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0 Comments | Apr 01, 2017

The Queue

Queues“Damn, it feels like we’ve been standing here forever!”

Flynn shifts his weight from one foot to the other and back again. He removes a tissue from his pants pocket. It’s already crumpled from previous use, but he wipes his brow one more time and exhales with loud exasperation.

“Is this how it’s supposed to work? Seriously?” he continues. “We haven’t moved an inch in, like, an hour.”

Flynn Simon has, in fact, been in the queue for over an hour and a half, which is how long it’s been since he drove his 2007 Toyota Highlander into the back end of a stopped eighteen-wheeler on the Long Island Expressway. He had looked away for only a second at the sound of his cell phone ringing on the passenger seat. He never got a chance to look back out the windshield, never saw the truck’s brake lights, never even touched his own brakes. Killed instantly, he’s been in this line ever since. The miles-long traffic jam his wreck caused on the expressway hasn’t even been cleared yet, but here he stands. Mercifully, his body, or avatar, or whatever this is now, shows no sign of the accident trauma, which is just as well for the others in line, as he was very nearly decapitated.

The man standing in front of him is older and turns in response to Flynn’s complaining.

“I’d get comfortable, friend, if I were you. I’ve been here almost eleven hours, right here in this very spot.” He extends an ancient liver-spotted hand. “Harry Foster.”

“Flynn Simon,” Flynn replies, accepting the hand uncertainly and shaking it slowly while leaning to one side to take in the magnitude of the queue. It is easily miles long, stretching to what appears to be a far distant vanishing point. There is a preternaturally blue sky overhead, dotted with small clouds, and no sound save for the murmur of others in the queue ahead of and behind Flynn and Harry.

“So what brings you here?” Harry asks.

“Car wreck on the way to my nephew’s bar mitzvah,” Flynn says. “Can’t honestly say I regret missing it, though I expect that news of my demise is going to put a damper on the proceedings. My own dumbass fault I guess. Should’ve kept my eyes on the road. You?”

“Pancreatic cancer—stage four,” Harry replies. “Thank your lucky stars you went quick. Certainly beats twelve weeks wasting away in a hospital bed.”

“Maybe so,” Flynn replies, “but living to your age sure beats being killed suddenly at thirty-seven.”

“It’s a world of trade-offs, Mr. Simon. In this case early, quick, and painless versus late, slow, and more than a little painful. In any event, here we are.”

“Here we are indeed, Mr. Foster,” Flynn replies. He turns to look backward and is surprised to discover that he can no longer see the back of the line any more than he can the front.

“People die fast, Flynn,” Harry says. “You don’t mind if I call you Flynn. I expect we’re going to be here for some time. Formalities could become quite cumbersome.”

Flynn continues staring toward the back of the line, noticing with surprise that within the space of fewer than fifty people he can see men and women, adults and children (though mercifully few of the latter), old and young, and all apparent manner of religions. There are Sikhs in turbans, Muslim women in burqa and hijab, a Catholic priest, and what appears to be a Buddhist monk in a bright saffron robe.

“Now there’s something the folks back home ought to be aware of,” Flynn says, turning back and facing Harry with his first smile. “Looks as though we all end up in the same place regardless of what we believe.”

“Seems that way. Actually, the joke’s on me more than most,” Harry says. “I was a card-carrying atheist most of my life. Figured we just got stuffed in a box at the end and that was that. Still, it’s kind of a good-news bad-news story if you think about it. The good news is it turns out folks who believe in an afterlife appear to be right. The bad news is that people who thought that their choice of religion actually mattered are in for a bit of a shock.”

“So what exactly is this anyway?” Flynn asks. “Is this … Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, or what? Are we in line for … judgment or something?”

“Couldn’t say,” Harry responds. “Feels more like some sort of administrative check-in to me. Heck, I keep expecting someone to come down the line and hand everybody a clipboard and paperwork to fill out.”

“You’d’ve thought if it was Heaven they’d at least have a little better technology. Maybe hand out buzzers like at P. F. Chang’s instead of just making everybody stand in line forever.”

“Not sure there’d be much point to it, Flynn. If there’s one thing all faiths seem to agree on it’s that whatever happens in the afterlife happens for eternity. If that’s true, then I don’t guess it matters much whether we spend it in Heaven or Hell or standing here in line. Course, the other thing we don’t know is whether there’s a Hell that’s part of this whole deal. If there is, and there’s any chance of ending up there, then waiting here in line might be a better alternative, especially for a godless heathen like myself.”

“Or here’s a scary thought,” Simon replies. “Maybe there’s a Hell after all and we’re in it right now. Maybe all that fire and brimstone and devils with pitchforks stuff was just a bunch of ecclesiastical propaganda and this is it right here.” He waves his arms about. “What if Hell is standing in this line for all eternity?”

“Now that,” says Harry, “would be a disappointment. Or worse …” he adds, “what if this is actually Heaven? Now wouldn’t that be a let-down for all the people expecting streets paved with gold, dozens of virgins, or whatever it is they believed all those years.”

“So I guess this answers the question about alien life,” says Flynn, changing the subject.

“How’s that?”

“Well, just look around. Everybody in line is a human. If there were other alien races, wouldn’t they be here too? It’s not like they would live forever or anything.”

“Maybe they have their own queue,” replies Harry. “Maybe that bit in the Bible about God making man in his own image was for real. Maybe some of the people in this line aren’t from earth.”

“You think there might be aliens out there who look just like humans?”

“Don’t know as I’m saying that,” says Harry. “Just seems like if God was going to go to all the trouble of making intelligent beings, why put all your eggs in one basket, you know? Why not plant a few of the same species in a bunch of different places, just in case a few of them turn out to be self-destructive types. We certainly demonstrated a tendency for that ourselves.”

“Huh,” says Flynn, “can’t say as I was ever much of a Bible reader, but I don’t recall anything in there that explicitly says Earth was the only place where God created humans. Shoot, makes you wonder if there weren’t Gardens of Eden scattered all across the galaxy.”

“It’d sure have made things simpler if all the creatures, plants, and everything were just the same from one place to the next. Kind of a controlled experiment.”

“Well maybe now’s our big chance to ask about it.”

“Oh, I seriously doubt that,” says Harry. “I always kind of imagined Heaven being a bureaucratic sort of place, you know, like a big corporation. God’s Chairman of the Board, and he’s probably got all these Vice Presidents of stuff. Heck, rate we’re going, we’ll be lucky if we end up talking to some department manager.”

“What do you suppose is the story with the whole judgment thing? My wife and I used to joke that when this happened, God was gonna pull out a DVD of your entire life and make you sit there and explain everything.”

“Fingers crossed, man,” Harry says. “That’d be more than a little uncomfortable.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Can our lives really be any worse than all these other folks in line?” Flynn throws his arms expansively outward. “I mean if you’re God, you’ve seen it all, right? Murder, kiddie porn, drug dealing. What’s the worst he’s gonna see on your DVD or mine? Cheating on your taxes? Some jerking off? Couple of speeding tickets? Compared to Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson, you and I are pretty boring, I think.”

Flynn steps to one side and looks for a moment up and down the line. “What’s the story on food here?”

“Beats me,” Harry says. “Nothing’s happened since I got here.”

“No food in Heaven? That figures,” Flynn says.

“Do we even need food?” Harry replies. “It’s kinda’ weird, but I can’t really say I feel hungry. Course there’s no way of knowing if these are still human bodies or some new ethereal form sort of thing. I mean, it feels real enough.” He pinches the flesh of his arm between his fingertips, works it around a bit. “It feels real enough, but it’s definitely a better body than what I left earth with. Hell, I had wasted down to about ninety pounds before I finally gave up the ghost. This is more like me twenty years ago. Based on what you said about your car wreck, looks like you got a bit of an upgrade too.”

“Yeah,” Flynn says, “Now that you mention it, I was probably still doing seventy when I tagged the back of that eighteen-wheeler, so I’m sure there was some, uh, rearranging that went on.”

“So no hunger, but no food either,” Harry says. “That’s a pity. I was a bit of a cook back in the day. Sure would love a good steak.”

“Hell, even if there is food up here, it’s probably vegan or some nonsense like that.”

The two men stand silently for a few moments. Flynn turns and looks once more down the length of the queue behind them. It disappears into a misty vanishing point, exactly like the queue in front of them. He notices for the first time that they are standing on what appears to be a flawless and infinite expanse of taupe-colored polished marble, or maybe granite. There is nothing else around them, no markings on the stone to indicate why the queue should have formed in this particular spot. No velvet ropes, no painted footprints, nothing at all. And yet the queue—both ahead and behind—is as straight and perfectly formed as a stereotypical arrow. There are no sounds save for the low murmur of people in the queue talking with one another.

“How do you know it’s been eleven hours?” Flynn says.

“I’m sorry … what?”

“You said earlier you’ve been here nearly eleven hours. How do you know? You’re not wearing a watch.”

Harry glances at his wrist, though the gesture is pointless. They had not allowed him to wear a watch during his final days in the hospital, and anyway, knowing the time as he was slowly inexorably expiring hadn’t exactly been a priority at the time.

“Well, I … I can’t exactly say, now that you mention it. How, for that matter, do you know you’ve only been here a few minutes? If the whole eternity thing is as they say, then the very concept of time likely doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning here.”

“For all we know,” Flynn says, “it could be we’ve been standing here for eleven days.”

“Or eleven millennia,” replies Harry.

“Eleven millennia without so much as a sandwich,” Flynn says. “That’s depressing.”

“Why do you suppose I ended up right behind you?” he continues.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, you said you’ve been here eleven hours. If you’re even remotely correct, then there must have been loads of people around the world who died after you did but before me. Why wouldn’t they be between us? Apparently we’re not in chronological order.”

“Or,” Harry says, “maybe there’s more than one queue. I read somewhere that about six thousand people die every hour worldwide. That’d be a lot for one god to deal with. I’ll bet that’s it. I’ll bet there are queues all over, and each one is managed by some flunky, a heavenly vice president or whatever. God himself probably delegates a lot. You know, only gets involved in the really big cases.”

“Like a Hitler or a Stalin, somebody like that showing up,” says Flynn.”

“Or maybe someone really good at the other end of the spectrum. You know—a Mother Theresa or dead pope or what-have-you.”

“They’d probably jump right to the head of the line, I expect. No eternal waiting if you’re a saint or a mass murderer.”

Harry ran his tongue around his lips. “Tell you what they need here is a damned bar.”

“That’ll be the luck,” says Flynn. “No food and no bar.” He raises both arms above his head and stretches mightily. “Why do you suppose everybody just stands here like a bunch of sheep?”

“Including us,” says Harry.

“Yeah, including us. What’s to stop us just getting out of line and walking around?”

“Well there must be something, right? I mean just look. There are thousands of people ahead of and behind us. Surely it would have occurred to someone to wander around a bit. What’s the worst that could happen?”

“They could chuck you to the back of the line?”

“Can’t see as that much matters,” says Harry, leaning his head to one side and peering once more in both directions at the endless queue. “And besides, I can’t say as I’m all that keen to see what’s waiting at the end of the line. So would this be the most radical religious thing you’ve ever done?”

“You mean messing with Heaven’s design, or whatever this is?”

“This little mini-rebellion you’re contemplating.”

“Well look, I think we’ve already established,” Flynn says, gesturing toward the back of the queue, “that whatever religion you did or did not practice while living doesn’t appear to make the slightest damn in what happens in the afterlife—if that’s what this is.”

“So what have you got to lose?”

“Exactly. What have I got to lose?”

“Well, aside from your immortal soul.”

“Oh please. I wasn’t what you’d call the most observant Jew on earth. The odd Bar Mitzvah, a Seder every couple of years if work didn’t get in the way. I’m not exactly expecting a condo clad in gold, if you get what I’m saying.”

“Hey at least you made an effort,” says Harry. “I can’t wait to see what me and my fellow heathens have waiting for us here. Hey, you want to hear something ironic.”

“Of course. Who knew there would be irony in Heaven?”

“So, naturally, I used to hang out with mostly other atheists and agnostics—”


“Yeah, exactly. And don’t think we didn’t give them hell about that too! Inability to commit to disbelief. Imagine that. So, I used to say to them that I almost wished that there was a Heaven, so that when I got there and came face to face with the big guy himself, I could tell him even then that I still didn’t believe in him.”

“Pretty cavalier stuff, as it turns out. Looks like you might get your chance after all.”

“Yeah, looks like it. Kinda wondering how that conversation might go.”

“He’s got to have a sense of humor, right?” says Flynn. “Just look at some of the weird stuff he created.”

“Whoa, hold on. We don’t know that he created anything. What if he’s just in charge of the back end—of … this.” Harry gestures expansively.

“Now that’s an interesting idea,” Flynn admits. “Everybody spends so much time arguing about whether there is or is not a god, whether the universe was created or evolved. But what if the real answer is a hybrid thing? What if all the beginning stuff happened like the scientists say—big bang, eleven billion years of evolution, all that. But then it turns out there really is a supreme deity, only he had nothing to do with creating anything. Maybe he’s just in charge of afterlife stuff.”

“It’d sure make the god job a whole lot easier.”

“Plus then he wouldn’t have to take responsibility for all the mayhem caused by mankind. Something else to ask about when you get up there.”

“That must get pretty old, I suppose.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, you gotta figure everybody who makes it to the front of the line is asking pretty much the same handful of questions, right? Why were we created? How did we get here? What’s the meaning of life? Pretty irritating I imagine, having to answer that same stuff a few billion times.”

“Yeah, I can see that. He oughta just have a big assembly, like in high school, and handle all the big questions the one time and be done with it.”

“Tell you what. Why don’t you recommend that when you get up there,” Harry says. “No doubt he’ll appreciate the feedback on how he’s running things.” He pauses a moment, looks down at his shoes, then back up at Flynn. “So, you gonna do it or what?”

“Do … oh, right. The sheep thing.”

“Anti-sheep you mean,” says Harry smiling. “You’ve really got my curiosity up now.”

“You suppose jumping out of line is a sin?”

“So? What difference does it make? Just one more added to an already long and distinguished list, right?”

“You know, maybe … maybe … jumping out of line bumps you to the front, you know, speeds up whatever final disposition is in store for you.”

“Only one way to know for sure.”

Flynn looks out to one side of the queue, stares out across the seemingly endless expanse of polished stone. His mien is suddenly uncertain.

“You know what’s weird,” he says. “There are no horizons. Every direction you look it just sort of trails off into kind of a fog. You can’t really tell whether you’re seeing a hundred yards away or a hundred miles.”

“Well, if this is Heaven or Heaven’s waiting room or whatever, I guess that’s not too surprisingly, right? I mean is it really so strange that things just go on forever. After all, there have been an awful lot of people die in the history of humanity. They gotta fit them all someplace.”

“Yeah, I suppose.” Flynn hesitates, looks once more out into the distant nothingness to either side. He steels himself. “All right … all right … I’m doing it. I totally swear. I’m doing it.” Harry crosses his arms and says nothing, only stares at Flynn with the faintest of grins.

“I’m not joking,” Flynn adds. Still no response from Harry.

“All right. This is it.” Flynn leans his head to one side and gazes one more time toward the front of the queue. Slowly, uncertainly, he takes one, two, three small steps to his left. He stops and stands facing Harry from at most three feet away. Nothing at all happens. Harry stares back. No one else in the queue appears to notice anything. After a few seconds of this, Harry makes a shooing gesture with his right hand, urging Flynn on. He obliges, takes three more steps away from the queue, stops once more. Nothing at all continues to happen. His steps the second time were a bit bigger. He is maybe eight feet outside the queue. He spreads his hands before him in an ambiguous gesture, ‘Ta-da!’ or possibly ‘What now?’ Another moment of uncertainty and Flynn steps back toward the queue, returning to his original place behind Harry.

“Well,” says Harry, “that was certainly uneventful.”

“Indeed it was,” replies Flynn. “Kinda makes me wonder if your earlier speculation wasn’t correct after all, the one about eternity being a place where nothing actually happens.”

“I remember an old rock song about that, now that you mention it,” says Harry. “Guess we can only hope it’s fictitious.”

“How do you suppose this all ends?” Harry says. He shifts his weight from one leg to the other, then rubs one thigh that has begun to feel slightly cramped.

“Best I can tell, it doesn’t,” comes a high thin voice from over Flynn’s left shoulder. Both men start at the interruption and turn to see a thin young woman with close-cropped hair. She wears an oddly ancient-looking garment that almost appears to be a tunic, though neither man has ever seen one in person and cannot say for sure. Her accent is odd as well, a hybrid of Scottish and British, but with an odd lilt that neither man has heard before.

“Hello,” she says, “I’m ever so sorry to have interrupted your conversation, but I couldn’t help overhearing. The thing is, I wouldn’t get my hopes too high about the queue moving or anything of that sort.”

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, ma’am,” says Harry, “but you’re not exactly filling us with optimism here.”

“I most certainly appreciate your concern,” she says. “I only thought you might value a small bit of context, the better to appreciate your situation, our … situation.”

“Certainly,” says Flynn, “nothing at all wrong with context. So you’re able to shed some light on what exactly is happening here?”

“Oh yes indeed,” she replies with a curiously unsteady smile. “As I said, I wouldn’t get my hopes up about the queue moving. I, like your friend here,” she says, gesturing toward Harry, “perished after a long illness. Still, I shouldn’t complain. Many millions of my fellow countrymen succumbed as well. Of course, it didn’t really have a name at the time, but I believe it’s since come to be known as the Black Death. I was living north of London at the time, and it swept through our town like the cyclone.”

“And you’ve been standing here since—”

“The year of our Lord thirteen hundred and forty eight, if I’m not mistaken, though I could be off by a few years. It’s really been …”

But her final words trail off as Harry and Flynn both turn away and simply stare out to one side of the endless queue and toward the hazy horizon that might be one hundred yards or one hundred miles away.




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