The boy wanted a blue straw, but the cafe did not have a blue straw, so he compensated himself for the loss by screaming at his mother. The waitress, being a well-reared girl, reflected that her mother would have whooped these ill-manners straight out of her, not with hands, but a promise that, if she persisted, not only would she not get her straw, she’d have to find her own birthday presents.
Two booths back, a gentleman in a black hat, powder-blue formal shirt, and brown tweeds watched the scene, sipping his Coke through a red straw. His hamburger was eaten before the Madonna and child (he amused himself by calling them) were even visible in the cafe’s forecourt. Since then, he had picked off his chips one by one, bloodying their prostrate bodies with a red blob at plate’s edge. Two brave little fellows; shards, really; remained.
‘Calm down, Tommy, please, or I’ll, I’ll…’ You’ll what, thought the waitress, discreetly shifting herself away from the scene. Once the pivot was complete, she saw one blue straw in a spray of reds, yellows, and greens, in the cup on the counter where they were kept. The cup she had checked three times for the little brat.
She turned, insanely hoping for an answer among the customers, and caught the creep in the black-hat winking at her. She ignored this, and debated whether to give the brat the straw. She was annoyed by his behaviour and took a sadistic thrill in his impotent rage. She plucked the straw from the cup and presented it to him, not expecting any gratitude, and not surprised when the mother berated her for not finding it the first three times. Dumb bitch, she thought as she walked back to the counter, I bet his daddy doesn’t treat you any better.
Still, it was strange she hadn’t found it before. The third time she checked she rolled out and lined up the straws, examining each like soldiers at inspection. Maybe the manager, hearing the commotion from his office, took a straw from his glass and put it there. No, she thought, he rarely ventured far from his office, preferring to sit drinking iced tea and watching his portable TV all day.
It was probably the cook, she concluded, picturing the grease-flecked local boy wiping his hands on his apron and taking the straw from a cupboard supply. The brat’s drink was ordered after his ham sandwich and ice-cream. Soon he and his mother would leave, a prospect the waitress enjoyed while leant against the counter, fiddling with her badge. She didn’t look forward to a tip, as tolerant and submissive as she had been. The creep in the black hat, she noticed, was finally gone.
He leant beside the diner’s front door. The Madonna and child left, she trying to grip his rebellious paw while guiding them both down the steps. The man sensed the woman’s rage, bottled up and hidden in a windowless cellar. ‘They are a handful, aren’t they?’ he said when they’d reached the forecourt. The boy glanced at and paid him no more attention. He was just another grown-up spoiling his day.
‘Excuse me?’ said the mother. ‘I said they’re a handful, aren’t they? Children, I mean.’ She wondered if he was a Jehovah’s Witness or some nonsense like that. Didn’t they normally knock on people’s front doors, though? ‘I don’t know about yours, mister, but mine is just fine’ she replied as the boy twisted her wrist, impatient to be home. ‘Oh, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to offend you or anything. We get very protective of our own, don’t we? I know if some slick fellow said something about my kid, well, I’d be pretty riled too. Honestly, though, I just wanted to express my sympathy, one parent to another…’
‘Mum…’ said the boy, dragging the vowel. The woman sighed and looked at her feet. ‘In fact’ he continued, ignoring the boy, ‘not long ago I wished I could just reach into my kids’ mean little minds and twist. Twist until they learned their manners…’ As he said the last four words the boy stopped protesting and grimaced. He sensed what seemed like the beginnings of a headache. ‘Mum?’ he said, more tentatively. The woman finally made eye contact with the man, letting her son’s hand fall. He was a handsome forty-something, lines etched from the corners of his eyes with delicate precision. In his youth, she supposed, he was a student athlete.
‘Who are you?’ she asked. ‘James McPhee’ he replied, ‘and I wouldn’t be much of a man if I didn’t confess I’m a salesman. Don’t worry, though, I’m not a cowboy. At least not professionally…’ He winked. He pulled what looked like a poker chip from his shirt pocket, took her hand and placed it there. She looked at it. It was leather, brown, somewhat scuffed, and featured a ram’s head etched in black. The boy was now half-consciously rubbing his temples. Normally, he would have screamed and cried, demanding instant relief; he was silent now for a reason he knew but didn’t understand.
‘By gifting you this token I grant you some of my power, but be aware that I can revoke it at any time, from anywhere in the world. The power is in the token, my lady-friend, and whenever you need your little treasure to shine less brightly, wrap your hand around it and think of me. But only until he learns; think too long and his head might explode!’
The boy stared at the man with animal hate, then glanced at his mother with fear. She knew the token’s price without needing to be told; what the salesman wanted was in his eyes.
Darkness swept Jerusalem, and the salesman slept well. Some desert church had been violated, its crucifix splintered against the stone altar, the beams tearing like limbs from a body on the rack.
On the salesman’s bedside table a newspaper lay, its front page proclaiming the murder/suicide of a rock musician against his three band-mates, all friends since childhood. He had known the band for a brief period two years ago when, appearing on their tour bus as a manager from their studio, begun to sow the seeds of envy and impatience between their singer/songwriter, Mitchell Harris, and his peers. His most significant conversation with Harris happened behind a curtain at the bus’ rear window, while the others lolled limp and blank in their chairs, as though practicing how they would eventually be found.
‘I don’t like clichés, Mitch, but these wasters really are holding you back.’
‘I don’t know, man, I’ve known most of them since primary school…’
‘Most of them. What about that loser you’ve got on the drums? Didn’t you meet him later, in high school, and isn’t the only reason his greedy, talentless backside’s here is because he once sold your bass player dope?’ Mitchell, a seemingly skinny but muscular young man with long, curly hair, who now wore a stained sleeveless basketball vest, plucked a guitar string and stared at nothing.
‘You guess? Come on, Mitch, we’ve known each other six months now, and in that time I’ve bothered to learn more about you than any of the mugs out there. These guys are your friends, I get that, and you don’t want to be disloyal because you’re a good man. But you’re also an artist, Mitch, and sometimes an artist needs to be ruthless, to choose between his friends and his music. Do you want to be just another dead-eyed waster like the dopes beyond that curtain? Or do you want to be great?’
Harris leaned his guitar against a chest of drawers, gentle as a mother arranging her son in his cot. He looked in the manager’s eyes, seeing a rock music acolyte whose time at the sides of the greats had taught him a lot about the business, who were the winners and who were the losers. ‘So how do I become great?’ he asked. The manager smiled, and took from his jacket what looked like a scuffed leather poker chip…
The salesman smiled in his sleep, snatches of memory from his days on tour as a roadie mingling with the images of destruction in the desert church, like a nightmare-slideshow. Discarding his guitar picks Harris used the chip the manager gave him, enthralling conspiracy theorists whose eyes caught the ram’s head as it dictated the music. The band, initially intent on making a cover album to replenish their bank accounts and give them more free time (time they would otherwise have to spend waiting for Harris’ muse), grew progressively submissive as the tour wore on.
After two years they were slaves as much to the ram’s head pick as they were to the dope, the money, or the women. Occasionally, however, the salesman let Hell boil over, sometimes to claim a few more souls for his quota, sometimes just for his own amusement. The murders happened when Harris locked himself and his band-mates in a sound-room to rehearse. The drummer hadn’t burned out, as the salesman predicted, but persisted long enough to herald his end with this question: ‘can’t we just play some Led Zeppelin and get out of here? I mean, I like your stuff, Mitch, but there’s no way it sounds like “Stairway to Heaven”, and a good cover of that could get us places.’
This rebellion, a momentary lifting of the veil between band and pick, orchestrated by the demon several hundred miles away in yet another hotel room, spurred Harris to take the bassist’s guitar. He fondled it for a moment, then raised and swung it like an axe at the drummer’s crown, splitting the latter like a ripe cantaloupe. Blood divided the dying man’s face like Indian war paint, and he fell to his knees, a child-like protest on his lips. Harris’ two other band-mates, stunned by the violence, signed their warrants with blank stares. As Harris ripped the guitar from the wound, an axe from a felled tree, a passing producer heard him scream: ‘does that sound like “Stairway to Heaven”, you cunt?!’
Not that Mitch ever was very talented. The salesman, a lover of Dante (his poetry, not his liquor-handling, which having drunk with him he considered sub-par), almost cringed when he had to listen to the creative process that produced lines like these:
“I hate mum
And I hate dad,
Society’s what made me mad.
I kill ‘cause love tore me apart,
Now I’ve got no beating heart!
I hope I die before I wake,
Not for mine but
FOR GOD’S SAKE!”
The salesman had little concept of what “God” truly was. He called Him Yahweh to mortalise him a little, make him a creature of senses and time. Contemplating what humans called the divine was the only thing which made him even slightly nervous. He didn’t fear Satan, that bumbling micro-manager, carving “targets” in hunks of brimstone like a prisoner calculating his internment, as if things like computers or, Christ, he thought, just notepads and pens, were only for mortals. Those targets were nonsense, anyway. What mattered was the quality of the souls accrued, not the quantity.
Souls like Mitchell Harris’ were just filler, sawdust for stuffing his quota. If Yahweh made him nervous, then that man-child would be made humbler than Ruth and the two Marys combined. The salesman thought this as he stood by the stage at Glastonbury, wearing a faded denim jacket-and-jeans, black-and-white dragon tee, and lank shoulder-length hair, curled and stringy like flaccid dreadlocks.
Once upon a time he had worn a sackcloth robe and stood among the poor of Babylon. His feet were unshod, and so he joined the ranks of those too impoverished to afford even sandals. In return for their company he gave them little stone idols, beyond crude (he was no artist), but just about resembling naked women with pubic hair stylised to seem like goats’ horns, terminating sharply to the left and right of their pelvises. When the time came to kneel before Babylon’s new golden idols, arranged by order of King Nebuchadnezzar, the peasants so gifted clutched their idols, a few with such ferocity the breasts almost caved in. And thus they were led by a false light into a false kingdom, falser even than Babylon. The false light of a shallow charisma guided their feet, though to outside eyes they appeared to be kneeling. Some, not yet arrogant enough to deny their instincts, turned back, dropping their idols onto the sand. Most kept walking.
He sat in one of Hell’s many waiting rooms (“sat” is a relative term, given the relative nature of the life beyond life). Sometimes portions of the wall shifted to resemble a human face which appeared to be screaming, though no sound emerged. The light in the room had no discernible source but was weak and flickering, as it was everywhere, like a broken strip-light in an abandoned hospital. Everything about Hell was tidy; organised; clinical. The demons, who perceived each other not as dimensional bodies but as thoughts, floated here and there in an action akin to a human fussing in its seat. When a human face appeared within sight of one it took the form of a half-man, half-goat, with blood-red skin, horns, and hooves. In this way, the demons were like playground bullies, easily and eagerly frightening the younger children.
The salesman avoided the game, not out of mercy but weariness. He’d been waiting six hundred years to be called for by the boss. By the time Satan’s secretary (an attractive thought if ever there was one, the salesman considered) tapped the inverted brimstone cross by her desk three times, Mitchell Harris, his band, and his music had long since vanished from the minds of men. The salesman didn’t recognise him as any of the faces that appeared in the Wailing Walls (so dubbed by the mocking demons). Maybe his soul had finally been cleansed.
The brimstone cross combusted. The salesman had been summoned. He left the thoughts of his fellows like a forgotten chore, and entered those of his boss as a promising idea. Satan presented himself as a fifty foot, anthropomorphic timber-wolf, whose right paw grasped the enlarged decapitated head of Mitchell Harris.
‘Impressed, Venditabant?’ Satan asked.
‘Mightily, my lord’ Venditabant lied.
‘I plan to appear at a moonlight vigil for this rock star of yours, about four-hundred years ago.’
‘Really?’ Venditabant said, ‘I’m surprised he lingered in the mortal eye for two centuries, let alone stayed renowned.’
Satan dropped the veil and appeared as a thought. Venditabant winced. He suddenly had a headache. ‘Oh yes’ Satan said, ‘but only among stupid teenagers and teenagers-at-heart. The disenfranchised are always the most easily led. You know, when I received his soul’ – here the singer’s head appeared again and was rolled towards a pile of human and rat skulls (an abstract sculpture by Satan which he called ‘Man’s Insignificance’; if a thought can roll its eyes, this is what Venditabant did when he first saw it) – ‘I almost reprimanded you for sacrificing quality for quantity, but really I shouldn’t have been pushing you so hard. You can’t always send monks and nuns down the pipeline.’ This is the closest Satan would ever come to an apology for a bad idea. The brimstone scoreboards were gone, Venditabant noticed.
‘And besides, this idiot’s soul has proven itself very useful, so much so I’ve developed quite a fondness for it. Not enough to prevent my inflicting a little recreational torture from time to time, of course, but fondness nonetheless.’
‘It’s still here, then? It wasn’t one of the last batch that was redeemed?’
Satan bristled. He didn’t like being reminded of the redemptions. Every few thousand years Yahweh would send some of his thugs down to perform a harrowing, where the souls considered punished enough were rounded up. Stolen, as Satan put it. ‘Definitely not’, he said. ‘This one’s a real bastard, believe it or not. For all his ignorance, he’s a narcissist at heart. You know what he saw when I showed him the ideal End. He saw what everyone sees: men, women, and children bodily degraded beyond imagination, and like so many he kept walking, expecting a place away from the degradation for his callousness. The soul embodied in that head over there hasn’t changed one iota in six hundred years. The divine compassion will not take root. The soil is too spoiled.’
Venditabant wasn’t surprised. ‘Which leads me nicely onto why I summoned you, Vinny. There’s another soul you tried to accrue for me, a daughter of Eve who couldn’t control her Cain. I remember you dressed yourself as something akin to the Marlboro Man to seduce her.’
‘Has she not succumbed? I haven’t thought about her in centuries.’
‘Evidently. She emerged from her spiritual torpor just as the child was entering its first year of big boy school. She cast her chip into the fire, and now, instead of using our fine services, she’s decided not to spare the rod.’
Good on her, Venditabant thought. ‘You summoned me for the sake of one woman’s soul. Why do you want it so badly?’
‘While I may not be holding you to your targets, Vinny, I do still keep track, and this is the only soul handled by you, in the last millennial quarter, which hasn’t been delivered. Think of your ego, man. Do you really want to be remembering her in eighty years as “the one that got away”?’
Venditabant could see his point. If a thought can sigh, he sighed. If he was the Marlboro Man last time, this time he’d have to be three Casanovas.