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Madalyn Murray O’Hair in Hell

Hell is full of mystery and chain hardware stores. Who would’ve known? Kevin Guilfoile, that’s who, as he follows Madalyn, amateur detective, in the first chapter of her adventures in the underworld.

On the morning of her first day in Hell, Madalyn Murray O’Hair eased herself wearily onto the curb in front of her new home at the end of Limbo Lane, set her elbows on her knees, her head in her hands, and sighed.

‘Oh. Well. Shit,’ she said.

The sun was shining through a diesel haze and the flower pattern of her oversized cotton-poly sundress stuck to her skin like wet papier-mâché. Down the street a pair of teenagers played catch with a football and when one overthrew, the ball made an irregular, end-over-end thump-thump-thumpthump against the pavement.

‘It takes some getting used to,’ I told her.

Just after breakfast, looking out the kitchen window for Carny, my Maine Coon cat, I’d spied Madalyn traversing the broken sidewalk in sandals, dragging behind her a standard-issue canvas sack. I set my soapy coffee mug on the drying rack, hung a dishtowel hastily on a magnetic hook affixed to the side of the refrigerator, and rushed out to say hello to our new neighbor.

‘So this is it?’ Madalyn asked me, gesturing at the cul-de-sac of almost identical ranch homes around us. ‘It looks like it could be, Jesus, anywhere.’

‘Pretty much,’ I agreed. ‘What were you expecting?’

‘Nothing,’ Madalyn said, rubbing the skin above her tired eyes with the palm of her right hand. ‘I wasn’t expecting a damn thing.’

Madalyn didn’t yet have the despairing countenance and defeated posture you expect to see on the first hours of the damned. She looked disappointed. Maybe a little angry. I’d soon learn how much she hates to be outwitted. It doesn’t happen very often, I can tell you that.

I pointed down the street and hooked my wrist, implying a destination around the corner. ‘Over there is a bakery that’s only okay but it’s open on Sunday, and next door is one of those British gift shops that sell Guinness barware and placemats with maps of the old empire. We have a video store but it doesn’t have anything good and nothing’s ever in. About a half-mile that way is Home Depot—’

‘Home Depot’s built a store in Hell?’ Madalyn asked, alarmed.

I scratched my right cheek with the thin whites of my recently trimmed nails. ‘I wouldn’t read too much into it.’

Inside her new house (aluminum-sided with appealing teal shutters and trim), Madalyn found the kitchen equipped with a fridge and electric stove, a small bedroom with a full-sized mattress, and a living room with seating for five or so (provided each member of said quintet carried something shy of Madalyn’s considerable circumference). The windows had plain paper shades, and the walls were eggshell and barren. A small Panasonic television sat on an aluminum basket stand and although the furniture appeared second hand, the house was clean and odorless and didn’t appear at all lived in. In fact, it hadn’t been. Not since I’d arrived.

‘Can you get any channels on that thing?’ Madalyn asked, pointing a thick, round finger at the TV.

‘Three,’ I told her. ‘But the reception’s poor and the shows are all from 1978.’

Madalyn waved her hand. ‘I don’t watch much anyway.’ She sniffed at the humid air and wiped condensation from her nose. ‘What about books?’

‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘The library has any book you’d ask for. It’s the largest building in the Sixth Arrondisement.’

‘Arrondisement?’

‘Officially, it’s the Sixth Circle,’ I confessed. ‘Whenever we can, we try to class things up.’ There was a trill of pride on my tongue. Sixth-Circlers have a reputation for thinking we’re just a little superior to the other residents of Hell, theological taxonomy and parking privileges to the contrary. ‘These parts are also called the City of Dis,’ I added, ‘although technically we’re unincorporated.’

Madalyn rambled for a half-hour or more with the disbelieving, repetitive (but ultimately relieved) queries that are typical of a new arrival. ‘I thought Hell was supposed to be fire and torment and flesh-eating birds and naked men pushing rocks up hills,’ she said.

‘I think it used to be,’ I said. ‘That’s what the old-timers say.’

‘So what happened?’

I shrugged. ‘Nobody seemed to be stopping them, so they made improvements. It was long before I arrived, of course. Apparently, there were hundreds of open graves and they were on fire for centuries and they must have smelled something awful. One day, this Roman guy named Lucretius just filled them all in with concrete and built a Kroger. A week went by and nothing bad happened so he and some of the other Epicureans started cleaning up the entire Sixth. After that, most of the other Circles did the same. Or so I hear.’

‘You haven’t seen for yourself?’ Madalyn asked.

‘As Sixth-Circlers, we’re not allowed to visit Five or higher, unless you have a specific purpose. You could walk down to Seven, Eight, and Nine if you wanted, but nobody does. Some of those streets can get a little iffy.’

Madalyn found a half-finished bottle of Scotch in the pantry and poured a short one in a cup decorated with yellow daisies. It wasn’t yet ten o’clock (and unlike her, I wasn’t suffering from the fog of first-day death-lag), so I settled for a frosted pint glass of lemonade from concentrate. Madalyn lowered herself onto the worn, gray couch and I sat in an oversized brown, fabric chair. She looked around—sad and tired and edgy—and tried with difficulty to understand that she was home.

‘So what are you in for, Irving?’ she asked. Her voice still had the raspy, musty timbre of death and if I had been sitting even a few inches closer I probably could have smelled the residual decomposition on her breath. The alcohol would help both conditions.

‘What was I sent to Hell for?’ A bit of tart lemon flavor went down the wrong pipe and I choked it clear. ‘Honestly, I don’t know.’

‘Come on,’ she said. ‘You must have some goddamn idea.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘Really, I don’t.’

‘What did you do in life?’

‘I was a writer,’ I said. ‘I wrote screenplays. And novels. With my kids, I wrote a book in which we compiled lists of interesting things, like ‘Thirteen Recreational Users of Nitrous Oxide,’ or ‘Six Famous Women Who Wore Chastity Belts.’’

Madalyn balled her face into a tight, skeptic’s scowl. ‘You wrote the fucking Book of Lists?’

I nodded. ‘What? Why does everyone here always say it like that?’

‘Beats me,’ she said, taking a long sip.

I told her my theory, which I’d repeated dozens of times to my friends in the Dis City bars and coffee shops. ‘I think I ended up here because of a clerical error. A bureaucratic snafu. Paperwork left in the OUT basket when it should have gone on to the IN.’

‘Yeah,’ she said with disgust. ‘Nobody’s ever guilty of anything. Well, it sure as shit wasn’t no clerical error that landed me in this joint.’ The ice in her cup chimed. ‘Why don’t you just ask God about it? He’ll fix things. Can’t God do that? Fix stuff?’

I laughed. She was so naïve then: nothing like the great thinker, stateswoman, and solver of mysteries she was destined to become. Occasionally, I like to remind her of those first few months, when I was always explaining things to her instead of the other way around. ‘The whole point of Hell is that you’re removed from God’s presence, Madalyn,’ I said. ‘He can’t hear you and you can’t hear Him.’

‘Typical,’ Madalyn spat. ‘How do you know He even exists?’

‘Well,’ I said. ‘We’re in Hell after all. It adds up if you think about it.’ That’s a joke we like to tell. When you’re damned for eternity, you’re cursed with the time to think about everything. To dwell. But I didn’t say that out loud in front of her. Not yet.

‘So you have no recourse, at all?’ Madalyn cried. ‘What about the Devil or Satan or Damian or whoever? Can’t he get you some answers?’

I shrugged. ‘I’m pretty sure there is no devil.’

Madalyn scoffed. ‘Yeah, well, I’ve been burned saying that before.’ She fanned her face with the neck of her dress. ‘If there’s no devil, then who runs things down here?’

‘We’re on our own,’ I said. ‘We elect representatives every two years. Parliament meets here in Dis City. Each Circle has something like a town council. Lots of us are employed in civil service of one kind or another.’

Madalyn tried to lean forward but surrendered with a lurch and a wheeze to the hollows of the couch cushions. ‘Wait—Are you saying Hell is a democracy and Heaven is a goddamn dictatorship?’

‘Papa Doc’s always making a big deal about that,’ I said. ‘He writes letters to the newspaper.’

‘Holy shit,’ she said, quietly chuckling into her hand until the snicker developed into a cough and the cough became a violent hiccup. She gasped for a chest-filling breath and puckered her lips shut. When I rose to put a soothing, steady hand on her back, a familiar voice drifted up from the open doorway.

‘Hi-ho,’ it said.

‘Hello Carny,’ I said.

Madalyn regained control of her diaphragm and turned to see who it was. Carny padded across the floor in front of her and jumped into the chair where I had just been, settling into the warm spot I’d left behind. Madalyn gaped at me, truly shocked, I think, for the first time since her arrival. ‘Cats talk?’ she asked me. ‘Here in Hell, cats can talk?’

I put one hand on my hip and made an exaggerated face at Carny for taking my seat. ‘Yep. And when it’s your cat, the same cat you had in before-life, it’s a real pain in the keester because they remember everything you did when you were alive and thought you had the house to yourself.’ Carny licked her paw and ran it over the top of her right ear.

‘It’s too much,’ Madalyn mumbled. ‘This is all too much.’ She put her head back and slowly exhaled. I watched her very carefully. On the first day of damnation, every person has one of two epiphanies: the awful recognition of a hopeless eternity coupled with malevolent nostalgia for before-life (a madness, incidentally, for which there is no cure); or acceptance of a new reality where curiosity and discovery—tragedy and comedy, love and hate—are still possible. In some of us, the soul is resilient enough to survive the very mechanism meant to destroy it.

Blinking her eyes, Madalyn returned to us and smiled. ‘So what, Irving, this cat has dirt on you from—’ she pointed uncertainly at the ceiling ‘—up there or wherever?’

I frowned and bobbed my head. ‘Nothing too terrible,’ I insisted.

Madalyn held a sneer of enlightened mischief that I would see too frequently in the following years. It usually meant there was an unwanted adventure or humiliation ahead. ‘So Carny,’ Madalyn’s voice suddenly had the casual charisma of a southerner. ‘What did Irving do in—in before-life that was so bad he ended up in Hell?’

Carny’s eyes were shut and her chin rested lazily on her front legs. ‘Did he tell you he wrote the Book of Lists?’

Madalyn roared and although Carny pretended to fall asleep, her back was shaking with a spasm of giggles.

to be continued…

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Kevin Guilfoile’s novel, Cast of Shadows (titled Wicker in the UK), is now available in paperback. He is also the co-author (with John Warner) of the best-selling book My First Presidentiary: A Scrapbook by George W. Bush. He lives in the Chicago area with his wife Mo, his sons Max and Vaughn, and a cat you wouldn’t like. More by Kevin Guilfoile