“This is an emergency operator recording. Tune your radio to AM channel 1160, or turn your television to UHF channel 23.”
That was all the message said, except that it repeated itself twice more before the phone went dead. Completely dead. It was sent to every home, every individual, every company, and every time the phone was answered, that message was the last sound the phone ever made, except maybe for a clatter as it was pounded on a wall. The phone companies of the world, in a shocking display of unison, recorded the message in every language, and maximized the full capacity of the planet’s phone network to send it to every phone number. Still, it took the better part of two days to finish.
Radio and TV stations were less reliable, but by noon on Tuesday almost every channel—radio, TV, and even some short wave stations—were repeating the same message. A few Fox affiliates in the United States started showing reruns of “Married…With Children”, but abruptly and mysteriously went off the air. An independent channel in Fargo, North Dakota, started showing reruns of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” without commercials, running the message as a subtitle every two minutes. It stayed on the air. On channels 23 and 1160, text and a voice said “Please stand by. Eleven hours and thirteen minutes. Please stand by. Eleven hours and twelve minutes.”
The people of Earth stood by.
“Please stand by. One minute.”
“This is Walter Cronkite reporting live. Amazed to be here, I might add, since you may recall that I died a few years back. I have been resurrected, and I have some news to share with you—with all of you. I am with several dozen of my colleagues outside the Cathedral of the Bronx, in New York City. With me now is noted religious personage St. Augustine, who has prepared a statement.
“Children, bless you all. My name is Austin Augustine, but among friends I like to be called Auggy. Our time is relatively short, so I will be brief. I come to you as an official representative of God, and it is my proud duty to inform you that Judgement Day is nigh. One week from today, God will judge the people who inhabit this planet, past and present. Before that begins, however, it has been decided that this world needs a serious dose of honesty. Lies and deception have become so pervasive among you that God wishes to devote the next six days to apologies, before you all go your separate ways. The channel you are watching or listening to now is the only channel that will carry any programming. Your attention, while not strictly required, is strongly recommended. The apologies will be presented by selected representatives of various ethnic, social, political and other groups, in an order chosen to appear completely random. In the interest of dialogue, I will open up the floor momentarily for a few brief questions. After that, we will take a two-hour break to finish preparing for what we like to call the ‘Mea Culpa Grande.’”
Walter was the first to stand. “Mr. Augustine. On behalf of the people of Earth, I hope, I’d like to thank you for this opportunity. Is there any significance in your choice of this particular cathedral as the location for this announcement? Should this be interpreted as either an endorsement of this particular church or of Catholicism in general?”
Auggy opened his mouth, and then closed it again. He blushed, shook his head, and said, “That’s just incredible. It must be something in the air on this planet. I was about to give this big spiel about how we thought it would make a nice backdrop, that the architecture was modern yet reserved, yada yada. No, this isn’t an endorsement. The truth is, the great-great-many-times-great granddaughter of a friend of mine owns a restaurant up the street, and I hear they serve a good bratwurst. I guess you’d call it a perk. I don’t want to get off track and onto a religious debate here, so let me just answer that question and any follow-ups about what’s the one true religion by saying you’ll find that one out next week. Other questions?” He raised his shaggy eyebrows, and looked across the crowd.
Connie Chung stood next. “Why are you broadcasting this event over our television and radio systems instead of just…I don’t know…speaking in a really loud, Godlike voice so everyone can hear?”
Auggy pinched the bridge of his nose and looked at her. “In the time it would take me to explain celestial mechanics to you, I could give everyone here a full two-hour Swedish massage. To simplify greatly, small miracles are easy, but big miracles are much more…difficult. And we’re on a budget. It’s much, much simpler to take advantage of your existing communications system, believe me. A few dozen small miracles here and there, and we’ve got everything we need to serve our purpose. Plus the companies who have assisted us are doing so at a significant discount, as part of their penance. And besides all that,” he added, his voice growing louder with each word, “in order for everyone on the planet to hear me, I would have to speak SO LOUDLY…” By now the journalists in the audience were holding their hands over their ears. Auggy paused for a minute, then began again in a normal voice. “So loudly, that 98 percent of the planet would immediately go deaf. Kind of defeats the purpose, don’t you think? Next question.”
Geraldo Rivera was the next to stand. “Blurf,” he said, and a toad hopped out of his mouth. “That’s weird,” he said. “It’s never done that befloagh.” Two more toads hopped out of his mouth and joined the first toad on the seat next to him. They say quietly, looking up at him with nictitating amphibian eyes. “I think I’ll just sit down now,” said Geraldo, and sat.
Larry King stood partway up, then sat partway down, then stood all the way up. Auggy pointed to him.
“Can you go over the schedule again?”
“Of what’s going to happen. Who’s going to apologize, when, and for what? And what happens after that?”
“Oh, that. Well, it would take too much time to hear every single person’s apologies to every other single person, and we’ve got to have the planet vacated and steam-cleaned before…well, we’ll discuss that part later. We’ve decided to have representatives of the major offenders speak to everyone at once. Much more efficient that way. As I said about the order they’ll speak in, it’s been chosen so as to appear completely random to you.”
“You don’t really have an order lined up, do you?”
Auggy paused, glared at Larry, and then said “No. Next question?”
“Wait a second—you didn’t finish. What happens after that?”
“After the apologies everyone except you will go to a big cookout, compliments of God, and then after that it’s Judgement Day. Next question.”
Maury Povich stood up. Auggy appeared not to see him, so he stood on his chair and waved his arms. Auggy sighed and said, “Yes, Maury.”
“Are we going to see Elvis?” asked Maury.
“I already told you no, Maury. You’re only here because Connie’s here, so sit down.”
Maury sat down, narrowly missing Geraldo’s toads. The next question came from Dan Rather.
“What is the meaning of existence?” he asked.
Auggy looked him right in the eye. “Do you really want me to answer that?” he smiled.
Dan held his gaze. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I do.”
“Come here,” said Auggy.
Dan came to the front, notepad in hand. He stood expectantly in front of Auggy.
“Now, Dan, I can’t tell everyone the meaning of existence, because—the meaning of existence is a little different for everyone. I can, however, tell you the meaning of existence.” With that, he put his hand on Dan’s forehead. He held it there for a few seconds, then removed it.
Dan set his notepad down on a nearby chair and curled up in a little ball on the ground. He held his knees and rocked back and forth on his side, smiling and whispering “Hee hee hee. Hee hee hee hee.”
Auggy looked across the crowd again. “If there are no other questions, we’ll take a short recess. The apologies will begin in two hours.”
A flurry of hands went up, but it was too late—Auggy had vanished.
Two very long hours later, he returned. No fanfare or trumpets preceded him—he simply appeared in front of the podium. No one even noticed until Geraldo nearly choked to death trying to scream around a toad. The journalists, who had all been chain-smoking, quickly stubbed out their cigarettes and returned to their seats.
“It’s time to begin,” said Auggy. “To kick things off, I’m going to give the first apology. As some of you may know, during my life I was a rather conflicted person. I spent many years exploring the pleasures of the flesh, and then started speaking out against those same pleasures—quite loudly, I’m afraid. Classic overcompensation. Anyhow, while I can’t claim full responsibility for how others chose to interpret my actions, I do feel a strong sense of remorse over the fear and loathing of intimacy that I helped to start. I apologize to all of you, but especially to those many millions who eschewed one of God’s greatest gifts because I—and others—said it was dirty. I didn’t realize at the time that I was upsetting an intentional balance between logic and emotion, and I am truly sorry.”
Maury stood up and raised his hand, but the others near him pulled him back into his seat.
“There won’t be enough time to have a question-and-answer session after every apology, Maury. However, as I’m in a state of post-cathartic bliss at the moment, I’ll indulge you one more time. If the word ‘Elvis’ comes out of your mouth, I’ll make your tongue into a pendant and wear it around my neck. Otherwise, ask away.”
Maury pushed the others off of him and stood up. He cleared his throat, scratched the back of his head, and said, “So, um, if…is sex okay, then?”
“Sexuality was intended as an expression of love, Maury. That’s part of the Plan. If it hadn’t been, we would probably all reproduce by budding or some such. There’s room for abuse, of course, but abuse can run in either direction. My actions tilted the abuse toward the side of fear and mistrust, which in some ways is worse than wanton overindulgence. I hope that answers your question.”
Maury scratched his head again and sat down. He looked at Connie, raised his eyebrows, and she smiled at him. “Later,” she mouthed quietly.
“We will now hear the rest of the apologies,” said Auggy, “which--as Mr. King has noted--will take place in no particular order. Each participant will announce his or her name, the name of the organization they are representing, and then give their apology. Certain organizations or groups may be represented more than once, as there are some with a lot of apologizing to do. I will evaluate each apology on the basis of sincerity and completeness. Unsatisfactory apologies will be repeated until I am satisfied.” He stepped back from the podium and stood with his arms folded across his chest. The podium suddenly grew in size, so that it was nearly six feet high and three feet wide.
A rather dazed-looking man appeared behind the podium. He was only visible from the side; from the front, the podium obscured him completely. Auggy produced a wooden box and placed it behind the podium, and the man stepped up on it. His head appeared, and he reached up to adjust the microphone. From the audience’s perspective, he looked like a balding, bearded five-year-old.
“My name is Michael Nebeker. I am the first of several speakers to represent the United States government. I formally and sincerely apologize on their behalf for putting fluoride in the public drinking water and then suppressing evidence about its mind-control properties. It was, um, Hoover’s idea.” Auggy cleared his throat loudly. “Sorry. I mean, sorry for lying about Hoover. It was Kennedy’s idea.” Michael looked at Auggy, who nodded. He stepped down from the box and took a seat in the audience.
Immediately another man appeared behind the podium.
“My name is Arthur Andreasen. I represent advertising agencies, and I apologize for the many thousands of subliminal ads of the past few decades that preyed on your affinity for the lowest common denominator. I apologize for encouraging gross conspicuous consumption of such a truly dismal array of products, and I would like to thank the good people of Belkin Pharmaceutical for making my presentation possible.” Auggy moved forward and smacked Arthur on the back of the head. “Ow!” said Arthur.
“Sit down, Arthur,” Auggy said sternly.
Arthur sat, Auggy moved back again, and a woman appeared behind the podium.
“My name is Camille Roulent. I represent the nations of the world in my apology for the terrifying proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of global destruction. I am sorry for the constant fear and anxiety that these weapons have brought to our planet, and for the feelings of impending doom that….” Camille paused, her voice caught in her throat. “…that caused so many of you to lose hope for the future. Once again, I am truly sorry.” Camille sniffled, and Auggy handed her a tissue. She wiped her eyes, and then Auggy ushered her gently into a seat.
Auggy stepped back to the microphone and said, “That’s more like it. For those of you who are coming next, I expect to see a little more sincerity.” He appeared to glare at the sky behind the audience, and many in the audience turned to look behind them. Nothing unusual seemed to be there. Auggy stepped back and another man appeared on the stand.
“My name is Hugh Hefner. I represent the male gender, and this is for all the ladies out there. Sorry about dominating and controlling you for all those milleniums, not letting you vote or learn to read…I guess that was kind of dumb. We were just trying to protect you—well, some of us were, anyway—cause we’re like that, you know. Anyhow, I guess we just went about it all wrong. Sorry.”
Hugh sat, and a woman appeared on the stand.
“My name is Sydney Barrows, and I represent the female gender. Sorry about using our collective feminine wiles to get you to do all that heavy lifting…and controlling your very existence with sex. It was just so easy, you know, and I guess we got in a rut.” She turned to Auggy and smiled. Auggy started to smile back, then caught himself and scowled at her. “Thank you. Please take a seat,” he muttered.
The next man to appear on the stand introduced himself as Leroy Wilkins. “I’m here representing myself,” he said. “I’d like to apologize to all women on the planet between the ages of 15 and 45 for having sex with you in my mind. I, uh, y’see, I came from a broken home, and, um….” Auggy growled at him and moved forward. Leroy cringed a bit, said “Sorry” into the microphone, and slunk off the podium into a seat.
Another man appeared on the stand. “My name is Steven Plaka, and I represent the American Dentists’ Association. On their behalf, I would like to apologize for planting cavity seeds in the teeth of our patients. I guess you could say that was a violation of the faith and trust you put in us as tooth-care providers. Also, and I guess it’s too late now, but…we’ve had the technology to keep teeth clean, healthy, and cavity-free for some time now, but we just used it on ourselves. Sorry about that.”
The apologies continued for the rest of the week. Financial institutions apologized for viciously gouging their customers and encouraging them to incur more debt than they could ever repay in order to line their own pockets. Politicians apologized for trampling on the public trust. Hollywood apologized several times for zombifying the populace with increasingly flavorless and insipid passive entertainment, and Kathie Lee Gifford apologized for existing. Supermodels, crying rivers of mascara, expressed their sorrow over having flaunted their abnormal attractiveness, and the warping effect it had had on the self-esteem of normal women everywhere. Professional athletes wept like children while apologizing for the social violence and cultural illiteracy to which they had contributed.
At one point during the procession, a rather well-known American politician took the stand and, much to the audience’s amazement, refused to give his apology. “Ah will make no apologies foah how broken the American political system has became,” he said. “It was lahk thayut when Ah got to it, and Ah didn’t do nothin’ to make it any wohse. If theyah really was a problem, Ah’m sure Ah would have heard about it from mah staff or mah valued campaign contributors. This entiyah ‘apology’ process has been a sad farce, and Ah will not participate in somethin’ so degradin’ and insultin’ to the public intelligences.” He started to step down from the podium, but Auggy grabbed him by the collar. The man started to protest, but Auggy ignored him, and instead sat on the edge of the stage and flipped the man over his knee. He raised his hand and struck the man’s bottom, and a sound like a thunderclap rolled across the audience. He repeated the process nine more times, and then stood the man up on his feet. The audience applauded and whistled loudly. The man walked shakily to his seat, where he squirmed around in discomfort for quite some time.
Auggy stepped to the microphone. “Boy, that felt good,” he said, and the audience applauded again.
All in all, the apology process was a great catharsis. The politicians, lawyers, bankers, entertainers, doctors, mechanics, parking enforcers and telemarketers of the world helped—occasionally against their will—to air out much of society’s dirty laundry. When the apologies had all been heard, Auggy announced that the following day would be the Big Barbecue. Everyone was fine staying right where they were, he said, as the whole thing would be catered.
The next day, Auggy took his place on the podium to announce that the Big Barbecue was about to begin.
“Before we all start stuffing our faces, however,” he said, “I’ve got one announcement to make first. The past week has been dedicated to the sins and follies of those of you in the present or recent past. As I mentioned before, Judgement Day includes the present and past inhabitants of this planet. It’s time now to reintroduce your ancestors, so you can spend a little time catching up before the Big J.” With that, he nodded to the sky behind the audience, and without warning everyone on Earth experienced the same curious sensation—like a ski mask being pulled slowly up and off their heads. All around, in the homes and on the lawns and in the streets, there were suddenly people. They glowed ever so slightly, these “new” people, and once the initial shock had passed, there was much hugging and smiling and crying. Fathers and mothers, uncles, aunts and children, and an amazing abundance of dogs were reunited with their living loved ones.
Auggy looked out over the audience and smiled. “Well, my brothers and sisters, the hour has come round at last. I’m very pleased to introduce our last speaker of the millenium—He’s the Alpha and Omega, the Creator and Father of each and every one of us—ladies and gentlemen, a warm welcome, please, for…God!” Auggy swept his arm across the heavens, and the sky was suddenly filled with angels. The angels flew in from all directions, leaving trails of light behind them, and lined up in two angled columns—narrow at the top and broader at the base. They sang as they came, words and a melody that no one had heard before, but which wrapped the Earth and its souls in warmth and comfort, like a long-forgotten security blanket suddenly discovered again.
Between the two columns of angels, God appeared. He smiled and waved to the people below with His right hand as He descended all the way to the podium, His left hand bobbing up and down as though He were conducting the chorus of heavenly host that surrounded Him. When He reached the podium, He shook Auggy’s hand and whispered something in his ear. Auggy blushed, wiped a bit of barbecue sauce from his chin, and sat down on the stand behind God.
God stood before the audience and beamed, His left hand still bobbing as the angels sang behind Him. He hummed along until the song ended, and then adjusted the microphone. “I love that song,” He said. “George Handel and Miles Davis wrote that one for me.”
God cleared His throat and looked down His spectacles. “How do you like the spectacles?” He asked. “I thought they’d make me look more ‘grandfatherly’…non-threatening and all that. I hope you’re all doing well out there, my children. I’ve missed you, and I’m sorry I haven’t been able to drop by more often. Rules of interference, you know. Before we start the final ceremony, I just wanted to say how proud I am of each and every one of you. I mean that. Not your bodies, of course—your souls—My Children. As for the bodies, well…We got a special on those over at the Corpus–and a retroactive discount as well.” He growled this last part and looked up at the two very last angels in His long columns of seraphim in attendance. They waved back sheepishly. “Anyhow, you won’t be needing them any more.” As He said this, the physical bodies of each and every person still alive on the planet crumbled away into dust. “Since these bodies were a bit more…flawed…than usual, everyone will receive an automatic increase in their final evaluation by ten percent.”
“Now, I suppose some of you are still wondering what this is all about, so I’m going to tell you. The reason you were sent here—the purpose of your existence in corporeal form—was to make as much money as you possibly could. Your net assets will be the determining factor in deciding who gets into Heaven.” God paused, looked all across the audience, and then He started to laugh. It was a deep, rolling belly laugh, and it went on for some time. Finally, with tears in His eyes, He clutched the microphone and said, “You—you should see the looks on your faces! They’re priceless. Priceless, get it?” He started to laugh again, but stopped Himself after a moment. “I’m kidding, of course,” He said, and wiped a tear from His eye. “Most of you will be happy to know that money had absolutely nothing to do with your reasons for being here.
“Our name for this place is Monochronologic Training Facility Kaph, and you have all been through a very rigorous program designed to prepare you for the next phase of your existence. The program specifically requires a minimal amount of intervention from the appointed deity—that would be me—and a pre-corporeal memory block, so you wouldn’t remember anything about your pre-existence during your stay here. Your main objective was, in part, to endure a linear existence, without any significant celestial frame of reference, and to learn as much as you could about yourselves, your surroundings, and your fellow students. Scores for this section of your training are based on adherence to certain universally-accepted standards of ethics, and on your progress toward complete self-awareness and self-control. Bonus points were available for whoever was able to correctly define the nature of their own existence, but unfortunately not very many of you got those points.
“Since some of you started at a greater advantage within the particular social and cultural structures that developed during this training period, your scores will be handicapped accordingly. Some of you—quite a few of you, actually—lost your physical bodies prematurely or threw them away during squabbles amongst yourselves. Your scores will also be adjusted accordingly.
“Many of you may feel that such a grading system is unfair, but in fact it is absolutely fair. When I started this project, I programmed a database to track the actions, inactions, thoughts and intentions of every one of you. I’m quite pleased with it, and I may be marketing it to some of my fellow deities. The point is, you’ve all been judged by the same criteria, and all the data about your behavior is available for your review.
“Unfortunately, some of you didn’t quite make the cut, even with the ten-percent increase. I’m afraid that the rules prevent us from re-training you, so you will be sent to stay with my cousin Osiris and work in his aether processing plant. He’s promised to look after you, but I’m afraid you won’t be allowed to visit with any of your brothers or sisters outside of the plant.
“If you’re paying close attention, I’ve answered some of your possible questions already. Why didn’t I end suffering or hunger or cruelty? Why were there wars or plagues or famines? Wouldn’t it have been easier to be good if you knew for sure there was an afterlife? Well, as I said, my hands were tied, and I couldn’t have intervened in such noticeable ways even if I wanted to. Believe me, there certainly were times when I wanted to. Famines, plagues, wars, and all the rest—these things were not punishments. Well, okay…with a few exceptions, they weren’t punishments. These things were simply natural occurrences, or events caused by the actions or inactions of your brothers and sisters. I could not rescue each of you every time you got in hot water, or you’d never learn to think and act for yourselves, and I’d never get anything else done. As for presenting myself to you, I did send Jesus in my stead, and most of you either ignored Him or twisted His words to serve some other purpose. I have to say, on that point, this is the only planet out of millions that has actually killed the physical body of a deity. I know, only a few of you are really to blame for that, but it’s not exactly a good thing to be known for. As for myself, I did drop by to visit occasionally, and I was watching you constantly. I often intervened in small ways when I was asked nicely—usually just a nudge in the right direction was all that was needed.
“Now, I know there are a lot of you who are wondering about whether your religion was the right one or not, and I know some of you are certain that yours is the correct faith, but it’s not really that simple. Many of the philosophies that came out of this training period had elements of the larger Truth in them. As Auggy pointed out a week ago, though, the meaning of existence is different for everyone. That means no other person or book or philosophy could tell you exactly how to live your life or contribute to the world around you, and even if they could, you’d be missing the entire point. Let me be absolutely clear on this—you were all here to find enlightenment, not to have it handed to you. Creativity, discovery, reflection, and unconditional love of yourselves and others—these are some of the things I had hoped you would explore and emulate. Many of you did, but many of you got caught up in the technical minutiae of philosophies that someone else gave you. That, to borrow a colloquialism, is a cop-out.
“But enough about that. Your learning hasn’t ended here, and those of you who made it through this part of your training without embracing chaos and sorrow will have the opportunity to continue your education for some time to come. This planet has served our purpose, and I thank her for her patience during this training period. Now it is time for us to move elsewhere in the cosmos. You may have noticed earlier that I said part of the reason for your corporeal existence was to understand yourselves. That is true, but it’s not all, and in fact that’s not the largest component of your evaluation.
“By your very existence, you have each been endowed with the most wondrous gift that the cosmos can conceive—you have the capacity, the innate ability to know joy. Not mere satisfaction or pleasantness—engulfing, enthralling, consuming joy. Your souls are all attuned to this remarkable state—in theory, joy would come to each of you as easily as the ground comes to you when you fall down, as easily as air finds its way inside your bodies. Your bodies, however, were designed to mask joy, just a little bit, so you had to do a little looking to find it and understand it. You can’t really fathom joy without being deprived of it, after all. As a deity, the hardest thing to watch was seeing my children within arm’s reach of this gift and unable—or unwilling—to embrace it. The beauty of joy is that it is as diverse as you are, and then some. There is a unique variety of joy awaiting each and every one of you, and only you can determine what that is. You are the sculptors, fashioning your personal harmony and peace out of the raw materials around you, with your senses and your minds as your tools.
Site Contents © 2004 Robert M. Rowan