The last time you took Ambien,
you were on vacation in Vancouver, British Columbia,
staying at a small respectable hotel.
Your wife was asleep and you were asleep
but, at a certain moment,
you got up--
perhaps to use the bathroom,
perhaps driven by some other imperative in your dream--
and the story gets murky after that.
You must have gone through a doorway--
and the door must have locked behind you--
and you must have felt that you couldn't get back in.
So you went forward--
down a long hall
then through a second doorway,
down a flight of stairs
then through another door
that also locked.
You're not sure what happened after that
but, when your feet hit the cold pavement
and you felt the cool spring breeze against your ass,
you woke up enough to know
that you were standing outside
in a foreign country
wearing nothing but a t-shirt
and that a busy 24-hour McDonald's
was just two doors away.
Peering in through the hotel's glass door,
you could see that most of the lobby lights were off--
the front desk, dark.
Without the benefit of glasses,
you squinted at the instructions on the hotel entry system
then punched in the designated code.
A man picked up.
"I was sleep walking," you carefully explained.
"And I'm standing here not wearing any pants."
After a thoughtful silence, he asked for your room number,
your name, your wife's name then said,
"I'll be down."
he came and let you in,
walked you to the elevator,
put in his card key,
pressed the button for your floor
then jumped back out as if you were a monster.
You ascended to your floor
where your sleepy wife met you,
wrapped you in a blanket,
and brought you back to your hotel room
where you immediately fell back into bed.
In the morning, at first, you thought you'd dreamt it
but when you asked your wife,
she told you that you hadn't.
Now, reflecting on it,
you realize that life propels us forward
and that all the doors behind us click shut.
We can't go back.
In a way, you think,
we're always standing naked at the door--
our bodies roused by an insistent breeze.
and, one rainy afternoon when school lets out,
you go to Karl Mueller's house to play.
Karl sits behind you in first grade
and knows a bunch of fascinating stuff.
You leave your muddy sneakers on the doormat
and hang your yellow slicker in the bathroom.
Karl's mother calls the two of you into the kitchen
and serves you each a glass of carrot juice.
You're pretty sure you hate the way it tastes
but Karl gulps his down so so do you.
After you have swallowed the last swallow,
you thank his mom and follow Karl down
a narrow flight of stairs into the basement.
His playroom is musty, dark, and lined with heavy books.
He's pushed his toys to one side
and the floor is strewn with ragged notebooks and thick black crayons.
You and Karl speak of many things--
kickball, The Jetsons, chewing gum--
but at some point the discussion turns to fear
and Karl asks you what you are afraid of.
"Ghosts," you say. "And sometimes scary monsters."
He studies you and ponders your response
then removes a heavy volume from a bookshelf.
"There's only one thing that really scares me--" he says.
With this he begins leafing through the book.
"Who's the Devil?" you ask.
And he shows you a picture of a blood red figure with horns and claws and a leering wicked face--
a figure so hideous, so revolting
that a cold wave of terror washes over you.
"Do you know how you meet the Devil?" Karl asks.
"No," you say, trying to contain your fear.
"If you sin and don't ask for forgiveness--
if you sin, you go to Hell.
That's where the Devil lives.
"Hell is a land of fire.
It isn't like a camp out or a party--
something you look forward to then it happens then you go home.
Hell is a place where you burn--
where you're tortured and whipped by the Devil
and the torture doesn't stop.
Once you die and go to Hell, it's like you're still alive only you're dead but not really.
when you're in Hell
you keep burning and you keep getting whipped and tortured, whipped and tortured
over and over and over again.
And it never stops.
"Think about what it would be like to just keep burning," your friend whispers.
And you think about when you accidentally touched the red hot burner of your mother's electric stove.
"Imagine your face pressed against the burner of
your mom's electric stove," your friend whispers as if he knows your every thought.
"Imagine your cheek right up against that burner."
Then he holds up the picture of the Devil once again
and you have to look away.
You're terrified and want him to stop talking.
"Then he holds up the picture of the Devil once again
and you have to look away.
You're terrified and want him to stop talking.
"that it's not a burner but a giant waffle iron and that the Devil is pressing down hard so that you're burning on both sides--
your skin sizzling like strips of bacon in a frying pan.
And you stay like that for all eternity."
"Won't you burn to death?" you ask.
your friend whispers,
"because you're already dead!
You burn in Hell for all eternity.
So you walk home at four in the afternoon
and you're afraid.
2. A Counterargument
When you get home, you ask your mother if she's ever heard of the Devil
and she says, "Yes.
That's a myth that some people believe in.
But in our religion we don't believe in the Devil.
It's just a story."
"Well, what about Hell?" you want to know.
"We don't believe in Hell either."
"Then what happens after we die?"
"After we die everybody goes to Heaven," she says.
But you're strangely unconvinced.
3. Fifth Grade
When you're in fifth grade, you notice Katie Philpotts in the far corner of your classroom.
And you notice that she's suddenly developed breasts. And,
without being too obvious,
you look over at her as much as you can.
And at some point you pop a giant boner
and you have to take deep breaths to make it go away.
after you have your bedtime glass of milk,
you go to bed
and you're lying face down, your face buried in your pillow.
And you start to think about Katie Philpotts.
your peter springs to life
and you notice that it feels incredibly good
to rub against the mattress.
Then you think,
What if this is a sin?
And what if there is a Hell?
What if Mom is wrong and everyone else is right?
And then the image of Katie Philpotts fades away
and in its place you see that blood red Devil that Karl Mueller showed you years before.
4. The Adult
As an adult you think about death a lot.
You're ostensibly an atheist and you say that when you die you die.
Then you think of all the bad things you've done--
placing your own self-interests above those of others,
taking pot shots,
employing hurtful sarcasm to make you look good and everyone else look bad.
And you think about that leering Devil
and the idea that--
if your first grade friend was right--
you could burn for all eternity.
Isn't that what you secretly believe?
Don't you pray on airplanes when the weather's rough?--
a sure sign that you believe in God,
atheist though you profess to be.
Then you think, Nah,
Surely, Hell is--
as you've heard C.S. Lewis once suggested--
reserved for big time sinners,
not small fry like you.
Then you think:
But what the fuck does C.S. Lewis know?
He could be in Hell right now for underestimating the scope of his own sin.
The Devil, you figure, is right there in your mind--
or else God is
(and he's telling the Devil what to do).
And one or the other of them is thinking:
He thinks he's going to get out of it--
just like C.S. Lewis did.
What a fool!
Herb Guggenheim's poems and short stories have appeared in a number of magazines, including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Poetry Quarterly, and Gargoyle. He's been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net Award. Mr. Guggenheim's rhymed poem "Countdown" received an honorable mention in the 2015 Writer's Digest annual writing competition. He is the author of Sunset at the Hotel Mira Mar (Infinity Publishing, 2011) and the chapbook, Strange Encounter at the Shakespeare Motel (Finishing Line Press, 2015).