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"Devil Lines," short story excerpt

Wednesday 9/22/21

Fiction to lay you the fuck out.


***

Sometimes I’ll wonder if the devil would be a good father. I picture a farmer in Iowa with a ridge behind his house. He’s up at that time of the morning that everyone else calls night, standing over the sink filling up a coffee pot as he looks out the window into the backyard, which is also where his crops start.


He sees the devil come out of a hole in the ground in the darkness, then turn to give his son a hand, pulling him up onto the earth. The devil takes care in the effort. Exudes patience. He doesn’t jerk the boy’s arm. He’s not angry at his son if he’s clumsy or slow, hasn’t yet shaken himself fully awake.


He asks him something that the farmer can’t make out from inside his house, but it’s probably “all set?” or “all good?” and they begin their day out in the world, just as the farmer begins his out in the fields.


The farmer never sees the devil and his son go back into the hole because he goes to sleep early. And that would be trying to see the devil. Whereas, in the morning, he’s making the coffee, and his eyes natural go where his eyes naturally go, and he sees what he sees.


***


My daughter called me the devil once. A friend of hers had been killed by a drunk driver when we lived in another town. She was ten-years-old. I didn’t realize when we moved that that was part of the reason. Only after. When I did realize it, I thought of my dad. I was so anxious to impress him by showing him that I could read when I was maybe six, that I’d try and remember the words that my mother had read to me from the pages of one of my books in bed.


Then I’d try to trick my mother and say I just remembered something, it was important, could I go downstairs and tell dad?


She wouldn’t always let me—my ruse was not formidable—but sometimes she would.

“Be quick about it,” she’d say, or “Hurry back.”


I almost had the feeling that she’d miss me, and I’d want to say, “I wouldn’t hurt you” and give her a hug, but that would cut into the time I had downstairs with my dad.


I’d stand beside my father’s chair with my book open to the relevant page. He’d turn down the volume on the hockey game on the TV. Then I’d recite, thinking I had done this remarkable job. I should read people’s speeches, I thought. But my dad would say that I hadn’t read at all. I’d be able to read soon. We’d read together. I had no idea how he knew, so I asked. He said my eyes weren’t on the page.


“Read the lines,” he added.


***


When I was older, when I had lived, when I had erred beyond the pale of, “well, maybe that was the right thing to do, when you factor in all the factors,” I thought of how my dad could have added, “As in books, as in life.”


***


I always think of him saying that when people try to prove to you how clever they are by mentioning the importance of reading between the lines, as if that was where life was, the answers, the meanings of mysteries.


But all of that is actually in the lines. Not the negative space between them.


***


My daughter was picked on when she started high school, and she didn’t have any friends. The one who had been hit by the car was named Martha, and she told my wife that Martha came to her at night and she told her that she was happy now. They talked. They hung out. That’s how she put it. The problem was that, yes, according to this Martha, or this Martha-after-the-fact-of-Martha, it hurt so much at first. The actual dying.


Martha would say that to my daughter each time. That was always the start of the conversation.


“Like it couldn’t be skipped,” she said.


But if you could get past how much dying actually hurt, it was worth it.


We were terrified, of course. The more she withdrew, the more I wanted to lunge across the vast abyssal plains of life and pull her closer, but my wife said that would push her further away.


She joined a Students Against Drunk Drivers group, which seemed to help some. The visiting-Martha was mentioned less, presumably because she stayed away, kept to whatever space she occupied.


That’s when I got my only DUI. The cop was actually some guy I played hockey with on this All-Star, tri-state team.


We wouldn’t have recognized each other, but he saw my license, obviously, and we got to talking about this goal we had scored once in overtime, which would have won this tournament, but the puck barely squeaked over the goal line, and the ref didn’t see it. Thirty years ago, and there we were, talking about that same game just like we did in the backseat of a different car on a ride home.


“I hate to do this to you,” he said. “Everything’s filmed now.” Then he made a joke about replay in sports, and how with said video review, we would have won that game, but where the fuck, he added, would that get you in life, and he laughed.


When my kid found out, she said, “how could you?”


I told her I was stupid. It was a horrible mistake. I was ashamed. I would work to win her forgiveness.


My wife was pretty strict about language. You weren’t allowed to swear in our house. And you couldn’t say “hate.” Not even “I hate green beans.”


So my daughter called me the devil, which wasn’t a swear, and told me she hated me as she ran off. She actually ran, which you only realize then that you don’t expect a fifteen-year-old kid to do that anymore. And my wife said that she didn’t mean it.


“Let her,” I said.


“Let her why?” my wife responded, with that frustrated look on her face that one encounters after screwing up, but maybe after taking your screw-up a little too hard. It’s her version of a “fuck that” face.


***


When I am up early, before anyone else, like the farmer I sometimes imagine, with the ridge behind his house, and the hole, I’ll think about what I’d do if there was a knock at the door. Not a ferocious knock. Not the knock of the cops that isn’t ferocious but intends to convey, “We mean business, dipshit.”


How do I describe this knock? You know it’s the knock that comes for you. You’re not just being summoned to a door. Your own door. Once an employer misreported my income to the IRS, and I got this letter saying I owed like $150,000, but not all was lost, there were payment plans that might work for me.


I think life is that way. There are payment plans that can work for you, perhaps, that have nothing to do with money. I tried to get my situation square with the government, but the error wasn’t flagged right away, or someone missed a memo, and my name must have been put on a list, because I’d get these phone calls on Friday afternoons. The messages would pile up in my voicemail, all from a woman.


“Now is the time to face your debts. I know this is stressful. Let’s take this on together. No more running. We can do this.”


Even when the issue was resolved, I still kind of wanted to call this woman and say, “hey, I was never running,” but I wouldn’t have expected her to believe me, and I wouldn’t have believed myself. Fiscal debt or no.


That’s the kind of knock I’m talking about. A knock that conveys everything I just said. I picture myself going to the door, opening it, and there is the devil. He has his kid with him, of course, and his hand, or his hoof, or whatever the hell it is, has the kid gripped partly by the neck and partly by the collar, but in the way of a firm handshake, or the positive kind of roughhousing—like when you tousle someone’s hair with your palm rather than your fingers, which can be a form of “go get ‘em today, sport,” and “your old dad loves you, tomboy daughter.”


I don’t know what to say to this guy. He’s the devil. He’s not the milkman. And it’s not 1947 anyway.


“Oh hey,” I say, slowly, like my breath is the air coming out of a balloon someone’s pinched the end of.


“What’s up, brother?” the devil says, confident.


So confident that I can’t respond, “I don’t know, you tell me, you’ve knocked on my door, I haven’t bothered you at your ground hole or whatever.”


I answer him by saying “nothing,” careful not to put it as “nothing is up,” which would make it sound like I have something to hide. We’re all good here. For some reason I want the devil to know that I’m not alone.


I think the devil wants me to realize what is happening during this interaction, as if he doesn’t like to waste words. Say lines that he does not have to. But I’m silent, so eventually the devil pushes his son forward a bit, and says, “Can you watch him for a while? I just gotta do this thing.”


He says it with that “you know how it is” tone.


I look at the kid. He seems fine. I don’t think he’ll set the house on fire. Maybe he’d actually be interested in my stamp collection.


When I was a younger man, and I didn’t have a daughter of my own, there was this family who lived in my building, with a girl who was really smart. I think she was a lot smarter than her parents. To the degree that they were unsure what to do with her. I was lonely and we talked about books in the hallway, me and this child. Sometimes we got cookies at this bakery down the street.


One day she didn’t have a place to go. Her parents were at the Cape without her. She was locked out of their apartment, and I took her all over the city. Filling the time. What one might think of as the white space between lines, but what you’re really dealing in are the lines themselves, if you know how to read them.


We were close, actually. But even still, when her parents got back at like nine that night, I sighed, was sardonic, as if I was miffed, as they unpacked the car and me and their kid had come walking up from our last stop. “I had her all day,” I said, and I said it right in front of the kid. I wanted to correct myself, but just to her, and say, “No, I didn’t mean it like that, not with you.”


We didn’t really hang out again. It could have been something else. The drift of life. But when I imagine the devil and his knock, and him standing there with his kid, I think of that time my neighbors went to the Cape, and how much their girl reminds me now of my own daughter. And I tell the devil, sure, I can do that.