A man wakes up in a dingy slum
with no memory of how he got there. He wanders around aimlessly before he finds even one person who will talk to him. Some ratty beggar on the street turns out to be nice enough to explain where he is.
“You’re in the afterlife!” he tells the man, “But you must have been a real shithead when you were alive, because this is the fourth ring, and only the worst people come here.”
All of a sudden, a siren goes off, one of those air-raid things. The man is terrified but the beggar gets up calmly and leads him to a big, dilapidated warehouse where thousands of other similarly unkempt souls are gathering. When the man asks why they’re all here, the beggar points to a line of folding tables against the wall. Each table has some moldy bread, cups of dingy water, and some bowls of broth so thin they could have just run out of cups. Only then does the man realize how hungry he is. A guard in heavy body armor blows a whistle and all the people arrange themselves into three lines.
The beggar is helpful enough to explain them for the man. “That one’s the bread line, that’s the broth line, and that’s the water line. All the food here is free, but if you want to get out of this maggot hole, you’ve got to work, because the gate guards into the third ring ask five hundred dollars to get through. I’ve heard the food is better there.”
So the man gets his food. It’s abominable, and right then and there, he vows to make five hundred dollars and get into the third ring. Unfortunately for him, very few people need work in the afterlife, especially when all of them are saving up to emigrate. Even still, after ten years of hard work, eating the moldy bread and indistinguishable soup and water, he finally saves up enough money. The guards let him through and he finds himself in the third ring. It’s nothing too fancy, if anything, it’s a bit below average for a real city, but to his eyes it is paradise. All the guards look much friendlier, and the houses and buildings, while not spacious or lavish, are at least up to code. And to his surprise, he runs right into a familiar former beggar as he crosses the street.
“What are the odds?” they both ask and they get to conversing. The beggar, it turns out, only managed to make it in himself a few months back. Their conversation is interrupted, however, by what sounds like a school bell. When the man seems confused, the beggar leads him to what looks like a giant gymnasium. Here, people are gathering once again, and the man begins to understand. On a line of folding tables against one wall are stacks of hot dogs, big bowls of salad, and solo cups full of fresh lemonade. A cop shouts for everyone’s attention and directs them all to stand in three lines. The beggar smiles at the man’s wonder and points to each line in turn. “That’s the hot dog line, that’s the salad line, and that’s the lemonade line.” The man gets in each line in turn and gets himself his lunch.
While he’s eating, basking in joy at not being stuck with old bread and water, the beggar encourages him, “The best part is, halfway through the year, they switch from hot dogs, salad, and lemonade to chicken, chili, and hot chocolate. You can never get tired of it!”
Sadly, this proved not to be true. After only a few days, the man did again get tired of the same meal every day. But he knew firsthand that he could change his lot, so one day he went up to the wall of the second circle. This time the guards were asking for ten thousand dollars. Well, the man didn’t like it, but he figured he had his whole afterlife ahead of him now that he was out of the fourth circle, and he could certainly take some time to save up. After ten years of hard work, it wasn’t too difficult for him to keep up the work ethic, and only twenty years later, he went back to the guards of the second ring with the money in hand. He went through the gate and found himself in a glittering, clean city full of glass and steel.
And wouldn’t you know it, but there, standing across the street was the same beggar, only now he was wearing a well-fitted suit. The man greeted the beggar as an old friend and they started talking again. Once again, their conversation was interrupted, only this time it was by beautiful church bells. “Come,” the beggar told him, “I’ll take you to the evening meal.” So the man followed and they entered a glamorous ballroom filled with beautiful attendees. Even the cops here looked good, dressed in suits and sunglasses like bodyguards. And sure enough, piled onto platters on huge mahogany tables against the far wall were plates of steak, bowls of the most delicious seafood soups, and glasses of champagne. One of the bodyguards cleared his throat loudly and politely requested that the attendees line up. Three lines were formed and the beggar pointed each line out in turn. “That’s the steak line, that’s the soup line, and that’s the champagne line,” and then he added, “and apparently here, they change the meals FOUR times a year!”
The man rejoiced, ate, and was happy, and for once felt that nothing was lacking. Four changes a year was enough for him. But one day, out of curiosity, he went up to the bodyguards that guarded the gate into the first and final ring of the afterlife and found they were asking for a million dollars to pass. Well the man was a bit disturbed by this, after all, the second ring seemed perfect to him. “What is it,” he thought, “that could possibly be more wonderful than what I have here?” That question haunted him for weeks until he came to a conclusion. He was used to working hard and he had all of eternity to save up, so he wanted, just once to see what he could possibly be missing in the first ring.
Fifty years later, he returned to the guards with a million dollars. When he stepped into the first ring he fell to his knees. The architecture was glorious and inhuman, and the bodyguard had turned into shining angels. To his surprise, someone helped him up off the street and when he looked, he realized he recognized who it was–it was the beggar he met in the fourth ring, adorned in a golden robe and glowing, and when he looked down at himself he realized he looked much the same.
The beggar laughed jovially. “I got here only three years ago myself, but somehow I knew you would be right here behind me. I’ve come back to this gate every day waiting for you to make it in!” Suddenly, the air was filled with the sound of angelic choirs and the beggar led the man off to a gigantic palace made of crystal and cloud. The room was filled with radiant citizens of the first circle and angels prepared everything. Sure enough, there was a line of massive altars against one wall, spilling over with glistening golden dragon meat, a pudding refined from clouds and dew and silk, and an ice cold tub of ambrosia and nectar ladled out individually into blindingly beautiful crystalline chalices. An angel fluttered from the ceiling and bowed silently to the assembled mass, who bowed respectfully back and then broke themselves into their lines on their own.
Smiling at the tradition, the beggar pointed to the first line. “That’s the line for the dragon meat,” he said before turning to the next line, “and that’s the line for angeldust stew,” then he paused, confused.
“What is it?” the man asked his old friend.
The beggar replied, “There appears to be no punchline.”