I sit at my desk and stare at the directory in front of me, its physical weight like some joke from the past, an analog nightmare that seems almost ironic next to the smart phone that I’m using to scan the pages for later. I feel the texture of the pages and a shiver runs through me, a keen anticipation that would not have been the same if I had started electronically. It will make a better story, anyway, if I use the physical artifact, will sell better when I share my story with the world. I am writing a letter, something I haven’t done since I was very small. But with everyone else doing it I couldn’t resist; I’m sending a letter to Hell.
I’m not sure exactly what to do but I stopped at Walmart and picked up some paper and a pen, envelopes and stamps from the Post Office kiosk near the front of the store. The new stamps they’re issuing for letters to Hell will pay to keep Saturday service, and so sending a letter feels like doing something good, especially after seeing how many people were doing it, were talking about it on Facebook. They all place excited exclamation points next to posts about reconnecting with grandparents or aunts, uncles, brothers, children.
I find my Grandpa Jack’s name, the closest relative I have in Hell. I wonder why he’s there and not in Heaven with the rest of my dead relatives, but realize that I didn’t know him very well. While alive he was just something of a stern presence beside my Grandma Daisy. I wonder if he killed anyone, or maybe robbed banks. Whatever it is I hope it’s exciting, something to grab a reader’s attention. I pull out a piece of paper and start writing.
“Dear Grandpa Jack,” I write, saying the words aloud as I go. “Hello. This is your grandson, John. I don’t know if you remember me but I am writing to see if you have anything you’d like to say about your life or afterlife, or a story you’d like to tell.”
I pause, realizing that might be a bit insensitive, but it’s in ink and there’s no going back now. There are testimonials online already of people getting letters back from Hell, stories and recipes, full novels even, of turning those into books living people would buy. People are making money, and I don’t want to miss an opportunity. Anything would beat working in the IT call center I go to most days. This is my way out, my ticket to easy street.
“I’m doing well,” I say and write. “Much has changed since you’ve been gone. I’m not sure what you know about computers, but they do everything now. You can take them with you in your pocket. If you had invested in them while you were young we’d all be rich now.” I think that is sufficiently impressive. Everything seems both important and trivial. “The rest of the family is doing well.”
I read over my words to see if that’s long enough but there doesn’t seem to be much there, and I have only taken up some of the page. I start leaving more space in between the words and lines, stretching everything.
“I’m sorry to hear Grandma Daisy is not with you,” I say, and almost scratch that out but then don’t. “If you want to say anything to her, maybe I can pass it along.” Love letters from Hell would be, after all, a good angle for a book.
The words have gone down nearly half the page, the margins closing in as the words descend. It seems an almost-good-enough length. “Why are you in Hell, anyway? If you could write me back that would be great. I would love to hear about your experiences since you’ve been gone.” I leave out the book idea, not knowing what he would think.
I skip down a bit more and write, “Your grandson, John.” I then fold the paper and stuff it into an envelope, lick the flap and close it, address it, attach the stamp that depicts a skull bathed in fire. The next day I put it in the mailbox and feel good; Grandpa Jack probably doesn’t get a lot of mail.
I post on Facebook what I’ve done and try to be patient. I’m sure that Grandpa Jack really doesn’t have much to do, being so old, but when I go out to the mail each day there is no response. Mail keeps coming on Saturdays, though; letters to Hell is wildly successful. And each day brings more news of people selling their stories. I wait anxiously, aware that after a certain point no one will care about another ‘Letters from Hell’ book.
Two weeks later I open the door to the mailbox and find a postcard mixed in with the rest of the debris. I almost discard it thinking it a deal on an oil change, but then I see the picture of a river of fire on the front, the word Phlegethon printed at the bottom. I turn it over.
“John,” I read, my heart rate rising, “It’s good to hear from you. I’m afraid there’s not much to say about my time here, how I got here. It’s little things, really, a lifetime of small choices I made selfishly. If you get the chance, tell Daisy that, tell her that I’m sorry. But I have to get back now. Yours, Jack.”
I stare at the words until they look foreign, strange. I read them aloud at least ten times. Then I place the postcard on my desk and take out some white-out, get to work covering over the words; it will never sell like that. When all that is left is the salutation, I take out my pen and start writing what people will want to hear, something with guns and sex and plenty of swearing.
Charles Payseur was born in the sprawl of the Chicago suburbs and now resides with his partner and cats in Eau Claire, WI, in the land of cheese and beer.