I have two spooky things, one is not very good, but I like it. The other is very good, but I don’t like it. They both kind of deal with the same thing. One deals with Hell and the other deals with Andrew Jackson, so consider yourself fairly warned about the upsettingness of both pieces.
The Devil’s Dilemma
I went to Hell to see the Devil and to ask him if he’d heard the new David Rawlings album. We talk music pretty regularly. The Devil’s a big fan.
It’s pretty easy to get to Hell. Harder to get back.
Anyway, I get down there. I knock on the door and the little imp who answered said, “The Devil’s not here.” Behind the imp, in the main hallway, I saw huge towers of bottled water, stacked in pallets. Another imp was driving a forklift, moving more water into the hallway.
I must have had a weird look on my face, because the imp in the doorway said, “Oh, that’s all for Puerto Rico.”
“Aw, damn,” I said. “Poisonous.” Because, obviously, if the Devil sends you bottled water, it’s going to be bad, right?
“No, no,” the imp said. “It’s just normal water. We’ve been sending as much as we can get along with other supplies to the island. That’s where the Dark Lord is now, helping.”
“Helping,” I asked “or ‘helping?’” I made air quotes with my fingers.
“Go see for yourself.”
The imp stepped aside and let me in. He led me down a long hall full of doors and when we got to a bright blue one, he opened it and indicated I should go through. I did and there I was, deep in the tropical forest, exhausted people before me trying to clear enormous trees from the washed out roadway.
“Hold on, Juan!” The Devil shouted. An old man, with a battered straw hat who had been struggling with a large limb turned to the voice. I did, too.
There was the Devil, lean and handsome, shirtless, but in impossibly clean linen pants, lifting a whole tree by himself, and tossing it out of the way. He brushed his hands together and headed towards Juan. As he passed by me, he winked and grinned slyly.
I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Poor Juan. No good came come from having the Devil’s attention.
But that slick old Devil just walked over to the old man, grabbed another part of the sprawling limb, and together they dragged it out of the road.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I pitched in. If any of the people clearing the road were surprised by my sudden appearance, they were too exhausted to show it. Gracias. That’s all I heard from them repeatedly. Gracias.
All day, until it was too dark to see what we were doing, the Devil worked hard, side-by-side with the people in the road, clearing debris. No sick joke, no unanticipated dark turn, no last-minute disaster to heap on misery. Just good, hard work standing shoulder to shoulder with people who needed the help.
Did they know he was the Devil?
I don’t know. They said ‘gracias’ to him, too.
He took me to a late dinner in Las Vegas and afterward, we went to a nearby hospital. He fluffed pillows and held scared people’s hands. He didn’t say “It’s going to be okay” or “God has a plan” or “Things happen for a reason.” He just listened and was sad and scared with them and they, in turn, I think were a little less sad and scared.
Later, when we lay tangled in the sheets of some impossibly white hotel room, high above the Strip, I asked him, “Okay, what the fuck is going on here?”
“What do you mean?” he asked, but with that hint of playful slyness in his voice that makes it hard for me to concentrate on what I want to say to him.
“You’re being super awesome. Kind, generous, helpful.”
“Good in bed.”
“Come on!” I made a half-hearted attempt to move his delightfully scratchy face away from the small of my neck. “What’s the trick?”
“No trick,” he insisted. “I’m on vacation. Being evil is my job, but I was born an angel. When I want to relax and get my head out of my work, I go out and get back to my roots.”
“Come on!” I said again, “The Devil can’t be good.”
“Oh, I can be all kinds of things,” he growled in my ear. And he was.
The next morning at breakfast, he said, “I’d like to show you something.”
We went back to the hospital, this time to a different wing. We were in a rehab unit and a man learning to walk on his prosthetic leg was taking his first, tentative steps. It wasn’t inspiring, like you see in the movies. It was crushing. He was sweating and shaking. Tears were running down his face. He clung to the handrails like a landlubber in his first ocean storm. Two orderlies waited, ready to grab him if he fell. And he did fall. Repeatedly.
The look on his face was utter anguish. We stood watching for forty-five minutes. He never got the hang of it.
His therapist said, “That was a great first attempt.” I think she meant it.
And that man looked at her kind of hating her and kind of hating himself and I knew, if he saw any other way, he would have taken it, because this way had in it a lot more suffering. But it was also utterly obvious he would be back.
“He has a shaky hope,” The Devil said to me. “And uncertain faith that this all will be worth it. That the doctors can do for him what they say they can do. He believes he could walk again.”
“Will he?” It was hard to believe that he would after seeing him struggle so.
“I don’t know.” The Devil paused and then seemed to decide he would tell me something maybe he hadn’t intended to before now, “That’s why I love it. I don’t know what he’ll be physically capable of. I don’t know what he’ll be able to put himself through mentally. I don’t know if his suffering is pointless or not. It’s delicious.”
Delicious? Ugh, that was a word I didn’t want to think too closely about.
“Now, come home with me. I want to show you something there.”
We walked down a hall in the hospital, turned a corner and we were in Hell. We walked to the end of this hallway, past countless doors behind which I heard unending screams of anguish. Finally, we came to a door that the Devil opened. Inside there was a man hanging by his wrists from the ceiling. A demon took a hot poker out of a nearby fire, stuck the red metal to the man’s bare skin, where it hissed and popped and smoked. The skin stuck to the poker and the demon began to pull the skin off, in long, terrible strips.
“This man kept his son locked in a trunk at the foot of his bed. When the authorities found the boy, he was so twisted from growing up in this box that he couldn’t stand. He flinched when anyone tried to touch him. He screamed and couldn’t stop if he saw a dog. He couldn’t speak, so the authorities had no idea what had happened between him and dogs, but they also couldn’t bear to ask the father. It was worse than just that, of course, but I can see you’re already repulsed.” The Devil gave the man a slight shove, so he began to swing. He screamed, of course.
The Devil went on. “This is a man who clearly belongs in Hell. It’s very straightforward. He tortured his son from his son’s earliest days until he was finally caught and he did it because he liked it, because it made him feel good to have so much unfettered power over a small, helpless thing. But look at his face.”
It was hard to look at. Parts of his cheeks had already been stripped away and he was bleeding profusely. Mixed with his blood were endless tears. He was suffering. All I could think is that no one deserves this, but being in that room with him, every time I felt compelled to go help him, I saw a flash of the suffering his son had endured—being forced to eat his own vomit, being beaten with a broom stick, and on and on.
The Devil rested a supportive hand on my shoulder, “Do you see any shock? Any surprise?” he asked.
And no, the man was suffering, terribly. The look on his face was one of utter agony. But he seemed resigned to it.
“Every night, he’s healed, so every day his tortures are fresh,” the Devil said. “But there’s only a brief time in anyone’s tenure in Hell when they’re in disbelief that this is happening to them. Those scrumptious days where the magnitude of what they’re facing becomes real are so few, so short. We’ve had this one for a long time. We’ve tried a lot on him. We tried erasing his memories so that each day was a fresh Hell, but one of the most satisfying parts is when a person realizes he or she is in Hell because of a long series of decisions they made. Memory is important. So, if we erased his memories so he wouldn’t remember the torture, we put the burden on his tormentor to remember the horrific details of his many sins and recount them back to him.” The Devil led me out of the room. I was relieved to go.
“And that’s hardly fair,” the Devil said. “Why should the guy just doing his job bear the burden of the sinner?”
“I guess you could just erase that demon’s memories, too,” I said. I was feeling slightly queasy, which the Devil must have realized. Out of nowhere, he handed me some toast with jam.
“We thought of that,” he said, “But then, either its supervisor would have to remember all the details so it could be briefed every day on why it was doing this and what it needed to tell the sinner, which seems like the same problem, but one level removed, or we were completely abandoning the best part—where the sinner has hope and then loses it.”
“So, instead, you go fuck things up on Earth only to help fix them, so that you have a never-ending supply of dashed hopes to enjoy?”
“What? No. Oh, sweetheart.” There’s something awful about the Devil calling you sweetheart. Being pitied by evil is disconcerting, at best. “You still don’t get it.”
“The political situation. The hurricanes. The earthquakes. The people lying dead in the streets.”
“That’s why I like you humans so much. You did that. You did that all yourselves. I told you. I’ve been on vacation.”
“For how long?” I asked.
“Hmm, well, let’s see. I was still full-time in the Garden. I was taking like three days off a week by the time Job came around. And I think I was already completely out of the office by the time I ran into Jesus in the wilderness. Even by then, humans were doing a fine job on their own and barely needed me. So, you know, thousands of years, give or take a few.”
We walked down a hall I hadn’t seen before. We came to a normal looking, wooden house door.
“Here’s for you,” he said and I instinctively stepped back. What imp awaited me inside? What sins had I committed or been complicit in bad enough to bring me here? Did my friendship with The Devil, such as it was, count for nothing?
He opened the door. And there was my kitchen, and my dining room beyond. I stepped through the doorway and I was back in my house, as if I had just come in from the garage.
I stumbled to the couch and I grabbed the remote for the TV, hoping to put something in my brain beside what I had seen over the last couple of days. But I couldn’t bring myself to hit the on button. So, I sat there, wondering, is this Hell, too?
A few days later, I decided that, if I was going to be a denizen of Hell, I should go exploring. After all, my hobby is going to look at things, so, okay, let’s go look at Hell.
It was terrible. I mean, I guess that goes without saying. “Hell” is the word we use to mean something as bad as it can get. So, I don’t even know what to say about it. Hell is a Hell-like world of hellacious hellishness? It’s hard to do anything more than gesture to the outlier. There’s nothing as bad to compare it to.
Just floor after floor of human suffering. People being lowered into fiery pits. People having their fingers ripped off and fed to them. People having their eyes carved out with teeny-tiny citrus spoons. And at first, I was like “Lord, I can’t bear to see this.” But later, I was like, “Okay, then, someone at least has to see this and say what’s happening.”
So, on I went, looking and looking and looking.
Then I came to the room with the elephant in it. A demon stood on a tall ladder with a hose, spraying a narrow, but strong stream of lava at the elephant, who was pressed up against the far wall, screaming in fear.
“What the fuck?!” I burst into the room and threw myself against the ladder. The demon fell to the ground. Hot lava spewed everywhere until the hose shut itself off.
“Hey, fuck you,” the demon said. “I’m just doing my job. This elephant got drunk and trampled twenty people to death.”
“Who gave the elephant alcohol?!” I shook my head. “No, no. Who fucking cares? You can’t torture an elephant for being an elephant.”
“Killing is wrong. This elephant is a murderer. Murderers go to Hell to suffer through eternity.”
It was so dumb I couldn’t stand it.
“Water drowns tons of people,” I argued. “You have a room full of water… what? Being polluted?”
The demon took me by the hand and we walked down yet another hall together. The elephant followed. We came to a laboratory, filled with demons in protective gear, their cloven hooves shoved into safety booties. They each leaned over petri dishes, sharp pins in their rubber-gloved hands.
“This is the polio wing.” The demon gestured to the lab. “Each instance of the polio virus that murdered someone comes down here to be tortured for eternity.”
“A virus?” I was confused, to put it mildly. “Can a virus even suffer?”
The demon shrugged. “Heck if I know. I’m not convinced old Gertie here knows why she’s suffering and elephants are smart. It’s not our jobs to worry about whether the punishment works. It’s just our jobs to punish.”
“That must suck,” I said, because this demon didn’t particularly strike me as a sadist.
“Well, Betsy, it’s Hell. It’s not supposed to be fun.”
“Okay, no.” I said. “No, this is ridiculous. You both come with me.” I took the demon by one hand and rested my other hand gently on the elephant’s shoulder. I led them down seemingly-endless hallways, up near-infinite staircases, and back to my house, out north of Nashville. The demon and I went and got some hay and made up a comfortable spot for the elephant in the garage.
“There’s an elephant sanctuary south of here,” I said. “I’ll call them in the morning and see if they’ll take her in.”
“She’s dead,” the demon said.
“Then she’ll be easy to house,” I said. God damn it. Things were going to make sense. I was going to put some things in order. Set a few, tiny things right. “She is done suffering.” Then I looked at the demon, deep into its large, black eyes. “You, too.”
I took it into the bathroom and helped it climb into the tub. It was tentative.
“Is this going to burn?” It asked, as I lathered up a washcloth.
“Nope,” I said.
“Will you make the water ice cold?”
“Nope.” I just gently scrubbed it while it sat in a huddle in the warm bath water. Layers came off—blood, dirt, soot, pieces of meat the origins of which I didn’t even want to remotely begin to imagine. I pulled flaking layers of old horn off, leaving shiny slick obsidian sticking from its head. I scrubbed its hooves with a fingernail brush until they also shined black. When it was utterly clean, I let the water down the drain.
“No! No!” It said. “Will I be sucked down with it?”
“Nope,” I said. I turned the shower on and rinsed the demon off one last time. I found the fluffiest towels I had and wrapped it in them. It rested its head on my shoulder. Before it was dry, it was asleep. I picked it up, carried it into the guest room, and put it to bed.
Then I went out to the elephant with a bucket of warm water and I washed her down as best as I could. I offered her some trail mix. The ancient tip of her trunk curled around each individual peanut, poked at every raisin. She liked the M&Ms the best. Is chocolate bad for an elephant? I don’t know. I don’t suppose, with her being dead it matters.
When it was clear she was asleep, I went out into the back yard and cried so loudly it startled the crows.
In the morning, I was possessed. I guess this shouldn’t have surprised me, seeing as I took a demon home, but I was indeed startled to wake up crawling across my ceiling, scuttling like a bug.
I called The Devil.
“Um, so, yeah, I felt bad about an elephant so I stole a demon and now it’s in me and I need you to get it out.”
“I don’t need a lecture. Just come help me.”
“I run Hell. I don’t help people escape Hell’s torments.”
“You’re on vacation. Doing nice things for people.”
Twenty minutes later, The Devil was in my bedroom, staring up at me on the ceiling, stroking his chin as he tried to decide what to do.
“Leonard—“ he started.
“Come on!” I refused to believe Leonard was a demon’s name. You telling me Lenny Briscoe from Law & Order shared a name with a demon? Leonard. It sounds like the demon in charge of loan sharks.
“Look it up on Wikipedia,” he said. “There’s one named Amy, too.”
“You ran out of scary cool names like Azazel?”
“Azazel is about as cool a name as Walter.”
“Walteres can be scary.”
The Devil rolled his eyes at this. He’d never gotten into Breaking Bad.
“Okay, fine. Leonard. Can you please remove Leonard from me?”
“Are you sure? You look pretty badass with three horns.”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Leonard, come on out.” When you figure how gravity works, as soon as The Devil spoke, I had to be falling back toward my bed, but I swear, it felt like the demon was pulling itself out of me and pushing me away from it. I hit the mattress, hard. But I was fine.
“Boss, I was inside her,” Leonard complained.
“Who hasn’t been there?” The Devil said.
“What? I’m glad about it. I’m just stating a fact.” The Devil had a way of making this corny, terrible shit sound charming. He claimed he learned it from Dean Martin, but that could have also been terrible, corny shit. I don’t know.
“Sorry, Boss,” Leonard said. “I’ll get the elephant and get back to work.”
“No!” I yelled. Not the elephant. Not the torture.
The Devil put his hand on my shoulder and kept me from lunging after the demon. The demon seemed deeply pleased at how upset I was.
And, after giving me one last wicked grin, the demon disappeared. Poof. I knew the elephant was gone, too.
The Devil pulled me closer to him, put his mouth right up to my ear.
“The elephant’s not real.” He whispered. “Don’t worry.”
“What? I fucking hate this shit. It’s upsetting and confusing.”
“Let me show you something.” Oh, great. Again. But off we went, through Hell, up and down corridors, past screams and cries of anguish, stepping over rivers of blood and piss and shit. Finally, we came to a nondescript door that had, weirdly enough, a smaller door in it.
“Open it,” he said. I reached down to open the tiny door. He stopped me. “No, the whole door.”
I opened it. I couldn’t see anything. There was this warm, blinding light. But I smelled my grandma’s kitchen. I heard the murmurings of far off conversations among family members who’d been dead for years. The sounds and smells of my happiest moments.
“The door is never locked.” The Devil said. “Anyone here can get there at any time.”
“Then, my god, why don’t you? Are you embarrassed? Is this a pride thing?”
“I give the denizens of Hell what they expect—to suffer and to inflict suffering. When I don’t have enough to suffer, I dream up sufferers for my minions to torture. This, then, for them, is a kind of Heaven. They are doing the hard, necessary work they believe Goodness won’t or can’t do.”
“But there are some real people here.” I said.
“Oh, yes, but many fewer than you’d think.” This wasn’t true as I’d long been something of a universalist, figuring either everyone was in Hell, and rightly so, or no one was.
“Dude, right there… right there.” I put my arm through the doorway and into Paradise. My hand felt like it had been clasped by a new love. “It’s just right there.”
“I have to run Hell,” he said.
“Or what? No one will be miserable? We’re all miserable sacks of shit. You said yourself we’re fine at doing evil without you. Empty Hell. We’ll still be bad.”
But he just turned and walked away. I shut the door and stood in the dark for a long time. So much misery. It felt a little suffocating. I slumped down to the floor and put my head in my hands. After a minute, I felt the tiny knob of the second, smaller door to Paradise poking in my back. I scooted over and opened it.
This time it smelled like a summer evening, right before rain. And I heard a voice, a low warm voice, saying, “I miss you, Luc. Come on home.”
But here’s the thing, Dear Reader, that haunts me to this day. Was that Heaven beyond that door or just the thing The Devil needed to hear to give him hope that his suffering would one day end? Is he King of Hell or its only prisoner?
My Boyfriend, Andrew Jackson
I met Andrew Jackson in the basement of the Tennessee State Library and Archives. I was lost and stumbling around in the dark, trying to find my way back to the elevator. He was standing in front of a box that contained his papers, just standing there, eyes shut, hand on the box. I didn’t recognize him at first and the immediate thought I had was “Oh, hey, weird. It’s Del McCoury.” Followed by, “Come on, Betsy, why would a bluegrass musician be standing in the semi-dark basement of the TSLA on a Saturday?”
“Sorry,” I stammered. “I’m lost. I’m not supposed to be here, I know, but I got off on the wrong floor and I got turned around.”
He slowly turned toward me and I recognized him immediately—the tall shock of silver hair, the narrow face, the way he held himself like a precarious stack of books.
“That’s all right, ma’am,” he smiled. “I’m not supposed to be here either, but I haven’t tried the gate to the place I want to be and I prefer to avoid the place I don’t.”
“Are you a ghost?” What other question was there?
“Not really,” he said. “I have a body.”
There was a divot, still, on his forehead from where a British officer had whapped him with a sword when he was a young teenager. And the scars from where he had been shot. When I put my ear to his chest while he was sleeping, I could hear the rattle of some bullet against bone when he breathed and the beating of his heart, like an eternal drum-beat to war.
What he liked best was to lay on me, each sharp, fragile boney corner of his body resting on a soft, warm part of me. He slept well those nights. And I didn’t mind it. I liked to see him happy.
Other nights he screamed in his sleep or sobbed or he didn’t sleep at all. He paced around my room, jumping at every passing car, muttering under his breath. I told him that there are veterans’ support groups now, people he could talk to who would understand. I even volunteered to drive him. But he insisted it was too different now.
At first, I was embarrassed to take him places. I was afraid, you know, based on his reputation that he’d be ugly and racist or loud and sexist or that he’d shoot someone. But even now, he was still trying to be a good Christian, whatever that might mean for a man with sins as grave as his. We went out and he was quiet and charming. He held my hand. He said “sir” and “ma’am.”
Only one time did I see him get angry. We were having dinner at a bar and some drunk asshole stumbled over to me and said, “Fatty, I can’t believe you’re eating in public. It’s disgusting.” Well, he didn’t even get the whole last word out. After the “eating in public” bit he put his hand on the President to steady himself and Andrew Jackson snapped like a rat trap. One second he was in his chair. The next the drunk was on the floor and Jackson was punching and punching and punching and I don’t think he would have stopped until the dude was dead if the bouncers hadn’t pulled him off.
“If I see you again, sir,” he hissed at the broken pile of man on the floor at my feet, “it will be for the last time.”
I cried the whole way home and Andrew Jackson fumed.
Later, in the dark, he said, “I would have liked to have made him sorrier.”
Over back is Whites Creek Pike. I didn’t think about that when I brought him home from the library. But one morning, he said he was going to take the dog around the block and at most, it should have taken him an hour to walk the perimeter of the old farm my subdivision sits on. And he wasn’t one to dawdle. I put my coat on over my pajamas and my feet in untied shoes. I stumbled into the winter morning the sun not quite up yet, flurries dancing past me.
“Andrew,” I called, staggering through the back yard, the air freezing my legs. I got up to the road and hollered for him again. He wasn’t there. When I came over the hill I saw him, just standing, down below at the intersection, the dog already so bored he was laying on the sidewalk behind him. I started to call again when I saw what he was looking at. Across from the school, the houses that line the creek were gone. Instead, there was an open field and a camp in it. A thousand people or more, maybe more, were just waking up. Horses snorted, their breaths making clouds in the cold air. Men half dressed in old military uniforms came out of their tents, scratching their bellies, wandering off to pee or splash water from the creek on their faces.
I walked up next to Andrew Jackson. He was transfixed. I didn’t know how to read the look on his face and, looking back, I’m afraid I wanted so much to see regret there that I willed myself to see it. I can’t honestly say if he was sorry, at all.
If anyone in the group noticed us, they didn’t show it. The women stoked small fires and made breakfast. Children cried. Already people were in bad shape and it was still so far to Oklahoma.
“These people die,” he said. I started to say, ‘not all of them,’ but that wasn’t true. By now, they were all dead. “Hmm.”
That night, when he settled in on top of me, he looked into my eyes and asked, “What are you thinking about? Those people at the creek?”
“No,” I lied. “I was thinking about your mother searching for you and your brother during the war and finally finding you, sickly prisoners of the British. I was thinking about you walking behind her and her up on the horse, trying to keep your brother upright and alive. I was thinking about her having to choose one son to try to save and leaving one son to luck or fate or whatever. I was thinking about her watching your brother die and her knowing she invested too much energy in saving the wrong son. I wonder how she lived with that. I wonder what it did to you to live through it. Andrew, I was just wondering if you’ve ever done anything in your whole life that wasn’t done to you. And I wonder, I can’t help but wonder, if it ever helped.”
“I don’t understand,” he whispered, but the quiver in his voice told me he might.
“Was there any time you shot someone that made you feel better about being shot?” I ran my fingers through his long, soft, silvery hair. “Did anything you’ve done ever bring you peace?”
He didn’t answer me, which was probably for the best. I’m not sure I could have lived with any answer he would have given.
Even now, sometimes, I wake up sure I feel the weight of him on me and it makes me sad and relieved in equal measure to find myself alone.
I liked them both. I think you need to add the second one to the next edition of City of Ghosts.
Oh, I like them both! And it makes me realize how much I miss your stories-I’m going to have to re-read City of Ghosts.
Yay! I also like them both, for different reasons. And I second rheather: I miss your stories.
Thank you for these, ma’am. Thank you so much.
::wipes away more tears after rereading the first story::
I always wanted to fix you up with the General, by the way, except for precisely the reasons you outline here.