Rental Child

fall-651020_960_720“Finish up Johnny.  The men are here.  They don’t like to wait.”

“What men?” asked five-year-old Johnny.

“The men from the child rental place.  They’ve come to take you back.”

“They’re going to take me away?” Johnny asked, his eyes growing wide.

“Of course!  Goodness, you didn’t think we were going to keep you, did you?  Silly boy.”  Joan grinned at him.  “Now hurry up.  They’re very busy men and they don’t like to be kept waiting.”

Continue reading “Rental Child”

Rental Child

“Finish up Johnny.  The men are here.  They don’t like to wait.”

“What men?” asked five-year-old Johnny.

“The men from the child rental place.  They’ve come to take you back.”

“They’re going to take me away?” Johnny asked, his eyes growing wide.

“Of course!  Goodness, you didn’t think we were going to keep you, did you?  Silly boy.”  Joan grinned at him.  “Now hurry up.  They’re very busy men and they don’t like to be kept waiting.”

“But I thought … ”  His voice quavered and the brown eyes filled with tears.

Joan sighed a little.  “So did I — once.  But that was before Bill and I realized how much work you really were.  New clothes, school, food, doctors when you’re sick.  My word.  Who would have ever thought one little boy could be so expensive.  And the time you take up!”  She rolled her eyes.  “We’re not as young as we once were you know — and you’re really not a very good child.”  She shook her head in wonderment.  “It’s a good thing we went for the option-to-own agreement.  Otherwise we might have been stuck with you the way the Smiths are stuck with little Joey.”

“But you’re my parents!” Johnny shrieked.  “You can’t send me away.  You borned me!”

“Borned you?  Whoever gave you that silly idea?  Probably that Joey kid.”  She shuddered.

“But I came out of your stomach.  Miss Jones said so at school!”

She laughed and ruffled his hair.  “You are a funny child!  That’s one of the things I might miss about you.  But children coming out of women’s stomachs…!  Well, that’s simply ridiculous.  As foolish as believing in a stork.  No, we picked you out at the child rental store like everyone else.  Now hurry up and finish your soup and try to be calm about it.  You don’t want them to have to put you in a sack do you?”  She waved out the window.  “You can come in now!  He’s almost ready.”

When she finally had him settled down and asleep, Johnny’s mother stood over him smiling.  She really thought she made a wonderful mother.  Children were so much fun, she thought.  The way they believed the most outlandish things.

And to think her friends had warned her that she’d find staying at home boring.

Ain’t A Soul Around (Or Too Many)

“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.

Dancing Panda Bears?

Day after day I post excerpts from my new book (which I am understandably excited about, on account of how positive early feedback is) and I keep thinking: Is this too repetitive? Is there something else rattling around in my skull that I could share instead?

What about videos of dancing panda bears? Is that what people want?

Unfortunately, I have no videos of dancing anything. I could probably find them on the Interwebs, but then so could you. (Since you’re reading this, I assume you have access to the dang thing.)

I don’t have anything interesting in the way of multimedia to offer the Interwebs. No videos of myself doing anything entertaining. (Trust me, I’m as dull as they come and only slightly more photogenic than your common house plants.) I don’t play music except on my stereo and that doesn’t seem all that impressive. I can’t draw, except for stick figures that all look the same. I don’t, paint, sculpt or pottery-make. I’m good at making rice, but that doesn’t seem all that cool even to me.

In fact, it’s becoming quite clear to me that I have no discernible talents except for writing and even that is debatable. Perhaps I should have taken up the xylophone at a young age. By now I expect I would be quite good at it.

I’ve been at this writing thing for better than a quarter century now (don’t ask which quarter) and, for better or worse, I’m stuck with it. Which means you’re stuck with it.

Well, that’s all for now. I apologize for wasting your valuable time with my rambling and for the fact that the title might have mislead you into thinking dancing pandas could be found here.

See what (made-up) people are saying about Watching the End of the World!

“This book is the greatest thing since sliced bread! Literally. I will now never eat sliced bread again.” – Tom Fool

Watching the End of the World saved my cat’s life! Really, Fluffy was lying on the couch bored nearly to death and I read it to her and now she’s all better!” – Totally Not-Crazy Cat Lady

“If my plane crashed in the Andes and I was the only survivor I’d want to have Watching the End of the World with me. I could use it to fight off bears.” – Grizzly Steve

“Because of this book I now think I will survive the winter. The pages burn really well in my fireplace.” – Steven “Brrr” Wildman

“And it came to pass that on the nine-millionth day I did read Watching the End of the World and yea, it was good.” – God (Author’s note: I’m especially proud of this one. God’s very busy and doesn’t have much time to read.)

“If the evil queen had a copy of this book, maybe she wouldn’t have been so emotionally unavailable and I wouldn’t be out here living in the woods with these dwarfs.” – Snow White

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Watching the End of the World probably the single most important factor in bringing about the successful conclusion of World War II.” – General MacArthur

“I kills cockroaches with mine ever’ single night.” – Cletus the Slack-jawed Yokel

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” – said by Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’Hara when she tried to get him to go out to dinner while he was finishing Watching the End of the World.

“I expect this Christmas my sleigh will be full of nothing but copies of Watching the End of the World.” – Santa Claus

It’s the cows you have to worry about

Hopefully my earlier post established that, when it comes to encountering cattle while hiking or camping, it isn’t the bulls you need to worry about. It’s the cows. Specifically, half-wild cows with more horns than patience. And back in the old days on the ranch, when I was a kid, half-wild cows were something we had in abundance. This was largely due to the fact that we were on the underside of poor and the animals we could afford were of a low quality, somewhat rambunctious nature.

I remember one time when we were gathering the creek pasture. The idea was to drive all the cattle down into the creek and then downstream back to the house. Along the creek here and there were thickets of mesquite. Most of those thickets you couldn’t ride a horse through because they were too dense. The cows knew this and they liked to wade deep into them and then stop and hope you’d just go away and leave them alone.

As the youngest rider, I generally got the jump of rousting those cows out. I’d hand my reins to my older sister, Kim, and go in on foot. I’d get a stick and bang on the trees, maybe toss a couple rocks, and the cows would generally come pretty peacefully.

But this time it was different.

Deep in the thicket was this one bony old cow who apparently wasn’t interested in being pushed around anymore. I yelled and threw rocks at her but she wasn’t budging. Which annoyed me. I had a mesquite limb about as big around as my skinny little arm and I stomped over and smacked her with it. Right on her bony ass.

At that point she was supposed to run off like they always did.

Instead she bellowed, spun on her heel and charged me.

There was nowhere to go and she was way too close for anything fancy. So I did the only thing I could.

I hit her with that stick as hard as I could. Right between her eyes.

The stick snapped in half and she skidded to a halt, right in front of me. I could have patted her on the nose.

Then she snorted, turned and charged off in the other direction.

I still don’t know why she didn’t clobber me. There was no way that little love tap I gave her actually hurt her. Where I hit her cows have this bony ridge that is just about as hard as a rock. We slaughtered our own beef on the ranch sometimes and I’ve seen a bullet at close range skip right off that spot and not even daze the animal.

I guess I just got lucky.

Worst of all though, was if you got between one of those half-wild cows and her calf. The corrals could get pretty dangerous because we usually worked the cattle on foot and one of the tasks we were trying to accomplish was separating the cows from the calves so we could brand the calves. The cows didn’t like that much at all and we all got lots of practice running for the fence with a mad cow on our heels.

But they could even give you trouble on horseback. My sister had a horse named Dandy that I often rode. Dandy was a palomino, a tall, good looking horse and fast. When he wanted to be. Which wasn’t often because Dandy had another trait and that was laziness.

We were driving a herd of cattle back to the ranch house one time. I was riding in the drags, which is what you call the back end of the herd, where the slowest and the laziest cattle drag behind. There was this cow with a good set of horns and a bitty little calf, only a few days old. Cute little guy. But he was too young to understand that Dandy wasn’t his mama. He kept getting confused – from way down there all herbivore legs look the same I guess – and following my horse instead of his mama.

Well, I could see that mama cow was getting more and more upset by this. She was the skittish type, prone to snorting and rolling her eyes in a crazy fashion. She kept shaking her horns and making little charges at us. Every time she did, I’d pull on Dandy’s reins, jab him with my spurs and try to get him to move. Because I could see where this was going.

But we were on our way home and Dandy’s head was full of thoughts of the corral where he could lose the saddle and the annoying gnat on his back. So each time she came at us, he’d just kind of toss his head a little bit, maybe sidestep, but not much movement other than that. Why should he be afraid? She was only a cow and he was a horse.

Finally this old cow had had enough. She snorted and came at us for real. I tugged on the reins and kicked but, as usual, he didn’t really move except to kind of turn sideways.

I finally gave up trying to get Dandy to move and just lifted my leg, stirrup and all. Well, she gave him a good, solid thump right in the ribs and all of a sudden Dandy woke up. I don’t think it really hurt him, but it sure did surprise him.

For the rest of the ride all that cow had to do was turn her head and look at him and he’d start dancing sideways, just as anxious as he could be to get the heck out of there.

So watch those mama cows when you’re out there and if one snorts and rolls her eyes, find a high spot and quick.

Ain’t A Soul Around

“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.