The Damnation of Richard Gillman
When Richard Gillman was killed, he was driving north through Los Angeles on the Santa Monica-bound 405.
Downtown Los Angeles is a confusing place, with twisting and interlocking expressways, and a moment's hesitation will send you sailing off in a direction you never intended, depositing you in Pasadena or Torrance or Century City or just about anyplace else.
This, of course, costs time. The delay, depending on a number of factors, can be anywhere from five minutes to several hours.
Richard Gillman did not have that kind of time. He was on his way to a meeting at Chiat/Day and could not afford to be late.
Los Angeles is a low-lying city, spread out instead of up. Though there are several very tall buildings in the center of downtown, including one comically-shaped like an empty roll of paper towels, the city is mostly a huge expanse of structures below four or five stories. Unlike San Francisco or New York, the sky is clearly visible straight ahead, even out of a car window.
This is what Richard Gillman was looking at when he missed his exit. While Los Angeles is largely reputed to have unhealthful air quality the majority of the year, there are certain times, after a rare rainstorm for instance, where the sky is simply an expanse of beautiful, majestic blue. The mountains to the east are crystal clear, and in the winter their peaks are capped with brilliant white snow. If Los Angeles had been built a little further up the coast, instead of in a natural geographic basin -- if Los Angeles could ever get a decent public transportation system together -- if Los Angeles wasn't the destination of half the people in the Midwest who leave their dying home towns, it would be like this every day. Beautiful blue sky, shiny clean buildings, the best city in the world.
It was at this point, and with these thoughts, that Richard Gillman realized he was going to miss his exit. He was leaning just slightly forward, staring just slightly up, looking at an oblong white cloud, when a huge green rectangle blocked his vision. It said:
Sixth Street 1/4
"Damn!" Richard Gillman cursed. He craned his neck wildly to the right, checking for a clear space next to him. If he missed this exit, he would miss his meeting.
Cars were packed tightly, half a length apart, up and down the 405 as far as he could see.
Richard Gillman was still looking back, over his right shoulder, twenty-five seconds later when his car plowed into the truck in front of him. He was only going forty miles an hour when he hit it and might not have been injured at all had he been wearing a seat belt.
Seat belts are required by law in California, and you can get a fifteen dollar ticket if you're caught not wearing one. But Richard Gillman found that they left large diagonal wrinkles across his chest and lap whenever he wore certain types of fabric. There was nothing more embarrassing that arriving at a lunch or a meeting with large diagonal wrinkles across your chest and lap.
Anyway, Richard Gillman's car caught most of the force of the collision. If you launch a small object, say a Fiat, into a larger one, say a Vons produce eighteen-wheeler, the Fiat will sustain most of the damage. In fact, what will happen is something like this:
At the moment of contact, even before any metal bends, the driver of the Fiat will be shot forward. Normally in this situation, his seat belt will snap tight and hold him back against his seat. If the driver is not wearing a seat belt -- and this happens to be the case in this particular instance -- he will continue forward as the front end of the Fiat crushes against the back of the truck.
After about a tenth of a second, the unseat-belted driver's chest will impact against the steering wheel and a short moment later, his face will shatter the windshield.
As the front of the car continues to collapse, the engine block will transmit most of the shock wave past itself further back into the car. The driver, by now, has left a crude impression of himself in the dashboard. His pelvis has likely bent the lower part of the steering wheel forward, as his rib cage has done for the upper part. Because of the small amount of leg room in a Fiat, his knees have likely found the underside of the dash, and bones in either is thigh or lower leg have shattered, shards pushing their way through the skin.
As the initial push forward into the truck comes to an end, it seems likely that both the hypothetical Fiat and the hypothetical driver are both pretty much a total loss. But Richard Gillman, however, lived not only through the initial impact, but the reflection as well, as the Fiat pushed away from the truck, glass and metal flying all about.
It seems that Richard Gillman was a particularly healthy individual, and he managed to continue living for a good two or three minutes after the crash, right up until the his Fiat's gas tank caught fire.
The resulting explosion was so large that it caused a good dozen periphery accidents, mostly shattering windows that faced the collision, and closed the 405 for almost ten hours.
It took fire fighters and rescue personnel half that time just to remove what they could identify as the remains of Richard Gillman from the wreckage. As his rear license plate was thrown clear during the explosion -- it was found later embedded in the empty passenger seat of another man's car -- the identity of Richard Gillman was quickly known, but withheld from the media pending the notification of his family.
Saint Peter knew what to expect when people arrived; he'd been at this job for quite a while.
Usually, Christians were the most passive. This, after all, was what they had been told to expect. They would normally stagger up to Peter, their faces blank and shiny with bliss, and mutter their names. He would check his list, make a small mark, and send them off, either up or down. Most people didn't like to get the news that they were going down, but they never had much time to complain before they were whisked off.
Sometimes, they were worried when they showed up. They would drop to their knees and begin to cry and wail and screech for atonement as soon as they appeared at the Gates. Usually Peter would delicately pry their name out of them and then send them off in the appropriate direction. They really didn't have all that much to worry about. God had become pretty calm lately; he'd mellowed as he'd gotten older. How could he blame humans for being nasty when they were created in his own image?
Occasionally, however, Peter liked to have a little fun. The crying petitioner would be kneeling at the base of his podium, tears streaming down his face, and Peter would look at him gravely. He would scan down the long pages of his book, stop suddenly and then shake his head. Once in a while, he would gasp in horrified astonishment -- the petitioner would collapse into a heap, sobbing helplessly -- and he would have to bite his lip to keep from laughing.
Yes, the Christians were the easiest, and easily the most fun.
Next came Jews. Jews took it pretty well, the concept of a Christian God, usually with much more stoicism than Christians themselves. Peter himself was a Jew and Judaism, really, just amounted to Christianity one-point-oh. They didn't have much trouble with the concept of a Christian Heaven, though as Peter understood it, they tended to avoid Christ for their first few decades here.
The non-Judeo-Christian religions produced people who varied in degree. Buddhists were even more stoic than the Jews and simply nodded as Peter let them pass or turned them down. Hindus didn't like the idea of heavenly burger palaces, but seemed to cope with the rest all right. Moslems often took it badly at first -- Peter smiled at the concept of a jihad against God -- but then settled down. Monotheistic religions are all basically compatible and anybody who showed up at the Gates believing in A god could usually cope with believing in the God.
But woe to the atheists. Atheists were the worst. Far and away the worst.
When atheists arrived, they would blink a few times in confusion and begin to jerk their head around, trying to take it all in. Peter would beckon them over and the atheists would walk slowly towards him, often stumbling over their own feet.
When they arrived at the podium, the fifty feet or so often taking them upwards of five minutes to cross, their brow would wrinkle and they would say something stupid like, "Saint Peter?"
Peter would smile softly and say, "Yes?"
Atheists couldn't stand that, all the calmness and regularity of it. At that point they often exploded, backing away from the podium, saying "Oh, no. Oh, no. I don't believe this."
Peter would say, "I know."
The atheists would usually ignore him and start to stamp around, shouting curses, screaming "This is not happening! This is not happening!" when it obviously was.
But, Peter thought, this guy here is different. Outright odd, even. He had appeared in the flash of white light like normal, but he hadn't reacted to what he saw at all. Not the the towering clouds, the huge gate, nothing. He looked around for a moment, blinking occasionally, and finally wandered over to Peter.
"Hi," he said.
"Hello," Peter replied, slightly startled. This person had the first neutral expression he had ever seen on anybody who appeared at the Gates. "Your name?"
"Oh, Richard Gillman," said Richard.
Peter glanced down at the book on the podium in front of him, half expecting to find some indication that this guy was a Zen master. He started. No, not a Zen master. "Richard Gillman," the line read. "Atheist." And like all the atheist listings, it had a little down arrow after it.
An atheist. But an atheist who apparently didn't care that he was in the after-life. Weird. The demons weren't going to like this.
"Can you tell me where I am?" Richard asked. He glanced down at his watch.
Peter looked up from his book in surprise. "You don't know where you are?" he said.
"Well," Richard said. "I... Uh... Well, no, actually."
Peter rechecked the listing in his book. Occasionally he wished that they had a little more to work with than just a petitioners religion. The line still said, "atheist," and Peter narrowed his eyes at Richard. The demons weren't going to like this at all. "You're at the Gates of Heaven."
"Oh?" Richard asked. "I am?"
Peter nodded. "Yes."
"Oh." Richard glanced at his watch again.
Saint Peter knit his brow, pulling his eyebrows together. This wasn't good. The guy was obviously an atheist -- the book said so -- and so he was going to Hell. But Peter would be damned if he could figure out how the demons were going to work with him. He, apparently, didn't have much of a reaction to anything. There was a sort of glaze over his eyes.
"You're going to Hell," Peter offered.
"I am?" Richard asked.
Peter shook his head in amazement. Absolutely no reaction at all.
"That's bad, isn't it?"
"Yes," Peter said. "That's bad."
"OK," Richard said. "Just checking." He looked at his shoes for a moment, then said, "I'm going to miss my meeting, aren't I?"
Peter muttered, "Geez," and Richard Gillman was dropped into Hell.
Hell wasn't what Richard Gillman had expected at all. First off, there were no flames anywhere. Growing up in the United States in the late twentieth century, it would have been impossible for him to not have an image of Hell, even if he didn't believe in it, which he didn't. He had pictured it pretty much like he thought everybody else pictured it: Like the inside of a cavern, with flames leaping everywhere and large boiling craters of lava and demons jumping out of hiding places and stabbing you with pitchforks and stuff. Like Mr. Boffo.
That's what Hell was supposed to be like. Not at all like this.
He remembered reading, somewhere -- the reference understandably slipped his mind at the moment -- that flames were a more recent invention for Hell. That Hell had been originally been conceived of as metaphysical suffering, not physical discomfort. Or something like that. He didn't have a head for those kinds of details. Plus he never really understood what the word "metaphysical" meant. He had misused it in paper in a general education philosophy class several years ago and had never gotten around to looking it up.
Dante, he recalled, had pictured Hell with ice. On the lowest plane of Hell, people were supposed to be frozen in a lake of ice, trapped forever, with just the top half of their heads peaking out. He had seen a picture of Dante's description at a show that some girl had dragged him to. He had made a what he thought was a clever remark and she had stopped returning his calls.
But not in all his life -- he was college-educated after all, he should have heard about things like this -- could he recall having been told that Hell was a bus station.
Oh, he supposed, a bus station is probably its own little kind of Hell -- he noticed with distaste a bum sleeping under newspaper on a bench -- but this certainly isn't as bad as it could be. Both fire and ice seemed as if they had the potential to be a lot worse than this.
Hell was a particularly drab bus station. It was small, just an annex, with five or six rows of wooden benches. A ticket window was centered in one wall, half way between a cigarette machine and a drinking fountain. The other wall listed schedules for when buses would be departing. Or not departing, he noticed:
Heaven Delayed Valhalla Delayed Satori Delayed The Happy Hunting Ground Delayed
The list continued along, hand-chalked for two decaying blackboards, with the names of dozens of places followed by the word "Delayed."
The wall that the benches faced was divided into two glass doors, labeled "To Buses," and the opposite wall was blank, save for smudged and aged institution-green paint.
Richard walked to the ticket window and tapped on the glass with his finger. There was no one in the small office beyond, but long rolls of tickets were laid out on a desk. He could see the names on the wall also printed on the tickets.
"Hello?" he called.
There was no answer. The bum on the bench rustled slightly and a page of a newspaper fell off of him.
Well, Richard thought, this is pretty dumb.
He turned from the window and walked quickly to the glass doors. He peered out into what looked to be a starless night, but he really couldn't see much beyond the concrete curb that jut out from the bus station. Or Hell. Whichever.
He pushed on the door, but it didn't open.
"You can't get out that way," said the bum.
Richard spun to find the battered man now sitting up on the bench. He had deeply lined, suntanned face, and a few days of beard covered his chin and crawled up his cheeks. His clothes were beaten and dirty, and a greasy tangle of hair fell into his eyes and over his ears.
"What?" Richard said.
"You can't get out that way. Trust me."
The man rose and ambled towards Richard, a lose sole of his shoe flopping as he walked. "I'm your demon."
The man reached Richard and leaned towards him, poking his nose forward. "Your demon. Sent here to torment you."
Richard grimaced and pulled back. "With your smell?"
The old man scowled. "Look, buddy. This isn't my doing. I just work here. You're the one who's damned."
"Oh." Richard wasn't quite sure how to deal with this.
"This is your Hell. Your own private Hell. I'm your own private demon."
The demon nodded curtly. "OK."
Richard nodded back. "OK."
There was silence for a moment.
"Not what you imagined, is it?" asked the demon.
Richard scanned the bus station. "To be honest, no," he said. "I hadn't really imagined anything."
The demon eyed him, pushing his chin against his chest and looking up. "Uncomfortable yet?"
"Well, yeah," Richard said.
"Good," the demon replied. He spun on his heel and walked back to the bench -- flop, flop, flop -- where he had been sleeping before and lay down. He pulled the newspapers over him again and, apparently, fell asleep.
Richard stood unevenly for a moment. He blinked.
The demon stirred, then rolled so his back was facing Richard.
"Hey," Richard said. He walked to the demon and tapped him on the shoulder. "Hey, get up."
With a groan, the demon slowly sat up. He looked at Richard from the bench and said, "What?"
"There's a few things I don't understand," Richard said.
"Yeah. I think there must have been some kind of screw-up. I don't quite get what's going on."
The demon looked surprised. He leaned back against the bench and scratched his cheek. "You don't get Hell?"
"Well, yeah," Richard admitted sheepishly. "I don't see that there's much to get."
The demon narrowed his eyes at Richard and ran his tongue over his front teeth. "You're not writhing in metaphysical torment?" the demon asked.
"Not as far as I can tell," Richard said. "I don't really know what it is."
The demon slid to the side and pushed the scattered sheets of newspaper to the floor. "Have a seat," he said. "This is going to take a while."
Richard sat, slightly away from the demon.
The demon pushed his hair back and took a deep breath. "OK," he said. "Now:
"Metaphysics deals with realms beyond the physical. It is philosophy of the senses, and of interpretation of the senses. It deals with things that are not here, but here. It deals with the soul instead of the body, with the mind instead of the brain. Metaphysics is everything that you cannot touch, but that you can feel. Your 'sixth sense' is metaphysical in nature. Deja vu is metaphysical in nature. God, Heaven, me, Hell and now you are all metaphysical in nature. Metaphysics is everything that not only is, but just is. Got it?"
"Oh," Richard said, slightly stunned. "I thought it had to do with aerobics."
The demon continued, ignoring him. "To be in metaphysical torment is to go beyond the simple pain of the body, to the pain of the soul. If God were to try to make you atone for your sins by, say, poking out your eyeballs" -- Richard made a face -- "there would be a limit to how much you would suffer. If he made you atone by having worms eat through your flesh, there would be a limit to how much you would suffer. If he--"
"All right! All right! No need for the theatrics."
The demon looked impatiently at Richard for a moment, then continued. "Metaphysical torment is unending. It's like constant pain that never moves you towards your death. It's like everything that's ever made you feel bad, all remembered simultaneously, all magnified by a thousand. It's--"
"You're doing it again."
"Stop interrupting me!" the demon shouted. "You're ruining the effect!"
Richard looked down at his hands as they pulled at each other in his lap. "Sorry," he said.
"It's a little late for that. Anyway. Are you in metaphysical torment?"
Richard looked up at the demon and raised his eyebrows. He pulled a corner of his mouth back and made a small clicking noise by separating his lips. "Actually," he said, "I don't think so."
The demon looked at him sternly. "Are you sure?"
Richard considered for a moment longer, then said, "Well, yeah."
The demon stood and paced across the room. "You're right," he said. "Something is screwed up."
The demon began stride quickly back and forth in front of Richard. Occasionally, he would pause, shake his head, and move on. This guy, he thought, is an idiot. Why do I always get assigned to the idiots? Why can't I ever get a pope? They've done all the reading. Where should I start? First principles.
He stopped and looked down at Richard. "Here," he said. "Do you find this place unpleasant at all?"
"Well, yeah," Richard said. "I mean, it's pretty filthy. I went to Union Station once and it was much nicer than this. They have that wonderful old archi--"
"No, no! You're missing the point. Think about it for a minute. This is Hell."
Richard leaned back on the bench, and stuck his lower lip out slightly. "So?"
The demon scowled. "You're here forever! For all eternity! With absolutely no hope for escape. You simply can't get out."
The thought apparently hadn't occurred to Richard before. "Oh," he said.
The demon pointed to the chalkboards along the wall. "Those buses will never come," he said. "And even if they did, you can't get outside to meet them. And even if you could, you can't get the tickets to get on them! Don't you see?"
Richard hesitate for a moment then said firmly, "Um."
"They offer futile hope, you geek! You're supposed to get down here and have a tiny suspicion that if only you were smart enough, if only you were clever enough, you could figure out how to get out!" The demon whirled towards Richard. "But you can't! There is no hope! You are trapped here forever! Don't you get it?"
"Trapped?" Richard asked.
"Trapped," the demon said firmly.
Richard considered the concept for a moment. "Oh," he said.
The demon grit his teeth and sat down heavily on the bench. He sighed and looked at Richard.
"Look," he said, "do you even know why you're here?"
Richard thought hard for a moment. He shook his head. "I hadn't really considered it."
"You hadn't considered why you were sent to Hell?"
"OK," said the demon. "Maybe that's what we're missing."
"I committed adultery," Richard offered. "That was supposed to be bad, wasn't it?"
The demon waved his hand dismissively. "God doesn't really care about that much any more."
"Oh. Well. I, uh, I disrespected my elders."
The demon grimaced. "This is the nineties."
"I used the Lord's name in vain."
The demon only gave him a sour look.
"You don't know how the Ten Commandments start, do you?"
Richard shook his head.
"'I am the Lord, thy God,'" said the demon. "That's how they start."
"I thought it was, 'In the beginning...'"
"That's the Bible. The Ten Commandments are a different thing."
"You didn't believe in God, see? That's pretty much the only major no-no left. God doesn't like killing all that much and stealing isn't considered a good thing, but he's really mellowed out lately. You can do pretty much all you want in the previous life and get away with it. But he still has a huge ego."
"God has an ego?"
"Wouldn't you? I mean, he's the Creator. He's omnipotent. You'd feel pretty damn proud of yourself if you could make a rock that even you couldn't pick up."
"Well... I suppose."
"Suppose? Of course you would." He demon turned towards Richard on the bench. "Here, look. You led a pretty morally upright life. You never killed anybody. You didn't steal much. You were a pretty good neighbor. You did unto others once in a while. You even turned the other cheek occasionally. Remember Harvey Wellman? You lent him your coat once."
Richard blinked slowly. "So why am I in Hell?"
"Because you didn't believe in God! That's the big thing. You're in Hell because you're an atheist."
Richard's brow furrowed for a moment and his mouth hung slightly opened. "But..." he started, stopping with his mouth further open.
"Hmm?" said the demon.
"But I never really gave it all that much thought."
Richard began to speak again, launching into words and then pulling up short. He paused for a moment, concentrating. Occasionally, he would let out an exasperated breath and tilt his head to the side.
"I'll wait," said the demon, his eyes wandering away from Richard and around the bus station.
Richard sat silently for three or four more minutes. Occasionally, he would grab hold of a concept only to have it skitter away when he tried to hold it too tightly. It was like trying to carry a dozen really big trout.
"But--" Richard finally offered. "But that's not fair!"
The demon suddenly turned towards Richard. "What?"
"That's not fair," Richard said.
A small smile broke across on the demon's face. "Not fair?" he asked.
"Yeah," Richard said. "Not fair. Not fair at all."
The demon was leaning eagerly towards Richard. "Why?" he asked. "Tell me why."
"Well, I led a good life. You even said so yourself. I was a good person."
"Let's not go overboard here."
"No, no. I was a good person. A decent, caring person. People loved me!"
"Well," Richard said, counting off his fingers. "I was a good person. People loved me. And now I'm in Hell."
"So?" the demon said again.
"That's not fair!"
"But why?" The demon strained even further forward.
Richard paused. "Well. Well, I'm only here because I didn't believe in God. I followed all the rules. Even if I didn't know they were the rules, I followed them. I ended up losing anyway. That doesn't seem very fair."
The demon looked at him with a pained expression. "'Seem very fair?'" he said.
Richard gathered himself and shook his dead vigorously. "No. No. In fact, it's not fair at all. It's not even a little fair."
"So what you're saying," said the demon, "is that you're a political prisoner."
"A political prisoner. You're here simply because of your beliefs. Because you didn't think what the powers-that-be wanted you to think."
Richard's eyes opened wide and he nodded his head. "Yeah!" he blurted. "Yeah. Exactly. That's exactly what I mean. That's not fair."
The demon crossed his arms across his chest and leaned comfortably back. "Bummer," he said.
Richard looked confused for a brief moment. "What do you mean, 'Bummer'?"
"Bummer," said the demon again.
Richard's shoulders slumped and he let out a sputtering breath. "Well, this sucks!" he said. "This really sucks!"
The demon smiled. "Good enough," he said to himself.
Greg Knauss (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a computer programmer and the creator of An Entirely Other Day. He's also a frequent contributor to TeeVee.
InterText stories written by Greg Knauss: "The Talisman" (v1n1), "Schrödinger's Monkey" (v1n1), "New Orleans Wins the War" (v1n2), "The Explosion That Killed Ben Lippincott" (v1n2), "The Damnation of Richard Gillman" (v1n3), "Novalight" (v4n3).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 1, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1991 Greg Knauss.