Vail Daily columnist Allen Smith: Stuck in purgatory
May 24, 2012
I plunged to my death last week, so I had to write this month’s column from purgatory. purgatory! Can you believe it? You’d think with all of the opportunities I’ve had to excel or fall from grace, I’d have gone either 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.
Faced with the opportunity to do something illegal, compassionate or meaningful that could result in some form of positive or negative distinction, I’ve always taken 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. As it turns out, it won’t get me into hell, either.
I know 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 slumped over from a heart attack at the age of 75. Or so I thought.
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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 before you enter the hereafter. In some cases, you can even make amends to people before hitting the ground, but that’s more along the lines of swiping someone’s parking space than bilking Auntie 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 three 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 divided us into two groups — the hopeless cases who were riddled with mortal transgressions, 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 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 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 with a flame thrower.
The pain wasn’t quite as bad as sitting through Sister Mary’s catechism classes, but it was close. Allowing time for your skin to grow back, the entire process can take weeks — depending on what you did while you were on Earth. I knew the only way they were going to rid me of my peccancy was with a good belt sander.
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 seven levels while ascending Mount Purgatory.
The seven levels weren’t anything like working your way through ski school. Each was designed to help me conquer one of the seven deadly sins. And each time I entered a higher level, I’d have to pay a toll. Great. Not only was I going to have to confront lust and gluttony all over again, I’d have to beg for spare change from 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 my third heroin overdose, they promised me, “We’ll pray for you,” but they never do. Where were they now when I really need them?
After a few days, the angels told me that I was making good progress and my stay wouldn’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 to help me with the rest of my sins.
As it turned out, I managed to qualify for an early reincarnation program back on Earth. Purgatory was bursting at the seams and they needed to make room for some new residents — someone named Dahmer, Oswald and a whole family that went by the name Manson. I just hope that when I get back to terra firma, it won’t be as a chicken. I’ll need my hands to write my next column.
Allen Smith, of Vail, is the author of “Watching Grandma Circle the Drain” and “Ski Instructors Confidential.”