After I died -- shuffled off my mortal coil, joined the choir invisible, pushed up the daisies, or what have you -- I expected to come face-to-face with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. I did. I also expected him to look like a haloed, winged angel in white robes. He didn't. Instead, he was dressed in a white three-piece suit and wore a white beret. His hair was short, almost military length. (Did he usually look like this? I don't know, so why don't you go ask someone who would know? Like God, for instance. Last I heard, He knows everything.)
St. Peter opened the huge, many-paged book that he held. The pages flipped all by themselves until they stopped about halfway. He read what was on the page in front of him. “Dr. Lou Ellen Manfred, M.D.? Psychotherapist?”
“In the flesh . . . if I was still on Earth,” I said. “Were you expecting someone else?”
“It appears that you've come here by mistake,” he said. “Prematurely, it seems.”
My eyebrows rose. “Oh?”
St. Peter nodded. “Not that you should've gone to Hell instead. Mistakes and all, you would never have gone there.”
“What a relief,” I said, maybe a bit too sarcastically. “I've had my share of sunburns and really didn't want to spend the rest of Eternity in a pool of fire.”
He sighed. “Mistakes do happen. Even here.” He looked past me, nodded, and then back at me. “Your escort to Purgatory is here.”
“My what?” I asked.
He gestured at someone behind me. I turned and saw a tall man with curly silver hair and a very long white beard. He was dressed more casually than St. Peter was: plaid button-down shirt, worn blue jeans, and sandals.
“Archangel Moses,” the man said. “It's an honor to meet you, Dr. Manfred.”
“I'm not sure I understand all this,” I said. “Why am I going somewhere else and why am I needed there?”
“If you would?” St. Peter asked Archangel Moses. “I'm expecting a hundred and fifty-eight souls who died in a plane crash. They're due to arrive momentarily.”
The latter nodded. “Certainly.” Archangel Moses turned to me. “I'll explain along the way.” He gestured toward a distant pair of elevators. “You see, Dr. Manfred, our last therapist recently retired after a thousand years. The position has been empty since then. When word reached Heaven that you had died after a very long lifetime on Earth, we couldn't have been more happy.”
“If I understand what you aren't telling me, you apparently want me to fill that position,” I said.
Archangel Moses nodded. “Your credentials were rather impressive. You even successfully dealt with patients who had PTSD, some of whom were also suicidal.”
“And how long would I have to fill this position?” I asked. “A thousand years like my predecessor did? Or would I be allowed to retire when it felt like the right time to?”
“Stay as long as you are able to,” he said. “It need not be a thousand years, but we would be quite happy if you stayed that long . . . or longer.”
As the fictional Han Solo sometimes said, “I've got a bad feeling about this.”
“And afterwards?” I asked. “What happens then?”
“If all goes well, you'll go to Heaven,” Archangel Moses said.
“And if all doesn't go well?” I wondered.
“That probably won't happen,” he said.
“How reassuring,” I muttered.
We arrived in front of the pair of elevators. They were both painted light grey and had nothing on them to differentiate them from each other. How to know which was the correct one?
There was only one button on the wall between the elevator doors. Archangel Moses pressed the down button and waited.
“But I thought you were escorting me to --” I protested.
“Purgatory is halfway between here and Hell,” he said. “You have to go down to either place.”
“Oh,” I said.
The elevator arrived. Its doors opened and we stepped inside. Archangel Moses pressed the “P” button. I noticed that there was also an “H” button. (“H” presumably stood for “Hell” if one were traveling downward. But what if one were traveling upward, would “H” then stand for “Heaven”? Or was there another way to travel to Heaven in the Afterlife?)
The elevator didn't descend quickly. It seemed to have a somewhat slower speed when it wasn't headed for Hell.
A few minutes later, the elevator stopped and its doors opened. We stepped out of it and into what looked like the atrium of an office building. In the middle of the atrium, there was a raised, walled island filled with tall tropical trees and low tropical bushes and flowers.
I tried not to stare, but I couldn't help it. It probably shouldn't have surprised me by now. I suppose bureaucracy, whether on Earth or in the Afterlife, must follow its own rules.
The elevator doors stayed opened until Archangel Moses told the elevator, “You can leave us now. You won't be needed for a while.” The elevator doors closed.
“What was it waiting for?” I asked.
“Me,” he said. “But I'll be here for a little while.”
“And then what?” I asked. “I'll be left here to do the best I can?”
We entered the atrium, passed to the raised island's right. Beyond the atrium was the end of what seemed like a very long line. We walked past the line, down a long set of stairs. At the bottom, was a very large waiting room. It was very crowded. The crowded parted to let us walk through.
Just outside a corridor was a receptionist's desk. A woman who reminded me of Madonna back in the 1980s sat there chewing gum, popping bubbles, and buffing her fingernails.
She looked up at us. “You have to wait in line. No exceptions.”
“Even for the new therapist?” Archangel Moses asked her.
“Can't be you,” she told him.
“It isn't,” he said and gestured at me. “She is.”
The receptionist sighed and shook her head. “Honey, if you volunteered, you don't know what you're getting yourself into.”
I tried to keep my cool. “I didn't volunteer. And my name isn't 'Honey'. It's 'Dr. Manfred'.” I looked at the nameplate on her desk. “And I assume that you aren't 'Honey' either. Should I call you 'Madonna' or would you prefer something else instead?”
She put down her emery board. “You can read, cantcha? What about what's on the nameplate?”
“Fair enough,” I said. “Miss Disrespectful, Rude, and Vain --”
Archangel Moses stifled a chuckle.
She frowned at both of us. “It does not say that. I should know.”
“Oh?” I said and turned the nameplate around to face her. “Then what does it say to you?”
She looked at it and then glared at Archangel Moses. “It isn't funny. Change it back.”
“I didn't change it,” he said. “Maybe the boss thought it fit you better.”
She crossed her arms on her chest and said nothing.
“In the meantime,” he went on, “I need to show Dr. Manfred to her office.”
I looked at the line of people. “Since I'm the new therapist here, who's the first one in line?”
“That would be me,” the first person in line said. He was sitting in a wheelchair and looked like a football player who'd had close contact with a steamroller. One arm dangled from a shoulder and both feet were missing.
“Want me to push you to the examining room?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “I can manage with my good arm, Doc.”
“If you need any help, just ask,” I said as we followed Archangel Moses down the corridor.
“That's why I'm here,” the injured man said. “I need help. Your help.”
“I thought I was supposed to be a therapist,” I said as we entered the second room on the left.
“I guess they don't tell you everything either,” the injured man said.
I turned to Archangel Moses. “You're welcome to stay and help, or you can go back to Heaven.”
“I have to leave, but I'll be back as soon as I can,” Archangel Moses said and left.
After a very long day (I don't know how many hours; there weren't any clocks), I managed to get through all of the people in line. I sat down on a couch in the waiting room. “Madonna” still wasn't speaking to me.
I must've fallen asleep because the next thing I knew Archangel Moses was kneeling in front of me.
“Are you all right, Dr. Manfred?” he asked me.
“Just really tired,” I said. “When did you get here?”
“A few moments ago,” he said. “You look like you could use somewhere to rest and recuperate.”
I nodded and let him help me to my feet. “Definitely.”
“Your predecessor had an apartment,” Archangel Moses said. “I believe it's still available.”
“Sounds fine to me,” I said. “By the way, you don't have to call me 'Dr. Manfred'. You can call me 'Lou'.”
“In which, you are welcome to call me 'Moses',” he said. “It's the name that my Egyptian foster mother gave me.”
“You mean that really happened?” I asked.
He looked surprised. “Of course it did. Everything in the Bible really happened. After all, truth is stranger than fiction.”
The apartment building wasn't in one of the better neighborhoods here in Purgatory. Assuming, of course, that there were any good neighborhoods here.
There was graffiti on the outside of the building. The street and sidewalks looked as if they hadn't been repaired in a very long time. Inside the building, the elevator didn't work, so we climbed the stairs instead.
“What a place to live,” I muttered.
“There are worse places to live,” Moses said.
“In Purgatory?” I asked.
He shook his head. “In Hell.”
We reached the correct floor and headed down a corridor. The carpeting was worn at the edges and had holes here and there. The apartment door had dents in it, either as if someone had tried unsuccessfully to break into it or they'd lost their temper at my predecessor.
Inside the apartment, the furniture was -- surprise, surprise -- very old and worn. The TV -- which I didn't expect to see -- wasn't LED, LCD, or plasma. It had a picture tube instead and looked like a relic from the 1950s.
“Want something to eat or drink?” Moses asked me.
I shook my head. “I'm really tired. I just want to sleep. Is the bed comfortable enough to sleep in? Or should I sleep on the floor instead?”
He opened the bedroom door. The bed surprisingly looked new, or at least significantly newer than anything else I'd seen in this apartment building.
I walked past him and collapsed on the bed. I was vaguely aware of him pulling a sheet and blanket up until it cover me from foot to shoulders.
“Sleep well, Lou,” he whispered and I felt soft lips kissing my forehead like my parents used to do when I was a little girl.
The next day wasn't much better, but at least it wasn't any worse.
One (slight) improvement: “Madonna” decided to speak to me again, but only when she absolutely had to and only as much (not more) as she had to. I wonder if my predecessor retired more to get away from her than because he was worn out by his job.
Moses visited me at lunchtime; he'd brought lunch with him. He'd also found a pair of old chairs somewhere. He let me carry the lunch to the atrium while he carried the chairs. We sat near the raised island.
“I imagine this isn't what you expected the Afterlife to be like, Lou,” he said, in between bites of an egg salad sandwich.
“Definitely not,” I said, just before I bit into the best chicken salad sandwich I'd ever had. Who had made it? Him or someone else? “I just wondered: Does it only look this way to someone like me? Does it look different to anyone else?”
“Yes to both,” he said.
“What about you and St. Peter?” I asked. “Same answer?”
Moses nodded. “You wouldn't believe how many people think we're all angels, wearing haloes, wings, and white robes. They look so disappointed when they see the real thing isn't much different from what they saw back on Earth.”
“So if I'd lived and died in ancient Egypt --” I said.
“We'd probably be sitting in a temple with hieroglyphs on its columns,” he said, “and we'd be dressed like they were.”
“Is that what you saw after you died?” I asked.
He nodded again. “Like you I asked why and like me they explained.”
“Were you allowed into Heaven or did you have to come here first?” I asked.
We'd finished our sandwiches and salads. Moses gave me one bag of fat-free potato chips and opened the other one. He ate a chip before answering.
“Heaven,” he said. “I thought I would stay there for the rest of Eternity. But then --”
“Let me guess: St. Peter asked if you could help him,” I suggested.
“Not help him, though,” he said. “Help you.”
“Then he must have known all about me,” I said. “Why did he have to refer to that huge book of his?”
“Because he isn't omniscient like our boss is,” Moses said. “The boss tells him a little and expects him to figure out the rest. Same with me.” He sighed. “I do wish lunch breaks here were a bit longer.”
“You mean it's already over?” I asked.
He nodded. “At least we finished our lunches first.”
“Are you going to do this with me every day,” I asked, “or did you have to get special permission first?”
“I will do this with you as often as I'm allowed to,” he said. “Some days, though, you'll have to eat alone. I wish that didn't have to happen, but I'm not in control. The boss is.”
“When you say 'the boss', you mean God?” I asked.
He nodded again and wiggled the fingers of his left hand. The remains of our lunch vanished. “It doesn't go to a landfill. It gets recycled many many many many times.”
We stood up.
“Thank you for having lunch with me, Moses,” I said. “I hope you won't get into any trouble if you do it again.”
“The rules are a bit more lax where I'm concerned,” he said. “They're a bit more strict for the other archangels.”
“Why is it different for you?” I wondered.
“Because I have to deal with souls who don't go to Heaven,” he said. “They're not always easy to deal with. Some are very angry and feel they should be sitting next to the throne of God. They don't believe that there isn't any throne.”
“Do they have to go to Hell, then?” I asked.
Moses shook his head. “Just to Purgatory until they stop acting like spoiled brats.”
“So my situation is a bit different,” I said.
He nodded. “You're needed here. Far more than you would be in Heaven.” He looked sad.
“You have to go back to Heaven,” I said.
He nodded again. “Take care of yourself, Lou. You might not believe it, but you're nothing like anyone else here in Purgatory. And that's a compliment, not a criticism.”
“I bet you aren't like anyone here, either,” I said.
“Probably not,” he said. “I hope to have lunch with you tomorrow.”
“The feeling's mutual,” I said. “You're the best person I know here.”
He sighed. “You're making this difficult for me.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn't mean to.”
“If I can't come tomorrow for lunch, promise you won't hold it against me?” Moses asked.
I nodded. “I promise.”
We shook hands and he disappeared. I guess archangels don't have to travel by elevator unless they choose to.
I didn't expect to be friends with an archangel. But Moses made it easy to like him. Or maybe it was more than “like”.
The next day I had lunch alone.
Lunch was delivered by one of the lesser angels. They apologized that Moses couldn't be with me again, but wouldn't tell me why.
The atrium felt as empty as an unused tomb.
“Madonna” saw the look on my face when I returned from lunch. “That's one rule that can't be bent or broken. Trust me. I tried to once.”
“What happened?” I asked, surprised that she was chatting casually with me.
“I was assigned here as punishment,” she said.
“What happened to him or her?” I asked.
“I've never seen them again,” she said.
“I'm sorry,” I said. “I hope it was worth it.”
“Madonna” gave me the ghost of a grin. “It sure was.”
“Glad to hear it,” I said. “By the way, if you hear from Archangel Moses --”
“I'll let you know, Ma'am,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said. “Next patient, please.”
When I returned to my apartment after that day ended, there was a bouquet of beautiful flowers in a crystal vase on the kitchen counter. There was also a card:
Picked these in the Elysian Fields earlier today. Had to smuggle them out of the Greek Underworld. Hope you like. Missed you at lunch today. -Moses
Thank goodness he didn't see me cry.