I met a traveling salesman selling alternatives to Hell - Chap 2
The walking garbage bag introduced himself as Jack, but he kept walking and talking–as if this aspect of his job was so automatic he didn’t need to stop and think about it.
“First thing you have to understand about this job is that it’s pretty demanding. Sure, you’re guaranteed employment for several weeks, but you have to sell so many cars per day. If you don’t, the manager, Mr. Walker…well…he isn’t afraid to punish you by making you wash the cars at night.
“If you don’t shine, then you’ll make sure the cars will!” Jack said, mimicking his boss.
During the walk to the break room, I realized I was also a walking garbage bag. Breathing was this weird mixture of strain and theater like sound which was hard to ignore. I sort of stumbled, because apparently concentrating on your breathing and walking at the same time is a perilous enterprise.
I eventually made it to the break room, still stumbling a little, the other garbage bags in the room looking at me with a mixture of curiosity and humor. I had to admit to myself I was still horrified by them.
I took a seat at one of the long tables, trying to ignore the stares.
Several minutes came by before another intimidating bagged humanoid entered the room.
“I understand we have a new recruit today,” he said, and I could hear the loud push of air going from one end of the tube to the other. “Well, hopefully, you’ll get along just fine. In case you don’t, well, our cars always need polishing!” he said. There was dutiful laughter from everyone in the room.
“Oh, I’m Mr. Walker, by the way. I’m the manager of this dealership. I tend to cut the newbies a bit of slack. Just don’t take advantage of that and we’ll get along great!”
Mr. Walker asked my name, and I gave it to him, suddenly anxious at all the eyes on me. He seemed to stare at stack of papers, shuffling them.
“Hmm. I see. Well, welcome aboard, Miles.”
The orientation didn’t last long. There was another new recruit. First name Jacob. We’d be going to different ends of the lot. I’d be sort of shadowing Jack for the day. Next few days, maybe.
“You got a lot to learn, that’s for sure,” Jack said calmly as we made our way to the front windows. He coughed lightly, and the vacuum tube attached to the front of him shuddered and made a gurgling sound.
Out in the lot, the dark grey clouds were still swollen with a storm just waiting to fall. I couldn’t help wondering where we were. There was a road choked with traffic, cars coming from either direction.
The afterlife had many similarities to the mortal world, I thought.
I looked at the large parking lot lights overhead. They were always on, Jack explained, because the thick dark clouds never really went away.
“Except for like ten minutes around noon, and even then they don’t really go away. The clouds just become less thick and part a little. You can actually see the blue sky between them here and there. Everyone here fought for that ten minute break. I know Mr. Walker seems nice, but you have to fight for every right you have. Remember that.”
We wandered the lot for close to an hour. When a pair of humanoid orange bags with biohazard symbols approached, I noticed Jack’s eyes were practically smiling. He learned to love his job for however long he had been here.
“Now just be calm, Miles. You wanna be friendly but stone cold, like a welcome mat. See, just watch and learn.”
The orange bags approached. Fear bubbled up in me again, as these things seemed even less human. Or, not human at all, except for the similar shape. Limb symmetry.
Jack reached out a hand, strong and sure of himself. One of the orange bags shook his hand.
“Do I have the perfect car for you!” Jack said. “You look like easy going folk, but with dominant personalities. You don’t take any shit from people, am I right?”
Jack laughed between the sucking sound of the vacuum tube. I could hear it clearly. I was adapting.
The orange bag couple nodded. They still gave off a slightly menacing vibe, and as one of them approached me, my heart skipped a beat and I moved away.
Jack chuckled nervously. “You’ll have to excuse our newest recruit. He’s a bit shy. He’ll come around!”
Jack put a hand around my shoulder. Using my awkwardness to make himself seem even more open and charismatic. I admired his ability.
After that, Jack took them to a faded orange SUV.
“Now this beast of a car never disappoints!” Jack ran one gloved finger across the surface of the car, just barely touching it. “And it matches your personalities, if I do say so myself.”
“I’ve heard good things, but I’d like to do a more thorough inspection, take it out for a test drive.”
One of them stepped forward, undoing his tube, placing it in the center of its suit. Then off its bag-mask.
I had to suppress a gasp of horror. Its eyes were yellow and bulging, like lizard’s eyes, but its skin was a grey-ish blue. I don’t even know how to describe its face, except to say it looked a bit uneven, one of the large eyes slightly higher than the other. Its mouth was more like a snout, rows of pitch black teeth ready to bite off a hand.
The creature just stared into the windows. Everything seemed to be going okay at first, but then I let out another gasp as its face began to form cracked ice shards, which only increased the longer he stood there.
“Careful, dear, the atmosphere is a bit unforgiving today. You better put your mask back on,” a slightly feminine voice said, which came from the orange suit. The suits were so large, obscuring the shape of their limbs, that I keep referring to them as bags.
The “male” seemed to obey, putting the orange mask back on. His one eye appeared to be looking at me hungrily.
“So, it’s a beautiful day! Why don’t we take this baby for a test drive!” Jack said, patting the side of the SUV with one gloved hand. I had to hand Jack one thing. He knew how to create a sense of optimism, despite the sunless sky with dark clouds.
The couple agreed, and they took the front, while Jack and I took the back.
I relished the opportunity to experience anything outside the car lot. The streets had a similar barren feeling though. There were a few cars coming in our direction, and one even passed us and honked his horn.
“Hey, fuck you!” our driver said, flipping off the offending vehicle. He turned to look at his wife, and then back at us. “I’m liking this!” he said.
We drove for about twenty minutes, and I didn’t say much. I preferred to let Jack do most of the talking. I marveled at the nearly empty streets. There were just enough cars coming through that I didn’t think we were completely alone.
It was such a strange feeling. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Things felt comfortable, familiar. I knew I hadn’t been here before. I meant there was an atmosphere or something this place was able to replicate.
It was everywhere, from the hairstyles people wore to the cell phones they used. I found this very confusing, and I had many questions for Jack when we finally took our break. When the man, creature, not really sure what to call him, decided this was the car for him, we headed back to the car lot.
Believe it or not, the dark grey clouds had gotten thicker, and it seemed like it was just about to rain.
And I was right. The clouds released a torrential downpour. Nobody cared that we didn’t have umbrellas because we were all in our suit-bags.
As soon as we stepped inside the entryway, both the entrance and the exit were completely sealed, and I saw the sides of the room glow with giant, reddish-orange coils which seemed to dry us off within less than a minute.
The doors opened again, and Jack had the couple fill out the relevant paperwork. Nothing was finalized just yet, and the couple said they’d be back tomorrow to complete the deal.
A short time after that, it was noon. Lunch.
We sat out in lawn chairs provided by the dealership, right in front of the building.
Jack was right. The dark clouds cleared significantly, but never went away. You could see bits of clear blue sky poking through.
Jack sighed. “If you accept the offer of your salesman, make this a permanent thing when you die…you’ll see what I mean. The first decade is real rough on your soul. Soul-crushing as a matter of fact. You kinda get used to the grind, but give it a hundred years, you’ll give up anything to get out.”
With his mask taken off, Jack looked similar to the man who drove the SUV earlier. Greyish-blue skin, lizard eyes. His skin also accumulated those blackish ice shards. Once he completed his meal, which seemed like a glorified bowl of maggots, he put the mask back on and screwed his tube in.
“I’m liking you, Miles. You’re a breath of fresh air. A little shy, but that’s preferable to all the other phony salesmen here. I mean, I don’t blame them. You have to be phony to survive. Even I’m a phony.”
Jack went on for a few more minutes. Saying he regretted signing his contract. Sure, he had done the trial period just like me. A few weeks didn’t seem so bad. He said he thought to himself that living forever that way wouldn’t be horrible. Definitely better than Hell. It was my turn to think. This time about my sister. I hoped she had been taken to an adequate facility. Then there was another part of me: it said it didn’t care what happened to her because she had made her hatred clear through the years. Why should I care about the fate of someone who despised me?
Jack was about to get out of his lawn chair, and then the questions I thought of during the test drive occurred to me.
“Hey, Jack…wait a minute. Something’s been bothering me since the test drive. Why does it feel like I’ve been here before?”
Jack sat down, eyes betraying his anxiety.
“Mr. Walker doesn’t like me talking about that too much. Says it messes with morale or something,” Jack said, clearing his throat. He paused. “Alright, look. This afterlife, it’s basically a decade replaying itself over and over.”
“So, you’re saying–,” I started.
Jack held up a hand and laughed harshly. “NO! I’m not saying it’s time travel. Get that stupid fucking idea out of your head right now! To the people you see driving around, to me, to Mr. Walker even, this is the present. The powers that be took the decade you were born, mine too, and plopped it into an endless sea somewhere on the other side.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” I said.
Jack laughed again. “That’s the real Hell they never tell you about. Having the same conversation over and over, decade after decade. Look, imagine your childhood–the things you’re most familiar with, anyway–growing legs and jumping to the other side of the grave.” But the town we drove through earlier didn’t seem from my childhood, it just seemed like my childhood. The way people dressed. The jewelry they wore. The cars. I couldn’t put my finger on any one thing.
“Yeah. I know that look. You’re processing. Good for you. It’s the atmosphere of where and when you grew up. Don’t try to over-analyze it. You’ll just hurt your head and waste precious minutes of your break time. Speaking of which.”
Jack stood, and just in time too. Mr. Walker came out, motioning with one gloved hand.
The rest of the day was hard work. Practically stalking the lot. Taking out potential customers on test drives.
I didn’t sell a damn thing. Since I had been ordered to shadow Jack, there was no feasible way for me to make a sale of my own.
“Sorry to let you down, kid, but that’s Mr. Walker’s way of getting some work out of the fresh blood and making it seem fair. Way he figures it, us big boys can handle the sales. The newbies can polish the cars. Someone has to do it.”
There was something about that “logic” that also seemed familiar. Another thing I couldn’t put my finger on.
That night, I polished the cars, relying on the car lot lamps to see what I was doing. A thick blanket of clouds kept most of the moonlight hidden.
I had no idea how many cars I needed to polish before going home. Then I realized I had no idea what “home” meant in this afterlife.
According to Jack, you must work for at least a few decades before you get your own apartment in town.
“What do you do if you don’t have one?”
“Break room. I’ll try and buy you some pillows or something,” Jack chuckled. “I don’t mean to make light of your situation. I had to live it once. Don’t worry, I’ll try to help you out until you get settled.”
I thought about the conversation Jack and I had as I polished the cars. The friendly, authoritative voice kept me company. Then something tapped me on the shoulder. Made me scream.
The tube attached to my suit vibrated violently.
“Relax. It’s only me, your grandfather.”
I turned around to face the ghastly sight of my grandfather’s ghost. It terrified me, seeing him like that.
“How are you doing, Miles? It’s been a long time. I hope Mr. Walker is treating you well. I wrote the handbook on how to treat new employees, but he never gives me credit for that.”
There was a long pause. I just stared at my grandfather’s ghost, not sure if I should remain still or run. His ghost came closer, floating above the wet pavement.
“I’m here for one last con. You get me, my boy? You either help me, or I’ll make this afterlife trial of yours permanent!”
My grandfather had a vengeful look in his eye.