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“I have a noon appointment with Dr. Monteski,” Conrad said to the front desk receptionist.
“Yes, Mr. Murphy. You’re all set. Please take the escalator to the waiting room.”
“Escalator?” asked the surprised visitor.
“Yes.” The receptionist flashed a cryptic smile.
Conrad turned to his left and saw the newly built escalator with gold-plated steps, which he found a bit tacky. Once on, he instantly enjoyed the serene gliding sensation and decided to break his usual escalator routine and not walk.
The interior panels were extravagantly decorated with Renaissance-style artwork—complete with child angels floating through billowing clouds. Conrad felt mild resentment at this seemingly gratuitous expense.
The escalator gently delivered him to the waiting room, whose walls were adorned with similar Renaissance images. Once he sat down, he realized there were no tables or magazines—perhaps a cost cutting measure to fund the artwork. Looking around, he counted six other patients wearing strikingly similar impassive expressions. No one was looking at their phones, an anachronistic sight.
“Damn it,” he mumbled, as his hand reached into an empty pocket.
He heard a muted but decidedly mocking laugh. It was an elderly man seated across from him. “Don’t have your phone, do ya?” the man asked with a haughty grin.
Conrad forced a smile and didn’t respond.
“We all forgot our phones,” said the man. “What are the odds?”
“It is strange,” admitted Conrad.
“Why are you here?”
The presumptuous question irked Conrad. “To see a doctor,” he replied brusquely.
“Me too! I got hit by a car. What about you?”
“Hit by a car?” asked the bemused Conrad.
“Yes, why else do you think I am here?” The man’s supercilious grin was unnerving.
“Oh I don’t know,” Conrad dripped with sarcasm. “Maybe for a checkup; you know, like most people who go to the doctor instead of the ER.”
The old man laughed. “The ER, he says! A checkup, he says!”
With no phone or reading material, Conrad had no escape from this vexing character. But just then, he heard his name. A nurse in white scrubs was standing in the doorway. “Come with me,” she said, her mellifluous voice a welcome reprieve from the man’s cacophonous laughter.
Conrad stood up, feeling the man’s buffoonish stare tracking him as he followed the nurse out of the waiting room. He found her gait mysteriously soothing; she seemed to coddiwomple despite obviously knowing where they were headed. There was more Renaissance artwork lining the hallway walls, but here, tempestuous clouds were interspersed with their silken counterparts, fostering a mood that fluctuated between serene and slightly ominous.
Other nurses ambled around them, their bright white scrubs blending into the artwork. The nurse led him to room 721. “I’ll take your vitals now,” she told him, placing a flat metal disk against his chest. It was like a stethoscope but without the tube or headset.
“A wireless stethoscope, well past time,” quipped Conrad. “How do you hear the heartbeat?”
“I don’t have to. It’s all read by the computer.” She nodded towards a screen which was scrolling endless lines of data.
“Whoa!” Conrad was genuinely impressed. “You used to just take my blood pressure. Looks like you got every human body measurement on there. That little gadget did all that, no needles or anything!”
The nurse half-smiled perfunctorily. “Ok, everything is uploaded. He’ll be with you in a minute,” she said before sauntering out.
The screen was still scrolling indecipherable code, when fifteen minutes later, he heard a knock on the door.
“Come in,” Conrad chuckled, invariably amused by the incongruence of physicians knocking before entering their own offices.
The middle aged, clean shaven doctor entered the room and extended his hand. “Gus Monteski,” he introduced himself.
They shook hands. Curiously, the doctor was not wearing a white coat.
“Mr. Murphy, how are you feeling today?”
Conrad shrugged. “Fine, I guess.”
“Good. Let’s take a look at your vitals, shall we?”
The screen had stopped scrolling. Lines of data had been replaced with tables containing combinations of symbols and letters, but not, as far as Conrad could discern, intelligible phrases. The doctor studied the screen, nodding intermittently.
“Things are looking good for you—at least on paper,” he finally announced. “But before we make a final determination, I’d like to talk to you for a bit; you know, just to make sure you’re a good fit.”
Conrad imagined he was having an out-of-body experience. “Final determination? What are you talking about?”
“You don’t know?“
“She didn’t tell you?“
“Didn’t tell me what?“ Conrad asked in carbonated annoyance.
Gus Monteski shook his head. “You don’t know what this is yet, do you?“
“Doc, I assure you, I am lost,” Conrad confessed in a rather stern voice that belied incipient fear.
Gus sighed. “Ugh, we need to do a better job of standardizing our process. Jenna should have told you. The problem is that some people know and some people don’t when they first get here. Some of our staff just assume everyone knows. We’ll work on that. But anyway, you’re dead.“
Conrad stared at Gus, the initial shock dissipating as the memory of having been shot in the chest by a panicked assailant during a botched Whole Foods robbery flooded his brain. He looked at his chest, but there was no hole.
“My God! I thought that was a dream. So this isn’t my doctor’s office? And you’re not a doctor?“
“That’s correct. I am the Vice President of Talent Acquisition for Heaven.”
Conrad scrunched his face. “You’re vetting applicants who want to get into Heaven?”
“What happens if I don’t get in? Purgatory, right?”
“Haha! Purgatory,” the vice president shook his head in condescending amusement. “I must have heard that a million times, and it never ceases to make me laugh.”
“Why is that funny?” Conrad asked in restrained indignation.
“Because purgatory isn’t real; it’s just a fairy tale they tell you to make you think there’s a middle ground between heaven and… well, you know.”
“Hell,” Conrad guessed cautiously. “So the stuff on the screen, what is that like my life story?”
“That’s what it is,” confirmed Gus. “And there’s nothing really concerning here; minor transgressions here and there, but no disqualifiers. The thing is, my boss is clamping down on our vetting process.”
“No, my direct supervisor, Heaven’s chief operating officer. The Big Guy is the Chairman of the Board. We also currently have a CEO vacancy that we need to fill ASAP.”
“Who’s the chief operating officer?”
“You ever study eighteenth-century Tunisian history?”
“Cannot say that I have,” admitted Conrad, hoping that this gap in scholarship did not disqualify him from going to heaven.
“Our COO for the last—let’s see, thirty years—is an eighteenth-century ruler of Tunisia called Al-Husayn I ibn Ali.”
“Of course, Al,” Conrad joked and immediately regretted it, fearing the VP would perceive his attempt at humor as impudent.
“Al-Husayn is shifting our corporate strategy,” Gus explained. “He’s prioritizing filling operational needs a little more than just being a good person—which had been the main criterion for most of Heaven’s existence.”
“Heaven is becoming increasingly specialized; we want to ensure we have people in the right roles. Over the last few years, we’ve had too many breakdowns in operations, hence the shift in strategy. Here’s the good news: you work in information technology as a cloud engineer. We need cloud engineers as we accelerate digital transformation. We’re starting to move data from hard drives and on prem servers to the cloud. But seeing as how cloud computing is a relatively new technology, we haven’t had too many cloud network specialists come through here yet, which is why your skill set is in high demand.”
“That is good news,” agreed Conrad. “Although…”
“Recently, I’ve been considering a career change.”
“Oh?” Gus raised his eyebrows.
“I actually want to be a comic book writer. Would a career change be possible in Heaven?”
Gus narrowed his eyes. “We have George Pérez, Neal Adams, among other comic book icons. I am afraid it would be inefficient and contrary to the common good for you to pursue a comic book career. Perhaps if Mr. Perez were to experience some sort of mental breakdown… But in the absence of a comic book writer vacancy, I am afraid a career change wouldn’t be an option.”
“Hm, and I imagine Stan Lee is doing quite well?” asked Conrad, feeling somewhat morally deflated.
“Stan Lee is in hell.”
A brief silence ensued before Conrad mustered the courage to ask, “what if I don’t want to work as a cloud engineer?”
“Then you’ll be sent to school to learn why you must be a cloud engineer.”
“Out of curiosity, what is hell like?”
The vice president let out a boisterous laugh. “Why it’s pure anarchy! No order, a pointless existence!”
“Gotcha. Besides working on heaven’s IT infrastructure, what would my leisure time look like?”
“You can do practically anything! Ride a bike, go bungee jumping, take a pottery course, watch any movie you like in any language you choose.”
“Is there alcohol?” Conrad blurted out.
“Alcohol?” Gus was caught off guard by the question. “Well, sure, there’s alcohol. You can have a daiquiri or a scotch or whatever, but just for the taste and maybe the nostalgia.”
“You mean because you cannot get drunk in heaven?”
“It’s not that you cannot get drunk in the sense that there’s a rule against it or anything. It’s that everyone is always happy in heaven, so you don’t need terrestrial happiness boosters.”
“Always happy? But what if I want to get happier?”
“You will be at optimal happiness for eternity.”
“I see.” Conrad scratched his forehead. “Still though, if I’ll always be happy, won’t happiness lose its value? How do I know if I am happy if I am never not happy?”
An annoyed look washed over the vice president. “These are all good questions, and some questions don’t have easy answers. However, let me assure you that once you get into heaven, you will never want to leave. You will experience full, unadulterated happiness.”
“Will I be happy as a cloud engineer even though I am currently not happy as a cloud engineer?”
Gus quickly, almost imperceptibly pulled on his collar. “You will be happy as a cloud engineer because it’s what’s best for our community. You’ll know it’s your obligation to your fellow souls to be the best cloud engineer we’ve ever had.”
“I see,” Conrad said, struggling to feign satisfaction. “You’re saying I’ll be happy doing what’s right even though I find the job unfulfilling?”
“Yes! And doing what is right will make you fulfilled. You’ll love it, trust me.”
Conrad felt emboldened to press the issue. “But let’s say, hypothetically, that despite performing my duty and doing what’s best for everyone and so forth, I find that I’m still not fulfilled. What’s the recourse then? Because I gotta tell you doc, I mean sir, I mean, Vice President Monteski, I find it impossible to imagine that I will be happy working in IT for the rest of my life, er, for the rest of eternity.”
Gus shifted in his seat. “You cannot imagine it because you see existence through the terrestrial prism. Once you’re in heaven, your perception will be fundamentally different. If not immediately, then certainly after your reeducation. Our chief brand evangelist, Helen Lansdowne Resor, can explain it much better than I can, but trust me, trust me, you have absolutely nothing to worry about.”
Conrad slouched backwards, sliding his feet across the vinyl tile until his legs were fully stretched. “I guess. I don’t know though. Tell me more about hell. Besides the anarchy, what goes on down there?”
“To be frank,” replied Gus, blinking rapidly, “I don’t really have all the details. I don’t know anyone who’s been there. I just know it’s a terrible place; every soul for him and herself, a brutish, short existence. Heaven, that’s where you want to be!”
Grazing the top of his hand across his nose, Conrad asked, “How much time do I have to decide?”
“Take as much time as you need! I could step out and give you time to think alone. Do you want me to leave?”
Conrad thought about it for a moment. “Nah,” he waved his hand dismissively. “Hell sounds like a big gamble, too much of a risk.”
“Right you are!” exclaimed the relieved vice president.
“Better the devil you know, amirite?” Conrad winked.
“I’m in. Let’s go to heaven. Perhaps I could have a talk with the COO about eventually changing my career. You never know, maybe Neal Adams will fall out of favor with his fans or maybe there will be hunger for new ideas, a new creative stream as it were.”
“Yes, yes, you never know,” Gus agreed eagerly, quickly stood up, and hurried Conrad out of the room, the heavenly landscapes guiding his way.
Eugene is the author of the comic novel, A Life of Misery and Triumph, and the political thriller, The Sorghum Saga. A professional marketer and editor, Eugene is the founder of humorquotient.net, a hub for relentlessly original humorous articles on topics ranging from the art of eye contact to Seppuku. Eugene lives in Watertown, MA with his daughter.