Why do they call it death? I have never felt more alive, more vibrant, more sensitive. I have never been more aware. And colors are sensational: they pulse like jellyfish.
Looking around me, I try to take stock of the spot where death has dumped me. The place looks so utterly familiar that I begin to doubt my demise. Redwood trees tower above me, a creek chuckles close to my feet, and black squirrels chase one another about on golden plains of grass. Even the mist is stunning: a silvery sheltering fog. For all practical purposes, I may as well be in a California state park.
It is all a mirage, of course, and I take some comfort in that. My entire life has been little more than a courtship of illusion. Thank goodness illusion continues with death: I would hate to be held to account.
I am sitting alone beneath a redwood that climbs into the mist. Since I have no sense of location, I decide I had best stay put. I do see a narrow hiking trail on the near side of the creek, and I suspect a welcoming committee will soon come down this trail. But the hours pass like tortoises and nobody appears. I begin to feel weary—incredibly weary. I close my eyes and sleep.
I awake. I am dead. I am wholly alive. Sunlight is leaking through the trees: it is either dawn or dusk. Still, nobody comes to greet me, and perhaps that is for the best. Were my passing to trigger a fanfare of angels, I would feel like a total imposter. Yes, I had roamed Australia as a young man; yes, I had written six books; and yes, I had lasted thirty-four years as a San Francisco probation officer. But heroics come too easily to me: I am unfit for anything else. And the bullet that took my life was the result of my own carelessness. Had I remembered to load my Glock, had I worn my Second Chance vest, had I made my rounds earlier in the morning—a time when the addicts are usually asleep—I would never have stumbled onto a drug buy. I would never have been shot in the chest. No, I’m more deserving of a walk of shame than a ticker tape parade, but even so petty a justice does not seem imminent. Perhaps it is enough to know that I am sixty years old and dead.
Despite the seductions of limbo, there is still some unquiet in me—enough to prompt me to rise to my feet and do a little exploring. Since I have no celestial sea legs, each step is like walking in quicksand, and although I have never been more sober, I teeter like a drunk.
By the time I have gone fifty steps, my legs are shaking like jelly, but my pitiful excursion is sufficient to give me the lay of the land. I am not as isolated as I had believed: there are other souls sitting underneath trees, and they seem to be in a stupor. This sight is no consolation: I now feel inconsequential. My vanity had actually let me believe this place was my province alone. Depleted and demoralized, I stagger back to the tree. Fatigue hits me like a tsunami. I once again fall asleep.
Another day dawns and nobody comes. I take a longer walk. I probably should be hungry by now, but I have no appetite. Occasionally, strangers breeze past me along the hiking trail. The strangers take no notice of me; their eyes are gentle but distant as though fixed on some insular mission. The inventory of my life is of no importance to them.
The fog has dissipated a bit, and I am able to see things more clearly. Sometimes, a soul abandons its tree accompanied by one of the strangers. Occasionally, I spot larger animals: wild pigs and wallabies. These animals move rather stiffly and watch me with unfriendly eyes. Their incongruity seems odd until I realize what they are. These are the animals I shot in Australia: creatures I had picked off from the boot of a Land Rover with a .22 Magnum. How sporting it had been to shoot them at the time. How haunting they seem to me now.
Discouraged, I stumble back to my tree and curl up in a ball. Clearly, I’m not a candidate for heaven: I truly deserve to be flogged. The best that I can hope for now is a benevolent purgatory. It can only be symbolic when the light begins to die. Until my guide spirit fetches me, I will have to remain in the dark. I bury my head in my folded arms and wait for sleep to come.
Thirty days pass: days that I measure by the presence and absence of light. I watch the sunlight bleed through the trees; I watch it disappear. Since nobody shows up to fetch me, I take even longer excursions. My celestial legs grow stronger—I am able to roam at will—but the terrain remains so changeless that exploring it seems a waste. Everywhere, redwood trees tower above me, everywhere souls sit under the trees, and everywhere pigs and wallabies watch me with uncharitable eyes. Each day, when I’ve done my exploring, I return to my allotted tree. I wonder, Will this be the day when my guide spirit picks me up?
One day, while I sit beneath my tree, a dog trots down the trail. Noticing me, it perks its ears and it bounds in my direction. It covers my face with undeserved kisses before curling up in my lap. I stroke the dog behind its ears then pat it on the rump. It is Corky, my French bulldog who preceded me in death. A seizure took her life when she was only six years old.
After a while, Corky jumps from my lap and bolts back up the trail. I call her name, but she does not come back. Her snub is disconcerting; she always obeyed when I called.
Overcome with nostalgia, I close my eyes and nap. I awake when I hear Corky growling; she is crouching by my side. Her eyes are locked on a potato-face man who is ambling down the trail. The man is of medium height, and he is wearing a dark blue suit. His arms stretch out from his shoulders as though he is nailed to a cross. Instinctually, I know I am on his agenda. I stagger to my feet.
Corky bursts into frenzied barking when the man stops in front of me. Although he is not a stranger, he surely deserves her reproach. His five o’clock stubble has never been darker; his scowl has never been deeper. And his eyes are shifting so rapidly that they look like tumbling dice. It is as though he searching for a log with which to cave in my skull.
My god, I think, things are worse than I thought. My guide is Richard Nixon.
Nixon poses before me like a gunfighter about to draw. He then fishes a handkerchief from his jacket and blots his sweat-beaded brow. “Harumph,” he says. “The least you could do is muzzle that shitass dog.”
And what is the most I can do? I wonder, a purely rhetorical question. Kicking his ass is the most I can do—a chore I would deeply enjoy. No bounty from heaven would satisfy me more than kicking this despot’s ass.
Instead, I stroke Corky behind her ears; she whimpers with gratitude. “Shouldn’t you be in hell?” I ask Nixon.
He raises both hands above his head in a double victory salute. Smiling like a possum with gas he says, “Ayyy am not a crook.”
Maybe hell has paroled him, I muse, a thought that I quickly dismiss. His darting eyes and plastic grin do not imply self-renewal.
Reading my mind, Nixon lowers his hands. “They let me out for a few days every year.”
“How do I know that you haven’t escaped?”
Nixon chortles, shakes his head; his jowls wobble as he replies. “If you want to know the truth,” he says, “I kinda prefer it in hell.”
“I’d kinda prefer you there too,” I reply.
Corky sniffs Nixon’s leg then starts barking again.
“Will you call off that shitty dog?” Nixon snaps.
I shrug. “She no longer obeys me,” I say.
Nixon rocks back on his heels and glares. “Well, she’s acting like I’m gonna rob you or something. Ayyy am not a crook.”
I pick up a stick and toss it. Corky dashes after the stick.
No, I decide. Nixon isn’t transformed. Not even his tag phrase has changed. “I wasn’t expecting an angel,” I say, “but why have they sent me you?”
Nixon dances a soft-shoe then takes a deep bow. His mood has mercurially lightened. “How should I know?” he laughs. “I’m a tour guide, not a sage.”
I watch Corky vanish into the forest. She has run off with the stick.
“Shall we get on with it?” Nixon says.
I abandon my tree reluctantly. We walk along the trail.
“You’re getting the VIP tour,” Nixon says.
“What the fuck does that mean?” I say.
“Writers get special treatment—even the half-assed ones.”
I feel as though I’ve been struck with a hammer. “My books are read here?”
Nixon throws up his hands. “Why wouldn’t they be?—there’s plenty of time. Hell, I’ve read a couple myself. I read like a fiend, you know.”
“Thanks for the praise,” I say. I feel as though I have been bribed.
“That’s not a compliment,” Nixon snaps. “Your writing is godless drivel. Your books should have bombed long ago. All you did was pollute the country, soften it up for the communists.”
“You’re lecturing me about bombing?” I sputter.
Nixon squints and his eyes turn red—redder than burning coals. “Get your ass back in ranks!” he bellows. He is not talking to me but a presence he has spotted among the trees.
I look. I see nothing. I hazard a guess. “An eighteen-year-old kid you sent to the fray?”
“You’d think he’d be proud to have died for his flag. Proud that his name’s on the Wall. But no, that little fucker would rather pester me.”
“I’ll bet you get pestered a lot.”
Nixon sighs and again mops his brow. “They won’t stay in ranks, what the shit can I do? I was bowling the other day, you know—we bowl a lot in hell. Well, I was six frames away from a perfect game when one of them gave me the finger. That fucked up my concentration and I threw a gutter ball.”
Corky comes running towards us. She is holding a bird in her mouth. She drops the bird and snarls at Nixon. I watch the bird fly away.
We trudge up a hill; the light starts retreating. I barely see Corky scrambling before us, sniffing the trees and the grass.
Nixon is now aglow with a vomity greenish hue. Noticing my astonishment, he pats me on the back. “It’s my aura,” he says. “You’ll soon have one too. It used to be the color of pus but its mellowed up a bit.”
“How did you pull that off?” I ask.
Nixon snorts as we climb the hill. He is huffing like a horse. “I’ve never stepped out on my wife, for one. And there’s plenty of pussy in hell.”
“Why would she care where you stick your pecker?”
“Beats me,” Nixon says, “but for some reason it matters. I see her every now and then when they let me out of hell. She isn’t wearing her wedding ring—nobody wears one here. But she always blows me a little kiss, asks if I’m wearing my galoshes. She gave me a pair of galoshes because hell is kinda swampy.”
A couple of strangers pass us. They pause and glance our way. In the gloaming, they shine like acetylene torches. Corky barks at the strangers as aggressively as she barked at Richard Nixon.
“Give your dog a treat,” says Nixon. “She drove those assholes off.”
I watch the strangers as they continue along the hiking trail. Their light seems colder than foxfire. I’m relieved to watch them go.
“Angels!” scoffs Nixon. “They’re worse than the Mormons. Always soliciting folks to get them to check out heaven. If you give those fuckers an inch, they’ll bend your ear all day.”
“Do they recruit very many?”
Nixon hawks and spits. “They’ll draft an occasional priest if he hasn’t screwed any kids. Sometimes they’ll land an old woman or maybe a celibate monk. But no one with any hair on his crotch wants to go off with them.”
The hill grows steeper. The darkness expands. In a while my eyes adjust to it—it looks like a velvet shroud.
We come to a gate. A guard signals us through. My eyes have adjusted so well to the gloaming that I can see we are in a park. When we come to a complex of tennis courts, I spot a familiar man. He is standing on one of the courts, dressed for tennis, and he is practicing his serve. His eyes are fixed on his ball toss, and he does not see us approach him.
Noticing my hesitation, Nixon elbows me in the ribs. “Don’t waste too much time here,” he says. “This is only the first of our stops.”
“That’s my father,” I say.
“What of it?” says Nixon. “You’re older than he is, you know.”
I look once again at the man on the court. Although he is my father, he looks ridiculously young. I recall that my father was forty years old when a blood clot took his life.
Leaving Nixon behind me, I stroll onto the tennis court. The man pauses in his service motion and looks at me incuriously. His eyes suggest that he wants to get back to working on his serve.
“You there,” he shouts, “you need to wear whites if you’re gonna come onto a court!” His voice is deep and resonates with the self-absorption of youth.
Do I have to remind him that I am his son? I cannot shake this thought from my head. “Call me Tom,” I stammer. “Thanks for siring me.”
“Did I?” he says. He bounces a ball. “Well, as long as you’re here, let me give you some pointers. Tom never could serve worth a shit.”
He lobs the ball above his head and snaps off a killer serve. “After your toss, keep your hand in the air. Pronate your wrist when you hit the ball. Strike the ball at two o’clock—that’ll put some mustard on it.”
He fires off half a dozen more serves before looking in my direction. “I see you drew Richard Nixon,” he says.
“He’s a bowler,” I pipe, “so we have to move on.” I realize how silly I sound, but it’s all I can think of to say.
“Don’t keep him waiting,” my father replies. “I hear he gives a pretty good tour. I got stuck with Bobby Riggs and he wasn’t worth a damn.”
I feel as though I am trespassing, I leave the tennis court.
“Why the sour face?” Nixon asks.
“I was hoping for something else.”
“Did you see the kick on that serve? You ought to be happy for him.”
“So what’s the lesson here?” I ask him. “That souls dry up, that nothing lasts, that the afterlife doesn’t mean shit?”
Nixon reaches into the pocket of his jacket and takes out an electric razor. He turns it on with a flick of his thumb. It hums like a bumblebee. “You goddamn newbies are all alike,” he says as he strokes his jowls. “Always expecting me to expound like some sage on a mountaintop.”
“I assumed that’s what you’re here for,” I say.
Nixon finishes removing his stubble then flings the razor away. “I’d rather be bowling,” he mutters, “but they got me here giving a tour. They drag my ass out of hell every year to give these goddamn tours.”
“Maybe you should be a guru by now.”
Nixon folds his arms. “The only thing I know for sure is that you wanna kick my ass.”
He sits down in a lotus position. His face is sweaty and flushed. “Well, that’s already happened,” Nixon says. “You’ve come along too late. I gave them a sword. They sliced off my nuts. You can’t slice ’em off again.”
Nixon closes his eyes and sits for several minutes. When his meditation is over, he rises to his feet. His gaze is as hard as marble when he looks at me again. “You want a lesson, I’ll give you a lesson,” he says with a weary shrug. “Don’t go onto a tennis court if you aren’t wearing whites.”
We continue our climb until we come to a motionless body of water. We stand on a beach that is tideless: no wavelets comb the shore. Fog blankets the water so heavily I could write my name in it.
A chill electrifies my spine. I look at my chaperone. “Is this the River Styx?” I ask him. My palms are as damp as a tomb.
“How should I know what they call it?” growls Nixon.
“It has to have a name?”
“Fine,” says Nixon. “I’ll dub it Lake Liddy. Is that enough for you?”
Holding my breath, I look out on the water. The water is black as slate. No sunlight touches its surface, no ripples whiten its skin, not even the splash of a sea bird dimples its soundless expanse. I feel as though I am standing beside a enormous inkwell.
“Hurry it up,” says Nixon. “The boat leaves in ten minutes.”
“The boat?” I say. “The boat to where?”
“How should I know?” he replies.
We walk for another minute and come to an empty dock. A towering luxury liner is fastened to a piling. The ship does not sway in the water or strain on its mooring lines. It looks like a painted craft upon a painted lake.
I try to count the numerous decks, but they stretch into the fog.
“Where is that thing going to take us?” I ask.
“Just get aboard,” Nixon mutters.
Corky hangs behind us. She does not want to board the ship. As we walk toward the gangplank, she barks then scampers away.
I follow Nixon up the gangplank. A steward waves us aboard. A promenade deck is packed with people who pay no attention to us. Scattered conversations fill the air like dead ash from a windblown fire, and a piped-in music system is playing “My Heart Will Go On.”
Nobody seems to notice when the ship pulls away from the dock. Not even the drone of the ship horn interrupts the arid chatter. I clutch the deck railing and watch the dock recede into the haze. In a matter of seconds, it vanishes as though it has been devoured.
I look at the hundreds of passengers crammed upon the deck. Some are chatting in groups, some are texting on iPhones, others are walking around with no apparent destination. Although we are sharing a voyage, no one looks back at me.
I stare over the water. I see only fog. The ship horn groans again. “Where are we going?” I ask my guide.
“We’ll both know when we get there,” says Nixon. “C’mon, I’ll show you the boat?”
“If this is the VIP tour,” I reply, “I would hate to go tourist class.”
Nixon chuckles. “I lied about that. Sorry to have built up your hopes.”
We enter a giant foyer that is lit up like a mall. The foyer is a hub to dozens of suites whose doors are open wide. The suites are filled with people who come and go at will. Some of the suites are chapels, others are casinos, others are barrooms that relinquish the roar of televised football games.
The acoustics of the foyer are powerful; I hear conversations more clearly. “Don’t call yourself a golfer,” a voice says. “’Cause you’re three-putting every green.” Another voice says, “The Dave Clark Five had nothing on the Beatles.” A third voice cries, “I’ll tell you who shot him. It hadda be Jack Ruby!”
I follow Nixon up a long spiral staircase. We climb from deck to deck. Each of the decks is brightly lit and a home to dozens of suites. I see a stock exchange, a bowling ally, and an adult entertainment store. I see a beauty salon, a disco, and even a Chinese restaurant.
“Some Peking duck?” Nixon asks me.
Nixon steps into the restaurant and comes back with two takeout containers. He hands me one. “I ordered it spicy. You can’t get it spicy in hell.”
Although I don’t feel hungry, I bite into a breast. It stings my mouth like a scorpion. I toss it into a trash bin.
Nixon pockets his takeout box—“I’m saving it for hell”—and we continue to mount the staircase. We pass decks with bingo parlors, decks with dog grooming salons, decks where blazing angels are passing out literature. When we come to a deck with a Disneyland logo, Nixon pauses to catch his breath. The deck contains dozens of shops, all of them Disney stores. The shops are packed with customers who are buying memorabilia.
“Good ol’ Walt,” Nixon mutters. “I could always count on him.”
“Count on him for what?” I say.
“You’re a writer,” says Nixon. “Figure it out.””
The answer seems redundant, but I answer anyway. “His corny movies kept people from thinking.”
“A nicer way to put it,” says Nixon, “is that he kept them from thinking too much.”
“So what’s the lesson here?”
Nixon yawns. “What lesson do you want to hear?”
“That your tripe went over too easy. Walt Disney did most of the work.”
Nixon scowls. “You goddamn writers—always wanting a lesson. Well, I don’t have a lesson to give you and you’re starting to piss me off.”
“Am I here for your approval?” I say.
“No, you’re here for a goddamn tour.” Nixon reaches into his jacket and removes a bottle of throat spray. After lathering his tonsils, he takes a labored breath. “All right, here’s a lesson. You can write it down or shove it up your ass. Check for a fortune cookie when you order Peking duck.”
The stairway ends at a sundeck, and we step into the night air. The sky is starless, the fog is like soup, the deck is slick with dew.
“Is this boat bound for purgatory?” I ask Nixon.
“How the hell should I know?”
“So where are we going?”
“Stop asking me that! Where the fuck do you wanna go?”
Remembering Dante’s Inferno, I say, “How about the circle of Limbo? I hear the ancient poets live there, and they have it pretty good. They get to stroll in a meadow and philosophize all day.”
Nixon slaps his forehead. “You want to go there? Those gasbags will bore you to death.”
“I’m dead already,” I say. “What have I got to lose?”
“You’ll lose your mind in the circle of Limbo. Those cocksuckers talk in riddles.”
“This whole damn ship is a riddle,” I snap.
“It’s only a riddle to you,” Nixon laughs. “That comes from thinking too much.”
“The circle of Limbo,” I repeat, and I feel like a pompous fool. Since I don’t know the ship’s destination, I can hardly make demands.
“Well, think it over first,” Nixon says. “I gotta go for now.”
“You going to check our course?” I ask.
“No, I gotta take a piss.”
Nixon disappears down the stairwell; I stand alone on the deck. The fog is relentless; the air is so damp it clings to my skin like a suit. The piped-in music system is playing “The Girl from the North Country.”
A woman’s voice says, “Tom, you’ll catch your death of cold.”
The fog is so thick that I barely see her loitering beside the stairwell. Despite this benevolent haze, I see more than I want to see. She is no longer a girl of twenty but a woman past menopause. Her hair is white and disheveled; her eyes no longer sparkle. She is wearing a yellowed kaftan, and love beads droop from her neck.
I close my eyes and will her away. When I open them she is still there. What a sticky thing one’s first love is even when thrown away. I had loved her when we were in college; I had loved my adventuring more. When my letters from Australia no longer sustained her, she wisely discarded me.
She remains by the stairwell; she does not walk toward me. She nibbles her underlip. “Why am I still caring for you?” she puzzles. Her voice is honeyed with sentiment; her tenderness touches me still.
I choose my words as though they are jewels. “I should think you’d have lost the habit.”
“I did,” she replies. “But when heart failure took me, I wanted to see you once more.”
Why has illusion abandoned me? I think as I look at her. My memory of her—which I treasure—is a memory nurtured by distance. Her presence is like a wax statue. I want her to go away.
“I have something for you,” she murmurs.
“Galoshes?” I ask. My skin starts to prickle.
“Will a snapshot do instead?” she asks.
She shuffles toward me, hands me a photo, then goes back and waits by the stairwell. In the photo we are a couple. In the photo she looks more alive. We pose in her dormitory, arm-in-arm. The flashbulb reddens our eyes.
I slip the photo into my pocket. It gives me a paper cut. “Why did you bring me this?” I ask.
She replaces a loose strand of hair. “I’ve always been fond of collectibles, Tom. I just hate to throw them away.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“I must go,” she replies. “Bingo starts in ten minutes.”
She hurries down the stairwell. Her footsteps patter like rain. I am looking at the photo when Nixon returns to the deck.
“Guess who I saw?” I tell Nixon.
“Your college squeeze,” he replies. “I hope you don’t wanna marry her.”
“I wanted her to go away.”
“Atta boy,” says Nixon. “Way to go with the flow.” Nixon lifts his bottle of throat spray and once again coats his tonsils. Borrowing from Thomas Wolfe, he quotes, “’You can’t go home again.’”
Do I only merit clichés? I wonder. I am sick of this fool of a man. Feeling contentious, I shake my head and try to outdo his quote. “’Like bubbles on the sea of matter borne, they rise, they break, and to that sea return.’”
“The fuck are you trying to say?” Nixon says.
“That you’ve shown me nothing of substance.”
“So you’re reciting Alexander Pope?”
“If it helps me make sense of all this—yes.”
“All right,” Nixon says. “Let’s do literary quotes. I read three books a day, you know.” Nixon fills his mouth with chewing tobacco then spits the wad into a lifeboat. He then dances a jig and grins like a jackal. “How about something from The Book of Revelation?—that’s always good for a laugh. ‘Since you are neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee from my mouth.’”
I concede to Nixon that he has won. “That explains this vapid boat.”
Nixon pirouettes and laughs. “You eggheads are so easy to fuck with,” he crows.
“I’m trying to rise like a phoenix,” I say. “I want my celestial wings.”
“Yeah, but you’re more like a baby bird. All beak and fulla shit.”
“So where are we going?”
“Come with me to hell—you can chase those damn soldiers away. If I can get some more spin from my follow through, I’ll bowl that perfect game.”
The ship’s horn drones like a trumpet.
“We’re arriving,” Nixon says.
A shoreline is creeping toward us. I can make out a shadowy dock. It takes me a moment to realize it’s the exact same place we embarked from. Corky is sitting on the dock, watching the ship approach.
Some angels trail us like pickpockets as we take our leave of the ship. Corky bares her teeth at them. Nixon waves them off.
“Go to hell,” he snaps. They bow and walk away. I wait until the fog swallows them before I speak to Nixon.
“Is that how you talk to heavenly hosts?”
Nixon spits a tobacco-stained loogie. “I wasn’t trying to be rude,” he says. “I just told them where they should go. Those fuckers will pluck more souls in hell than they will on that goddamn boat.”
“You should have let them recruit you,” I joke.
“They’ve tried,” he replies. “Half a dozen times. When heaven lands a big-time sinner, it’s great publicity.”
“They’re persistent if nothing else,” I say.
Nixon gives me the Boy Scout salute. “Persistence pays,” he recites. “Shit, I might just let ’em recruit me once I’ve bowled my perfect game.”
Amused by the look on my face, Nixon laughs like a donkey. “Hadja going,” he brays. “Damn, it’s fun to mess with your head. How’d you become a writer if you’re this damn easy to fool?”
We walk for an hour. Neither of us speaks. We come to a carnival. I see an endless midway that is packed with thousands of people.
The racing lights of the midway barely penetrate the darkness, but the many sights and sounds are distracting nonetheless. A roller coaster rattles above us; a Ferris wheel spins like a giant roulette wheel; a barker from a break-a-plate booth stuffs a softball into my hands. “Hurry, hurry, hurry!” he hollers. “Hurry, hurry, hurry! Smash three in a row and pick your prize. A Kewpie doll or heaven.”
Annoyed, I toss the softball away. Corky bolts after it, fetches it back. I throw it away a second time, and she vanishes into the crowd.
“Is this our destination?” I ask.
“Damned if I know,” Nixon says. “But I wouldn’t mind some cotton candy. You can’t get that in hell.”
We come to a booth where a dozen people are playing Russian roulette. A crowd lingers around the booth, egging the contestants on. Bookies move among the crowd giving odds and collecting bets.
Among the contestants I spot Spiro Agnew, Lyndon Johnson, and Andrew Jackson. They sit in a circle, waiting their turn, while passing a revolver around. Each contestant spins the cylinder and puts the gun to his temple. When one of them blows his brains out the crowd erupts in a cheer.
As the bodies are dragged from the booth, the bookies settle the bets. A concert band plays a few bars from “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”
Nixon points to a scar on his temple and sighs like a dog in a cage. “I lost in my very first round,” he says. “Hell, I coulda been a contender.”
“Take another shot at it,” I say dryly.
“Fuck it, I’d rather be knocking down pins. That goddamn game is rigged.”
We continue to walk down the midway. The darkness tightens around us. Although I stroll among droves of people, I feel no connections at all. It seems like they are devolving on their way to oblivion.
The tour continues for three whole months. I see many incalculable sights. I see hordes of angels shepherding children who are shrieking for their mothers. I see mummified church people holding up signs that say, Christianity Saves. I see gangs of Hare Krishnas swiping apples from a mart. Although the sights are myriad, the effect is always the same. I feel like I’m watching a movie that has no storyline.
“So whaddya think?” Nixon asks me one day.
We are standing on top of a snow-capped mountain. The fog below us rolls. An aura is starting to light me up, but I can’t tell what color it is.
“What do you want me to think?” I say. “You’ve taught me nothing at all.”
Nixon pantomimes a golf swing then squints as though watching the ball. “If you want to be enlightened,” he says, “go chat with a fucking angel.”
“They’re a little too hard on the eyes,” I say. I look down at the infinite fog. Random lights peak through it like a scattering of fireflies.
“Yeah,” Nixon says. “And they lay it on thick. You’d think they were selling used cars.”
Nixon unzips his pants and pees a smoky stream. After yellowing the snow, he wags his penis, shaking the last drops loose. “A guru might give you the scoop,” he says as he tugs his fly back up. “But me, I’m just a tour guide and I wanna get back to hell.”
“Just tell me what comes next,” I say.
“Fucked if I know,” Nixon says. “Go sit under another tree—I’m done with his goddamn tour.”
“Any parting words?” I ask as he starts to walk away.
“Plenty,” he says, “but none of ’em matter. Except for one damn thing.” He spreads his arms like an eagle in flight. “Ayyy am not a crook.”
“I Am Not a Crook” was first published in the anthology Shackles and More Gripping Tales.
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. “His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.” (Global Book Awards recently gave James’s latest book, The Ping-Pong Champion of Chinatown, a gold medal.)