There was once a man named Joshua whose mouth was the mouth of the Jewish Hell. It wasn’t an error of chance or anything, it was simply that way—the divine logic of all things—so that Hell’s traffic stopped and flowed with the opening and closing of his lips.
Naturally, it was the smell that first clued this young man, this Joshua, in to his fate, the smell of his breath. He was a hygienic man, obsessed in the way of Americans with hiding the effluvia of the body. He showered every night, avoided certain foods, and brushed his teeth after every meal—and yet, for all of his successes he couldn’t escape this one affliction, the miasma of Hell, the smell that comes off of damned souls in a damned place, much like coffee and garlic.
Now this man was a Jew and not a bad one—there are so few bad ones left—sure he liked to tell dirty jokes and drank too much beer on the weekends, but he went to Synagogue and supported his local Jewish Fund. So he went to his father’s rabbi, an old, humpbacked sage, white beard gone yellow, who, over the pitched whine of his hearing aids, told Joshua that his breath smelled like Hell—the Hell.
It all made a very perfect sense to Joshua, all very quickly. Of course! His breath was the smell of Hell! And immediately and without reservation, and not entirely though mostly for altruistic reasons, the young man decided to close his mouth forever.
This aroused great consternation in the heavens, whose denizens are always pretty much looking down on people, and always very angry about something they’ve done. Here this young man was blocking up Hell, a necessary part of the cycle of afterlife, and could you imagine the theosophical implications? The backup? The higher angels just nodded as though they knew what was going on, spoke of this too being G-d’s will. The chief devil of Hell, for his part, was fine with it—the devils in Hell had already organized massive multi-player Halo games with connected X-Boxes—and he insisted, the way he does at all the meetings, that nothing too earthshattering would come out of it that wasn’t already predetermined—which only pissed the angels off more, because this time he was in line with the higher ups. So they decided to kill Joshua with a lightning bolt, which is how the angels kill people, because it’s so simple. When G-d himself wants to kill people he does so with plane crashes. Plane crashes are G-d’s work of art, like great big novels, and angels spend two or three eternities unraveling the complex weave of lives and deaths that G-d manages to knit into that winged aluminum tube. And so when Joshua was walking to the grocery store on a rainy afternoon in mid-March, a mere two years after closing his mouth forever, he was struck by a great blue bolt of divine lightning, and Hell’s mouth realigned elsewhere, and Joshua’s soul ascended to the world above for a very biased judgment.
The defending angels argued their part well, but who in that richly mahoganied eternal court didn’t know that Joshua was going to get the book of his deeds thrown at him? In the end, Joshua’s penchant for dirty jokes—he knew scores and scores of them and told them at inappropriate times—tipped the scales of judgment against him, and Joshua was sent down below for twelve months, which is a full term in Jewish Hell.
But standing there, staring, as angels went over his life like a bit of game film, Joshua, who had kept his teeth in his lip even in the afterlife, snorted again and again. He had missed those jokes and wanted badly to tell a new one, a really dirty one with nuns and St. Peter and allusions to various procreative acts that were not so procreative. And as his demon brought him down to his post in the fiery pits of Gehenna, he finally opened his mouth and said it, and once he explained what a nun was and who St. Peter was, and went over some very basic human anatomy, his demon and the others around him had a good laugh. Indeed, for the twelve months thereafter, Joshua’s mouth never fully closed, and he told dirty joke after dirty joke, and the demons about him flayed their fiery whips and laughed.
DovBer Naiditch has been published in numerous journals and small print collections. His short story “The Angel in the House” was a Notable Selection in America’s Best Short Stories 2013. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and many many children, and is a writer for the Jewish humor website, Shmideo.com.