Pat Conover: Sharing the Journey
Parable of a Doomed Bureaucrat

A rather stereotypic devil, complete with horns and pitchfork, rose to meet him as he came tumbling out of a long chute. "Greetings, Mr. Chump. I'm pleased to make your acquaintance. We've been needing a man of your caliber down here. My name is Mr. Jones. You may remember me. Mr. Zimmerman provided me with a certain notoriety." Mr. Jones simpered a bit.

John Chump stumbled to his feet and gave himself a gentle shake so as better to regain his composure. "Well, well, well." He paused. "You know I certainly didn't expect to end up in, uh, in Hell."

Mr. Jones smiled, "I know, I know... Say, I know it's hard for you to get oriented quickly. You'll remember Dante and the Christians and all the others who've written about Hell. Well, they all got it part right and part wrong. Just try to keep an open mind and pay attention and you'll be all right."

John Chump looked puzzled and felt puzzled. He had landed in a large comfortably appointed office, not showy, not personal, but apparently fully functional. Mr. Jones continued, "You see you failed to survive your last bout of stomach trouble. I asked for you and you've been detailed to me. You were doing a good job for us while you were alive, but now, since you're dead, well, we've been needing a man of your executive capacities and so you will find yourself welcome here."

John didn't see but he felt a bit reassured. He decided that Hell could be a whole lot worse and so he quickly decided to try and make the best of it. John said, "You needed me?"

"That's right. I'm one of the managers for the delivery trains. We're getting a lot of business these days what with the Vietnam war, the tobacco industry, and the growing power of multi-national corporations. We've had to put on extra trains and that means we need more Guidance Directors. You are assigned to our newest train, the President Nixon. We've paired you with an experienced conductor but our expectation is, based on your case records, that you will need very little assistance. Frankly, if you do your job as well as we think you will, you could be one of the few managers that is selected for advanced training."

John felt emboldened to ask the big question that came to his mind. "How long will I be here?"

Mr. Jones smiled. "Oh you're here for the long haul, just like the rest of us. But my advice is not to worry too much about that. You'll find your work to be interesting and challenging."

For the next few hours, well, if you can count hours in the context of eternity, John spent his time in filling out a simple personnel form and answering a longer and more complicated information form that amounted to sharing privileged information and recording accusations about the faculty of the great university he had led. Then he was outfitted with his own devil's uniform, issued a pitchfork, and provided a brief orientation and training. The most challenging part of the training was memorizing the different locations in Hell and the guidelines for assigning his passengers to the different locations. John imaged the task as learning the locations of products in a Super Market and soon had created for himself a series of mental prompts to help him remember the locations and guidelines. He thought of warriors as going to the butcher shop and of pacifists as going to the flower boutique, for example.

He was then directed to a service tunnel that would take him to the train platform and train he would learn to call his own. He had a long walk and it was a bit on the warm side. John found himself adjusting. He thought of his devil's uniform, complete with red tights, as a bit embarrassing but he tried to remind himself that he wasn't going to a costume party and that the uniform was not to be thought of as a costume but as a symbol of authority, a symbol he was likely to need.

John also felt a bit squeamish about his pitchfork training. He was used to accomplishing his purposes in indirect ways with minimal face-to-face involvement. His remnants of conscience quieted as he thought about the potential for moving up in the management system and then being able to pass-off the pitchfork work to others.

John was feeling almost ready by the time he reached the heavy steel door to the train platform. However, when he opened and stepped onto the platform he was instantly sure he was in over his head.

The scene was, well, it was nightmarish. There were crowds of scared people milling around. Assistant devils in white tights with red stripes were herding them around in what seemed to be a random and chaotic fashion. John paused to observe for a few moments and began to see that there was a certain order in the activity. He began to admire the pitchfork work of his well-trained subordinates. He certainly was not prepared to do much pitchfork training and he quickly realized that wouldn't matter.

What he did need to do was get to his desk, take control, and start the interviewing process. He knew he could take as long as he wanted, this being eternity after all. On the other hand it was clear that demonstrating efficiency would be one of the keys as to whether he would be picked for advanced training.

He straightened himself, steadied his grip on his pitchfork in the approved "port arms"position, and began to make his way down the platform to the raised desk that was waiting for him. He noticed that almost immediately, his Assistant Devils, that he privately called his Armed Thugs, helped to make a path for him without expecting any recognition or thanks. The blood and the vomit made walking a bit dangerous but John knew he shouldn't hurry but just make steady progress. He wondered whether he would ever get used to the smell of brimstone. Still, he made the two hundred yards to his desk in good order.

He turned on his microphone and called for order. His thugs quickly enforced his request. He began his prepared speech. "Because of my high moral character, I have been selected to make determinations of the locations you will occupy in Hell. If you will all cooperate we can make this a relatively painless process. If you do not cooperate we will use our pitchforks to obtain the order we require and make our assessments on the basis of your written records. This is your one chance to present excuses or to claim mitigating circumstances for any of your behavior while alive. My decisions will determine your initial location in Hell. If the assignments prove to be incorrect, over time, you will be relocated as appropriate. Your cooperation will reduce the likelihood of mistakes on my part with resulting increased unhappiness for you. And, of course, it will reduce strain on the system which will be noted for your record of cooperation here in Hell." The last remark was a lie but John calculated that it was likely a useful lie that would help produce order without distorting the systems operation.

John's skills were well-honed. The processing was orderly and efficient. He projected the kind of authority that most people respond to positively. There was little of the pompous, no instinct for the cruel, and a welcoming style. But there was no nonsense. The line moved steadily. With a little practice John estimated that his time per applicant, soon summarized to himself as TPA, had been lowered from about ten minutes per applicant to about three.

The applicants, when processed by John and directed to the appropriate train cars by his thug assistants, were relabeled in John's mind as designees. John mused that there was something French sounding about the word "designee"and that made him feel that he was sophisticated.

John noticed that neither he, nor his assistants, nor the applicants and designees, got tired. His body seemed real enough but he noticed for the first time that he hadn't eaten or drunk anything since coming down to Hell and yet he was neither hungry or thirsty. But bodies in Hell were certainly capable of feeling pain as the pitchfork work showed and John had been assured in his training that anyone who jumped in front of a train to commit suicide would experience a lot of pain while the offender's body reassembled.

With the last designees loaded, John got on the train as part of the crew of conductors. He went to the rear of the train because the train would be unloaded from back to front.

The train side to the first stop seemed neither short nor long. When the train arrived John used his portable microphone to announce, "All those people who did their jobs in life without complaint may get ready to leave. Yours will be the easiest place in Hell."

Strict empiricists, uncomplaining housewives, textual critics, low-level bureaucrats, all rose quickly and moved toward the doors which opened automatically. They stepped out into a large room with metal sides and floors. The light was subdued and the air was a bit misty. There was a pleasant smell of flowers and bright cushions were spread around on the floor. Despite the subdued light John could see that people were sitting on the cushions and occasionally drinking milk and honey from tubes attached to mechanical surrogate mothers that wandered around the room. John's overwhelming feeling was that everyone in this part of Hell felt safe and secure.

Instead of waiting to arrive at the next stop, John improved efficiency by using his microphone to instruct the next group of designees, the failures, to get ready. A wide variety of people stood up in response to this call. John smiled to himself. Ill circumstances, laziness, and incapacity would soon be ejected.

The failures stumbled forth into a huge Louis XIV sitting room. It was brightly lit with candles and even the air seemed to have a golden feel about. The failures were met by angels dressed in diaphanous robes who gathered the designees into small groups for guided tours of the opulent, if dated, luxuries that were in such abundance. Medals and jewelry were passed out freely. The automatic doors slammed shut on a very puzzled Mr. Chump.

Several more stops were made and the train was emptied of all but a few passengers. Each stop had proved to be more desirable than the last and John was plainly worried. He meant to bang the pole of his pitchfork on the floor to get attention but he hit the top of his foot instead and was reminded of the potential of his body for feeling pain. Instead of speaking from where he was he recovered himself by stumbling to the front end of the car and successfully banging his pitchfork and calling for attention.

He faced the remaining passengers who were now smiling broadly. The smiles irritated John. "I don't know where the tortures are at our last stop but it is the very lowest levels of Hell. You will get what is due you here." He paused, "So all of you disloyal and blasphemous trouble-makers stand up. You thought you could defy the authority of this train but now you will get what is coming to you."

John paused. He realized that he was yelling. This was quite out of character for him. He further noticed that he was yelling at an empty car. The remaining passengers had exited into a bright sunlit meadow where lovers, dressed in bright psycedelic colors, walked hand-in-hand or paused to chat in groups.

John was in a fury during the last train ride back to the platform. He forgot all about his goals of efficiency and good order. Instead of going directly to his desk to start the next round of assignments, he found the Service Door, walked the long Service Tunnel, and burst into the Managers Office without bothering to knock.

The manager looked up from his desk where he had apparently been nodding off for awhile. He didn't seem surprised by the look of anger on John's face. John knew that this was a moment for caution but he let his feelings burst out anyhow. "You said I was to assign people to get off at various levels in Hell. But every stop was better than the last. What kind of justice is that? I worked hard to catalog everyone and distribute them fairly. Then they all got off into nice places. Now just anser me this. Is this Hell or isn't it?"

The manager continued to smile broadly. Oh we are in Hell all right. Hell includes these offices, the platforms, and the trains, and a few other places you really don't want to know about. But the locations for the passengers are part of Heaven."

The manager waited for his revelation to sink in. John found he had nothing to say. The manager continued. "We didn't explain this part of the geography to begin with because we wanted to see what you would do with good morale. You did splendidly. Only a few others have done better. I'm one of those people."

The manager paused again. John still had nothing to say. "So here are your choices. You can go back to your assigned work or you can find about some other areas of Hell. If you go back to your assigned work you really should hurry. Coming to this uninvited conference is hurting your efficiency record and that is all you have now."

John turned to start running for the platform. The manager called out to him. "By the way, you can appeal by praying to God. Unfortunately, if you never learned to pray while you were alive, or if you forgot, your prayers may not get very far. We call such failed attempts at prayer, prayer static."

John didn't pause to question or to argue.

Written by: Pat Conover, 1971. Substantially revised, 2006.

Biography | What's New | Leave a Comment | View Comments | Fair Use Policy

Search this site or the web powered by FreeFind

Site search Web search