Some people wake up and think they’re in heaven, but they’re just shuffling in circles inside a dusty labyrinth wallpapered with their smudged memories. What nobody tells you is that they’re constantly shitting, like nervous caterpillars looking for a way off your arm. All these dumb, sloppy souls leaving pencil-thin trails of shit on the linoleum that would linger there forever if it weren’t for the vigilant (pointless) efforts of the others, perpetually twenty yards behind with their sick little vacuum mouths. Who are they? Oh, they’re the ones who think they’re in hell.
“You want another beer?”
Gordon’s gray face rippled sadly in the stale breeze from the fan as it oscillated toward him, then away again. He turned his head slowly until his eyes found the source of the mouth-sounds.
“Agggagahhgaahggag,” intoned Gordon.
“Do. You. Want. Another. Beer.” The bartender was looking at Gordon the same way a talk show host might look at George Clooney upon realizing it was actually a garbage bag overflowing with thumbs and used cotton swabs.
“Give him an iced tea,” commanded the squeaky voice from behind the curtain. “Give him a refreshing iced tea. Everyone likes iced tea on a hot night like tonight.”
It’s a shame no one was listening, because Gordon really would have enjoyed the hell out of that iced tea. But he was given a Tecate Lite instead. The voice trailed off uselessly into the humid atmosphere, twisting and flanging and bouncing off the wings of every firefly it could reach before being absorbed into the Great Cosmic Sponge. Maybe it’ll be reborn, regurgitated into a bright winter morning as a hungry cat’s meow or a slightly off-key Judge Judy theme song leaking out of a dead man’s brand new 67-inch TV. Or maybe it’s just gone. Do they even serve iced tea?
As Gordon dragged his leathery tongue around the edge of the beer can, his mind floated effortlessly along the soft Nebraska shoreline, leading a backlit caravan of candy-colored ambulances to some spiritual barbecue to which none of them were invited. A baby drops his toy helicopter out the window and it bounces into the black ocean. Baby cries, no one cares. Babies cry.
“Does that beer make you a man?” demanded the bartender over the ever-increasing din of the fan.
Gordon’s synapses crackled as he fell back into himself. The edges of the frame were visibly frayed by now. He was amazed no one else could see it, much less try to tug at the corners.
“Are you the Top Dog? The manager says you’re Top Dog,” the bartender continued. She was grinning, exposing rows upon rows of teeth that looked like steaming Raisinets. Baby giggles.
It was no use. He wouldn’t talk. It was the same routine at every Applebee’s. Same questions, same stench of syrup, same lady in the parking lot screaming things about guardian angels and someone named Jim. He once thought he’d found the answer in Minneapolis, but it was only the high-pitched whine of an overcooked fajita platter. No Top Dog here.
Gordon bit into the can, spraying a fine mist of blood and foam all over the greasy counter. The aluminum squeaked and sparked between his chompers. It could have been a pulled pork sandwich, but you’ll never know. It’s purely subjective.
Normally, this is where the floor would open up, causing numerous families of four and their respective cheeseburgers to tumble into an infinite abyss of ice-cold nothingness, after which an enormous spiral staircase made from mother-of-pearl would push its way up through the mist and… yada yada yada, you get the drift. But this time Gordon was only interested in the corporate discount. He finished his can, dabbed the corners of his jagged mouth with his napkin, and rose from the stool that would never be used again.
“You all are doin’ a fine job here,” he declared to anyone who would listen. “I’m Gordon Hajirfjdg, the CEO of Applebee’s. As a result of your satisfactory service, I will spare all of you from the agonal fates you so richly deserve.”
The dead man blinks, baby is sleeping. The universe sighs and sheds another layer of its onion skin.
Brushing the Dorito crumbs from his grotesquely distorted football jersey, he fumbles for the remote control.
“I thought I was watchin’ Judge Judy.”
Go back to sleep, Jim.