Life after death
[ fiction - september 05 ]
The past few years have been a long, strenuous struggle; you went further and further downhill, getting drunk, living on the streets, eating out of garbage cans and at soup kitchens, hanging around drop-in centers, sleeping in women’s shelters, occasionally finding enough money for a room at the YWCA, and eventually returning to the streets, sitting in McDonald’s at 3:00 o’clock in the morning, drinking, using needles, until finally you are a walking, talking disease, and you end up in the Emergency of some godforsaken hospital, with hepatitis C and AIDS and God knows what else. You felt like you could just lie down and die.
But one evening, you walk into this place. There is a door, back there, that you just walked through. There is a light there, at the end of the tunnel, and you go through a second door, only to find yourself in a room full of strangers. Someone shakes your hand at the door: what the hell is this? There is a woman dressed in a white gown, shaking your hand, and she asks you, “Are you new?” You don’t know what to say. New to what? New in what? What are you doing here? Who are these people?
The woman in the white gown smiles at you and says, Coffee is ready, right over there. Come right in, you’re in the right place.” How does she know you are in the right place? Nevertheless, you walk over to the coffee urn, and pour yourself a cup of warm coffee in a styrofoam cup. There is sugar and milk on the table. Someone must have known you were coming and that you needed a coffee.
There are chairs lined up facing a conference table. There are two posters hanging from the rafters of the ceiling, with incomprehensible gibberish printed on them. One says something about “steps” and the other, “traditions.” Where the hell are you this time around?
People, men and women, but no children, are milling about, chatting in little clusters of two or three. There is no music playing; the building looks like a church basement, but strangely enough, you can’t hear any organ music. It is incredibly quiet, as though everyone had come back from the dead. Everyone seems to be minding their own business, and it is quiet. No one is raising their voice, and people are coming towards you to fill up on coffee. One other lady walks up to you and shakes your hand again. What is this business of shaking hands all the time? Don’t they know that is how you catch colds and flus? She says to you, “Hi, what’s your name?” And for a split second, you can’t remember. You answer her, “It’s funny, but I can’t remember.” She giggles and replies, “That’s okay, if you are new, it is normal that you have trouble talking. Did you have trouble finding us?” And you answer: “I don’t know, I just ended up here, as though I was led here.” She answers, “And rightly so. Do you drink?” You blush, and you get defensive: “Why? What’s it to you?” But she is not taken aback; she just says, “That’s okay, it is all right. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. You see, all the people here, all the people you see are just like you. We have already been through hell. This is just a relief, isn’t it?” And suddenly, you realize that you have died, and this is life after death. Not quite what you expected, no organ music, no harp playing, no wings, just coffee and a meeting of people chatting. Hmm, very strange. You are starting to get accustomed to where you are. Maybe these people aren’t so crazy after all. Maybe, like they say, you are in the right place. The woman is still there, and she says to you, with light and serenity in her eyes, “Nothing will be expected of you. All the jobs have been done. Just grab a seat and enjoy the meeting. No one will lay a trip on you. No one will ask you for money. Besides, we have no use for money in this place.”
So you sit down, hesitantly. Other people are sitting down around you, in rows, on wooden chairs that squeak when you move. You are a bit confused, but this seems well organized, anyway, whatever it is. A man at the conference table bangs his gavel on the table and starts the meeting. He gives his name, and then says loudly: “It is customary to begin this meeting with a moment of silence, followed by the serenity prayer. There is indeed a moment of long silence, then everyone starts chanting this gibberish that you don’t understand. But it only lasts for a second. Then the chairman of the meeting goes on. “Welcome to Life after Death.” And your mind drifts off. And the chairman’s voice becomes meaningless chatter, as you start remembering the endless drinks flowing, the syringes, the robberies, the crime, the bankruptcies, moral and financial, and you are not listening anymore to what the chairman is babbling about, and you wonder why you ended up in this place, when you deserved to be in hell. And suddenly, you realize that you have already paid your dues, you have already been through hell on earth.
Yes, maybe that is it. The car accidents, the blackouts, the wife battering, the children screaming because they had no food, and finally, the streets. Yes, the streets. Long walks through the snow, with holes in your boots, trying to get out of the cold and the wind. Walking, always walking, like a zombie. And all those men always hitting on you, trying to get a piece of tail out of you, for what? What was their problem? But you realize that you weren’t very nice either, yelling at your husband, you remember how totally selfish you were, especially when someone came between you and your booze. And towards the end, before you passed away, you were always in a rage.
Something snaps you out of your reverie. There is a woman sitting at the conference table, and she just said something that caught your attention: “You need to know rage to qualify to be here...” Now that is strange, uncanny, weird. You were just thinking about rage. And now, the rage seems to be gone. For now. One day at a time. Just what were you so angry about? Oh yes, being a woman in a man’s world... No, what was it? Being a native in a white man’s world... No, that was not it either.
Then you spot someone in the row behind you, someone you used to know when you were still alive. Can it be? Yes, it is your cousin, and he has just spotted you. He is waving at you, with one hand, and holding a cup of coffee with the other hand. He is sitting there, dead as a doornail, and yet, moving and smiling at you. You smile back, a funny, shy little smile. And then you look in front at the conference table, and the meeting goes on. People are talking and making presentations. One guy is standing up and offering a silver coin to any newcomers. Is this some kind of scam? You just sit there, waiting for the meeting to end, so you can grab another coffee.
But the meeting goes on, for a century or two, for hundreds and hundreds of years, although it feels like an hour. You are just looking around, trying to get your bearings. And you look at yourself, and you too are wearing a white robe. I guess you have been through the great tribulation they talked about in the Bible, but there are no Bibles in sight.
You try to read the posters with the steps and traditions. You see the word “God” and that seems reassuring. But you don’t understand the rest of the words.
And you start asking yourself, “If I am dead, and this is life after death, when will I meet God?” And your mind wanders off, as the meeting goes on, for another millenium. This seems like the right place, but no one is preaching at you, no one is asking you for money, there are no stained-glass windows or organs playing.
I guess this is as good as it gets, you tell yourself. People are listening to the speaker, dead quiet, sometimes shifting on the squeaky wooden chairs. And suddenly, you are thinking, “Hey, I am okay here, this is home. This is where I belong. This is all right after all...”
And the meeting goes on into the night. This is the big meeting up in the sky. And you are in the right place.
Written with the financial assistance of the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec.