It seems like the devil is always around.
When we first got together, Satan said we should keep our friendship private; but I was a child and I talked all the time. I didn’t know how to be subtle.
“Kid,” the devil told me, “you’ve got a big mouth.”
I fell to the floor laughing. “Don’t talk to the crazy kid,” I screamed, opening and closing my mouth like a turtle.
The devil rolled his eyes.
“This is why animals sometimes eat their young,” he said.
Since I was no good at being covert, the devil worked out a new strategy. We were coloring together when he laid out his idea.
“You know how I said we needed a plan?” he asked, admiring the orange shaded tiger he had been outlining.
I looked at him blankly.
“Well, we do,” he said, with a brief wave of his hand, “and after giving it some thought I’ve realized, you have to use what you have to get what you can.”
He stared at me expectantly.
I stopped coloring and stared back. I had no idea what he wanted. I dropped my eyes to the red crayon I was clutching. I opened my hand and held it out on my palm.
Satan stared at me the same the way I’d once seen my cat look at a lobster I’d hidden in her bed.
“I can’t wait until you turn five,” he said, shaking his head.
The devil explained that, because I was always talking, people assumed I had an imaginary friend; so he said, we should give my imaginary imaginary-friend more cache.
“You want money?” I asked. “I don’t get an allowance yet.”
“Not cash…cache. You know, showmanship,” he said. “Look…”
He took my red crayon and with a flick of his wrist made it disappear in a puff of white smoke. “…if you want to distract people, entertain them. People love to be entertained.”
“I can tell some of my jokes,” I said, quickly continuing, “What’s brown and sticky?” I started to giggle uncontrollably. “A stick!” I yelled out.
The devil sighed. “Let me put it this way. If people think your imaginary friend is adorable, you can get them to give you a lot of cool stuff.”
This I understood right away.
We had a chance to try out our new plan that weekend. My parent’s were entertaining and Satan said that when you see a bunch of people are dressed up in fancy clothes it generally means that fancy snacks are nearby. We waited until the party really got going. Lively music spilled from the Hi-fi and the voices in the living room were upbeat and tipsy. I waded through the thick cluster of people until I located my mom. She was talking to Mr. Webber. The Webbers’ lived down the street. They had two kids and a dog with half a tail.
“Mama,” I whispered, giving the hem of my mother’s party dress a good tug. My mother stopped talking and looked down. I opened my eyes wide, the way Satan had shown me, letting my favorite stuffed bear dangle loosely from one hand. My mother frowned. I could tell she wasn’t seeing my adorability yet; but Mr. Webber seemed amused. He also seemed high as a kite.
“D. woke me up,” I explained, rubbing fake sleep from my eyes.
“Who is Dee?” Mr. Weber asked, falling right into my trap.
“Dee is her imaginary friend,” my mother said flatly. ”Tell Dee to go back to sleep.”
“Is Dee a pretty little girl like you?” Mr. Weaver asked bending down slightly. He smiled a big smile and I smiled big right back.
“D. can make himself into whoever he wants to be,” I told him. “Right now he’s a penguin that lives under my bed.”
I noticed a few more people had started to listen.
“…and he asked me to come get him some ice and hor d’oeuvres.”
The people standing in earshot inched a bit closer. A wave of pleasure, like a tickle, rippled around us.
“Well, I certainly understand why he’d ask you for ice,” Mr. Weaver chuckled, “but I don’t get why he’d ask for hor d’oeuvres.”
I looked around the circle, into each pair of eyes that were asking along with him.
“He’s a penguin, Mr. Weaver,” I said at last, slapping my forehead. “Any animal who wears a tuxedo around the house would kill for a plate of hor d’oeuvres.”
And just like that, I was a hit. And Satan was right, not only had I hustled a loaded plate of tasty snacks from then on my talks with the devil were cool.
I guess that’s why the devil and I got close. With us being able to talk so much out in the open we had a chance to get to know one another. Turns out we had a lot in common.
A deal with the devil isn’t always so distinct. A deal can get under way with compromises - gossip, betrayal, doubt – each dark slight makes a raw spot inside us where little fears, sharp as Krueger fingernails, dig in and scrape our big dreams until all that’s left is puny and vein. The slippery trades get easier then.
My parents didn’t go down to the crossroads. They maneuvered at cocktail parties, in conference rooms and pews at church. They hustled so they could run at the head of the pack; but they never really got the hang of it. They lurched and spat and fell behind in that hard race for domination, where every other is a rival. Their error was wanting, ever more; and then, in reckless desperation, accepting less and less.
“Hey,” I said to my mother, one slipping-away summer day.
“Hey,” she said back, with a half glance and a nod, like when you pass someone in the hall that you know but don’t want to talk to.
“So…” I stalled, trying to figure out her mood. I tilted my head to the side and squinted - like maybe if I looked with just the right eyes, I could peek into a visceral place and find an answer without asking.
My mother raised her eyes sternly and met my gaze. The furrows creased her brow so deeply that I stumbled.
“Oh, ah…” I bit my lip and looked sideways, “I was just wondering what you’re doing in the back of your closet, with a bottle of vodka.”
My mother’s long fingers, as genteel as manicured teacakes, snaked all the way around the bottle's slender glass neck and griped it tight as a threat. She eyed me, holding the bottle in her sweaty clutch until it seemed she might snap us both in two; but then she let up. She shrugged her shoulders as soft as a tremble.
“Oh, you know,” she sighed, waving a hand in front of her face as if batting a fly. She leaned her back against the wall limply. Her eyes shivered-close. “Just sorting a few things out, that’s all.”
As if that cleared it up.
I saw the devil back there with her, lurking off to the side. He saw that I’d spied him and scooched over a bit. He pat the floor twice with the flat of his hand. “Come sit,” he said, “we can make room for you here. Join us for a drink?”
My parents thought they were getting it right. They believed in the power and glory, taking as gospel the credo that everything works out for the best - that somehow, so long as your faith holds, things will be okay in the end. They got married and had a family but it turned out they were not particularly good at either. When they finally figured out that maybe, perhaps they were better off alone, at least without kids, it was a notion too late. There were already three girls coming on strong, siphoning their passion and co-opting new futures. My parents held on as tight as they could - but kids in their strides are irreverent about bygones.
The mood of the house went off kilter after that, leaving us all slightly unbalanced. My sisters and I were coming of age at the very same moment our parents had gone itchy - strung out and paranoid from mainlining ambition. The family machine revved up like a racecar fueled with the adrenaline of a psycho’s hard knocks. As hormones were added and alcohol got mixed in, our cogs grinded and smoked; and then somewhere a butterfly flapped its delicate wings and flutter-ratcheted the gear’s teeth into their next scraping notch. Our mainspring was tripped. Down came the hurtling
mousetrap and snap, all that remained of our reason was fractured.
I know there are secrets in everyone’s family, one thing or another. Even the most wholesome have quirks. It’s easy, and everyday, to hide weird little kinks behind new clothes and fast cars. It makes a person look normal, like everyone else.
We went the other way. My family was hell-bent, leaving normal behind without a single adieu. Where we’d once straddled boundaries we now became outliers; so we floored it and went spinning out at least two deviations further.
One night around this time, my father shouldered a pick ax and shovel and went outside to dig a deep hole in the back yard.
I remember the night like a movie on replay – sapphire stars glittering - the moon shining like chrome. A dozen revolvers are heaped in a clumsy stack next to my father plus there’s a collection of shotguns and about a thousand silver dimes double wrapped in plastic bags, all ready to be buried. This is our future, a safeguard against the coming revolution. The year is 1974. The only insurgency brewing is the one in my dad’s head. This is an act of pure madness.
“Now how will this work?” Adele asks in earnest.
I look up at my sister to see if she's talking to me. She ignores me. It's my father she’s trying to engage. Her eyes, locked on his digging, are the same menacing green eyes as my dads: viridian solar disks that always seem as fevered as the green flash at dusk. Her thin lips and fair skin are also twins to my father's, and she's intense like him too. When she talks there’s grit in her voice, like sand on dry toast. Adele bends slightly forward, planting one hand flat on the bone of her hip. She holds a black plastic flashlight tight in the other and ratchets it higher to get a better angle on my father’s shovel as he digs. My sister's expression is serious. She actually manages to look official, though given the task it’s kind of creepy, like she’s a gravedigger’s deputy.
Having no flashlight to hold I grow restless. I poke at the excavated dirt with my bare toes. A dry edge of the mound caves in and grit sprinkles down my father’s damp back. The dirt makes a mud trail across the sweat on his shirt, like a wavy line for an off-highway road on an old rumpled car map stuck under the seat. Adele digs her elbow deep into my ribs and shoves me sharply away from the edge. She pinches her thin lips together more tightly, making her nostrils flare out on the edges like she’s holding stinging nettles between her teeth, and they stink.
Adele realigns the flashlight’s beam and starts again.
“I mean, will we have to melt our silver down and, I don’t know, make special coins out it or something?”
This cracks me up.
“Duh,” I say, stretching the word out to make sure it sounds stupid. “It’s a revolution, Del.” I widen my eyes and roll them to needle her more. “If we have to trade in our stuff, it’s not going to be, like organized. ‘Make coins’,” I laugh through my nose, “I can see it now, ’Ah…excuse me sir, how much for our blender and color TV.? Oh, two silver ingots? Sure, that’s a deal.”
Adele glares at me with her hot green eyes, then shrugs me off like I’m one of the dumb gnats teaming around us. The air is muggy as dog breath. The steam coming off of my father’s strained digging squelches any possibility of a breeze. My sister perseveres with her questions, trying to either reason with my father or figure out what she’s missing.
Its long past dusk now but when my dad started digging the sun was just setting, shining like orange-banded agate and reflecting off the lake beyond him. My little sister, Po, had been out with us then; but, her interest had waned with the sun and she’d gone inside to see about dinner.
The ground had been harder than my dad had bargained on - rocky with lots of thick roots to cut through. But he’s hit softer dirt now and his shovel moves along swiftly. It gives the sticky twilight a metallic backbeat: Che-shh, Che-shh, Che-shh. The deep hole around him looks to go down about three and a half feet.
“So, what do we do, Dad?” my sister persists. “We dig up the dimes and then what?” Perspiration beads across Adele’s upper lip and rings around the armholes of her cotton camp shirt. “Where do take it to make trades?”
I slap my thigh and laugh obnoxiously. “Well hey, we’ll just pack our things up in the station wagon and take them over to the Black Market.” I point out across acres of brush in the general direction of the road. “It’s across from the Winn Dixie near the speedway, right Dad?”
“Ha-Ha,” Adele says, “you’re so funny.” She’s annoyed. She turns her head towards me real slow, like an owl.
I nudge a small rock loose with my foot and kick it though my sister’s spread feet. It falls out of sight, into the little pit surrounding my father. I raise both my arms straight up over my head like a referee calling a score.
Adele glares at me for a long minute, until she knows I get that she really means business; then she turns her head just as slowly back around and stares straight back down into the hole. Adele gets pissed off at me all the time, especially when I sass. I can tell she wants to slap me. This only goads me so I bait her some more.
“It’s kind of like a flea market,” I rattle on, “only we take our baby spoons and a few of those silver dimes there to trade for a couple of pounds of rice or a jar of peanut butter.”
It looks like Del might hit me or at least dig permanently into her bluster so it’s as deep as the hole my dad’s dug into the ground; but then I see her face soften and she inclines toward the heckle. She glances over at me and pulls a knowing face. I spy her twinkle and feel it ease up the tension.
“Hey dad,” she calls out, leaning forward a bit to make sure he can hear her, “you think maybe we can finally get rid of some of the junk that’s in the garage.”
All the old crap in our house drives Adele crazy. Our garage is a wasteland, as vast as lower Manhattan before they covered the trash up with dirt and a platform and built houses on top. Neither of my parent’s cars is parked in the garage. The cars sit out in the weather like unwanted dogs or stray cats with fleas. It’s a two-car type deal but its only used for storage. If anyone cared to dig around in there, the junk would spill out our archeological dateline: faded clothes we’ve grown out of; appliances that are broken and will never be fixed; tools that would be needed to complete all the half-finished projects; and, boxes of photos, old records, knick-knacks and papers. Nothing gets thrown out - not at our house – not ever!
“We can get rid of it all in trades, right?” Adele chirps. I can still feel the grit in her words but when she smiles the spike of the night seems less dangerous.
“…or, how about the cans in the pantry?” I egg her on, eager to keep that rare songbird singing.
My mother hoards cans of food the way squirrels store up acorns for late winter freezes. You could go spelunking in our pantry, with rigs and carbide lamps, crawling for hours through a maze of potted meats and really awful-sounding soups. We never go close to the stuff way in the back – sinister cans with dents and lost labels. We don’t even get through the food that’s stacked at the front before my mother buys more the next time she goes out. If it’s on sale or there’s a coupon, she buys it, so we get two for one a lot of the time, even when it’s food that nobody likes. We estimate that the number of cans in the pantry runs up near a eight hundred. Some of them are older than Po.
“Hey wait,” Adele says, holding one hand up like the crossing guard that stops traffic at school. Her eyes sparkle with pure crystal genius, “we can be the black market.”
I drop my head back from the kick. What an idea!
“Yes,” I say. I nod enthusiastically when our eyes meet, genuinely impressed with her radical thinking.
“We’ll get rid of everything –“
“all the botulized meat…”
“… all the cans! And all the junk in the attic and garage.”
“We’ll be like the bank. We’ll get even more guns and silver.”
“What do you think, Dad?” Adele calls out, “should we bring out a case of spam for you to bury down there too?”
“…and some sardines in oil,” I add with a bounce.
“Yeah,” she agrees with a grimace, “and the cheddar cheese soup.”
We both screw up our faces, and then we start laughing. We laugh from deep down, a place as deep as the pantry – as deep as my father’s pit. We laugh so hard we can’t get more words out, even though we keep trying. We’re like two convulsives in need of medication. Wisecracks sting the tips of our tongues but when we try to talk, only laughing comes out. We laugh till we’re gasping and have to breathe in deep gulps of the dank air trying to get some composure. But when I wipe away tears that have pooled in my eyes, I streak mud across my face in long grimy smudges. Adele shrieks in delight. She takes a step backwards and points at the mess I’ve smeared down my cheeks. I ham it up, taking Adele’s flashlight and pushing it under my chin so the light shines up and distorts all my features. I look like a grotesque clown – shanty and ragged. We pass the flashlight back and forth making silly, strange faces. With each fresh expression we collapse into a new howling fits until finally we have to stop. We can’t even look at each other. The slightest glance brings on a fresh seizure. We’ve laugh so hard our sides have started to stitch and we’re forced to sit down. If we don’t catch our breath we may actually die from the spasms.
The moon has risen high over the lake. The stars gleam like we’ve thrown all those dimes in the air. Our breathing starts to slow to a more regular rhythm and we relax in the hazy hot night. Adele sighs. She puts one arm around my bare, clammy shoulders and gives me a squeeze.
“Sounds like the revolution might not be so bad after all.”
My father barely looks up from the hole that he’s digging. If anything, our incredulity has redoubled his commitment to work. We are apparently either too naïve or too much in denial to make the preparations that are necessary for our future survival. He pushes his spade into the ground and lifts out another shovel of soft dirt: Che-shh, Che-shh, Che-shh.