By Robert J. Lowenherz, Ph.D.
One hour after a massive heart attack, William S. Jefferson died in his hospital bed. What followed was not at all what he would have expected. A parchment scroll tied with a black ribbon lay on the small table next to his bed. Without even thinking how it was possible, he sat up, reached over, untied the scroll, and opened it. To his astonishment, he read:
NOTICE OF ASSIGNMENT
Please be advised that on this day, you, William S. Jefferson, have
been assigned for all eternity to the Infernal Regions, also known as Hell.
The reasons for this assignment can be accessed by calling 999-968-4355.
We regret any inconvenience this Notice may cause. Thank you for your
William was stunned. He had led a virtuous, even exemplary, life. He attended church on Sundays. He gave to the poor and helped little old ladies cross busy streets. He was kind to animals and tried in every way to be environmentally friendly. And now this Notice? It must be a mistake. He would soon find out. He took his smart phone from the drawer of the small table and dialed the number in the Notice.
It took nine rings, but at last a perky female voice spoke:
You have reached the Assignment and Reassignment Division of the Infernal Regions, otherwise known as Hell. Please listen carefully, as our menu has changed during the past millennium. For the Bureau of Lost and Found Souls, press One.
For the Registrar’s Office of the Vocational School for Imps, Little Devils, Fiends, and Demons, press Two. For a one-way ticket on Charon’s ferry over the River Styx, press Three. To hear this menu again, press Four.
Typical, William thought. Not one of the four choices had anything to do with his problem, which was reassignment. In desperation, he pressed One on his smart phone. A sepulchral male voice reverberated in his ear. If you are inquiring about a lost soul, press One. If you are inquiring about a found soul, press Two. Otherwise, stay on the line and a diabolical representative will be with you in a moment.
Well, that was more like it. William, pleased that he had made the right choice, smiled for the first time since his death. Then he waited. And waited. And waited some more. At last, the perky female voice spoke:
All of our representatives are busy assisting other woeful souls. We appreciate your patience during this peak time of damnation. Please wait, and one of our representatives will be with you shortly.
“Damn!” William shouted. He had waited long enough.
“You called?” asked the enormous Demon standing next to the hospital bed. His horned head bent down toward William, or it would have hit the ceiling. A pungent stench of sulfur and decaying dead things filled the room. It made William choke and sneeze.
“How may I help you?” the towering Demon asked.
“You could start–Ah CHOO!–you could begin by opening that window to let in some fresh air.”
The Demon raised his left hand. Under the fluorescent ceiling light, ebony talons on his hand glowed. The window slid up and open.
“That’s better,” William said. “Now, what I need is a reassignment. There’s been a terrible mistake. I’ve been consigned to Down Under when I should be Up Above.”
“That is easily arranged,” the Demon said. “But it may not be what you expect. Few things in life–or in the afterlife–are. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Farewell, and off and up with you!”
“What a nice Demon,” William thought. He was about to ask him if he had a private telephone number, but he was distracted by a deafening crescendo of harp music and a brilliant, almost blinding, golden light around him. The hospital bed, the small table, the Demon, the entire room had all vanished. William found himself standing in front of what looked like a lectern. On it he saw a thick pile of sheets of ivory parchment, a quill pen, an open inkwell, and a blue blotter. Bending over the top sheet of parchment, he read:
Please fill in the blanks on the first twenty pages of this questionnaire. Print all answers neatly and legibly. You must also complete the next twenty pages by circling True or False. For the multiple-choice questions on the last twenty pages, place a check mark before the answer that seems right to you. Do not skip any items. When you have finished, you will be directed to the second stage of the Heavenly Entrance Procedure. Thank you for your cooperation.
“That does it!” William shouted. “I’m out of here.”
“Indeed?” a disembodied voice said to him. “Where will you go?”
“I feel like I’m going crazy. But short of that, I’ll settle for Limbo.”
The disembodied voice laughed.
“Limbo? That has been shut down for longer than anyone can remember.
There is only Up Here or Down There or . . . .”
“Or back to Being Alive.”
“Okay. I’ll take Being Alive. But without the heart attack.”
“That can be arranged. But please be advised. Before you can leave the hospital, there will be both physical and psychological tests, interviews with doctors and the administration, legal forms to fill out, and . . . .”
What William said next is unprintable.
So we had best end here with a brief
1. Do you approve of the way this story ended? Circle Yes or No.
2. Imagine that you are a Literary Agent. Circle the letter of the choice that seems best
a. Recommend the story to a Publisher.
b. Return it to the author with a covering letter.
c. Return it to the author without a covering letter.
d. Add it to the Slush Pile.
e. None of the above.
Robert J. Lowenherz, Ph.D. is retired Editor-in-Chief of Amsco School Publications, Inc., a New York City textbook publisher that is now no longer in business. As a former university English teacher, he also wrote five books published for use nationally in schools and libraries. Before 2000, a few of his poems and short stories were published. Only recently he has resumed writing fiction and poetry. “Pro Forma” is his first submission of fiction in many years.