On my last trip into the afterlife I found myself in Purgatory, and one of the first people I encountered was an old friend, Harvey. Harvey had been dead for about six years. I was surprised he was in Purgatory because I had always thought of him as a stand-up guy, and expected he would be up there in heaven, playing the lute with the angels. (He had been a guitar-player among other things, but it is hard for me to imagine guitar-playing in heaven, and certainly I had never seen anyone engaged in such a popular activity way up there.)
So I said, “Harvey, what’s this?” He looked like a ghost. He was a ghost, standing at the edge of a boggy lake. He had a handful of coins on him, and he kept dropping them from one hand to the other. “Shouldn’t you be in heaven?”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” he replied.
“But you were murdered!”
“Well, I suppose that’s how it looked.”
“Hush,” he said. “We don’t like to talk about things like that over here.”
“But I remember …”, I stuttered. “It was in the newspapers. You were an innocent victim.”
“Och,” Harvey said. He was spilling the coins from his right hand into his left, and then from his left into his right. “I don’t like that word, ‘victim.’”
“But there were witnesses. There was security camera footage. A guy pushed you in front of an oncoming subway train.”
“And let me tell you, for a second or two it hurt like hell.”
“And they caught the guy. They sentenced him to life in prison.”
“And well they should have,” Harvey said. “But I knew him. His name was Joey.”
“Yeah, Joey something-or-other. It was in the papers. His trial was in the papers.”
“Well, I don’t know anything about that, but yeah, it was Joey. He was angry about something.”
“You don’t remember about what?”
“Listen, my friend. Purgatory doesn’t mean you remember everything about your past life. That would be Hell.”
“But I don’t get it. You’re not angry? You don’t think you were an innocent victim?”
“Like I said, I am not a victim. I was not a victim. I was a fighter. I tried to make him not push me into the train.”
“But still, the law …”
“Oh yes, the law. It’s a bit different out here, you know. Hey, can you hold these for a second? I’ve got an itch on my back.”
I took the coins and I looked at him, while he bent both of his arms behind his back and scratched. The coins were American quarters. He had about four dollars’ worth to his credit.
“Ah, that’s better,” he said. “You can give them back now.”
“Okay, look,” I said, handing back the quarters. “You were assaulted …”
“Yeah, that’s how I like to put it. I was assaulted. Because murder, you know, that’s something that happens in back alleys, with guns. Or in convenience stores, if the movies have that right. Or maybe in wartime, I don’t know. They have a class in earthly jurisprudence here for those who are interested, but I couldn’t figure out how to take the class without distracting everybody with my coins.”
“It is distracting,” I said.
“Nu? You’ve only just now figured that out? But anyway, no, I figure I do not want to be a victim. It is so shameful. So I insist that that is not what I am.”
“Then what are you?” I asked.
“God knows,” he answered. “But I must have done something. Who hasn’t done something? Anything? I was never an angel. But that Joey, he was a hothead. Some would have said that he was insane, but for me, no, he was just a hothead. He had no self-control. I should have walked away. So.”
“What do you mean, ‘so’?” Harvey, you were attacked in plain sight! By your own account, you died almost instantly. Don’t you think you should forgive yourself?”
“You don’t think I’m trying? Have you ever switched coins from one hand to the other for six years?”
“But I just don’t get it,” I said. “Then what are you doing in Purgatory? Things are tough, morally speaking, here. What are you doing in the afterlife? You want answers, this is not the place to come. You want answers, try the Washington Post.”