Pushcart 2014: Charles Baxter, “What Happens in Hell” (non-fiction) from Ploughshares, Fall 2012

Botticelli's Inferno

Botticelli’s Inferno

“Sir, I am wondering—have you considered lately what happens in Hell?”
No, I hadn’t, but I liked that “lately.” We were on our way from the San Francisco Airport to Palo Alto, and the driver for Bay Area Limo, a Pakistani American whose name was Niazi, was glancing repeatedly in the rearview mirror to check me out. After all, there I was, a privileged person—a hegemon of some sort—in the backseat of the Lincoln Town Car, cushioned by the camel-colored leather as I swigged my bottled water. Like other Americans of my class and station, I know the importance of staying hydrated. And there he was, up front, behind the wheel on a late sunny Saturday afternoon, speeding down California State Highway 101, missing (he had informed me almost as soon as I got into the car) the prayer service and sermon at his Bay Area mosque. The subject of the sermon would be Islamic inheritance laws—a subject that had led quite naturally to the subject of death and the afterlife.
I don’t really enjoy sitting in the backseat of Lincoln Town Cars. I don’t like being treated as some sort of important personage. I’m a Midwesterner by location and temperament and don’t even cotton to being called “Sir.” So I try to be polite (“Just call me Charlie”) and take my shoes off, so to speak, in deference to foreign customs, as Mrs. Moore does in A Passage to India.
“No,” I said, “I haven’t. What happens in Hell?” I asked.

Thanks to my misspent youth as a fundamentalist, I know quite a bit about the Southern Baptist and Pentecostal versions of Hell. Let me tell you, they’ve got nothing on Niazi: in his Hell, every day your skin is burned off, then is replenished, only to be burned off again the next day: “And the pain is always fresh pain.”

I confess: I rarely have any idea what Charles Baxter is doing, at least in an overall sense, though I always enjoy going along for the ride. But here, I think I get it: while there’s a tour of class ressentiment via Marx and Nietzsche, the point is showing us what happens in Hell, in all its fresh-pain-daily glory, via his experience in a car accident.

I’m departing from the theme of “truth” which with I’ve been obsessed for the past several pieces, and heading in a new direction: time. Some comedian – maybe Paula Poundstone or Ellen Degeneres – did a bit about the time lapse between stubbing your toe and feeling the ouch; you wait for it, you know it’s coming, and the anticipation is as bad as the actual pain that finally, after what seems like an eternity (it can’t be more than a second), arrives. It does take time for the electrical wiring of the nervous system to register hurt, and return pain.

After the accident, a witness told Baxter the car had rolled over four times; he noticed he’d popped the belt loops on his jeans (“How was that possible?” I don’t know, I can’t even imagine; the belt, sure, but the belt loops?) and spoke with EMTs and police. He felt fine. He continued to the airport, and back to his life. A few other things went on; better you should hear them from him.

Then – the pain started:

As an unsteady humanist, I don’t believe in much, and the virtues that I do believe in – goodness, charity, bravery – abandon me in the moments after that accident.

Fresh pain daily. The worst Hell there is, may be discovering you don’t meet your own standards. And we’re all there, every day.

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