Monday, May 3, 2010

The Last Laugh


It was a Saturday night in downtown Zion, and The Olympian Speakeasy was filling up fast. Indeed, Mike and Gabe were waiting in line for a table. The late Pastor Bud Buster was with them. In Zion, everybody was the late someone or another--'cepting for the angels, naturally.

Pastor Bud was a new arrival, assigned to Mike for orientation week. He was still pretty green--green as a chameleon on Astroturf, quite unacculturated to the otherworldly street smarts of urban life in the Holy City.

“Isn't there a free table over there?” Bud asked.
“That's set aside for the Angelic Doctor,” Mike answered. “He's got a lifetime reservation, and in Zion, a lifetime reservation is going the distance.”
“The Angelic who?”
“The Angelic Doctor?” Mike answered.
“They didn't teach us about no Angelic Doctor at Holy Smokes Bible College,” Bud explained. “Just Bible and rodeo. Still, whoever he is, it seems a mite unsportsmanlike that he's got a lifetime reservation.”
“Well, he wrote a whole Quodlibet on the finer points of terpsichorean angelology--which got him in good with the upper management,” Gabe interjected.
“You many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Bud asked.
“Seems like kind of a useless question to me,” Bud said.
Gabe glared at him while Mike had to suppress a frown. Bud reddened, realizing that he had committed a celestial faux-pas.
“Let me assure you,” said Mike, in tones of archangelic solemnity, “that up here it's a question of utmost metaphysical import!”
“Anyway, it's not like he has the whole table to himself,” said Gabe, recovering his self-composure. “He usually eats with St. Anselm. Why, only last Saturday they got into a rather intense discussion over Al's modal version of the ontological argument. Even St. Augustine got drawn into the conversation. Tom thought they were ganging up on him, at which point he abruptly reverted, in mid-sentence, from Latin to his native Neopolitan. Unable to win the debate, this at least precluded him from losing it.”
“So what's the answer?” Bud asked.
“The answer to what?” Mike replied.
“How many angels can...”
“Oh, that again. I'm not sure what to say,” Mike replied, slightly flustered. “I mean, that's an extremely personal question--one we don't ordinarily discuss in mixed company. What do you think, Gabe? Is this suitable material for an outworlder to hear?”
“If he doesn't hear it from us, he'll hear it from the wrong sort--in snickering, gold-plated back-alleys. Besides, we're all grown-ups here, and he's almost one of us by now,” Gabe whispered, under his breath.
“I suppose so,” said Mike, with a sigh. “Very well then,” he continued, in a low tone of voice, after looking around the room. “If you really must know, it all depends. In flamenco, it comes to 133 1/3 angels to the 50th power; in square dancing--220 1/4 to the 100th power, and in break dancing--545 1/2 to the 150th power. And that's not counting ballet, tap-dancing, the waltz, the foxtrot, or the Chattanooga Choo-choo.”
“How can you have a fraction of an angel?” Bud asked.
“Just as you've got the four-color problem, we've got the tetramorphic close-packing problem. There's an intimate branch of hyperdimensional geometry on all possible positions, wingtip to wingtip, of illocal angelology, but I fear it would be a bit over your head. Why, even poor old Newton went back to counting on his fingers--dubbed it 'digital fluxions,' he did.”
“I'll take your word for it,” Bud replied.


“I trust you had a pleasant flight,” Mike asked, as they waited in the lounge.
“I knew a priest back on earth who assured me that I'd have a layover in Purgatory. I didn't believe him, of course, but I was still gratified to be booked on a nonstop flight to heaven,” Bud said.
Mike was winking at Gabe, while Gabe nodded in return.
“There is no Purgatory, is there?” Bud asked.
“It's a matter of definition,” Mike replied.
“What do you mean?” Bud asked.
“So many folks put so much faith in Purgatory that we decided to meet them half way. After all, if they can invent a Purgatory, so can we,” Mike replied.
“We aim to please!” Gabe interjected.
“I don't follow you.”
“We positioned Purgatory on the upper story of Dis, as the grand entrance to hell,” Gabe explained.
“There's always a hot market for prime real estate Down Under,” Mike interposed.
“New arrivals are mightily impressed at first. You should have been there to see Mussolini's face when the truth began to dawn on him,” Gabe continued.
“How so?”
“Well, long before his adoring public turned him into a Christmas tree ornament, Il Duce had this nifty little arrangement with a charming old Premonstratensian abbey just outside of Trieste. In exchange for a weekly wad of lira, delivered in thick, discreet manila envelops, the monks would celebrate a Requiem Mass in his honor once a day and twice on Sundays.”
“Why? To replenish his pension plan in the Treasury of Merit--like making regular deposits to a Swiss Bank account, you know.”
“Consider it a nest-egg for the Netherworld,” Mike added, helpfully.
“But doesn't that border on entrapment?” Bud asked, anxiously.
“Oh dear, you do have such a literal way of looking at things!” Gabe exclaimed, with a sigh. “Think of it as a sit-com--where the bad guy gets his comeuppance.”
“I guess so,” said Bud, in a doubtful tone of voice. “So what tipped him off?”
“He began to complain about the room service. And when he got no satisfaction, he took the elevator down to the first floor.”
“I don't understand,” Bud said.
“Hell is built like an upside down skyscraper,” Gabe explained. “You might call it a groundscraper, in the subterranean sense of the word. So the upper story is really the lower story, and vice versa--depending on how you look at it. Gives a whole new meaning to that sinking feeling.”
“And the elevators only go down, never up,” Mike interjected. “So once he got down to the first floor, he became cognizant of his truly abysmal situation.”
“How in hell can hell have a first floor?” Bud asked. “I thought it was a bottomless pit?”
“That's what makes it one of the Seven Wonders of the Underworld, designed by the old architectural firm of Hilbert, Cantor & Associates.”
“The original blueprint was deposited in the Empyrean Archive of Public Works, if you'd like to look it over sometime,” Gabe added. “A very ingenious feat of engineering.”
“What are the other Six Wonders?”
“That's above your security clearance!”


After they were seated, Pastor Bud looked around a bit apprehensively. The sports bar was fitted with HD Plasma TV screens and Dolby surround sound so that every diner could enjoy the great and glorious spectacle of the scarlet whore a.k.a. the painted Jezebel a.k.a. the amber-scented Delilah weep and gnash her teeth in the Lake of Fire.

In the background, the Bebop Band was playing a riff on “When the Saints Go Marching In,” with Vivaldi on bass, Palestrina on drums, Mendelssohn taking the alto sax, and Bach at the jazz organ console. Handel would be by later that evening with his clarinet after he finished rehearsing the Junior Cherub Choir for Sunday morning services.

At one table, Milton and Dante were collaborating on a new poem, having discovered, upon their arrival, that both were way off on the architecture of heaven. It took them several centuries to hammer out a verse scheme agreeable to both, as terza rima was unsuitable to Elizabethan English, and blank verse to Medieval Italian. Finally, they settled upon Esperanto, for Milton was more at ease with Romance usage than Dante with Anglo-Saxon--although they gave serious consideration, for a time, to rewriting the Inferno in German since everything already sounds like a curse-word in German.

Then there was the Catholic question. For patriotic reasons, Dante was a Romanist, while Milton was an ardent foe of popery. With a word of advice from St. Peter, they agreed to confine all Augustan allusions to the state of the Avignon papacy, upon which they each could vent with equal spleen.

At another table, Jon and Sarah Edwards were having a romantic meal out on the town. Although it was hard to make out by candlelight, the Rev. Edwards seemed to be illustrating a point by dangling a spider over the flame.

At yet another table, Chuck Spurgeon and Sam Rutherford were debating church polity. Rutherford said the twenty-four elders in heaven proved the divino jure origin of Presbyterial governance, but Spurgeon countered by saying it wasn't for naught that John was denominated a Baptist.

“Is that who I think it is?” Bud asked, pointing to a table in the far corner of the room.
“Calvin and the Wesley boys, you mean?” Mike answered.
“I thought they didn't' get along.”
“That was before,” Gabe explained. “Heaven is a best seminary.”
“But it still took upwards of a century for Calvin to get John straightened out on the finer points of predestination,” Mike interjected.
“Thankfully, we've got time to spare up here,” Gabe added. “You should hear some of his brother's brand-new hymns on the horrible decree. Very edifying!”

“And what about that rather dispirited man over there?”
“Who? Oh, you mean Bishop Berkeley. Just as there are degrees of pain in hell, there are degrees of happiness in heaven,” Mike explained.
“But why isn't he as overjoyed as all the rest?”
“At first, he was bowled by the place. It was the very vindication of esse is percipi.
“What do you mean?”
“Ah, I see they didn't teach you that at Holy Smokes Bible College either. Very well then. Berkeley was of the opinion that things are really thoughts. And he tried to convince everyone that, deep down, this is what the common man believes as well. For his high-minded efforts, he was treated as a laughing-stock and butt of endless abuse. When, however, he finally made it to heaven, where everything is oh-so ethereal, his was, indeed, the common sense philosophy.”
“So why does he not appear to be more upbeat.”
“Well, there's nothing very revolutionary about telling everyone what they already believe. When he endeavored to explain his philosophy up here, it was like trying to prove that water is wet and grass is green. Everyone nodded with polite approval and went on about their business. It was rather like the reception accorded to Alister Crowley in hell.”
“How so?”
“Back on earth, to be a devil-worshipper with a worshipful throng was naughty fun; but when he actually got to hell, it was something of an anticlimax. Down Under, a Satanist is a dime a dozen, and he was pretty low on the pecking-order of infernal infamy. And over time, of which there's no shortage, above or below, he began to find the company distinctly disagreeable. Why, Down Under, they've got time to burn--literally!”

“And who's that?” Bud asked.
“Who do you mean?” Mike replied.
“The dude over there in the tiara.”
“Oh, that's Pius IX.”
“Why's he playing a game of Solitaire?”
”When he first got here he used to play a friendly hand of stud poker with Pascal, St. Theresa, and Bernard of Clairvaux.”
“I guess I understand about Pascal, since he could play the odds. But what about the other two?” Bud interrupted.
“Theresa and Bernard both bring a certain mystic intuition to the game.”
“I see. So what went wrong?”
“Whenever Pius was dealt a weak hand, he had a sneaky habit of switching to his infallible setting. At first they chalked it up to beginner's luck, but after the winning streak continued unabated for the next twenty years or so, they started to suspect that he had an ex cathedra card up his sleeve--which was tantamount to cheating, as far as they were concerned.”
“You mean the Pope really is infallible?”
“Not as a rule, but this is heaven, after all, so we humored him.”
“Service is our middle name!” Gabe interjected.
“Did he ever fess up?”
“Whenever they confronted him, he'd simply grin with that wry, Mona Lisa smile of his. So now he plays Solitaire.”
“Sounds highly questionable to me,” Bud said.
“Pius insisted that his conduct throughout the whole affair conformed to the highest canons of casuistry--which provoked a rather strenuous exchange with Pascal over the respective merits, or lack thereof, of probabilism, equiprobabilism, and probabiliorism.”


“You seem to be a tad uneasy,” Gabe said.
“It's just not what I was expecting,” Bud said.
“What's not to expect?” Gabe asked.
“Well, the bottle and the altar-call don't mix where I come from.”
“I thought you were a Southern Baptist?”
“What of it?”
“Doesn't that make you a whisky Calvinist?”
Bud was speechless.
“Heaven takes a bit of getting used to,” Gabe continued. “Why, you should have seen the expression on Fra Angelico's face when we picked him at the airport back in 1455. It was obvious that he'd never seen a real angel before!”
“And then there was the first time that Raphael got to meet the Blessed Virgin,” Mike interjected. “I guess he was expecting a face like Dolores Del Rio, not Golda Meir!”
“Still, I wasn't prepared for a celestial establishment serving intoxicants,” Bud said.
“Intoxicants? Let me assure you that every elixir served on these premises is non-alcoholic!” Mike remonstrated.
At this, Bud let out an audible sign of relief and his facial muscles went flaccid.
“And unlike that other place, The Olympian is a strictly non-smoking establishment,” he added.
“What other place?” Bud asked.
“Why, The Demon Rum saloon--Down Under,” Gabe answered, lowering his gaze. “If you want to get your mitts on a real Bloody Mary, ya gotta go to Bloody Mary. She's the barmaid.”
“How do you know that?” Bud asked.
“Gabe's a part-time building inspector,” Mike explained.
“It takes a certain amount of regular maintenance to keep a firetrap up to code,” Gabe interjected. “The Demon Rum has been fined on numerous occasions for code violations--wrapping bare wires with rubber tape, stuffing insulation in the walls, stocking extinguishers and other contraband retardants smuggled in from off-world suppliers--in exchange for a few magic spells to hex old enemies and charm new hearts.”
“But if they get caught and punished every time, why do they keep on doing it?” Bud asked.
“Because they're incorrigible, that's why,” Gabe answered.
“Hellions do the damnedest things,” Mike interjected. “You might say it goes with the territory. And it's not as though they've got a lot to lose at this stage of the game!”
“Where in hell is The Demon Rum anyway?” Bud asked.
“In the third circle, on the corner of Broadway and Easy St., right behind the Blockbuster, and down a block from the old law firm of Lupine, Rapine, & Abaddon,” Gabe answered.
“What's it like Down Under?” Bud asked.
“Pretty dingy,” Gabe answered. “The scenery hasn't been refurbished since Hieronymus Bosch was last brought in to perk up the decor.”
“It's soooo Fifteen Century!” Mike exclaimed. “And, needless to say, The Demon Run caters to a very different clientele than we do up here,” he said, with a pious sniff.
“Such as?” Bud asked.
“Oh, all the usual riff-raff,” Gabe answered. “Fallen angels and fallen broads; hypocrites and heretics; Simonites and sodomites; Turks, apostates, and reprobates; infidels and idolaters; lawyers, abortionists, and Antipopes; perverts and politicians; French diplomats and Belgian bureaucrats; rock stars and porn stars; Swiss bankers and eastern liberals; merit-mongers, free-willers, loose-livers, and Bible-debunkers; psychics and psychos; freethinkers and hard drinkers; Berkeley professors and tax assessors; Darwinists, feminists, environmentalists, and so on, ad nauseum. In sum, hell on earth transposed to a lower key.”
“How could a loving God permit it?” Bud exclaimed.
“Ours is not to say,” Mike replied.
“Last time I was down there,” Gabe interposed, “Leibniz was attempting to prove to Russell that hell is the best of all possible pandemonia--based on the Principle of Sufficient Unreason.
“Did Russell agree?”
“He was unpersuaded at first until Kant piped in with a supporting argument.”
“What was that?”
“The nonontological argument.”
“Which is what?”
“Well, Kant reasoned that according to the privative theory of evil, pure evil is nonbeing, such that if being is not a predicate, then--by parity of reasoning--nonbeing must be a predicate, in which case less is more, the badder the better, or something like that. I'm a little fuzzy on the details. It's been a while.”
“I guess I'm gratified to learn that The Olympian only serves nonalcoholic nectar. But shouldn't we avoid even the appearance of evil?”
“What evil? What appearance? What's more natural than for spirits to imbibe spirits?” Mike replied.
“This is heaven. Every hour is the happy hour,” Gabe interjected.


Bud looked over the menu. There was only one item--ambrosia.
The waitress came to take the order.
“You look familiar,” Bud said. “Haven't I see you somewhere before?”
She blushed. “I'm Fanny Crosby. So what's your pleasure, gentlemen?”
“I think I'll try the ambrosia hors d'oeuvre, followed by the ambrosia entree, along with a side-dish of ambrosia,” Bud answered.
“How'd you like the entree prepared?” she asked.
“What are my choices?”
“Well, the chef's special is fricasseed ambrosia. But if you prefer, you can also have your ambrosia boiled, broiled, baked, barbecued, roasted, toasted, deep-fried, stir-fried, pan-fried, poached, stewed, scalloped, sautéed, or curried.”
“Do you happen to have deviled ambrosia?”
She blanched. Mike and Gabe averted their eyes and shook their dreadlocks. The whole room went dead silent except for a contagious fit of throat-clearing all around. Bud was getting warm around the ears. Bud Buster had just committed yet another breach of heavenly etiquette.
After the color returned to her cheeks, she explained to him that that sort of preparation was only available at The Demon Rum. Indeed, that's the only sort of preparation they ever did Down Under--with a heavy accent on ever, as in forever.

Bud ordered the fricasseed ambrosia.
“Good choice, old chap!” Gabe exclaimed. “Latimer does the most divine ambrosia. Best place to eat since that little bistro in Herculaneum Mike and I used to frequent went out of business back in--when was it, now?--AD 80 or so.”
“79!” Mike corrected.
“Yes, that's right!”
“Did you say 'Latimer'?” Bud asked.
“Uh-huh, the late Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worchester. “We'll go back into the kitchen and introduce you after dinner.”
“You say he's the chef?”
“On week-ends. And Huss during the week.”
“John Huss?”
“Precisely! They're the two best chefs in all of Zion.”
“How did they get the job?”
“Their personal experience with the auto-da-fe gave them on-the-job training with the culinary arts. No substitute for hands-on experience, you know!”
“And is that why Luther is the bar-tender?”
“On week-ends. Pascal during the week. That's their department. Can't beat a Frog and a Kraut when it comes to beverages! Nice thing about heaven--everyone knows his place.”

“Pascal is also the go-to guy for handicapping the Antichrist,” Gabe interjected.
“What do you mean?” Bud asked.
“Whenever a promising candidate comes along--like Hitler, Stalin, Napoleon, Bill Gates, Henry Kissinger, or Kaiser Wilhelm--folks flock to Pascal to lay odds. He and Newton had a real row one time when Newton, in the 105th edition of his Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John, came up with a numerological proof for Napoleon III, whereas Pascal had him at no better than 50/50. The cherubic pool went heavily for Newton's candidate, but the Seraphim, who are better connected with the Powers-That-Be, chose to stand pat.”
“So Pascal won the bet?,” Bud asked.
“Well, in the 106th edition, Newton attributed their 'apparent' difference of opinion to a simple misunderstanding--what he meant all along was the 'spirit' of the Antichrist, not the 'embodiment' of the Antichrist.”
“I read somewhere that Newton was an Arian,” Bud said, in a quizzical tone of voice.
“Repented on his deathbed,” Mike replied, with an air of finality.
“And not a moment too soon!” Gabe added, helpfully. “The Pale Rider was one house away when Izzy had a last minute change of heart.”
“And how did Milton make it in?”
“Yet another deathbed conversion. He was warned by his chaplain that unless he recanted certain theses in De Doctrina Christiana, he would be spending eternity with Mary Powell. Now that threw the fear of God into him--let me tell you!”


“So, Bud, who do you think is the Antichrist,” Gabe asked.
“Back at Holy Smokes, all the smart money was on Hillary Rodham.”
“Doesn't the Antichrist have to be a man?” Mike interjected.
“Yeah, but Hillary's true gender was one of the hotly disputed questions.”
“I take it, though, that she wasn't your first pick?” Gabe asked.
“The type-casting just seemed too good to be true--if 'good' is the operative word. I mean, if the Antichrist came straight out of central casting, who'd he be fooling? No, it has to be someone less obvious.”
“So who do you suspect?”
“The meter maid.”
“The meter maid?”
“Yes, the meter maid.”
“Which one?”
“You mean there's more than one? Sure about that? Haven't you ever noticed that they all look alike--right down to the little red eyes?”
“Can't say I have, but whenever Mike and I are sent on a mission to terra firma, we've got diplomatic license plates, so we can park wherever we please.”
“Well, every meter maid I ever saw was a pistol-packin' momma in a pintsized three-wheeler. That's what tipped me off in the first place. There's only one meter maid in all the world. She's omniscient and omnipresent, handing out tickets if you're two minutes over the limit, or two inches over the line--and just generally making life a living hell. Now, if that's not an entry-level job for one-world government, I don't know what is!”
“I see your point! But, strictly speaking, only God is omniscient or omnipresent.”
“Okay, okay...but the meter maid's near enough to it to have a decidedly preternatural aura about her, if 'her' is the operative word.”


“There's a question I've always wanted to ask when I got to heaven,” Bud said.
“What's that?” Gabe answered.
“How could the highest archangel become a devil?”
“The highest who?”
“Who makes you think Lucifer was ever the highest archangel?”
“Oh, I don't know...that's what I've always heard.”
“I see that Old Horney has been padding his résumé again. But back when Mike and I knew him, he was just a royal page. Indeed, he was one of my employees in The Ministry of Telecommunications--before it became the Ministry of Misinformation, oh...some six-thousand years ago. Even back then he was a bit of a bigmouth and gossip. Should have seen it coming.”
“So what caused him to fall?”
“He got tired of being a lowly errand boy--hankered to see his name up in lights, sit in the big chair. You know the drill. Don't be fooled by all the low-falutin' titles like the 'The Prince of Darkness' and 'His Satanic Majesty.' Underneath it all he's just your average, small-time social climber and all-around flimflam man--a showman with a cardboard crown.”
“But if he wasn't the highest archangel, how come so many other angels followed him.”
“It isn't so much that they followed him as followed his example. He got them to think they were doing themselves a favor. Rebellion is infectious. All it takes is one guy to make the first move. Then the idea takes on a life of its own. Hell is chock-full of frustrated prima donnas.”
“But how could a sinless angel sin?”
“Again, all it takes is a vivid imagination. You don't have to be a sinner to contemplate good and evil. That's how you know right from wrong in the first place.”
“But wasn't it a lost cause from the get-go?”
“Yes, but that's only because you know how the story ends. God plays his hand close to his vest. Predestination would never work if he laid all his cards on the table, face up.”
“I've never been able to wrap my head around all that predestination business,” Bud said. “I mean, if it's a stacked deck, then what difference does it make what we do, or did, or didn't do?”
“That's a delicate question,” Mike replied. “Pity you never read Marcel Proust's immortal novel on the subject. A trifle long-winded, but up here we've got all the time in the world!”
“What's its called?” Gabe interposed.
”Remembrance of Things That Might Have Been.”
“I never knew Proust wrote a book by that title.”
“He didn't. That's one of the things that might have been! I said it was a pity, did I not?”
“Then how did you hear of it?”
“From a well-placed seraph, who heard it first from...oh, well--you know who!”
“Even so, they had a lot more to lose than to gain, didn't they?” Bud asked, in tones of resignation.
“Adam and Eve.”
“Oh, back to that. Well, sure, but that's the thing about sin. Where sinning is concerned, at least in my own extensive observation--I can't speak from personal experience, you understand--you never know what you're getting into until you get into it, at which point it's too late to get out. Besides, they thought that even a demotion would be a promotion of sorts. That's why Lucifer tempted Adam and Eve--to give him someone to lord it over.”


“When did Lucifer have time to rebel before the fall of Adam?” Bud asked.
“Well, for all we know, it was a matter of days, weeks, months or even years before that Adam's lapse,” Mike replied.
“You mean you don't know?”
“Not from our vantage-point. According to Metatron's Sempiternal Theory of Relativity, heaven and earth occupy different time zones.”
“Yes, he won the Noel Prize for Metaphysics back in 4003 BC--your time. Very clever fellow--even for an angel.”
“What is more,” Gabe interjected, “there are two different solutions to Metatron's equations. The Thrones and Dominions, seconded by Boethius, Berkeley, Augustine, Anselm, and Edwards, are of the opinion that just as time passes faster in a dream than in the waking world, time passes faster or slower in the supernal realm than in the sublunary realm, relative to one another. Time moves very fast in heaven, but very slow in hell.

The other theory, favored by the Principalities and Powers, as well as Newton, Aquinas, Scotus, Philoponus, and Bradwardine, is that that the supernal realm is a separate domain, parallel to the sublunary realm. Each sphere has its own absolute timeframe, along with its very own point of origin.”

“Isn't there some way of proving one or the other?”
“No, because you can't tell, when you're within the sublunary timeline, if that's isocronic with the supernal timeline, or vice versa. You can only be in one time at a time, as it were. I should add that Kierkegaard and Tertullian dismiss the whole question as absurd, while Pascal remains undecided.”
“But surely the good Lord knows the answer.”
“Naturally, but he keeps his own counsel.”


“I had another queston for you,” Bud asked.
“What about?” Mike answered.
“The Lake of Fire.”
“What about the Lake of Fire.”
“Well, I believe it, of course, 'cause it's in the Good Book and all, but...”
“But what?”
“But it does seem a wee bit excessive. I mean, is it really strictly necessary to cast the damned into a lake of lava or vat of acid or whatever it's filled with.”
“It's filled with water--that's what it's filled with.”
“Yes, water.”
“Plain old water?”
“No, not exactly.”
“What kind of water, then? Mineral water? Distilled water? Artesian spring water? Clorinated water?”
“Holy water. We have it blessed by Aaron.”
“So what makes it the Lake of Fire?”
“A simple chemical reaction--like putting a Tums tablet in a glass of water.”
“I don't get it.”
“When pure evil comes in contact with utter goodness, you get a this colorful chemical reaction. But all the fizzle and sizzle is supplied by the evildoer, not by the water itself. The water is perfectly swimable and drinkable if you happen to be a saint or an angel. Ingersoll used to get all lathered up about this--still does, more so than ever!--but you might as well curse a bottle of Perrier.”


“So, Gabriel, what's your day job?” Bud asked.
“Gabe's an Attaché to the Ministry of Misinformation,” Mike interjected. “So am I.”
“Ministry of Misinformation?”
“That's right. Our mission is to delude the lost and ensnare the wise in their own craftiness.”
“Doesn't that sound a tad underhanded to you,” Bud asked, a little bit shocked--not to say, scandalized.
“Underhanded?” Mike replied, in questioning tone of voice, as the Tetramorph gazed at all three pair of his hands.
“That's a rather jaundiced way of looking at the matter,” Gabe interjected. “Think of it as a practical joke.”
“A joke?”
“Yes, a cosmic joke. God's a great practical joker, you know.”
“He is?”
“Indeed, is it not written that he who sits in heaven shall laugh them to score and hold them in derision?”
“I guess I never took it all that literally.”
“I'm surprised. You were a Southern Baptist, weren't you?
“Yes, I was. Still am, I guess.”
“It's just the difference between worldly wisdom and otherworldly wisdom. To the philosopher of this age, wisdom from above is just so much folly and Tomfoolery. But remember that the court jester is the smartest, sharpest character in the play--the only one who's in on the joke.”
“But it still strikes me as a tad unscrupulous.”
“How so? Just because some people can't take a joke? You'll always have folks who don't know satire when they see it. When Dean Swift came out with his Modest Proposal, why, some folks took it to be a new dainty for the five-star palette! Is God to blame because too many men have no sense of humor?
“Just who is God spoofing, anyway?” Bud asked. “What do you guys do?”
“Well, there was the time when Mike and I painted navels on Adam and Eve. Then were was the whole peppered moth business.”
“What business is that?”
“We spray-painted some white moths a darker shade. You wouldn't believe how many men were taken in by that prank! Scientists are such a straight-laced lot!” Gabe said, convulsed with laughter.
“Painfully earnest!” Mike interjected. “There was also the occasion when Gabe and I were up all night gluing the wings onto Archaeopteryx.”
At this point, Mike was shaking so hard that the vibrations were making him levitate involuntarily.
“Not to mention Pitdown man,” Gabe blurted out, in-between spasms of laughter.
“You were even behind the Pitdown hoax?” Bud asked, astonished.
“Who else? I also get a big kick out of conjuring up quantum quandaries by changing myself into quarks and tachyons, playing dead, being in two places at once, and all that fun stuff. Poor old Einstein never figured it out!”
“Gabe is such tease!”
“Sleight-of-hand is child's play when you've got six hands to work with!” Gabe exclaimed, modestly.
“What about fossil water on Mars?”
“We didn't have enough lead-time on that one, which is why we kept zapping the unmanned probes. But in the end we were able to fake it with an out-take from an old Star Trek episode--you know, what with the styrofoam rocks and day-glo color scheme. Looks kind of cheesy up close, but the resolution is too poor to detect at a distance.”
“Sometimes though, the joke is on us,” Mike admitted. “I mean, when Crick came up with his Panspermia hypothesis--now that takes a real leap of the imagination!”
“Wish we'd thought of it first!”
“No, that would be way too far-fetched for any self-respecting creationist. To be really gullible, you just can't compete with the pros,” Mike said--feathers flying every which way in gales of hilarity.
“Next week we'll need to tweak the red-shift once again,” Gabe said.
“Every time they send a new telescope into orbit, we have to push the stage-lights back a bit further to maintain the illusion. It takes constant monitoring and incessant tinkering to keep up appearances.”
“Stage-lights?” Bud asked, in a questioning tone of voice.
“What you vulgar earthlings call the 'stars,'” Gabe explained.
“Who runs the Ministry, anyway?”
“It's chaired on a rotating basis. Last year, Bishop Wilberforce; this year, William Jennings Bryan; next year, Philip Henry Gosse--with G. K. Chesterton as the Director-at-large.”
At that moment the appetizers arrived. After Gabe said grace, they dug into the first course with relish--while the Bebop Band played a Thelonius Monk arrangement of “Too Close To Heaven.”