“This is a hell of a way to make a living,” Tom muttered to himself as he hauled back the steel grate he’d made and set it aside. The irony of his words escaped him as he lowered himself once again into hell. But then, irony wasn’t one of Tom’s strong points.
The heat and familiar stench – he guessed it was brimstone – hit him as he paused on the top step of the aluminum ladder to put the surgical mask on and adjust his sunglasses. Hell could be damn bright and the smell wasn’t to be believed.
Tom wasn’t a thinking man, but if he had been, he might have thought back then, to the day not so long ago when he’d first discovered hell in his backyard …
* * *
Tom lived out on the edge of Tucson, in a place known as Three Points that was less a town and more a highway intersection, the desert dotted with cholla cactus and sagging mobile homes that wouldn’t go anywhere ever again. On this day he’d gone into his back yard and there, beside his rusted barbecue, was a hole. It sure wasn’t a rabbit hole, he saw right away. It was big enough for a man to crawl down into for one thing, and no rabbit hole he knew smoked. Tom went closer, not jumping to conclusions or getting excited, but strolling over to see what was what. The smell was bad, but that wasn’t what fixed him. Sounds came out of the hole, what sounded like screams and moans and such, drifting out with that little bit of smoke and the big smell.
A puzzled look came over his face as Tom lowered his lanky form to the ground. He listened and thought for a long while and then he did start to get a little bit excited. Not afraid mind you, but excited. Tom didn’t excite easily but then, it isn’t every day a man finds hell in his backyard.
Because that’s what he was thinking he had here. It all sort of fit, and he couldn’t think what else it might be. A hole into hell had opened in his backyard, right next to his rusted barbecue. He stood and carefully moved the barbecue a few feet further away.
After awhile he began to wonder what he should do. Birds hopped around in the dust and the ants went about their business like nothing, but he felt he ought to do something. This seemed to him like something pretty big and he figured that someone should know about it. I mean, who knew what kind of troubles could come out of having a hole into hell. He didn’t, but still…
So he tried telling old Karl who had the trailer next door and sat on his front porch all day spitting globs of brown tobacco juice at everything that moved. He barely got through the gate when Karl spit almost on his shoe.
“I just want to tell you something Karl,” he said, hoping he’d stop. He didn’t like being spit on.
“You get back over to your place and do something about that sulfur smell!” Karl yelled through yellow teeth. “Smells like hell. A man can’t breathe.” He took out his plug of tobacco and recharged. “You moron,” he added.
Now that wasn’t too nice. Tom didn’t think he was a moron; he just didn’t see things quite like other people. But he tried to explain. “That’s what I came for, Karl. There’s this hole in my backyard. That’s where the smell is coming from. I think it might be hell. Maybe someone should do something about it.”
Karl cackled and spit on Tom’s right shoe. “Yeah, something should be done all right. About you, you half-wit. Get out of my yard and get rid of that smell before I call the police!”
Tom left just ahead of another glob of spit. He knew Karl wouldn’t call the police –old Karl didn’t have a phone any more than he did and he knew as well as Tom that the police didn’t like to be bothered by the trailer people unless one of them shot another. But it did start him thinking. Karl was a mean old cuss, but he knew a lot of things and he had the right idea. He probably should call the police.
That didn’t work out too good either.
He walked to the general store/gas station down at the highway that was the only thing there really was in Three Points besides cars whizzing by on the highway to Ajo or turning off to Sasabe, and used the phone there. Before the lady at the police station would even talk to him she wanted to know his name and address and once she knew where he was she got that sound in his voice. He’d heard it before; it meant she wasn’t going to believe him, whatever he said. Only once did she show any interest, and that was when he said it smelled like sulfur.
“You want to report a drug lab then. A methamphetamine lab?”
“No ma’am. It’s not a drug lab at all, least not one I ever heard of and I’ve seen COPS a lot. It’s just a hole in the ground and – ”
“Right. Thank you Mr. Holman. We’ll send someone out as soon as we get a chance.”
He could hear her laughing and talking to someone else before she hung up and he knew nobody’d come. Then there was nothing to do but go home but first he went into the store and bought a paper because he remembered that it was Wednesday and the new papers always came out on Wednesday. He thought about telling Jim, the owner of the store, about hell, but he didn’t. Jim was pretty nice to him, always smiling and yelling HELLO! and he wasn’t feeling like having anyone else treat him like a fool right then.
But when he got home it seemed his problem might be solved because there, right on the cover of his favorite newspaper was a story and a picture just like his. Now Tom loved his paper, even better than the TV. He liked the big headlines and the pictures and some of the stories were really incredible. They were always about two-headed babies and airplanes found on the moon and talking cows and he liked to read these stories, then just sit back and think that this must be a pretty marvelous world where things like this can happen. Anyway, the headline today said: MAN FINDS DOORWAY TO HELL IN HIS BASEMENT! And then it went on about some guy finding a smoking hole in his basement and how the firemen and police in his hometown in Iowa were amazed and it had quotes from them and a picture of the man standing beside the hole looking pleased and holding a Bible.
Tom put the paper down then and sat back to think. He thought for a long time and then he went into his backyard and looked at the hole and then came back in and read the story again and thought some more. And what came out of it was that the next day when he got off work from his job at the wrecking yard down the road he went to Jim’s store and used the payphone again.
The story didn’t tell the man’s phone number, but he thought if he called the paper they’d give it to him and he could call the guy and find out what he was doing about the hole and maybe he could do the same thing.
“We just did that story pal. Sorry, we’re not interested. Come up with something better and call us back.”
“Does this happen a lot?” Tom asked. Who knows? Maybe having hell in your backyard wasn’t so unusual.
“Only when they open the doors son, only when they open the doors.”
But Tom could be stubborn too and he kept talking to the man and finally he said, “Okay, look, we’ve got a man in Phoenix right now. That’s pretty close isn’t it? I’ll send him down. I guess we could call it an epidemic.”
The man showed up the next day in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a tie. He gave Tom a big smile and a business card and he talked fast. Tom thought he must be awfully important to have so much to say all at once.
“There we are, Steve Jones, Eye on the World on-the-spot reporter, nice place you have here my man, nice place. Very quaint, out of the hurly burly of the city, now let’s see, you say you found hell in your backyard.” He winked and gave Tom a little jab in the ribs. “Sure, this is the sticks, but it can’t be all that bad eh?” He seemed to pause for something so Tom smiled and the man continued. “Let’s see it then, just take me right to it, we don’t want it to freeze over now do we?” He had a big camera and a tiny tape recorder and he snapped a couple pictures of Tom and his trailer then.
Tom took him around back and showed him. He figured it was a good thing old Karl didn’t hear too well and the next two lots were empty because the moaning and screaming and such had gotten louder in the past few days. The hole looked a little bigger too, with flickers of red light down at the bottom.
When they got to the hole the reporter’s words died on his lips and his face went pale. “Holy shi – What the – ” was all he could manage. His hands were shaking so bad Tom didn’t think he got any pictures of the hole. “I think this hick really has…” he mumbled. “It can’t be.” He seemed to have forgotten Tom. Then there was one scream, a little louder than the others and the reporter sank to his knees.
“Mo – mom?” he quavered. “Is that you?”
He left fast and Tom didn’t get a chance to say anything so a couple days later he called the paper again and got the same guy he’d talked to the first time.
“It’s you again, is it? I don’t know what you did, but Jones doesn’t work here anymore. Quit his job, the damnfool. Said he didn’t give a shit about my deadline. Can you get that! He didn’t give a shit about my deadline! The namby-pamby has the gall to go and have a nervous breakdown on my deadline.” Then he hung up.
Some things happened after that, to make Tom think having hell in his backyard wasn’t such a good thing. Oh, nothing with the hole itself. That didn’t really change, though Tom made a big grate for it with his cutting torch and welder because it seemed to him hell probably had some pretty bad things living in it and he didn’t want them coming out unannounced.
But other things did change. Word got around Three Points that he was on drugs or something and claimed to have seen the devil in his backyard. People started avoiding him, even Jim down at the store, and kids threw stuff at him sometimes and laughed. His boss found out and fired him and now he had lots more time with nothing to do and not sure why. He went out and looked in the hole sometimes but that got kind of old after awhile.
LeAnn, one of his other neighbors, came over one day. She’d heard about it too. He’d known LeAnn for a long time but he didn’t really talk to her much. She said she was a witch – a good witch, mind you – and dressed in old baggy dresses and black eyeshadow all the time. She was always saying weird stuff about the spirit world and she made him uncomfortable, though he wasn’t sure why. She got real strange when she saw the hole.
“Oh, wow! Wow! I think…” She stopped and rolled her eyes back in her head, holding her hands out before her. “I sense the spirit world is very close to us right now.”
Tom shifted to his other foot and squeezed his hands. She was doing it again.
“Yes. They are heeeere.” Her voice had gotten all distant and dreamy. She shivered. “I sense pain. Much suffering.”
Tom shifted back to his other foot. Anyone could tell that, he thought. Couldn’t she hear all the screaming?
She rolled her eyes back and stared at him. “We must hold a seance. We must find a way to communicate with the souls of the dead and discover the reason for their pain.”
Tom shifted again. “Why?” He shrugged. “They’re right there. Why not just ask them?”
So he did.
Then she fainted and he had to catch her and take her inside and rub her forehead with a wet cloth. When she woke up she could hardly speak.
“They…answered you,” she whispered. “The spirit world is strong in you. They have chosen you as their messenger. You are blessed.”
“No, it’s not like that LeAnn. You could do the same thing. All I did was yell into the hole.”
But of course she didn’t believe him. She refused to even try and Tom gave up trying to convince her. Right then Tom had another one of those times when he wondered. He wondered if maybe it wasn’t that he was dumb or even slow, but that he just didn’t understand people. They refused to see things that seemed plain as the nose on your face to Tom. They didn’t make any sense to him.
He found out a little while later that even dead people didn’t make much sense.
LeAnn came by one day and asked him if he’d be willing to talk to the spirits again. She had this wispy little woman with gray hair and big mouse eyes with her who nodded a lot but didn’t say anything. Tom just shrugged.
“Marian here wants to talk to her dead husband.”
“Why don’t we just let Marian talk to him – ”
LeAnn pulled him aside and explained to him that Marian had come to her for help, she was a client and she was paying. Furthermore, she would give Tom ten dollars if he would just do this. Well, Tom did know that he needed money and so he said sure and went out into the backyard. The women followed but they didn’t come very close to the hole.
LeAnn told him the name and Tom just leaned over the hole and shouted into it. The moans got a little louder and then one voice spoke up and yelled back.
Well, Mouse-eyes just about fainted dead away but she managed to stumble closer to the hole and quaver into it. Tom listened to them for awhile but they didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, what with her crying and all the moaning and such coming out of the hole making it hard to hear and suddenly it all seemed kind of silly and sad to Tom that this woman couldn’t talk to her dead husband so he walked over to the back of the house, grabbed the extension ladder leaning there and dropped it into the hole. Saying, “Excuse me, ma’am,” he stepped around the woman and went down into the hole.
About this time Tom was feeling a little surprised at himself – the smell and the heat were a lot worse in here – but he went ahead anyway. The red light was pretty strong down at the bottom of the ladder and in it he could see all these people milling around like sheep in a pen. At least, they looked like people, but they were kind of wavery and ghostlike. They came up to him and around him but they didn’t seem to be able to touch him so after the first bit of nervousness Tom ignored them, remembering why he came down here, and hollered, “Walter!” real loud. They got pretty quiet then and one ghost came forward. Tom could tell this was him; he just looked like he would be married to Mouse-eyes. He tried to tell him that his wife wanted him up top to talk to him and if he’d just follow…but Walter interrupted and said,
“No. I can’t leave. I am damned here for eternity.”
Well, that made Tom a little mad somehow – maybe it was just the heat getting to him – and without thinking he grabbed Walter and dragged him right up the ladder with him.
Now LeAnn fainted and Mouse-eyes and Walter crowded together and she was howling about missing him and Walter was yelling that he’d been redeemed and looking at Tom like he’d done something special and it was all getting pretty embarrassing to Tom when Walter just sort of faded away like a puff of smoke.
* * *
And that’s how he got where he was now, going into hell again for someone else’s dead loved one. As Tom disappeared into the hole the crowd of people gathered in his backyard sent up a cheer that made his face turn red. Darn, he thought, I still can’t get any of them to listen. He’d tried too. He didn’t want this job, even if it did pay better than his old. Give him the peace of the wrecking yard any day. But his old boss still wouldn’t talk to him, no one in Three Points would – they were all still sure he was on drugs – except for LeAnn and she always sounded out of breath when she did talk to him. A good thing was that old Karl had stopped spitting on him but that was never so bad anyway.
So he did this nearly every day now, going down and getting someone for someone else who paid him. All the dead people waited for him now and he could already see them gathered around the bottom of the ladder, same as the crowd up top. He sighed. There was no getting away from it anymore.
“Why don’t you all just go on and get out of here,” he said, waving them up the ladder. “You want to be free, then go. Then everyone’ll leave me alone.”
But they answered as they always did, crying and begging, saying how they were damned and only he could save them. It was no use arguing. They were no better than the people up top.
Tom took hold of the woman he came for and pulled her up the ladder. As the little crowd of people broke into another cheer Tom shook his head. This was too much. He decided something then, something he guessed he should have seen a while before. The hole had to go. It was just too much trouble. He did wonder if he should feel bad about all those dead people who were still down there, but then, he wasn’t sure he was doing the right thing anyway. He wasn’t any priest or anything and he didn’t have the training for this kind of stuff. After all, he wouldn’t go and try getting a job as a mechanic when he was just a junkyard hand, would he? The more he thought this way, the more sense it made.
That night he took his shovel and his digging bar and knocked in the sides of the hole. The hole was quiet while he did it and he wondered if maybe even the dead slept sometimes. Anyway, it didn’t take too long and then it was done and no more thinking about it.
The next day the same crowd of people showed up at his front door all crying and hollering for him but Tom was ready for them. He had the door locked and a sign on it saying: THE HOLE’S GONE. GO AWAY. He didn’t think it would work right away and it didn’t. They kept hanging around but he knew if he waited sooner or later they’d leave and he could get back to regular life like he was meant to.
In the afternoon he got tired of sitting inside and he snuck out the back door and climbed over the fence to Karl’s place.
“Hi, Karl,” he said. “It’s Tom. I quit the drugs everyone’s been worrying about. I feel better now. It’s just me again.”
“You’re a damnfool kid, that’s what you are!” Karl yelled at him. “I always said you’d be a worthless neighbor!” He peeled his brown-stained lips back and spit on Tom’s right shoe.
Tom smiled. Some people he understood.