Here I am. Stranded in Purgatory. You’d think with all of the opportunities I’ve had to excel or fall from grace, I’d have gone straight to Heaven or Hell. Instead, I’m trapped here in mediocrity.
Getting stranded in Purgatory is the equivalent of getting a C+ on your Chemistry final – not bad, but not great, either. True, I’ve never gone out of my way for anyone, my entire life. Faced with the opportunity to do something illegal, compassionate or meaningful that could result in some form of positive or negative distinction, I always took the easy way out. Like the time Morrie Fensterman’s wife came onto me at the Christmas party. Instead of ripping off her elf costume and ravishing her on the conference table, I chose to give her a half-assed hickey in the janitor’s closet. Big deal. “You’ll never get into heaven that way,” accused my friends. It also won’t get me into hell. Where it did get me was the head of the line to Purgatory. You have to do something a lot worse than having a tussle with your manager’s wife to earn a lifetime of eternal fire.
I knew all about Purgatory from the sixth grade. Every Sunday after mass, my mother would stuff me behind a desk in one of Sister Mary Blanchefleur’s catechism classes. As she patrolled the aisles, she scolded us for our sinful ways and threatened to send us to Purgatory. I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded worse than going straight to Heaven, but better than Hell, so I knew I still had some wiggle room in the way I lived my life. I could probably continue taking swigs off of Uncle Bert’s Jack Daniels bottle, but I should probably quit setting the cat’s tail on fire. Besides, I was still young. I had plenty of time to mend my ways before I died of a heart attack, sitting at my desk at age 65. Or, so I thought.
As it turns out, my life on earth came to an end sooner than I anticipated. While rock climbing in Yosemite, I was showing off in front of Bethany Lieberman, when I misjudged the width of a granite ledge and plunged to my death in a matter of seconds. It’s true what they say about seeing your life passing before you on the way down. It gives you time to review your entire existence – who you’ve screwed and who’s screwed you – before you enter the hereafter. In some cases, you can even make amends to people before you hit ground, but that’s more along the lines of swiping someone’s parking space than bilking Aunt Nestor out of her life’s savings.
The word Purgatory comes from the Latin term, Purgatorium, which means “to spend a thousand years with your mother-in-law” and is used to refer to any non-specific place of temporary suffering. Before I was allowed to enter Purgatory, I had to go through a fairly rigorous registration process, filling out one form after another with my name, religious affiliation, age, cause of death and a brief description of how I spent my time on Earth. They want to make sure that a) you’re not Anglican, Protestant, Lutheran or Methodist and b) you weren’t already slated for the expressway to Hell. Apparently, some guy named Hitler slipped through the cracks and managed to stay here for almost 3 months. It caused quite a ruckus. That was over 50 years ago and they’re still talking about it.
After I was cleared for entry, the angels (who turned out to be exterminated TSA agents) divided us into two groups – the hopeless cases who were riddled with mortal sin and those who were merely tarnished with venial sin. Even though stabbing your neighbor in the back has relative levels of severity on earth, they’re not so lenient in Purgatory. Mortal sinners get their first inkling of their ultimate destination when they take away their winter clothes, give them a thong and a large tube of SPF 850,000 sunscreen. Those of us who had committed relatively minor infractions like slipping Ecstasy into my babysitter’s Coke, were able to keep our clothes and were given a ball cap with an image of God and the words, “I’m with him.”
The first real surprise came to me when I heard screaming coming from the cleansing chambers. I was under the impression that I’d be getting a hot shower, shampoo and maybe a deep-tissue massage to wash away my sins prior to leaving for Heaven. Evidently I was a little naughtier than I thought because I was scheduled for a several rounds of deep cleansing starting the next morning. During deep cleansing, they chained me to one of the blood-stained walls near the torture chambers and burned off my sins using a flame thrower. The pain wasn’t quite as bad as sitting through Sister Mary Blanchefleur’s catechism classes, but close. Allowing time for your skin to grow back, the entire process usually takes several weeks – depending on what you did while you were on Earth. I knew the only way they were going to rid me of the experience of stealing my aunt’s false teeth was through multiple cleansing sessions – and a good round with the belt sander.
After a week of enduring lectures and repeated deep cleansing, I began to get impatient and asked a few of the angels when they thought I might be getting out and moving on to Heaven. “No one really knows,” they said. “We found a prayer roll belonging to Henry VIII that claimed to reduce his time here by 52,712 years.” Fifty-two thousand years! There was no way I’d be able to make it that long. Besides, Henry VIII had a LOT more baggage when he got here than I did. Beheading Ann Boleyn had to be worth a few thousand years, just by itself.
The next day I got some more bad news. Apparently, I’d have to go through a few more hoops before getting out of Purgatory. Including time already served, my remaining stay would be divided into 7 levels while ascending Mt. Purgatory. The seven levels weren’t anything like working your way through ski school. Each was designed to help me conquer one of the 7 deadly sins. And, each time I entered a higher level, I had to pay a toll. Great. Not only was I going to have to confront lust and gluttony all over again, I’d have to scrounge around for spare change from some of the other residents.
“Don’t be so despondent,” said the angels. “You can get out of here faster if you have people back on earth praying for you.” Fat chance. I never even prayed for my grandparents after they drove off of that bridge and drowned, so it wasn’t likely that someone like me was going to rack up many prayers from my so-called friends back on earth. Oh sure, when I was in the ICU recovering from a heroin overdose they promised me, “We’ll pray for you,” but they always say that. Where were they now when I really needed them?
After a couple of more weeks, the angels told me that I was making good progress and my stay shouldn’t be much longer. I met a couple of guys named Saddam and Osama who said they’d be happy to help me get through wrath and greed before they left for Hell, but I’d have to find someone else for the rest of my sins.
As it turned out, I finally got a seat on the bus for Heaven leaving the next morning. I managed to qualify for an early release program because Purgatory was just bursting at the seams. They needed to make room for an incoming load of celebrities and personalities – somebody named Manson, Madoff and an ice skater named Harding.