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Canto III


The Gates of Hell

By John Danenbarger

Today, Jessie Cristo had been in such good humor. Before he lost control, he had been driving in his own world and singing along with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus on NPR. Because of last night’s snowfall, Jessie had prepared himself for a slow drive this Easter weekend on the two-lane south. But the expected congestion didn’t develop. In fact, the only vehicles Jessie had seen on this route so far were the four of them – a dark car in the lead, which he could only glimpse on the curves because it was hidden most of the time in front of the semi-trailer food truck with large graphics of unreal vegetables. Jessie mentally baptized the hunch-backed monster truck as Inferno Foods. And between Inferno Foods and Jessie’s newly-washed yellow Ford Focus was a white windowless service van like a million other white vans, and of which he later realized that he hadn’t determined the make or the State on the license plate. He had driven such a van for a bakery once as an extra job so he could well imagine these drivers – working on this holiday weekend, trying to make a deadline – cursing the creeping bundão leading the way.

Jessie wasn’t big on road rage. In fact, he liked to believe that he was recognized by his students as a calm, patient jokester. This slow crawl hadn’t bothered Jessie so far. Afterall, somebody would pass somebody, and he wasn’t going to overdo it on the drive down anyway as he headed for the South Shore for the long weekend as an uninvited guest of his old Portuguese friends and shitty relatives. He doubted what reception he might find.

So why stress? And it was such a relief to be free of the classroom – twelve special-ed students, vying for the Hooligan Championship with what Jesse called their four-star-general rowdiness, making fun of Jessie’s long hair and dangling dark sock of a beard, mocking his short stature, carving initials in the walls, and asking for grade-A miracles.

Otherwise, he didn’t much care; it was a job. Some teachers cared; that was their problem. And those same teachers, he had heard, had called him a psychopath. He thought that perhaps detached might be a better description. As far as he was concerned, he didn’t get paid enough to spend his time championing retards or protesting their harassment. And it gave him more time to be on his own and to read. He loved to read even the most demanding material, such as his present labor-of-love, Dante’s Divine Comedy, which was his planned diversion for this visit.

Today the clouds had passed. A clear day. No wind to blow the snow off the road. His car was shiny-clear of snow. Up until the approaching terrifying moment, his only irritation had been being forced to intermittently flip on and off the front fan because the outside air was cold enough that his breath repeatedly fogged up the windshield. And his only problem was that he was running low on gas. The old goat in front of the line – as likely as not reminiscing about some crowded Caribbean cruise or talking on the phone or both – was surely driving the others all louco. But Jessie kept his calm and sang along with the music on the radio.

A wave of incredulity and a pain in his gut suddenly engulfed him when he realized that the three vehicles ahead of him were not making tire tracks in the new snow. He blinked. He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them several times. He was sure they had been making tracks. He knew they had been – all three of them – or he would have noticed. Were they driving on ice now? As if to get a clearer view, his first reaction was to turn off the radio.

Anxiously squinting again at the smooth snow on the road, he could see no tracks of any kind from the three in front. He looked in the rearview mirror and confirmed his fear. As far back as he could see, he saw only the tracks of his car. And as far back as he could see, he was alone. A shivering numbness crept up through each part of him as if the undefiled cold of the snow was lifting off the road directly up into his body, and yet he was sweating. He drove off the road into the ditch. The three vehicles floated slowly on their way, seemingly without noticing him. Luckily.

Once they were out of sight and he had recovered his senses, he dared to think what he should do. Where was the other traffic? Should he turn around? Call nine-one-one? To say what? Call his so-called friends? His relatives? They – his father, anyway – who have called him everything from a gutless ghost to fraco?

He tried to back out of the snow, rocking the car – first gear, reverse – until he smelled the exhaust and thought he’d better let it be. Nothing worked, and his exertion was fogging up all the windows something terrible. And he was using up precious gas.

In capitulation, he turned off the motor to save the little gas left and called the insurance emergency-number pasted on his windshield to come get him. He closed his eyes to calm down. To wait.

--

A patrolling highway police cruiser arrives first. At least, upon wakening, that’s what Jessie assumes; he can’t really see much anymore. All his windows are iced over, but he can see the wriggling flickers of blue flashes, with the brightest blue up on the left where the road must be.

In a low voice to himself, Jessie says, “It’s about time. Bravo.”

Then next, he assumes that it’s an arriving ambulance that is interbreeding its red shimmering light into the warping ice. No sirens, just silent colored lights. Shortly afterwards, he sees even more lights – churning yellow from some rumbling new thing up there, all suggesting an incongruent carnival ride.

Jessie tries to open the window, but it is frozen. And the door is so stuck that he hurts his shoulder trying to force it open. To see better, he scratches with his fingernails at the ice that has formed on the inside of his windows, but the ice has become hard and thick enough that he is going to need a scraper or some tool, which stupidly he has never moved up from the trunk. After pointlessly searching the glove box for something to scrape the ice, he pulls his driver’s license out of his billfold, but the useless plastic does nothing but slide on the slick ice without a scratch. Again, he tries to open the window and then the door, but the unsuccessful jolts just hurt his shoulder even more.

He is thinking of starting the engine when he hears a narrow voice of a police-car megaphone from up on the road. “Anybody in there?”

“Yeah,” Jessie yells. “I called you.”

But the guy up there can’t hear the answer and he repeats the question.

Jessie yells, “Yeah, I’m here.” His yelling seeds a headache, but he screams louder, “I’m in here!” Excitedly, he knocks on the window with his knuckles to help create his existence, then taps his horn but it makes no sound. He tries to start the car, but the ignition only produces a paltry clicking sound.

He is getting a queer feeling; something doesn’t rhyme, but his unease is dissuaded by the sounds of snow being shoveled. Desperately he swats and slaps the side window with his hands over and over, while shouting, “Hey! Hey!” But soon he gives up. The pain in his head has intensified. He’ll have to wait. They don’t hear him above the rumbling, above the scraping and shoveling, and above all the loud blathering and some idiot’s chattering laughter, like some sort of hyena.

Finally above the noise, he hears someone say, “Somebody’s in there.”

Jessie whispers, ¿Qué piensas?

Then they are knocking on the window, saying something.

He presses his hands against the sides of his skull to ease the pain…to keep his head from exploding, as he yells, “What?” He feels his hair crunch from being frozen.

A booming voice yells, “Cover your head.”

Jessie says, “What? Why? What’s going on?”

“Cover your head! We’re going to break your window and get you out of there. We’re going to pull you out.”

Jessie impulsively tries to open the door again. It won’t budge. He yells as loud as he can, “Don’t break my window. Just open the damn door. I can’t open it.” He thinks his head is going to erupt; blood vessels the pulsing veins of rising magma. As he rubs his face in his hands, he is surprised to feel his cheeks are unshaven and his chin beard is a stiff, frozen slab. As they shovel more and he hears their struggling grunts of arduous work, he begins to understand – even if it is not how he remembers it – that in his hysteria he must have driven off into deep snow. But breaking his window? Why the urgency?

He hears more digging for what seems hours and finally clanking shovels scraping and scratching his car. Then unexpectedly the door opens with a reverberating thud of brute force, but only a crack – a snaking slice of red showing through.

A gravelly male voice says, “We’re digging you out. We’re almost there. Are you okay?”

Jessie says, “I’m fine.” He starts to say, “Except you’re damaging my car.” But, he no longer cares; he just wants out. In a breath of deliverance, a sliver of outside air has grabbed his headache and sucked most of it out the crack before the door is again shut.

When finally they get the door open, a white-clad man standing at the opening dressed as an EMT, blurry against the snow and holding a folded stretcher like a crosier, asks Jessie if he has any pain.

Jessie says, “Not any longer, thank you. But I think I’m a bit stiff.”

“Let us help you out and get you into the ambulance.”

“Why?”

“It’s warm in there.”

Jessie dismisses feeling cold, that his head hurts, that his shoulder hurts, or that he has ice in his hair and beard; he isn’t about to go back inside anything. Reaching for his gloves in the back seat, Jessie says, “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m fine. I’ve got my coat. Here are my gloves. But thank you. I appreciate the offer.”

When he looks up, the EMT holding the stretcher is further away. Because of the lights or maybe the bizarreness, Jessie, as much as he wants to get out, is finding it somehow intractable to move immediately until he assimilates what is outside his car.

Two EMTs are looking at someone Jessie can’t see behind his car, but whom, in a second or two, he sees is an approaching third EMT holding a water bottle. Because of their white clothing, Jessie continues to find it difficult to distinguish their outlines against the white snow. They all appear to look exactly alike and it seems they move without walking.

Three clearly-defined black-uniformed patrolmen – the lead one a woman – are descending from the road, stepping in each other’s jackboot prints in the deep snow. None is looking at him or speaking. The ambulance is nearest, looming threateningly with its company name Acheron painted in flames on the side. The only noise is from up on the road where, in front of the blinding, blinking patrol car, a monstrous red tow truck from the same company Acheron – yellow lights flashing, motor growling – is pumping its hellish grey breath into the sky from two vertical chrome exhaust pipes. He assumes the three husky guys in red jumpsuits are the tow truck crew, at whom he should be pissed for scratching up his car, or at least at the guy leaning on the shovel.

Before he can get out, the EMT holding the water bottle blocks the way and silently hands it to Jessie.

Jessie says, “Thanks.”

“You must be hungry,” the guy says in a soft voice, but offers no food.

“I could eat. Sure.” Jessie opens the bottle and realizes he is so thirsty that he guzzles the whole thing, during which nobody speaks, and during which, unnoticed, the soft-spoken EMT has moved out of sight again.

Unsure if he can make his body move, Jessie pulls on his gloves. As he gets out of the car with great effort, he senses something barely perceptible falling off his lap into the snow, but he can’t care less at the moment. His muscles ache. He involuntarily groans.

The tow-truck guy farther back, who has now made himself a seat in the snow pile, says in a thundering deep-voice, “You ought to be dead.”

There is something about this guy in a fiery red suit posing on a throne of white snow and holding that shovel vertically, blade up, that makes Jessie think Demónio. Jessie laughs to himself; he thinks the idea is probably given a boost by all the raffish lighting. He says, “Why? You poisoned the water?”

The silent response is louder than the growling truck.

A quiet breeze pricks invisibly at Jessie’s face with tiny cold needles. He wonders if the tow truck is the source of a sulfuric burnt odor. The smell feels like cotton in his nostrils and makes him open his mouth to try to breathe. He feels the smoke in his throat and the cold air stinging his teeth. In fact, the whole atmosphere is ashen, but, still, for him it is a beautiful day. He isn’t even sure if it is daytime; he is just so glad to be free of the car that he feels rhapsodic. He doesn’t really know what to say at the moment. He isn’t about to tell them about the wheel-less vehicles that had been floating in front of him. He just hopes they won’t ask why he drove off the road.

Everybody is so awkwardly quiet that he feels he should break the ice. Smiling at his own vision of breaking ice in this cold, he says, “So I got stuck. I called you and here you are, thank you very much…all of you. I would buy you all a drink if I could.”

No response.

Jessie tries again. “I mean, for all your work. Thank you, everybody. Do you think it’ll be hard to get the car pulled up on the road?”

Still nothing. No one has spoken or moved more than a head-turn since Demónio said Jessie should be dead.

Jessie laughs. “Okay, I give up. Why should I be dead?”

The nearer of the two visible ambulance guys, who is still holding the stretcher, says, “Have you seen your car?”

When Jessie turns to look, he has to admit it is a bit of a shock. Not only had his car been buried up to the windows, but it had a foot of snow on the roof.

“Wow! I hit a big ole drift. I guess I didn’t realize that.”

When Jessie turns back, the imposing black-clad figure of the policewoman is standing close, facing him. Being taller than Jessie, he finds her massive size is intimidating. The EMT has barely begun to say something more when the policewoman intrudes. Her voice is guttural and raspy. Her cheerless face is tawny and haggard like an old sailor’s; her gaze intense. “May I see your license please, sir?”

“Yes, of course.” Reaching in his jacket, he says, “I’ve got it right here.”

Before Jessie can open his billfold, the policewoman, in a bewilderingly rapid instant, reaches down in the snow, holds up the plastic card, and says, “Is this it?”

Startled by her quick movement, Jessie is momentarily dumbstruck. He cannot read her face; her nametag reads Charon. He says, “Yes. Yes. That’s it. You’re quite a magician. I tried to use it as an ice scraper. It must have been….”

She interrupts him in a jarring voice, loudly reading his license like she is swearing, “Jesus Cristo!”

“Yeah, that’s my name. Jesus Christ. My Portuguese parents were sadists and, since their last name was Cristo, they did it to me. Yea-zoos Nascimento Cristo. Even the teachers’ union gave me gaff for it, so they call me Jessie. But really in Portuguese, Jesus Christ’s my real name.” Smiling, he spreads his arms and says “Ta-da!”

But all nine of them seem creatures paralyzed, staring at him with dour, shadowed eyes like worm holes. Since, obviously, he seems to them to be some alien from Pluto, he feels a growing uneasiness. “Come on, guys. Lighten up. Lots of people have that name, especially in the Latino community. Really, guys, I’m not the original one.” He forces another laugh. Pointing at the plastic card in the policewoman’s hand and coercing another smile, Jessie says, “I’m sure that other one didn’t have one of these.”

The continuing silent response and blank expressions fully bewilder Jessie; he is becoming frightened.

Confounding him more as she hands his license back to him, the policewoman says, “No. No. That’s fine. We now have confirmed you are the one. The students will not miss you, as will no one.” As she cocks her head, he feels she looks sideways at him like a raptor. Looking down at his feet, she says, “The snow from the Nor’easter had melted enough that someone saw your car today and called us.”

I did,” he says quickly. “I called today.”

“No, sir. We did not get that call.” She pauses, barely disguising a smile. She says, “You’ve been buried here for three days.”

At her words, Jessie is struck by extreme exhaustion. The flaring lights, which had distracted Jessie from noticing their vehicles’ missing wheels, vanish; the rumbling truck is silent. In the grim light, the open ambulance rear doors expose a gaping black hole as two EMT’s, one on each arm, act as if they are guiding Jessie’s slumping body toward that darkness. But near the ambulance, they drop Jessie onto the bleak snow. He is too weak to move or even to open his eyes. He hears the doors shut above him and the chattering laughter. He hears them all - their whoops, grunts, groans, lows, giggles, yells, growls, laughs and whines - until he can’t.

Author’s Note


Dante’s 13th-century poetic work Divine Comedy is divided into Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Canto III of the Inferno contains three main episodes: the entry at the gate, the narrative of cowardly souls, and the arrival on the shore of the river Acheron. Charon is the ferryman of hell who ferries the dead across Acheron, but the cowardly angels and pusillanimous humans are left behind. Canto III expresses the highest disdain for the cowardly angels and pusillanimous humans (who had lived with neither disgrace nor praise) as being so worthless that neither God nor Satan wanted to deal with them and, thus, these souls were abandoned at the gates of hell to be ignored forever.



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