A taste of hell

A sick man watches while his wife struggles with the taxes

The author, a retired Butte College English instructor, is a frequent contributor to the CN&R.

Though I’m not sure I believe in hell, I have no trouble imagining what it could be like. I’ve just lived through it, and for those who believe in hell but need motivation to be good in order to avoid it, I’ll offer a taste of what a perfect hell might be.

You are sick with the worst head cold/sinus infection ever known to any organism with a respiratory system. The wastebasket beside your bed is overflowing with ratty little balls of Kleenex. Your nose has developed a pulse, and your nostrils resemble the irritated skin heretofore known only by flagellants on a thousand-mile pilgrimage.

In the next room, your wife is doing the taxes, an annual slice of hell that overmasters her skills. Though she holds post-graduate degrees and has worked as an analyst in both state and federal government, she is muttering as she reads instructions from the tax code aloud.

She does this because she thinks that reading these arcane bits of language aloud will make them more intelligible, but also because she wants you to feel her pain, and to punish you for being the sort of person for whom such a task is even more impossible than it is for her.

And though your wife is ordinarily a pleasant, attractive and loving human being, doing the taxes transforms her, allowing you a dim understanding of how the medieval mind came up with gargoyles.

Your best hope is that your wife will remain oblivious to your honking and hacking, piteously absorbed in the attempt to comply with the dictates of a fiendish government written in words that didn’t begin as any known language.

Sometimes you drift off into antihistamine haze, a condition something like sleep, but alive with the highlight reel of every stupid, embarrassing or borderline-criminal thing you’ve done, busted by everyone from your mother to agents of the CIA.

You return to consciousness hearing your wife speaking in that voice from the soundtrack of The Exorcist. The fact that you bought a new car in the previous year threw her into a twisted tributary of the tax code, and she is beating against the current, trying to get back to the main channel. Should the computer crash at this point and she be forced to start over, hell would exceed the fiendish imagination of any imaginable Satan.

And, if that ain’t hell, all that’s lacking is eternity.