Screwdriver.

"Yeah, but I haven’t received the shipment yet," said Henry. He waved his arm to a crowd of ex-mortals who were ecstatically mingling amongst themselves, talking about ways to tear down the door leading out of the room. "The clients aren’t getting their fill of Strawberry Shortcake Rap and Disco Mickey Mouse. I cannot do my job properly."

"Hmmm," said Lou, putting a pensive finger to his lips.

"Can’t you just wave your magic wand and get me a decent stack of vinyl?" said Henry, wondering if he could conjure up a balm for his feet --- which felt like someone was sticking pins into his heels.

"I would if I could, but, you know, after losing that golf tournament last week and suffering from that nasty bit of depression, it’d be such a drain on my resources. Especially now that I’m finally on the upswing, back to being my usual old self. I’d get nothing else done for the rest of the day."

Like you’re oh so precious!, thought Henry, nearly throwing his hands up in the air out of frustration. "Oh well, we can always put the Romper Room theme music back into a continuous loop in here," said Lou, shrugging and turning to leave. "And I’m sure I can come up with something just as interesting for you to do."

"Like what?" said Henry, fighting back the urge to roll his eyes skyward.

* * * * * * * *

Henry limped bleary-eyed into Lou’s space-age bachelor pad-style office, which resembled the inside of a giant egg. (The devil had a soft spot for ’60s kitsch, Henry learned early on.) Lou looked up from his white plastic desk which was being polished by one of his servant girls dressed up in a cat suit.

"I’m sorry for interrupting," said Henry. "But if I project one more Jane Fonda film, I think I’m going to snap."

Lou smiled at the woman and said, "That’s fine, dear."

"But there’s a little scuff right there."

"Yes, I know, dear," said Lou with a slight ahem! into a closed fist. "But it looks like I have some business to attend to."

He glared at Henry. The woman left the room, scowled as she passed Henry, and closed the door behind her. Lou got up from his desk, walked over to a small bar on one side of the office. He grabbed a shot glass, some brandy, and began pouring.

"So, working in the Jane Fonda Room is just not a cool enough gig for you?" said Lou. "I mean, I’m paying you $15 an hour for the honor of screening some cinematic classics. Most guys just can’t get enough of Barbarella, you know. In fact, that’s why I created the room in the first place."

Lou set the bottle back in its place on the shelf. He gulped the shot quickly, wincing.

"Lou," said Henry wearily, "I’ve already seen The China Syndrome, like, 90 times! I’m going to have my own nuclear meltdown if I don’t start doing something a lot more worthwhile."

"And screening Jane Fonda films is not worthwhile?"

"You’re asking me to live the personal hells of your clients!" said Henry. "Even worse, I’ve become their bogeyman! Everyone in that theatre is booing me, not the films! Besides, my feet are killing me from standing all day!"

"Whoa, just cool down a second," said Lou.

Lou frowned at Henry, as if he’d just done him a huge favor by putting him in the screening room. Henry stared at him contemptuously and continued, "Well, I thought I’d have some benefits by now, at least. Or maybe have a decent office job where I’m not dealing with dead people all day. Something air-conditioned, or with a comfy chair."

"Oh, so that’s it," sighed Lou, throwing up his hands and spilling some of his drink on the shag carpet. "Looking for the money, are you? I’ve told you that I can’t hire you at this time. Business isn’t expanding at quota right now, ever since Purgatory started muscling in on our turf."

"Lou, if you’re not serious about hiring, I can take my talents elsewhere," said Henry.

"Really?" snorted Lou, swallowing his drink. "Oh, tell me you’re joking. This place has everything anyone would ever want, even Jane Fonda films. What other working environment is as good as this?"

* * * * * * * *

"Heaven," said Henry affirmatively.

"Heaven?" said Lou, seated lazily in a lawn chair, taking a drag of a cigarette on the rooftop patio on top of the office building.

"You’re leaving all this behind for ... that place?"

"Yep."

"You’re picking a fine time to tell me this," said Lou. "This is my coffee break, you realize."

"I’m sorry, Lou, but if I wanted the job, I had to take it right away. I figured it was better if you knew as soon as I got the word."

"I see," said Lou.

There was a moment of awkward silence. Lou sucked back on his smoke.

"So what does Heaven have that I don’t?" he finally offered.

Without having to think about it, Henry said, "Stock options. Benefits. Job security. The freedom to create my own work schedule."

"Christ," cursed Lou, taking an extra long drag. He got up out of his lawn chair, coughing and pounding his chest, before walking over to the edge of the building. He stared out over the cityscape before him, his back turned to Henry.

"Heaven," Lou mumbled.

"Yes, heaven. You look shocked."

Lou kept his back to Henry, almost refusing to acknowledge him. "I’m a little disappointed, I guess," said Lou bitterly. "But it’s not like I can’t replace you or anything. I was going to hire you, you know. Eventually. When the time seemed right."

"Oh?" said Henry, trying to pretend that this surprised him.

"You could have had access to it all. The golf course. The pool room. The arcade. The pop machine. But noooo. Heaven," snorted Lou contemptuously.

Lou took another drag. Henry wondered if he should at least thank Lou for paying him a measly $15 an hour (minus the $5 agency fees) to put up with him for the past six months. He stood there for a moment, unsure if he should shake Lou’s hand or send a thank you card in the mail.

"Well, thanks anyway for having me," said Henry in the politest voice he could muster. "Sorry, for, well ... you know."

"Yeah, that’s what they all say," sighed Lou, his back still turned.

"Sure, um, so I can go now, right?"

"Well, you’re not working here anymore."

"Um, I know. But shouldn’t we shake hands or something? You know, like a business agreement or something?"

Lou sighed, took a puff of his cigarette, before finally turning around and extending his hand.

"Yes, well, good luck with the new gig," he said lazily, as if he didn’t mean it.

"Uh, thanks," said Henry.

"I’ll have one of the servant girls send you out," said Lou, snapping his fingers to summon one.

"That’s quite okay," said Henry coolly. "I think I can find my way out."

"Good," said Lou, taking a drag, turning his back once more.

Henry shrugged to himself, then walked back toward the door to the rooftop garden that would take him to the elevator. On the way over, he thought he could hear Lou muttering words under his breath that would have normally burned his ears. Not that it mattered much to Henry. He was thankful he now had to endure only a temporary decent into Hell -- through the administrative offices in the above-ground part he’d last seen on his first day here -- before heading back out into the light of day at street level.

Henry was already looking forward to his new job with the man upstairs. He was going to help overhaul the Bible, make it hip for the 12-to-24 demographic. Working as a DJ in Hell had actually wound up looking kind of cool on his résumé, so being employed by Lou hadn’t been an entire wash-out -- even if things got a little tense toward the end. So he did have something to thank Lou for: working in Hell somehow made him look cool.

The elevator doors opened and one of Lou’s scantily-clad servant girls bounced out. She tisk-tisk’ed Henry as she passed.

"No worries, you can keep your stinking job," he muttered after she glided out of earshot. He stepped inside, and pushed the DOWN button. He had things to think about other than Lou’s servant-girls-with-attitude. Things like buying a new pair of shoes.




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