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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Paid In Full, Mike Tager

After my wife died, I knew I had to return; I don’t like to leave debts.

When I got to the crossroads, I parked my jalopy on the shoulder of the road. I shuffled off the road, where there was a scattering of chipped, beaten down rocks (they might have been boulders in a prior life) and settled my bones on the largest. I turned my head to the sun, closed my eyes and enjoyed the steady, browning heat while I turned my wedding band. When I opened my eyes, I got a good view of where I was and felt a rushing sensation in my gut.

The crossroads were just four plain country roads that once were nothing but expanded dirt trails. Now they were plainly paved and showed very little signs of use or travel. One could drive in any direction for miles before ever coming near another car. I had been here last when dust flew up in every direction as I drove down the road. There had been no road signs like there were now; going faster than a horse could run would have been crazy- there was little visibility and the buckles and the dips in the road would have destroyed any car.

Around the crossroads were fields of grass, weeds, small trees and wildflowers. Here and there burst the occasional stalk of errant corn or wheat. Small rodents and songbirds twittered in the brush and a few deer drifted in and out of sight. There were more scattered rock formations and an old, gutted shack in the distance near the tree line. The wind bent the grass down to the ground and filled the air with dancing pollen and leaves. The shack had been a brightly painted blue cottage with a dark red Lincoln that rested in the yard; the field had been a well maintained subsistence farm, but that was before.

I sat there for a few minutes, waiting for the sun to fade and pulled out my pipe and tobacco. I filled and lit it carefully with a match I struck against my fingernail, smiling when the match caught. I puffed contentedly, gazing at the horizon: the purples and blues and pinks that filled the sky as wispy white clouds raced. I hummed as I puffed away and scratched my head as I wondered when the last time I had seen a sunset. When darkness came, I still had not remembered.

“I was wondering if you were going to show,” the Devil said from over my shoulder. I didn’t answer right away, but finished my pipe and carefully tapped out the ashes before tucking it away in the red-checkered rag that had once been a picnic blanket.

I turned to face the Devil. Our eyes met and I felt my eyes widen against my will. “I forgot about your eyes,” I said. They glowed and swirled and shone and sparkled. The purple of crushed velvet, the blue of a morning sky, the green of a four-leaf clover. There was sunflower yellow, crimson and deepest royal black in those eyes. All the colors of the world shone bright. I shuddered under their gaze and turned away. The Devil laughed, not unkindly.

“The eyes are windows, Gary. The eyes are windows,” the Devil laughed again and stepped closer. The Devil motioned to the spot next to me. “Mind if I sit down?”

“Make yourself at home,” I said, making a bit of space.

The Devil sat down and carefully spread her plain white work dress. She made herself comfortable, tossing her long, auburn hair behind her and putting her small white palms behind her for support. She was slim and boyishly built with smooth, tanned skin. She smiled at me as she settled: she had a dimple in her left cheek.

“It’s been awhile, Gary. You look well. Old as dirt, but well,” the Devil said, laughing. I joined her; she had a pure, throaty laugh that bordered between childishly endearing and coquettish.

“I suppose it has, um … what do I call you? I don’t recall that you gave me a name last time.”

“You can call me Satan, if you want.”

“I don’t, really. You look like a Claire. Or a Deborah. Not Satan.”

“So call me Claire. Or Deborah. I don’t care, really. I’ve been called many things.”

I studied her for a few moments before nodding. I ran my hand through my white beard and scratched in thought. “How about Lucy?”

She giggled and nodded. “That’s good. I like that.” Still chuckling, she dug into the pocket of her dress, and pulled out two wrapped cigars. She handed one to me and lifted the other to her lips. She bit off the end with dainty, irregular white teeth.

We lit our cigars and sighed. We didn’t talk much, some idle chitchat about the weather. With the sun set, the temperature dropped a few degrees and the wind picked up. I started shivering despite my cracked brown leather jacket and baseball cap. I went to the car and got out a blanket and a pile of photo albums. I handed Lucy the books, threw the blanket around my shoulders and sat facing her.

“You comfortable, Gary?”

“It’ll serve. You’re not cold?” She gave me a disparaging look, the kind that said, Are you retarded?

“I don’t get cold, Gary.”

“I forget. I shouldn’t, I know. You look exactly the same as you did fifty years ago.”

She didn’t answer directly, just opened the first book and starting flipping through the pages. She raced right through my young days and stopped when she reached my 21st year. She held up one picture and, despite the lack of light, I was able to see perfectly. It was me the day before I met her: I was tall and rail-thin with a mop of unruly red hair. I was wearing jeans and a white t-shirt and a jauntily placed leather cap. I was holding the keys to my first car. “Who were you smiling at in this picture, Gary?”


“Ah.” She tossed the book down to the ground and picked up the next. She lingered a little more on the pictures here, but was still racing through, like she had a deadline. When she came to the day I took my son home from the hospital, she gave a little squeal. “That’s adorable, Gary. He looks like a little … little piglet or something.”

“I know. That’s Max. We named him after Emily’s father.”

“Maximillian Fredrickson?” she asked. When I nodded, she continued, “Yeah, I know him. Bald and heavy-set? Liked Schlitz?” When I nodded, she laughed and licked her lips. “Liked real estate and the early works of Buddy Holly. Kind

of smoky, subtle …” She looked back. She got to my twin daughters’ birth and held up the picture of me holding them. “You look great, here, Gary.” I thought I looked bald and kind of fat, but I thanked her.

“Their names are Jennifer and Patricia.”

“Named after anyone?”

“Nah, we just liked the names.”

“I’m partial to Patricia, too. I met one around the turn of the century. Honey porridge.” She finished the second book and took up the last. These she went through very quickly. The album was of our retirement; trips to Mexico and Japan; scuba-diving and sailing; a road-trip to the Grand Canyon and dinner with the former First Lady. One picture made her laugh and she showed it to me. It was a picture of me and a young man at a heavy metal concert. We were making devil horns with our hands and sticking our tongues out. She cocked one eyebrow.

“My grandson wanted to go to some show when we visited him in London. His parents hate that stuff. So what the heck?” She threw her head back and laughed. “I actually liked it. Good energy.” I puffed on my cigar and watched as Lucy turned back to the pictures.

I sighed and turned away from the Devil. In the full dark, I couldn’t make out the ruins of the shack and I knew that the Lincoln was only a memory, but I could see them in my mind. I could see Emily and I driving down Mulberry Lane, as the East-bound road was called back then. We were driving and Emily was laughing, her tiny feet sticking out of her dress as she leaned back in the chair and rested them out the window. I had just bought my first car, a little Ford truck that I got from my uncle for five hundred dollars. We were driving slow, talking about nothing and idly holding hands, talking about what we would do when. When we moved; when we got married; when we had kids. When, when, when. The sun was setting behind us.

We should have stopped at the crossroads, but I was confident that nothing could happen. The day was too perfect and Emily was too beautiful. She had laid down and put her head in my lap as we talked about the future. Her long brown hair was spread and she looked like angelic. I was looking at her and talking as we moved slowly towards the crossroads. I didn’t slow and the Lincoln came at us in a screeching, howling tear of metal.

I snapped out of the past to see the Devil looking at me with her multicolored eyes. “Thinking about before, huh?”

“Kind of.”

“You regret it, Gary?” Lucy looked at me as I remembered.


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