Death on the border


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Death on the border
By Bobby Neal Winters
Willie let the storm door whack closed behind him and ambled out to his workshop carrying a can of peanuts. He used both hands. The day was long passed that he could have done it with one. Nonetheless, there was speed in his step. It was ten before five and his poker buddies would be arriving soon.
This game had been running for years. Nickel ante and never more than a couple of dollars in the pot, it was a friendly game and set a rhythm for the week as much as church or the Masons. A week without Friday night poker had something wrong with it. This pulse of life had brought Willie well passed eighty.
It was usually the same folks who played, though every once in a while someone would invite a neophyte over to be plucked. These new folks came and went without making much of a ripple except for the change they left behind them.
This failure for the newbies to break in might have been because, in spite of the low stakes, it was a serious game. The gentlemen who sat around the table were accomplished practitioners of the art reading tells and doing what it takes and could’ve held there own anywhere. It was only by some odd statistical fluke that they were brought together in the borderland of Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma where they could sharpen their skills on each other.
Willie was the best of the lot and the price of being the best meant he had to provide the place to play, the peanuts, and the beer. That place was the workshop which was 10 feet from his house.
No sooner had he entered his shop on this particular evening than began to feel a tightness in his chest. He had a few peanuts before he started on his way over and he suspected they were giving him gas. He put the can of peanuts down on the card table, and the tightness seemed to pass into the area of pain, but then it was gone.
At the same time, a cloud must’ve passed out from in front of the sun because it seemed much brighter outside.
Willie turned to take a look and didn’t notice much different, but when he turned back there were two men on the opposite side of the card table from him.
“Oh,” Willie said, startled, “I didn’t see you come in.” They were an odd pair. Folks like these didn’t pass through his borderland town very often.
One was dressed in a white suit, wearing a white turtleneck underneath his coat. There was a golden cross dangling on his chest and a peaceful expression on his face that stopped short of a smile.
The other wore a grin that was nothing short of evil and was attired in black from the hair on his head down to his shiny shoes. His eyebrows were bushy and rose to points on either side. He wore a necklace too, but his was of some dark metal and sported an inverted 5-pointed star as its pendant.
“Most people don’t see us coming,” answered the one attired in white. “But they can’t ignore us once we arrive.”
This seemed to annoy the other one.
“Stop being philosophical,” he retorted. “It’s too late for that.”
They were fighting with each other. Willie thought it might be entertaining to have a pair like these two nipping back and forth during a game.
“Would you like a beer and some peanuts?” he asked. “The rest will be coming soon.”
“I’m afraid they won’t,” said the one in black, whom Willie was beginning to think of as Slick. “That is over forever.”
There was finality in the way Slick said ‘forever’ and he seemed awfully happy about it. The white clad one, who Willie had christened in his mind as the Padre, assumed a pastoral look on his face.
“What he means to say is this,” the Padre began slowly. “That pain you felt in your chest was a massive heart attack. Time as stopped for you as you know it. In the time of the world, one of your friends will enter your workshop in a few minutes and find you on the floor. He’ll dial 911, but you are already dead. I am sorry. This is something that comes to every human.”
Willie looked at the Padre and knew he was telling the truth. Willie had been getting along in years and knew his time on earth wouldn’t go on forever, so—at least in some sense—this wasn’t unexpected.
“So what’s next?” he asked. “When do I go up to heaven?”
At this Slick’s already pronounced evil grin bloomed into full malice.
“I am afraid there is a problem,” the Padre said heading off Slick. “I know you go to church, so you’ve probably know our Father is a God of laws.”
Willie nodded his head. He was following so far, but he wasn’t sure he liked where it was leading. He let the Padre continue.
“Well, there are rules about how you get into heaven. There are requirements. At one point, it was fairly simple, but the came the Protestant Reformation and things became complicated.”
“Complicated?” Willie echoed.
“Yes,” the Padre continued. “Before that particular schism there was the Church of Roman and the Eastern Orthodox, and though they—I should say their theologians-care a lot about their differences no one else does.
“But then came the Protestant split, and then they split, and so on and so on. It really has become complex.”
Willie was beginning to get really confused, so he attempted to direct the Padre toward simplicity.
“What does this mean to me?” he asked.
“Do you remember enough of your history to remember the line the Pope drew to divide the world into the part to be controlled by Spain and the part to be controlled by Portugal?” the Padre asked.
“Yes,” Willie answered.
“Well,” the Padre said, “the world is similarly divided into Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant sections, and just as there is a border between Portuguese-speaking Brazil and the Spanish-speaking remainder of South America, there are borders between these different branches of Christianity.
“It’s actually much more complicated than the lines the Pope drew too. We refer to it as the crazy quilt up in the office.” The Padre came near a laugh when he said this last.
However, Slick was beginning to lose patience. He turned on the Padre.
“Your kind just doesn’t have the balls to break bad news, do you?” he spat. “Get on with it. I am sick of this Forsaken burg already. What I ever did to deserve being transferred out of Saint Louis to these stinking sticks I will never know.”
The Padre endured Slick’s outburst patiently, but when he returned to his task he was more succinct.
“Your house is in Catholic territory,” he said. “But this garage is Protestant. If you had died in your house, you would be judged by Catholic rules, but you died in your garage, so you will be judged by Protestant rules.”
Willie was beginning to have a bit of sympathy with Slick’s annoyance. He repeated his question.
“So what difference does that make to me?”
The Padre’s eyebrows arched and continued his explanation with renewed vigor, apparently oblivious to Willie’s growing impatience.
“Ah,” he said, “it makes a world of difference. There are so many Protestant sects that we’ve had to create an amalgam. The Protestant rules are as much a crazy quilt, as it were, as the jurisdictional map, a veritable Coat-of-Many-Colors, as it were.”
Slick stuck his hands in front of himself with fingers bent and his nails extended like a cat’s claws.
“Tell him you milquetoast do-gooder,” Slick said in a hiss, the pupils of his eyes going to slits. “Tell him. It’s not like any delay now is going to take from his time in eternity.”
The Padre was only a bit taken aback by this.
“To make a long and fascinating story short,” he said, “the main thing the Protestants agree on is that a sin is a sin. Murder, rape, genocide, or, say, gambling, it makes no difference. They are all the same and they all cause separation from God. A problem for in that there is no universally agreed upon Protestant remedy. Had you lingered in your house but a moment longer and died there you would have been eligible for last rites, for having candles lighted for you, or for having prayers said for you soul. However, the reality of the matter is you died here in your garage getting ready to partake in a sin, a venial sin, but a sin nonetheless.
“I am afraid that message my opposite is so eager to tell you is that you are going to hell.”
Willie was aged, but his mind worked well. He asked a question to stall so he could think.
“By Hell, what do you mean?” he asked. “I’ve read where there are different levels of Hell.”
The Padre smiled ruefully.
“Ah, yes,” he said, “another Catholic notion. The Protestants reject degrees of Hell, other than degrees Fahrenheit.—Oh, I am sorry, that was inappropriate.—No, I am afraid that the Protestant sects agree almost unanimously that Hell is Hell just as Sin is Sin. You get full Hell at the level of Satan and all his angels. I am so sorry.”
Willie paused now before saying anything else. He had to be careful because he had at most one chance. From the exchange so far, he had gotten the picture that these two entities before him were not the best the afterlife express had to offer. Slick had been sent to the boondocks for punishment and the Padre seemed to be just short of a full deck.
Full deck.
That phrase caused something to snap into place.
Willie smacked his lips a little and spoke.
“Well,” he began slowly, “I was always raised to take my medicine like a man, and I can see you and your friend are anxious to get back to work, so I guess we’d just better go.
“I do wish, though, that I’d gotten to play just one more night of poker. It’s taking me to Hell, but I’d really like another round.”
He turned now to Slick and spoke to him directly.
“You know, there was a style I learned in Saint Louis that you might appreciate.”
At the point Slick did something that surprised both Willie and the Padre. He laughed out loud.
“Old man,” he said with the scariest smile Willie had ever seen, “you’ve heard too many old songs. Do you think you can play me for your soul?”
Willie shook his head and wafted his palms.
“Oh no, oh no,” he said. “How could you ever think that? How could you ever put a soul in a pot? And any way, I am strictly a nickel, dime, and quarter man.
“No, I just missed having my Friday night game.” He paused for a moment and then continued. “I can see why you wouldn’t want to play. You’ve got nothing to gain. What do I have that you would want? And if you lost...”
“What!” Slick exploded. “You straw-gnawing hick, what makes you think you could ever beat me?”
“Oh no,” Willie said, “I didn’t mean to offend. If I were to beat you by accident...”
“Deal the cards!” Slick ordered, as he sat at the card table. “What do we use for chips?”
It was the Padre’s turn to look disgusted, but he sat beside Slick.
“I’ll just dig out some of my old change from over here,” Willie said as he pulled a five-gallon popcorn can out and distributed roughly equal amounts of change to himself, Slick, and the Padre.
He sat down, had Slick cut the cards, said, “Omaha,” and dealt.
Willie folded on the first hand and Slick won it from the Padre. Then Slick deal a round of Seven Card and won that the same way.
Then the Padre dealt a round of Draw. This time it was the Padre’s turn to fold after the ante and for Willie to go head-to-head with Slick. Willie took the pot at the end and he could have sworn he saw smoke come out of Slick’s ears. This pattern continued for a couple of hours. Both the Padre’s pots and Slick’s gradually shrunk and Willie’s grew.
Then came the last hand in which Willie had a threes full of twos against Slick’s three Aces. Slick was livid.
“Well,” he croaked, “its over, but so much the worse for you. I will take a personal delight in torturing you myself for the next million years or so. You have no idea the sorts of things we have...”
At this point, Willie interrupted him.
“I don’t think so,” he said, much more calmly than he felt. “I’m not going anywhere with you until you’ve settled your debt.”
Slick was confused.
“Settled my debt?” he said. “I don’t have a debt to settle. You’ve got all my money.”
Willie shook his head.
“That wasn’t your money,” he said, “that was my money. Now if you look at that sign behind you at the back of the shop, you will see it says ‘All debts to be settled before you go home.’ I loaned you the money, and now you have to pay me back before you go anywhere. This is my shop, my game, and my rules. Now I might be willing to settle if you agree to leave and let me go with the Padre over here.”
Slick looked at him with disbelief.
“You are out of your mind,” he said. “We agreed before the game that we weren’t playing for your soul. That was said specifically.”
“That’s right,” Willie agreed. “We did, but this isn’t about my soul. This is about borders and rules. My shop, my game, and my rules—we’ve always played a cash game here. Now why don’t we settle this like gentlemen and pretend that I died thirty feet to the east of here.”
The Padre, who had been silent up to this point, now spoke.
“He’s right,” he said. “I think that by a mutual agreement of all parties concerned we could fudge the boundary a little.”
Slick drew himself to his full height and roared.
“But I am not agreeable! I will tear him limb from limb, reassemble him, and then do it all over again. I will...”
The Padre then spoke with a steel Willie would not have thought him capable.
“You will agree or you might just find yourself assigned to a place worse than this,” he said almost nose to nose with Slick. “Now leave. He’s mine.”
Then Slick was simply gone.
Willie turned to the Padre.
“I want to thank you for that,” he said. “You are made of tougher stuff than I took you for. I guess we’ll be going to Heaven now, eh? I am ready.”
The Padre looked serious and waited a moment before he spoke.
“Not heaven,” he said, “not quite yet. We’ve agreed to fudge the borders so that you are in Catholic territory. You have enough venal sins on your record to keep you in Purgatory for a minimum of 30 thousand years. There will be no Heaven for you until you are purged of those sins.”
Willie looked dejected and stared at the top of his feet.
“Thirty thousand years,” he said, shaking his head. “That is a mighty long time, mighty long. I guess I’d better get started on it.” He took a step or two and then stopped in his tracks. “Hey, before we go, do you think we could play another hand of cards?”

Daniel Webster and the Devil...It is a great one upmanship concept. When man has nothing to lose and everything to gain, he becomes one at his best...A most enjoyable story Okie. :)