A Halloween story (sort of). This short story was originally published in Neo-opsis in 2006
On my way back from a breakfast meeting with a client in mid-town Manhattan, I dropped dead on 47th Street and 7th Avenue. A heart attack. My soul stood naked over my inert form and watched a Good Samaritan steal my Rolex. I felt more shock than sorrow, and, confused by my nakedness and demise, I wondered what to do.
A hand touched my shoulder and I turned to face an angel. My confusion melted away at the sight of the creature. Angels meant Heaven.
“Mr. Anthony Bello?” The angel wore a shiny white robe and glowed with an inner light.
“You were a salesman?”
I winced at the usage of past tense and nodded. “I am . . . was the best salesman in the world.”
“I am your escort. Hold my hand, please.”
The idea of traveling to Heaven replaced any sorrow over my death. I took her hand — I thought of the angel as a “her” because the creature wore shoulder length hair. We ascended to a great height but instead of the familiar geography of Manhattan, I saw below a desolate, blasted and empty land. Although we flew at great speed, I experienced no rush of air passed my face; no whistling sound filled my ears.
After a while, we came to a dingy urban area where we swooped down to land in front of a grimy hotel.
“Where are we?” Heaven couldn’t be a flop house, could it?
“Follow me, please.” She led me through a cracked plate glass door and into a shabby lobby. The lobby had a threadbare carpet, a cobweb-laden chandelier with many burned out bulbs in it and trash-filled corners. I became more alarmed with each step I took. At the reception desk, a nightmarish creature awaited. Ugly, covered with warts and running sores, I couldn’t tell if the wretch was ever human. By the time I reached the desk, my stomach was in a knot as if I had drank too much coffee.
The creature pointed to a ledger. I signed it, turned to my guide for reassurance and found myself staring into a navel situated over a kilt made of overlapping metal plates. I took a step backwards and looked up. The navel belonged to an impossibly wide creature that towered over my five-and-a-half-foot height.
“Ciao, Big Guy. How you doing?” I always used a friendly approach with new acquaintances; you never knew when one of them might become a client.
“Big Guy” had a repulsive greenish-brown torso with four arms. Two ended in hands the size of skillets and the other pair in lobster claws. One of the hands held a lash with metal-tipped leather thongs. He stared down at me and my mouth turned dry. The brute grabbed me under the chin with one claw and lifted me level with his face. Two black, beady eyes exuded hostility. His nose was a pair of holes above a mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth.
“Filth!” The creature’s voice boomed in my skull and I gagged on the stench. “You’re mine.”
“Wh . . . where am I? Where’s the angel?”
“That was me. In disguise. Har, har.” The creature shook me so hard my brain rattled. “To business. Did you ever lie to customers?”
The question took me by surprise and I blurted out, “Hey, I’m a salesman. What do you think?”
He smashed me in the head with the butt of his whip. My vision filled with bright lights and shooting stars.
“Did you ever overcharge a customer?”
That was an insult to every salesman who ever lived. “If the customer pays the price, he wasn’t overcharged.”
He grabbed my ankles with the other claw and pulled downward. Pain wracked my elongated body.
“Did you ever sell a customer a product he didn’t need?”
He raised the hand with the whip.
His empty hand grabbed my crotch. I had an urge to throw up but couldn’t because of my constricted throat. “Did you ever lie to customers?”
“Yes.” I managed to croak.
“Did you ever overcharge a customer?”
“For your offenses against customers, you are condemned to work in my flea market. I am Beelzebub, your sales manager.”
“Flea market!” Despite my precarious position, I was outraged at the idea. “I’m a professional salesman. I don’t do fleas markets.” I flew across the lobby, crashed into a wall and crumpled to the floor. Beelzebub strode over and whipped me. I cringed. After the third lashing I said, “Alright. I’ll make an exception for you.”
“You have a rotten attitude.” The monster cackled. “I’m going to enjoy working on you.”
Somehow, we left the lobby and entered a large room filled with the kind of booths you see at trade shows. And flea markets. A row of them lined the two long outer walls with another double row in the middle. More booths stood at the back wall. Throughout the room, flocked wallpaper hung in tatters exposing areas of crumbling plaster. Two fixtures with a few working bulbs provided inadequate lighting.
Bubba — as I now thought of Beelzebub — prodded me in the back with his whip. “Move.”
I shuffled forward already depressed at the idea of selling in here. The air resembled a tropical rain forest and sweat gushed from my naked body. My new colleagues looked like a dispirited lot and evaded my eyes. The merchandise on their booths sat I moldy boxes or lay on a table covered with dust. What was wrong with these people? Didn’t they know how to present a product? A chill ran up my spine. Or was there a different problem?
We reached the booths at the back and Bubba shoved me into an empty one. “You work here.” The rear of the booth was a cement wall. A short table formed one side of the booth and a long table formed the front. The other side was open.
“Put this on.” A black, pin-striped, three piece woolen suit appeared in his hand along with a white linen shirt and a regimental striped tie. I started to protest the lack of underwear but one look at Bubba’s face and I hastened to obey his order.
“Here.” He handed me a pair of penny loafers.
“Nice fit.” I slipped the shoes on my feet. “Must be nine-and-a-half.”
“Not for long.”
Excruciating pain gripped my feet. I fell against the rear wall and banged my head. I pushed myself upright.
“Now they’re a woman’s size eleven. Let’s try a two inch heel.”
I pitched forward onto the table. “I . . . I can’t walk in these.”
Bubba flailed my back, grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and hauled me to my feet. “Stand or else. We’ll start at two hundred degrees.”
I cried out in pain as my shoes turned into roasting pans.
“Welcome to Hell.” Bubba guffawed. “Sell these.” A packing crate materialized on the floor of the booth.
“What are they?”
“You’re a sales expert.” Heturned to walk away. “Get whatever you can for them.” He paused long enough to punch a woman in another booth and left.
The pain in my feet and the itching from the suit drove me crazy. To take my mind off the agony, I stacked a few driers on the table when, suddenly, a pair of very small hands appeared along one edge. A figure pulled himself up and sat down on the table. The diminutive individual had a full beard without a mustache and wore green pants, a white shirt and a green vest. A long clay pipe stuck out his mouth.
“You’re a . . . whatcha-ma-call-it.”
“Leprechaun,” he said. “Quite true. And you’re the new fellow. I thought I stop by and lend a bit of help. Me name’s Shane O’Callaghan but everyone calls me OC.”
“Leprechauns go to Hell?” I asked after introducing myself.
“I’m here onna contract. I’m the floor manager. He’s something, ain’t he?” He pointed the stem of his pipe in the direction Bubba had gone.
“He acts pretty much like all my other sales managers. So, who’s the customers.”
“Imps. They spend time here each day before they go off to the physical world to make mischief. What are you selling?”
OC laughed. A merry laugh that sounded out of place in Hell.
“What’s so funny?”
“You’ll see in a minute. I have to go.” He slid down a table leg and disappeared.
A little while later, the doors banged open and I heard the customers swarming into the market. My selling antennae quivered with excitement and I sensed the customer’s enthusiasm. Maybe Hell wasn’t so bad.
Then I saw them! Only waist-high, the imps wore tan robes belted with a rope and were completely hairless.
Two ran up to my booth. “Whatcha got?” one asked. Cute in a bizarre way, they resembled piglets and had two large fangs overlapping their lower lips. The fangs made them drool a lot and the tops of their robes were covered with food stains. The entire gaggle was identical as if a cloning experiment had run amok.
“Hair dryers. A quality product that will give many years of service. For a limited time, the price is very affordable.”
“What’s it do?” asked another.
The imps glanced at each other frowning. “We got hair?” one asked.
“Ain’t noticed any.”
They made rude noises at me and left. This wasn’t the first time an idiot sales manager had assigned me a product the customer didn’t want or need. Closing a sale under those circumstances produced an exhilaration that beat drugs and booze. I hadn’t earned the title “World’s Greatest Salesman’ by giving up. I studied a drier trying to match a product benefit with a customer need but came up blank.
I still pondered the situation when Bubba returned. “How many have you sold?”
“I’m getting a feel for the customers.”
“You’re a loser just like the rest of this mob.” He punched me in the face. I bounced off the wall into a vicious blow from the whip.
“Next time I’ll have them all sold.” No one insults my sales skills.
“Spunky, aren’t you? Not for long. You’ll break like the others did.” Bubba glared at me for a second then marched away to improve the morale of my coworkers.
Bubba’s comments puzzled me. Was his job to ensure failure of the sales force? Was that what Hell was all about? The opposite of earthly success? In that case, I faced an eternity of sales failures. Fire and brimstone couldn’t be worse that that.
The rest of the day did nothing to improve my dwindling spirits. The imps either insulted me or ignored me. Bubba administered lectures on my defective sales talent with an occasional punch to underscore a point.
After the flea market closed, my morale sank ever lower when I was locked in a room with the rest of the torpid staff to spend the night in total darkness.
# # #
While I awaited the arrival of the imps on the next day, OC paid another visit. “How did a leprechaun end up in Hell?” I asked him. “That has to be a Hell of a story, excuse the pun.”
“It was during the bad years in Eire, the Eighteen-forties. No food. No treasure anywhere in the land. No one had shoes to mend. So I spent a few years traveling around the world. One day in Rome, a man offered me steady employment. I signed a contract and found out the man was Beelzebub and I had to work his flea market. I open the door. I lock the door. I count the customers, as if anyone cares how many imps show up. I hate this place and its mindless chores.”
“Can’t. The devil wrote part of the contract in invisible ink. I’m stuck here until I buy my way out of the contract. Not bloody likely.”
“I need a chamber pot filled with gold to buy my way out. The ruffian pays me five shillings week and charges me the same for room and board. I can’t remember the last time I had money to buy a pint.”
OC shook his head and stared at the floor for a few seconds. “Have to open up,” he said and left.
My body itched like crazy and my feet hurt so much I couldn’t stand still. With nothing to do, I examined a hair dryer looking for a sales angle. I couldn’t hawk them as blunt instruments because of the cheap plastic construction. One of the settings on the three-way temperature control switch read ‘cool’. I found an electric socket, plugged in the drier and turned it on. It pumped out cool air. Cool compared to the jungle-like air in the room. I smelled success! I could sell these appliances and show Bubba what I was made of. I had never accepted failure in life and I wouldn’t accept it in death.
I grabbed the nearest imp and showed him the hair drier.
“No hair.” He giggled and ran a hand over his bald pate.
“This product is a technological breakthrough. Hold this in your hand and turn it on.”
He turned it on and looked expectantly at me.
“Point it towards your face.”
His face lit up with astonishment.
A crowd of imps watched us. “My friend, you’re using the first personal air-conditioner specifically designed for use in Hell. And it can be yours for only fifty dollars.”
I took the hair drier and shut it off.
The imp looked crest-fallen.
“Do we have a deal?”
The imp, nodding and drooling, reached into a pocket of his robe and pulled out a wad of paper. He handed it to me.
I looked a the paper. “This isn’t real. It’s counterfeit Monopoly money.” Black ink smudged my fingers.
The imp reached for the drier. I pulled it back. Other imps crowded close, eager to buy. A burst of adrenaline surged through my body. Could I possibly sell my way out of Hell? What an accomplishment that would be. I concentrated on the pain emanating from my feet. It increased my resolve to succeed. With experience borne of a lifetime, I had a sales plan developed in a few moments. I held up a hand to get the attention of the customers. “This is a special purchase and can only be bought with gold coins. Preferably Kruggerrands.”
“How do I get Krooger-thingees?” The imp pouted.
“Kruggerrands. You can get them in South Africa among other places.”
The mob of imps turned towards the door.
“Get some gold coins and we’ll do business tomorrow.”
I had difficulty concealing my enthusiasm. OC showed up at my booth and gave me a penetrating look. “There’s something different about you.”
“Tomorrow,” I grinned, “I’ll set Hell’s sales record. I’m going to sell these driers.”
“Good on you. That’ll be interesting to see.”
To kill some time until the doors opened, I told him how depressing the other sales staff was; how poor their morale.
“That’s because Beelzebub is so good at his job.”
“What’s Bubba’s job?”
“Bubba? Good name. His job is to break everyone’s spirit, to get your morale lower than an imp’s foot.”
“That’s why he beats us?”
“That’s part of it. The other part is selling to customers who won’t buy. Very debilitating to sales folk, I hear. And that continues until your morale reaches bottom. When it can’t get any lower, you get reincarnated as a bug. Over and over.”
“Really?” Bughood. How gross.
“I should know. Bubba taught me the reincarnation spell so I can get people started. After that, the Environmental Destruction Agency takes over and puts you were you’ll do the most harm.”
When the doors opened, the imps stampeded to my booth, pushing and shoving to get ahead of others. They stood by the booth and stared up at me. The floor glistened with drool.
“Do you folks have gold?”
They nodded. Each held out a hand with a few gold coins.
I took three Kruggerrands from the closest imp and gave him a box. He took out the drier and turned it on. “”Don’t work.” The creature looked pitiful.
“Plug it into an electric socket.”
He ran off to search for an outlet.
An hour later, I had sold a hundred driers and collected a large pile of Kruggerrands. I knew the customers loved the product and were happy to buy it. A real win-win. Selling in Hell was as good as selling in Manhattan.
Then, I saw Bubba stalking down the aisle. He glared at me and ignored the other sales folk. He did not look happy. I stacked twenty coins on the table and waited. My glow of success faded more with ever step the beast took. When he reached the booth, a claw shot out and grabbed my throat. I left the ground and found myself staring into his maw. “Filth!” he roared. “Now, I have to get something else for you to sell. How dare you increase my work.”
Typical sales manager reaction. They’re never satisfied.
Bubba shook me then hurled me against the wall.
From the floor, I pointed to the coins. “That’s the sales revenue I booked.”
“What do I care about money?” He scooped up the coins in one fist and threw them at me.
Bubba stomped off, battering everyone he saw.
After the imps left, OC came over and admired the bruises on my face left by the Kruggerrands. “Hear you caused quite a dust-up. No one has ever sold a bloody thing as long as I’ve been here.”
“Do me a favor. Look in that cardboard box.” I pointed to one against the wall.
OC opened a flap, gawked at the gold and sat down in heap.
“I’d like you to move that to your office. For security reasons.”
OC took out a coin and bit it.
“Funny thing, gold in Hell,” I said. “Perhaps, you can figure out something I could use it on.”
Bubba handed me a box of shoehorns and gave me a wake-up thrashing. I knew I would sell them but I didn’t let on to Bubba. After he left, OC came by. He had a wary look about him and kept glancing at me out of the corner of his eye.
“By chance, have you figured out anything to do with the gold?” I asked.
“My chamber pot’s half full.”
OC cocked an eyebrow and stared at me. “I need a full pot.”
“Will that save me from the bug world?”
OC nodded and I went for closure. “Let’s summarize. I get you out of your contract with Bubba and you get me out of Hell and a bug life.”
“It’s awful risky.” He gave a big sigh. “But the thought of sipping a pint of Guinness makes it worth while.”
“I need to bring in about three hundred more Kruggerrands. I won’t be able to do that much revenue all in one day. I figure two or three days.”
“What do have to sell today?
“That’s a tough sell.“ OC shook his head.
“It’s no different than when I was alive. You get a quota to fill but the customers and your sales manager turn out to be obstacles.”
OC left to open the doors and soon the imps swarmed into the market. To my surprise, the ones with hairdryers wore them stuck in their belts like pistols. “Whatcha got today, Mister?” one asked.
I peek over the table at their feet. Alas, no shoes. How do you sell shoehorns to barefooted people? I had a bizarre thought and asked, “What’s your favorite food?
“Well, this my friends,“ I held up a plastic shoehorn, “is a smashed potato spoon.” My creative spark generated a burst of elation that actually road-blocked the pain emanating from my feet. “This lets you eat more potatoes faster than your friends. So you can get more potatoes than they do.”
The imps made appreciative sounds and my selling juices ramped up in anticipation of collecting revenue.
“How much, Mister?”
“Two gold coins. A real steal at this low price.”
“Is this enough?” An imp held out his hand with a single Kruggerrand in it. ”It’s all I have left.”
“Me too.” Several other imps held out a lone coin.
“Since we’re all friends, I’ll reduce the price to one coin. Keep in mind, management is not responsible for what happens if you use these with soup or peas.”
The shoehorns were gone in a few minutes. My euphoric glow lasted until I saw the imps pitching gold coins against the wall. They had lied to me and I had fallen for the oldest trick in the customer’s survival manual.
Bubba came by and gave me a pep talk. “Scum. I warned you about making more work for me.”
My feet exploded in even more intense pain.
“Har, har. Now your shoes are size ten, with a three inch heel and are set for two-hundred-fifty degrees.”
I sobbed. Agony turned my peripheral vision to a red mist.
“You’re a troublemaker,” Bubba sneered. “But not for long.”
His remark filled me with foreboding. I needed a lot more gold to fill the chamber pot and to do that, I needed time.
# # #
An hour later, Bubba returned. I brace myself for another thrashing but the monster placed a box on the table and said, “Let’s see you sell these.” He laughed and left to bully someone else while I made an ancient and obscene Sicilian gesture behind his back.
I opened the box and found a ten Latin-French/French-Latin dictionaries. My skin crawled. I needed more gold — a lot of it — and Bubba stuck me with a truly unsellable item. Imps collected by the table anxious to see my new product. I chased them away.
OC came by. “You’re needing a lot more gold,” he reminded me.
“The trouble is, Bubba left me only ten items in this new batch. And I don’t know how I’ll sell them.”
“The chamber pot has to be full.” OC gave me a hard look.
“I know, I know.” I showed him a dictionary. “I need magic to sell these things.”
“The imps are obsessed by magic.” He chuckled. “They’re always looking for magic spells.”
I stared open-mouthed at OC for a moment, dazzled by the idea that flooded my mind. I grabbed OC and shook him. “I know how to sell the books.”
“How?” OC looked a little dizzy from the shaking.
“I’ll build up the demand right now and send the little buggers out for more gold. A lot of it. Tomorrow, I’ll sell the books and have enough gold to fill your bucket and then some.”
“Hate to bust your bubble,” OC said, “but you ain’t gonna be here tomorrow.”
“What are you talking about?” A felling of dread overwhelmed me. I knew the answer.
“Beelzebub wants a reincarnation for tonight. Yours.”
I slumped against the wall. Bubba was victorious. The idea of bugdom was less onerous than letting the brute win. Desperate for victory, I racked my brain for a scheme that would thwart the devil. “Would the imps pool their money to buy a book? To share it?”
“Not a chance.” OC snorted. “They don’t know the meaning of the word ‘share’.”
“Wait a minute!” I snapped my fingers. “I know how to get the gold. I’ll beat that bastard yet. OC, I need a bunch of paper slips. Can you get some?”
“Aye.” The leprechaun jumped off the table and disappeared.
I banged my hand on the table. “Can I have your attention, please.”
The imps ran over and looked up at me, drooling expectantly.
“I hold in my hand a book of unique — “
“Can’t read, stupid,” an imp called out.
“ — power, a priceless artifact that contains every magic spell word in two different languages.”
The imps collectively sucked in their breath.
“While it is true that you can’t cast spells if you can’t read, possession of the book offers great protection against spells cast by your enemies.”
“How much, Mister?”
“More than any of you have.”
The imps groaned and stamped their feet.
“However, I have devised a plan that will allow anyone with three coins to buy a chance to win one of these precious books. It’s called a lottery. Is anyone interested in buying a chance?”
The imps shouted and pressed closer each holding out a small hand clutching Kruggerrands.
OC returned and I instructed him to number the slips. Once he finished a few, I started collecting the money. In a brisk business, I sold almost a hundred-fifty tickets. Once the buying stopped, I dumped the stubs in a box. OC climbed in , kicked the stubs about then selected one and handed it to me.
“Twenty-nine,” I announced.
The imps stared at me.
“Uh-oh. The imps can’t read the stubs. OC help me find the winner.”
It took a few minutes to find him. The imp accepted the dictionary and graciously made a rude gesture at the others.
Ten minutes later, we had the other winners, all of whom treated the losing imps with disdain.
“Did I satisfy my end of the bargain?” I grinned at OC while he played with handfuls of gold.
“Aye. I’ll do my part tonight.”
# # #
In the dead of night a week later, OC slipped through the doors. “Finally found you, so I did.” He moved closer. “You won’t understand any of this Tony, but I gotta tell you anyway. Bubba was mighty angry that I had the gold to buy back the contract, and he knows you helped me. So you see,” OC paused to clear his throat, “I hadda make sure you didn’t go back into sales and end up in the flea market again, ’cause he has a long memory.”
OC looked into the pair of brown eyes staring at him.
“Since you got me outta that place, I’m giving you something precious. It’s the ‘Luck of the Irish’.” OC waved the stem of his pipe and the air filled with tiny, twinkling, golden stars that drifted down into the stall. “Mayhap, you’ll win the Irish Sweepstakes or the Kentucky Derby.”
When the stars touched the its skin, the foal whinnied and shook its head.