Avery, on The Meaning of Life:

"Remember kids, it’s only funny until someone loses an ideology."

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"I Think, Therefore I Ant."



January 25

Satan’s New Image
                                     

Carl Frond had not slept well in 27 years. The bone scorching heat was bad enough, there was no doubt about that, but worse -- far worse -- were the damned fires. Every morning, without fail, Carl spent at least ten minutes extinguishing the flames in his bed and smothering the small blazes in his toupee with his one and only pair of pants. It was a bitch of a way to greet the day, but, on the upside, things only got worse after breakfast…

An ornate ticker tape machine spewed a steady stream of numbers across the large oak desk in Satan’s office. After casting a glance at the door to make sure that no one was watching him, The Prince of Darkness reached into his desk drawer, removed a small pair of wire-rimmed spectacles, put them on and settled down to the business at hand.

Satan had been crunching the numbers of the damned for the past week, and the results had done nothing to improve his already foul mood.  Business was down for the eighth quarter in a row and while the gates of Heaven had been forced to open a second wicket, Hell’s waiting room was sadly under used. Satan removed his spectacles, wearily made his way to his office window and looked out at the tormented souls of the eternally condemned. There was no doubt in his mind that they were a pathetic looking bunch. If he was ever going to return Hell to its former glory he would have to make some changes.  He needed a way to make Hell more appealing to the mortal masses that so recently seemed to live low fat, sin free lives. Satan shivered at the thought and buzzed for Morag.

Every morning it was the same drill. Carl wandered through the frightening corridors of the abyss leading to the cafeteria where he sat down to a plateful of his own intestines. He sprinkled them with salt, took a small mouthful, screamed and washed it down with a glass of non-alcoholic beer and a chaser of luke-warm urine.  After his meal, Carl was poked liberally in his buttocks with various multi-pronged spears and then sent off to his 16 hours of swimming in the sea of fire and brimstone. For the first 20 years it had been a pretty rough haul, but Carl was slowly getting into the swing of things and had learned to find some small comfort in the predictability of his daily routine. At least he knew he wasn’t going to spend his days splayed out on a rock while a pack of three-headed vultures picked at his eyes. From what his roommates had told him, that was a real grind.

Satan’s secretary, Morag, listened to her master patiently as he described the predicament that Hell was facing. It was a matter of pride, he explained, the number one sin. That Hell should just drift off into oblivion was unacceptable. There was too much history, too many fond memories and, god-damn it, he had invested too much of himself in it to sit idly by and watch it’s decline. Satan stared at his wretched little minion and waited for her to reply; to offer something, some words of advice, consolation, anything. As he waited for some sign of understanding to cross her face it occurred to him that this bandy-legged crone embodied everything that was wrong with Hell. What kind of a successful operation today had a 17th century whore who was still trying to comprehend the alphabet as a secretary?  She knew nothing about computers; her short hand was literally that -- the result of inbreeding, disease and a poor diet -- and her only interpersonal skills were disgusting offers of cut-rate sexual congress. Satan waved her from the room and tried to ignore his throbbing temples. There had to be a way to bring Hell into the 21st Century, to make it more...marketable. He spoke the word aloud. “Marketable.” It hung in the air. All Hell needed was a little image massage.

Fortunately for Satan, most successful image consultants and PR people were also hopeless boozers, idolaters, adulterers or coveters -- and the small percentage that weren’t could be counted on to be sodomites. All in all, the underworld had no shortage of the media savvy set. He consulted his Rolodex and made a short list of the damned that might be appropriate candidates to help.

Carl had just finished being flogged by a particularly sadistic imp named Larry when he saw his friend Hermes hanging from the gallows. He waded through the flames to join him. Hermes was always good for his daily “hot enough for you?” joke, and their friendly chats broke the tedium and unimaginable physical agony of the sea of fire. Hermes was in the midst of a 14th Century knock/knock joke when the PA system belched to life.

“Carl Frond, report to the office of Satan immediately.”

In his 27 years in Hell, Carl had never been summoned to Satan’s office. In fact, beyond the orientation session he underwent on his first day, he had never laid eyes on him. Not that he minded. For Carl, life in Hell was not that dissimilar to life at Henderson, Murphy and Glitch; it was best to stay in the background and not draw the attention of the uppity ups...

Carl had worked for Henderson, Murphy and Glitch for almost 15 back breaking years; first as a junior salesman, peddling ad space in their yearly menswear mail-order catalogue. Then as copywriter for the catalogue itself, then finally promoted to managing editor. Carl’s flair was in his lack of obvious flair. He preferred simple copy that captured the essence of the product and eschewed the flowery, poetic prose of his colleagues. One could argue that it had been Carl’s knack for the common sense approach that had transformed H. M. & G’s catalogue into a multi-million dollar a year enterprise. Not that anyone would have argued that point; or even mentioned it. Or, to be honest, even have thought of it. Carl’s talents were largely unnoticed and decidedly unappreciated.  Certainly his wife appeared to think nothing of the man. She berated his lack of ambition and willingness to let others take credit for his achievements. She was in Hell now too but, fortunately, resided in the 7th ring, so they rarely saw each other. It had never occurred to Carl to trumpet his virtues and launch himself into the dog eat dog management arena. No, Carl had been too busy embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars into a foreign bank account and planning his escape to a stress free life in Australia.

For 9 years Carl siphoned off cash from catalogue sales, pocketed kickbacks and quietly went about his business. When the day finally arrived, he simply kissed his wife goodbye in the morning, got on the train to work, took a taxi cab from the train station to the airport and jetted off to paradise. Everything had gone according to plan except for the fact that Carl had fallen down the stairs of the plane moments after it had landed in Melbourne and broke his neck in three places.

Timing had always been Carl’s biggest problem.

He stopped at the entrance to Satan’s outer office, took a deep breath, and tasted his impending doom. He steeled himself for the worst and entered. After disentangling himself from Morag, who thought that perhaps Carl had come for a discount blowjob instead of a meeting with Satan, Carl reluctantly showed himself in.

He was surprised to see Julia Poppone and David Spawn there as well. Carl didn’t know either of them personally, but he knew them by reputation and was worried why he, they and Mr. Satan should be in the same room. Julia and David were both recent arrivals, and big shots in the world of advertising and marketing. They both looked at Carl with a combination of interest and amusement. Sadly, noted Carl, it was more amusement than interest.

Satan then entered the office. The big devil doll of the underworld sat in his large armchair, scowled and looked the three of them over with unbridled loathing and a certain amount of respect mingled with disgust and outright contempt. Carl was pleased to note that Julia and David didn’t look so superior now. Clearly, they had no idea what was in store for them either.

Satan was quiet for a long time. Carl, freaked out as he was, recognized this as a standard management ploy used to build tension and emphasis. “I would like to begin by assuring you that I am thoroughly sickened by the sight of you all.” Satan started. “You’re all scum and you know it. Your depravity, your loathsome souls and your very humanity make me want to invent new means of torture.” Satan paused, his eyes burning like anthracite. “However, I need a favour.”

For the next ten minutes, Satan solemnly reflected on Hell’s declining numbers. He spoke of the pressing need for a new image, a new way to entice the masses to join the ranks of the damned. Carl was ashen, terrified and most horribly concerned. This was why he was here?  To offer advice on how to make Satan’s fiery concentration camp more attractive to potential clients?

David and Julia’s presence he could understand. They had, unofficially, been doing his bidding for years. But Carl?  He was just a menswear catalogue editor and embezzler. Clearly, there had been some kind of mistake.

Satan finished his tirade, looked to the three of them and demanded suggestions, comments, and ideas. Even worse, he would be expecting pitch ideas, image concepts and a catchy jingle. The rewards for success would be great, the cost of failure would be unimaginable and heinous beyond anything their limited imaginations could begin to dream up… This was pressure, and Carl Frond was not a high-pressure performance type of guy.

Julia Popponne and David Spawn, of course were used to this kind of daily nightmare and weren’t about to pass up an opportunity to ply their trade and make valuable points with Satan. Julia stepped forward, one hand on her chin and the other on her hip. “So what I’m hearing here, if I may, is that we need to find a way to make Hell a more...viable alternative.”

“Exactly,” offered Satan, lighting a cigar with his fingertip.

Julia, a 39-year-old dynamo who had owned a powerful L.A. based ad agency, smiled cautiously. Carl knew that Julia was a lesbian and that she had killed her business partner, but he was not sure which of those facts was responsible for her being in Hell. The rules were so complicated. Julia stroked her close-cropped hair and tugged on one of her innumerable piercings. “Well” she added, “I have one question for you. What the Hell is so great about Heaven?”

As if on cue, David Spawn snapped his fingers and picked up where Julia had left off. “Exactly!” He roared with his rather odd combination of misguided passion and pure love of evil. “I mean people see Hell as this place of suffering, of fire and punishment, but what about Heaven? First off, the place has to be dull. No parties, no jokes… And an eternity of harp music? Thank-you God no, I’d rather kill myself.”

“You did kill yourself, but you’re on the right track,” added Julia.  David laughed, but it was clear to Carl that he did not like Julia undermining his authority. While he was alive, David Spawn had prided himself on striking fear into the hearts of competitors, clients, underlings, pets, furniture, you name it.

David had always admired Satan and the prospect of having him as a client seemed too good to be true.  Secretly, David was confident, he could sell anything to anyone and was a man of considerable and varied talents; talents that included ingesting 7 grams of cocaine and 40 ounces of whiskey daily. A habit that led to his undoing and a paranoia infused jump from his 30th story office window.

David Spawn recognized that Julia Popponne hit a nerve and he wanted to cash in on it. “Right off the bat, I’d say we show people Hell as a place where everyone is welcome...none of the strict rules of entry that they have in Heaven apply here. It’s not discriminatory, you can let your hair down...dance, sing, have the occasional sexual indiscretion. It’s infernal, but informal.”

Satan appeared interested. Maybe he could get Bing and Frank to sing the jingle.

Julia leaned on the edge of his desk. Carl could see that she was checking boundaries, seeing how much leeway she could get. Carl could only watch. What the Hell did he have to offer? ‘Get a new tie?’ This was worse than he had imagined. Julia was now edging her left buttock on to Satan’s desktop.

“Sure, it’s a party place.” she said. “That’s good. But it also has to be a family place if you want to make a serious move. It has to be like...like Club Med., dirty, but sanitised for your eternal pleasure. It’s like a Bond flick; some tits and ass, but no insertion shots.”

Satan seemed to be mulling the information over carefully. He looked at Carl. Carl smiled and gave a thumbs up. Satan scowled and turned back to the pair of beaming sycophants. David winked at Julia. They were working as a team now, a team that had no room for the likes of Carl Frond.

"Very well” said Satan, “and just how do we achieve this?”

Julia got off his desk and looked at Satan directly. “Well, we all agree that the key is to start by playing on the down side of Heaven, right?”

All heads except Carl’s nodded in agreement. Not only did Carl feel out of place, but these ideas they were tossing about struck him as moronic: the type of ‘great ideas’ the flashy idiots at
H. M. & G regurgitated to management on a daily basis.

“So” she chimed on, “we get the idea out that an eternity in Heaven is the mortal equivalent of filling out an income tax form. Boring, slow and only necessary if you have no imagination. If you can combine that with a relaxed, fun and spunky image of Hell, you’re half way there.”

David picked up the thread and ran with it. “What we do, is run a negative ad campaign against Heaven and then start an exciting buzz on Hell. I see a real media blitz. We get the, and if I may suggest a working slogan, “Helluva Time, Helluva Place” campaign off to a blistering start, but only on the two coasts. Get the trend-setters hooked on the idea and the rest of the world will fall in line.” 

Julia nodded dementedly and continued.  “It’s true.  In order for Hell to be truly chic it has to have time to ferment into the middle class consciousness.” 

Carl couldn’t believe that he had laughed out loud. He pressed his hand to his mouth, but it was too late; Julia and David were now staring at him with a mixture of amusement and hatred.  Sadly, Carl noted it was more hatred than amusement.  A tactical error, Carl thought, but honestly, “middle class consciousness?”  It was too much. Even Satan had to see through this.

Satan eyed Carl curiously. He took a moment to ponder what Carl would look like headless. It was a concept he should pursue. “You have a comment, fat man?”

Carl smiled to try and hide his discomfort. He was terrified, and as a stout man -- he preferred stout to fat -- who was prone to perspiring, could feel his shirt dampening and sticking to his back. Carl’s mind raced for something to say. Should he plead ignorance and hope to be excused? Profess he was out of his league? Or hope that his ability to faint on cue might save his bacon?

“I’m waiting!” Satan roared.

Carl felt his stomach twist. His entrails were not sitting well. He opened his mouth and left it to the fates. “Well...uh...frankly, I don’t quite understand the tactics that these two seem to be...uh...embarking...taking. It seems...well, uh, you know...phoney.”

It was David and Julia’s turn to laugh now. They had long ago written Carl off as a useless relic but now they realized just how entirely out of his depth he was. Satan rose from his chair and walked slowly over to Carl. At 5’5”, Carl barely came up to Satan’s demonic shoulders. The Devil clasped his hands on Carl’s head and lifted him to eye level. “Explain yourself, Fraud.”

“Frond, actually, Carl. W.”

“I’ll be the judge of that. The judge, jury and executioner!” Satan dropped Carl abruptly and waited.

Carl adjusted his tie. Why the Hell did he have to die in his winter suit? Why hadn’t he changed into a pair of shorts before he got off the plane? There was no turning back however; Satan was waiting. “Well, your excellency, these ideas seem very fancy and grandiose, but in my experience smoke and mirrors don’t move the product. I think that repackaging Hell as some kind of 3000 degree, Howard Johnson’s is not going to address the real problem.”

Satan’s interest was piqued. “And what exactly is the real problem?” he asked.

“Well… It’s… You...Satan...Mr. Satan...yourself.”  David and Julia gave each other a sideways glance and waited for Carl to explode, or implode, or something. Carl realized he had not picked his words as carefully as he would have liked. Satan appeared dumbfounded for a brief moment and then turned his wrath on this short, odious, worm of an embezzler.

“You dare to say that I...Lucifer; Lord Of Flies, am ‘the problem’?”

Carl needed to be strong. He had backed himself firmly into a corner, but damn it, he was right. It was time to stand up for himself and show the pair of ad weasels a thing or to two in the process. It was time for some of the patented Frond common sense.

“When I think of Hell, I think of you Mr. Satan. I mean let’s face the facts here, you’re the big draw, you’re the one people are here to see. And all I’m saying, and I mean this with the greatest respect, is that a personal image change is going to do you more good in the long run than trying to bamboozle people with some slick ad campaign.”

The office fell completely silent as Satan pondered Carl’s words. He walked over to a full-length mirror in the corner of the room and studied himself closely. Carl could see the concern register in David and Julia’s faces. He had hit on something, it was clear, and they saw it too.

Satan continued to look in the mirror. “I had been thinking about making a change or two...”

Carl sensed victory -- he was back. “I think it’s a wise idea, Mr. Satan. I mean look at you, you’re a heck of a specimen if I do say, but people...well they frighten easily. First off, there’s the tail, it smacks of some kind of Kentucky in-breeding, and...” Carl quickly checked himself. There was no point in getting to cocky too quickly.

Satan turned to Julia and David. “Well, is he right!?”  David wasn’t sure what to say, things had not gone according to plan. Julia reluctantly stepped forward. “I...for one, am in complete agreement with...with, um, Carl. You need a new image. To start with, you are red, very, very red.”

“Too red, too ethnic, sort of Commie-like,” proffered David taking his cue from Julia and hoping his allusions to the 1950’s would appeal to Carl.

“If you want to be accessible,” Julia offered, “you’re going to have to make some changes.”

Carl asserted himself again. He wasn’t going to let these two punks steal his thunder. Not now, “First off: the horns.  Keep them; they’re dangerous but not threatening, and very marketable.  Every kid will want a pair. We’ll push them during Christmas.  Satan -- Santa, what’s the difference?”

“They suit the shape of your head,” added Julia.

“But you don’t want to look barnyard!” David screamed, looking desperately for a line of coke to snort or a window to jump out of.

Carl smiled and rubbed his hands together.  He was hitting his stride now and wasn’t about to defer to anyone, Satan included. Carl circled about Satan’s desk in silence.   “Mr. Satan” he finally said,  “I was in the menswear business for a long time and I can say to you, without exaggeration that it is the clothes that make the man. Having said that, I look to you, and one word springs to mind. ‘Pants.’”

“Agreed!” David and Julia boomed in doomed unison.

Carl was in full stride now as he cast his eyes downward to the Devil’s majesty. “It’s an impressive...asset, but not entirely palatable to the general public. And you should think about a shirt, tie, jacket and what the heck, shoes. The cloven hoofs would look better with an open toe.”

Carl thought he detected a smile on Satan’s lips. Playing to his vanity had been a brilliant stroke, and if Satan was serious about changing the face of Hell he had no choice but to change himself first. Carl looked at David and Julia and smirked in a way that let them just how far out of their depths they were. Carl was going to come out on top.

“I had a feeling about you, Frond,” said Satan, “it’s never wise to underestimate a pork- faced, underachieving little monster, like yourself.”  He extended his hand to Carl, who, unsure if he had just been complimented or insulted, shook it firmly. “You’ll be my number one man on this assignment.”

David and Julia murmured their congratulations. Satan turned them both inside out, interchanged their sex organs, and buzzed for Morag.

After Julia and David were shovelled out of his office, Satan seemed to soften. It was just the two of them now. Carl had the ear of the big evil and a bright future.

Satan looked at himself in the mirror once more. “You’re sure about this pants thing?”

II

Carl hadn’t slept well in 3 months. It wasn’t the room, it was nice enough, there was no doubt about that -- an air-conditioned suite with a king sized bed, mini bar and satellite TV -- it was the damned pressure. Every morning Carl fitted Satan into a new set of clothes and every morning he was the object of Satan’s scorn, rage, insults, humiliations, and nasty physical outbursts. Carl’s body had been twisted inside out so often he barely recognized his own face. Most days, Satan tried to squeeze into pants three sizes too small and this discomfort enraged him so much that his only recourse was to set Carl aflame and then use him as a human pincushion while alterations were made. It was rough at first, but Carl was getting used to it. This was the life of management after all, and on the upside, things only got worse after breakfast.


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