It’s well-known that the Devil has a summer home here in Nashville. So, it didn’t take too many Sundays before preachers were blaming him for the flood. The truth is that he had nothing to do with it. The Devil rarely does things, at least not any more. Lately, he’s just been making suggestions or turning off alarm clocks or whispering tiny doubts in people’s ears.
It’s not very hard, if you’re the Devil, to do big acts of evil. But how small a wrong can he do and still have it spiral out of control? That’s the question he’s been lately trying to answer.
So, he has been brushing his hand on the arms of lonely administrative assistants and smiling shyly at the married choir director. In office fights, he always picks the side of the woman who keeps a bottle of booze in her desk for when she’s feeling like no one gets her, just to see if one person supporting her when no one else will makes it worse.
He is the crack in the sidewalk. The snag in your hose at a needed job interview.
After he got word his second home was flooding, he was a firefighter in chest-deep water rescuing people out of flooding apartments. This, honestly, was not so much about doing evil as preserving his ability to do evil. He had plans for some folks and he had no interest in seeing them change their fates.
But he was also back in Nashville and in the water for another reason and that reason did not bode well for Paul Turner.
Paul Turner was a history professor at Vanderbilt, whose focus was on the lives of free blacks in Nashville, prior to the Civil War. He was especially interested in Dr. Jack Macon, who had been the slave of William Macon, but who earned his freedom and, due to the intervention of his patients, the right to stay in Tennessee even after being freed.
Turner had a theory that Dr. Jack, as he was called, was William’s half-brother. He had nothing more than a hunch and the fact that William’s father and son were both named John. But Turner had gone to the Tennessee State Library and Archives to see what he could learn.
There wasn’t much. A mention in an early city directory. An entry in the internment records of the city cemetery. Already things he’d seen at the Nashville Library.
“Oh, this is interesting,” the woman helping Turner said, as she came back to his table. “We actually have a file on William Macon. But it’s only got one thing in it, and that seems to have to do with Jack Macon.”
“What’s that?” Turner said.
“It’s a map. See? At the top here, it’s faded, but doesn’t that look like it says ‘Property of Jack Macon’?”
“Hmm, and judging by the size of Nashville, I’d have to say this map was made probably right around the time that Jack got his freedom,” Turner was already making notes.
The Macon map contained one odd feature. It showed a small pond on the east side of the river, just north of where the Navy Operational Support Center is, in the middle of what is now the golf course. And next to the pond, even closer to the current location of old Naval building, was an x. A faint x, but the kind of x that makes historians feel for a second like they’re going to be able to call their friends in the Archaeology department and tell them to suck it.
But what could Turner do? You can’t just go around digging up a golf course.
Little did he know, the Devil was sitting right across town thinking the same thing. Because, it turns out that Turner and the Devil, though the did not know it, had complimentary problems. Turner knew the location of whatever Macon had marked, but not what it was and the Devil knew what it was, but not exactly where.
Yes, of course, he had someone whose job it was to trail Macon, but it turns out that a man didn’t grow up to be one of the most powerful doctors in the state back in the 1850s without learning a thing or two about how to give a devil the slip. The Devil figured it was in the park, but he didn’t know for certain.
Let us stop and imagine for a moment how easy it would have been for Turner to do the right thing. He could have published an article on the Macon map, could have done a couple of interviews with the local media, gotten some public excitement about his treasure hunt and gotten permission to excavate.
I hadn’t considered it until just now, but maybe the Devil and Paul Turner met before this, maybe the Devil was the lanky grad student with the black eyes, just at Vanderbilt for the day using the library. I mean, who uses the library any more? And later, as Turner tried to awkwardly hit on him, maybe he hinted about discovering the map, about the x that marked a spot that seemed easy enough to find.
That would make sense of how the Devil and Turner ended up on the golf course the Monday after the flood. Turner had just walked in off of Sevier Street. The Devil, now a tattooed fireman with dimples, had commandeered a boat and come in through the flood water.
The Devil found Turner up to his waist in a hole.
“You find anything?” the Devil asked.
“Just now,” Turner said, with a look of unmitigated delight on his face, so caught up in his discovery that he didn’t even hide what he was up to. “I’ve about got it loose.” The Devil jumped down in the hole with him and helped him rescue a wooden box, about the size of a small microwave, out of the mud. The Devil then lifted Turner out of the hole and Turner, in return, gave a hand to the Devil.
They both plopped to the ground, dirty and happy, with the box between them. Turner pulled out a knife and pryed open the lid. The box was full of gold coins. Turner’s first thought, not realizing who he was sitting next to, was that he could take the fireman, if he surprised him.
The Devil’s first thought, interestingly enough, was whether he could get Turner to take the gold.
Just went it seemed like there might be a fixed fight, an old man came walking up. He was dressed very neatly, in a faded black suit, wearing a top hat that seemed just a tad too formal for the circumstances. He had a cane, topped with a silver handle, which he held more like a staff.
“That’s my gold,” the old man said, as if to end any discussion before it started.
“I assumed you had no more use for it,” the Devil said.
“We had a deal,” the old man said.
“You cheated,” the Devil sputtered.
“Come now,” the old man said, “we both know you got stupid and lazy during those years. Things were too easy for you and you got sloppy. That’s not cheating. That’s just smart.”
“What kind of deal?” Turner asked.
“I said, ‘You give me my family near me and the money to free them and, once that money’s spent, you can have me.’ He said I seemed like the kind who might need that,” Dr. Macon spoke with polite contempt.
“And you never spent the money,” the Devil lamented.
“Not yet, anyway,” Dr. Macon said, a smile hinting at the corners of his mouth.
“Well, you can’t spend it where you are now,” the Devil said.
“Still, a deal is a deal,” Dr. Macon said.
“Your map has been found,” the Devil switched tactics. “Certainly, you don’t plan on standing around here all the time guarding this spot.”
“No,” Dr. Macon said, “I truly don’t. So, mister, the gold’s fate is your fate, now.”
And before the Devil could even scream, Dr. Macon had tossed up his cane, grabbed the end of it, and swung it, like a bat, into Paul Turner’s head. Turner was dead almost instantly.
“Are you kidding me?!” the Devil sputtered, as Dr. Macon tossed the gold back into the hole.
“I’m starting to suspect that gold might be cursed for you,” Dr. Macon smiled. “That’s two souls it’s lost you.”
They say, when it’s rainy, the ghost of Paul Turner is often seen out there on the golf course, pacing around the spot where he died, muttering about his circumstances. Folks who’ve seen him say he’s an omen of bad luck.
As for the Macon map, the State Library and Archives claims to not be able to find it again.