Hiram Hazlacker's last living memory was the sight of the Revenue Men coming down the path to his cave. Hiram called it his Whiskey Cave, even though it was just a bunch of rocks that he'd thrown together to hide his still. The woods of Northern Maine didn't have too many caves, so a body had to make do with what was handy.
Revenue men had been chasing Hiram for just about forever, the same way that they'd been hunting his daddy and his granddaddy. Whiskey was sacred to the Hazlackers, and they were durned sure that they weren't going to give any illegal profits to some pissant Revenue Men.
He remembered staring at the Revenue Men, as they clambered over the piles of old car tires filled with cow manure. They were cursing something awful, which made Hiram feel a twinge of pride.
Twinges are risky little devils, especially when they have the gall to send a signal to your left ventricle to take a break for the day. Hiram would have objected to a twinge like that, except for the dolorous state of death that arrived at his Whiskey Cave just moments before the first Revenue Man had shaken the last bit of cow poop from his boot.
Hiram was altogether confused. How he found himself crouched against the back wall of his cave he didn't know. Why the Revenue Man kicked what looked like Hiram's body, crumpled at the cave entrance, was even more perplexing. To see the man wipe his shoe on Hiram's shirt and then turn toward his fellows and shout, "The old bugger's dead. Looks like a heart attack", was just rude and disrespectful. Even for a Revenue Man who smelled like ant piss.
They left after a while, dragging Hiram's body with them, taking care to let his body get smeared with manure as they climbed over the tires. Hiram watched them go, peering once more from the mouth of his Whiskey Cave. He was not normally an emotional man, or so he thought, but as he stared at the last retreating bum of the Revenue Men, he was consumed with panic. He stepped forward instinctively, thinking that he would follow them, to find out where they were taking his body.
His panic changed to terror as his foot slipped downward into a vast hole. His head and body and other foot soon followed, flailing wildly as he plunged into darkness.
Hiram was observant, having spent most of life looking out for coyotes and Revenue Men. As he fell through the blackness he noticed that this particular darkness was much denser than your everyday type of dark. It enveloped him, and squeezed against him, and smelled like camphor.
He had no idea how long he fell, but at one point he hollered out in vexation, "Hello! Is anybody there?"
There wasn't any answer. Instead, there was a bump. Or perhaps a thwump. Whatever it was, it sounded like a body falling to the ground. As he shook his head, he realized that it was his body that had fallen smack dab into a field. He hadn't realized that he had closed his eyes in the darkness, but since he felt grass under his body he decided that it might be a good idea to open them. He did so, gingerly, one after the other.
He was indeed sitting in a field. He didn't recognize it. He stood up and cautiously looked around. He was on a small hill overlooking a river, with fields and woods behind him. Assuming that he was dead, he did what any reasonable whiskey man would do. He opened his mouth, and asked, "Hello? Anyone? Is this hell? I thought there would be flames."
"No, Hiram. This is Portland."
He was so startled that he had received an answer that he clenched his fists and turned in a circle, looking for the person that had spoken. He saw no one, and gritted his teeth. "Who's there?"
"You can call me Lucy."
He turned again, scowling. "Where are you? I can't see you."
"I'm right here. By the tree."
Hiram only saw one tree, a few feet away, and there wasn't a single person under it, of that he was sure.
"You're lying. There's no one there."
"You can't see me?"
"No! Tell me where you are!"
"Very strange. Very, very strange."
Hiram stared at the tree, but couldn't see anyone. The woman who stood there frowned, perplexed at Hiram's inability to see her. She was of medium height and build, and was dressed in such an extraordinary mishmash of styles that if Hiram had been able to see her, he would have immediately asked her where she did her shopping.
She stepped over to Hiram and stood in front of him and stared at him. After looking at him intently, she nodded, and said, "Oh, I understand. You're confused. That's why you can't see me."
He sensed the direction that her voice came from, and lunged forward to grab her, but as his hand approached her body, it undulated against an invisible barrier.
Lucy smiled, and said, "Sorry, Hiram, you can't touch me either, until you get over your confusion. And even then you have to be respectful. I am an angel, you know."
"Yes, really," she said. "What else would I be?"
"The devil," he replied. "My mum told me about the devil."
Lucy laughed; a big belly laugh that rose up and seemed to bounce off the sky. Hiram was startled, but said nothing, since he wasn't sure if she really was the devil. Lucy continued to laugh until she had to lean against the tree for support. Sputtering weakly, she turned back to Hiram with a smile.
"No, silly. If I were the devil, you'd already be in a very nasty place. Someplace icky and chilly and probably muddy. I've told you already. This isn't hell. It's only Portland. Most people like it."
Hiram felt very confused. Talking to an angel was a new experience for him, and since he couldn't even see who he was talking to, it made him wonder if the whiskey had finally addled his brain.
"No, Hiram, you're not insane."
He jumped back. "You can read my thoughts?"
"Of course. I'm an angel."
"That's really not very fair," he said. He walked back and forth, and waved toward the river. "So why'd you bring me here? I'm dead, right? What's Portland got to do with it?"
Lucy sat down on the grass next to the tree and smoothed out her skirt. "Don't you remember? You were born in Portland."
"Well, we usually start reviews at a person's place of birth."
"Reviews?" He stopped pacing, and folded his arms over his chest. "I don't like reviews. What review?"
Lucy smiled, and looked at Hiram kindly. "I know you spent a lot of time in your whiskey cave, so you might not have heard of life reviews before. You'll get to have one of those a bit later. It's where your life passes before your eyes really fast, and you see all the things you've done. But this review is a little different."
Hiram looked worried. "What do you mean?"
"Because you're so confused, I've been sent to help figure out where you belong."
"Belong?" asked Hiram.
"Yes," said Lucy. "You know, in Heaven or Hell, or somewhere in between." She jumped up and started walking down a path toward the edge of the field. "Follow me, Hiram. We can talk as we walk into Portland."
"Follow you?" He frowned. "I can't even see you. How do I follow you?"
She turned and smiled. "Just start walking. I'm like a magnet."
Hiram shook his head and sighed. Walking across a field following an invisible angel was not at all what he had expected when he woke up that morning. He had lived alone, in a broken down shack in the woods, a few hundred yards from his whiskey cave. He didn't even have a hound dog or a rooster. Just a coffee pot, for a body couldn't live without a coffee pot and a goodly supply of dark roasted coffee. Drunk black, of course.
He had spent most of his time making whiskey, drinking whiskey and selling whiskey to the farmers and hunters scattered around his neck of the woods. He was famous for his whiskey, and famous for his furtiveness. Maybe that's why his heart gave out when he saw the Revenue Men. In all of his sixty years of life, he'd always somehow managed to escape the government men, and build a new cave deeper into the woods. The Maine woods were huge, and Hiram knew how to hide.
He also never forgot his daddy's dying words, croaked out as the old man wiped his last sip of whiskey from his beard.
"Hiram," whispered the old man. "Hiram, don't you ever forget what I taught you. Game the system, boy, game the system. You're smarter than those government folks, with their ungodly taxes and regulations. Stay one step ahead, boy, and you'll survive to die like me, happy in your cot, sippin' whiskey until the very end."
His daddy's maxim came back to him, as he followed Lucy across the fields. Game the system. He could do that. As they stepped out onto a roadway, he caught up to Lucy, or at least he thought he did, based on her strange magnetic pull. He looked around as they started walking along the shoulder of the road.
"This doesn't look like Portland," he said.
Lucy pointed down the road. "No, Portland's over the bridge. This is Route 1, in Falmouth. I said Portland, before, because we're right on the edge, and that's where we're going. I like to greet my charges in a quiet place."
"Oh," replied Hiram. He thought for a few minutes as they walked. Then, with a sly smile, he said, "So, tell me more about this Heaven and Hell business. How's it all decided?"
"It's simple," said Lucy. "You go to the place that reflects your essence. Your heart, your character, your spirit. If you eat puppies for breakfast, you go to the place where the puppy eaters live. It's not a nice place at all. And there are no puppies."
Hiram looked relieved. "I don't eat puppies! I never eat rats. I don't even eat squirrels. Well, not anymore. Not since that red squirrel gave me diarrhea. I think I left it out too long. Now I have black coffee and eggs for breakfast."
Lucy grinned. "Very good, Hiram. So, where do you think you should go?"
Hiram looked triumphant. This was the opening he'd been waiting for. "I was raised by my mum in the Bible Fire Church of the Saved by Grace Redeemers. I should go to that heaven. I always liked the girls at church, and the music was tolerable."
Lucy nodded. "Okay. Let's ask them. There aren't very many people in that department, so this should be interesting."
"Yes, indeed. It's not up to me." Lucy waved her fingers in the air, and suddenly Hiram heard a dial tone, followed by a ring, and a man's voice.
"Hello, friend. This is Nathan speaking, and you've reached the Department of Salvation of the Bible Fire Church of the Saved by Grace Redeemers. How may I help you?"
"Hello, Nathan. This is Lucy. I've got Hiram Hazlacker with me. He's inquiring about entrance into your area of the afterlife, and wants to discuss that with you."
"Hello, Hiram. I'll try to help."
Hiram looked around, and said, "Lucy, exactly where is Nathan right now? Is he here with you?"
Lucy laughed. "No, sweetie. Didn't you hear the phone ring? He's a long way away, in the area of the spiritual world reserved for the faithful members of the Bible Fire Church of the Saved by Grace Redeemers. I'm not sure exactly where it is or what it's like. I've never been there."
Nathan interjected. "It's very nice, Lucy. We sing all day, and pray very loudly in between. We're very happy. The girls wear long dresses, buttoned up to the neck, and we're all very glad that we no longer feel any enticement to sin. No cigarettes or cigars, no nasty TV shows, and no whiskey or beer. It's a very happy place."
There was the sound of rustling papers. "Let me see," Nathan said. "Hmm. Hiram, I don't see your name on the active rolls. Are you sure it was this church? Anyway, we could fit you in if you sincerely believe on Jesus and want to live a spirit-filled and holy life."
Hiram wasn't sure where Lucy was, but he thought she was on his left, so he waved his hands madly in that direction, mouthing the words, "No, no, no! Hang up!"
Lucy smiled, amused at his frantic motions. "Nathan, thanks for your time. I don't think Hiram will be a good fit."
"Oh," said Nathan. He sounded disappointed. "No problem. Hiram, let us know if you change your mind. Jesus loves you."
"Take care, Nathan. Goodbye." Lucy waved her fingers, and the phone clicked.
Turning to Hiram, she said, "My oh my, Hiram. Was it the buttoned up necklines, or the singing and praying, or the lack of whiskey?"
Hiram rubbed his head in embarrassment. "All of them."
They walked for a while, down Route 1, past trim little homes with manicured lawns. They soon reached the bridge separating Falmouth from Portland, and stopped for a moment to look at the water. Hiram hadn't spent much time near the ocean, preferring the deep woods with their mossy nooks and dark corners. He felt a little naked on the bridge, and shivered, looking around for Revenue Men before he remembered that they didn't matter anymore. Unless of course they were in hell, waiting for him, grinning at him, sipping whiskey that he couldn't drink.
They continued on their journey, past Back Bay and then up to the Eastern Promenade, where they stopped for a moment to look down at Portland Harbor. They turned back onto Congress Street, and walked over the hill toward the downtown area. Hiram hadn't been in Portland for a long time, and looked at the buildings with curiosity.
As they passed a cemetery, Hiram stopped, and said, "Lucy, wait."
A woman was standing at the cemetery's fence, clutching the bars, and staring at the graves sadly. Hiram went up to her and stood next to her. He turned to her, and said, "They're not dead, you know. Just look at me. Still kicking, even after I died of a heart attack. Don't be sad, ma'am."
The woman didn't respond, and just stared straight ahead. Lucy gazed at Hiram thoughtfully, and then said, "Hiram, she can't see you or hear you."
Hiram shook his head sadly. "I figured she might not be able to, but it was worth a shot."
They continued walking until they came upon a Catholic church. Hiram looked at it, and snapped his fingers.
"Lucy, I want to go to Catholic heaven."
Lucy looked at him and raised an eyebrow. "Really? Why is that?"
"I've watched a lot of gangster movies, and it looks like a pretty good deal. The dons go to confession, and get absolved, and then go back to their restaurants and eat pasta and shoot people. I didn't shoot anyone, so I should be okay. And I like pasta. But not opera."
Lucy shrugged, and said, "Let's check."
As they continued to walk, she moved her fingers in the air, and the invisible phone rang. A voice thick with the accent of sun and olive oil answered.
"Yes, my dearly beloved. This is Padre Antonio. You wish to confess? To offer a prayer? To light a candle? What is it that will make you happy?"
"Hello, Padre. This is Lucy."
"Ah, Lucy. How was your trip to Tahiti? Did you get a chance to swim?"
Lucy looked slightly embarrassed, which of course Hiram didn't see. "Very fine, Padre. And yes, I swam a lot, thank you. I'm in Maine now, with Hiram Hazlacker. He wants to come to Catholic heaven. What are his options?"
"Hello, Hiram, my friend. Was your death painful?"
Hiram thought for a moment, and shook his head. "I don't remember. I had a heart attack and fell down a hole and then I met Lucy."
"Ah, the falling down the hole situation. Yes, I know about that. My condolences on your confusion."
"Thank you. I guess," said Hiram. "So, Padre, I think that Catholic heaven would be good for me. I'm a whiskey man, and I know how much priests like a good glass now and again. I could keep your friends well supplied. And I'm fine with going to confession as often as you want me to. I mean, if the Mafia can do it, then it shouldn't be too hard for me. I'm just not that bad."
There was a pause, and Hiram heard a low murmur on the phone. He couldn't make out the words, but it sounded like Padre Antonio was consulting with someone. The murmuring stopped, and the priest cleared his throat.
"Well, Hiram, you certainly passed the test for part two of the sacrament of confession, which is to be willing to confess your sins fully, in kind and in number. Do you agree to that?"
Hiram nodded. "Sure, Padre. I got no problem with that."
Padre Antonio's voice sounded pleased. "Bless you, my son. There are two other parts of the sacrament. The first one is that you must be contrite, and sorry for your sins. Are you sorry, my son?"
"Oh yes, Padre, very sorry."
"Very good. Very good. Then there is part three. You must be willing to do penance and make amends for your sins. Of course, it's highly advisable to also stop sinning, otherwise you'll be doing a lot of penance, which is often not very enjoyable."
"No problem, Padre. This sounds like a good deal."
"Then, let's begin, my son, with your confession. What do you have to confess?"
Hiram opened his mouth, and then closed it again. They had arrived at Monument Square, and Hiram availed himself of the monument's base, and sat down. He sat, and didn't know what to say.
"My son, do you have anything to confess?" The priest's voice was patient.
Hiram shook his head, and said, "I can't think of anything, Padre. Sorry about that. I guess Catholic heaven isn't for me."
"Don't worry, my son," the priest replied. "Sincere confession can only come after a certain amount of self-awareness. It is a matter of growth to know oneself. Lucy, do call again, my friend."
"I will," said Lucy. The phone clicked off, and Lucy sat next to Hiram, who looked even more confused than he had been before.
They sat for a while, and watched the people as they walked through the square. Hiram was feeling rather desperate, since he didn't want to go to the land of puppy eaters, or some other equally dreadful place. He put his head in his hands, and almost fell asleep in the midst of his depression.
On a whim, he plucked an idea out of the recesses of his mind and said, "Okay, Lucy, how 'bout this? I heard that those Hindus have all kinds of gods, and even have the Kama Sutra. I could probably fit in there, don't you think?"
Lucy was leaning her cheek on her palm, watching him think. She straightened up and smiled, and said, "I will make the call."
Her fingers traced a pattern in the air, and a female voice answered. "Good afternoon. This is Saavi, in the Karma Records Department. How may I be of service?"
"Hello, Saavi, this is Lucy. I'm one of the angels working with the deceased. I'm here with a gentleman from Maine, named Hiram Hazlacker. He believes he may be a good candidate for the Hindu Heaven."
"Hello, Mr. Hazlacker. This is Saavi. Please hold on while I look up your status."
Hiram stared at Lucy. "Status? What does she mean? What about the Kama Sutra and the palm trees?"
Lucy held up a finger, and said, "Let's see."
They heard the sound of typing, and then Saavi said, "How do you spell Hazlacker?"
"H-a-z-l-a-c-k-e-r," replied Lucy.
There was more typing, and then Saavi spoke, in a sympathetic voice. "I am very sorry, Mr. Hazlacker. It shows here that after experiencing a certain amount of uncomfortable situations in the afterlife involving tax officials and audits and prison, you have been assigned to return to earth as a red squirrel. My sincere condolences. But please do remember that red squirrels are very friendly and honorable creatures, and much better than banana slugs."
"Thank you, Saavi," Lucy said. "Shukriya."
"You are very welcome, Ms. Lucy. It was my honor to serve you. Good afternoon."
The phone went dead, and Hiram slumped back against the monument in shock. Gaming the system was proving to be difficult.
"A banana slug!" he moaned. "A red squirrel! I hate red squirrels. They give me the runs."
Lucy stood up and waved her fingers in the air, and then started speaking. Hiram looked at her dully, but couldn't hear the conversation. After a few moments, she smiled and sat down next to Hiram.
"I have good news," she said.
"Yeah? What? I'm going to become a red squirrel in a church choir doing penance?"
"No, my dear. I said I have good news. Come now, sit up straight."
Hiram dragged himself upright, and sat, looking at her.
Then he looked again, and again. "Wait! I can see you! What happened?"
"That's part of the good news," Lucy replied.
Hiram stared at her, fascinated to finally see her. She really was very pretty. He looked and looked, and then he said, "That's quite an outfit."
Lucy blushed, and looked at her clothes. "I made them myself. I visit so many types of people that I get mixed up sometimes. Do you not like them?"
Hiram smiled. "You look very cute."
She blushed again, and said, "Thank you, Hiram. I'm glad that you can finally see me."
She looked at him with a smile, and said, "I have spoken with my superior, and we have clarified your situation."
Hiram looked at her, waiting, not knowing what to say.
Lucy continued. "As you have seen, the spirit world has all kinds of belief systems."
"Yeah, I noticed," he said.
"Well, there are certain common themes, and as you might say, Hiram, today was your lucky day."
"Because I died?" he asked.
"No, not that," she replied. "Do you remember the woman standing by the cemetery?"
"Do you remember what happened?"
"I spoke to her. So?"
Lucy took his hands in hers. He was surprised by how warm and tingly her hands felt.
"You were kind, Hiram. You didn't need to be kind, but you were."
He was silent for a bit, and looked at her hands, avoiding her gaze. He didn't know what to say.
She slid her right hand out of his and lifted his chin, and looked at him with a gaze that was warmer than any he had ever seen.
"Life is much simpler than people make out, Hiram. You were kind to a woman who felt grief. That is who you really are. Yes, you've been a Whiskey Man and you've been gaming the system, and dodging the Revenue Men. But you've also been kind. Kind to your customers and to many other people besides."
Hiram's eyes were stinging. He wasn't sure why. He blinked rapidly.
"What does that all mean?" he asked. "Does that mean I don't have to come back as a red squirrel?"
Lucy laughed and clapped her hands. "Of course not! Did you want to come back as a squirrel?"
"No," he replied.
"Well, then," she said.
She stood up, and helped him stand up. Pointing up the street, she said, "Let's walk."
He looked up the street nervously. "Where are we going? Where am I going?"
Lucy linked her arm though his, and said, "Somewhere where you can be kind, and somewhere with trees and woods, which you like very much. I'm sorry, though, I don't think there will be very much whiskey. And there will be work to do. You have a lot of work to do."
"You mean like breaking rocks in prison?"
She laughed. "No, not that kind of work. Work on your character. Internal work. Learning how to be a better person."
Hiram stared at her. "Oh. But no whiskey?"
She shook her head. "No whiskey, Hiram. But I can guarantee you that you will not be a squirrel."
He looked relieved. "Well, in that case, lead on."
They walked up Congress Street, arm in arm. If passersby had been able to see Hiram, they would have smiled at him.
Not because he was a woodsman from Northern Maine. Not because he was arm in arm with a lovely angel wearing a mishmash wardrobe.
No, they would have smiled because Hiram Hazlacker was smiling the smile of a man who was no longer confused.
~ ~ ~
Author's note: The sentence, "I never eat rats", was used in this story in honor of our daughter, Grace, who, when she was approximately three, announced quite positively, "I never eat rats." As her parents, we were very happy to hear that.