Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Devil

[Here it is, the short story I promised to post, a few days late. Tell your friends to read it, please!]

I was sitting in Mad Magda's Russian Tea Room at one of the preciously fragile little tables, examining the tarot cards under the glass top when I saw The Devil through the window. He was crossing Hayes, having just stepped off the 5 bus. As usual, he was wearing his immaculate white suit. His shoes shone so brightly in the sun, none could guess their color. He opened the door with a ringing of a bell, stepped past the blackboard with the day's specials, and looked at me directly.

"I'd like a word with you, Mark."

I flopped my hands, palms up, as if to say "whatever you like".

I had been expecting The Devil to approach me eventually, as he had already spoken to a select few friends and acquaintances. After his meetings with each of them, their creative talents had blossomed or matured, and each had started to achieve success in their endeavors.

Kermit, keyboard player, had quit his old band, formed a new one, and was now playing all over the city. He now had his own table at Slim's, where A&R guys courted him. He already had a publicist and was sitting in at late night sessions with Trent Reznor. He'd been mentioned in both NME and Rolling Stone recently.

Jane the tagger had been inspired to begin casting her own huge slabs of concrete on which to spray her paint. She had met Isaac, whom we all first suspected was a sugar daddy, but was really a fabulous art queen from New York. He lavished Jane with gifts and got her her first show ever in a prominent Manhattan gallery. The show sold out and at the moment several semis, themselves covered with spray paint, were hauling the rest of her concrete eastwards for another show. Caltrans had begun accepting bids for the concrete structures beneath the Fell Street offramp and the Oak Street onramp which were the canvasses of her earliest work.

But the big success was Connor. Connor was a tattoo artist, but this was only his day gig. He wanted to act. Connor now had five motion pictures under his belt, all as the leading man, and all had been blockbusters. He was contracted for five more.

None of them every said anything about meeting with The Devil, never spoke about making any deals, but the rest of us knew. We had seen Janice and The Devil huddled in a back table at Ozone and wondered what they were up to. Toby had told me of getting on the 22 Filmore and finding Graham and The Devil in heated conversation, which abruptly ended when they noticed of him eavesdropping. Toby also mentioned the sly grin and wink The Devil had given him.

I'm not exactly sure how The Devil met Kermit, but the rumor was that it was a drug deal. In one version of the rumor, The Devil had bought some "ice cream" from Kermit. This is probably true, since Kermit was known to make his own "ice cream". Anyway, no one really saw Kermit much back then anyway, unless it was online. If one wanted to talk with him, they found him in a chat room, and if they wanted ice cream, they'd ask for it using convoluted code words. A scoop for quarter gram on up to a quart for an eight ounce. Then his assistant, a kid nicknamed Asmodeus, would deliver it for him. Asmodeus took over the business when Kermit started becoming a big deal.

Now it was my turn to have a chat with the Devil.

He took off his straw boater and sailed it perfectly onto the hatrack.

"Mind if I sit?" he asked, in his usual jovial mood.

"Sure" I replied.

"Have you heard from Connor lately?" he asked. Connor had been my flatmate at one point.

"He calls once in awhile but he doesn't return calls. Or at least he doesn't acknowledge that I call when he calls."

"Well, at least he's talking to you. He's severed all contact with me since he went to Hollywood," The Devil reported in a voice that revealed a trace of injury.

"You're not missing much. Connor usually goes on and on complaining about the 'special problems' of celebrityhood. It's rather tiresome."

"Is that so?" The Devil chuckled.

I caught The Devil looking me up and down, appraising me, at that moment.

He said, "Connor told me a lot about you."

I said, "Oh? When was this?"

The Devil said, "Connor and I used to talk quite a bit before he went off to Hollywood."

"And you talked about me. What about me did you find interesting enough to talk about?" I asked. I'm not above fishing for a compliment, even from The Devil.

"Connor said you showed a lot of promise as a writer."

I laughed. "Did he, now?" Connor was not much of one for reading. Frankly, I wondered how he managed to read his movie scripts. "I'm afraid Connor really isn't much of a judge of writing talent."

"But you *are* a writer are you not?"

"One could say that."

"Fine. I have a proposal for you," he said, "but first you must promise to never reveal this proposal to anyone unless I specifically ask you to do so."

I looked The Devil in the eyes, thinking he'd have a dead serious look on his puss, but his eyes were twinkling with merriment.

"Fine. But it's not going to exactly be a secret. Word will get around that we've talked," I gestured around at the four or five other patrons of the tea room and Magda behind the counter, pretending to read a fashion magazine.

"Let me worry about that," said The Devil. Then he told me his proposal.

Afterwards, after I had signed on the line that is dotted, we chitchatted. The Devil asked me about my favorite authors.

"Easy: Twain, Doris Lessing, Robertson Davies, and Philip K Dick."

The Devil grinned, "I knew them all at one point or another."

"They all agreed to your proposal?"

"Sadly, no, none of them did, although I did have some side deals with Clemens. More in the nature of wagers."

I'm not ashamed to admit it. I was impressed that The Devil had known my favorite authors.

He began telling amusing anecdotes about them and others. Seriously, if you ever have the chance, get The Devil to talk about famous people he's known (and he's known them all). He is quite the raconteur.

Our talk drifted to gossip about people we both knew here in San Francisco, in the present, the circle of artists, writers, musicians, and other creatives of which I was a (very) minor part. The Devil was pumping me for leads, so I began to think of those I knew that needed the blessing but might not mind the curse. Perhaps someone already so cursed that eternal damnation wouldn't seem so bad. But it had to be someone I liked, because I just can't stand it when someone I despise becomes a great success.

So when The Devil asked if I could suggest to him anyone that might be interested in his proposals, I told him Katy.

Katy was a poet who also happened to be a junkie and a prostitute and a crazy cat lady, keeping a dozen in her tiny apartment. She had an abusive pimp that beat her up on a daily basis but whom she wouldn't leave. Her only solace was her many cats. Her poetry was not a solace; it was a burden and a struggle, but it meant a lot to her and she went to every open mike when she wasn't working. She had a desperate hope that her work would someday be recognized, and despite her hellish life, she put a lot of effort into promoting her work. I had learned all this over coffee and cigarettes at a cafe/laundromat South of Market over the course of many Monday laundry days. I didn't wish further damnation on her, but I thought she might appreciate having a choice.

The Devil then asked about my writing again. What had I written so far? What genres? Had I already had anything published? Could he look over my work?

I told him that I had had a thick fistful of short stories and a couple of unfinished novels, but they had been destroyed in a fire.

"It happened a couple of years ago, before you started coming around here," I told him, then asked, "Why was it you started hanging out around here anyway?"

The Devil laughed sadly and shook his head. "Those crackheads in the housing project up the block. One of them was from New Orleans and knew how to get ahold of me. When he called, I came," he said, making the gesture of talking to his pinky and listening to his thumb, although I doubted a telephone had been involved.

"Anyway," he continued, "those crackheads are a depressing lot. And bo-oring! That's when I noticed how artsy fartsy it was down here, just a block away. You creative types are much more interesting."

After that, it was just more chitchat. Good chitchat but nothing important. The Devil told me about where to get the best, thickest, juiciest steak in the entire world. He talked about his hobby of attending chili cook offs. I told him about that time a bunch of us took acid in Joshua Tree, and, because it was fixing to rain, all the rattlesnakes were moving to high ground, i.e., our campground. There I was, tripping balls and grabbing rattlesnakes behind their heads and running out into the desert to release them. The Devil thought that was a pretty good story and that I should write about it. (Maybe I will someday.)

As we were both getting up to leave and go our separate ways, The Devil reached forward and placed his palm briefly on my chest. It didn't feel like he was taking my soul, but I did feel a tiny bit lighter, a little bit better.

"Is that a down payment?" I asked.

He gave me a pained look as if to say, Please, do you think I would be so petty? and I thought that in his position he'd be scrupulous about adhering to terms of a contract. He had a reputation to uphold, after all.

The Devil said, "Well, why don't you write something, I don't know, a short story or a sample chapter. We could meet here next week so you can show me, and I can get started making you a successful writer with critical and popular acclaim. The respect of your peers and a healthy bank account."

Which was what the deal we made was, in case you were wondering.

"Sure," I said, "I can do that. Meet you here next week."

We shook hands and I saw him hail a cab as I was walking back to my flat.

I sort of blew off the meeting. Actually I forgot about it and didn't remember until the day after, but I hadn't done the writing The Devil asked me for anyway. I probably should have mentioned to him that I hadn't written anything since the fire. I saw him once around that time while I was on the 22. He was walking around Fillmore and Geary and he didn't see me because I slouched down in my seat. I felt über flakey.

I sort of forgot about the deal after that. My mom died unexpectedly and I started doing more ice cream, just snorting it, but every day. Things got kind of bleak and I wasn't leaving my flat much. My friends were all at various levels of ice cream addiction, some were shooting it and some were smoking it, and things were turning from fun crazy to scary crazy. People were carrying firearms and sometimes taking them out and waving them around. People were paranoid and developing psychoses.

I was getting paranoid myself, but I was managing to avoid the psychosis. However, when the dead Christmas tree behind the tv turned into a man in an overcoat peering over the set, I knew it wasn't real, it was just in my head. Nodding to him in acknowledgement whenever I entered the living room was just a politeness reflex.

As I said, I was no longer getting out much. I was in SF Net chat rooms when I wasn't asleep. I invented a new alias, but my closer friends figured out it was me. Kermit by now was on tour in Japan, his first record having gone platinum in the U.S.

I was reminded of the deal when The Devil went online and came into the chat room. He amused himself and us for a bit, then asked if anyone had seen me. There was a silence, i.e., nobody typed for a minute, then Liz Ard said she heard I went back to L.A. after my mom died, a plausible half- truth since I did go down for the funeral. The devil typed BULLSHIT (all caps is considered shouting) and logged out in a puff of smoke. Literally. His exit script was "The Devil exits in a puff of smoke". He re-entered a moment later and politely asked that if anyone came across me, they should tell me to please get in touch with The Devil. Please. Thank you. Then he left again, and I started getting PMs asking me WTF?

He might have come to the flat or called, but at that point I was no longer answering the door and I turned off call waiting whenever I went online, which was pretty much all the time. I was living on delivered pizza, which is how the Devil finally got in.

I had ordered my favorite: crumbled bacon, chorizo, jalapeño, and pineapple. Ed the pizza guy honked two short and one long to let me know he had arrived, but when I opened the door, there was The Devil in his immaculate white suit and wearing a baseball cap with the pizza franchise logo emblazoned upon it. And carrying my pizza.

"What happened to Ed?" was all I could think of to say.

"He has the night off. Mind if I come in?"

I opened the door wide and I saw him throw the pizza hat into the street. When I looked back at him, he had the straw boater perched atop his head. I led the way up the stairs.

"We can talk privately in the living room."

"What about him?"

"Don't worry, he's just a dead tree. He won't repeat anything he hears because he can't hear anything."

The Devil seemed about to question my chain of reasoning, then thought better of it. Instead, he got down to cases.

"How goes the writing?"

" . . . ", I grimaced and looked at the ceiling.

"You don't have anything for me? Anything at all?" he asked.

I said, "I've got lots of ideas for stories. I imagine scenes, dialogue, plots."

"But you don't actually write any of it down, do you?"

I shook my head and stared very hard at the upholstered arm of the chair in which I was sitting.

"You're putting me in a difficult position. If you don't write, I cannot help you. If I cannot help you, I cannot fulfill my end of the bargain," he explained. "If I don't fulfill my obligation, I don't get to collect."

I looked up and met his eyes for the first time since he had appeared at the door. "Sucks to be you, I guess." I was feeling bolder. "What do you want me to do about it?"

"Write, goddamn you!"

I fought not to giggle at this ironic outburst, but couldn't hide my smirk.

The Devil fixed me with a steely glare. "Such insolence!" he said in a theatrically chilling voice. The lights flickered and the room dimmed ominously.

I couldn't help it. I lost it and began giggling nervously and uncontrollably, despite fears that were now forming in my mind of what The Devil could do to me if he wanted. What he would do, maybe. Yet I couldn't help but also feel that I had some sort of tactical advantage, though it might be only temporary.

But The Devil's fearsome demeanor was fading and I detected merriment in the crinkles of his eyes. He was having trouble concealing his own grin and soon we were both guffawing. I had tears in my eyes. I was gasping with laughter.

We settled down. The Devil waited until my breath subsided, then asked, "Why aren't you writing?"

"I can't. I'm blocked."

"Nonsense. I removed your block after you signed the contract, he replied. I remembered his touch at the end of our meeting in the tearoom. That slight feeling of lightness.

"Well, I'm blocked again."

The Devil reached forward and touched his palm to my chest again. This time I felt nothing. He shifted his hand, lightly moving his palm over my biceps and down my sternum.

"No, you're not blocked . . ." he trailed off, then looked at me accusingly. His eyes widened and he looked offended. "You're lazy!" he exclaimed.

I shrugged sheepishly, and started to mutter, "Idle hands . . " but The Devil gave me a glanced that shut my mouth before I could go any further.

"Lazy!" he exclaimed again. "Well, I'll be a fig plucker. Lazy. You could have it all, but you won't lift a finger. No, that's not it. Your laziness is raising the middle finger. To the world. To me. Well, you're not the first to give me the bird. You remember Katy?"

Indeed, I did, and had wondered about her. In my seclusion I hadn't heard from her and had often felt guilty that I hadn't been in contact with her. It was part of my general sense of guilt that I was letting folks down, not being there for them if they needed me.

I asked, "What did you do for her?" or to her, I thought privately.

"Nothing. Not a damned thing. Apparently, He (The Devil glanced upward at this point) already had a hold of her and she was under his protection. She laughed in my face and sent me away. And flipped me the bird as I walked away."

This surprised me, as there was never any hint that she was the religious type. The human heart harbors many secrets.

"Then what happened?" I asked.

The Devil looked regretful, "She died of AIDS about a month ago. Not my doing. I'm not responsible for all the evil in the world, you know. Still, she had a beautiful soul. Made for suffering. She would have been quite the prize. But He wouldn't let me near her after she kicked me out, and then He took her in his arms when she passed on."

The Devil seemed almost wistful, then muttered, "Greedy," under his breath.

He turned towards me and his look was all business, "So, what are we going to do with you, Mr. Lazybones?"

"I'm not sure there's anything to be done. I'm just naturally lazy. Doubly so when I'm supposed to be working."

"Nonsense!" The Devil said brightly, "You just need proper motivation."

This sent a chill through me and I said nothing.

The Devil was thinking out loud. "Now what sort of motivation can I provide you?" he mussed. He didn't say any thing further and seemed abstracted in thought for a few minutes.

I cleared my throat and he snapped out of his reverie. He said, "Well, I'll give it some thought and come up with something good. I'll get back to you." He stood up. "I've got other appointments today, but I'll definitely give this some thought. This could be fun."

The Devil left. I had a queasy feeling and that feeling hasn't left. I haven't seen The Devil since then, but I'm very worried about what he's cooking up. Still, I know that as long as I don't write, he can't fulfill his end of the bargain and my soul is safe. If I believed in God, as both Katy had and The Devil did, I could pledge my soul to Him and ask for his protection. Surrendering my will sounded like too much work, more work than writing.

Since then, well, there's been lots to write about. The Devil has certainly made my life more interesting, too interesting by half. So, I've given up. Fuck it. I will write, even if it means eternal damnation, head down in shit, waiting forever for the coffee break.

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