There was no warning this time. There was only one person in the department who had any idea of what had just occurred. Ramona Gutierrez had been there back in ‘95. She had seen this before. She also had been with the Bureau long enough to know that this would not be your father’s government shutdown. No indeed, this would be the crueler, rougher version born of nigh on a quarter century of partisan bickering. Some of them were about to reap the whirlwind.
There had been no flashing lights, no klaxons or siren’s wail, simply the smooth, almost clinical, switch of the locks on the doors. A soothing, synthesized female voice came up low, simultaneously on every computer, tablet or phone equipped to receive. She announced herself as Nancy, appearing only as a pair of heavily greased lips, smoldering under the mushy cake of the blazing red paste upon the screen. As she whispered the hum of motors rumbled from somewhere beneath the floor and the dull, slow to awaken team present in the department began to take notice that a stainless steel sheathing had suddenly risen about the room to seal them off from the outside world. Only one thought entered Ramona’s head: this shit gonna be bad!
Nancy droned on from every speaker still active in the room. “ Your department has been sequestered and will be held in a state of suspension until further notice. This is part of the consequence for this draconian Trump government shutdown, but know this, my brothers and sisters of FECAL (Federal Employees, Contractors And Layabouts): you will not be forgotten! We will fight on for you here, from the outside, we will carry on the resistance until we are back…..er, I mean, uh...until the government is reopened. This should not take more than 96 hours, during which time we ask that you remain calm and shelter in place.”
The advisory had been set in a perpetual loop. After about ten renditions the audio within the office faded as one device after another was eventually muted. Ramona surveyed the room, noting the shell-shocked expressions on every face present. She could tell the reality of their situation had not yet been fully absorbed. It was vital that she was assertive now, at the outset, to insure order.
“All right people! Let’s look sharp now! I was here back in ‘95 and ‘96. They had over a million of us on furlough. Twenty-seven days. We all made it back then and we’ll make it this time. Now just stay at your desks and try to remain busy. It’s just like any other day.”
Most of them were still just kids. Starry eyed youth with the milk from the teat of their institution of higher learning still wet upon their lips. These were the Obama years additions, the flood of youth which flocked back to celebrate government being “cool” again. Obama said so. And all the networks. Really aaanybody of any importance. They were woefully ill equipped for the hand to hand combat that sometimes erupted in Washington. Whether she wanted it or not Ramona was going to be their den mother/ drill sergeant for the foreseeable future. She observed that she had quieted their discomfiture for the moment, but the inevitable questions hovered on their lips.
“When will it be over?” “Are we still gonna get paid?” “Will we get home for Christmas?” All predictable, of course, and only answerable as I don’t know, yes and maybe. It’s only when you’re on the receiving end of government that it ever says no. Yes we can. This was their creed. What should become of these poor souls if it went on? How long before cannibalism reared it’s ugly head? Ramona had a bottle of Grey Goose and half a scrip of Vicodin in her desk should the unthinkable arise.
Christmas came and went. As did New Years. There were a few tense moments, but mostly just tears. And disbelief. “Doesn’t that madman realize what he is doing?” “If I wanted this I would have joined the army!” “This is so unfair!” Ramona had the sense that these youngsters were drawing perilously close to disillusion, upon the heels of which would soon follow despair and ultimately desperation. They were just there, at the cusp. There was but one glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel. Nancy would take the gavel of the House and the Democrat cavalry would ride into the new congress to deliver them from this plebeian revolt. When would these mouth breathers realize that government is best left in the hands of the professionals? It might take them just a few more days, but then they would be freed. Surely by Friday? Ramona kept telling herself that she only needed to hold this band of untested but erstwhile civil servants together for two more days.
For the entire week following Christmas the office had descended into a sullen fugue. They had grown listless, no longer obsessively checking their phones for updates. The droning murmur of Nancy’s voice over multiple speakers was muted now, replaced by the happy chirps and gongs of various apps such as Candy Crush and other senseless amusements. These subtle notes were a stark contrast to the somber and crestfallen expressions worn. Their lot surely could have been worse. There was still light and heat, though no truly comfortable place to sleep. Phone calls could neither be made nor received, likewise texts, yet the internet connection remained. They had discovered that they could “see out”, as it were, but could not be seen or heard. The news reports were anything but encouraging. There was one saving grace for them which came from the most unlikely of benefactors. It seems that buried deep within the last spending bill passed by the Republican controlled congress there had been a provision made for the installation of a space station grade, vacuum sealed food delivery system. It was designed for precisely such an occasion, their own work pod serving as the pilot program. All they were able to get was Dominos and Jimmy Johns, but it beat cannibalism.
In the early hours of 3 January details of Democrat congressional strategy began to unfold. Ramona understood that it might still require a few more days for these plans to be realized, but that glimmer of hope suddenly brightened. First, Nancy was allowing the House to approve an increase in the nation's borrowing limit without an actual vote, instead having it deemed approved each time the House approves its annual budget resolution. Well, that made perfect sense to Ramona! Now that is how government is supposed to work, damn it! It was time to show these Trumpsters once for all how things are done in this town! She also reviewed several sources which began to suggest that members of the Trump team were leaking details in order to prepare a capitulation, slow walking the rhetoric back from the precipice. At one in the afternoon Ramona called her team together.
“Alright people...I need everybody to listen up. As of right now it looks like this thing will be over soon. Nancy is resuming her speakership today, as I’m sure you all know. Now the actual details of a final spending bill are far from resolved, but Madame Speaker has found a path out from this evil shutdown. She has announced that the House approves any increase in the debt ceiling without an actual vote. This designates any spending as approved via the authority in the annual budget resolution.”
Ramona paused at this point to allow the news to sink in. She quickly surveyed the faces about the room to gauge their level of comprehension. In most of their faces there was only the dimmest glow of recognition. They were shell-shocked, unable to process the information as they might normally have done. There was Sanders, the ditzy blonde and youngest of their party. She would wrestle with even the most simple dispatch under the best of circumstances. Then there was Goldberg, that snarky prick from Brooklyn. He had his weasel face all screwed up like he had a mouthful of bad meat. She tried to ignore him and continued to scan the room for reactions. Ramona had to start considering that perhaps her team was further gone than she had suspected. There was numb and, in the case of Sanders, confused. And Goldberg. Damn that little prick!
“Mr. Goldberg, did you have a question? Or a comment?”
“I’m working on it Ms. Gutierrez. There is something that you said that troubles me...”
“Well Mr. Goldberg I will be happy to try and explain. You should also remember that this is only a small piece of the puzzle. There is a lot of information we still do not have.”
“Oh I understand that Ms. Gutierrez. It’s just that...well, I don’t want to be that guy, but...”
Ramona bit her tongue and thought “Oh, but you are that guy, Mr. Goldberg!”. “What exactly was it that you’re having difficulty with?”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but a government shutdown, even just a partial one like this…. Doesn’t that mean that the departments are just not funded?”
“Well, yes, that is essentially true.”
“Okay. So if the debt ceiling is raised automatically, without a vote, based on the existing or last budget resolution then there is no way to run out of money. Ergo, there can be no shutdown. Right? I mean that’s just logic, isn’t it?”
Ramona was momentarily nonplussed; he was correct, of course, but then wasn’t that essentially just what Madame Speaker was saying? Thankfully her training kicked in just in time and she responded with the be all and end all answer to every problem under the sun. “Mr. Goldberg that is exactly what Madame Speaker has said. Of course it is logic, but we are dealing with Trump and his minions. These people do not understand logic and therefore we have had a shutdown.”
“Yes, but if Madame Speaker is right then the shutdown, the one that could not happen, is over. But we’re still here.”
Ramona had just drawn a breath to respond when the power went out. The room began to vibrate, very subtly at first, and then harder, faster. The exterior sheathing surrounding their office began to glow, the light slowly pulsating through the windows. The vibrations rapidly advanced to a violent rocking, finding an axis upon which the office began to rotate in a counterclockwise spin. All of this occurred within a very short span of time, yet to Ramona it all appeared as in slow motion. The faces which only moments before had been blank and listless now showed utter panic and disbelief. Except for Goldberg, that smug little prick. He was smiling and his eyes gleamed in a mocking “I told you so”.
The office had begun to generate it’s own gravitational plane and Ramona found herself floating several feet off of the floor. She did not feel like she was floating, but she quite unmistakably was. Still experiencing in slow motion her mouth fell agape as she viewed her team, one by one, slowly disintegrate like Star Trek characters on teleporter platforms. The room was rotating around her, faster and faster until the last sight of her staff was that mocking grin of Goldberg, like the Cheshire Cat. Then everything went completely dark. She felt herself very slowly descend back to the floor and all was still. With her feet returned to solid ground Ramona stood trembling in the darkness. She believed she was dead and began to wonder what might happen next. Wasn’t there supposed to be some kind of light?
As though some unseen theater manager had read her thoughts a spotlight erupted from someplace in the void. The light settled upon a grand piano at which sat the Devil himself. “Hello, Ramona. Come on over here and sit down with me.”
Now she was sure she was dead, momentarily incredulous at the idea of going to hell. She thought “I never voted republican in my life! What the hell am I doing here!?” She gulped and somehow mustered enough courage to ask, “ Are you the….”
“The what? The Devil? Beelzebub, Lucifer, Satan….yes, I am any and/or all of the above.”
“So….I’m in… hell?”
“Mmm...” the Devil began to tap out something on the keys and then continued. “Well Ramona, that one is rather hard to explain. Right now, here where we sit Ramona, is not actually physical hell itself. More of a, oh what’s the word I want here…. sort of a long hallway to hell. We’re in an inter-dimensional portal triggered by a paradox.” The Devil paused here to allow this to sink in as he continued to plink away at the ivories, trying to recall a piece by Debussy.
“So am I dead?”
“I’m not dead…..well what the fuck?”
“Paradox, darling. You’re neither dead nor alive.”
“Paradox!? What paradox? What the fuck does that even mean?”
“Goldberg. Don’t you remember Ramona? Ha-ha-ha….oh, isn’t that always the way? Always some fucking Jew to gum up the works.”
Now she wasn’t so sure to trust what she saw and heard. She must be dreaming. Goldberg. What was it about Goldberg? It seemed that it had been only moments before yet she could not recall anything but that fading Cheshire Cat grin.
“Don’t think too hard on it my dear. This is where we are and frankly that’s the only reason I’m here. If you had actually won a lifetime of eternal damnation my chief of staff or my HR person would be handling this, but you are a special case. This isn’t actually hell, but it’s still hell’s jurisdiction. Kind of like the Danes and Greenland: we’re in charge but nobody wants to be there anyway.”
“But what about the rest of them?”
“I shouldn’t worry about that. Goldberg, of course….straight to hell, but the rest of them? They’ve just landed in another hallway. I’ll get to them later. See this happens at least once with every government shutdown, but we always get it sorted out eventually.”
“Okay, so what happens next?”
“Well Ramona I am so glad you asked that question because, you see, that is entirely up to you. I must confess that I have an ulterior motive here. You may have some talents that we can use.”
“No, at the Rosedale Library! Of course in hell!”
“Now wait…..oh, I don’t know. This is some bad shit right here!”
“Don’t be so hasty Ramona, hear me out.” The Devil ceased his play at the piano and lit a cigarette, then offered one to Ramona.
“How’d you know I smoked?”
“Oh please! I know everything there is to know about you Ramona. Here, go ahead and have one. You know there are no smoking restrictions in hell? Just sayin’…..anyway, why don’t you take a little walk with me down this hallway?”
Ramona grudgingly took the cigarette, but apprehension leaped upon her face at the suggestion of walking with him. “ I don’t know…...I, uh….”
“Ramona? It’s not as if you have a choice. You’ve nothing to fear. We’ll just walk a short way, I’ll explain my proposition and then I have something else to show you.”
Finally Ramona understood that she was not dreaming and that no matter how bizarre all of this seemed, it was in fact happening. And he was right: she really didn’t have any other options. They began to step into the darkness, their footfalls echoing long into the void. There was nothing to be seen beyond a glow of red light which emanated from the Devil, lighting their way just a few feet at a time. As they walked the Devil began to recite what sounded very much like an official, HR department approved job description for a federal senior management position. Like any federal form it went on at some great length without really saying very much of anything. She considered for a moment that perhaps he was trying to bore her to death. She had no perception of what distance they may have traveled and in every direction beyond their immediate orb of light there was nothing but darkness.
The Devil concluded the official “form” job description and then came to a stop.
“Now, Ramona, you have an idea of what sort of work would be entailed in this position. It’s certainly well within your experience. Twenty-seven years employed with the federal government and you have failed to create one tangible thing but mounds of files. Here the expectations are no higher and you get the added benefit of no smoking restrictions and never having to worry about another shutdown.”
“Okay, I’m listening. So what exactly is this department?”
“Alright Ramona, here’s the part where I need to show you something. Hold on, just a minute here...” The Devil reached out with one long, scaly talon to touch the surface of a roughly carved obsidian wall. After a few moments the wall began to glow, first orange, then red until finally reaching a blinding whiteness before dimming into a rosy translucence. It seemed to form some sort of screen or viewing window, though it was still shrouded in some sort of fog. “This will take a few minutes to clear so you can see for yourself, but let me give you a little background on this department. You see way back at the beginning when God and I were sorting out this whole “reality” thing we had to reach certain compromises. Here’s one I’m sure you know: God decides the female of your species has to bleed five to eight days a month for most of their lives and then deal with menopause. I say okay fine, Mr. God, so in return they get the multiple orgasm. There, you see how that works? You’re welcome, by the way.”
The window remained shrouded in swirling mists, but they were beginning to thin in some spots. As the Devil went on speaking Ramona was able to peer into the window and start to make out vague shapes. Wood and wire and occasionally some movement, also vague and unshaped.
“So that’s pretty much how the whole thing was mapped out. Give and take, all the way. So we get down into some of the lower orders of beings and God gets off into this weird tangent, you know. I mean the capybara? Come on! So on a goof I take his original design for the beaver, do a little genetic engineering and? Voila, I give you the duck-billed platypus! Ha-ha-ha….you should have seen the look on his face.”
Ramona continued to peer, more intently now, through the window. The images still came only in glimpses, no whole shapes taking form, but the scurry of movement in shadow. She also began to sense a great cloud of malice, an almost palpable hostility coming from behind that wall. Still gazing into it she responded to the Devil. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Ha-ha-ha…. Well, you know Ramona! Like I said, give and take. So, in a fit of pique God says okay fine, asshole! You now get to take all of the beavers in hell for all of eternity.”
Now the image cleared and Ramona could see a cavernous hall with row upon row of cages, stacked as tall as a man and for as far as they eye could see. In each and every one of those cages were beaver, fanged and foaming at the mouth, their eyes glowing red. And crews of workmen everywhere, administering repairs to the cages from the unrelenting assault of the beavers. In the distance there were some movements among some of those crews which suggested that they may have been set upon by some of the demonic rodents roaming free. Not anything that one could see in detail, only the suggestion of a massacre. As she took in this surreal landscape the Devil continued.
“As you can see the beavers are still really pissed off over this. Can’t say I blame them, you know, but hey? I’m the Devil, right? I’m afraid that I have only made it worse, though. I kept listening to your environmentalists and I actually believed that you assholes had finally killed them all off, or close to it. So, I lightened up on the department’s labor budget. It’s really starting to get out of hand down there, as you can see. That is why I would like to offer you hell’s Secretary of the Bureau of Angry Beavers. Huh? Whaddya say Ramona? I mean it’s either this or you can go back to work for the Trump administration.”
Ramona turned directly to the Devil, looked him straight in the eye and replied, “Where do I sign?”