A Day at the Fair
By Brian Lawrence
Andrew Claxton exited Creation and headed for The Hereafter, satisfied that what he'd witnessed had been an accurate depiction of the beginning of Earth. The deacon from Lafayette Square Baptist Church was anxious to see if the Louisiana Purchase Exposition planners had done as well with Hell as they'd done with Genesis.
He licked the ice cream he'd purchased before entering Creation, then turned left and proceeded down The Pike. A small boy charged out of the entrance to Old St. Louis and bumped into Andrew.
"God damn you, boy," Andrew shouted. "Watch where you're going."
"Sorry, mister." The child flashed Andrew a gap-toothed grin.
Andrew scowled at the ice cream stain on his black suit jacket, thinking that if they'd served him ice cream the way it should have been served, in a bowl, instead of perched on top of a rolled up waffle, he wouldn't have this mess. With his handkerchief he wiped the stain off as best as he could, then continued toward The Hereafter.
Sunday's thinner crowds and shorter lines confirmed his good feelings about skipping church to visit the World's Fair. It had been so crowded the last four Saturdays. His wife, his two daughters, and he had been able to take in only a couple attractions each time.
He walked slowly, finishing his ice cream cone. His wife had objected, after all, he was a deacon, but then when she'd realized she'd lost the battle, she'd suggested that he bring his parents. They'd been begging Andrew to accompany them to the fair.
He paused outside The Hereafter and waited as an elderly couple shuffled by. He tapped his foot and scowled when they stopped in front of him so the old man could allow his wife to sample the iced tea. Tea poured over crushed ice. Absurd.
When the elderly couple finally moved along, Andrew felt vindicated about snubbing his parents. They were both in their sixties and moved slow. They'd have been lucky to make it through just the mile long Pike in a single day. Clara could bring them sometime, along with her parents.
A striking woman wearing a hat brimming with roses and a pale yellow dress passed him, stopped, folded her matching parasol, smiled at him, and continued inside the attraction. Andrew followed, enjoying the way her hips swayed. He removed his Bowler and joined the line entering the auditorium for the opening show. Examining the young woman's profile, he decided she looked a little like his partner Charlie's secretary. Same high cheekbones, long lashes, sloped nose. Even her dark hair was the same color as Myrtle's. One of these days, he thought for the hundredth time, he'd discover if Myrtle really was interested in him. Her constant flirting, batting of her wide, dark eyes, and even the occasional wink convinced him she was. If only he could work up the nerve.
Double doors opened and the line surged forward. Andrew found a seat close to the middle of the auditorium. Above him hung a chandelier decorated with skull, arm, and shin bones. The opening ghost show began, but only held his attention for a few minutes. His mind drifted to the day before, when he'd been talking with a neighbor, George Anderson. George had been upset that his flower bed had been trampled and Andrew had remarked it was probably the Gruener's dog. Damn Krauts never kept their mutt tied up. They let the beast roam the neighborhood destroying other people's property.
The show ended and the audience was told to exit to the left for their trip into the lower chambers. Andrew stood, his mind still on his German neighbor, which aggravated him as his thoughts drifted to the automobile Hans had recently purchased. Noisy contraption. And Clara had the gall to suggest he was jealous, just because he would wander next door to examine the piece of machinery. He wasn't jealous. What would he do with an automobile? Still, to think Hans Gruener had something he didn't.
Chains rattled. A door opened and the crowd pushed forward into a large darkened chamber. People pushed against him, whispering excitedly, sounding like wind through a forest. A large sweaty man next to him smelled of too much cologne, a musky odor, which competed with the sweet lavender smell of the short, stocky woman in front of him.
A man appeared hanging from his nostrils. A hidden voice informed the audience that this man was continually poking his nose into other people's business. There was soft laughter. Skeletons dropped from the ceiling. Women shrieked. Andrew jumped, then chuckled. The electric lights dimmed.
After a minute in the dark, Andrew felt no one pushing against him. He wiped sweat from his brow, feeling uncomfortable in the rising heat.
The darkness closed in on him as the heat increased. For several minutes he stood in complete silence, but then he heard a far off sound that slowly grew in intensity. It reminded him of a tree full of cicadas, only lower pitched. The noise grew, now sounding like thousands of chattering teeth. He covered his ears and wrinkled his nose at the acrid smell of burning sulfur mixed with charred animal flesh. Stifling heat, gnashing of teeth, fire and brimstone. The realism was incredible, though overdone.
His knees buckled. He was descending. He groped around, but found only hot, empty air. The chamber glowed a faint orange.
The descent stopped. An invisible curtain opened. A huge two-legged beast with curled horns, blazing eyes and muscled, naked body towered over prostrated people, their arms in front of them, their heads bowed. The beast, bathed red, yellow, and orange from a semi-circle of roaring flames, raised his arms and bellowed. Then, to Andrew's horror, the giant demon stepped forward and began crushing the kneeling people with its massive clawed feet. Bones broke, spines cracked, and skulls split.
The scene faded. Darkness enveloped him. The descent continued. The wails of the crushed humans reverberated in Andrew's head.
He felt queasy. Such realism.
The descent stopped. Bright light flooded the chamber. Andrew glanced around. Alone. He wondered where everyone had gone, but quickly forgot about his isolation as a new scene unfolded.
Inside a temple, a man knelt before three gold statues on a dais: a calf, a snake, and a miniature representation of the beast he'd seen earlier.
"Hello!" Andrew called. "Can you tell me, how do I exit this show? I've seen enough." The man ignored him.
Andrew backed up and bumped into an invisible barrier.
His mouth dropped open when the golden snake statue struck at the man, tearing a gash in his arm. The man shrieked. Then, the calf turned and kicked out, its metallic hoof crushing the man's forehead. He fell backwards, landed on the marble floor with a thud. The statue of the demon laughed, bared sharp teeth, and leapt onto the man.
Andrew gasped as all three idols tore into the man, dismembering him, devouring him, until the scene faded from view and the descent continued.
He'd had enough and wanted out. But when he moved forward, he encountered another barrier. He tried to the left, then the right, and again behind, but smooth, glasslike walls prevented him from taking more than a couple steps. His breathing became labored. Where was he? Where were the others? Were they being forced to witness this gruesome show? He would demand a refund. This was uncalled-for, not allowing patrons to leave in the middle of a show.
His descent stopped.
Above him a single light came on, revealing a man-sized demon directly in front of him. Blackness surrounded Andrew and the demon, who stood close, its glowing eyes fixed on Andrew's face. The beast stared, unmoving, silent.
Without warning, the demon shouted, "God damn you!"
Andrew's ears rang with the echo. He nearly wretched from the fetid breath that stunk of rotted carcasses.
"That was not necessary," he said.
"God damn you!" the demon bellowed.
A sharp pain stabbed through Andrew's brain.
"Now you listen here-"
The demon ranted, screaming "God damn you" repeatedly, each time louder, until Andrew thought his head would explode. He covered his ears, but nothing staved off the loud, raspy voice. The shouting continued relentlessly.
Andrew closed his eyes. The voice intensified. He wondered if he was somewhere other than the World's Fair.
The screaming stopped. The descent continued.
When the descent stopped, bright hot light filled the chamber. Andrew opened his eyes. In the distance, on a hill dotted with scrub, stood two wooden crosses each with a person nailed to it. The crucifixion scene? But shouldn't there be three crosses?
Nothing happened. No movement, no sound, just dry heat and searing light. Drops of sweat inched down each temple. Andrew reached out and felt nothing. He stepped forward. One step, two, three. He again reached out and encountered an invisible wall. As if that action had tripped a lever, the hill with the two crosses hurtled toward him.
Andrew clenched his eyes closed and braced for impact.
He opened his eyes when he heard a low moaning. The base of the hill was at his feet. The two crosses loomed above him.
The people nailed to the crosses were elderly and barely alive. The man wore only a diaper-like rag, the woman a dirty tunic. The man moaned, his head lolling side to side. The woman - Andrew couldn't believe someone would crucify a woman - remained still.
Andrew looked down. A rock about the size of a baseball was inches from his toe. He tried to kick at it, but encountered the invisible wall. Another lever must have been thrown, for the hill plummeted and moved closer. Andrew suffered a moment of vertigo from the swift movement. He found himself between the two crosses.
To steady himself he stared at the lifeless ground. The merciless sun beat down on him. Under his dark suit he felt rivulets of sweat. Finally, he looked up at the crosses, and collapsed to his knees.
"Nooo," he moaned, sounding remarkably like his father, who was nailed to the cross in front of him. The woman was his mother. Her soft eyes were open and fixed on him, pleading him to get her down.
Andrew tried to push his mother's cross over, but met the invisible barrier inches from the cross. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned. A pair of demons regarded him, one dressed in tails and top hat, the other in a white dress, wearing a wig. The she-demon held out its arms. Andrew pressed his back against the wall.
"Stay away from me," he said. "Stay away."
The demons approached.
"Jesus, help me," he said.
Both demons grinned. The she-demon embraced him. She smelled like rotting meat. He tried to pry himself away, screaming for her to release him.
In a raspy, guttural voice, the she-demon said, "Hush little Andrew, we're your parents now."
Darkness. Descending again.
He wanted out of this exhibit. Things were getting a little too real. Were those really his parents on the cross? He must have been hallucinating. Maybe it was guilt. That's it. He should have brought his parents. His guilty feelings made him see his parent's faces on the crosses. And the demons? They were part of the exhibit. But one had embraced him. He'd felt her arms around him. Could that have been an illusion as well?
The descent stopped and the lights came on. Andrew found himself standing in a familiar-looking grocery store. The proprietor had his back turned to Andrew, who realized he could barely see over the counter. He looked down at himself. His throat dried and his heartbeat tripled. He was wearing knickers and suspenders and was only four feet tall, like he was a child. What kind of illusion was this?
"Excuse me, sir?" he said to the man's back.
The man ignored him.
On the counter was a jar of licorice sticks. Against his will, Andrew reached out, silently grabbed three licorice sticks, then shoved them in his pocket. He stared aghast at his own hand as it returned to the jar, took out one piece of candy and placed it on the counter.
The proprietor turned around. Andrew wanted to scream, but found he could only smile. The face of Old Man Tisdale, owner of Tisdale's Corner Market, where, as a child, Andrew had spent many a Saturday afternoon, leered at him. Andrew started to speak, but caught his breath when Tisdale's face dissolved into a demon with sharp teeth, yellow eyes, scaly skin, and a hideous grin.
Andrew's other hand came out of his pocket holding a nickel. Andrew whimpered as he watched his hand place the nickel on the counter. The demon raised his own hand above his head and Andrew realized it was holding a meat cleaver. Andrew tried to jerk his hand off the counter but was unable to move. The meat cleaver came down in a blur. Andrew screamed and snatched his arm away. The hand stayed on the counter, the fingers twitching. Intense pain seized his arm.
While Andrew stared at his bleeding stump, a memory popped into his head and he said, "But I only stole from Old Man Tisdale that one time."
The pain ceased. His hand grew back. His arm moved toward the counter again. The demon raised the meat cleaver. His partner Charlie's face flashed through his mind.
As the meat cleaver descended, Andrew shouted out, "Okay, I'll return all the money I took from Charlie. I promise."
The lights went out. The descent continued.
Andrew slumped against the invisible wall, his hands over his face, his stomach heaving.
"Why? Why are you doing this to me?" And who was doing it to him? He felt compelled to pray. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me."
However, Andrew felt no comfort when the descent stopped and the darkness remained. His mind raced as he reviewed the possibilities. If he had died, he could not remember how. He had walked into The Hereafter in full health feeling great. And if he was dead, why was he in Hell? He believed in Jesus Christ. He had been saved years ago. He dropped his head and sighed, unable to understand what was happening to him.
The lights came up and band music played.
Andrew saw two dainty feet. He raised his head slightly, taking in shins, knees, thighs. His eyes grew wide when he stared at the naked sex of a woman. After a few seconds he raised his gaze and gawked at large breasts with swollen nipples. The woman swayed to the music while approaching him. He raised his gaze from her bosom to her face and recoiled. It was Charlie's secretary.
"Myrtle. Wha...what are you doing here?"
She said nothing, but sashayed closer.
Somehow, he too was naked. He felt suddenly chill and terror settled into his stomach like lead, but his penis grew erect. Myrtle smiled.
Andrew tried looking away, but his head would not move. She came within inches of him. Her breath smelled sickly sweet. Her skin was unnaturally white and shiny.
She grasped his shoulders and turned him easily.
Softly at first, he muttered, "Father, hallowed be thy name, lead me not into temptation." But when he glanced over his shoulder and saw the bed of nails and realized she meant to lower him onto it, he recited the Lord's prayer louder. Myrtle leered as she laid him back.
Despite the thousands of pin pricks in his back, his erection grew even more firm, until it felt as if the tip of his penis would burst. Myrtle straddled him, oblivious to the spikes driving into her knees, the blood dribbling down the nails. She grasped his erection, positioned herself, and lowered onto him.
He shrieked in agony. It felt as if his penis were being put through a meat grinder. As she rocked on him, needles of unbearable pain stabbed into him, as if someone were using a wire brush on his privates. Her rocking intensified, his screaming grew louder. He could no longer see her. The pain was so intense all he saw was bright light.
Finally, he cried out, meaning every word, "Dear God, take me away from here and I will never be unfaithful to my wife."
The pain ceased. He was standing in darkness, the room descending.
Andrew breathed rapidly, trying to calm himself before he hyperventilated. He'd figured it out. He wasn't dead. God was teaching him a lesson, showing him what could happen if he continued to stray from The Word. He started reciting the ten commandments. "No other gods. No idols. Do not misuse the name of the lord. Honor thy father and thy mother. Thou shall not murder." He paused and recalled what had happened. He'd only witnessed the first two levels. But the others, he'd participated in. He continued. "Thou shall not commit adultery." He looked up and shouted, "But I never committed adultery."
Something whispered close to his ear, "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
Andrew lowered his head. Matthew 5, verse 28. He continued, "Thou shall not steal. Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy. Thou shall not covet. Thou shall not give false testimony against thy neighbor...Oh, dear Jesus."
The lights came up and he found himself reclining in a chair, squinting into bright light. A man stood beside him. Or was it a man? Another demon, probably.
The man looked sideways and reached for something. Andrew recognized his neighbor, Hans Gruener. But Hans wasn't a dentist, he owned a tailor shop.
Hans grasped a long set of tongs then turned and smiled at Andrew, who stared in horror at the instrument. Like no tongs he'd ever seen, these had jagged teeth that fit perfectly together.
"Open vide," Hans said.
Andrew shook his head, but of its own volition, his mouth opened. The tongs descended. When they clasped his tongue, he tried to shriek, but could only gurgle.
Hans' smile faded into a hateful grimace. He clamped down on the tongs. Blood rushed into Andrew's throat. Hans braced himself against the back of the chair and pulled.
Andrew tried to pray out loud as Hans tugged on his tongue. He stopped making a noise when he saw the tongs gripping a bloody, red mass of tissue. He closed his eyes tight and promised God he'd never speak ill of his neighbor, or anyone else for that matter, behind their backs again.
His tongue snapped back into his mouth and once again he was standing in the darkness, descending.
Andrew shuddered. What would happen in the next level? Two left. It was Sunday and he was at the World's Fair, not in church. Definitely not keeping the Sabbath holy. And he'd coveted before. Often, he'd felt envious of others, especially the Grueners. For a tailor, Hans made a good living and always had the latest things, while Andrew and his partner struggled at their buggy repair business. Between those new automobiles and Sears selling buggies so cheaply, few people kept theirs in tiptop shape. What was he to do?
He closed his eyes and prayed a prayer of repentance.
When he opened them, he had to raise his arm to shade his eyes from the sun. Cool air wafted over him and the smell of freshly cut grass gave him welcome relief from the previous foul odors. He squinted at bright sunlight. He was standing at the tee box of the eighteenth hole of Normandy Golf Course, the clubhouse in the distance, a bag of clubs over his shoulder. The familiar sight gave him no comfort. He shuddered, wondering what would come next.
He wore a short-sleeved shirt, knickers and knee-high socks. His hat was again on his head, not under his arm. He took it off and discovered it was an automobile style hunting cap, not his Bowler. He sighed and stepped forward.
Church bells rang. Guilt nipped at his conscience. Shadows enveloped him. He looked at the sky. Dark clouds boiled above. In seconds, they blotted out the sun. Andrew turned around, but behind him was nothing and when he reached out, he felt the same invisible barrier as before.
A bolt of lightening tore through the sky, splintering a tree close by. His skin tingled, the hairs on his arms bristled. He smelled electrified air and burnt wood. He walked fast, toward the clubhouse, hoping to reach it before the storm got worse.
Andrew felt before he heard or saw the next bolt of lightening. A surge of electricity tore through his body. Blinding light exploded all around him. A deafening crash shattered his eardrums. He was lifted off the grass and flung through the air. Laying crumpled on the fairway, listening to church bells in the distance, he was amazed he still lived. His body twitched uncontrollably and he smelled burning flesh.
After a few minutes, the storm abated. He tried to get up and found he was able to walk.
The church bells rang louder. Immediately, the wind picked up. Another bolt of lightening destroyed a tree to his right. He started to run. Blinding light, thundering crash, and he was thrown backwards like he'd ran into a brick wall. Every nerve in his body sung with pain. His bones felt pulverized, but something compelled him to get up again and run more. Another bolt of lightening struck him. It felt like he'd been split in two. His clothes smoldered, his skin was charred.
The church bells tolled on.
He ran again, toward the clubhouse, but the more he ran, the farther away it seemed, stretching away from him, becoming a tiny dot on the horizon. Repeatedly, lightening struck him, flinging him like a rag doll, and repeatedly he got up and ran more, his skin becoming blacker and blacker, the pain so intense that he became numb to it, the church bells so loud he could no longer hear the thunder.
A final bolt of lightening struck and the world turned black.
When Andrew opened his eyes, he was sitting in his own yard, a long handled sickle in the grass beside him. He felt dizzy and disoriented, but suddenly hopeful. Maybe what he'd just experienced had all been a nightmare. He'd blacked out for some reason. He'd been lying here on his own lawn the whole time.
Hans Gruener ambled toward him behind a brand new push-mower. "Hullo, Andrew. Why are you sitting on the grass? Get up and try my mower on your yard? It's much quicker than that sickle you were using."
Andrew arose and stared at his neighbor.
"What's the matter, cat got your tongue?" Hans laughed, left the push-mower, and walked back to his own house.
Andrew blinked, then stared at the mower. He waited. Nothing happened. Was that it? Had it all been a nightmare? He did feel a bit woozy, shaky in the knees. And his doctor had told him to watch his blood pressure. He must have been cutting his lawn and passed out from the heat.
Tentatively, he gripped the mower's handle and started mowing. The sharp blades sliced through the grass like a heated knife through butter. After about ten minutes, he whistled a tune, forgetting all about the pain he'd dreamed about not long ago. Hans stepped out onto his porch. Andrew waved. Hans waved back. What a great mower. He wished he had one of his own.
Andrew stepped into a small hole. He lost his grip on the mower and fell to his knees. The mower kept going for a few feet, then stopped. Andrew massaged his ankle. Just a slight sprain.
The noise of chopping blades made him look up. The mower was turning around. It did a one-eighty and faced him, then started forward, its blades whirring faster than possible.
He crab-walked backwards, but the mower increased in speed and grew in size, the blades a blur.
When the mower shredded his foot, he shrieked. Unable to move anymore, all he could do was watch his neighbor's mower chew up his lower body. Blood splattered everywhere. His wife and two daughters stood on his porch and watched, smiles on their faces. The Grueners watched, all seven of them, also smiling, pointing, having a good old time.
The mower reached Andrew's stomach. He no longer felt any pain, laying on his back, staring into the light blue sky, praying, repenting, his body jerking as the blades chewed up and spit him out. A minute later, he knew the blades had reached his neck. He was glad it was nearly over. Just a bit more and he'd be gone, the sins of his life redeemed. He only hoped he'd spend eternity with his Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.
"Hey, mister. You might want to move."
Andrew was sitting on a brick road, all of his body parts intact. He looked up.
"There's going to be a procession shortly," said a young man with curly black hair and olive skin wearing a sackcloth tunic belted at the waist with a thin piece of rope.
"A procession?" Andrew asked.
"Yes. Jesus is coming. He's being crucified today."
Andrew's heart leapt into this throat. For his final punishment, or was it final, he would be forced to watch his savior die on the cross.
Andrew looked beyond the young man. Ancient stone buildings lined both sides of the narrow street. The Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow, the path Christ took when he bore his cross.
"You might want to move, they'll be coming this way soon."
Andrew stood and looked around. Something was wrong. There was a crowd of people gathered on each side of the street, which was only natural. All of Jerusalem certainly wanted to see Christ. But many of the men in the crowd wore dark suits and the women, white dresses. Only a few had tunics like the man near Andrew. He looked down at himself and realized he was wearing the suit he'd come to the fair in.
The fair! Of course, how foolish of him, he was in the Jerusalem exhibit at the fair.
Andrew raised his gaze to the sky and whispered, "Thank you, God." He walked quickly toward the Jaffa Gate, ignoring the people staring at him. No time for that now. He looked at his watch. Twelve-thirty. Enough time to go pick up his wife, his girls, and his parents and bring them back. They could see quite a lot before evening worship. But he decided they'd skip The Hereafter. He'd had his fill of Hell for a lifetime.