Oh that I knew where I might find him!
that I might come even to his seat!
I would order my cause before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
AND STILL I fell.
For modern man one of the most troubling aspects of eternity lies in getting used to the slippery quality of time. With no clocks and no calendars and lacking even the alternation of day and night, or the phases of the moon, or the pageant of seasons, duration becomes subjective and 'What time is it?' is a matter of opinion, not of fact.
I think I fell longer than twenty minutes; I do not think that I fell as long as twenty years.
But don't risk any money on it either way.
There was nothing to see but the insides of my eyeballs. There was not even the Holy City receding in the distance.
Early on, I tried to entertain myself by reliving in memory the happiest times in my life - and found that happy memories made me sad. So I thought about sad occasions and that was worse. Presently I slept. Or I think I did. How can you tell when you are totally cut off from sensation? I remember reading about one of those busybody 'scientists' building something he called a 'sensory deprivation chamber'. What he achieved was a thrill-packed three-ring circus compared with the meager delights of falling from Heaven to Hell.
My first intimation that I was getting close to Hell was the stink. Rotten eggs. H2S Hydrogen, sulfide. The stench of burning brimstone.
You don't die from it, but small comfort that may be, since those who encounter this stench are dead when they whiff it. Or usually so; I am not dead. They tell of other live ones in history and literature - Dante, Aeneas, Ulysses, Orpheus. But weren't all of those cases fiction? Am I the first living man to go to Hell, despite all those yarns?
If so, how long will I stay alive and healthy? Just long enough to hit the flaming surface of the Lake? - there to go psst! and become a rapidly disappearing grease spot? Had my Quixotic gesture been just a wee bit hasty? A rapidly disappearing grease spot could not be much help to Margrethe; perhaps I should have stayed in Heaven and bargained. A saint in full-dress halo picketing the Lord in front of His Throne might have caused Him to reverse His decision... since His decision it had to be, L. G. Jehovah being omnipotent.
A bit late to think of it, boy! You can see the red glow on the clouds now. That must be boiling lava down there. How far down? Not far enough! How fast am I falling? Too fast!
I can see what the famous Pit is now: the caldera of an incredibly enormous volcano. Its walls are all around me, miles high, yet the flames and the molten lava are still a long, long way below me. But coming up fast! How are your miracle-working powers today, Saint Alec? You coped with that other fire pit with only a blister; think you can handle this one? The difference is only a matter of degree.
'With patience and plenty of saliva the elephant de-flowered the mosquito.' That job was just a matter of degree, too; can you do as well as that elephant? Saint Alec, that was not a saintly thought; what has happened to your piety? Maybe it's the influence of this wicked neighborhood. Oh, well, you no longer need worry about sinful thoughts; it is too late to worry about any sin. You no longer risk going to Hell for your sins; you are now entering Hell - you are now in Hell. In roughly three seconds you are going to be a grease spot. 'Bye, Marga my own! I'm sorry I never managed to get you that hot fudge sundae. Satan, receive my soul; Jesus is a fink -
They netted me like a butterfly. But a butterfly would have needed asbestos wings to halve been saved the way I was saved; my pants were smoldering. They threw a bucket of water over me when they had me on the bank.
'Just sign this chit.'
'What chit?' I sat up and looked out at the flames.
'This chit.' Somebody was holding a piece of paper under my nose and offering me a pen.
'Why do you want me to sign it?'
'You have to sign it. It acknowledges that we saved you from the burning Pit.'
`I want to see a lawyer. Meanwhile I won't sign anything.' The last time I was in this fix it got me tied down, washing dishes, for four months. This time I couldn't spare four months; I had to get busy at once, searching for Margrethe.
'Don't be stupid. Do you want to be tossed back into that stuff?'
A second voice said, 'Knock it off, Bert. Try telling him the truth.'
('Bert?' I thought that first voice was familiar!) 'Bert! What are you doing here?' My boyhood chum, the one who shared my taste in literature. Verne and Wells and Tom Swift - 'garbage', Brother Draper had called it.
The owner of the first voice looked at me more closely. 'Well, I'll be a buggered baboon. Stinky Hergensheimer!'
'In the flesh.'
'I'll be eternally damned. You haven't changed much. Rod, get the net spread again; this is the wrong fish. Stinky, you've cost us a nice fee; we were fishing for Saint Alexander.'
'Alexander. A Mick holy ^an who decided to go slumming. Why he didn't come in by a Seven-Forty-Seven God only knows; we don't usually get carriage trade here at the Pit. As may be, you've probably cost us a major client by getting in the way just when this saint was expected and you ought to pay us for that.'
"How about that fin you owe me?'
`Boy, do you have a memory! That's outlawed by the statute of limitations.'
'Show it, to me in Hell's law books. Anyhow, limitations can't apply; you never answered me when I tried to collect. So it's five bucks, compounded quarterly at six percent, for... how many years?'
'Discuss it later, Stinky. I've got to keep an eye out for this saint.'
'Do you recall my right name? The one my folks gave me?'
'Why, I suppose - Alexander! Oh no, Stinky, it can't be! Why, you almost flunked out of that backwoods Bible college, after you did flunk out of Rolla.' His face expressed pain and disbelief. 'Life can't be that unfair.'
"The Lord moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform." Meet Saint Alexander, Bert. Would you like me to bless you? In lieu of a fee, I mean.
'We insist on cash. Anyhow, I don't believe it.'
'I believe it,' the second man, the one Bert had called 'Rod', put in. 'And I'd like your blessing, father; I've never, been blessed by a saint before. Bert, there's nothing showing on the distant warning screen and, as you know, only one ballistic arrival was projected for this watch so this has to be, Saint Alexander.'
Can't be. Rod, I know this character. If he's a saint, I'm a pink monkey -' There was a bolt of lightning but of a cloudless sky. When Bert picked himself up, his clothes hung on him loosely. But he did not need them, as he was now covered with pink fur.
The monkey looked up at me indignantly. 'Is that any way to treat an old pal?'
'Bert, I didn't do it. Or at least I did not intend to do it. Around me, miracles just happen; I don't do them on, purpose.'
`Excuses. If I had rabies, I'd bite you.'
Twenty minutes later, we were in a booth at a lakefront bar, drinking beer and waiting for a thaumaturgist reputed, to be expert in shapes and appearances. I had been telling them why I was in Hell. 'So I've got to find her. First I've got to check the Pit; if she's in there it's really urgent.'
'She's not in there,' said Rod.
'Huh? I hope you can prove that. How do you know?'
'There's never anyone in the Pit. That's a lot of malarkey thought up to keep the peasants in line. Sure, a lot of the hoi polloi arrive ballistically, and a percentage of them used to fall into the Pit until the manager set up this safety watch Bert and I are on. But falling into the Pit doesn't do a soul any harm... aside from scaring him silly. It burns, of course, so he comes shooting out even faster than he went in. But he's not damaged. A fire bath just cleans up his allergies, if any.'
(Nobody in the Pit! No 'burning in Hell's fires throughout eternity what a shock that was going to be to Brother 'Bible' Barnaby and a lot of others whose stock in trade depended on Hell's fires. But I was not here to discuss eschatology with two lost souls; I was here to find Marga.) 'This "manager" you speak of. Is. that a euphemism for the Old One?'
The monkey - Bert, I mean - squeaked, 'If you mean Satan, say so!'
'That's who I mean.'
'Naw. Mr Ashmedai is city manager; Satan never does any work. Why should he? He owns this planet.'
This is a planet?'
'You think maybe it's a comet? Look out that window. Prettiest planet in this galaxy. And the best kept. No snakes. No cockroaches. No chiggers. No poison ivy. No tax collectors. No rats. No cancer. No preachers. Only two lawyers.'
'You make it sound like Heaven.'
"Never been there. You say you just came from there; you tell us.'
'Well... Heaven's okay, if you're an angel. It's not a planet; it's an artificial place, like Manhattan. I'm not here to plug Heaven; I'm here to find Marga.' Should I try to see this Mr Ashmedai? Or would I be better off going directly to Satan?'
The monkey tried to whistle, produced a mouselike squeak. Rod shook his head. 'Saint Alec, you keep surprising me. I've been here since 1588, whenever that was, and I've never laid eyes on the Owner. I've never thought of trying to see him. I wouldn't know how to start. Bert, what do you think?'
'I think I need another beer.'
'Where do you put it? Since that lightning hit you, you aren't big enough to put away one can of beer, let alone, three.'
'Don't be nosy and call the waiter.'
The quality of discourse did not improve, as every question I asked turned up more questions and no answers. The thaumaturgist arrived and bore off Bert on her shoulder, Bert chattering angrily over her fee - she wanted half of all his assets and demanded a contract signed in blood before she would get to work. He wanted her to accept ten percent and wanted me to pay half of that.
When they left, Rod said it was time we found a pad for me; he would take me to a good hotel nearby.
I pointed out that I was without funds. 'No problem, Saint Alec. All our immigrants arrive broke, but American Express and Diners Club and Chase Manhattan vie for the chance to extend first credit, knowing that whoever signs an immigrant first has a strong chance of keeping his business forever and six weeks past.'
'Don't they lose a lot, extending unsecured credit that way?'
'No. Here in Hell, everybody pays up, eventually. Bear in mind that here a deadbeat can't even die to avoid his debts, So just sign in, and charge everything to room service until you set it up with one of the big three.'
The Sans Souci Sheraton is on the Plaza, straight across from the Palace. Rod took me to the desk; I signed a registration card and asked for a single with bath. The desk clerk, a small female devil with cute little horns, looked at the card I had signed and her eyes widened. 'Uh, Saint Alexander?'
'I'm Alexander Hergensheimer, just as I registered. I am sometimes called "Saint Alexander", but I don't think the title applies here.'
She was busy not listening while she thumbed through her reservations. 'Here it is, Your Holiness - the reservation for your suite.'
'Huh? I don't need a suite. And I probably couldn't pay for it.'
'Compliments of the management, sir.'