Available at Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com
From Soft on the Devil:
September turned into October and St. Henry got cold. If you’ve never lived in the Midwest, our summers are super-hot and our winters are super-cold, and the temperate seasons of Spring and Fall don’t seem to last more than a few weeks. I try to make the most of Fall by doing outdoor stuff like hiking or walking around one of the parks in town, chilling with a book on the patio of the coffee shop by my work, or going to one of my old high school’s football games. Soccer’s my favorite sport but I like those games, it feels good to support their team, and I get to see my teachers and occasionally my old friends.
A week into October, I went to see Meremac South vs. Concordia Academy, a team we usually beat pretty bad. I sat next to my history teacher, Mr. Samuelson. “What’s up, sir? How are classes this year?”
He squinted at me beneath his bushy caterpillar eyebrows. “Ian Phillips. Nice to see you again, young man. Classes are fine. The students… don’t change very much.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“Neither. Both,” he laughed. “I don’t know. I have just as many slackers as I had when you were enrolled here. I can’t remember, were you a good student?”
“You gave me a B-. I think you were being generous.”
“What was your term paper on?”
“The Civil Rights Movement, tied to the necessity for compassionate politics in present day America.”
“There’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one,” he laughed. “You might as well extol the benefits of waging peaceful wars.”
“Speaking of politics, what’s going on with those fraud charges?” I asked. “I saw something about it on the news back in June, but haven’t heard anything since.”
“Hey, I just work here,” he said, turning up his palms. “I’m happy to have this job. Plenty of teachers like me have gotten the boot to make room for kids like you.”
“Twenty-four isn’t a kid. I wish it was, my parents might still give me gas money.”
“How are they doing?”
“You’ll have to ask them. See you later, Mr. Samuelson.”
Standing in line at the concession stand to get a pretzel before kickoff, I recognized the girl beside me from back in the day. She’d gone to one of the other Meremac schools, North or East, I couldn’t remember. I thought her name was Amy. “Hey, it’s Amy, right?”
She turned quickly, her reddish-brown hair whipping the front of her face. “Yes! Hi, and you are?”
“Ian. I used to go here, I graduated in 2011, the same year as you. We had some friends in common I think.”
“Sorry, I don’t know you.”
“Like I said, we had some friends in common. You went to Meremac North, right?”
“How’d you know that?” she asked suspiciously.
“We saw each other at parties and stuff. We even talked a few times. Ian Phillips. You honestly don’t remember me?”
“No, I honestly don’t, and I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t bother me again.”
“Sorry, Amy, I had no idea I was bothering you. I was just trying to be nice. I won’t speak to you again.”
We waited in line for another two minutes or so, side by side, extremely awkward. She stepped up to the counter and ordered a hotdog and Diet Sprite, which was a relief since I half-expected her to ask the concessions guy to call security. I stepped up to the counter as she was getting her change, and started to order a Diet Sprite too, because that’s what I always drink, but stopped in the middle of the word “diet” for fear she’d accuse me of being some kind of soda-order-mimicking-stalker or some bizarre thing. “Di… et Pepsi,” I said, “and a pretzel with light butter, please.” Amy walked away with her food. After getting mine I went to sit on the upper bleachers where it wasn’t too crowded.
The game was closer than I’d expected, with Concor-dia coming back strong in the second half. A field goal in the final minute put them in tying range with thirty-four points to Meremac’s forty-one. Our defensive line held like a brick wall, though, and my alma mater brought home the win. On the way to my car I saw one of my old friends, Claire Hendel, talking to Amy as they walked toward the parking lot. “Hey, Claire,” I yelled, running up and giving her a big bear hug, picking her up and spinning her around. “It’s so good to see you!”
“Ian,” she laughed, “put me down, you lunatic! How are you? Why don’t you come to The Haus anymore?”
“Why, so I can get wasted and crash my car? I just wanted to say hello,” I looked at Amy behind her, “since we were such good friends back in the day. It’s great to know we all still love and respect each other, isn’t it?”
“Let’s get coffee sometime, the three of us. You know Amy, right?”
“I do know Amy. Hi, Amy,” I waved.
She nodded silently.
“Take care you guys.”
About this time last year I started noticing symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder creeping into my daily routine. When I woke up each day I felt obligated to perform my morning activities in the same specific order. I’d wake up, use the bathroom, wash my hands, brew my cup of coffee, fix breakfast, take a shower, brush my teeth, apply deodorant, and get dressed. If I started brewing coffee before going to the bathroom, or putting on deodorant before brushing my teeth, I’d be forced by an irresistible compulsion to stop what I was doing and return to the normal order. One day I forgot to brush my teeth and apply deodorant before heading to work. I didn’t realize it until after I’d arrived and clocked in, and all of a sudden it was like a door slammed shut, locking me in an airtight room. I couldn’t breathe or talk or think straight. Walking out from behind the café counter and back out of the store, I got in my car and started driving home to brush my teeth and put on deodorant, but made a U-turn around the circle and parked again, realizing they might fire me for bailing on them like that.
Other weird stuff started happening at about this time, not only psychological stuff but also strange occurrences involving people I knew, and events in the world. I had more bad dreams about Cindy showing up at my apartment and jumping out of shadows. Some-times I’d think I saw her from a distance while I was awake, catch a glimpse of her rounding a corner, or looking out a window, or leaning against a building far away. The people in my apartment complex gave me weirder vibes than usual, too. That guy, Gary, who I chatted with on occasion, started saying scary stuff about the people he called, “the powers.” He meant the government, the rich, the people on tv and in the news, and he’d talk like they were the enemy, saying things like, “America won’t last much longer,” or, “Someone better stand up to the powers real soon.” It might not sound scary when I say it, but the way Gary said it felt like something horrible was going to happen. And he wasn’t the only one, I sensed a dark, lurking anger all over town.
This was around Thanksgiving of last year, ironically. I remember thinking, if every city is feeling like St. Henry’s been feeling, maybe America really isn’t going to last much longer. I kept on waking up, driving to work, and reading the Bible at night, which helped me to not worry so much. I knew that the only true power is God power. The devil can lead people astray from time to time and cause a fair amount of trouble, but at the end of the day it’s still the Lord’s world, and Christ alone is sovereign here. I switched from reading Jeremiah and the Prophets at night to reading the Gospels, to coincide with the holidays coming up. Having Christmas around the corner helped also, not just me but everyone.
I saw the dark-haired lady, Mrs. Romero-Newstead, parked outside my work a few more times, just sitting and staring. I didn’t go up and talk to her again in case she’d tell her husband a man at EarthWay was hassling her, and then I might have two groups of thugs to be paranoid about. With the amount of money Mr. Newstead had you’d be able to order any kind of malevolent treatment you could imagine—not that he would, necessarily. He may have been a perfectly nice and gentle person, I’m just saying what he could have done.
I saw Amy again around Thanksgiving, the week after in fact. My old buddy, Scott, showed up at EarthWay to meet Claire for lunch one day. Almost a year had passed since the last time I’d seen him, and he looked healthier than I remembered him, brighter, like an actor in the final shot of one of those prescription drug commercials. Vera let me have a five-minute break to catch up with him. I told him he looked good, like he was doing well and all that, and he said he’d given up booze and smoking and had started doing yoga, which had helped his aura considerably. He said he’d been working for his uncle’s real estate company and had scored big on a couple good sales over the summer, and he’d leased a condo for the following year out here in the county, in Marine Echoes, a pretty affluent part of town. He asked if I wanted to stop by that Friday for a dinner party he was hosting, with a few people from school and some other friends of his. I said sure.
The wine section of my store was having a sale on Cabernet Sauvignon, so I picked up a bottle to bring to the party. It was between that and the Pinot Grigio, but the description on the label swayed me. I have a bottle of the same wine right here. “This selection offers a quintessential incarnation, complex in character with an inky hue, flavors of cherry, eucalyptus, and black plum.” The condo Scott was leasing turned out to be right next to the lake, less than a hundred yards from the water. Most of the leaves had fallen off the trees by then so you could see the reflection of the distant windows and passing headlights on the surface of the water. The humming of voices and deep rhythm of a jazz record escaped through the windows and walls as I climbed the steps. No one answered when I knocked so I turned the knob and entered. Crowded room, twenty or so, a few of them looked to see who I was. I made my way into the kitchen with the bottle of Cabernet.
“You made it,” Scott greeted me. “Thanks for the wine, looks nice. Make yourself at home, bro. We’ve got apps on the table, beers in the fridge, mixed drinks at the bar. You know most of the people here, right?”
“Yeah,” I nodded without looking around.
“Sweet, man! Glad you could come.”
A second later he was gone. I grabbed a can of Blue Moon out of the fridge and stood near four people by the front door. A tall blonde woman without any makeup was talking passionately, saying, “It’s get what you can as fast as you can, legally if possible, or a way you won’t get caught. We’ve actually gone back in time a hundred and twenty years with regard to regulations, and the majority actually thinks it’s a good thing.”
“What do you think should be done about it?” asked a guy with a Jaxon hat and Elvis-style sideburns.
“Honestly, we need people to step up and hold the frenzy feeders accountable for their actions.”
As she was talking someone to my right called my name. I turned and it was Amy. “I was very rude at the game that day. I’m sorry,” she said, almost shouting over the music.
“Yeah, you were kind of rude,” I said, walking over. “No big deal though, it’s not like we were best friends back then.”
“I’d be highly offended if you had treated me like that.”
“Really, it’s okay.” Noticing the absence of a drink in her hand, I asked if she wanted a glass of wine.
“Sure,” she smiled.
Using a corkscrew on the counter I opened the bottle and poured a glass right away. I know you’re supposed to let red wine breathe for a few minutes but that wasn’t really an option given the potential awkwardness of the time we’d spend waiting. She took the glass and sipped the wine. Over her shoulder some guys I didn’t recognize were staring at us from the opposite corner of the room. The music was loud, dark, slow jazz, sax and trumpets moaning in ever-rising platforms of rigid sound. “Do you want to take a walk?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she nodded.
We got our coats, walked down the steps, and down the drive toward the lake, the gravel crunching beneath our feet. “I like the cold,” I said. “I used to hate the winter. Now it seems quieter, more peaceful. You?”
“No,” she shook her head. “I’ll take a sunny day at the beach over a cold peaceful day anytime.”
“The closest beach is a thousand miles away.”
“That’s probably why,” she said.
The shore was mostly sand and gravel, with fallen trees here and there, farther back from the water. Amy and I sat on one of the fallen tree trunks. I breathed a giant cloud of steam into the air. She breathed a smaller cloud. “Just sad,” she said. The lighted windows of the houses on the other side of the lake bobbed and swelled faintly on the black surface of the water. I sidestepped toward her, sat next to her on the tree. I looked at her cheek, the reddish-brown waves of her hair, pure black in the night, she looked at her hands, then up at me, I leaned over, and kissed her.