Lance made his uncertain way down a long, dark, corridor. Bright light leaking from a crack underneath a closed door up ahead guided him forward and urged him on. Not that he needed urging. This corridor wasn’t a pleasant place. For one thing, it was pitch-dark. For another, it was hot, and oh, so humid! The floor was was soft, squishy, and a little sticky in places. Each of Lance’s footsteps sounded like an amplified pair of lips sucking on a peach pit. And, that was the least disgusting sound to be heard. Lance was unnerved by a certain persistent, loud, slow, thick bubbling, as if a gigantic pot of gumbo were simmering nearby. He also heard sporadic, weary utterances that could have been the moans of some suffering animals or the enervated ramblings of drunken hockey announcers. Whatever these wretched creatures were, they had every right to kvetch in this inhospitable place.
The light from yonder door seemed to brighten with encouragement as Lance drew closer. He quickened his suction-cup steps, and when he finally came within a few feet of the door, he tripped over something, or perhaps someone, judging from the distressed squeal it emitted. Propelled forward, Lance ran smack into the door, which stopped him abruptly with a loud thud. On the other side of the door, Lance could hear a man weeping copiously. And then, he heard another man with a Slavic accent announce, “It’s open!”
Timidly, Lance entered the room. Ten or so men were sitting in a circle. Many of them looked disturbingly familiar. Several strange paintings of long-necked donkeys hung from the walls of this otherwise nondescript chamber.
“Welcome to meeting,” said the man with the Slavic accent. He had bushy hair and a very thick mustache. “You are here for meeting, yes?”
“Meeting?” thought Lance. He replied, “I don’t know. I was just in the corridor, and it was so dark.”
“Da, we hear you.” said the Slav. “So, so dark. And scary!”
“And, oy, so humid!” growled a stocky man who looked exactly like Attila the Hun, right down to the furry boots.
“Please tell us your name and have a seat,” said the Slav.
Lance grew a little nervous. “I don’t know if I’m supposed to be here,” he said as he looked around the room. All the men there nodded thoughtfully in response, except one man, who was still sobbing, albeit quietly. It was unmistakably Adolph Hitler. His flowing tears stained the lapels of his Nazi uniform.
“We all felt like that in the beginning,” said the Slav.
“No, I mean, I don’t even know why I’m here,” protested Lance.
General, sympathetic rumblings rose up from the men in the room. Suddenly, a man with a Cambodian accent spoke up: “Denial is not a river in Egypt, my friend.”
Everybody laughed, but afterward the Slav gently admonished the Cambodian.
“The group appreciates your levity, Pol P., but I think we should let newcomer finish what he was saying.”
“Newcomer?” said Lance feebly.
“We were just about to get started,” said the Slav pleasantly. “Why don’t you have a seat. There is coffee and literature on back table. You can ask questions after meeting. Now, everybody, welcome to our weekly meeting of Damned-For-All-Eternity Anonymous. My name is Josef S., and I’m damned for all eternity.”
“Hi, Josef!,” responded the others in unison.
Lance felt queasy. “Where am I?” he demanded.
“Well,” explained the Slav, “this used to be the cafeteria, but of course, we had that population explosion, and when they finally finished that annex for the Eighth Circle, they moved the cafeteria down there.”
“Eighth circle?” said Lance quietly. “Are you saying that this is Hell?”
“Yes,” said the Slav. “Welcome!”
The other men echoed their mutters of “Welcome.”
Lance put his hands to his face. “I’m in Hell!”
“One day at a time!” said the Slav, holding up an instructive index finger. “We’re all in Hell one day at a time.”
Lance took his hands off his face. “You’re Josef Stalin, aren’t you.”
“I go by Josef S. in meeting. Or just Josef is fine.” said Stalin.
Lance looked at the Cambodian. “So you must be Pol Pot.”
“Pol P., please,” said Pol Pot.
Lance stared at one of the freakish donkey pictures. “I don’t get it,” he mused. “If Hell has had a population explosion, why are there only 10 people here in this meeting?”
“Excellent question, old boy,” said a diminutive hunchback dressed like a 15th-Century monarch. “Clearly, there are many inhabitants…”
“Ahem,” interrupted Stalin, “Please observe the meeting protocol when speaking.”
“Terribly sorry. My name is Richard Y., and I’m damned for all eternity.
“Hi, Richard!” the others declaimed in unison.
“Anyway, as I was saying, old boy,” Richard Y. continued, “clearly there are many, many inhabitants of dear old H-E-Double-Toothpicks, what! But, believe it or not, we’re the only people in the whole, ghastly place who have come to realize that we have a problem.”
“A problem?” said Lance.
“Quite right, old boy,” said Richard Y. “Our problem. You know…that we’re condemned to an eternity of darkness, despair and torment. Fire and brimstone and all that rot, what! But here we are, coming to terms with it. Good for us, I say!”
“You mean,” struggled Lance, “some of the inhabitants of Hell don’t realize they’re here.”
“Sad, isn’t it,” Richard Y. shook is head causing the crown on top to slide forward a little. “They concoct all sorts of silly illusions to explain why they are stuck in a place of perpetual misery. A whole contingent, for example, fancy themselves to be at a marathon Yanni concert. Still another group is pretending that they’re at a sales training seminar in Akron, Ohio. And then there are those poor deluded wankers in the Lake of Fire who keep telling themselves that they’re in a fast food restaurant…”
“You’re Richard III, aren’t you,” said Lance, who couldn’t help being a little fascinated.
Richard Y. suddenly got snippy:
“Now, see here, old fruit,” he barked. “I suppose the old hunchback is a bit of a giveaway, what. But don’t imagine for a moment that I’m going to entertain you with that whole ‘Winter of our bloody discontent’ nonsense! I’m a condemned soul, but I’m not a circus monkey, you follow me? Honestly, the bloody nerve! I didn’t even say those words. It was that bloody Shakespeare with his silly “kingdom for a horse” twaddle. You want monologues, call on that old tosser. I believe you’ll find him setting up bowling pins on the Third Circle or wherever they’re putting plagiarists these days. ‘Winter of our discontent,’ my a…”
Stalin broke in: “Now, now, Richard Y., take deep breath…”
Richard III suddenly stared at the floor.
“Terribly sorry, old boy,” he muttered.
“Richard Y. has issues with anger.” said Stalin.
Lance felt safe to ask: “But what does the ‘Y’ stand for?”
Richard III exploded again.
“York, you stupid ponce! As in bloody ‘House of.’ Honestly, Americans!”
“Richard Y., please!” said Stalin. “That can’t be good for the newcomer’s self esteem.”
“Quite right,” muttered Richard III, as he limped over to the back table for a cup of coffee and a very hard donut.
“Now then,” said Stalin. “If the newcomer will be good enough to sit down and join us…”
Lance hesitated. “Do I have a choice?”
“Well,” said Stalin, “you could leave the room and return…to the corridor.”
A low, general rumble of laughter in the room followed this suggestion.
Lance sat down on the rickety, empty folding chair between Hitler and Idi Amin.
Stalin smiled, causing his jungle of a mustache to rise on his face.
“So glad you are joining us,” he said.
Everybody else clapped.
“To continue the meeting,” said Stalin, “would somebody please read, ‘the objective of enlightened lost souls,’ which appears on page 5,785 of the Big Black Book?”
A Frenchman impeccably dressed in late 18th century attire cleared his throat. Lance guessed correctly that this gentleman was none other than the Marquis De Sade, but he refrained from saying anything.
“My name is Marquis D., and I am condemned for all eternity.”
“Hi, Marquis D.,” said everybody.
“The objective of enlightened lost souls,” read the well-prepared Marquis from a very large, black book on his lap, “is to recognize that there is a power lower than ourselves that has absolute control of our eternal destinies. Further, we strive to accept the fact that while we are in Hell one day at a time, we’re not going anywhere any time soon. With this in mind, we can begin to lead useful afterlives, and eventually become damned glad to be here!!”
“Thank you, Marquis D.,” said everybody.
“And, now, we shall each introduce ourselves, stating why we are here, how long we’ve been here. I shall begin. Again, my name is Josef S., and I am damned for all eternity.”
“Hi, Josef S.,” said everybody.
“I arrived here in 1953,” Stalin continued. “because I institutionalized terror and was responsible for the death and deprivation of millions of people. Oh, that, and I plucked a live bird of all its feathers in the presence of my would-be successor. ”
“Thank you, Josef S.” said everybody.
“I am Pol, and I am damned for all eternity,” said Pol Pot, taking his turn.
“Hi, Pol!” said everybody.
“I have been accused of ordering the deaths of thousands of people…”
Pol Pot hesitated and turned red.
“The thing, it was all a misunderstanding! Really!”
“Not this again, Pol P.!” said Jack the Ripper.
“If there was any justice,” protested Pol Pot, “I’d probably be wearing a white gown and wings and playing a harp right now!”
“Excuse me?” asked Lance before he could stop himself.
“Don’t enable him!” warned Jack the Ripper.
Pol Pot continued: “I didn’t want ‘killing fields!’ I wanted ‘licking fields!’ I was trying set up a massive direct mail operation to solicit prospective subscribers for my new propaganda campaign, ‘C’mere Rouge.’ My plans called for a large, open-air facility accommodating thousands of people employed to seal envelopes. Open air! You can’t beat that for adequate ventilation. How does that make me inhumane? I distinctly wrote ‘licking fields’ in the memo that I sent to my my minister of internal operations. Could I help it if he was dyslexic? How is that MY fault?”
“Get off the pity pot!” grumbled the Attila the Hun lookalike.
“First names, Attila H.!” said the Marquis de Sade.
“No!” protested the Hun. “I didn’t mean, ‘Get off the pity comma Pot.’ I was saying ‘Get off the pity pot COMMA Pol!”
“I say,” said Richard III, sitting on the back table with his stumpy legs dangling, “Isn’t ‘Pol’ his last name anyway? He is Cambodian, you know.”
“Let us please continue with the meeting,” said Stalin, trying to restore order. “And besides, we are all citizens of Hell, now!”
“I was merely suggesting,” said Richard III testily, “that it may, in fact, be appropriate within the meeting guidelines to address Pol P. as ‘Pot P.’ if we establish that the Pol P.’s or Pot P.’s last name ‘Pol’ as opposed to ‘Pot’ — if you follow me — because Pol. P. or Pot P. is Cambodian. You see, Josef S., just as you yourself are Russian…”
“Pol P., Pot P….what is the difference!” said Pol Pot magnanimously. “There is a ‘P’ in ‘Pol’ and there is a ‘P’ in ‘Pot’!”
Everybody else at the meeting tittered, except for the inconsolable Fuhrer, who was on his second box of Kleenexes. Even Lance smirked a little.
“Now that we have we cleared this matter up,” said Stalin, “we really ought to get on with the meeting. And besides,” he added, staring directly at Richard III, “I’m Georgian.”
“I stand corrected,” quipped a sardonic Richard III as he reached for yet another copralite-like doughnut.
“Now then, it is Adolph H.’s turn,” said Stalin, nodding to his whimpering neighbor.
Hitler blew his nose, and Attila the Hun gave a start. The noise still reminded him of the trumpets of advancing Roman infantry. For his part, Hitler was still choking back the tears.
“M-m-my name is Adolph, and I am d-d-damned for all eternity.”
“Hi, Adolph!” said the group. Much to his own surprise, Lance joined in.
“I…I…” The room was absolutely silent as Hitler tried to compose himself. One could hear a pin dropping or, somewhere down the hall, a whip cracking.
“I…I…” as the Fuhrer continued his struggle, his upper lip twitched and his little, geometrically perfect mustache seemed to Lance to be doing a disgusting little hula dance.
“I JUST VANTED TO BE A PAINTER!” blubbered Hitler, shedding enough tears to irrigate the very desert that Rommel unsuccessfully crossed.
Stalin tried to help Hitler along. “How long have you been here, Adolph H.?”
“Mama said my paintings veren’t half-bad. Vas she lying to me?” Hitler whined heedlessly. “Ach, maybe I vas using der wrong size brushes. Or maybe ze easel vas too shakey!”
Stalin smiled at Lance. “Adolph is dealing with his issues as a frustrated artist. We’re giving him support by letting him paint pictures to decorate the walls in this room.”
The Fuhrer managed to beam with pride as Stalin indicated the pictures.
“Oh,” said Lance, trying to be a little more personable. “So he painted these pictures of the long-necked donkeys?”
“Zose are not donkeys! Zose are llamas!” moaned Hitler. His brief respite from inconsolable self-pity abruptly ended in another torrent of tears.”
An exasperated sigh rose from the group. The Marquis De Sade started fanning himself.
“Ven I vas in Argentina, I vent to de Andes for vacation, und saw ze llamas for ze first time,” said the Fuhrer, his voice getting higher with every syllable. “Und now, I try to paint dese funny-looking animals from memory, und you say it look like a donkey! Zere can be only von explanation: I shtink as an artist! I SHTINK! Ach…!”
The weeping became worse than ever. Jack the Ripper, who couldn’t stand the sound, covered his ears.
“Perhaps we should move on and come back to Adolph H. later,” said Stalin. That would bring us to you, the newcomer.”
“Me?” said Lance uneasily.
“Yes. State your name please,” coached Stalin.
“Uh, my name is uh Lance…”
“Hi, Lance!” erupted the room.
“Don’t be shy. Continue,” said Stalin.
“And I’m uh…I’m…” Lance cleared his throat. “Look, I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to be here! Seriously!”
“Come come,” coaxed the Hun. “The sooner you can admit your problem, the sooner you can begin to deal with it for all eternity.
“Well, it’s just that…,” stammered Lance, shuffling his feet, “Now, I don’t want to offend anybody here, but I didn’t do the types of things that you all did when you were alive.”
“I beg your pardon?” challenged Richard III.
Lance steeled himself and continued. “Well, for example, you, Richard Y., caused the deaths of everybody who stood between you and the throne of England, to which you weren’t even entitled. You murdered your brother and other relatives without even batting an eye.”
“Well, naughty me,” snorted Richard III, lifting up his rump and spanking himself lightly.
“And you, Attila the Hun,” continued Lance with growing confidence, “caused widespread terror and misery in the civilized world with your barbaric raids. Marquis De Sade, your perversions continue to disgust decent people centuries after your death. Jack the Ripper, you were a savage murderer.”
“And what did you do for a living, Mr. Goody Two Shoes,” said the indignant Hun, standing up with his hands on his hips.
“Well, nothing as horrible and evil as what you all did! That’s my point!” said Lance.
“Out with it! What did you do for an occupation!” demanded Pol Pot.
Even the sniveling Hitler joined in: “You vill talk!”
Lance replied matter-of-factly, “I organized half-time entertainment for the Super Bowls.”
A collective gasp went up in the room, followed by uncomfortable silence. Attila the Hun’s knees gave way, and he sat down quickly. Idi Amin discreetly moved his chair a few inches away from Lance. Hitler followed suit. Pol Pot and Jack the Ripper whispered timidly among themselves, and the Marquis De Sade fanned himself all the more vigorously. Even Stalin seemed at a loss.
“Forgive us,” said Stalin, forcing himself to speak. “We are not judging you. It is only somewhat startling to encounter, for the first time, the man responsible for inflicting such atrocities on the human race. In time, we will accept you. Only allow us to adjust to this shocking revelation.”
“What?” said Lance. “What’s wrong with Super Bowl half-time entertainment? How do you even know about it?”
“Please don’t get angry!” implored the horrified Hun.
“They play all of the…the…Super Bowl half-time shows since about 1983 on a continuous loop on all of the TVs on all Nine Circles…” stammered Jack the Ripper, “…ALL THE TIME!”
“It’s all that’s on TV here!” moaned Idi Amin. “Except for Barney.”
“It is an integral part of our eternal punishment,” said Stalin, shaking his head. “Is it any wonder that we need this support group?”
“Were they THAT bad?” asked Lance, looking up again at Hitler’s long-necked donkeys.
“That Up With People performance was especially egregious,” said a pale Richard III.
“Hey, THAT wasn’t MY fault!” protested Lance. “Those performers did something completely different in rehearsal. They misled me! I was furious.”
“Tell them yourself,” suggested Jack the Ripper. “They’re all down here.”