Gehenna Gone

By Richard Holinger

Satan sits on his throne, bored. Fire and brimstone don’t have the same charge for him as they had over the past several millennia. Seen one soul scream in agony as flames consume it, slowly, languorously, and you’ve seen them all. Satan’s fingers—blackened stumps of something like coal—drum on the armrest thrown together from remnants of colluvium. He can’t shake the pomposity and narcissism. How cruel of G— to deny His old seraphic pal everlasting joy! The Guy could hold a grudge.

Maybe, Satan thinks, it’s a midlife crisis. Been here, done this, too long.

He’s tried to shake the depression. Once he imitated the afterlives of Zen Buddhist monks who tried seeking mindfulness. In their blackened, soot-covered robes, hanging from fire-retardant gallows, the souls hummed loud as quarter-fed spinning dryers to ward off pain incurred from the holocaust’s blue flames burning their bare soles in Level 67 (Dante had it wrong by a factor of ten) reserved for misguided, but sincere, unbelievers. Satan, weak on introspection, quickly grew conscious of his unconscious striving and gave up the crossed legs, open palms resting on knees, half-closed eyes, indeterminate smile. Instead, he resorted, like a gladiatorial potentate, to feasting on the pain incurred by the disillusioned Buddha bunch who, on earth, believed being one with saw grass and distant galaxies harbored them from not only earthly indelicacies, but the forewarned indecencies following death.

“Oh, ye of little faith,” Satan murmurs to himself, disgusted with humans’ obsession with hope and comfort, illusions of the cruelest kind. Getting up to stretch, his skin, like freshly poured asphalt, spewed smoke. His hairless face that for some inexplicable reason G— turned white as a snowman’s, looked sour, lipless mouth turned down, lidless, dusky eyes stoked with anger.

He’d even tried love. Well, technically, sex. When Cleopatra showed up with Anthony, Satan dispatched her paramour to Level 99 where the souls who, in corporeal life, screwed as ravenously as harpooners on leave, spent eternity feeling the body weight of their preferred sexual partner hump them continually, impotent and unable to respond. Satan imagined that Cleopatra—alone, frightened, and disoriented—would encourage Satan’s advances, which she did, until he opened his mouth to compliment her body, and out sprang a nestful of roiling, hooded asps, scales glowing, their fangs sinking into the virgin soul’s quivering appendages. Satan pulled them off one by one, apologizing profusely once he was able to speak without further expulsions. To no effect. Cleopatra shunned his advances, kicking and punching. Satan had little patience for her tantrum and sent her down to Level 99 where her soul would forever meld with Anthony’s, neither able to complete or enjoy copulation.

“Serves her right,” Satan says. His voice, deep as a volcano’s eruption, shakes the fissured ground beneath his claws. “I tempt her into using her body for pleasure, she enjoys a lifetime of sensual bliss, and how does she repay me? Closes her legs.” He guffaws. “What to do. What to do.”

Setting his tenebrific jaw onto his crusty, onyx palm, Satan brainstorms ways to lighten up his stygian existence. 

“Fun, fun,” Satan growls upon seeing a line of recent arrivals long as a freight train drop from inestimable heights, his voice sending shock waves knocking down the least stable souls. “How does a guy have fun when his need for everlasting suffering, desire for strategic revenge, and lust for common comeuppance have all been fulfilled? Why aren’t I capable of language and ideation beyond evil? Am I frightened of being transformed, changed into a robotic disciple of Jesus, always pushing bliss, never once floundering in the pond of self-hatred and self-recrimination except as an epiphanic way towards so-called enlightenment? G— help me!”

As if commanded, Hell disappears. In its place, Satan finds himself standing on an outcropping overlooking the Grand Canyon.

“That’s how it’s done,” a voice inside Satan’s balloon head tells him, triggering a migraine. “The secret is simple: you just keep outdoing yourself. Think in the extreme, the absolute limit, then surpass it.”

“Showoff!” Satan explodes. At this outburst, two tourists tumble from the ledge they’d been warned to avoid by a sign on the nearby fence they’d climbed over, laughing. “See you in hell,” Satan roars after the bodies, his anger misdirected towards them instead of the One. No way, he reflected, those two enter the Kingdom of Heaven with the attitude that the forbidden can be trespassed.

“I’m calling a park ranger,” a young woman with a tinny voice calls. Other tourists gape from behind the fence.

“Yes, do,” rumbles Satan, the aural snakes gone, but a foul breath turns away the gawking faces, hands and pocket-drawn handkerchiefs covering their mouths and noses. “Man overboard!”

“It was a man and a woman,” Tinny Voice corrects.

“Figure of speech,” Satan defends himself, proud to have adopted English so deftly.

“It’s not funny,” Tinny Voice rejoins.

“Wasn’t meant to be. In fact, it can’t be. I’m not, as you Millennials say, programmed for funny.”

Most people behind the barrier are fleeing the scene, either frightened of Satan or to get help or both. Tinny Voice looks about twenty-four and stands next to a man around the same age. Both wear khaki shorts with zippered pockets filled with water bottles, cell phones, and other consumerist trappings. He sports a green tee shirt with a college logo, she a white tank top advertising a local brewery. Their flipflops reveal no sock tan lines.

“What’s with the getup?” The man’s voice, a kind of low growl, sounds like Richard Nixon.

Satan looks down. He should have guessed G— wouldn’t plunk him down in contested territory without trying to humiliate him. Because the Lord of Lords has a sense of humor. Would a non-comic sensibility plant seeds, then disappear without as much as a “Good luck” and a watering can? Sure, He sprinkled miracles here and there occasionally, just enough to confuse the plant once it breaks ground and sees the light of day only to strive to exist in order to suffer and die, all the while unsure whether eternal torment or angelic choirs await in an unspecified and dubious afterlife.

In inadvertently calling for G—’s help, Satan had opened himself up for ridicule and derision from mortals. Mortals who needed convincing that faith was fruitless—based in paternalistic platitudinous palaver—and fun was fantastic. If he, with powers of seduction that made Cary Grant look oafish, couldn’t hoodwink these two commercials for Old Navy into conformity with gross egocentrism, he’d retire. 

His apparel: Presidential Blue suit, stiff-collared white dress shirt, broad, tightly knotted Candy Apple red tie, polished black lace-up leather shoes, American flag pinned to the coat’s lapel. His face, however, matched no well-known politician, celebrity, or criminal. Instead, Satan saw a trillion faces and none, the kind of tabula rasa a portrait artist would flee. A face people might recognize as their own, but never trust the integrity of—or even its existence.

Satan stares at the couple behind the fence. “Don’t be deceived,” he says. “I am what I am.”

“That’s plagiarism,” Dick Nixon shouts, pointing an index finger accusingly at the bizarre, fleshy apparition.

“You caused two people to die,” Tinny Voice says. “You just appeared. Showed up like Scotty beamed you down. What’s that all about? You extraterrestrial?”

Satan chuckles, a rare response. “You might say that.”

“Where do you come from?” Tinny Voice continues the interrogation.

“Hell,” Satan whispers, trying to control his ejaculations so his prey will not be hurt. “Hades. Perdition. The infernal regions. The nether world. Abaddon’s abyss.” Satan subdues a guffaw growing in his gut. “Where the sun don’t shine. Ever.”

“Sounds gloomy,” says Dick Nixon.

“Beats Florida,” Satan says.

They giggle and Satan barks a laugh he can’t suppress.

The couple reel backward, pushed by the stranger’s sudden hurricane-force breath. The sight of the man and woman’s spinning arms, uplifted legs, and Charlie Chaplin pratfalls crease his cheeks, drop his jaw, and expose his teeth, white as a dentist’s wall chart. A feeling more pronounced than anything he’s ever known leaks upward from his toes, floods his loins, deluges his heart, a heavenly sensation gushing through him.

Because he made a joke—and his audience got it.

Because he laughed at something other than another’s everlasting agony.

“You can say that again,” Tinny Voice said after standing up and brushing off grass cuttings.

“Beats Alaska.” Satan hopes he’s not taking the joke too far.

“Got that right,” Dick Nixon chortles.

“Beats Alabama.” 

“What doesn’t?” Tinny Voice says between snickers.

Satan, about to add Texas to the list, pauses, miraculously blessed with a comedian’s sense of timing. In the silence he knows an elation with this delicious back-and-forth transcending all other emotions, even his exhilaration when spying on the hypocritical souls on Level 74—sexually abusive priests, adulterous evangelical preachers, hollow-promising politicians. What is this thing, he wonders, that elevates his self-worth and fills him with…with…what?! This indelicate excitement scares him.

“God damn G— for keeping this for Himself,” Satan mumbles.

“You’re pretty cool,” Tinny Voice calls from the fence, “even though you dress like a shyster. Want to join us? We’re going for lunch in the lodge.”

Satan’s stomach warms. “I…I…I would like to,” he stammers for the first time in his long life.

“Come on, then,” Dick Nixon waves. “I’d like to explore where you’re really from. No one here’s from around here.”

“Me included,” Satan says, “big time,” trying comedy again until realizing that unless they know he’s Satan from Hell, the humor will be lost on them. “What about the two people who fell off the cliff?” he asks, not sure where this interest came from. Maybe because the two potentially dead unfortunates are sinners whom he’ll soon meet or, because, what, he cares about them?

“Never saw them before,” Tinny Voice says. “Assholes can’t read, I guess, or didn’t give a shit about the sign warning them to “STAY ON THIS SIDE OF THE FENCE. LOOSE ROCK.”

An invisible blade stabs the middle of Satan’s chest. He winces, bends over, shocked at the sudden onrush of pain. Images of two human forms cascading down rainbow rock faces hurtle by like a 3-D slide show.

“Oh, my G—,” he realizes to his horror, “I feel sorry for them!”

First amusement, now pathos. What is happening to him? How can he return to the Den of Iniquity with a guilty conscience?

His mind whirls. A diversion. He needs a distraction to get his mind on straight.

“Yes, okay,” he tells the couple. “Let’s do lunch.”

He hopes the restaurant serves a good triple-decker club sandwich, plenty of bacon and cheese, light on tomatoes and lettuce. Hell could run itself for a while longer. It won’t do to return too soon, especially when out of sorts. And, he reflects, no matter the cryptic reactions he recently experienced, home was home, because, regardless of its limitations, its reputation, and its heartless (but just!) nature, he wouldn’t be the same without it, and it wouldn’t be the same, he hoped, without him.

His new friends step back as Satan slides smoothly over the fence and puts a suitcoat arm around each of their shoulders, pulling them in until he feels the warmth of their bodies.

“Those two who fell off the rock,” he says in a low, convincing tone, “probably bounced off one rock after the other, slowing their fall, and landed on their feet, glad to have seen the Grand Canyon’s stratigraphy close up.”

Genuine laughter erupts under both arms. Satan looks forward to lunch more than he ever looked forward to throwing racists, homophobes, and misogynists into their respective levels. His appetite is spiking, as if this thing humans call happiness not only affects his heart, but his stomach. He has to give it to G—; this vacation (yes, vacation), has done him a world of good.

Going through the lodge’s large wooden double doors, the aroma of pine wood walls and juicy, half-pound Angus hamburgers greet him with more style than a top-hatted, red-coated, black-booted doorman. Feeling this good, this self-satisfied, this buoyant, Satan wonders if he might ever, if possible, pay G— back if a favor were ever requested.

“Fat chance,” he mumbles, the thought of a turkey club releasing a slight residue of saliva slipping over non-existent lips and down his chin.