A Good Night in the Neighborhood

Alyce Lomax

            The devil’s sitting at the head of the table tonight, relaxing with his family around, well, somewhere around. He can hear them clomping and stomping and tripping, doors slamming, chaos reigning.

He’s enjoying his post-breakfast tea — he says to no one in particular, “This is some fine Earl Gray! Just as I like it, with lots of cream and sugar!” — but it’s really coffee, black as can be. He’s had a hard day because it was so easy, he’s had such a bad day because it was so good.

                There had been no one to play with today, nobody all that entertaining anyway. The sunshine had been relentlessly monotonous with its damnable disinfecting, sanitizing nonsense going on. Despair hadn’t been too high on anybody’s day planner.

                Finally an errant family member stumbles through the kitchen, it’s his daughter, the devil asks about her day, and she says, “It was fine, it was a fine day!” There are dark circles under her eyes, her eyes are black holes where matter and mattering disappear into senseless nothingness, but she smiles feverishly, nodding emphatically. She takes away his dish with the maggot-ridden meat and the moldy crumbs, special colors and the joy of the unpleasant unexpected, stumbling because of her leg, it’s got some kind of flesh-eating bacteria or it’s just some nothing much to worry about, who cares; the devil’s so very gratified to hear her say everything’s fine. This is an exciting development in what has so far been an otherwise nondescript day. “I think I’ll go out for a run,” his daughter screeches like rusty hinges threatening to break down, come unhinged; she tosses the plate into the sink to clatter against the others. “I think I’ll run and run and run. Run some people over, play gin rummy, everything all runny, red rum, runny rum…”

                “Oh, you do that, my dear, aren’t you daddy’s little angel,” he says, his smoke-roughened voice coated with sticky approval. It never hurts to hurry things along. He recently stole her the best running shoes money can buy, so why not put them to good use? He doesn’t mention the leg issue, just lets it fester there like all true things left unacknowledged.

                The possibilities are enticing! Although all-out battles are far more gratifying, current events electrified with hate and misunderstanding (they’re just a bit harder to orchestrate), a hospital trip would do in a pinch, blessed hospitality from the humdrum, respite from the spiteful peace and quiet. The emergency lights are always so beautiful splitting the darkness, oh the ambulatory ambulance signaling some great tragedy, some awful crisis emergency, and there’s so much excitement, excitement, oh bloody hell, so much excitement in the hospital ER. It’s a full moon, too, so the night just might swell with waxing, infesting, infectious events.

The devil loves ER logs. The wife-beat victims, they always come back for more, and nobody understands why. Fascinating! The occasional gun shot victim, all the better if somebody says of the shooter, “I don’t know what got into him, he didn’t seem like he could hurt a fly much less fire a gun!” Enthralling! And of course there are his personal heroes, the droves and drones of crazy, fucked up drunks (how he loves delirium tremors, that’s a pink elephant, is that the devil I see? And he will say, “No, no, that’s so silly!” and flash his charming, luminous smile and the doctors will smile at him apologetically about such hallucinatory insults and he’ll shrug, so modest, so infinite in his understanding, whatever, aren’t people so funny, so strange and lost sometimes). 

                For the devil, a hospital trip is like going to the mall, such a stunning array of disease and shock and fear and despair to choose from.

                “Yes,” he says to his daughter, “you should go for a run! Healthiness first, I always say!”

                The devil’s wife staggers into the kitchen, tripping a trance-like gait, she barely steps over the family dog, which is resting so peacefully with belabored, shallow breaths and occasional whimpering, but he’s just dreaming. “They said we should put him to sleep,” she says, all hollow, staggering to the fridge to peer at the fetid contents within, shutting the door again to keep the warm in.

                “Oh nonsense!” the devil bellows. “I think he can make it through! Why are you so negative sometimes?”

                “Oh yes, negative,” she replies. “I should be more positive. Positive thinking, that’s the charm!” She shakes her head a little, blinks, then adds, “But the vet said we shouldn’t let him suffer…”

                “The vet’s so negative too, and just a mite nuts I might add, to ignore nature like he does,” the devil says, noisily slurping his pennyroyal tea. “This is the best oolong I’ve ever had.”

                “Oolong, aren’t you funny,” his wife replies absently. “And of course you know best.”

                “Of course I do!” he replies, smacking his hands together and rubbing them like he’s about to roll some dice, preying for snake eyes.

                The doorbell rings. “Oh God,” the devil says, “that’s probably that goofy neighbor lady who complains about the trash piling up in the back yard and how it might attract vermin, whines about the smells coming from the shed, gets all high and mighty what is it what is it, ‘concerns me’ this, ‘property values’ that, asks all those infernal questions, questions, questions…”

                “As if it’s any of her business that our daughter tries to break into her house once in a while,” his wife says, finally animated by affrontery. “I can’t even believe she said last month that we should force her to take her antipsychotics. Damn busybody. Does she understand how anybody else feels? What an awful, non-empathetic woman.”

                “I’ll just tell her the front yard looks perfect so what’s the big deal,” the devil says, heaving a sigh, rolling his eyes. “Damn woman goes to church every week, wakes me up when she starts her car, you’d think she’d have heard of judge not lest ye be judged.” He giggles. “Really, it is very funny, isn’t it.”

                “I should bake her a pie, maybe that would get her off our backs,” his wife says, glancing at the counter, at the cloudy cut crystal bowl of black-rotted blackberries, elderberries in entropy. “We do have so much fruit after all.”

                “Indeed you should, that would be very nice! You’re a sweet lady. Why else would I have married you? Bake her a pie and I’ll bet she’ll forget all about whatever’s troubling her crazy head right now.” He sighs again, expansive, full of grandiose ego, infinite understanding of the usual and predictable mechanisms of human nature. “I love it when people forget their troubles! Then they forget about all that infernal fix it what is it nonsense. Why can’t everybody just relax and roll along with things? What’s the point of all the fretting, all the infernal guilt?”

                “Let’s not open the door,” his wife intones. “Too many tiresome questions.”

                But it’s too late, their daughter has opened the door; she had that plan for her moonlight run, shod in her brand-new designer running shoes below that festering disease dripping and eating away at her limb. “Hell-o!” she exclaims. “I’m going for a run!” She has forgotten to change out of the tattered skirt she was wearing earlier, her stained tank top drifts off her bony shoulder, but she has remembered to carefully apply full clown makeup in her customarily uncareful way.

                “Oh, she opened the door,” the devil’s wife sighs.

                “Who’s there!” the devil shouts.

                “It’s Abigail,” a voice says from the front of the house.

                “Abigal who?” the devil bellows, banging his empty cup down on the table where it meets with rotten wooden reality and splinters, sharp shards flying perfectly everywhere to lodge in blissfully unaware bare feet and paws later.

                “Your neighbor Abigail, that’s who, you know perfectly well who I am, Mr. Smith!”

                “She sounds so exasperated, what’s with her?” the devil whispers to his wife, giggling behind his hand. He jumps up, scurrying through the hallway to the front door, shouting merrily, “Of course, of course, of course!”

His daughter squeezes past the neighbor with a heavy, guttural grunt, her face suddenly frozen in grotesque distaste as if the neighbor’s proximity could contaminate her with something, and then stumbles and staggers down the front porch stairs and out of the gate, her emaciated arms pumping furiously as she tries to break into a pained, shambling, and utterly committed half-run. 

“I’m so sorry Abigail, do come in! You know how terrible my memory is! Vietnam, you know, My Lai and all that, not that I remember much at all, and it was all for the good of this God-fearing country.” The devil laughs gaily from his gut, pointing to his temple. “A little scrambled up here, you know, I forget things! I’ve had a difficult day!”

“You should stop her, you know,” Abigail says, still standing on the other side of the threshold, jerking her thumb behind her at his daughter, who was managing a shockingly fast pace despite that one dysfunctioning limb beneath her. “Not only is she going to terrorize the neighborhood but she’s also looking a little worse for the wear, Mr. Smith, her leg looks like there’s seriously something wrong with it –“

“Nonsense, she’s doing great, look at her go! A run will do her good. Run out all that exuberant energy she has! Run all that poison right out of her!”

“Run out all that exuberant energy when she steals a car or something, you mean?”

“Please stop standing there like that,” the devil implores, “for goodness’ sake. We have been enjoying some tea, would you like some? Maybe it’ll take your mind off some of these unpleasant things you say sometimes.” His voice drips with sickly sweet pity.

Abigail peers beyond him and shakes her head slowly. Her hand is dug deep in the pocket of a voluminously sturdy and secure cardigan, the devil knows what she’s worrying on, he knows that she’s afraid. “We’ve had so many misunderstandings,” she says, slowly. “I spoke to my parish priest about these problems, that I have a difficult neighbor. That I can’t understand…”

The devil smiles in infinitely amused understanding. “Of course you can’t understand, but I wouldn’t ever judge you for that!” he exclaims.

“My priest says I should invite you to church,” she says with a deep breath to power up the shaken conviction. “That it would be the neighborly thing to do.”

“Ah yes, love thy neighbor as yourself,” the devil says, “and all that jazz. Well unfortunately I am always far too tired to go to church, as much as I would enjoy that.”

“Enjoy it? Now would you?” she asks, one eyebrow raised.

“Of course I would! Interesting people go to church. They’re all there for a reason! But I am a busy man. There’s so much work to do all week long. I think Jesus understands when I just can’t make it in. Jesus understands everything, so I’ve heard.”

“I don’t know, I didn’t see you as someone who liked Jesus much at all, the way you cursed the blue blazes at me last week when I was pulling out of my driveway on my way to church.”

“Oh, now, now, you can’t just forget about that? I had a positively evil hangover, I get so weighed down and downright distracted with all the troubles of the world, and I was so tired and the way your car starts so loudly in the morning… and what’s this about me not liking Jesus? Oh I like Jesus just fine. He gives me a reason to go on and on and on all right.” The devil sighs. “But you might want to ask your friend Jesus, why… why hasn’t he ever graced you with children, for example? Or why has he given me a daughter with such an affliction. Oh yes, you just might ask him.”

Abigail clears her throat. “You’re not supposed to question the ways of the Lord.” She looks a bit ashen, a bit uncertain.

“It’s the priests I find that just don’t listen, with all their thundering nonsense sometimes. Ah yes,” the devil says, clearing his throat, “I do so enjoy getting into little theological discussions with them. Who wouldn’t, who’s worth their salt? You should try it, Abigail. They’re all human, just like you. You’d be surprised at some of the things they’ve done. You should really let yourself think about who you allow to tell you what to do.”

“Mr. Smith,” Abigail says, “I think I’ll be going now. I don’t like the tone of your voice and I don’t appreciate what you’re implying. And I really don’t like that stench.”

“No, really, there are some priests out there who I enjoy more than almost anybody at all,” the devil said in thoughtful reverie.

The devil thrills to the sudden sound of screaming, howling, glass crashing in the distance, it livelies up the night sky, inversions rip the fabric of tranquility, he savors the flavor of the electric blue sound of his daughter’s rising shrieks met by confused, outraged voices rising on the wind. The devil’s offspring really is up to no good, what a perfect prototype, what an excellent nearly unstoppable force, what a narcissistically incurable, unfixable legacy to his advantage in this world; his daughter looks forward to her terrifying episodes so she can spread it far and wide, revels in the fear me, I am who I am power, takes pleasure in trespass and never looks back, infinitely unhindered by weaknesses like regret or remorse or even remembering. Plenty of people might wonder why tonight, others will turn on the TV (oh how he loved the comforting lies of advertising), open a bottle of booze (oh how he loved the comforting lies of intoxication), try to forget, try to fend off nightmares with base banality.

And where is his son? The devil doesn’t know, but he has a good feeling he’s off somewhere making some massive impression on someone as well, changing the world and burning and branding his image into it, as any proper son should.

Abigail is already scurrying down the steps. The devil calls after her, “Why don’t you ask your priest to pay me a visit? I would so enjoy that kind of visitation!” She just keeps scurrying, not looking back, heading towards her own door with its solid mechanisms, absolutely ineffective locks and bolts.

Sacerdos! The devil laughs a little. It had been a while, and these days run-ins with the cloth are usually most infinitely entertaining, there’s frequently so little investment in the vestments, simply occupations with costumes, although some part of him missed more formidable foes to play with, to try to break.  “Most don’t even believe, you know!” he shouts gaily, triumphantly, at his neighbor’s fleeing back as he slams the door with glee. He feels the excitement of conflict and confrontation on the air; it’s a good night in the neighborhood after all. 



Alyce Lomax’s fiction has appeared in Gargoyle, Menda City Review, The MacGuffin, The Summerset Review, Drunken Boat, Pindeldyboz, and many others, as well as the anthology Gravity Dancers: Even More Fiction by Washington Area Women published by Paycock Press.