by Rick Bayan
(March 2000) Picture an eternal Pennsylvania March, that charmless and soul-shriveling month -- a muddy no-man's-land between the icy glitter of winter and the blossomy breezes of spring. Like a skilled presidential candidate, March promises new beginnings but delivers more of the same: in this case, expanses of khaki-colored grass, the blackened crusts of last month's snow, wrinkled trees looking geriatric in their nakedness.
Now picture yourself driving through that March landscape, past the crowded tract mansions with their comically opulent facades, past condominiums that look like upscale barracks, past the office parks and hotel-conference centers, the convenience stores, used-car lots, mini-malls, seedy bowling lanes, deserted diners and local beverage distributors, past the chain bookstores, chain pizzerias, chain transmission centers and chain megaplexes. Twenty-two movies to choose from, and none worth choosing.
You stop at a red light; in fact, every light is red. When it turns green, you don't move. Nobody moves. You suspect that somebody up ahead is color blind. You look heavenward and start tapping the dashboard with your free hand. You tap it repeatedly, a little harder with each tap. "Come on," you mutter. "COME on. COME ON!" The cars ahead of you don't listen; they never do. You might as well try to convert your cat to Mormonism.
Your appointment began five minutes ago, and you still have at least a mile to go before you get there. At an average speed of three miles per hour, you'll be just about 25 minutes late -- probably a little later if you decide to bump the car ahead of you. If you were wearing a blood pressure cuff right now, you wouldn't want to look.
A light rain begins to pepper your windshield. You turn on the wipers, which squeak like mid-size rodents and smear the glass. You sit inside your motionless car, marooned in a March gridlock, with only the stark highwayscape and spattering rain for companionship. Everything outside is beige and wet. Nowhere in your field of view do you spot a congenial speck of greenery or a cause for merriment.
This is Hell, you think. But it's not... not really.
What unspeakably bleak sinkhole of the spirit have I brought you to? It looks and feels familiar... you suspect you've been here before. In fact, you've been here so often that you've ceased to regard it as a separate place. It's simply your world, and you know no other.
You're in HECK, my friends -- the lesser, more mundane version of Hell that most of us inhabit on a daily basis. No sulfurous fumes or eternal fires emanate from this sunless abode... nothing as nightmarish as Dante's infernal cesspools, drizzling embers or winged demons. No, those cinematic special effects would be too dazzling, too diverting, too stimulating to the senses. Heck isn't a Steven Spielberg production; it's more of a minor afternoon soap opera. The souls of the Darned are condemned to pass their days in sulking, inner conflict and chronic disappointment.
You didn't know that Heck was an actual place? Thought it was simply a mild colloquial euphemism, did you? The fact is that Heck is more real than Hell -- certainly more real than Purgatory, which the early Church Fathers cleverly concocted as a means of adding to their followers' insecurities. The reasoning was that imperfect souls have to work off their impurities in a kind of spiritual health-and-fitness club before being admitted to God's skybox.
Obviously our own living Heck has rendered Purgatory redundant and obsolete. Purgatory? What's the point? After a lifetime in Heck, most of us would respond with a jaded "Been there, done that."
How can I describe Heck for the uninitiated? It's not easy, but I'll give it a try. The essence of Heck is petty frustration, inconvenience, monotony, fraudulence and vexation of the spirit. It's piles of mail that proliferate on the sofa: overdue bills, incomprehensible tax forms, "urgent" sweepstakes offers, eight consecutive unread issues of "Entertainment Weekly." It's dirty litter boxes to clean and tightly-spaced teeth to floss. It's late fees and malfunctioning toilets, busy signals and computer error messages, forced gaiety and post-nasal drip. It's psoriasis on your elbows and male-pattern baldness on your scalp. It's a business card that slips off your desk and into the next dimension.
It's important not to confuse Heck and Hell. Heck is working long days in a windowless office, solemnly and with scant hope of advancement -- while your younger colleague, who scored 219 points lower than you on the Verbal SAT, has just been promoted to vice president. Hell is being personally demoted by that vice president and moved into a cubicle.
Heck is winning a place of honor on the telemarketing lists of every charitable organization between Anchorage and Key Largo. Hell is being phoned at midnight by an extortionist who claims to have kidnapped your firstborn.
Heck is being summoned for jury duty. Hell is being sentenced to a maximum-security prison and finding that your cellmate wants a more meaningful relationship.
Heck is feeling compelled to check all the water faucets before you leave the house. Hell is a lifelong case of paranoid schizophrenia in which you think you ARE a water faucet.
You experience Supermarket Heck when you find a choice spot in the Express Lane, then stand motionless while the folks in the adjoining lanes pass you by. You know the pain of Stock Market Heck when you finally sell a sagging company for a 50 percent loss, then watch it gain 150 percent over the next three weeks. Any Catch-22 situation is a curse from Heck: if you want to publish a book, you need an agent; to get an agent, you need to have published a book. The Darned are all too familiar with such heckish reasoning.
Writing itself is a heckish trade: you struggle incessantly to find your voice; you sweat profusely over every adjective and semi-colon; you bruise your soul. You're constantly wondering what to say next, and when you say it, whether you should have said something else. When you're done, the critics hurl contempt in your general direction or fail to notice you at all. Your readers wouldn't populate a small village in Albania; in fact, you could earn more money as a bell-hop at the local Ramada Inn. Still you're compelled to pursue your wayward course, though your craft is as doomed and leaky as the Titanic.
This is beginning to sound less like Heck and more like the other place. As long as I'm there, I might as well enjoy the special effects. Start the fires! Bring on the sulfurous fumes! Let the winged demons fly! And if any of you are wearying of Heck's pallid miseries, feel free to join me.