The first thing I saw when I reached the Other Side was a woman in a black leather jacket and miniskirt shooting pool. She had a foreign-looking face with a long nose and exotic eyes, and her ebony hair tumbled and curled past her shoulders. As she leaned over the table to line up her shot, her rear end curved in sleek invitation. She was part biker, part gypsy and part rock star rolled into one, and I stood in the smoky doorway, gaping. Even in my wildest dreams, none of the girls in my eleventh-grade class had ever looked like this.
“Six ball in the corner pocket,” she said in a husky voice. She rammed her stick forward and smacked a green ball into a hole. As she chalked up the cue for another shot, she spared me a sultry glance.
“Hey, kid,” she said. “Come rack ‘em up. Buck a ball. You break.”
“Who m-m-me?” I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone else was there.
“Of course you, who else?” She blew off the excess chalk and stroked the stick between her fingers. “You look like you could handle some action.”
“Now, Cleo,” said a male voice, and I turned to see a stout, bald, white-bearded man sitting at the bar. He wore some kind of ancient robe or toga, and he was holding a tall, fruity drink topped with a pink umbrella. “Can’t you see this young man’s a newcomer?”
“Just trying to make him feel welcome, Socky.”
She sauntered around the pool table toward me. Studs and zippers adorned her jacket, and I gulped at the sight of spike heels and sheer black hose. She stopped so close I inhaled her perfume. The scent made my brain fuse.
“So what do you say, kid? You up for a game?”
“Uh…uh…I thought I was supposed to be dead.” I turned nervously to glimpse myself in the bar mirror. I was wearing my Mapletown High sweater and tan corduroys, the same as I’d had on when I swallowed the pills, and I wondered how much time had passed.
“You are dead,” the woman replied. She tossed her head to indicate the room behind her and gave me an amused wink. “Not what you expected, is it?”
“No, not exactly.”
I adjusted my glasses and peered through the haze. The pool hall was dimly lit with beer posters on the walls and a neon jukebox beside a cigarette vending machine. Overhead fans turned in lazy circles, gently swirling the smoky air. About two dozen people lounged at tables or bent over games of pool. Some wore ordinary clothes like me, but others were in costume—a Victorian lady, a Buddhist monk, a Japanese pilot—and they laughed and chatted at their ease. The woman named Cleo joined the bald man at the bar, and I gazed at them together while my brain tried to puzzle out a solution.
“I don’t understand,” I blurted finally. “Where am I? Who are you?”
The bald man beamed. “I am Socrates of Athens.”
“And I’m Cleopatra,” the woman purred, “Queen of Egypt and the Nile. Welcome to the Purgatory Pool Hall.”
For a moment I couldn’t speak. Then I focused on the man’s robe.
“Socrates?” I said. “The Greek philosopher? Really?”
“The very same,” he replied. “Have you read the Republic? Of course, Plato wrote it, but they were all my ideas. Do they teach it in your school?” He gestured toward my sweater.
“No, uh, no,” I said, and immediately he looked pained. “But I have read it on my own.”
Socrates shook his head in disgust. “You see?” he said peevishly to the woman. “What is modern education coming to when students aren’t even exposed to the classics, to me? Why back in Athens, every well-bred youth in the city flocked to listen at my feet.”
“Poor Socky. You just don’t get any respect.” The woman slipped off her leather jacket, and I drew in my breath. Her plunging, black tank top would never meet the dress code at Mapletown High. She leaned back with her elbows on the bar, and her liquid eyes and parted lips seemed to drink me in. “But everybody’s heard of me, haven’t they, kid?”
“Cleo…Cleopatra?” I said, still not daring to believe it. “But you don’t look Egyptian.”
“I never was.” She shrugged. “My family was Macedonian. I was the only one who troubled to learn the Egyptian tongue. And of course I declared myself the daughter of Ra, the sun god, for political reasons.”
“But your clothes,” I persisted. “Your hair.”
“Oh, we’re not required to retain our original garb. Feel free to slip into something more comfortable.”
I looked around the pool hall with fresh amazement, wondering if I ought to recognize anyone else. Only a fox-faced man in a blue smock and a straw hat looked familiar, but before I could study him further Socrates spoke.
“Let me buy you a soda, son.” He patted the empty seat between them.
“Oh, come on, Socky,” said Cleo. “Get the kid a beer.”
“But I’m sure he’s not old enough,” Socrates protested.
“I’m fifteen.” I took the stool. “Sixteen, almost.”
“Close enough,” said Cleo. She called to the bartender who was serving a couple at the other end of the counter. “A Michelob for the kid, Rudy, another Tahiti Sweetie for my pal Socky, and make mine a Rusty Nail. Don’t mind old Socky,” she added, as the drinks arrived and the philosopher frowned at my frothy glass. “They got him once on corruption of youth charges, so he’s just covering his ass.”
“Thanks.” I sipped my beer. I hadn’t drunk much before, not like some of the kids, and the Michelob tasted cold and soothing on my throat after inhaling the smoke of the pool hall. I gazed around, beginning to relax. I’m not sure what I’d expected to find after I died. My family wasn’t religious, and the image of harp-playing angels versus pitchfork-wielding devils had always seemed immature. If anything, I had anticipated a kind of conscious nothingness, my soul floating in mutual communion with countless other dead in the blackness of space. All I knew for sure, when I swallowed the pills, was that any fate was preferable to the disgrace about to befall me.
“So what brings you here, kid?” Cleo asked, and I wondered with a start if she could read my mind.
“I…I plagiarized an article for a journalism contest.”
The very sound of the word made my stomach go sick. There was no excuse, not the deadline, not the lure of recognition or the prize. As editor of the Mapletown High Monitor, it was my duty to uphold journalistic integrity, and I had betrayed my trust. I wasn’t even sure how it happened. I just knew everyone was counting on me to write a knockout editorial for the scholastic journalism competition, and there it was midnight before the next day’s deadline and my head was racked and empty. So I went to my file to read over favorite pieces I had clipped from the Washington Post, and one, on honesty in government, rang true and clear. I was sure I could say the same thing, only better. But the minute I handed it in, I knew it wasn’t better, and worse, it wasn’t my own. And first it won the citywide contest and then the state competition, and now it had been sent to Washington for the national judging where someone was bound to recognize the fraud. I couldn’t even bear to go back and compare my version to the original to see how closely I had copied. And all the time I wasn’t eating, I couldn’t write, and my mother kept asking if I felt sick.
“You stole somebody else’s words?” said Cleo, when I explained. “So what?”
Socrates raised a grave finger. “It was a dishonest act, and this young man is moral enough to recognize—”
“Don’t give me that shit,” Cleo interrupted. “Kid, did you really kill yourself over that?”
“I guess I did.”
“Boy, that was stupid.”
Tears came to my eyes, and she seemed to regret her remark. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Everybody screws up now and again. Here, I’ll issue you a royal pardon. Rudy, you got a pen?” The bartender handed her a ballpoint, and drawing a cocktail napkin toward her, she jotted a line of hieroglyphics and signed it with a flourish. “Here you go.”
I stared longingly at the offered paper. If only it were that easy. If only the past could be undone. Sadly, I shook my head. Socrates and Cleo exchanged a sympathetic glance.
“Maybe you aren’t dead yet,” said Socrates. “We’ve had that happen before. What method did you use?”
“Sleeping pills. They used to be my grandfather’s. I took about thirty, then I went to my room. I told my parents I’d be studying.”
“On a Friday night?” said Cleo. “Kid, get a life.”
I brushed at my eyes. The only life I had ever wanted was to be a great journalist, a voice of truth in the modern media wilderness. Now everything was ruined.
“C’mon,” said Cleo suddenly, motioning me to drink up, then nudging me to my feet and leading me to the door. Socrates slurped up the last of his drink and trotted behind. Cleo gestured outside. “See? It’s not so bad here, kid. Choose your action.”
I gazed along a brightly lit street lined with nightclubs, restaurants, stores. People were heading into a movie theater and strolling on the sidewalk. On the corner a street musician played his guitar.
“And this isn’t all of it,” Socrates chimed in. “We have everything you’d find at home—health clubs, shopping malls, a nature preserve with hiking trails. And the company is extraordinary. Do you like art? Do they teach you about Vincent Van Gogh?”
He pivoted me around and waved to the man in the blue smock I had noticed earlier. I gasped aloud as the man, turning to acknowledge the gesture, revealed a mutilated ear.
“Who’s that with him?” I nodded toward the young black woman seated at Vincent’s table. She was showing him what looked like an artist’s portfolio.
“That’s Daleesha from Cincinnati,” said Cleo. “Vinnie raves about the energy level of her work. Maybe if she’d had somebody like him to encourage her she wouldn’t have hung herself. Of course, maybe if he’d had somebody to encourage him, he wouldn’t have plugged himself with a bullet.”
I looked slowly around the room, truth beginning to dawn. “We’re all suicides,” I whispered, and for a minute the pool hall seemed to dim and grow sinister. Then ordinary conversations reached my ears, a chair scraped the floor, someone laughed. I searched the faces before me, each one a story waiting to be told. The Japanese pilot—a kamikaze? The woman in Victorian dress—what was she doing here? And there were others I hadn’t noticed: a businessman worrying over a calculator, a pair of teenage lovers sharing a milkshake. Beside me, Cleo and Socrates were arguing whether I would be better off in Ernest Hemingway’s fiction workshop or Sylvia Plath’s poetry group. We made our way back to the bar, and I sat down to let the full impact sink in. If only I could write again, this was a reporter’s dream come true. I recalled my best pieces for the Monitor: the interview with the mayor on school budget cuts, my investigative articles on the locker room fire. I’d done good work, and I felt a twinge of pride mixed with regret for what I had left behind. Maybe they had a newspaper here in purgatory. If they didn’t, maybe I could start one.
Cleo ordered me another beer.
“Marc Antony,” I said, gazing on her. “He fell on his sword for you. Is he here?”
“Ah, Marc. Yes, he’s around somewhere. Drunk, no doubt. Hanging out with the boys. Boasting about his conquests.” She began chalking her cue.
Socrates pursed his lips. “You should never have married him. He was already wed to Octavia in Rome, and that made your union invalid.”
“Octavia was a wimp, and Marc was ripe for the picking.” Cleo jabbed her stick against the philosopher’s chest. “Socky, I can’t believe that after two and a half millennia, you’re still defending those bozos who ran the circus. That kind of thinking’s already been the death of you.”
“My sentence was the verdict of a legitimate court,” said Socrates primly. “I was bound to accept it. Isn’t that right, young man?”
“Well, I—” I began.
“They were boneheads,” interrupted Cleo, “and you were bent on being a martyr. You want the truth, kid? If he hadn’t deliberately antagonized them, he could have gotten off with a measly fine.”
“Hmpf!” Socrates leaped up, cheeks puffing. Cleo held him at arm’s length with her cue. They circled before the pool table like two wrestlers preparing to brawl, and throughout the room, heads turned our way. I grabbed the pen and more napkins, my mind scrambling for a headline: Cleopatra and Socrates Arrested in Riot. Egyptian Queen Decks Philosopher as Crowd Cheers.
“I was a civic benefactor!” Socrates’s stout figure bumped against the cue. “I devoted my life to the improvement of my countrymen.”
“And what did your good works get you?” Cleo poked him back. “Fortune? Fame?”
“A clear conscience and the respect of posterity.”
“Who needs it? You were practically a pauper, Socky. No shirt, no shoes, that threadbare robe. At least I had a wardrobe worth dying for. Make a note of that, kid.”
She tossed her head toward me, and I hurried to obey. What a lead! What a story, if only the rest of the writing would come. Socrates jumped between us, spluttering.
“Don’t listen to her, son! She’d have you deny your principles for a suit of clothes.”
“Damn principles!” retorted Cleo. “Packaging is the name of the game. Why do you think I had myself delivered to Caesar rolled up in a rug? I nearly suffocated, but what an impression I made.” She sleeked her hand down her hip. “You like what you see, don’t you, kid?”
“You bet I—”
“Seduction! Son, avert your eyes!” Socrates waved his arms at me in agitation, then he whirled back to Cleo. “That’s where your whole trouble started, inviting foreign influences into your country, negotiating with those gangsters from the Forum.”
He thrust out his chest and tried to power himself forward. Cleo dug in her heels and held her ground. The crowd had begun to take sides, debates springing up at the tables. The Japanese pilot, arms outspread like a plane, made dive-bombing noises as he defended his position to the Buddhist monk. Poor Vincent Van Gogh looked lost and confused in the tumult. My head spun back and forth between the voices, and I wrote furiously, struggling to keep up with the flow of words.
“It was a fair deal,” flashed Cleo. “Egypt was rich, and Caesar wanted money. I needed Rome’s help to defeat my skunk of a brother Ptolemy in civil war.”
“And I’ve told you a thousand times,” crowed Socrates, “that happiness depends directly on the goodness of the soul. You mistook power for real good, when it isn’t good at all.”
“Then how come I loved every minute of it?” With a thrust of her cue, she sent Socrates backward into a chair. The crowd jumped away as it toppled, dumping the philosopher on the floor. Cleo lowered her stick and strutted toward me. Her perfume wafted up my nostrils, her voice breathed in my ear. “I was good, kid, I was damn good, and so what if the boys got a little something off me? I got the throne of Egypt plus a big chunk of Syria and Lebanon off them. Who do you think made the better deal?”
She sauntered back to the pool table, calling to Rudy to set me up another beer. The crowd slowly quieted. Socrates returned to the bar, fussing over the blue chalk marks on his robe. I swallowed my beer and tried to get my heartbeat back to normal while I watched Cleo at her game. Her movements had the slinky grace of a panther, and as she leaned across the felt to line up a shot, her cleavage swelled and deepened. It was hard to keep my eyes off her, and the other men in the room seemed to be having similar difficulty. Only Socrates, nursing a fresh drink, appeared unaffected, or at least he pretended to be.
“My only mistake was in backing a couple of losers,” Cleo concluded as she sank the eight ball with a deft smack. “So I chose my own end. Nobody drags the Queen of the Nile through Rome in chains.”
At the door of the pool hall, two more people arrived, a farmer in denim coveralls, an elderly woman leaning on a cane. The newcomers stepped inside and stood blinking. Some senior citizens by the jukebox took them in tow, and one of the men called to the bartender, “Rudy! Sarsaparillas all around!”
“If this is purgatory,” I asked, “what’s it like in heaven?”
Socrates shrugged. “You can put in for a transfer and check it out. The border restrictions are pretty lenient nowadays.”
“But you wouldn’t like it,” Cleo added. “It’s full of bureaucrats compiling useless documents and whooping it up at the photocopy machines. Ex-civil servants are a shoo-in.”
They exchanged glances and shuddered. “Worse than you can possibly imagine,” said Cleo. “They make you watch daytime TV.”
I smoothed my pile of napkins. The exhilaration of writing again, not to mention three beers, had made my head dizzy. Socrates slipped off his stool, cheeks flushed from his consumption of Tahiti Sweeties.
“Crowd’s picking up,” he said, as several more people entered the door. “Do you think they’d like to hear about my doctrine of Forms?”
“Oh, sure.” Cleo laughed. “They’re dying to listen. You want another drink, kid?”
“No thanks. I…I don’t feel too well.” I pressed my hand against my stomach where a queasy sensation had emerged.
Socrates clucked his tongue. “I told you, Cleo. You shouldn’t have given him alcohol.”
“Well, how was I to know? You look green, kid. You have to throw up?”
I nodded. My head ached, my insides felt nauseous, and above all I wanted fresh air. I rose and motioned toward the door.
Cleo’s eyes widened. “Socky! I think they’ve found him! Help me get him to the door.” She pulled my arm around her neck, and Socrates hurried to the other side.
“No,” I moaned, resisting as I realized what was happening. “No, let me stay here with you. I can’t go back. I cheated. I’ll be kicked off the Monitor, I’ve lost my credibility, I’ve let everyone down, my family, my friends.”
“You stole some words, and you killed yourself for it, and it was a dumb thing to do.” Cleo dragged me forward. “Pull, Socky! They’re probably walking him right now.”
They tugged me toward the door, Socrates puffing and scolding at the exertion. “I hope you’re happy, Cleo, getting the boy half drunk and about to throw up. This is all your doing.” He paused. “All your doing…”
The Queen of Egypt smiled.
I gaped at her, then grasped uselessly for the napkins, far away on the bar. “My notes!”
A rich laugh reached my ears. “Sorry, kid, this is one story you don’t get to write yet. Don’t come back until you have something really worth dying for.”
A shove propelled me toward the threshold, a pulling sensation rippled through me, and my vision began to blur. The last thing I remember, before I left the Other Side, was a woman in a tight black miniskirt strutting toward a pool table and her husky voice saying, “Rack ‘em up.”
(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1993)