"Yet how quickly we could empty purgatory if we but really wished to."
Saint John Vianney
I took one look at Réaltin and I was like, "This is never going to work out." She had never used a Mac before, she looked perpetually scared, and she must have been about 12 years old. I knew it was going to take me way longer than usual to explain what we did, and it was times like that when I seriously questioned the wisdom of privatizing Purgatory.
They had long since privatized Hell, and it worked out amazingly well in that, practically overnight, Hell became considerably more hellish under privatization. Purgatory was a more recent convert to capitalism, and the results, in my opinion, had been decidedly mixed. But this was what I had to work with, and I gave it my best. I mean, what else could I do?
My department was more of a Purgatory outreach to the still-living. You know when the Bible talks about the quick and the dead? The people we reached out to were the quick. My agents were tasked with programming the dreams of the quick, the idea being that if they inwardly digested the content of these dreams, they would make positive changes to their lives, changes that would keep them out of Purgatory, which, owing to budget cuts and certain profit-driven practices, was like the emergency room at John H. Stroger in Chicago after a full moon on a Saturday night.
What I needed were agents who didn't ask questions, who didn't want to change the paradigm, but who were happy to crank out product, and our product was dream content. I suppose I wasn't entirely fair to Réaltin when she showed up on her first day. I had just had to fire an agent who was constantly questioning our entire mission statement. His name was Fritz, and he was German with flawless command of English, and his mentality was completely wrong for the job.
"But you don't understand," he said. "I just came from there, and everyone - I mean everyone - is on drugs. You're simply not going to get the traditional dream experience in today's brains. In fact, I would bet that even if we produced content that was completely straightforward, it still wouldn't get through to half the people. We could say, 'Don't take the F train tomorrow because someone will push you onto the tracks, and we're simply not ready to accommodate you. You can't think that just because Purgatory is overcrowded that you can skip line and go straight to Heaven. Seriously: no F train on Thursday.' I would posit that even if we were that forthright, only half the end-users would even remember. They simply don't have a chance based on the outdated content that continues to be produced."
He had a point, I guess. Fritz himself was here due to insufficient dream comprehension. But he refused to understand that Eos, our CEO, made it clear at last fiscal year's kickoff that we will not be making changes to the substance of our content. Not in the foreseeable future.
With the new girl, I didn't expect her to rush in and try to change everything the way Fritz did. Frankly, I didn't expect much at all from such a wisp of a girl. It turned out she wasn't 12, but 22. She just looked young because she didn't wear makeup. She turned out to be a good sport too. One of our long-time agents, Janelle, had never encountered the name Réaltin before, and called the girl "Ovaltine" instead. I tensed up the first time this happened. It wasn't uncommon for new hires to cry on the job, but Réaltin totally took it in her stride. She even offered to fetch coffee for Janelle since they were scheduled for breaks at the same time.
Furthermore, it turned out that the reason she looked perpetually scared was because she had weird eyebrows - the kind that were higher up on the ends closest to her nose. One day Janelle fixed them for her with an eyebrow pencil while they were on lunch break and I was like "Oh."
That first day, I was pleased to find out that Réaltin was Catholic. We operate on a "points" system here, and Catholics walk in with 12 points already on their account. It's not that the Big Guy likes Catholics better, it's just that he understands Catholic guilt in the earthly realm. Some sects of Jews also come in here with 12 baseline points for the same reason (and also because I have heard rumors that the Big Guy loves the sound of Yiddish being spoken by old people).
Not everyone who arrives here becomes employed. That was one reason I felt so bad about having to fire Fritz. When you're employed in Purgatory, you accrue points at a much faster rate than if you're not employed. And even so, it takes a long time to accrue the 1,440,000 points you need to, uh, be "promoted" out of here.
Why 1,440,000 points? God, it seems, was really rooting for a Base 12 counting system, and he was a little peeved (and a little hurt, to be honest) when most of humanity went ahead with a Base 10 system. So he (rather passive-aggressively in my opinion) throws out 12s here and there (number of disciples, number of tribes of Israel, etc.), and 1200 times 1200 is 1,440,000, so there you go.
It didn't take Réaltin that long to get the hang of content creation, and she took to using a Mac right away. I was a little worried her first few weeks here that she was using entirely too much sex in the content she was producing, but I couldn't argue with her results: her dream content stuck with people, and that's what we're after here, sticky dream content.
Her hard work benefited me indirectly as well. I hate to describe it like this, but similarly to a multi-level marketing program, a small percentage of Réaltin's points floated up to me as her supervisor. This was another consequence of privatization. I had never seen someone work so hard as Réaltin, with such fierce concentration. When she was producing content, she was in her own little bubble, fingers flying, occasionally biting her lip.
Our analytics software indicated that her clients were holding onto dream content, and some of them had made measurable changes to their lives that would keep them out of Purgatory, at least for the time being. At it's simplest, our goal that fiscal year was simply buying time so we could get more of our residents approved to leave than the number of people who were arriving.
Now, I should explain that Purgatory has very strict policies concerning fraternizing between management and non-exempt employees, and in light of this, I waited until her 30-day performance review in which she could be relieved of her probationary status to talk things over with her. Not that fraternization would have been a problem, since Réaltin's a girl and I prefer guys, but some of HR and all of the C-suite is populated by Greek deities, and they honestly have a hard time comprehending differences between homosexuality, heterosexuality, pansexuality, etc. It apparently never occurred to them during their administration, and those attitudes stuck. Whatever, though. I'm a product of my time and place, 21st century America.
As manager of the English Language desk, most of my underlings were American, though they do get Brits, Australians, and the occasional Irish person. And the occasional oddball like Fritz. Réaltin, in my opinion, was proof positive of the reputation the Irish have for being great storytellers. I wasnt allowed to look at her intake records, so I don't know what sent her to Purgatory instead of the other two options, but I get the impression she missed Heaven by the skin of her teeth, and that with her work metrics, she would age out in record time.
Like I mentioned before, there was a lot of sex in her dreams, and I very carefully broached this subject during her performance review. She blushed and looked down. "I know," she quietly acknowledged. "It's not what anyone would expect from looking at me. To tell you the truth, I died a virgin, though you probably already know that." (I didn't.)
"Ultimately, our metrics are concerned with results, and you're getting results, girlfriend. The only reason it raises eyebrows is because your effectiveness suggests that we're out of touch with the real world, and if that's the case, it's something that needs to be addressed by higher management. Luckily, it's not my job to raise the issue, but I do have to turn over the analytics every Friday, and they've certainly improved since you got here, so for that I thank you."
Again she blushed and looked down.
"Can I ask you - and I only ask out of curiosity - how you came to your current position?" she said. "They didn't say much about a promotion track when I got here, so I don't really know how it works."
"Well," I said, "We promote from within exclusively. When I was working the desk just like you are, my supervisor aged out of the system." (Here I pointed upward to indicate where he went.) "And as the points leader for the desk it simply became my turn." I shrugged. She nodded. I wondered whether to further pursue the topic, since it was a slightly sore point for me. I forged ahead.
"Now, you, my dear, are accruing points at a rate we've not seen before. In fact, there's a decent chance that, at the rate you're going, you could conceivably age out of the system faster than I will. It's like in the United States when someone runs for president and wins the popular vote, but loses the election on account of the Electoral College."
Here she looked confused, not being an American. I continued. "I won't hold that against you, I promise. But there have been murmurs from upstairs that the points system may have to be revisited due to your record-breaking accrual rate. All points information, by the way, is protected among people of the same level, so the people on the desk don't know about your talent. But we are all human, after all, and rumors have a way of developing. I think it would be best for your well-being however long your tenure here ends up to avoid drawing attention to yourself."
"That won't be a problem for me," she said, looking down and hooking a strand of mousy brown hair behind an ear.
"I didn't think it would be," I said. "I simply wanted to let you know the lay of the land, so to speak."
Réaltin's stats came up at the quarterly department meeting, and there was a palpable air of tension in the room. Some of my fellow department heads had been at their jobs for a long time, and the idea of some skinny little Irish girl being on the fast track was threatening. I tried to make it clear that she was certainly no Prima Donna, just a hardworking girl who frankly didn't have much of a life outside work, but I doubt it smoothed many feathers.
Proposals were suggested for overhauling the points system, and even making it retroactive, which I knew would cause huge, huge problems. Fortunately, floating this proposal up through the layers of management until it reached Eos for final approval would take a considerable amount of time. My hope was that Réaltin would age out and things would get back to normal before that could happen. There was every chance that I, too, would age out by that time, but all I could do was wait and see how it all shook out.
Fritz, meanwhile, had contacted me about the possibility of reapplying, assuring me that he had learned his lesson and would stick to the script if rehired. It was all a big headache. We were adding staff due to the continuing influx of people, but the reapplication process was completely Byzantine, and made for extra work that I frankly didn't have time for. Still, I neither discouraged nor encouraged Fritz. He was ambitious, which was good, but I needed to be sure I could keep him under control. Again, I felt like buying time was my best option.
But it turned out, I couldn't buy too much time. I shoveled Fritz's reapplication papers through the proper channels and kept him posted at intervals that I believed to be sufficiently informative without being overly encouraging. It wasn't up to me to approve his rehiring, and I didn't want to lead the poor guy on. But that had nothing to do with why I couldn't buy time. Maybe it's because I was getting older and time felt like it was going by faster, but it was like one day I looked at the analytics and saw that both Réaltin and I were within spitting distance of 1,440,000 points.
The girl kept to her word, never letting on that she was zooming through the points system. She couldn't replace me unless I aged out of the system first, but as time moved on, it became clear that she and I would age out at almost exactly the same time - maybe even exactly the same time, with no "almost" about it.
It's a bit odd, the way they notify people that they've aged out. I should explain the architecture in Purgatory a bit. Everyone lives in single furnished dorm rooms, and everyone has his or her own window. All the dorms are two stories tall, and we do our best to house people in dorms that have some familiarity to them based on little details like baseboards, crown molding or lack thereof, color schemes, etc. All the dorms have a large common room on the first floor with comfortable furniture (again, in keeping with the environment from which residents came), big screen televisions, Netflix, all the major game consoles, a couple of microwaves - the typical stuff. From this large common room all individual doors to the dorm rooms are reachable. We tend to put younger and fitter folks on the second floor, and older, or less mobile ones on the ground floor.
A select group of people in Purgatory are hired as knockers-up, just like in pre-industrial Britain and Ireland. Their job is to collect the names and addresses of those who were being promoted at dawn each day, and walk to their allotted addresses with their short sticks (for knocking on ground floor windows) and long sticks (for knocking on second story windows).
They used to use bamboo, but in recent years they were able to get these amazing sticks from Ali Baba that are made from something like graphite. They're lightweight and very beautiful - dashing, even.
Anyway, there are no traditional Gregorian calendars in Purgatory (though there are fiscal calendars due to privatization, and clocks, for employment purposes), so I couldn't tell you what day it was, but I received my knock just as the sun was rising. When I first arrived in Purgatory I wondered what would happen if an immediate neighbor of mine received his or her knock and I heard it and thought it was mine. But later on I learned that the glass used in the windows is slightly warped in such a way that a knock is only transmitted to the room on which it is mounted, plus the soundproofing between rooms is remarkably effective. I believe they use a combination of hay and Styrofoam.
So I got my knock, and was pleased to find that my knocker-up was an affable, one could even say Falstaffian, gentleman named Mick who I knew from pool tournaments. I was his first stop, as they go alphabetically and my last name began with "A." Mick was in fine spirits, so I asked him if I could look at his list. He shrugged, was like, "Not like it's going to be a secret much longer, I suppose," and handed it over.
Of course, I was looking for Réaltin's name and there it was. She was the penultimate name on the list, and by the time we got to her dorm I was atwitter with excitement. Mick could tell what was going on, sort of. "So you're sweet on her, are you?"
"Well, yes, I suppose I am," I said, not altogether untruthfully.
"Here you go then," he said, handing me his long stick and pointing out her window. "You can do the honors." I was surprised. It was probably a breach of protocol, and it's possible it cost Mick points, but I took the long stick from him anyway.
She arrived at her window, her mousy hair all askew, shoving her glasses onto her face. When she saw me she lit up and waved, then raised her index finger to indicate "one second." She changed into her promotion gown, ran a comb through her hair, and within a minute she was down on the sidewalk with the rest of us.
Mick pronounced us the happiest group he'd had in a long time, and that was saying something, considering where we were going. I asked him if people grew wistful of Purgatory, despite knowing where they were headed, and he said they did. People are great at making homes wherever they happen to be thrown, and even moving on to something infinitely better could be bittersweet.
When we reached the transit point, we all signed our names to the register, and everyone was handed his or her own iPod that had been pre-loaded with every song ever recorded in every language. What can I say? Steve Jobs spent some time here and we took advantage, developing a special employment category just for him. The transit cars were very much like train cars, with all of Mick's group occupying one, and other cars reserved for the groups of other knockers-up. It was very lush, with Memory Foam seats, an open bar, and an Automat in case anyone got hungry.
Réaltin and I sat together, and as soon as we left the station, she reached into her bra and pulled out a headphone splitter.
"They thought I was crazy when I bought this last year," she lilted. "The clerk told me he had only ever sold one other, and it was to a set of identical twins who had entered Purgatory at the same time. I told him, 'No, this is great craic. You'll see.' And here we are." She plugged it into her iPod and plugged both our earbuds into it.
Not long after, an attendant came through to collect eyeglasses, hearing aids, false teeth, artificial limbs - basically any human-related aids to living. In Purgatory, you keep your human flaws and many of your human pains (aside from the existential angst associated with just plain living). It's been that way since before privatization, by the way. But, of course, we were in the process of losing those flaws, and so all the tools and impedimenta were put into a recycling program. Réaltin tossed her eyeglasses into the bin. I had a pacemaker and asked the attendant what I needed to do about that, and she told me there was a special booth I would go to at the other end of the line that would take care of that, "painlessly," she added.
Our journey didn't seem to take much time, but I know it took several songs' worth, because Réaltin DJ'd our entire trip. As the transporter started to slow down, here we were, this fat gay American dude with a pacemaker sharing an iPod with a wispy little Irish girl, who by that time was thoroughly engrossed in rapping along with Jay-Z on "A Star is Born." We were reaching the end of our journey as she was mouthing "They had a hell of a run, standing ovay!" So it was quite appropriate.
Things are different here. I wondered if we would remember Purgatory, and I was assured up front that we would. In fact, once we got here it wasn't a matter of "having" knowledge, but rather of "being" knowledge, all of it, from all of time, past, present, and future. And once you are knowledge - all knowledge - there is no more judgment. You can remember judging, but you can even look at that with detachment, since it is, after all, part of the sum total of knowledge that you are incorporated into.
Once you're here, there's no looking up people to find out if they're here. You just know. I knew my mother was here without having asked, for example. And I also knew that her soul had been cleansed for every ugly word she ever said to me, for kicking me out of the house when I was 17. It didn't matter. We had all crossed the so-called River Jordan, entered the collective unconscious, become one with the universe. We were even at one with the people back on earth, though they wouldn't know that until they got here.
But I also knew that there's something of yourself that you retain for eternity. Some natural predilection for that which makes you you. Réaltin is my neighbor now, and could be for all eternity. And it's purely a construct, because even if we didn't live next door to each other, we would be just as "together" since we're part of everything now, including each other. But it's nice. We don't need the iPod now, because we're part of it all, it's all there, all the time, on demand. How strange and unpredictable where life (and death!) takes you. Where the sticky dreams can ultimately lead you.
© Mary Hiers 2017 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 10:50 Thu 24 Aug 2017
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