Moving to a new place is always an exhausting hassle, particularly when the move is unexpected. It was the last thing I needed on a busy Saturday.
I’d worked all night on the E-Zee-Kleen campaign and e-mailed a presentation to my boss at daybreak. Then I’d taken the kids to the park, dropped them at their mother’s, gone downtown to pick up my new Chevy, wrapped it around a tree and died of multiple head injuries. The whole weekend was very stressful.
I suppose I should have been grateful that I’d wound up in Heaven – frankly, I wouldn’t have put money on it – but as I settled into my new apartment on Redemption Avenue, I was too weary to count my blessings. I was heading for my tasteful magnolia bedroom when a sheet of paper slid in under the front door. The script was loopy and old-fashioned – it might have been written with a quill pen.
Dear Piers Goodman,
Welcome! My apologies for imposing on you so soon after your arrival, but I would be honored to receive you at my house forthwith.
An address was given, and a small map provided directions. The note was signed George Washington. I set off at once, looking for a white colonial mansion on Ascension Boulevard.
“I’m leading a new endeavor,” said the first President of the United States of America as he showed me into the library, “and I think you might be able to help.”
I couldn’t imagine what help a recently-deceased advertising copywriter could possibly offer George Washington. I’ll say that again – George freaking Washington! White wig. Thin smile. Friendly eyes. Spooky, or what? But you adjust real fast. As soon as I got over the surreal feeling that I was talking to money, it was like having a conversation with an uncle who’s been overseas for several years.
“I’ll do whatever I can, of course. What’s the project?”
I settled in a divinely comfortable armchair and the Father of Our Nation explained.
Apparently there was consternation at the top level in Paradise concerning the Cosmic PR Struggle. (Those were George’s exact words. His discourse was formal and occasionally antiquated in structure, but he spoke in perfectly fluent twentieth-century English. I was to discover that everyone spoke like that, and I decided not to think about it too much. As Mahatma Gandhi later advised me during a game of volleyball, ‘You gotta play ‘em like they come down, dude.’)
The Devil, George said, not only had the best tunes, he had far and away the best marketing too. So the Ineffable Being had formed a committee to produce some cutting-edge propaganda that would big-up the whole Righteous Life thing.
“It’s very important to the Boss that we’re professional about this,” GW told me, “and that’s where you come in. But it’s just as vital that we are honest. It’s an image issue. As I understand it, your profession is not renowned for its, umm, implacable commitment to leaving the truth unvarnished.”
This, it turned out, was why I had been approached. I go easy on the varnish. “You are the most honest advertising man that ever lived,” George told me. “I’ve checked your record.”
I preened a little, surprised but rather pleased. George leaned forward and laid a hand on my arm. “Don’t get too puffed up, son. It’s a bit like being the world’s least sleazy pornographer.” He smiled and sat back. “But we’d value your input.”
“Who’s ‘we’?” I asked him
George opened a drawer and took out a ring-file, which he handed to me.
“This is an introductory résumé of those on the committee. Every one of them has a reputation for unimpeachable honesty. Our first meeting takes place here at noon tomorrow. A finger buffet will be provided.” He winked. “The ambrosia vol-au-vents are to die for.”
The following day I was more than a little nervous. The committee consisted of some serious stiffs, and they were all seated at the table when I arrived. To the right of GW, in a gold-trimmed tunic, there was a slim, sassy-looking chick called Pythia. She’d apparently been the first and most impressive Delphic Oracle. Beside her was Sir Galahad – the purest of King Arthur’s posse – who was a broad, open-faced young guy, but as I watched him attempt to prong a piece of Stilton with his broadsword, I formed the opinion that his had not been the brightest helmet on the Camelot hat-rack. Siddartha Gautama, known better as the Buddha, came over to say hi, insisting that I call him Sid – and he introduced me to Leo Tolstoy who, according to my notes, was well known for his dedication to the truth, however unpleasant.
“I just skimmed your biog in the hand-out,” Tolstoy whispered to me as we took our seats. “Loved your slogan for Camel Lights. That’s telling ‘em.”
The file quoted my most famous shout-line which, as the Russian mentioned, was for cigarettes. “Go ahead! You wanna live forever?” I’d won five awards for that.
“Well,” George said when we were settled, “I’m not sure how we should start. Any ideas?”
There was a lot of glancing around and blinking. Eventually Galahad spoke up.
“Well, surely we should promote the benefits of a life of chastity, temperance, piety and constant prayer.”
I suppressed the impulse to snort. Next to me, Tolstoy failed to do the same.
“Whose side are you on?” he asked. “Unless the human race has changed dramatically since I was last paying attention, that pitch could cause the Pearly Gates to rust shut through lack of use.”
“Anyway, it’s too complex,” Sid put in. “We need a hook, a slogan. Like – and stop me if you’ve heard this – Be at One with the Universe.”
“Wow,” said Pythia dryly, reaching for a manna sandwich. “Even I’d be embarrassed by a pronouncement that woolly.”
I’d been to meetings like this before, but the current one, I realized, could literally go on forever - and I had other plans for eternity. I raised my hand. George turned to me with a look of undisguised relief.
I nodded. “Look, I know I’m new here, but I can finger one huge problem right away.”
“Just one?” Sid chuckled.
“Actually, Sid,” I said, looking at him, “you’re part of the problem. According to the patter I got as a kid, you shouldn’t even be here. Neither should you, Pythia. So I think what we’re facing is a case of brand fragmentation.”
A little jargon always impresses the uninformed. Right away I had their full attention. I stood up and strolled around – I improvise best on the move.
“In the short time I’ve been in town,” I said, “I’ve seen turbans, crucifixes, saffron robes and yarmulkes. There’s a mosque two blocks from here, a cathedral across the street and what appears to be an Aztec pyramid on the far side of the lake. To an agnostic lapsed Baptist, it’s all a bit of a shock.”
I told them that we needed to focus on the essential validity of all faiths. Or lack of faiths, given that Tolstoy had got in and he was a screaming atheist. If we could get that across, we’d be opening up the possibility of eventual Paradise to a whole new mortal market.
“I mean, what really are the criteria for admission?” I asked. “It was never clear to me when I was alive and it’s become no more apparent now, to be honest.”
My fellow committee members glanced sheepishly at each other. They fiddled with their fingers. None of them met my eye.
“What?” I demanded. “It’s not something stupid like your star-sign, is it?”
George folded his hands on the table and let out a long sigh. “I cannot tell a lie,” he said. “The fact is – we don’t know.” He shrugged. “The Big Guy has never told us.”
“It’s a sacred secret,” Galahad offered. “An ineluctable mystery. A shrouded…”
“It’s an almighty scam, if you want my opinion,” Tolstoy interrupted. “I’ll be damned if I can see any rhyme or reason to it.”
“Or rather, you won’t be,” Pythia said. “You weren’t. Here we all are - not damned - and we have no idea why.”
Terrific. And I thought the Exxon account was a bitch.
“George. Call me George.”
We were alone in the library after the meeting, sharing a very decent bottle or three of something deep red and unquestionably alcoholic.
“George,” I continued. “I have to tell you - we are fu… Umm. We’re in trouble.” I sipped my drink. “We have to come up with a campaign for a product that we’re not allowed to know about. That’s tough. But we also have to be scrupulously honest about it. That’s just impossible.”
“You’re originally from Philadelphia, aren’t you?” the old man said. The pink flush of a glass too many had blossomed on his cheeks, and he hadn’t been listening to me for several minutes. “Oh, I loved Philly. What larks! What conversation! Oh, the plans we made there!”
“George,” I persisted, “we are going to have to get some kind of formal spec from upstairs. We can’t get it right if we don’t know what right is.”
“What news of the Thirteen?” George murmured, gazing not at me but at some remembered past just over my left shoulder. “We don’t get to see what’s going on back home, you know. No dispatches from the old place. I often wonder.”
I bit my lip. I wasn’t sure he would really want to be told about the state of the Union.
“Look,” I said, “I ought to be going. I’m going to have a murderous hangover in the morning.”
George snapped his attention back to me. “No, you won’t, my lad.” he chuckled, slapping me on the bicep. “Wouldn’t be much of a heaven where you got hangovers, would it? One more for the road?”