A short story by Jake Conrad
The most interesting part of the Final Judgment, in Larry Zabriske’s opinion, was the absence of a line, a waiting room, or the necessity to take a number. After working for the Department of Motor Vehicles for 36 years and 4 months watching countless automatons with glazed eyes shuffling up and down cordoned aisles, Larry was expecting a line. Larry figured the line would be somehow more efficient than terrestrial lines, more perfect in some way, but he definitely expected it to be long.
When Larry went through the light at the end of the tunnel and found himself in a tastefully white-carpeted room resembling a small amphitheater, instead of a long perfect line leading to an enormous, pearl-encrusted fence, he began feeling uneasy. When he saw that the room was about half-filled with people, posed as if they were expecting him, the unease became anxiety. Say what you will about DMV lines, Larry thought, but at least they give you time to prepare.
Larry was both tickled and offended that the room he had just entered reminded him of a game show set. Janice, Larry’s wife of 38 years, had been a big “25,000 Pyramid” fan in the 80’s, and an even bigger fan of that “Millionaire” show hosted by Regis Philbin. Larry never liked that show much. He told Janice it was because he thought Reggie, “Regis” she would remind him, was a bit too smug for someone who had the answers written on the back of a card. In reality it had more to do with Janice’s interest in “snuggling” as she called it, which seemed to coincidentally fall on the nights the Gameshow Network played 2 hour “Millionaire” double features. Two chairs sat in the center of a rising circle of stepped seating and large video displays hung down from the ceiling at Larry’s north, south, east and west. Another wave of recognition mix with a bit of abhorrence at the blasphemy of it all hit Larry. This was certainly not the way Miss Donavan taught him the afterlife would be like. Where were the angels with their feathery wings and floating golden halos? Where was St. Peter? Almost the instant that Larry thought of his old Sunday school teacher, he recognized her to be the woman sitting two rows up in the small audience. She was not the hunched, sour woman in her 50’s that he remembered, but looked to be somewhere in her late 20’s. As he scanned the crowd he saw his mother and father near the front. They looked like Larry’s parents, but they looked more vibrant and full of health. They looked like they looked in their wedding photos. Scanning the room Larry saw Coach Atkins, Sergeant Qualls and his cousin Daniella also looking to be in their late 20’s or early 30’s. All were smiling and looking at Larry.
A man whose skin was too dark to for him to be either Chuck Woolery or Regis Philbin sat in one of the two chairs at the bottom of the amphitheater. The man was dressed in a gray suit, which stood out dramatically against the white room around him. He came to his feet, smiled and motioned with a sweeping gesture for Larry to sit in the chair by his side. “Welcome Larry”, said the man in the charcoal suit. Larry came forward on stiff legs and sat in the curved chair. “Yes. You have entered the afterlife Mr. Zabriske. I am your assigned Conciliator, Stanley Morse, and I will be handling your reassignment hearing.” Larry looked at Morse very closely, and after short pause said, “I’m sorry, I don’t recognize you.” Morse smiled, “You and I have never met Mr. Zabriske. I was a defense attorney in Detroit until a Volkswagen bus hit me in 1993. It is the fact that we have never met, and not my law degree that makes me eligible to be your Conciliator.” Morse gave him a conspirator’s wink and said, “It is a bit like jury duty for some of us assigned to the Radiance.” Morse smiled and made another sweeping gesture around the room. “However, you should recognize everyone else here.” Morse pointed to the back of the room at began naming off names Larry hadn’t spoken in many years. “Charlie Medina, Cheryl Jackson, Sandy Gleeson, Jennifer Pope…” Each name Morse listed prompted a spectator to stand for a moment before taking their seat again. Larry was surprised to feel tears sting his eyes as his baby brother James Zabriske’s name was announced and a man Larry he had never seen before stood. Little Jimmy had left the world after 2 years, taken by pneumonia. James, a man who resembled Larry’s grandfather in old pictures gave a small wave and sat down.
Morse sat beside Larry and pulled a small, rectangular object from the inside his suit jacket. Again Larry had a surreal moment as Morse pointed what looked like a white remote control at the ceiling and pressed a button. Two things happened at once. All the video displays that encircled the wall at the top of the amphitheater changed from a dark screen to a light blue screen. At the same time, a triangle-shaped section of the floor between Larry and Morse’s chairs separated itself and rose to table height between the two men forming a small table. Morse reached into a compartment on his side of the table, and removed an ivory mechanical object. It was only after the article was placed on the small pedestal between them, that Larry saw that it was a balance scale. Again Morse reached below Larry’s line of sight and withdrew two clear containers that he placed on either side of the scale. The scale tipped and swayed for a moment before coming into alignment.
“I began reviewing your case about the time you started having chest pains, so I’m somewhat up to speed, Larry,” Morse said. “Wait a minute.” Larry said “What about God and Jesus and Heaven and Hell…” Morse stopped Larry short with a puzzled look. “Larry, what did you think all this is all about?” Morse said as he swept the audience in one fluid motion. “This is the Judgment you learned about in Sunday school. This is it. This is the moment you cash your chips, pay your debts and see if you will be found wanting. The next hour will determine your future for eternity. The commandments, the holy script… it was all real.” Larry swallowed sideways and then looked out to his mother, who was giving him a comforting smile.
“Larry Darnell Zabriske, in the name of the Radiance I begin this Judgment, Morse began. “Let the witnesses here today see this one man, naked before all judgment.” Morse touched something on the remote control in his hand and suddenly the monitors began to grow steadily brighter. Their brilliance grew slowly at first but in a matter of seconds Larry had to shield his eyes as the whitest of white lights filled the room. Only he seemed unable to look into the light. “We acknowledge the Radiance’s presence in this judgment,” Morse said, and appeared to be smiling as he said it, although Larry would never have been able to see it. The light retracted swiftly, leaving the room just as it was before. “The judgment is simple and perfect,” Morse said looking now into Larry’s eyes. “First of all, we will review your life’s sins.” Morse touched the remote once again, and what had to be the most vivid video feed Larry had ever seen began to play. “Larry, you are a sinner like us all. You are guilty of many minor sins. For each sin, I will place a black tile onto the left side of the scale. For each good deed, I will place a white tile on the left side of the scale. When your life’s works have been fully, you will then be judged. Your first sin came in the form of a conscious act of theft of a pack of fruit gum from your aunt Tacee’s purse.” The video feed showed a first person perspective of small hands reaching into a maroon, vinyl purse. Morse dropped a black chit the size and color of a domino into the cup on the left side of the scale. The sound it made was strangely loud and piercing and the scale swayed slowly before settling. “The second sin came when you lied to your father about how his prized eagle clock was broken.” The video changed to small hands tossing a basketball into the air and catching it. Larry felt his face flush and could not bear to look into his father’s eyes. He simply watched the ball bounce rogue off the side of the old china hutch and slam his father’s ceramic eagle clock into the wall, like he knew it would. Another sharp click as a black chit fell onto the scale. This continued for what seemed to Larry as a long time. He was mortified when Morse spoke of his frequent self-abuse as a teenager, yet relieved that all his countless fumblings only cost him one black chit. As the inquisition went on, Larry began to feel less shame at his acts and a sense that with each sharp click of tile against tile he lost these sins forever. He began to look at his audience. He saw not harsh, knowing looks, but understanding, sympathy and love. He stole a glance at his mother and father and saw such a look of love in their faces that he found some hope. And why shouldn’t he have hope? He had never murdered. He had never raped or molested. Hell, he had never even fornicated with anyone except Janice, and he didn’t even think it was fornication if you were married. He never cheated at cards or on his taxes. He never drank more than a beer or two a week (always on Saturday watching a game). When the sins had been exposed and listed, including a few that were quite shameful, like the time he French-kissed his younger sister’s best friend to the time when he flipped off the old lady who had cut him off in traffic (which had only been 6 days before his death), Larry looked at the scale, which was now sitting with the side full of black tiles nearly touching the table, and the empty side nearly a foot and a half higher. “Now,” Morse said with a smile, “we come to the more enjoyable part. What will follow, Larry are descriptions of your good deeds.”
Larry wiped at his brow and sat up a little straighter in his chair. He was relieved to be on to the positive aspects of his life. Morse started with Larry’s church attendance. Larry was a bit dismayed that all the hours spent in his church, from the time he was a boy, to the Sunday before his death only counted for one white chit. He looked up at Morse in surprise, but was still too abashed to say anything outright. Morse then went on to list the time he participated in the scout food drive, the time he shared a wedge of his bologna and cheese sandwich with the Laotian kid, Kim, who had told him he was hungry. Each was worth one chit. Then they were on to the donations that he and Janice had made to their parish, and to the firestation each Christmas. And the time he encouraged Janice to go back to school (which was partly so he could bowl more than once a week, but also because she just seemed so bored in their forties when they had pretty much given up on having children). And just like that, Morse was done with the good deeds. Now Larry had recovered enough from having his sins displayed to stammer out an argument. “Wait a minute here. I should have more than that”, Larry said. Morse looked at Larry for what felt like a long time and said with finality, “No Larry, that’s all there is.” “Wait”, Larry said in a cracked voice. “I never murdered! I never stole! I never… you know, with another woman!” Morse put his dark hand on Larry’s sweating mitts. “That is true Larry”, he said in a kind, but somewhat sad tone. “But, you see, you don’t get credit for not doing bad things, you only get credit for doing good deeds.” Larry looked at the scale, which wasn’t even close to being balanced, and said nothing. There was nothing to say. He looked out to his audience. Larry’s mother was looking at her hands. Larry’s father was slowly shaking his head. “Larry, this judgement is officially over and has been accepted as just. Do you agree that your judgment has been accurate and fair?” Tears began to roll down Larry’s face. He nodded. “Larry Zabriske, you have the equivalent of 2 hours to spend with those in attendance before you are reassigned”, Morse said in a clear, loud voice. “Wait”, Larry said quietly, “Am I going to heaven or to hell?” “Heaven and hell aren’t the only choices Larry. You see, the Radiance is a big place and many of us earn the opportunity to travel. Based on your judgment, and your prior experience, your new assignment will be in sector 7G, the department in charge of renewing travel licenses…”