(Click picture above to view a larger image.)
by Chris M. Webb
You might be surprised by the amount of paper work needed to run the universe, especially when everything must be filled out in triplicate, which is why Dale exists. As for where Dale exists, for want of a better set of words, we'll call it The Public Works Buildings of Everything. The Public Works Buildings, a bunch of gray blocky structures, are the control center for all worlds, the afterlife, and anything else thought up or not. At the center of it all, surrounded by heaps of paper, uneaten quiche, and coffee with sour milk congealed on top is Dale. He's not a god, more of a demigod, but he administers for them. An irate god intent on teaching his worshipers a little respect can't even unleash a flood without Dale's stamp. Usually on at least five forms and, as mentioned, in triplicate. Upon which the god in question has to wait for the files to move from a series of piles on Dale's desk to the filing cabinet.
Now of course the gods do have some control over Dale. With the right amount of encouragement, Dale can be prodded to do a great many things...even to speed up on occasion. After all, bureaucracy aside, if some blasphemer says "god damn", and then gets struck by lightening ten years later while teeing up during a thunderstorm, who makes the connection? It's much more appropriate if the lightening comes shortly after the offense, although on occasion the lightning has struck before the offense (and then who could really blame the potty-mouth?).
And it was because of bureaucracy, which involves paper work, that Death itself was at Dale's door. Death wanted someone killed, which is not normally a problem for someone whose job it was to...well...kill people. But he wanted this particular person killed before her due date. Now it's one thing to push an order ahead of the stack, but to pull it once it's been filed...
* * *
"Let me get this straight," Dale said, "You want Cynthia killed." Death nodded. Ever since they'd introduced casual Fridays, Death had lost some of the mystique he used to hold for Dale. Right now, Death was wearing and pair of khakis and a button up flannel shirt.
"The problem," Dale continued, "is that she's not scheduled to die for another ten years." He squinted and looked closer at the form, "In a car wreck, I believe. I can't quite make out the handwriting."
Death nodded again.
"Are you sure you can't wait ten years? I run a wonderful dating service to bring together new arrivals with some of the older, more respected inhabitants."
Death scratched his head. He'd met Cynthia about two months ago while attending a charity function. Unfortunately, the seafood chip dip was bad and everyone got violently ill and died. Except for Cynthia, that is, as she was allergic to seafood and never touched the stuff. Death was so impressed by Cynthia's composure during the incident, not blinking once in the face of it all, that he fell instantly in love with her. After all, that's what he needed, someone who could look him in the face without blinking.
Death slumped his shoulders and looked at the floor. Dale took it as a "no" to waiting. It was painful to see Death so lovesick. He would have loved to help Death, but policy was policy.
Death reached into his pocket and took out a mitt-full of cash. Dale stared at it, his eyes widening. "The amount of paper work involved in changing an order is quite overwhelming. Just to create a possibility, everything has to be filled out in triplicate...twice... to ACTUALLY do something, well..."
Death had never given too much thought to the paper work involved before. Every morning he got his work order and went to work. He'd assumed that the names on it were pretty much random. And they had been in the beginning, until one day when some god's (no one can remember who) illegitimate half-mortal son got run over by an advancing army on horseback. Ten-thousand hooves were a lot of hooves for a half-mortal. After that, Dale took over the list to make sure nothing untoward happened again without at the very least leaving a paper trail. Soon Dale started taking on other responsibilities, such as making sure that different gods didn't inflict the same area with conflicting disasters. It just wouldn't do to have an area that was supposed to be experiencing a draught to be swamped by tidal waves.
In fact, every time the gods turned around, Dale seemed to be pushing more and more policy, continually trying to create some sort of consistency in the universe. His latest brainstorm he called "science" but it hadn't caught on yet; some gods thought it would make them obsolete. Dale had even pushed for some high-tech business solutions, such as a computer filing system, an internal telecommunications package, and a private intranet. But the gods balked. They didn't trust anything that didn't cower before them but merely beeped and made whirring noises. Dale explained that it would speed him up. (What he meant was that the more cases he could see, the more bribes he could take.) But the gods still balked. When it came right down to it, they didn't quite trust Dale either.
Death reached in his pockets and rooted around for more incentive but came up empty.
"I do want to help you," Dale continued, "and I can see right away that you need my help, but the administrative costs alone to do something like this are astronomical." Dale smiled, a huge smile: "Perhaps if we were to hold a fund-raiser, we could pull it off."
A fund-raiser...in Death's experience they were normally held to hold him off... but still it could work. He nodded.
"May I suggest a game of bingo," Dale said.
Bingo, what a good idea, Death thought.
* * *
All the gods had gathered in the Hall of No Particular Shape. Some were sitting on fluffy clouds, others on chairs or stools. A few were even perched on a fold-out sofabed. The bingo cards had been distributed, and they were all waiting excitedly, blotters in hand, for the first number to be called. The gods from India had a definite advantage, especially Kali, who was sitting behind sixteen cards, four for each hand.
"B-12," called Dale. There was a flurry of hands blotting. G-3, I-6, N
4...the flurry continued.
"Bingo!" yelled Aphrodite. She ran up to the front like a schoolgirl, her knee-high skirt flapping in the wind, to collect her prize. More than a couple gods tried to look where they really shouldn't have been looking. Death stood to the side, watching impatiently. He couldn't wait to see Cynthia -- or, to be more precise, he couldn't wait for Cynthia to be able to see him. He'd already picked out his favorite tie for the occasion. He just couldn't decide whether to wear it beneath a sweater or not. That look could be taken as either rustic or geeky. Maybe he should just go for the traditional suit and tie. Still, that could be considered too formal.
Kali was cleaning up. She had won three of the last five games. Thor's expression indicated he wanted to see what Kali would look like with his hammer upside her head. In the corner of the hall, a god had just appeared that looked like a giant doughnut. The god was looking around frantically, obviously bewildered. It was always confusing to a god right after it first snapped into existence. They often had questions like, Where am I? and Where was I before that? This was usually followed by, Did I really just cause that earthquake by snapping my fingers...cool!
Death had plans for himself and Cynthia. After he finished cleaning up following a dreadful drought in Djibouti, he was going to take her on vacation. He was thinking of Venice. He'd have to do something about the awful crowds, though. Hopefully, he'd make enough from the bingo game to take care of the required paper work.
"Bingo!" cried the raven. "I've got all four corners!"
"We're going for diagonal or horizontal lines," Dale explained again. The raven had called bingo twelve of the last ten games; he hadn't won one yet.
The fund-raiser was over and the gods had left the hall, except for the doughnut, who was still looking around confused. The Hall of No Particular Shape was one of Dale's brainstorms; it could be a palace or a hunting lodge, depending on the occasion. And of course each change required a variety of forms.
Dale was counting the take; it was very good. "Yep, this should just about cover the necessary costs," Dale said.
Death smiled. Well it was more of a smirk, but the attempt was a smile. He just hadn't had a lot of practice pulling it off. Death could see it. Walking through the streets of Venice with Cynthia, hand in...well... perhaps he would get himself some gloves. They would have to match his tie, though. And they couldn't be flashy. He wasn't into flash.
* * *
Mop, Mop, Mop...Dip...Squeeze...Mop, Mop, Mop...Dip. What had always surprised Maurice was the amount of mess a bunch of immortals could make. You'd think that with the power to create the universe they'd have the power not to make a mess, or at the very least the power to clean up after themselves. But that wasn't the case. Maurice continued mopping the floor of the Hall of No Particular Shape. What really surprised Maurice were the bingo chips he kept coming across...weren't they all using blotters? Still, it was nothing compared to the time when Mosses split the Red Sea. What did Jehovah think all the fish that had got caught off guard were going to do in the baking Egyptian sun while the Hebrews were having their Exodus? Not to mention the bloated soldiers floating around after the sea came crashing back. It had been such a mess that Maurice had been sent down just to get things going again. But the worst was that forty-day flood thing. The amount of driftwood left lying around was incredible, not to mention...Maurice cringed whenever he thought about it.
Maurice sat down with a groan; the kink in his back wasn't getting any better. He was ready to retire; two more weeks of celestial mopping, and he was going Earthside to live out the rest of his mortal days. He was looking forward to the peace. Of course, he'd be back shortly, but at least he'd have a different status...resident, as opposed to employee.
Maurice could still remember his life before he became the custodian to...well... the whole thing. He was a servant for a minor noble in Mesopotamia. It had been a pleasant enough job. However he'd had the unfortunate distinction of being the best bloody servant ever to hold a scouring pad. One moment he had been cleaning up after a banquet for a hundred when his master had made the ill-fated remark that even the gods would be lucky to have his services. Before he could even blink, he was in charge of a thousand angels trying to clean up after a surprise party that Jehovah had thrown for Odin. If he'd learnt anything from that, it was, don't surprise the God of War. He'd also learnt that sometimes it's best to botch a job because the gods had been so impressed with his work that they'd hired him full-time. They'd had to dangle an attractive retirement package in front of Maurice to induce him to accept the offer, though. What they'd failed to mention was that it would take about 4,000 years to reach the ripe old age of sixty. Maurice had done the math and he was sure that somehow he'd been taken.
He got up and headed towards Dale's office. He had a few things he had to take care of. If he left it up to the gods, he'd end up spending his retirement in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by polar bears. Gods had very little understanding of a human's real needs, Maurice thought, which might explain the plague. If the gods didn't shower for a year, they still didn't stink, and as for athlete's foot, they thought it was something Achilles had before that arrow incident. Hell, Maurice thought, some of the older gods were still trying to figure out where the dinosaurs went. Nope, Maurice would take care of his own retirement, thank you very much.
When Maurice arrived at Dale's door, there was a line, as usual. Exasperated, Maurice queued up anyway. He noticed that Zeus was just a few spots ahead of him, arguing with a god Maurice didn't know. That god had five legs, three heads, and was dappled like a cow; the imagination of the pious could be a real bummer, Maurice thought.
"If you don't want your worshipers to get hit, tell them to stop doing their rituals in the middle of a thunder storm," Zeus suddenly yelled.
"The problem is, you keep hurtling lightning at them," the other god yelled.
"Well, there's no point in aiming at a non-moving target; I've been throwing them at trees for millenniums," Zeus responded.
Maurice tried to ignore the argument; he'd heard thousands of similar ones. As long as whatever they were up to didn't make too much of a mess, he didn't care. Dale's door opened, and the crowd eagerly inched forward...an inch. Hades walked out, grasping a fresh dead. Maurice wondered if he'd finally got his hands on the vacant lot that he'd been hoping to expand into.
Finally, after many days, Maurice reached the door. Etched on it in gold lettering were the following words:
Maurice knew that some always asked, Administrator to what? The answer would be, Everything. He knew it wasn't always so, but no one seemed to remember quite when that was. The door opened, and a Doughnut walked out, looking puzzled. Maurice ignored it, and walked in. He almost tripped over a waist-high pile of paper near the door, and as a force of habit Maurice swept a few cobwebs off it as he walked by. He sat down, eyeing the quiche on Dale's desk. He thought of asking for a slice but then decided not to when he realized that Dale was using it as a paperweight.
"So, you want to retire in Hawaii," Dale said. "That's a very popular spot to retire to." Dale paused. A long-enough moment for Maurice to feel a drop of sweat run down his ribcage. "But I'm afraid it's all full up. I couldn't get you a place there for another century or two. Do you think you can hold on that long?"
Maurice fidgeted in his chair and his face slowly went red. Dale took it as a no. "Have you ever thought of Haiti?" he asked.
"How's the food?"
"I've heard it's great...cheap too."
Maurice thought for a bit. He had vague visions of majestic beaches and beautiful sunsets. He also had visions of Haitian zombies and occasional civil unrest, but he shoved those to the back of his mind, nodded and handed over the required gratuity. With a quick scribble of his pen and a heavy stamp that left an imprint in gold (which read, "Dale, Administrator"), it was done. Maurice left with a smile on his face. Haiti wasn't where he'd intended on going, but it was better than the boondocks.
* * *
Geronimo looked down at his immaculately trimmed fingernails; he got them trimmed everyday...not by choice. He hadn't had a bad night sleep in ages -- no waking up in the night because of a cold rock jammed into his spine or a hot foot that'd accidentally strayed into the fire. It was no life for a warrior. He'd known that there were many different after lives, but what he hadn't expected was to end up in the land of the Nymphs. And it was all because someone forgot to write "North American-based" before the word Indian.
A blue figure walked around a beautiful pond filled with perfect lilies, each with its own frog, and sat beside Geronimo. "So it is a bit unorthodox, but I think I can get you an appointment with Dale," Krishna said. Dale didn't normally see residents; the gods kept him busy enough.
It had taken Geronimo several lifetimes of pretending to like the manicures and foot massages given by the nymphs to get close enough to Krishna. And when he had, it had been another decade or two of subtle hints that he'd rather be charging across a plain on a horse. At this point in time, he didn't even care if he ended up in an Apache afterlife or not. A life in Valhalla with the Vikings would suit him fine. Yep, battling during the day and feasting in the Hall of Heroes at night would be just the thing. Anything short of purgatory would suit him fine (He'd had enough of waiting). if he could just get away from these sissies. He'd had a bit of hope when he first met Kali, what with her habit of filleting demons and drinking their blood before a drop of it had hit the ground. Who couldn't respect that sort of behavior? But he hadn't seen her since Dale opened a casino for gods only, right next to the hall of No Particular shape. Geronimo had heard that Krishna had tried to drag her away from the slot machines a few times, but she kept on cutting off his head. Immortal or not, that has got to hurt. Supposedly Ganesha, the elephant headed god, had had a go at trying to remove her too, and she had snipped off his trunk and fed it to a change machine.
Geronimo cringed and tightened his grip on a rock. He fought the urge to beat senseless the nymph who had started sucking his big toe. "So, when can I meet Dale?" he asked.
"Well..." said Krishna. He took a seat beside Geronimo and offered a foot to another nymph. "I think I can get you in next week."
Geronimo continued to fight for control of his anger as the nymph finished sucking his toe and applied a pumice stone to one of his calluses. One more week? Geronimo wasn't sure he could handle it. There was the sound of approaching feet, and he turned to look. A nymph carrying a nail file was coming toward him singing. Geronimo looked at the sky with a hideous grin and clenched his teeth. It was time for his manicure; one more week; one more week seemed like an eternity.
Geronimo stood in line, examining his nails; goodbye, babies, he laughed to himself and clicked his heels. He could see the gold gleaming on a door that he knew read "Administrator". Geronimo didn't think he could have survived that last week, but here he was. Well, he had thrown himself off a cliff but he had landed in a bed of roses...without the thorns, and the water had been no good, no matter how long he held his breath, he never got dizzy. And what with those flower petals floating around him, and people trying to bathe him, he couldn't stay submerged for more than a couple of minutes without losing it. Still, here he was.
Geronimo rocked on his heels, feeling the bruises there that had formed after standing for so long. He had been in line for ten hours, and it looked like there was at least that much left. He smiled, though. The first discomfort he had felt in centuries, and he was loving it.
With sweaty palms, Geronimo turned Dale's gold doorknob and pushed open the door. Dale was reclining in a square-backed business chair, complete with a coffee holder stuffed with cash. He swiveled to meet Geronimo's eyes, "Well I have to tell you," Dale said, "this is highly irregular. The changing of afterlives and all, it is just generally not done." His eyes moved to the huge shoulder bag that Geronimo had thrown over one shoulder. It had CCN written on its side...and it was full. Dale had always had a soft spot for hockey bags. He smiled.
* * *
And so that's Dale's job. He keeps business moving and makes sure that Tuesday follows Monday, that rain for the most part is wet, and that lava is always hot. He doesn't get much credit for it. No sheep are cleaved in half or virgins sacrificed in his name -- but can you imagine 10,000 different world-views coexisting as well as they do without a damn-good administrator to oversee it all?
Story © 2002 by Chris M. Webb firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration © 2002 by Samuel Delgado email@example.com
Back to Table of Contents