Say what you like, folks always make a big deal over death.
Animee McPherson stood on the terrace and stared balefully across the landscape of Heaven. For perhaps the two millionth time since her death, her rage at the manner in which God had betrayed her boiled to one of its cyclical peaks. How dare He, if indeed He existed at all, treat her with such unconscionable treachery? She had done so much on His behalf. She had avoided temptations, bypassed indulgences, forgone the pleasures of the flesh. She had sacrificed to the maximum in His name and, from her perspective, He had cynically betrayed her. Her entire life had hinged on a single belief in which she had placed absolute trust. He had promised a Heaven when she died. That He then so totally reneged on the deal transcended the criminal and took the burden of guilt to a new level of divine iniquity. Aimee McPherson had arrived in the Afterlife only to discover that, if she wanted a Heaven, she was expected to build it herself. God Himself had failed to put in even the most cursory manifestation, and she had begun to doubt that He actually existed at all.
If there was a God, He appeared to believe that this psychic erector set would be ample reward for a lifetime of love and devotion, of prayer, praise, and supplication. He had presented her with a blank celestial slate and left her to make it up for herself. After all the promises, the only Heaven she had received or perceived had come directly out of her own imagination, without help, without encouragement, without even the benefit of an instruction manual.
Aimee McPherson stood on the terrace and stared balefully across the landscape of Heaven and knew that it was entirely her own creation. This should have pleased her, if for no other reason than that of pride in accomplishment. Pride in accomplishment, however, counted for little beside abandonment by God. This Heaven had been torn, at a great cost of emotion and energy, piece by piece and construct by construct, from the deepest soul core of her imagination, and the effort of its manufacture had not been easy. Back on Earth, from the moment that she had devoted herself to God and His works, she’d had little call to use her imagination, and now she found it a weakened and atrophied thing. Creating Heaven from the ground up had been a struggle and chore, imposed on her at exactly the time she was expecting only relief. Heaven should have been ready and waiting for her when she arrived, spick-and-span, fluffed and folded, like some metaphysical five-star hotel with Saint Peter to greet her at the reception desk, angelic bellhops to assist her, a deputation of long-deceased pets waiting for her with soulful eyes and wagging tails, and a metaphoric complimentary mint on the pillow.
Even coming up with an overall design concept had been no easy thing. At first she had leaned heavily on what she remembered of the work of the artist Maxfield Parrish, coupled with no slight touch of Disney’s Fantasia. This early borrowing, and her admittedly flawed memory, tended to account for the overly vibrant cartoon colors, the wine-dark indigo of the water in the lake, the dazzling ultramarine of the cloudless sky, the deep somber green of the cypresses and Scotch pines on the headland on the far side of the water. The heliotrope of the ice-cream mountains in the far distance and the velvet unreality of the immaculate daisy-flecked grass that ran down to the water’s edge, drawn directly from the Disney school, was, if anything, less plausible. She had to admit that the way the outcropping of raw, gold-veined marble tended to resemble some strange, overripe, processed cheese food was actually her own fault. She seemed to be incapable of producing authentic-looking minerals, much in the way that some people can’t draw hands. The Maxfield Parrish memory also accounted for the presence of the small neoclassic temple over on the promontory that projected into the lake some two hundred yards from where she was standing. Parrish had inspired the half dozen diaphanously clad virgins who danced, hand in hand, perky and unflagging sprites, endlessly circling in a dance with basic choreography in the interpretive tradition of Isadora Duncan. Disney, on the other hand, had provided the fawns, bunnies, and happy little bluebirds that cavorted in the air above, whistling and cheeping the melodies of saccharine pop ballads of the thirties, forties, and fifties, as Aimee stood on the terrace regarding her Creation.
As though sensing, if not her actual thoughts, certainly her general mood, a lone bluebird darted to within eighteen inches of her face and hung hovering, smiling blandly and whistling disjointed snatches of “Over the Rainbow.” Suddenly furious, Aimee snarled and swatted at the bird. “Get away from me, you inane figment! Get the hell away from me!”
The bird deftly dodged her slapping hand, but then only retreated some six inches and continued to hover. It started to whistle the chorus from “Swinging on a Star.” This time she swung at the bluebird with a clenched and unexpectedly accurate fist. The blow connected, taking the bluebird completely by surprise. It staggered back, cartoon-style on empty air, with small stars, suns, and planets circling its head. Aimee allowed herself a grim smile. “That’ll teach you to screw around with me, you flying rodent.”
The bluebird shook itself in midair, shedding three feathers that drifted lazily down to the terrace. The bird looked at her reproachfully and then zigzagged away to join its companions. Aimee glared after it. “I ought to erase the whole bunch of you and start all over again.”
In moments of self-doubt, anxiety, and depression, Aimee would castigate herself for concocting a Heaven that resembled nothing more than a very bad animated painting on black velvet, set to a soundtrack of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs blended with New Age elevator music. In the depths of this emotional trough, she found it all too easy to believe that even her own creations, the bluebird included, were turning against her and secretly laughing at her presumptuous ambition. Fortunately, after she discovered that both Prozac and Valium could be conjured out of the air merely by thinking about them, she was able to ensure that the frequency of such moods was strictly limited, and she began to find both the construction of Heaven and the contemplation of the finished product a great deal less stressful.
For a time, she had half believed that God might come to her, like some crowning glory or ceremonial prize, when Heaven was finally completed to both His and her satisfaction. This belief had finally wilted and died, however, when God failed to put in His much-anticipated appearance. After no manifest rainbow, no pillar of fire, not so much as a lousy dove, her attitude had changed and her resolution hardened. If God was going to forsake her so casually, she, doing as she had been done by, would likewise forsake Him. She would continue to extend her Heaven, and it would be open to all who came. It would be exactly what every Christian soul needed and expected after the trauma of death and its immediate aftermath, right down to the very last golden sunbeam, faithful collie, and cascading waterfall. The only difference was that she would provide the godhead herself. She would make herself the focus of the cumulative praise and adoration; she would be the happy recipient of the lauding and magnifying. She knew that it might take a certain degree of adjustment, particularly on the part of the males, before they could accept her as the legitimate deity. On the other side of the coin, she would have the instant loyalty of all those feminists who maintained that God was a woman. She was aware that there might be a number of unwavering fundamentalists who, even in death, would refuse to accept a fait accompli as to the legitimacy of her divinity. For them, of course, there was always Golgotha and the Pit.
In life, the idea of beating God at His own game would have been the ultimate blasphemy. Here in the Afterlife, it felt more as though she and God were on a level footing, and the concept of blasphemy demanded a noticeable inequality between blasphemer and blasphemed. Blasphemy was a mortal sin, after all, and she was no longer mortal. Of course, should God finally notice and take exception to her efforts, she would be glad to fall down and worship Him. If He chose to cast her to the fire or otherwise chastise her for her presumption, so be it. At least she would have His attention.
At first her plans had not been too grandiose. Heaven would be a modest, fairly exclusive place, a Club Paradise, with just room enough for her and a few million faithful who might choose to follow and dwell with her. Unfortunately, Aimee McPherson, possessed of that megalomaniac drive and absolute certainty of ambition that is almost unique to evangelical preachers, found it difficult to retain a modest attitude toward anything for very long. As a concept, her Paradise grew and grew until she knew the only logical conclusion was to engage in a Holy Mission, perhaps an actual Crusade, to forcibly reconfigure the entire Plane of the Afterlife to her image of Heaven. Only then would the newly dead know for certain that the biblical promises and predictions were true, that covenants had been kept, even if she was filling in for the absentee Almighty. Unfortunately, her powers of creation were unable to match the scope of the concept. For a while, she and Semple had still been a part of the same single entity; warring factions, perhaps, but at least united under quasi-flesh. They had managed to work together. Aimee had done the expansion; Semple had filled in the details. Increasingly, though, Semple had used the construction of Heaven as a vent for her perverse sensuality, her willful pride, and her invert’s delight in the sick and abominable. Aimee’s Heaven became littered with small pockets of the irrational and the warped, many too disgusting even to cite in passing, and the split between the two of them had shown itself as manifestly inevitable.
In the end, the conflicted sisters, Aimee and Semple, had faced reality and divided, by a unique binary fission of their own inventing that made them two instead of one. Aimee had compensated for the loss of what amounted to half of her personality by becoming even more obsessive about the transformation of her personal Paradise into what she increasingly thought of as the Omniheaven. Without the Omniheaven, she was nothing but another previous human living in a world concocted from delusions and fantasy gratifications. If she couldn’t bend others to her perspective, she was no different from the fool who pretended he was Moses and staged quasiCinemascope, biblical spectacles so he could spend eternity righteously smiting sinners of his own creating, forever and ever, world without end, amen. Although Aimee didn’t care to admit it, even to herself, the removal of her sister from the original and essentially schizoid personality had taken with it many of the previous checks and constraints. Aimee discovered that her manic enthusiasms and headlong obsessions tended to run faster since Semple’s departure, always more reckless and always at full flood. Likewise the depressions tended to mire her even more deeply. In divorce from her apparently dangerous dark half, Aimee had herself become darker and more dangerous.
Once split, the sisters had maintained little contact, although they were constantly aware one of the other, and were capable of a frightening empathy. Semple kept mostly to herself, indulging in her dubious amusements and pastimes in the environment that she had created since the one had become two. Aimee had never visited the place, but she had the impression that it was a replication of Semple’s idea of Hell. In many respects, this fit serendipitously well with Aimee’s master plan. Her Heaven, counterbalanced by her sister’s equal and opposite Hell; a positively Newtonian theology. This didn’t mean, on the other hand, that she had any plans to visit the place.
Separation also didn’t keep Semple from deliberately devising ways to irritate her from afar. At all-too-regular intervals, her sister would play some minor prank, causing a black and sinister helicopter to clatter across Aimee’s azure sky, disturbing the fleecy clouds with its violent prop wash, or sending a flock of malicious and predatory birds to settle in the cypress trees and stare at her with bleak, beady, Alfred Hitchcock eyes until they abruptly left and flapped away to the other side of the sunset. Semple also had a habit of removing the odd cherub or angel for her own nasty amusement. Although Aimee could hardly approve, these abductions were of little importance. Angels could always be replaced.
At that moment, however, Aimee had more pressing matters on her mind than Semple and her games. The master plan was hardly coming to fast fruition, and Aimee had to admit that she lacked the imagination required to conjure a suitably infinite Celestial Vault. What she needed was a helper. A Michelangelo who would labor in her Sistine Chapel. What she needed was a visionary whom she could bend to her will and inculcate with her vision, and who would help her make Heaven the place that it really ought to be. For a while she had considered making overtures to the phony Moses; the size and elaboration of some of his spectacles certainly bespoke a measure of power and directorial talent. They also indicated, if by nothing other than their bizarre repetition, that the Moses guy was barking crazy. Despite, in theory, having all eternity in which to work on it, Aimee knew she would never bend him to her will. His insanity was too inflexible. What she really needed was an artist, a painter or a poet, one who was fresh from death or otherwise clean-slated, without preconceptions and totally vulnerable to suggestion and manipulation.
As with so many of her recent trains of thought, the railroad eventually led back to Semple. Aimee knew she would need Semple in on this capture of a creative hireling. The artist would have to be located. He would have to be kept ignorant and off balance, and then be brought to her quickly before he could develop any inclinations or preferences of his own. Aimee knew she wasn’t the half with the capacity to accomplish this. It was Semple who had the necessary cunning and seductive charm. It was Semple who would have to find and snare the poet or painter for her, and persuading her sister to accept the assignment would not be easy, unless Aimee could somehow appeal to her innate perversity.
As Aimee turned away from her less-than-satisfactory landscape and walked back along the terrace, an uninvited vision wandered aimlessly into her mind. A young man, wild dark curls, a sensual pout, and thumbs in the conchoed belt of a pair of narcissistically tight leather pants strolled idly down a dusty road, roughing the dirt with the heels of his worn engineer boots, dragging on a cigarette. He clearly had no place in Aimee’s design and she consigned a thunderbolt to the vision, garbaging it before it could grow or develop. The young man staggered, stunned, and left her mind. The obvious first reaction was to blame Semple, and Aimee would certainly quiz her on the intrusion, but she knew instinctively that the apparition of the strange young man was something other than one of Semple’s annoyances. She also hoped he wasn’t a portent of future problems.
Jim Morrison shook his head, trying to clear it. Had he been mauled? Mindfucked? Struck by lightning? Large parts of his consciousness were wastelands of fractured shards, data retrieval had become history. Sometime, someplace, someone had royally flamed his memory, though he couldn’t recall where or when. He had a flash of sun, dust, and a back road, idly dreaming of an ice-cold beer, but it was such a brief sparkling fragment it could provide not even a pointer to the thread of a real story. So it went with most of his mind. All he knew about himself was that he had once been a poet and that, at least for the time being, he would be forced to live absolutely in a highly specialized moment where even the mundane appeared strange and unexplored, and reality checks could only come via the benevolence of the passing crowd.
One of the few things about which Jim Morrison was certain was that his true death had not occurred on that dusty back road. All thoughts of his true death conjured fragmented but repeated impressions of lukewarm water, a womblike tub, and the city of Paris. Beyond that, all he could retrieve was a useless combination of details, motor skills, and unrelated images. One major problem was that, for the time being, his own name was one of the things that determinedly eluded him. He could read and write, he could remember the names of songs and the titles of books. He knew enough to put his pants on one leg at a time and zip the fly when he was done. The rest was a destructed jigsaw of fear, rage, and unhappiness, both his own and others’. A woman ran with her hair on fire, smoke drifting across a bleak concrete freeway lined with withered palms and choked with frightened cars, while a threatening red sun on the hazy horizon struggled to shine through that same smoke. Blind horses drowned in slate-gray ocean and Indians died on the sands of a sterile desert.
He sincerely hoped the apparent garbaging of his memory was purely temporary. Painful as it might prove, it was his and he wanted it back. He was fairly optimistic that it would one day return. Something, possibly a perceived familiarity with advanced and multiple intoxication, told him that his life on Earth had been replete with blackouts and memory lapses, and suggested that this could well be a cosmic version of the same condition. If it was, he had only himself to blame. One of his most profound desires, when he had found himself discorporated at such an unexpectedly early age, was that he could somehow avoid the thereafter being merely a rerun of the same drugged, drunk, chaotic shambles. As far as he could tell, and to his eternal shame, his resolve wasn’t holding up too well.
The immediate concrete fact before Jim was that he had suddenly found himself at a party, and he knew enough to realize that it was no ordinary party. Jim had no clear idea of how or why he had arrived there, but it was plain that this Cecil B. DeMille production of howling, dancing, undulating vice was full of others who had rendered themselves as mindless as he was. He could see the unmistakable vacancy in the eyes of a high percentage of the revelers. They, too, had sacrificed mind and memory to the specific moment; for them, it was a moment of vibrance and abandon, a gratifying instant of tongues and hair, sweat and flesh, lips and liquidity. All set against the backdrop of a towering, slowly erupting volcano that spewed majestic flows of bright, sulfurous, hellfire lava and sent them slithering and easing their way sinuously down the upper slopes in ponderous slow motion. All around him, faces gleamed with flame reflections of red-orange heat, and demon-black shadows crouched among the crush of groaning, howling participants.
The thousand or more human beings who made up this plunging mass, plus the hundred or so other entities who couldn’t quite be classified, were crowded into a natural amphitheater at the base of the mountain. The set for this epic surrender to hedonism and sexual abandon was a flat-bottomed basin surrounded on three sides by high black basalt walls that looked to have been carved out of prehistory by some vast, violent geological scoop. Within its confines, men and women, intoxicated to the borderline of psychosis, clawed and pawed at each other’s greased, painted, and perfumed bodies. Some lay sprawled in spread-eagled abandon on the now damp and stained cushions that had been strewn across the floor of polished stone, while others groped, staggered, and stumbled, bent on staying on their feet come what might. Such clothing as had been worn back when the festivities had started was, for the most part, long since shredded or ripped away, and, along with it, any sense of individual identity, even on the most minimal level. The crowd had all but merged into a single, moving, but apparently unthinking, entity. This lust-driven composite was a constant flux of wave motions that, at regular intervals, would erupt into screaming pockets of mass hysteria or moaning cluster orgasm.
On a rock ledge above the seething crowd, Ethiopian drummers, their shining, oiled forms festooned with gold jewelry inlaid with turquoise and ivory, and their faces hidden by the fall of their dripping dreadlocks, pounded furiously on the hard hide heads of leopardskin-draped kettledrums, rhythmically urging the already furious crowd to even greater frenzy. The drummers seemed all but oblivious to the women and men who crouched at their feet, seemingly worshiping what they saw as the driving force of the orgiastic confusion. Intrusive, urgent hands stroked the players’ legs and shamelessly cupped their genitals and buttocks, but the ritual drummers missed not so much as an inflection or accent. Even when bold, eager tongues licked the very sweat from them, the beat went on, relentlessly maintained, unwavering and unchallengeable.
On a second ledge, immediately below the drummers, relays of young men and women, all but naked in sheer drapes of near-transparent Hunan silk, poured dark, aromatic, psychedelic wine from a seeming endless supply of stone jars into the upheld goblets and even directly into the open mouths of the Mad magazine mass that milled below them. The hair of these serving youths was garlanded with twines of white flowers and some wore luxurious orchids behind their ears. Every one of these exquisite servants swayed in time to the throb of the drums as they slaked the mob’s obvious thirst, and they broke frequently from their appointed tasks to allow themselves to be kissed and fondled by absolute strangers and even carried down, unresisting, into the squirming carnality. When these dalliances interrupted the wineflow, celebrants would climb up and help themselves. Entire jars would be passed down and borne away, their contents slopping and staining what remained of the surrounding crowd’s disarrayed clothing, and adding to the profusion of fluids that drenched and lubricated the desperate celebration.
The Golden Calf itself squatted balefully at the center of the entire sensual maelstrom, presiding over the sinuous chaos. Over fifteen feet high from its cloven hooves to the tips of its branching Texas horns, and constructed entirely from beaten gold and crusted with precious gems, it provided the ultimate focus and singular provocation of all that happened around it. Ultimately pagan in its sculptured ferocity, the tall idol’s nostrils flared, and the huge rubies that formed its eyes glared down with implacable bovine contempt at those who prostrated or disported themselves before it. The Golden Calf had been festooned with more white flowers, splashed with wine, and columns of smoke rose on either side of its massive head from braziers of burning incense, all but creating the impression that the beast was breathing fire. Two women, bodies bare from the waist down, straddled the wet ridge of its metallic spine, rocking their hips backward and forward, riding the towering effigy with eyes closed, faces ecstatic, locking in lewd oblivion. The idol even came with its own sacrificial maiden, who hung in chains suspended from its mighty horns and, in the tatters of her blue silk ball gown, bore an uncanny resemblance to Debra Paget in the Vista Vision, wide-screen version of The Ten Commandments, although in the movie Debra Paget had not been used with such repeated depravity by such a representative cross section of the massed celebrants. In historical and mortal fact, that kind of thing had been the prerogative of Howard Hughes.
That Jim had no idea of how exactly he had come to be under this particular volcano at the time in question had, after repeated draughts of the purple wine, pretty much ceased to bother him, in part because, as the crowd swayed around him, he was hallucinating to the point of near-blindness. At one point the effects of the wine had prompted the vaguest of recollections of being in the middle of a pitched battle in a high mountain pass between the Dionysians and the Apollonians. The Apollonians had come in with automatic weapons and air support, while the Dionysians had only coup sticks and ghost shirts. Needless to say, he had been on the side of the Dionysians in this unequal conflict, and his memory may have been the price that he paid for his ill-advised participation.