Tim Price fully expected to go to Hell when he died. And he did. But it was a very pleasant surprise that there were no demons with pitchforks. No brimstone. And no devil.
Tim was just sitting in a narrow hole, deep in the ground, with his dead, all-too vocal grandfather. Far above him, he could see the blue sky and clouds. Maybe that was supposed to make him wish that he had led a better life so that he could stand in the sunlight or something cheesy like that.
“And here I thought that churchin’ didn’t take, boy. You was worried about some guy in a red suit that likes skinny dippin’ in fire,” his grandfather said with a soft laugh. He had a smug look on his face, and Tim just wanted to slam his fist into it.
You gotta rattle a few teeth, sometimes … Isn’t that what Tim’s father had always said?
His father had never hit him. Instead, his dad had just spent most of his time in a chair, propped up in front of the television. He died of a heart attack in that chair. As a child, after it had happened, Tim had often envisioned a heart attack as a bulbous, rippling, reddish thing creeping around the house, hiding behind the furniture to spring on people.
He’d cried at his father’s funeral. But he wasn’t sure why. His father had never done anything with him. Maybe he had known he’d miss the habit of his father–that constant presence in the chair. The guy had never held down a job but had smiled at Tim and encouraged him from time to time.
Now, in the hole, Tim heard a sound that wasn’t from a memory–digging.
For some reason, Tim remembered how, when he was a kid, he and his grandfather would fish. The night before every Saturday fishing trip, they’d dig for worms–the large, fat ones he always called nightcrawlers. He remembered how the flashlight’s waxy, yellow beam would cut through the darkness. And how the bats would squeak above his head, calling to each other and pinwheel through the night sky after bugs.
“Memories be the music of the soul–” the old man said.
The digging sounds grew louder.
“Things are fine. They’re smoky,” Tim replied suddenly, needing to hear something besides those muffled, scratching noises.
That’s what Aunt Myrna had always said. Things is smoky. She’d sit in her robe on the porch and grin with tobacco-stained teeth, puffing on her cigarette. And she’d rasp out in her gravely voice, “Things is smoky.”
She had hopes for Tim, had always told him that he’d do great things with his drawings and maybe become a famous artist.
As a child, he’d watched her grow weaker. Her eyes had dark, smudgy circles around them that she tried to hide under cakes of makeup. She was just sagging skin wrapped around bones. He thought that she’d just laugh her wild laugh and end up splintering apart.
But she didn’t start off that way. The cancer worked away at her, like how her brother, Uncle Larry, used to take his knife and cut slivers out of a piece of wood. A little here. A little there. Like how something was now digging, scraping the dirt away, handful by handful.
“There ain’t no way–” Tim stopped himself. Ain’t no way? He hadn’t talked like that since he’d been a teenager. He could still remember his mother in the kitchen. Her kitchen always smelled warm, like fresh-baked bread.
“If you talk like a little street hood, then that’s all you’re going to be. You’re smarter than that, Timothy,” she had said that day.
She had worked two jobs to make sure Tim had enough money to go to college. In return, he had graduated and received a nice little square of paper with his name on it. It was weird that four years of college had essentially been mashed down into a handful of letters on a piece of paper.
But the robbery business was just too good. He needed the money. No, he just liked money.
That is until he had broken into the wrong house–the nice one with the crape myrtle trees out front and the grandfather clock in the dining room–and gotten shot in the chest. He had to admit, when he’d stepped out of his body and moved on, he had been a little bit afraid of Hell.
There was, however, nothing to be afraid of because there was no devil.
He heard more dirt fall and could see rotted fingers pushing through the dark brown earth, like the thick, swollen nightcrawlers he used to catch with his grandfather.
“You was always right, boy. There ain’t no devil,” the old man said. “It’s all as clear as Judas. Your grandmama hated when I put things like ‘at. But this ain’t about religion. Not anymore. Living’s all about religion, but being dead . . . it’s a whole different animal than God and ‘postles and grape juice. She hated when I’d say that, too–”
The things started to crawl through the dirt toward Tim. And he saw one was his aunt. Her face was just a skull filled with sharp teeth. His father and mother were behind her. And Uncle Larry. All of them pushed through the dirt, clawing at him.
“The living, they shape us when we’re alive by giving us memories and guiding us this way and that. Ain’t so with the dead. ” The old man laughed, showing how own razor-like teeth. “When you down among the dead, boy, they judge you and we have. And then they shape you. We will. You see, boy, that’s what teeth are for down here. And well, there’s more than dirt to dig through. There’s you.”