“D’ya think that’s hell?” Elmore Young waved his slightly shaky right hand at the flaming pit in the hay field beside us. We had been comparing our visions of damnation. In the pit, he saw his cultural enemies: liberals, progressives, feminists. In the smoldering brimstone I saw my violent uncle squirming in agony, surrounded by the laughing faces of those he’d made suffer, each holding a glass of Irish whiskey he could not reach.
“No. Its not hell.” I replied. “Its some kind of projection. That’s why nothing is catching on fire even though the pit is burning so hot.” With my left hand I traced a line through the ring of soldiers who surrounded Moab Haysan’s World Famous Brimstone Pit. From our perspective it looked like they were engulfed in flames, but they were not.
Elmore would have none of it. “No way. I think that there is hell. Or at least a gateway to hell. It makes sense if you think ’bout it, hell being beside us. How many people y’know who are the devil’s right hand? You stand in a crowded place like an elevator or a rodeo and there’s at least one a’ Satan’s minions rubbing yer elbows.”
He took a swig of his soda, spat a wad of chewing tobacco out at my feet for emphasis and said, “But seeing hell right there don’t scare me none. Because think of what it means. If hell is by my left hand maybe heaven is by my right hand. Hah! Imagine being able to see paradise before you die. And we just might. After all, this is a time of miracles.”
He turned away from the pit, to face me. The burning rock behind his back turned him in to a limned shadow. He said, “You aren’t a member of the James clan are ya?”
“I think its the federal government doing this, not God. Its an experiment they’ve screwed up, and now they’re making the best of it by creating another experiment. On us.” I dodged the old man’s question because I didn’t want to get involved in the local feud. As it turns out I am related to the the James clan on my mother’s side, and to their blood enemies, the Young clan on my father’s side. Elmore looked just like how my uncle Clay would have at sixty, if he hadn’t been crushed by a backhoe.
Elmore didn’t exactly take my bait to air his favorite conspiracy theory, but the dodge worked. He said, “If its the gubberment” – his gums blunted his pronunciation – “If its the gubberment, how come our visions are specific? Only God can read my mind.”
I quietly replied, “Somehow something is triggering our visions. Maybe its electromagnetism. Maybe its drugs in the water. Or something the farmers’ have sprayed.”
This got him riled, “You better stop talking like a James, replacing Christianity with conspiracies. All-Dudes is a Christian town.”
I took a long, calming breath and dodged bigger, “My money’s on Jed in the Tractor Race.”
His laugh was uncomfortably close to a death rattle. “Bad choice but you picked the right team. Watch out for Jed’s niece. My money is on her.”
Elmore Young leaned close and said conspiratorially, “How you know so much about ’round here?”
“It only took ’bout fifteen minutes of listening at Garth’s.” Garth is the proprietor of a shotgun shack situated just over the county line. He sells unbranded cigarettes and legal booze. All-Dudes is a dry county, and has been since the Young’s first settled it in 1845 on their way out west.
“How d’you know it was fifteen minutes, not twelve or twenty. Why so exact? You counting? Like a spy?”
“I measure my time in cigarettes. I smoked three. In a row.”
“You smoke. Good. Not enough people smoke no more. Can you spare one? Or two?”
I gave him the rest of my pack, and a light. This distracted him long enough for me to be saved from further inquisition by the appearance of the Young clan’s two ringers in this weekend’s tractor race, Jedid and Eloise Young. Although the number on his back, a large black 108 printed in a Gothic face, suggested something related to competitive sports, the rest of Jedid’s outfit – jeans, t-shirt and dirty beige work boots – was more suitable for cleaning a barn. His niece, the reputed ringer Eloise, was dressed in her idea of racing gear, which she had borrowed from the racing star Danica Patrick, though she’d thrown in a few suburban touches, including bright yellow sneakers, a tight-fitting Lycra body suit, and a bat-belt of water bottles and cellphones. She was pretty in that way featureless, blemishless women can be.
Intake to Chapter II – Absolution makes me sin. If I’d been born a Protestant I’d have been a much different person. Would never have wound up here in All Dudes, in the middle of some decades old feud between the decendants of the James gang and Brigham Young.