Sunday, April 10, 2005

The last laugh-1

-i-


It was a Saturday night in downtown Zion, and The Olympian Speakeasy was filling up fast. Indeed, Mike and Gabe were waiting in line for a table. The late Pastor Bud Buster was with them. In Zion, everybody was the late someone or another--'cepting for the angels, naturally.

Pastor Bud was a new arrival, assigned to Mike for orientation week. He was still pretty green--green as a chameleon on Astroturf, quite unacculturated to the otherworldly street smarts of urban life in the Holy City.

“Isn't there a free table over there?” Bud asked.
“That's set aside for the Angelic Doctor,” Mike answered. “He's got a lifetime reservation, and in Zion, a lifetime reservation is going the distance.”
“The Angelic who?”
“The Angelic Doctor?” Mike answered.
“They didn't teach us about no Angelic Doctor at Holy Smokes Bible College,” Bud explained. “Just Bible and rodeo. Still, whoever he is, it seems a mite unsportsmanlike that he's got a lifetime reservation.”
“Well, he wrote a whole Quodlibet on the finer points of terpsichorean angelology--which got him in good with the upper management,” Gabe interjected.
“You mean...like...how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Bud asked.
“Exactly!”
“Seems like kind of a useless question to me,” Bud said.
Gabe glared at him while Mike had to suppress a frown. Bud reddened, realizing that he had committed a celestial faux-pas.
“Let me assure you,” said Mike, in tones of archangelic solemnity, “that up here it's a question of utmost metaphysical import!”
“Anyway, it's not like he has the whole table to himself,” said Gabe, recovering his self-composure. “He usually eats with St. Anselm. Why, only last Saturday they got into a rather intense discussion over Al's modal version of the ontological argument. Even St. Augustine got drawn into the conversation. Tom thought they were ganging up on him, at which point he abruptly reverted, in mid-sentence, from Latin to his native Neopolitan. Unable to win the debate, this at least precluded him from losing it.”
“So what's the answer?” Bud asked.
“The answer to what?” Mike replied.
“How many angels can...”
“Oh, that again. I'm not sure what to say,” Mike replied, slightly flustered. “I mean, that's an extremely personal question--one we don't ordinarily discuss in mixed company. What do you think, Gabe? Is this suitable material for an outworlder to hear?”
“If he doesn't hear it from us, he'll hear it from the wrong sort--in snickering, gold-plated back-alleys. Besides, we're all grown-ups here, and he's almost one of us by now,” Gabe whispered, under his breath.
“I suppose so,” said Mike, with a sigh. “Very well then,” he continued, in a low tone of voice, after looking around the room. “If you really must know, it all depends. In flamenco, it comes to 133 1/3 angels to the 50th power; in square dancing--220 1/4 to the 100th power, and in break dancing--545 1/2 to the 150th power. And that's not counting ballet, tap-dancing, the waltz, the foxtrot, or the Chattanooga Choo-choo.”
“How can you have a fraction of an angel?” Bud asked.
“Just as you've got the four-color problem, we've got the tetramorphic close-packing problem. There's an intimate branch of hyperdimensional geometry on all possible positions, wingtip to wingtip, of illocal angelology, but I fear it would be a bit over your head. Why, even poor old Newton went back to counting on his fingers--dubbed it 'digital fluxions,' he did.”
“I'll take your word for it,” Bud replied.

-ii-

“I trust you had a pleasant flight,” Mike asked, as they waited in the lounge.
“I knew a priest back on earth who assured me that I'd have a layover in Purgatory. I didn't believe him, of course, but I was still gratified to be booked on a nonstop flight to heaven,” Bud said.
Mike was winking at Gabe, while Gabe nodded in return.
“There is no Purgatory, is there?” Bud asked.
“It's a matter of definition,” Mike replied.
“What do you mean?” Bud asked.
“So many folks put so much faith in Purgatory that we decided to meet them half way. After all, if they can invent a Purgatory, so can we,” Mike replied.
“We aim to please!” Gabe interjected.
“I don't follow you.”
“We positioned Purgatory on the upper story of Dis, as the grand entrance to hell,” Gabe explained.
“There's always a hot market for prime real estate Down Under,” Mike interposed.
“New arrivals are mightily impressed at first. You should have been there to see Mussolini's face when the truth began to dawn on him,” Gabe continued.
“How so?”
“Well, long before his adoring public turned him into a Christmas tree ornament, Il Duce had this nifty little arrangement with a charming old Premonstratensian abbey just outside of Trieste. In exchange for a weekly wad of lira, delivered in thick, discreet manila envelops, the monks would celebrate a Requiem Mass in his honor once a day and twice on Sundays.”
“Why?”
“Why? To replenish his pension plan in the Treasury of Merit--like making regular deposits to a Swiss Bank account, you know.”
“Consider it a nest-egg for the Netherworld,” Mike added, helpfully.
“But doesn't that border on entrapment?” Bud asked, anxiously.
“Oh dear, you do have such a literal way of looking at things!” Gabe exclaimed, with a sigh. “Think of it as a sit-com--where the bad guy gets his comeuppance.”
“I guess so,” said Bud, in a doubtful tone of voice. “So what tipped him off?”
“He began to complain about the room service. And when he got no satisfaction, he took the elevator down to the first floor.”
“I don't understand,” Bud said.
“Hell is built like an upside down skyscraper,” Gabe explained. “You might call it a groundscraper, in the subterranean sense of the word. So the upper story is really the lower story, and vice versa--depending on how you look at it. Gives a whole new meaning to that sinking feeling.”
“And the elevators only go down, never up,” Mike interjected. “So once he got down to the first floor, he became cognizant of his truly abysmal situation.”
“How in hell can hell have a first floor?” Bud asked. “I thought it was a bottomless pit?”
“That's what makes it one of the Seven Wonders of the Underworld, designed by the old architectural firm of Hilbert, Cantor & Associates.”
“The original blueprint was deposited in the Empyrean Archive of Public Works, if you'd like to look it over sometime,” Gabe added. “A very ingenious feat of engineering.”
“What are the other Six Wonders?”
“That's above your security clearance!”

-iii-

After they were seated, Pastor Bud looked around a bit apprehensively. The sports bar was fitted with HD Plasma TV screens and Dolby surround sound so that every diner could enjoy the great and glorious spectacle of the scarlet whore a.k.a. the painted Jezebel a.k.a. the amber-scented Delilah weep and gnash her teeth in the Lake of Fire.

In the background, the Bebop Band was playing a riff on “When the Saints Go Marching In,” with Vivaldi on bass, Palestrina on drums, Mendelssohn taking the alto sax, and Bach at the jazz organ console. Handel would be by later that evening with his clarinet after he finished rehearsing the Junior Cherub Choir for Sunday morning services.

At one table, Milton and Dante were collaborating on a new poem, having discovered, upon their arrival, that both were way off on the architecture of heaven. It took them several centuries to hammer out a verse scheme agreeable to both, as terza rima was unsuitable to Elizabethan English, and blank verse to Medieval Italian. Finally, they settled upon Esperanto, for Milton was more at ease with Romance usage than Dante with Anglo-Saxon--although they gave serious consideration, for a time, to rewriting the Inferno in German since everything already sounds like a curse-word in German.

Then there was the Catholic question. For patriotic reasons, Dante was a Romanist, while Milton was an ardent foe of popery. With a word of advice from St. Peter, they agreed to confine all Augustan allusions to the state of the Avignon papacy, upon which they each could vent with equal spleen.

At another table, Jon and Sarah Edwards were having a romantic meal out on the town. Although it was hard to make out by candlelight, the Rev. Edwards seemed to be illustrating a point by dangling a spider over the flame.

At yet another table, Chuck Spurgeon and Sam Rutherford were debating church polity. Rutherford said the twenty-four elders in heaven proved the divino jure origin of Presbyterial governance, but Spurgeon countered by saying it wasn't for naught that John was denominated a Baptist.

“Is that who I think it is?” Bud asked, pointing to a table in the far corner of the room.
“Calvin and the Wesley boys, you mean?” Mike answered.
“I thought they didn't' get along.”
“That was before,” Gabe explained. “Heaven is a best seminary.”
“But it still took upwards of a century for Calvin to get John straightened out on the finer points of predestination,” Mike interjected.
“Thankfully, we've got time to spare up here,” Gabe added. “You should hear some of his brother's brand-new hymns on the horrible decree. Very edifying!”

“And what about that rather dispirited man over there?”
“Who? Oh, you mean Bishop Berkeley. Just as there are degrees of pain in hell, there are degrees of happiness in heaven,” Mike explained.
“But why isn't he as overjoyed as all the rest?”
“At first, he was bowled by the place. It was the very vindication of esse is percipi.
“What do you mean?”
“Ah, I see they didn't teach you that at Holy Smokes Bible College either. Very well then. Berkeley was of the opinion that things are really thoughts. And he tried to convince everyone that, deep down, this is what the common man believes as well. For his high-minded efforts, he was treated as a laughing-stock and butt of endless abuse. When, however, he finally made it to heaven, where everything is oh-so ethereal, his was, indeed, the common sense philosophy.”
“So why does he not appear to be more upbeat.”
“Well, there's nothing very revolutionary about telling everyone what they already believe. When he endeavored to explain his philosophy up here, it was like trying to prove that water is wet and grass is green. Everyone nodded with polite approval and went on about their business. It was rather like the reception accorded to Alister Crowley in hell.”
“How so?”
“Back on earth, to be a devil-worshipper with a worshipful throng was naughty fun; but when he actually got to hell, it was something of an anticlimax. Down Under, a Satanist is a dime a dozen, and he was pretty low on the pecking-order of infernal infamy. And over time, of which there's no shortage, above or below, he began to find the company distinctly disagreeable. Why, Down Under, they've got time to burn--literally!”

“And who's that?” Bud asked.
“Who do you mean?” Mike replied.
“The dude over there in the tiara.”
“Oh, that's Pius IX.”
“Why's he playing a game of Solitaire?”
”When he first got here he used to play a friendly hand of stud poker with Pascal, St. Theresa, and Bernard of Clairvaux.”
“I guess I understand about Pascal, since he could play the odds. But what about the other two?” Bud interrupted.
“Theresa and Bernard both bring a certain mystic intuition to the game.”
“I see. So what went wrong?”
“Whenever Pius was dealt a weak hand, he had a sneaky habit of switching to his infallible setting. At first they chalked it up to beginner's luck, but after the winning streak continued unabated for the next twenty years or so, they started to suspect that he had an ex cathedra card up his sleeve--which was tantamount to cheating, as far as they were concerned.”
“You mean the Pope really is infallible?”
“Not as a rule, but this is heaven, after all, so we humored him.”
“Service is our middle name!” Gabe interjected.
“Did he ever fess up?”
“Whenever they confronted him, he'd simply grin with that wry, Mona Lisa smile of his. So now he plays Solitaire.”
“Sounds highly questionable to me,” Bud said.
“Pius insisted that his conduct throughout the whole affair conformed to the highest canons of casuistry--which provoked a rather strenuous exchange with Pascal over the respective merits, or lack thereof, of probabilism, equiprobabilism, and probabiliorism.”

-iv-

“You seem to be a tad uneasy,” Gabe said.
“It's just not what I was expecting,” Bud said.
“What's not to expect?” Gabe asked.
“Well, the bottle and the altar-call don't mix where I come from.”
“I thought you were a Southern Baptist?”
“What of it?”
“Doesn't that make you a whisky Calvinist?”
Bud was speechless.
“Heaven takes a bit of getting used to,” Gabe continued. “Why, you should have seen the expression on Fra Angelico's face when we picked him at the airport back in 1455. It was obvious that he'd never seen a real angel before!”
“And then there was the first time that Raphael got to meet the Blessed Virgin,” Mike interjected. “I guess he was expecting a face like Dolores Del Rio, not Golda Meir!”
“Still, I wasn't prepared for a celestial establishment serving intoxicants,” Bud said.
“Intoxicants? Let me assure you that every elixir served on these premises is non-alcoholic!” Mike remonstrated.
At this, Bud let out an audible sign of relief and his facial muscles went flaccid.
“And unlike that other place, The Olympian is a strictly non-smoking establishment,” he added.
“What other place?” Bud asked.
“Why, The Demon Rum saloon--Down Under,” Gabe answered, lowering his gaze. “If you want to get your mitts on a real Bloody Mary, ya gotta go to Bloody Mary. She's the barmaid.”
“How do you know that?” Bud asked.
“Gabe's a part-time building inspector,” Mike explained.
“It takes a certain amount of regular maintenance to keep a firetrap up to code,” Gabe interjected. “The Demon Rum has been fined on numerous occasions for code violations--wrapping bare wires with rubber tape, stuffing insulation in the walls, stocking extinguishers and other contraband retardants smuggled in from off-world suppliers--in exchange for a few magic spells to hex old enemies and charm new hearts.”
“But if they get caught and punished every time, why do they keep on doing it?” Bud asked.
“Because they're incorrigible, that's why,” Gabe answered.
“Hellions do the damnedest things,” Mike interjected. “You might say it goes with the territory. And it's not as though they've got a lot to lose at this stage of the game!”
“Where in hell is The Demon Rum anyway?” Bud asked.
“In the third circle, on the corner of Broadway and Easy St., right behind the Blockbuster, and down a block from the old law firm of Lupine, Rapine, & Abaddon,” Gabe answered.
“What's it like Down Under?” Bud asked.
“Pretty dingy,” Gabe answered. “The scenery hasn't been refurbished since Hieronymus Bosch was last brought in to perk up the decor.”
“It's soooo Fifteen Century!” Mike exclaimed. “And, needless to say, The Demon Run caters to a very different clientele than we do up here,” he said, with a pious sniff.
“Such as?” Bud asked.
“Oh, all the usual riff-raff,” Gabe answered. “Fallen angels and fallen broads; hypocrites and heretics; Simonites and sodomites; Turks, apostates, and reprobates; infidels and idolaters; lawyers, abortionists, and Antipopes; perverts and politicians; French diplomats and Belgian bureaucrats; rock stars and porn stars; Swiss bankers and eastern liberals; merit-mongers, free-willers, loose-livers, and Bible-debunkers; psychics and psychos; freethinkers and hard drinkers; Berkeley professors and tax assessors; Darwinists, feminists, environmentalists, and so on, ad nauseum. In sum, hell on earth transposed to a lower key.”
“How could a loving God permit it?” Bud exclaimed.
“Ours is not to say,” Mike replied.
“Last time I was down there,” Gabe interposed, “Leibniz was attempting to prove to Russell that hell is the best of all possible pandemonia--based on the Principle of Sufficient Unreason.
“Did Russell agree?”
“He was unpersuaded at first until Kant piped in with a supporting argument.”
“What was that?”
“The nonontological argument.”
“Which is what?”
“Well, Kant reasoned that according to the privative theory of evil, pure evil is nonbeing, such that if being is not a predicate, then--by parity of reasoning--nonbeing must be a predicate, in which case less is more, the badder the better, or something like that. I'm a little fuzzy on the details. It's been a while.”
“I guess I'm gratified to learn that The Olympian only serves nonalcoholic nectar. But shouldn't we avoid even the appearance of evil?”
“What evil? What appearance? What's more natural than for spirits to imbibe spirits?” Mike replied.
“This is heaven. Every hour is the happy hour,” Gabe interjected.

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