SATURDAY READING: What Happens In Hell, by Charles Baxter

From Ploughshares

“Sir, I am wondering – have you considered lately what happens in Hell?”

No, I hadn’t, but I liked that lately.  We were on our way from the San Francisco Airport to Palo Alto, and the driver for Bay Area Limo, a Pakistani American whose name was Naizi, was glancing repeatedly in the rearview mirror to check me out.  After all, there I was, a privileged person – a hegemon of some sort – in the back seat of the Lincoln Town Car, cushioned by the camel-colored leather as I swigged my bottled water.  Like other Americans of my class and station, I know the importance of staying hydrated.  And there he was, up front, behind the wheel on a late sunny Saturday afternoon, speeding down California State Highway 101, missing (he had informed me almost as soon as I got into the car) the prayer service and sermon at his Bay Area mosque.  The subject of the sermon would be Islamic inheritance laws – a subject that had led quite naturally to the subject of death and the afterlife.

I don’t really enjoy sitting in the back sea of Lincoln Town Cars.  I don’t like being treated as some sort of important personage.  I’m a midwesterner by location and temperament and don’t even cotton to being called “sir.”  So I try to be polite (“Just call me Charlie”) and take my shoes off, so to speak, in deference to foreign customs, as Mrs. Moore does in A Passage to India.

“No,” I said, “I haven’t.  What happens in Hell?” I asked.

“Well,” Niazi said, warming up and stroking his beard, “there is no forgiveness over there.  There is forgiveness here but not there.  The God does not listen to you on the other side.”

“He doesn’t?”

“No.  The God does not care what you say, and he does not forgive you once you are on that side after you die.  By then it is over.”

“Interesting,” I said, nondirectively.

“It is all in the Holy Book,” Niazi went on.  “And your skin, sir.  Do you know what the God does with your skin?”

“No, I don’t,” I said.  “Tell me.”  Actually I was most interested in the definite article.  Why was the deity referred to as the God?  Are there still other, lesser gods, minor subsidiary deities, set aside somewhere, who must be differentiated from the major god?  I drank some more water as I considered this problem.

“It is very interesting, what happens with the skin,” Niazi said as we pulled off the Bayshore Freeway onto University Avenue.  “Every day the skin is burned off.”

“Yes?”

“Yes.  This is known.  And then, each day, the God gives you new skin.  This new skin is like a sheath.”

“Ah.”  I noticed the repeated use of the word, you.

“And every day the new skin is burned off.”  He said this sentence with a certain degree of excitement.  “It is very painful, as you can imagine.  And the pain is always fresh pain.”

Meanwhile we were proceeding through downtown Palo Alto.  On the outskirts of town I had noticed the absence of pickup trucks and rusting American cars; everywhere I looked, I saw Priuses and Saabs and Lexuses and BMWs and Volvos and Mercedes-Benzes and a few Teslas here and there.  The mix didn’t include convertible Bentleys or Maybachs, the brand names that flash past you on Ocean Boulevard in Santa Monica.  Here, ostentation was out; professional-managerial modesty was in.  Here the drivers were engaged in Right Thinking and were uncommonly courteous: complete stops at stop signs were the norm, and ditto at the mere sight of a pedestrian at a crosswalk.  No one seemed to be in a hurry.  There was plenty of time for everything, as if Siddhartha himself were directing traffic.

And the pedestrians!  Fit, smiling, upright, well-tended, with not a morbidly obese fellow citizen in sight, the evening crowd on University Avenue appeared to be living in an earlier American era, one lacking desperation, hysteria, and Fox News.  Somehow Palo Alto had remained immune to what one of my students has referred to as “the Great Decline.”  In this city, the businesses were thriving under blue skies and polished sunshine.  I couldn’t spot a single boarded-up front window.  Although I saw plenty of panhandlers, no one looked shabby and lower-middle-class.  I noted, as an outsider would, the lines outside the luxe restaurants – Bella Luna, Lavanda, and the others – everyone laughing and smiling.  The happiness struck me as stagy.  What phonies these people were!  Having come from Minneapolis, where we have boarded-up businesses in bulk, I felt like – what is the expression? – an ape hanging on to the fence of Heaven, watching the gods play.

And it occurred to me at that moment that Niazi felt that way too, apelike, except that I was one of those damn gods, which explained why he had to inform me about Hell.

“You burn forever,” Niazi said, drawing me out of my reverie.  “And, yes, here we are at your hotel.”

Sir and Hell: the two words belong together.  After arguing with the hotel desk clerk, who claimed (until I showed him my confirmation number) that I didn’t have a reservation and therefore didn’t belong there, I went up to my room past a gaggle of beautiful leggy young men and women, track stars, in town for a meet at Stanford University, where I’d been hired to teach as a visiting writer.  They were flirting with each other and tenderly comparing relay batons.  Off in the bar on the other side of the lobby, drugstore cowboys were whooping it up, throwing back draft beers while the voice of Faith Hill warbled on the jukebox.  Nothing is so dispiriting as the sight of strangers getting boisterously happy.  It makes you feel like a stepchild, a poor relation.  Having checked in, I went upstairs and sat in my room immobilized, unable for a moment even to open my suitcase, puzzled by the persistence of Hell and why I had just been forced to endure a lecture about it.

Rattled, I stared out the window.  A soft Bay Area rain was falling, little dribs and drabs dropping harmlessly, impressionistically, out of the sky – Monet rain.  A downmarket version of an Audubon bird – how I hate those Audubon birds – was trapped and framed in a picture above the TV.

I am usually an outsider everywhere.  I don’t mind being one – you’re a writer, you choose a certain fate – but the condition is harder to bear in a self-confident city where everyone is playing a role successfully and no one is glancing furtively for the EXIT signs.

In his writings and his clinical practice, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan liked to ask why any particular person would want to believe any given set of ideas.  He initially asked the question of behavioral psychologists with their dopey experiments with mice and pigeons, but, inspired by Lacan, you can ask it of anyone.  Why do you desire to believe the ideas that you hold dear, the cornerstones of your faith?  Why do you clutch tightly to the ideas that appear to be particularly repellant and cruel?  Why would anyone want to suppose that an untold multitude of human souls burn in extreme agony for eternity?  Having left a marriage and now living and working alone, I found myself in that hotel room experiencing the peculiar vacuum of self that arises when you go on working without a clear belief in what (or whom) you’re working for and are also being exposed randomly to the world’s cruelties.

The idea of Hell has a transcendently stupefying ugliness akin to that of torture chambers.  This particular ugliness is fueled by the rage and sadism of the believer who enjoys imagining his enemies writhing perpetually down there in the colorful fiery pit.  How many of us relish the fairy tale of endless suffering!  Nietzsche claimed that all such relishers are in the grip of ressentiment, whereby frustration against the rulers and anger at oneself are transformed into a mortality.  Ressentiment is what happens to resentment once it goes Continental and becomes a metaphysical category.  After Marx, injustice no longer seemed part of a natural order.  And if injustice isn’t part of a natural order, then ressentiment will naturally arise, the rage of the have-nots against the haves, the losers against the winners.  Sometimes the rage is constructive, sometimes not.  For Nietzsche, in On the Genealogy of Morals, the unequal distribution of power is simply a condition of the things-as-they-are:

It is not surprising that the lambs should bear a grudge against the great birds of prey, but that is no reason for blaming the great birds of prey for taking the little lambs.  And when the lambs say among themselves, “These birds of prey are evil, and he who least resembles a bird of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb, – should he not be good?”

If you’re a loser, you might as well get used to your loserdom and sanctify it.  Thus Nietzsche.  The eagles will come down sooner or later and grab you and eat you.  It’s how nature works.  But if you, the lamb, claim a superior virtue to the eagle, and you band together with other lambs and consign the eagles to a sadistically picturesque Hell, you will, in another life, find yourself behind the wheel, working for Bay Area Limo, instructing the hapless pale-skinned passenger from Minnesota about the manner in which some will find themselves scorched forever on the other side, forever and forever, oh, and by the way, here we are at your hotel.

In one of Alice Munro’s stories, a character observes that the Irish treat all authority with abject servility followed by savage, sneering mockery.  Ressentiment has its comic side, after all.

After washing up, I came back downstairs through the lobby – more beautiful track stars, more flirting, and a little microportion of ressentiment on my part against their beauty and youth and sexiness – and ambled to the Poolside Grille, where I ordered the specialité de la maison, blackened red snapper (California cuisine: black beans, jasmine rice, salsa fresca, lime sour cream), the snapper itself an endangered species.  I hastily gulped down my chardonnay and, like a starving peasant, devoured the fish without tasting it.  Gulping and chewing and swallowing.  I watched the athletes in their skimpy garb promenading around the hotel, as graceful as swans.  Ned Rorem on youth: “We admire them for their beauty, and they want us to admire them for their minds, the little shits.”  All the while Niazi’s voice was in my head: “Every day the God gives you a new skin so that he can burn it away.”  I paid the bill and returned to my room.  Fresh pain!  What a phrase.  I couldn’t read, so I watched TV: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Captain Jim Brass confessing to human failings, played very well by Paul Guilfoyle.  Or did I watch another show, some prepackaged drama interchangeable with that one?  I can’t remember.  I do remember that I drifted off to sleep in my street clothes.  There was no one around to tell me not to.

I didn’t see Niazi again for another four weeks.  On a Wednesday morning in April, he was to meet me in front of my Stanford apartment at 9:30 to take me to the San Francisco Airport so that I could fly back to Minneapolis.  I had been commuting almost every week.  At 9:25 I stood out in front with my suitcase beside me, waiting for him.  I saw his black Lincoln Town Car in the visitors’ parking lot.  He honked, pulled up, and rushed out to put my suitcase in the trunk.

“Good morning, sir,” he said.  “How are you?”  His eyes, I noticed, were heavy-lidded and puffy.  He looked like a box turtle.

“Fine,” I said, settling into the back seat and snapping on the lap-and-shoulder belt.  “How about you?”  I looked around for a bottle of water.  There were two little ones.

“Very tired,” he said, checking his watch before flopping in behind the wheel.  “I could not sleep last night.  I have been in this parking lot since eight-thirty.”

“You should have called me,” I said.  “We could’ve left early.”

“No no no,” Niazi corrected me.  “I have been trying to take the nap.”

“Are you still drowsy?” I asked, noting again his nonstandard use of definite articles.

“A little, somewhat,” he told me.  “But when I am that way, I think of the Holy Book.”

“Ah.”

He drove us up to Interstate 280, back in the hills, an alternative route to the airport.  Here the rain was falling harder, and I noticed that Niazi didn’t bother to turn on the car’s windshield wipers.  The rain spattered violently against the glass in an almost midwestern manner.  I felt right at home.  Stroking his beard, Niazi gazed out at the highway, and after about ten minutes I saw that, with his eyes half closed, he was moving his head back and forth, shaking it slowly, as if. . . Was this possible?  Was I actually seeing what I was seeing?  He was driving the limo, with me in it, while sleeping.

My brother Tom used to get drowsy behind the wheel and, one winter night in 1961, almost killed himself outside Delano, Minnesota, when he dozed off.  Another irony: Delano’s major business in those days was the engraving of cemetery monuments, and the town’s motto was “Drive carefully.  We can wait. ”  Unable to walk away from his accident, his car in the ditch, my brother had to drag himself on all fours out of the wreck across a snowy field to a farmhouse.  As a boy, I was quite accustomed to my brother’s sleepiness behind the wheel and would keep him entertained and awake with bright patter, for which I have a gift.  So: “Niazi!” I said.  “Do you have many jobs today?  I’ll bet you do!”

“Oh, yes, sir,” he said dispiritedly.  “Many.  Two this afternoon.”  Maybe he wasn’t asleep after all.

The rain fell harder, unusually hard for northern California.  I looked around at the interior of the Lincoln Town Car, thinking, We’re going to crash.  But at least this limo is a very solid car.  With the irony of which life is so fond, I thought of two lines of a creepy song I had heard a few months before, by the group Concrete Blonde.  The song was “Tomorrow, Wendy,” and two lines serve as the song’s refrain:

Hey, hey, goodbye
Tomorrow Wendy’s going to die.

And just about then the car began to fishtail.  When a car fishtails, you take your foot off the accelerator and tap the brake pedal.  Fishtailing occurs often in icy conditions (think: Minnesota winter), less often in rain.  But California drivers aren’t used to precipitation, so when the car began to lose control, Niazi woke up and slammed on the brakes, throwing the Lincoln into a sideways skid, and when the rear-wheel-drive tires acquired traction again, they pushed us off the freeway, onto the shoulder, and then, very rapidly, down a hill, where the car flipped over sideways and began to roll, turning over and over and over, until it reached the bottom of the hill, right side up.  From the moment the car began to lose control until it came to rest, Niazi was screaming.  All during the time we turned over down that hill, he continued to scream.

Reader, this essay is about that scream.  Please do your best to imagine it.

Men don’t scream, as a rule; they bellow or roar with fright or anger, but male screaming is an exceptionally rare phenomenon, and the sound makes your flesh crawl.  A woman’s scream calls you to protective action.  A man’s scream provokes horror.

Inside that car, I was holding on to the door’s hand rest, clutching it, and I was as quiet as the tomb.  I wasn’t particularly scared, although things were flying around the car – my cell phone had escaped from my coat pocket and was airborne in front of me, as were various other items from the car, including those free little bottles of water and a clipboard from the front seat – and I heard the sound of crunching or of some huge animal chewing up the car.  I thought, Let this be over soon.  And then it was.  They say everything slows down during an accident, but no, not always, and this accident didn’t slow down my sense of time until we were at rest and I heard Niazi moaning, and more than anything else I wanted to get out of that car before the gas tank exploded, but my door wound’t open – the right rear door – but the left rear door did, after I pushed my shoulder against it.

Around and inside the car was a terrible smell of wreckage, oil and burned rubber, and another smell, which I am tempted to describe as sulfurous.

“Niazi,” I said, “are you okay?”

“Oh oh oh oh,” he said, “yes, I am okay” – he clearly wasn’t – “and you, Mr. Baxter, sir, are you okay?”

“Yes.”  Where was I?  Without a transition, I seemed to be standing in the rain outside the car, and Niazi, making the sounds that precede speech in human history, was trying to get himself off the ground, blood streaming down his face; and his shoes, I noticed were off, which (I had once heard) is one of the signs of a high-velocity accident.  Amid the wreckage, he was barefoot, and blood was dripping onto his feet.  I reached out for him.

Suddenly witnesses surrounded us.  “You turned over four times!” an Asian American man said, clutching my arm.  His face was transfixed by shock.  “I saw it.  I was behind you.  Are you all right?  How could you possibly be all right?  Surely you are not all right?”  He opened his umbrella and lifted it over my head, a perfect gesture of kindness.

“I don’t know,” I said.  I looked down at my Levi’s.  The belt loops had snapped off.  How was that possible?  I stared in wonderment at the broken belt loops.  I looked at the man.  “Am I all right?”

He simply stared at me as if I had been resurrected.

The usual confusion followed: EMT guys, California Highway Patrol guys, witness reports.  An off-duty cop from San Marino, another witness to the accident, said he couldn’t believe I was standing up.  He touched my arm with a tender gesture as if I might break.  Someone asked me to sign a document, and I did, my hand shaking so violently that my signature looked like that of a third grader.  And what was I worried about?  My laptop.  Had it been damaged?  Furthermore, I thought, I’m going to be late for my airplane flight!   In shock, we lose all sense of proportion.  My signature on another official document looked like someone else’s, not mine.  And now Niazi was standing up, still bloodily barefoot, talking.  He appeared to be in stable condition, though they were putting a head brace on him and then lowering him onto a wooden stretcher, as if he had been smashed up.  The Asian American witness who saw our car turn over four times asked me where I was going, and I said, “To the airport.”

“I will take you,” he said.  “Just put your suitcase in the back seat.  We will have to drop off my father-in-law in Millbrae.  Do you mind?”

“No,” I said.  “Thank you.”

The driver and his father-in-law spoke Mandarin all the way to Millbrae, the driver politely interpreting for me so that I wouldn’t be left out of the conversation.  “My father-in-law thinks you must be badly injured,” the driver said.  “I told him that you said you were fine.”  Thanks to this gentleman, I arrived at the San Francisco Airport in time for my flight.  My ribs hurt, and my back hurt, and I gave off an odd panic-stricken body odor, but all I wanted to do was to get home.  At the same time, I was still disoriented.  Near the entrance to Terminal One, I noticed, was a sign with a name on it: NOSMO KING.  It appeared to me as graffiti on behalf of a deposed potentate.  Who was this oddly named Nosmo King?  King of what?  We were in northern California!  No kings here!  Not until I was seated on the airplane did I calm down and realize that I had misread the sign and that, like other public places, the San Francisco Airport did not tolerate lighting up or puffing on cigarettes.

My back still hurts sometimes, especially on long flights.  Niazi called me at home a few days later and left a message on my answering machine.  His voice was expressive of deep despair combined with physical pain.  “Mr. Baxter, sir, I am worried about you.  I am. . . I am not all right, but I am lying down, recovering.  Would you please call me?”

No.  I would not call him, and I did not.  I still haven’t.  I heard from someone else that he had broken his back.  Guiltily, shamefully, I left him uncalled, and my inability to dial his number and to ask him how he was recovering surely serves as s sign of a human failing, a personalized grudge that will not be appeased.   But all I could think of then and now was, That expert on Hell almost got me killed.

The insurance company has promised to send me $500 to compensate me for my pain and suffering.

In another version of the accident, the one I sometimes told myself compulsively, I sit silently while Niazi screams and the car rolls over down the hill.  But I didn’t just tell myself this story; I told everybody.  The accident turned me into a tiresome raconteur.  A repetition compulsion had me in its tight narrative grip.  I had become like a character in one of my own stories, the sort of madcap who buttonholes an innocent bystander to relieve himself of an obsession.  Some stories present themselves as a gift, to be handed on to others as a second gift.  But some more dire stories have a certain difficult-to-define taint.  They give off an odd smell.  They have infected the person who possessed them, and that person peevishly passes on the infection to others.  In the story in which I am the victim, I am not an artist, but a garrulous ancient mariner who has come ashore long after his boat has been set adrift and long after his rescue, which does not feel like a rescue but an abandonment.

From the airport I called my wife, from whom I was – and remain – separated, to give her the news.  She met me at the airport, and we hugged each other for the first time in months.  Near-death trumps marital discord but does not heal it.  Then she took me back to my apartment, where she dropped me off.

I sat alone in the apartment for a few days, trying to read, but mostly writing emails.  At night I would fall asleep to the remembered sound of Niazi’s screams.  I announced my accident on Facebook, curious whether any of my FB friends would press the “like” button.  A few did.  I picked up the phone and started calling people.  “Let me tell you what happened to me,” I would say.  I had become strangely interesting to myself.  One friend has called my compulsion to talk about the accident a form of “vocational imperialism,” though I think he means avocational imperialism.  After all, I am a mere tourist in the landscape of Islam.  As an unsteady humanist, I don’t believe in much, and the virtues that I do believe in – goodness, charity, bravery – abandoned me in the moments after that accident.

All I thought as we tumbled down that hill, as I have said, was the hope that this awfulness would be over soon.  We die alone, even if someone else is dying beside us.  And – this was my fleeting wish in the back seat of that violently rotating Lincoln Town Car, in the wondrously dark clarity of thought produced by the unexpected, as the plastic bottles of water were flying around my head and my cell phone twirled in the air in front of me – I prayed that the car would land right side up or, if this was to be the moment of my death, by fire as the gas tank exploded, that it be quick.

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