It was my first time in a canoe.
It was a green Discovery 16 by Old Town. He traded a motorcycle for it in 91. It had seen thousands of river miles, from the mountains of the north to the coastal plains of the south. He even took it to the open ocean a time or two at the end of some week long adventures by himself.
There was webbing that he had done by hand, stretched across the middle gunwales. Beneath the nylon was where he'd put an inflatable air bladder for whitewater.
"If you do well with me this weekend, we'll hit the Natahala before the end of the summer," he promised. "We're going to see a couple of little Class II's on our trip, believe it or not. I'll let you know what to watch out for and how to move."
"I'll take point," he continued. "You do the steering. I'll give commands, let's practice real quick."
I sat in the back of the boat, getting a feel for it. He sat up in the front, boonie hat in place, sunglasses lashed on like he'd done this a hundred times.
I put my back into it, and the nose turned nearly 90 degrees in an instant.
"Holy shit!" he exclaimed, laughing.
"What, did I do something wrong?"
"Hell no, kid. Dang! I'm not used to having someone who can move the whole damned boat like that. That's great! Let's try a few more."
He gave more commands, and the boat responded instantly.
"We're going to be fine, man. Just relax and enjoy the trip. We'll do some fishing in a little while."
I settled in, and he found a station that came in clearly. The whole boat acted like an amplifier for the little $20 waterproof radio he had lashed to the gear webbing. Tracy Chapman, whom I had never heard before, created the soundtrack of our adventure.
He occupied a strange space in my life. He was a former teacher, but a current friend. He was a former coach, but a current mentor. World History was his subject, and I was his star pupil. Defensive line was his specialty when he met me, and he tried to recruit me for a position on his team. In the end, I was more valuable as an offensive lineman, being larger than most men and all of my peers. He first noticed me when we were traveling to an away game on an old schoolbus, and I was reading The Prince while the rest of the team was playing grabass or shooting spitballs.
He took me under his wing. He taught me how to navigate the waters of a river I had known all my life, but never really knew until I'd paddled its length from one end to the other. He helped me navigate the more turbulent waters of adolescent women and social ladders. He hosted me at his house, had me over for dinner, welcomed me into his home and into his family.
He taught me to box.
He occupied a place in my life somewhere between father and older brother. At barely thirty years old, he had already seen the world in the Peace Corps. Originally, he was a journalist; the woman he ended up marrying anchored him in my little part of the world. He was one of the youngest teachers on staff, so that put him at having more in common with the students than it did his peers.
When he saw me, he saw himself.
Several times in the summer months, we took a trip along that river. Camping on sandbars and eating what was caught (but always prepared with PopTarts and canned chili in case things went sideways) we explored tea-colored waters and alligator slides. There was never much speaking on those paddles, because we didn't need to do a lot of talking. The silence was comfortable, when it wasn't being broken by Tracy Chapman or Alanis.
He never gave career advice, but he did tell me something that stuck.
"You have your life ahead of you. You're young. You need to leave before you decide that this is home. You need to go, before you stay, because you can always come back."
I haven't floated in that river since, and I did the Nantahala on my own.
The Devil and DB
“They’ve been looking in the wrong place all these years.” The old man sat across a steel desk in a concrete room. His hands were cuffed in front, and there was just enough freedom to allow for signing paperwork or picking up the cardboard cup that sat before him.
A suit with a slick haircut sat across the scratched and pitted stainless expanse between them. His own cardboard cup was slowly losing steam as the old storyteller was getting underway.
A digital recorder stood silent sentinel in the no-man’s land between coffees. A red light indicated that it was observing each audible detail.
The suit watched, absorbing everything he could about his interviewee. The man was grizzled; his face was a study in the topography of time-travel. No wrinkle was a shortcut, as each crag was a hardship years in the making and decades in the shaping of skin pulled taut and folded over in turn.
“Why do you people still care about this stuff, anyway?” Wizened eyes narrowed as black coffee slipped between cracked lips.
“It’s an urban legend. It’s unsolved. It’s stranger than fiction.”
“Is that right? You’re, what? Thirty?” Another sip.
“Forty-seven years. That’s how long ago this was. I killed him about a week after the first search parties started in on where they expected him to be. He nearly killed me; I was lucky to get the best of him. I’ve never been that close to the Reaper’s grip. In the end, I drowned him in the river.”
“So that’s it, then? You’re confessing to his murder?”
There was an uncomfortable silence as the man finished his coffee. The hollow noise of the heavy paper cup echoed as it was gently placed on the steel table.
“Coffee was one of the things I missed most. I had to make do with brewing acorns and chicory for tea. I understand that one of those fancy places down in New Orleans makes a lot of money by putting chicory in their coffee. That seems a crime against a good cuppa, if you ask me.” Hard black orbs beneath bright gray brows stared at the suit, daring the young man to ask more questions.
“Sir, I’m here because the Bureau was led to believe you had information about this man’s disappearance. You just told me you killed him. If this is true, I’ll need verifiable details.”
“Son, even if I explain where his bones are, how will you know I’m telling you true?” Amusement played at the crow’s nests to the east and west of the inmate’s eyes. “Maybe I just wanted a cup of coffee.”
“I refuse to believe you had me drive two hundred miles just because you wanted to have coffee.”
“I’m God-damned, boy. A dead man walking. What you refuse to believe is the least of my fears. The devil himself follows me wherever I go, I can imagine his footsteps each day I’m still alive. I just hope maybe it will take a while for him to catch up to me here. I don’t suppose he’s in a big hurry, maybe he’s still waitin to greet me at the Holler. I’ve slipped past him for decades, barely getting by his scaly fingers. Soon, we all know he’ll get his due.” An uneven smile spread across his face, and the effect was disconcerting to the young agent.
“Sir. I’m inclined to recommend a psych eval. You were found living alone in the hills of Tennessee, the remains of two hikers, partially eaten, were discovered on the property you occupied. We know that couple was reported missing six weeks ago. We know that one of those hikers has been dead for a month, and the girl was killed just last week. These are facts. You’re probably getting the needle for those murders, confession or no. What I’m here for, though, is the information you claim to have about Cooper. So, either get on with it, or don’t. I’m considering writing you off as just another mountain-man whackjob living off the grid, one who starts talking shit when thrown into a cage.” The monologue ended, and the young agent’s face blushed a deep crimson.
Laughter was the old man’s response.
“The hardest part was sneaking across the country. Roads were a pain in the ass, but we were able to travel at night. We bedded down during the day. The secret was a hearse, see. Nobody ever looks suspiciously at a hearse. The one time we had a close call with JohnnyLaw, and likely a bullet in the head, Coop crawled into the coffin I kept in the back. A real-life coffin! He closed it up tight and I talked my way right out of a ticket. You ain’t the only one looks good in a suit, kid. I haven’t always been old and leathery.” With that, the inmate helped himself to the agent’s untouched coffee.
Grimacing, he cursed. “Cold. And creamy-sugary-bullshit. But thanks.”
Leaning forward, the agent tried to get more details from the man in chains.
“Tell me about him.”
“What’s there to tell? He was bold. He was brave. He was stupid.”
“How was he stupid?”
“He trusted me.”
A few heartbeats passed before the FBI man stood. He recapped, “So let me get this straight. You picked him up somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, and you...smuggled him back here? To Tennessee?”
“He was on the lam, wasn’t he?”
“But why here?”
“Were you looking for him here?”
“We were looking for him everywhere.” The agent propped himself on the interview table, staring down at the old man.
“Boy. Do you have any idea how many acres of Tennessee mountainland is practically unexplored? The White Man has been here for a couple hundred years, but even with fancy machines and satellites, we have no idea what all is out there. Or Whom.” The man shuddered.
“Why play games with me? Just tell me what you want to say, and be done with it. You’re gonna spend the rest of your life behind bars anyway.”
“I’m 75 years old, kid. My mind is still sharp, but shit’s falling apart neck-down. As far as I’m concerned, you people did me a favor. This place is my old-folks home, my retirement plan. I’m fine out there on my own, I have been for years, but the money ran out a long time ago. Living is hard. Dying’s easy. I’m here to die, and ain’t no Preacherman can save my soul. I’m Hellbound. But at least I’m Hellbound with air conditioning in the summer, heat in the winter, and a doctor on call. Three hots. A cot. Clean clothes. You saw the photos of my shack.”
“How did you end up there? You’re educated. Your family was rich.”
“What can I say, kid? The sixties were crazy. 1971 ain’t that far from 1960-whatever. I was a little crazy. Maybe still am.”
“Obviously. You ate a hiker.”
“Hunger is a motivator. So is sex.”
“Let’s stick to why I’m here. Where is the money?”
“By the time we got to Tennessee, there was about $100,000. You know he lost some, because somebody found it. I understand that was big news. Anyway, we had to use some. Shit happens.”
“So you killed him because ... shit happens?”
“No, boy. I killed him because I was told to watch him drown. Like a perversion of the baptism. You won’t believe me if I tell you the Devil made me do it; told us both He’d side with the one left standing. So, just think on the fact that I wanted the money for myself. You’ll sleep better if you stick with that theory. I used cash here and there, setting myself up on that mountain. Mostly, nobody ever bothered me.”
“Did you ever go in to town?”
“Sometimes. It’s a mountain, not a deserted island.” He grimaced as he sipped the cold coffee again.
“You said you missed coffee. But you had money. And you went into town...”
“Money doesn’t last forever.”
“When did it run out?”
“What did you do after that?”
“Lived off the land. Sometimes I stole things. Sometimes I stole people. Every now and then, I’d find a hunter or a hiker. You won’t believe that the devil himself kept me warm and fed, so...consider this a grim little fairytale about a deranged cannibal lunatic spinning tall tales about skyjackers and stolen money.”
Ignoring what he thought was crazy talk, the agent pressed. “You had more victims?”
“So many labels. Is Bessie the Ribeye a victim on your dinner plate?” He chuckled, watching the agent. “You’ll find them near the man you’re looking for.”
“The Bureau will need you to take us to the bodies.”
“No. I’ll sketch you a map. I’ll draw you a fucking picture. But no. I’m never going back to that Holler.”
“Fine. Tell me where to start looking.” The agent pulled out a pen and a notepad, setting them both next to the inmate.
“Look for the devil. Maybe he hasn’t left yet, and he’s still waiting for me at Barton Holler. You’ll know you’re getting close when you hear him laughing.”
He wiped a hand across his furrowed brow; there wasn't any crying, but his eyes held a familiar pressure behind them. He was walking a tightrope of emotions, the smallest slip and waterworks would land hard.
Instead of tears, he released a tense chuckle.
"Man. What a day, right?" He leaned forward in the dining room chair, elbows on his knees. Cheap carpet stretched out before him, giving way to a wood-paneled wall. Leaned against it, breathing heavily through a broken nose, a man cowered. Wary, weary eyes shifted, watching the grizzled, worldworn man in the chair.
The small mobile home was an open floor plan from kitchen to living room. A hallway led to the back of the trailer, to a pair of bedrooms and single bathroom. The dinner table was empty, save for a single item.
Instead of a place setting, there rested an old revolver nearly as tired as the man with bloody knuckles.
Finding courage, the huddled man spoke. "Ain't you gonna arrest me, or somethin, cop? Read me my rights and shit."
Silence opened the space between the two men. Anticipation was a tidal wave, rushing in to fill the quiet. On the crest, it carried a humorless smile that crashed down onto the cowering, beaten man leaning against the wall. That smile was as thin as the line the man with the badge had long ago crossed when he came into this home.
"No, Paul. I've already done that once. Where did that get us?"
"I did time, man. I was on probation. I paid my debt to society."
"You were in jail for 246 days, Paul. Your probation conditions didn't explicitly forbid contact with certain people, as it should have. You knew those rules better than your supervising officer. You used those rules to keep playing your games."
"I have to register, man! I'm on a list. I can't get a job."
"You fucked everyone, Paul. You fucked the system. You fucked her all over again every time you fucked the system. Now there's a new girl. A new set of parents I've had to get statements from, new sorrows, another new life shattered. The only thing you've learned from your time in the system is how to almost get away with this thing you do."
"I never did nothin she didn't want, man. Why don't you investigate that?"
"Oh, Paulie. I'm investigating all of it. Her victimization. Your suicide and dramatic immolation," he grinned with genuine warmth and humor. Finally, he released a resigned sigh and lit a Marlboro. It was a habit he'd had since before Tet, and it wasn't the only thing that stuck with him from his time in one uniform or another.
Conversation, he'd learned so many decades before, was often overrated.
Their conversation ended when the shots began.
"You almost seem to admire him."
"In a way, I do. But I hate him, too."
There wasn't supposed to be any smoking in the small office that bordered the one-way glass, but the old man didn't care. He was too close to retirement to give much of a damn about petty rules and useless regulations anymore. He'd postponed several appointments with human resources to discuss his departure; he'd already trained a couple of Captains and several Lieutenants. They'd long since stopped trying to promote him or convince him to leave. He just stayed, and worked, and smoked.
The two detectives watched their suspect do nothing. He sat, impassive, staring at the scarred top of the cheap pressboard table. He didn't even fidget.
"So all we gotta do is get him to write it up, right? Even though his statement is on video." The younger man was experienced, but still relatively new to the gold detective's badge.
"Yeah. The DA's a stickler like that. Sometimes the assholes over at the Defender's office get the videos suppressed for one reason or another."
"Even if they do, it's a slam dunk. Easiest case we've worked in months."
The old man looked through the blue smoke at his trainee and squinted. "Yeah. We need to enjoy this one."
"Want me to run in there with a pad and pen?"
"In a minute."
Silence. Finally, it's broken.
"Tell me somethin, boss."
"How is it you have any sympathy for him? How can you admire and hate the guy at the same time?"
The old man coughed thickly and snubbed out the coffin nail in an empty drink can. The sounds of coughing and the *hiss* of fire against old Coke were the only sounds for a full twenty seconds.
"You and me, kid, we're killers. We had choices. We made 'em. One way or the other, we walked this path we're on. We're just lucky, is all. He ain't."
"How the hell do you figure that?"
"The only thing that kept us from being labeled murderers is the side we were on. The uniform we wore. The hunk of brass in our pocket now. That guy in the fishbowl doesn't have a team. He betrayed the Social Contract. There ain't room for that sort of thing in civilized society."
"What about intent? Doesn't that count?"
A rare smile passes across the old detective's weathered, wizened face. For just a moment, ice gleams in his eyes.
"Oh, I intended harm when I've done it, kid. Sometimes I just wish I'd been as free as that guy in there, and not given a fuck about the consequences when I've held back. And I've held back so much."
He lit another cigarette and sat down in a padded metal chair that saw the best side of life before Carter was elected.
He continued, staring through the glass and the man at the desk. "You will, too. You already have. Because that's the trust we have to live by." He paused, leaving the Marlboro dangling in the corner of his mouth, and he made eye contact with the young detective. "Monsters leave a stain, no matter how much we scrub. So I hate him. And I admire him." His gaze returned to a past that haunted every day of his present. "Because I've almost been him."
Candy for Strangers
“There was this one kid. Smaller than most of the others, but he had old eyes.”
The speaker pauses as his voice catches. He takes a deep breath, and looks through the other men sitting in a loose circle. The folding steel chair beneath his weight creaks a little when he shifts position.
“He’d always come up to me. He recognized me, singled me out. Every time we’d ride in to that little village, everyone’s yelling at us in Pashtu. Not him. He never raised his voice, not once. Not ever.”
His hand swipes away what may have been a tear. A man with one arm places his hand on the speaker’s shoulder, gripping. Encouraging. Reassuring.
“He always ran up to me and gave me this big goofy grin. It was the cutest thing, because I swear he had three teeth in his whole head, and none of them were in front. Questions, man. This kid always had questions. He knew a little bit of English, see. He was smarter than the other kids. He recognized ranks, and I think he could even read a little. The village was certified Green, no hostiles. So we relaxed a little. The elders were in our back pockets, hell, we even traded on the economy there with the Colonel’s blessing. This kid, I called him Barney. I’ve no idea about his real fucking name, yknow? He just wore this stupid purple shirt a lot of the time.”
The story stopped as sobs filled the empty space between shuffling boots and faraway stares. All these men had their own Barney, in one way or another.
Finally, the church multi-purpose room was filled with the man’s baritone once more.
“He always called me---”
“Hey Mister Captain! Mister Captain!” I smiled at the officer as big as I could. I know he liked me. I liked him, too. He was nicer than the other soldiers, and always took time to talk with me.
And give me snacks.
“Hey Mister Captain! Do you have any Ruth-Babies for me today?”
He laughed and shook his head.
“No, Barney. But I have Hershey’s.”
“Oh, Mister Captain, I like Hershey, too. Thank you, sir. Thank you.” I never waited to eat the candy he gave me. I learned a long time ago that the other kids would try to take it, if I got out of sight of the soldiers.
“Thank you, Mister Captain. Thank you. You make talk now?”
The group session listened, fascinated. His story wasn’t special, but it was his. They owed it to him to listen, because that’s all they could do. By hearing him, they shared his burden.
The speaker wiped away another tear and laughed.
“That kid. He asked about baseball. How does a kid in Kandahar know about Baseball?”
No one answered him. That’s not what they do. They don’t have answers to give, they only have time to listen, and hopefully peace to share.
“I Skyped home one night about Barney. My wife sent me a cheap little aluminum bat and a few baseballs. You shoulda seen this kid’s face when I showed up with that gear. I like to think I made that kid’s life better.”
Silence echoed off the cinder block walls and the old-school green chalkboard. A few scattered toys spilled out of the box in a corner, and the former Captain idly looked at a few words of a Bible verse tacked to the bulletin board.
“We controlled that village. Until we didn’t. Taliban took exception to our being so friendly with the locals. An elder disappeared, a few other people showed up dead. So we had to head back in, this time with our heads on more of a swivel than normal. Barney, though, he was still smiling. Still asking questions. Still hitting me up for chocolate. Until the last question he ever asked anybody.”
“Hey Mister Captain! You have the Snickerings for me today?” I smiled, and he laughed.
“Barney, it’s Snickers. And yes, I have a Snickers for you.” I reached for the brown and white wrapper, and I opened it.
By the time I had my first bite, the world went white.
When I woke up, the officer was standing over me, telling me I was going to be fine.
I didn’t believe him.
“Yeah Barney, it’s ok little man. Just don’t try to move, ok? You’re going to be fine.”
“Mister Captain, where are my legs?”
The speaker thought of Barney every day, but especially on days like this. His partner, a grizzled detective who’d seen it all, regarded the scene that unfolded in front of them.
The sound of the old-timer lighting a Marlboro broke the former Captain’s reverie.
Horrors of yesterday have to take a backseat to the horrors of today.
The two men went to work.
In the Land of the Blind
“How long you been on the job?”
The experienced detective looked up from the scene. It had been a while since the sight of blood had bothered him, but the smell still took him back to his time wading though rice paddies.
He stood, knees creaking, and looked into the eyes of his trainee. Reaching for a Marlboro, he sighed. The Zippo flared, and smoke carried away the scent of gore unfolding three steps away.
“Long enough, kid.”
“I’ve been with the department for seven years. Not a kid.” The new detective squatted down, staring at rusted pools of what should never meet dawn’s early light. “I saw worse in Kandahar, but sometimes surviving is just an accident.”
Inhale. Exhale and a “Yep.”
“We shouldn’t see shit like this here. I used to think I’d made it home for a purpose. To do something special. To help.”
“Nope. We’re just lucky, not gifted. One-eyed men with a kingdom.” Another inhale, deeper than the last.
Smoke plumes, and minutes pass. A cough punctuates an otherwise quiet exhale.
“Ever thought about quitting?”
He has. “If I quit, I’ll die. Retired is just another word for useless.”
“I’m talking about the smokes.”
The younger man looks up at the older one quizzically.
“The smell, kid. The smokes help keep the smell out of my nostrils.” He pauses, puffs, flicks ashes. “And dreams.”
Silence settles, and both veterans contemplate the dead.
Finally, the junior of the pair shrugs. “Any ideas, bossman?”
“Sure. Be careful on ML King Boulevard after dark.” As he walks away, he flicks the spent cowboy killer in the gutter, and it hisses in coppery mud.
The Doctor and the Countess
"You are an abomination."
He kisses her madly, wrapping hands around her slender form; his arms grip her with the strength of that madness.
She breaks the kiss, smiling and nodding. "It's true. I am."
He catches his breath, looking into her eyes, wary of her ability to hypnotize and completely surrendering to being mesmerized. He soaks in her every detail, taking special note of deeply red hair the color of broken hearts and the memory of sunrise. Eyes as crystalline and cold as arctic summertime flash in the dim, and her skin glows a perfect porcelain.
She is significantly smaller than he. He is a powerfully built man, wide in the shoulder and firm in his demeanor. Yet, she shatters his resolve as easily as she could shatter his grip. She tests his beliefs and limits, all with whispers and faint smiles.
"Are you just going to look at me?" She grins, and a flash of gleaming white reflects the gaslight of his bedroom.
He nods. "I'm going to use you. I want to hurt you, like before."
"You can't hurt me like before."
"Because he'll know?" venom creeps into his tone as his heart pounds in his chest. "Is he a good husband, a good master to you now?"
Her smirk falters. "It's not like that."
"Am I spoiling the mood?" He still holds her, but his breathing calms and his pulse steadies. Anger still seeps in around the edges of his passion.
She places her hands on his forearms, pushing away. He releases her, unwilling to keep his grip and unable were he to try.
She radiates confidence, strength, and sensuality. He's always thought her sexy, but things have changed. She has become more potent since last they saw one another.
Since she fell into the arms of another. Of other.
Watching him, she begins to remove her clothing. It is a protracted, deliberate exercise. Each button is exaggerated, every piece of lace is caressed. She looks him in the eye, and his anger remains, but becomes muted at the sight of her partial nudity. He waits no longer, gripping her roughly and ripping her free from the silk shift that separates him from her perfect, soft smoothness. He refuses to consider that her skin will never again be warmed by rays of the sun, instead, he is lost only in more basic thoughts.
He begins kissing her along the neck and shoulders, and the scruff of his beard elicits moans and smiles. His teeth find tender places, and her breath catches in his ear. She whispers encouragement with many a faint "Yes, Doctor." His bites gain ferocity, and her laughter inspires him to bite harder. His hands find her arms, and he throws her to the bed, pinning her down. His mouth travels her body, and inside her thighs, he sees the scar from her turning.
His heart skips a beat as his eyes confirm what his mind has known all night.
He looks up at her, her thighs to either side of his flushed cheeks. She smiles down at him, and it's all sharp teeth and hungry need.
Panic lances up his spine.
She breathes deeply through her nose, reveling in the scent of pheromones and fear.
"Van. Look at me."
His eyes dart from the scar to her womanhood to her eyes. He whispers, more weakly than before. "You are an abomination." His fingers gently stroke and part her, seeking, exploring, while he mumbles his horror.
She licks her lips, tracing her tongue across preternaturally sharp teeth that grow into a shark's smile.
"But you love me anyway, Abraham Van Helsing."
God help him, but he does.
When he enters her, he pretends to not notice how cold she feels beneath him.
When she feels him shudder, spent, she pretends not to notice his eyes dart towards the sharpened piece of elm hiding behind the wash basin.
Beholden (two of two)
"When I said the prayer, I didn't even realize I was praying."
The priest listened attentively, watching tendrils of smoke curl heavenward.
"I'd prayed before. All of us found religion at one point or another. Days get longer and the nights last forever out on long range patrol."
He stared off into 1967.
"We weren't s'posed to engage. Hell, that run, we didn't even carry enough ammunition to get through much of a brush-by, let alone something that lasted. The thing is, they managed to find us. They didn't always. But just once was enough."
The priest managed a wan smile. "They found you enough to have you finding religion?"
There was a pause between the men. The much older of the two inhaled his Salem, pausing to collect thoughts and savor a menthol reprieve from hells of yesterday.
"Padre, have you ever seen a man die?"
"Yes, of course. I'm no stranger to administering the last rites."
"Old women curled up in their beds, out of it and half asleep. That aint the same, padre."
"I've been on the scene of less peaceful passings." The priest seemed a little defensive. "But if you're asking if I've seen war, no. You know I haven't."
"I know you haven't."
The pause continued, with the only sounds being the whir of an air conditioner and the soft crackle of burning tobacco.
"I been livin' on borrowed time since 1967, padre. I shoulda died in the mud of Cambodia. Or maybe it was Laos. If there was official reports of that day, it would list it as 'Nam, though. Aint nothing divides 'em but an imaginary line, noways, so what fucking difference does it really make?"
The rhetorical question plumed, riding skyward on a trail of smoke.
"Imaginary lines in the jungle. Imaginary lines between our gods."
At this, the priest uncomfortably shifted.
"Oh, I got your attention with that, eh, padre?" A phlegmy chuckle punctuated the question, which was really more of a statement.
"You've had my attention all along. Ever since you hinted at this story when I first took over the parish. I've seen you worn down over the years. Burdened. You're our most loyal parishioner, strict tithing, great volunteer hours. You're in every Sunday Mass, at a minimum. The only time you were ever absent was when you were in Colorado visiting your son, when your first grand was born. Even then, I believe you attended services as a visitor in Boulder."
"So I give money. I listen to your sermons. I keep up the maintenance on your HVAC. I ladle soup on Tuesdays. Big fucking deal, padre. Is that all I am to you?"
"Of course not. You're one of the flock. A rock. A leader. People respect you. I respect you."
"But do you love me? Because I'm pretty sure he loved me, and that scares the shit out of me."
"He is incapable of love. He's the opposite of love."
"Maybe so. God knows I saw hate at the same time."
"How did it happen? All these years, you've talked around it. Why not share now? I want the whole story."
"You want the whole story because you think it'll make me feel better, or because you're just a busybody? I've managed on my own for decades."
"You're stooped under the weight. You know it. My job is to help the people of the parish. You're not just a face in the crowd, you know. You're a friend. How many times have we shared a pint in my 'other office' down at Frank's Place?" The priest smiled. "Give me a damned cigarette. You're driving me back to vice."
The older man smiled, handing over a crushed pack and a worn Zippo.
"If Sister Ellen catches you, there will be hell to pay."
The priest nodded, and struck the lighter anyway.
"Have you ever wondered just why I'm here so much, padre?"
"I think I get the idea, but tell me."
"Fear. Knowledge. Original Sin. We was driven out of Eden 'cause we knew too much, right?"
The preacher waggled his hand in a so-so gesture. "More or less."
"I know too much, too."
"He told me I'd live to see seventy years and a day. He told me I'd have three children, and one would render to Caesar in my place. That always haunted me more than the rest. He told me that part the second time I seen him, in the hospital. When Junior joined the Corps, I fainted. I passed out right there in the living room, liked to gave everybody a fit. When I came to, they was all aflutter. All I could do is just cry. Never told anybody why. I couldn't."
"And then he died in Desert Storm."
"One of the 148. I managed to avoid being one of the 58,000. But I had help."
Silence settled between the two men again.
The old man continued. "I've been damned all this time. I supposed I've still had hope, though. Good deeds. Good works. Confession."
At this, the priest raised an eyebrow. "This is the first you've done a full accounting, and you know it. If anything, today should see you cleansed of the burden of secrets."
"There aint no secrets from God, padre. The way I figure it, this shit is between me, Him, and Old Scratch. I'm only tellin' you because you asked."
"I think you need to tell me. The weight is crushing you."
"I'm getting closer to 70. Kids are gone. Wife's buried for five years now. I didn't see that coming, but I figure I deserve that, too."
"People die, man. Cancer doesn't pay attention to debts, obligations, or deals you think you made in the jungle."
Eyes narrowed, a flash of anger shone through the pall of smoke. "I know what I did, padre. I was fucking there. This shit aint in my mind, some shell-shocked fuzzy recollection of a goddamned survivor. My guilt aint from surviving. My guilt is from bargaining."
The priest made another gesture with his hands, this time patting the air between them in a "calm down, mea culpa" motion. "Go on. Tell me about that."
The flash of anger burning away as he lit a new cigarette, the grizzled veteran of a half century-old war and five decades of secrets settled back into his chair.
"There was this kid from New York City. We called him Manhattan. He was the newest in our unit, but we'd worked together for long enough that everybody got on. Ours was one of the few that never saw many replacements. Manhattan was a funny kid. Always playing jokes on the fireteam, hell, a few times he even got the Sarge."
A shuddering breath was drawn in between drags.
"He was the first to get it. Right in front of me."
The old man cut his eyes at the priest.
"You killed him?"
"I killed them all, padre. Haven't you been paying attention?"
"I'm sorry, no, I guess not. I thought you were ambushed, or stumbled across an encampment, or something?"
Rueful laughter gave way to a smoky cough.
"We did. We were ambushed by a patrol outside of a full-on company's encampment. Regulars. Something right out of a nightmare. Five little guys in khaki uniforms called down hell on us, and a hundred motherfuckers found it their mission in life to erase six American idiots too dumb to know we'd kicked a hornet's nest."
"I heard the thunk of rounds hitting a tree before I heard the actual gunfire. We all hit the deck pretty quick. Shit fell apart damn fast after that. I started mumblin a prayer somewhere between my third and fourth magazine. The prayer got answered about the same time a grenade landed two feet from my face."
"Did it go off?"
"Not the way you'd expect."
More smoke filled the air, adding color to the war story.
"I heard it cooking, padre. The little sizzle of the fuse. I could hear it. Fucking bullets zipping all around like mosquitoes, goddamned explosions rocking the world, and I heard the little sizzle just as sure as shit you can hear Snap Crackle and Pop in your goddamned Cocoa Krispies. And then it just stopped."
He snubbed out his Salem after using the tip to light a new one. The amber ashtray looked like a graveyard with round paper tombstones sprouting from ashy black soil.
"Everything just stopped. Like some science-fictiony shit on the tube. Only it was real. It happened. Not an exaggeration, like, 'my heart stopped as time stood still,' no, padre. I mean time really fucking stood still. Only, I wasn't exactly there anymore. The sky was different. It was black, but somehow still lit. Like fire. Like how you can see the stars through fire-haze and woodsmoke, when you're outside roasting marshmallows. It was like that. I could hear screams, but not the screams of the fucking soldiers being wounded and dying around me. No, these were screams of a different note. Screams and moans from everywhere, like they was screamin and moanin since time started. Since the world was born. You know what's funny?"
The priest didn't answer, waiting for the story to continue.
"I read Dante. I read Milton. They had that shit all wrong. There aint no circles, there aint no cave, there aint no explaining the workins of God to Man or different levels for different degrees of evil. It's all just chaos. It's all just pain, and it never stops. I heard all of that in them screams, padre. I still hear it when I sleep, I still feel that pain I felt in those seconds that have lasted forever."
The old man's hands were shaking as he recounted his experience.
"I know it was Hell, padre. I was there. Only it was Laos, or Vietnam, or Cambodia, and the goddamn jungle was on fire around me. Only it wasn't."
"So what happened with the grenade?" The priest tried to steer the conversation after a pause that lasted a full two minutes and half a cigarette.
"It exploded. Only, not where it landed. He made me move it."
There was another pause, this one not quite as long as the last.
"Time stopped. I didn't quite realize what had happened until I saw that grenade just sort of freeze. Screams and pain echoed around me, but gunfire had completely stopped. I looked around, thinking I was dead or passed out. I looked all over for Manhattan and the rest of the guys, but I couldn't see nobody. It was just me. Alone. Except for him."
A shuddering breath filled the old man's lungs, then they released into a light cough.
"He smiled at me as he stood there. His teeth were perfectly white, and his eyes were perfectly black. He was big. Not a giant, but big. Perfectly chiseled, but not like a bodybuilder. Just granite-cut, lean muscle. Big barrel-chest, like the black and white Superman from when I was a kid. He was naked as the day is long, and he was absolutely covered in blood. He held out his hand, and I took it. I remember his grip; icy strong. Like stone."
"What did he say?"
"It's like he was fucking with me, padre. Like I was the butt-end of some kind of cosmic fucking joke. He said, no shit, he said 'Let's make a deal.' I was scared out of my mind, and I'm pretty sure I shit myself somewhere along the line. I just nodded, and he laughed."
"Do you remember what you said before he arrived?"
"How can I forget? I prayed. I asked God for help. And then I said 'Fuck you, God. Anybody, just get me out of this. Buddha, God, Satan, whothefuckever, just get me home, and I'll do whatever you ask."
"And then the grenade landed in front of you?"
"And then the grenade landed in front of me. And the sky got all funny and the place changed."
"You think you were in Hell?"
"I know I was."
"And you still made a deal?"
A pause. A puff. A nod.
"How long were you there?"
"Long enough that it's haunted me for fifty years."
The priest crossed his legs. "I guess I just don't understand what would make you do a deal, after seeing that."
"He showed me things, padre. I saw my wife. I saw my kids. I saw my future, and knew I'd live a quiet, happy life right back here at home if only I said yes. He made me promises and I was desperate to believe in something."
"In all my years, padre, do you know how many times I've seen God?"
The priest stirred, uncomfortable.
"In all my years, padre, do you know how many times I've seen the devil?"
The priest picked an imaginary thread off of his frock.
"When I tell you, padre, that I killed Manhattan, I'm not exaggerating when I say that the devil made me do it. It was the seal on the deal, see. I took that grenade, and I walked over to that kid's hiding spot, and I put that grenade right next to him, where he couldn't see. He never even knew what happened. One minute, he was fighting for his life, and the next, he was sipping scotch with St. Pete."
"Do you believe that?"
"Not even a little bit. That kid's in hell where I put him in my place."
"You traded the Devil a soul for your life?"
"Oh, padre. I did so much more than that. He took all of them."
"What do you mean?"
"At the end of our bargain, he killed them all. Every. Single. Man. Uniforms didn't matter. Religion didn't matter. It was a bloodbath, and not some figurative bullshit. He was bathed in blood. He made it seem so small, the price I paid. All I had to do was promise him my soul, and just sacrifice the one kid from New York. He did the rest."
Silence bloomed between the two men, and the priest decided to just listen. Finally, the confession concluded as the last cigarette was snuffed out in the ashtray.
"I did what he asked, padre, but I only regret the part where I promised him my soul."
Through the lingering smoke between them, the padre was truly chilled to see the old man's face flicker with the ghost of a smile.
Beholder (one of two)
"He looks to me and he says..."
The voice is grizzled, crackling. It sounds like a pack a day for thirty-five years, and a pack and a half for the last five. He gives a phlegmy cough, partially due to the habit he built in the sixties, but also because he's embarrassed. His hands shake just a bit, too, because he needs a Salem, but it's more than that. He's afraid.
Even after all this time, he's a bundle of nervous energy.
"Go on. What does he say?"
A man sits in a black suit, relaxed. He leans back in his leather desk chair, white collar gleaming in the soft light of the rectory office.
"Padre, you don't mind me saying so, it's a bit stuffy in here."
"Thermostat is set at sixty-three. You need to talk this through."
Fingernails yellowed from smoke, palms cracked from honest work, the older man clears his throat as he looks down at his fingers.
Finally, he says, "You know, I'd be happy to take a look at the condenser for you. It feels like it ain't quite working right. Maybe it's just the air filters. I have a few of those out on the truck..."
The parish priest smiles. He leans forward, placing his elbows on the cheap blotter that covers his desk. Notes plaster the days of the month, with ideas for sermons scribbled in pencil and pen. He affects his best calming tone.
"Look. I know the supernatural isn't something that's supposed to happen, but it does happen."
"Careful, padre. You won't want the bishop catching wind of that sort of talk." Nervous laughter. More examining of fingernails.
"It's been decades. I can see it eating you more and more every day in the last twelve years I've known you."
The man nods.
"I'm getting closer, padre. I'm sixty-eight next week. Never thought I'd make it this far. The cough is worse. I still smoke. I play with my grandkids, and I know I'm a goner any day now. Some things just are. Even if I stop smoking, even if I give up the cheeseburgers, what then? Another three years? Maybe four? For what?"
The priest sits back, waiting. Letting the man talk.
"I'm sure it was him, padre. I know it was. I can still feel his hands on my face. I'd think they'd be hot. But they were like ice."
He shivers, all thoughts of the room being too warm having fled with his giving voice to memory.
Silence fills the office.
"He looks me in the eye, and he turns my chin to face him. It's like he wants to kiss me. He says to me, 'Would you believe I still have wings?' and he laughs like it's the biggest joke in the universe. Him, all covered in blood and bits and pieces of people. Just me, standing there, in some shit hole village in some shit hole corner of a shit hole continent, ten thousand miles away from everyone I love and everything I ever wanted."
"And then what?"
"He showed me."
"Was it terrible?"
"That's the thing, padre. He was beautiful. I wept, because something so horrible was so God Damned, and just so fucking pretty. I think that's what's made me all twisted up inside. I should hate him. I should be sickened, but all I can think is one thing. How? How can such evil still look so beautiful?"
"I once knew a man who swore he sold his soul to the devil. Can you believe that?"
Throaty laughter punctuates the rhetorical question. The old man sits in a wheelchair that is as old as me, a worn pillow between him and the fraying vinyl of the seat. He keeps chuckling as he unwraps his McDonalds cheeseburger, plain, no onions, his one eye tracking the movement of the yellow wrapper while his other hides beneath a blue-white cataract.
Wispy white hair, thin, unbrushed and unwashed, pokes its way out from beneath the sides of his black "Veteran" trucker cap. His denim jacket is faded with dirt and memories of better days. It looks like he's been wearing it since before Bon Jovi had a number one hit, complete with pinholes and patches that aren't intended to be decoration. Somehow, though, they still are; half a dozen military unit patches in different colors and from different branches litter his jacket.
He smiles a gap-toothed grin as he takes his first bite of the still-warm cheeseburger. This is our Wednesday routine; on my lunch break, I bring him a sackful of burgers and a Coca-cola. He doesn't care for fries, but the burgers he can actually stretch into a couple of meals, and he doesn't mind them cold. This week, I drop a twenty into his little three-gallon bucket he uses to panhandle. Some Wednesdays, it's the key to a room I'd get him at the Motel 6. Others, it's just a fiver. I don't want him to think I feel too sorry for him. Besides, we have a business arrangement. He tells stories, and I listen.
Every Wednesday, I feed him and we chat. He grabs his bucket and I wheel him over to a shady spot where I can sit on a low wall and listen to his stories. I'm sure some of them are probably even true.
I hope some of them aren't.
I believe he really is a veteran. Like knows like. His demeanor, word choice, and knowledge base are too good to be fake, but I'm no expert. It could all be a carefully constructed fairy tale to earn a few extra dollars from sympathetic strangers. I don't believe that's the case, but if so, I tip my hat to his committal to the role.
Overall though, the man is a mystery, and I am content to let him stay that way.
He doesn't blame his tours for where he is now. The lost leg he left behind in a motorcycle wreck near Miami in the summer of 79. The cancer, though, that he firmly believes is due to his relationship with a foreign agent. Codename: Orange. But he doesn't dwell on it.
I've offered to try to get him into treatment under indigent care. He just shakes his head and refuses to go when it's warm outside. "Talk to me again after the first snowfall," he says and laughs when I bring it up.
I know he has some mental health issues. I know he has some physical health issues, too. But I also know he's lived this way for almost as long as I've been alive, and some people don't want to be saved. So I do the next best thing; I listen.
"The devil, eh?" I ask, biting into my own McDonalds fare. This week, it's a quarter pounder. I don't skip the fries.
He nods. "Yep. Prince of Lies himself." He slurps his Coke, looking over at me. "Do you believe in God, Jack?"
I've told him my name a dozen times. It doesn't matter. To him, I'm Jack.
"Yeah, I do, Chief."
"Just Jon will do, Jack."
"Yes, I do believe in God, Jon."
I take a bite. Chew. Look over at him. His one good eye locks in on mine.
"Why not?" I finally ask in response.
He laughs. "That's cheatin', Jack. But I'll take it."
He reaches for his second burger, and we eat in silence for a few minutes.
"I believe in God because I know the devil is real."
His statement is delivered so matter-of-factly, so absolutely convincingly, that I am struck with a chill that travels down the nape of my neck into the red brick where I sit. That is quite a trick, to be chilled in August.
"How do you know that, Chief?" I slip right back into old habits; he is Chief Warrant Officer Jon Michael Sparks from Carey, Idaho, and once a CWO, always a CWO.
"Because I've seen him, Jack. I saw him with my own two eyes, and I saw the fella he was talking to. I couldn't hear nothin', but I can guess what was up. That same cat the devil was talkin' to, he eased over my way one evening after it was all said and done. Asked me what I seen. What I knew. What I heard."
I notice Jon's hand is shaking a little as he balls up his empty wrapper.
"So, let me get this straight. You saw a guy sell his soul, and you saw the devil, and then this guy came up to you?"
He shakes his head. "No, man. You got the timeline all wrong. See, you know I got a couple of purple hearts, right?" I nod, remembering when he had told me a little about one of them. "Anyway. That first one, I got when I was co-piloting. Bad LZ, bullets zipping, I'm the only bastard catches any. It wasn't bad, it burned, stung for a while, got me a few days back in the city with cold air conditioning and hot food. Nothing major. Anyway, while I was there, this young guy, he comes in, and he's all fucked up. Screaming at night, always sweaty, yelling about how pretty the Morning Star was and shit. Really weird. He had a wound, but I think he was mostly psyche."
At this, he pauses. It's his turn to have a visible shiver, but it's different than the fear response I had earlier. His shiver is memory-based, and then he regains his composure. "Mental stuff in a hospital, man. Scary shit. Anyway. So back then, especially in-country, the main hospital non-critically wounded were in, it was a big bay. More serious or higher ranks, they got private rooms and the good life. Hell, the big bay was plenty good, the AC was reasonably cool and the nurses were plenty cute. Nobody was shooting at us. Life was great for a little while. So everybody is asleep, 'cept for me and this guy. And then there was this . . . wind. Like, hot. Smelled like shit, kinda waved through the air like hot asphalt, yknow? It was weird. And then there he was."
"Yes, Jack. The Devil. Whispering to this long range recon guy, the one who was spazzing out."
"So what did he look like?"
Jon paused and stared off into fifty years ago.
"He was pretty."
"Yeah. Not handsome. Not gruesome. Not, like, Greta Garbo or Farrah Fawcett, but not like Clark Gable, either. He was pretty. Like some kind of . . . I don't know. I don't know. I aint gay or nothin, but he was just beautiful. And terrifying. Because I knew it was wrong, all that prettiness."
As I finished my last fry, my eyes didn't leave his face. "So what happened?"
"They just talked. And then the Devil, he kissed that guy on the forehead. It was strange. And sweet. And scary as fuck."
"You saw the Devil kiss a man on the forehead? Sweetly?" I sipped my drink.
He shifted his gaze to me. Cyclops, regarding Odysseus. At least he wasn't hungry anymore.
"Jack. Yes. And the next night, that soldier, he came up to me. Got real close-like. Started asking me what I'd seen, what I knew. I just shook my head. He told me he'd sold his soul, and that he was scared. He told me he knew I had seen them together."
"Did he threaten you, or anything?"
"No. He laughed. He told me the Devil saw me watching, and that he had a message for me."
"What is that? The message? What did he say?" I couldn't help it. I was fascinated.
"The Devil would be watching me, too."
"Oh? What the fuck you mean, 'oh'? Aint that some scary shit right there, Jack? Could I not just end this goddamned story right there and it be about enough to have you pee your pants?"
I had to admit, yes, it was, but still. I had questions.
"So did anything happen? After? To you?"
Jon just looks down at his wheelchair. Back up to me. Over to his panhandling bucket.
I feel pretty stupid.
Imagine how I felt later, when I actually googled CWO Jon Michael Sparks on a whim.
Chief was a Huey pilot, alright. Shot down in 1973 in an operation over the Ho Chi Min trail. His door gunner was the only one to make it back home.
To this day, Jon Sparks is officially listed as Missing in Action.
I still take him cheeseburgers on Wednesdays, but we don't talk about religion anymore.
Mostly because I'm pretty sure that the infantryman he told me about wasn't the only one to work a deal.
And / or, maybe Jon is still being watched.
Honestly, I'm afraid to discover how thick the border is between lies and truth.
Whatever side of that line I'm living on, I'm happy.
But I'm not afraid to admit that I've started going back to church.
Especially on Wednesday nights.