It was an unusually solemn gathering for such a rambunctious group. Oh, there'd been a minor tiff between the Ratt of Phynknia and Congressman Bagley Boodle over which of them would be first in line, but that Harvard-educated anthropoid swiftly settled the question by gently separating the contenders and hunkering down at the head of the queue -- thereby establishing once and for all where an 800-pound gorilla gets to sit.
After that, the assembled company spoke among themselves mostly in whispers -- with the exception of Mordred, who, as usual, spent his time out in the corridor, shouting market orders into his cell phone -- as they waited patiently for the man in the hospital bed to draw his last breath.
They hadn't long to wait. Courteous as ever, the dying man accomodatingly expired soon after the last of his familiar characters -- the ever-tardy White Rabbit, of course -- joined the vigil.
The deceased opened his eyes and sat bolt upright, a look of profound surprise on his face. He glanced wildly around the room. His amazed glance first fell upon the shadowy forms of his Earthly friends and family, as they strove vainly to contain their helpless grief at his passing. Then, with even greater astonishment, his attention turned to the solid-seeming file of eerily-familiar entities, all of whom gazed back at him with something like awe.
The shaggy simian pushed himself to his feet and, with the winning smile that had so endeared him to millions, thrust out his hand.
"Pleased to meet you, Sir!" said the engaging ape, as he vigorously pumped the dead man's hand. Then, lowering his voice just a trifle, the grinning gorilla added, "I hope I can continue to count on your vote!"
"Me, too!" interjected Congressman Boodle, attempting unsuccessfully to wedge himself between the primate politician and the confused columnist. "I hope I can count on your vote, too!"
"And I," observed the Ratt, "Hope I can count on THEIR votes."
"Er -- I don't mean to spoil the party," responded the decedent, trying manfully to extract his well-crushed hand from the enthusiastic anthropoid's grip, "whichever party it is you two belong to, that is -- but who are you people?"
"Perhaps we should give the poor man some space...eh, fellows?"
The speaker was a dignified-looking, older man, whose shock of undisciplined white hair and rumpled lab coat clearly identified him as a scientist.
"Allow me to introduce myself," the august expert said. "I am Dr. Homer T. Pettibone, DVM, MVP, CIA and XYZ."
Pettibone's gesture took in all of those in the line behind him.
"We are your children. You created and embellished each of us during your more than 40 years as a columnist -- and we're gathered here today to show our appreciation to you for bringing us into existence."
"You...I...that is...I take it I'm dead?"
"Of course you're dead!" snapped a leisure-suited, elderly gent with beetling brows and narrow, suspicious eyes. "Would I take time out from having car-to-car missiles mounted on my SUV to be here, if you weren't?"
The old gentleman nodded fiercely, jabbing a thumb at his narrow chest. "In the flesh."
The departed glanced down at his own corpse, lying there beside him as he sat on the edge of the bed.
"Are you sure about that, Crannich?"
Crannich frowned and glanced down at his jutting thumb. He began mumbling to himself, while those behind him crowded forward, hands outstretched in greeting, shouldering the confused Crannich aside.
A lanky, weathered man in overalls stepped forward to grasp the hand of the deceased.
"I'm Judd Joad, Mr. Hoppe and this here's my wife, Maude."
The dead man shook Joad's hand and smiled warmly at the impoverished couple.
"It's good to meet you both," he said. "I'm sorry I gave you such a hard life. If I had only realized..."
Maude Joad shook her head.
"Now, you hush, Mr. Hoppe. Jud and I been proud to represent America's working poor in your column all those years. Although, I surely do wish that -- just once -- we'd been able to afford them new gingham curtains..."
The recently-departed journalist frowned at the well-dressed, impeccably-coiffed man who had rushed breathlessly into the room to so rudely interrupt the humble woman in homespun clothes.
"You had another fictional son?"
The author shook his head in wonder.
"Where's your sister?"
"Malphasia? She couldn't make it, Dad -- the twins have soccer practice on Wednesdays."
"And little Brillig?"
"In daycare, naturally. After all, my dear wife Xanthippe needs her space."
"You can say that again," growled the dead man.
One after another, those in the long line filed past to pay their respects to their creator. Private Oliver Drab and his friend Corporal Partz snapped off heartfelt salutes, while adventurer Buck Ace merely raised his highball glass at a suitably rakish angle. The Frisbees, Fred and Felicia -- tanned and elegant as always -- paused briefly to chat. Professor Delgado even interrupted his arm-waving argument with Dr. Pettibone long to identify himself and shake the hand of the deceased.
A procession of Presidents -- headed by the incumbent, Just Plain Bill -- and lesser politicians -- led by Bobdole -- simultaneously began delivering what surely were stirring tributes to the late newspaperman. Unfortunately, none of them would yield precedence to any of the others and, together, they all made such a racket that Dr. Pettibone had to ask them to step outside.
An assortment of even odder creatures trailed after the pols.
The little blond girl in the cornflower-blue jumper and her friend the White Rabbit, elicited a quizzical look from the old columnist.
"Aren't you Alice?" he asked.
Curtsying prettily, the young girl nodded assent.
"Yes, Sir, if you please, Sir. And I'm ever so glad to finally meet you."
"But I didn't invent you," the dead man protested.
"Oh, but I've appeared in your work so often that even Mr. Lewis Carroll agrees I'm nearly as much your invention as his!"
And still they came, one after the other, to introduce themselves and say a few words to the man who made them, until, at last, there was only one left -- a harassed-looking creature in a shining white robe and wings who carried a gleaming trumpet slung from a cord over his shoulder.
"You'll be Gabriel, I imagine?"
The disgruntled angel nodded and gestured toward the doorway.
"That's right, Mr. Hoppe. Now, if you don't mind, it's time to go."
"Go? But I haven't seen Glynda yet! Where is she? What have you done with my wife?"
"You didn't invent HER, Mr. Hoppe. She actually exists. All you did was change her name -- and her time to pass over to this realm has not yet come. Surely you don't begrudge her her remaining span?"
The dead man's face fell, but he still shook his head.
"No. No, that wouldn't be right. But I sure miss her."
"Trust me," said Gabriel, "She'll be along when her time comes. Now -- shall we go?"
"I suppose so," replied the writer's shade, "But -- would you mind telling me where we're going?"
"Why -- to meet the Landlord, of course. Where else?"
(Copyright© 2000 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)