Now that he was dead, Norman Watts was in possession of certain information that someone in the living world would have given an arm and a leg to discover. Forget Halloween or Dia de los Muertos or any of those other days of the year when the departed are supposed to be revered. They might have been more meaningful in earlier times, but circumstances had changed. Mechanization had come to the afterlife.
With respect to sorting out the good from the bad and those to be rewarded from those to be punished, there was a new way of doing things. Everything now happened once per annum. That day was far more obvious from the back side of the curtain than from the front.
There is a time of year when it becomes nigh on impossible not to think about relatives and friends now departed. It’s a time of great joy but also deep sadness. When the sense of loss can be overwhelming and memories of moments spent with grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, friends and loved ones can sweep one away in a flood of regret for shared occasions no longer accessible.
It’s a time of year when popular music playing everywhere features lyrics that squeeze the heart. The whole season is a setup to remembrances of sunny skies past and nostalgic warmth that can never be repeated. The anthem for this instance is Auld Lange Syne and life centres on thoughts of old acquaintances. In newspapers and on television, respects are paid to celebrities whose glow has been extinguished over the past year. Of course I’m speaking of New Year’s Eve.
Around the globe, at the midnight hour on December 31st and consecutively in each of 24 zones, there is a tear in the fabric of time. That is the moment when the reach-out-and-touch world undergoes a seismic shift to open portals for the incorporeal phantasmagorical world. It serves up moments when the everyday world is pre-occupied with seasonal parties. And the nights are at their longest. This is when the great sorting of souls now takes place. It is most convenient for the bureaucrats of heaven and hell – minions, functionaries and marshalling agents alike.
Norman had already been informed of the staging area to which he was supposed to report. His essence had been marking time since a fiery car crash six months earlier. Needing the money and anxious to perform at his best, he’d been rushing to a singles-bar gig some twenty kilometers away from home on a Friday evening. A heavy rain was falling. Norman’s concentration wavered and he lost control of his car on the Toronto expressway. It swerved from the middle lane to the outside lane, clipping the guard rail. Then the Impala rebounded back across the whole expanse of asphalt and slammed rear-end-first into an abutment on the edge of an off ramp.
The car exploded. The hood, glass from the windshield, engine parts and a tire flew into the air. It was a miracle that no other drivers were seriously injured. Several witnesses knew they had escaped with their lives by the narrowest of margins. As for Norman, death was instantaneous. He was buried four days later in Cul de Sac Cemetery after a customary period of respect was paid by family and friends. The casket lid remained firmly closed throughout.
Many times over the intervening months, Norman’s essence went back over his life to weigh the pros and cons of his individual actions. Had he been a good person or had he crossed over the line too many times? It was the “on balance” part of the equation that worried him. Through his night-time interactions with others in the spirit world, Norman learned how the system worked. Judgement-Day tests were no longer left to chance. A proper sizing-up was now done according to a scientific set of criteria. There was a check list. Certain items on the left side of a ledger would bring approbation. Other items on the right side would earn accolades.
Most souls spent their remaining time on earth before New Year’s Eve fretting over the lists. That was all very well, but there were still two problems. First, there remained a good deal of subjective judgement on the part of adjudicators as to whether or not a certain action was positive or negative not only for the specific individual but also in terms of repercussions for the populace at large. Second, and even trickier to assess, was how much weighting would be given to each course of action. No formerly-human spirit had access to that information.
Norman looked at the lists. Some of the items were obvious. Murderers, robbers and philanderers were going to be in trouble. Caregivers, benefactors and the charitable already had a step up, as it were. But a number of the other categories were a surprise. For example, emotional button-pushers had a separate and prominent box on the negative side of the ledger. However, this was immediately followed by another box for those who allowed their buttons to be pushed, either in terms of getting mad or becoming despondent too easily under criticism.
Jealousy, greed and covetousness also figured strongly on the downside and frankly, the list of bad things one could be accused of vastly outnumbered the good things. Hard working was a positive. Maintaining a sunny disposition even under adversity was also a winner, but Norman’s confidence was sinking regardless. That is, until he came across an item way down among the pluses he had never expected to see. Incredibly, this might be his saving grace.
Much of what I have written so far is based on supposition. But I don’t think I’m far off the mark. I have a good reason for drawing the conclusions that I have come to. I knew Norman very well and I was there at his apotheosis. Let me explain. When Norman died, I had an especially tough time of it. A light had been turned off. Work was drudgery. Half a year later, when the Christmas season arrived, I chose to spend it in lonely isolation at my cottage on Georgian Bay.
As the stroke of twelve approached on New Year’s Eve, I was drawn to the beach. I would mark the occasion with a glass of wine outdoors under the stars. The southern rim of Georgian Bay is a region where the waters of the Great Lakes congregate. It’s the base of a shoreline that sweeps from beachfront on the east to semi-mountainous terrain on the west. Like cupped hands with fingertips touching, it forms an upside-down fulcrum. The water usually doesn’t freeze until mid-January.
At the midnight hour, to my astonishment, a spectral shape reached slowly out of the dark waters of the bay and stretched skywards. It gradually coalesced into the image of an escalator with a half-empty payload of shining wraiths working their way upwards. Backlighting from a full moon showed the grandstand from which these souls would be able to keep an eye on earth’s events.
In relatively quick succession, a second escalator snaked downward into the inky void. This was the means of transportation for those on their way to a torturous eternity. I know what you’re thinking, that the second escalator was just a reflection of the first. No, there were a great many more souls being transported on the second device and they were clearly in distress.
Across the water on that frigid night, I heard what I didn’t think I would ever encounter again. It was the voice of an angel singing about heartbreak and tenderness. I recognized it immediately. More accurately, it was the intonation of two voices wrapped in one. Norman was doing his best impression ever. I can speak about this with authority, since I was his booking agent.
The sound of that singing was moving upward. Salty tears encrusted my eyes until the serenade gradually faded away. I’m pretty sure I know what happened. I must surmise that “Elvis impersonator” is on God’s side of the ledger. And why would it not be? The music of The King has brought joy to millions. Commensurate with the pleasure that it brings into people’s lives, its relative importance is immense.