Thursday, August 16, 2007

waiting at the gates redux

The thing Peter liked most about his job was all the people he got to meet.
It felt like he had been doing the job for something like two thousand years, but the wide variety of people he got to meet made it all worthwhile. He had met other Jews like himself (and many not like himself), he had met Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians. There were people who thought they had seen UFOs, others who thought they had been abducted by aliens and medically probed, and some who actually thought they were aliens and were supposed to go around abducting people from their bedrooms and medically probing them. There had even been one fellow a few years ago who actually thought that trickle-down economics was a good idea.
The pay was negligible, and the hours were exhausting, but Peter had always loved people, and the personalities he got to meet in his line of work more than made up for it.
At times Peter wondered why the queue in front of his gate was so long. He had assumed at first that the other eleven gates also had a hefty backlog to work through, but when he managed to get away from his post -- by telling the boss that he needed a bathroom break -- he found the other gates locked and unattended. His co-workers, all eleven of them, had started out busily enough at first, but as time went on, the crowds had started to flock to Peter's gate, and when the flow slowed to a trickle and the trickle dried up, they decided to call it quits and play racquetball instead.
As he half-heartedly listened to a man rabbit on aimlessly about how he always had meant to go to church more often but had really needed his rest, Peter's eyes drifted mindlessly down the line. Growing up, he had never imagined such variety in the way people looked. Everyone he knew had been relatively thin, on account of being hungry so much, their skin had been as dark as bronze, and their hair and eyes had always been dark brown. But these days he saw people with hair the color of gold, or of flame, and increasingly in colors like purple or green. (The DNA must have been taking some really strange directions.)
Up ahead he saw a group of three women with strikingly pale hair, in a cluster. One of the benefits of being on the job for as long as he had been, was that Peter could make out what was being said, even by people quite a distance away, and he could always tell from his planner what names went with which person. He glanced down, and saw them in his book: Jenny, Jamie, and Jessica.
"I just realized," Jenny said to no one in particular, and Peter nodded absently as he saw the understanding come to her. "I'm dead, aren't I? We're in line for judgment." The words came calmly. It usually almost surprised the arrivals that they could be so nonchalant about their deaths, but then, as they all had to agree, since they were dead, it wasn't as though there much they could do about it.
"Mm," said Jamie, who was standing in front of her. Peter waved goodbye to a woman who had once made a pitcher of lemonade for her elderly neighbors, and she disappeared with a blood-curdling shriek and a flash of heat.
Crap, he thought. That's the third one I got wrong this week. Wonder if anyone will notice, or if I can avoid doing the paperwork to straighten it out?
"How did you die?" Jamie asked Jenny.

"I froze to death," Jenny said, matter-of-factly, and the line advanced closer to Peter.

"That sounds awful," said Jamie. "How does it feel to freeze to death?"

"It was very uncomfortable at first," said Jenny. "I started shaking ferociously, and then I got sharp pains in my fingers and toes that I just couldn't stop. But in the end, I suppose it was a very peaceful way to go. I went numb and just kind of drifted off, as though I were sleeping."

The next man in line had talked on his cell phone at the theater, but Peter let him in anyway. With any luck, it would balance out his error with Mrs. Johnson. Jenny and Jamie were still talking, while Jessica looked off into the distance, deep in thought.
"How about you, how did you die?" Jenny asked.

"I had a heart attack," said Jamie. "You see, I knew my husband was cheating on me, so one day I showed up at home unexpectedly. I ran up to the bedroom, and even though he was watching TV by himself, I wasn't fooled. I ran to the basement, but couldn't find anyone there either. So I ran to the second floor, and there was still no one hiding there either. I ran as fast as I could to the attic, and just as I got there, I had a massive heart attack and died."

"Ah," said Jenny sadly. Not really paying attention to what he was doing, Peter accidentally reincarnated the next seventeen people as various invertebrates before he caught himself and desparately tried to set things right by letting people in or sending them away based on whether they could beat him at Rock, Paper, Scissors. An entire flock of nuns disappeared in a burst of hellish fire, and Peter smacked himself on the forehead in remonstration.
"What a pity," Jenny said at last, as they reached the front of the line. "If you had only looked in the freezer, we'd both still be alive."

Peter stared at them blankly, his mouth opening and shutting silently while he tried to figure out what had happened. He had just sent Mother Teresa to hell, released the unbaptized dead from Limbo, and had let a squadron of bikers into heaven after failing to notice that the word "Angels" on their leather jackets had been preceded by "Hell's." It was shaping up to be his worst performance on the job since the day he discovered that some nitwit had changed his name from Cephas to Petros without even bothering to consult him, and that a bunch of Gentiles had declared him the first pope when he hadn't even realized he had converted from Judaism. The three northern women looked at him expectantly, and for a moment he felt the first stirrings of real panic.
He gripped the sides of his lectern and steadied himself. He was Saint Peter. He was the Rock on whom Christ had built his church. He'd been doing this for millennia, all by himself. He could handle this. He just needed to get it back under control.
"I'll let you into heaven if you can answer me one question," he said. He was fishing admittedly, but Peter had always been a good fisherman, even before he became an apostle.

"It isn't a math question, is it?" asked Jamie. "I've never been very good at math, unless it involves sales."
"No, no math," Peter said, somewhat surprised by the question. He could feel his control of the situation starting to slip. "You just have to tell me--"
"Oh, I hope it's not an essay question," Jenny said. "I never do the assigned reading for tests, and I'm horrible at writing. I got a C-minus on my eighth-grade book report on 'The Cat in the Hat' because I thought it was all about the family dog."
"No, it's not an essay question either," said Peter, starting to panic for real now. "You just have to explain--"
"Could it be true or false?"
"What about multiple choice?"
The old saint screamed and nearly pulled out his hair, but at the last moment he mastered himself, gripped the sides of his podium and said, through clenched teeth, "Just. Tell. Me. What. Easter. Is."
"Easter comes in December," Jenny said perkily. "It's when we put up a holiday tree, exchange presents, and celebrate the birth of Jesus."
"No," said Peter, relieved to be on familiar ground again, but still somewhat surprised by the answer. "I'm afraid that's not it." He turned to Jamie. "Can you tell me what Easter is?"
"That's an easy one," said Jamie, smiling at Jenny like the cat that swallowed the canary. "Easter's the fourth Thursday in November. Everyone gets together to celebrate the start of the Christmas shopping season on Friday, we eat turkey, and we're thankful for everything we get to buy."

Peter sighed, shook his head, and peered over his half-moon spectacles at Jessica, who had been waiting patiently in line behind the other two. "I don't suppose you can tell me what Easter is?"
Jessica smiled and looked St. Peter in the eyes, "Of course I know what Easter is," she said confidently.

"Oh?" said Peter, and the slightest measure of hope entered his voice. "Please explain."
"Easter is the Christian holiday that coincides with the Jewish celebration of Passover," Jessica said with the easy manner of someone repeating oft-reheared bits of knowledge. "Jesus and his disciples were eating at the Last Supper, and later that evening one of his disciples turned Jesus over to the Romans. The Romans took him to be crucified and he was stabbed in the side, made to wear a crown of thorns, and was hung on a cross with nails through his hands. He was buried in a nearby cave that was sealed off by a large boulder."
St. Peter smiled broadly with delight and relief. At last, he thought, here's someone who knows what she's talking about.
Then Jessica continued: "Every year the boulder is moved aside so that Jesus can come out... and, if he sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter."

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