by Bradley Kehoe
In my back garden, the old preacher digs a hole to hell. He plans to confront the devil and demand his surrender. Watching from the kitchen window, I see he’s a long way off and yet closer than ever: He’s eighty-four, a lifelong smoker. I have the scars to prove it—above the elbows so teachers didn’t see. Bullies nicknamed me “Ashtray Boy.”
AC pumps the house with winter, and I drink homemade sweet tea by the pitcher. Outside, mirages contort the preacher’s scarecrow frame and make him dance two-step. Texan summers stretch the afternoons like taffy into their own hells, and the sun glares down, playing Old Testament God. It punishes the gingham-clad preacher: An hour ago, his sunburn matched the caged heirloom tomatoes; now he’s eggplant-purple, more bruised than burned.
Burns you can poke at years later, memories etched on skin, but bruises fade, so you can only poke at them in your mind, where they learn to live. If my mind were a motel, I’d flip on the No Vacancy sign.
Speaking of vacancy, the staff at Sunny Springs hasn’t noticed his empty room yet. When they do—in an hour, maybe two—they’ll call. Sunny Springs lures burnt-out nurses who neglect their patients (or “guests,” as corporate trains them to say); always on perpetual smoke breaks, they watch daytime TV with the “guests” and practice disappearing magic tricks with the facility’s narcotics. When I led him out the door and to my car during this morning’s visiting hours, nobody glanced our way.
I pour myself another glass of sweet tea, extra ice. It clinks against the glass, the rattle of extracted teeth. I consider sitting in the shade of the cedar wishing well and savoring my tea in front of the preacher as he swats at blue-bottles, but when I last visited, he glanced up at me, his faded-denim eyes wild, sweat tracing the wrinkled topography of his face, and he croaked, “I’m gettin close. I can feel the heat of them fires down there. You feel it?” And as he chipped away at the sunbaked earth, he chipped at something in my chest. I nearly abandoned the whole ordeal and brought him inside to sit him down with a glass of sweet tea and a cold washcloth pressed to his forehead, but I’d prepared for this weakening of resolve ever since one of the nurses at Sunny Springs told me in a gossip-hushed tone, his breath whiskey-stung, “It amazes me what these folks with dementia will believe. They’re like children.”
It amazes me also. Tell a demented preacher he must dig to the devil, and he’ll listen. He’ll dig all day humming hymns in triple-digit temperatures. But now it’s time—the hole is deep enough. I step into the furnace of a garden clutching his old Colt Cobra, and I aim.
“Dad,” I say, because I want him to see me first.
Bradley Kehoe is a writer, filmmaker, musician, and chilihead. You can find him backpacking in the Sierra Nevada, playing live shows with his sister, and surviving in Los Angeles. He works in the mental health field and is currently editing his first novel.