Thursday, November 21, 2013

A short story

Justice Tigue and the Devil’s Big Black Cadillac
Once, back before all this hustle and bustle, back when things was slower and you could sit and think for days on end and people wouldn’t say “boo” about it, there was a man. Well, there were plenty of men, even back then, but this story’s about just one of ‘em. His name was Justice Tigue; not like he was a judge, just that his old Dad had called him Justice from when he was just a little spit, and no one ever bothered to think of nothin’ else to call him. Well, that name fit him about like a bowler hat fits a boll weevil, ‘cause he never made an honest nickel in his life; everything about that so-and-so was shifty and sly. But he was the kind of sly that made him lazy, and lazy and crafty are a wicked combination. Old Justice, well, he never earned a cent if he could trick a sucker into earning it for him.
        One day old Justice was sitting underneath a big magnolia tree, sitting in the shade on a specially hot day. And he was sitting there dreaming of how nice it must be to own a farm, a nice sugar cane farm, with servants to cook and clean and make the bed (course, that part sounds pretty nice, don’t it? Having someone else to make your bed every day?) and workers to till the land and harvest the cane and, now here’s where Justice really got excited, folks to make him rum with the sugar cane. And with all the money he’d have, he’d buy a big, long, black Cadillac with an engine that would roar like a tiger. He got to ‘magining that car so vividly, him driving easily and some young city girl clinging to his right arm and whispering things in his ear I don’t like to mention. He was thinking so much about how that car sounded and felt that he began to imagine he could actually hear a car approaching. And then it got louder, and louder, and louder until at last he was shaken out of his daydream and looked up to see that big, black Cadillac roaring to him, just as real as the holes in the soles of his shoes, kicking up a big ol’ cloud of dust behind it. It came flying up towards the very magnolia tree that Justice was sittin’ under, and it came so close Justice jumped straight up and made to run away; but for some reason, he found his feet plain stuck to the ground, and all he could do was watch as it barrelled up to him. But the car came to stop just before the tree; and as Justice peered into the windshield, he couldn’t see nothing but a couple of shining, hollow eyes. Soon the eyes disappeared in the black of the car; then the driver’s door slid softly open, and out stepped a very well-dressed man, a man with too many teeth, who, Justice noticed, never blinked.
        “Excuse me, sir,” said the man, his voice like water in a sluice gate, “but I am a conjurer, and I do believe that there is someone nearby who may be in need of my services. Have you come into contact with any such, good sir?”
        And Justice admitted that he may have heard of someone who might could use a conjurer, at that. But what, asked Justice, could the man conjure?
        “Well, my good friend, that depends on who’s doing the asking. How big is your imagination?”
        “Well, not quite no big as that nice car you’ve got there; no, not so big, and not so pretty as that. It really shines like a gem, in the sun. But I think I might have a job for you. It starts, with just a couple of sugar cane plants.” And Justice proceeded to tell the man all about his dream of owning a plantation, and the servants, and the rum, right down to the Cadillac and the pretty gal draped over his shoulder. He painted a very vivid image, indeed, of the grand house and the fields and the pepper tree hanging over the lake, always filled with big, fat, slow fish. “So,” he asked the conjure-man, “what do you say to that?”
The conjure-man folded his arms across his chest, and paced back and forth a bit; then he bent down and began scratching in the dust a bit, but he had his back to Justice, so he couldn’t see what the man was writing. Justice began to tip-toe around to get a good look at what that man was doing in the dust there, when his gravel-voice asked: “How big you say that house was? And how many servants are we talking about, exactly?” Justice stopped dead in his tracks, and repeated the exact details that the man had asked for; then the visitor went back to scribblin’ and scrapin’ in the dust, then started to rock back and forth a bit on his heels, and then, without any warning, leapt up in the air, feet going near 2 feet off the ground, and he spun around and landed facing Justice. “I’d say that sounds like an exciting opportunity! And you’re a shrewd man, I can see that by the way you’ve planned this all out, and included the help; you’ve left nothing to chance. I’ll take the job!” Then he pushed his hand into Justice’s hand and began pumping it up and down, nearly tearing poor old Justice’s arm clean off. “Yes, a very good job indeed. Let me draw up a contract to make it official, and include all of your exacting specifications, and I’ll be back to this very spot in, oh, say about 9 hours? Can you meet me back here in about 9 hours?” Now it had gotten to be about supper time, and Justice was surprised and a little slow to trust this man; but, the man hadn’t asked him for nothin’, not yet anyhow, so he began to think it might be worth it, when the man slid up close to Justice and said, softly: “And since you mention rum, I’ll bring a little bit of my own private stash, you know, just to seal the deal. Since you seem to be a man of discerning tastes, I’d like a chance to prove to you just how good a conjurer I can be. Besides, I hate signing contracts sober!” And with that, he let out an enormous laugh and slapped Justice on the back. Then, without a word more, the man hopped back into his car and went screeching away as quickly as he’d come.
Now, Justice was no fool. He knew that no one would agree to any sort of contract without some sort of payment. But the man had never said a word about money; and the more Justice racked his dry brains, the more he got to worryin’ about what other sort of payment the visitor had in mind. Justice started remembering all sorts of stories he’d heard as a boy, about contracts signed with mysterious strangers, where the stranger promised wealth but asked for the other’s soul in exchange, or something like that; some stories, the person who signed the contract only got to live another 2 years, or something like that. Well, Justice started to get fair spooked; but then he caught himself, said: “Justice, now, you’re a modern man. This here ain’t no devil; he didn’t have no horns nor no tail nor cloven hoofs. The only devil he may be is a clever man of business. But if that’s the sort of devilry he has in mind, well, he ain’t never met the likes of me.” And with that, he contented himself that, whatever form of payment the stranger asked, Justice would find a way to cheat him out of most of it.
Well, the appointed time came, and Justice stood out by the tree, and it was still hot. The sun had gone down many hours prior, but it still felt like it was wearing down on him. He wasn’t worried, mind you; he was simply hot. And soon enough, the big, black Cadillac came rumbling up; quietly and slowly this time, and it whispered to a stop right next to where Justice was standing. The conjure-man got out, and looked at Justice with a wink and a grin; and then, giggling to himself, he began to pull all sorts of things out of the back of that car. He pulled out a alligator-skin valise, and a wooden roll-top desk, and two chairs, and a little basket that clinked with the sounds of glass when it moved; and he got out 2 big candle-holders, with red tapers crammed into them; he set all these things up, then pushed a chair next to Justice and pushed Justice down into it; then he sat down in the other chair, leaned towards the roll-top desk and began pulling out stacks of papers from the valise, along with a tiny little pen and an inkwell made from a baby alligator’s head. And he never said the tiniest little word, just kept looking over at Justice and giggling, like a little girl who’s told a naughty joke to her friends. Then he turned toward Justice and slid the papers in front of him. “Well,” he began, his voice now a hoarse whisper; “here are all the specifications I drew up for you, delivery schedules, general maintenance provisos, sine qua nons, quid pro quos, et ceteras and so on and so forth. Oh, and there’s a line towards the end about my remuneration, and we will go over that in great detail. I know you’re far too clever a man,” and here he sniggered and even snorted a bit, “far too shrewd a man of the world to ever let such a detail past you. But I also know that the proof of my abilities to deliver on my promises is, as they say, is in the eating. Of the pudding. Or the drinking of the rum, in this. Particular. Case. So, let us drink a glass, as friends! Then, once we have savored, we may talk, as partners.” And suddenly there were two glasses on the table, and the man slid a long, tall, dusty bottle out of the basket and set it on the table. “It’s a recipe that’s been in the family for a very, very, very long time. I hope you like it.” And with that he filled both the glasses, and he and Justice drank down the dark, sweet liquid. It was potent, and it was sweet, and it was deliciously cool. And yet, it warmed him at the same time. Justice quite liked it; in fact, it was the finest rum he’d ever tasted. And he began to yearn for another glass. That was when the man pulled out the contracts and began talking about percentages and crop yields and so on; Justice tried to pay attention, but he began to feel, well, pretty good and a little distracted by the taste of that rum. One more glass, he told himself, and I’ll really be ready to talk business. Besides, he told himself, whatever price the man asks, I’ll be able to find someone way to cheat him. So he wasn’t worried in the least. He began to feel very confident about his prospects, indeed, so he started asking questions about the size of the house, and the number of servants, and the name of the girl he’d have wrapped around his arm, and how soon he could have that big, black Cadillac. The man poured another drink for the both of them, and Justice drank it right down, and started to feel very good, indeed. So when the man started talking about the cost, about 40% of Justice’s total net worth, inclusive, at a rate to be compounded per annum ad infinitum, Justice was in no mood to haggle, and nearly ripped the pen out of the man’s hand. As soon as he’d signed the document, the man grabbed his hand again and began pumping it furiously, just as before, and laughing his laugh the whole time. He then handed Justice the keys to the Cadillac and handed him the dusty old bottle filled with the delicious liquor. He then packed up the valise with as much as it would hold and, somehow producing a bicycle from the back of the car, rode off in the night. Justice crawled into the front seat of the car and fell asleep.
When Justice woke up the next day, the sun was already high in the sky; and what had been a boggy little sink hole by the magnolia tree was now a clean, clear pond, with plenty of fat, shiny fish swimming about in it. But what really amazed old Justice was on the other side of the pond. He saw a grand, white house, mostly built, with men finishing putting a roof on the back porch; and beyond that he could see fields of sugar cane, and men and women working there, too. And just as he began to wonder how it had all popped up so soon, he began to notice a sharp pain in his head. No sooner had he noticed the pain than a woman popped up just outside the door, and whispered into his ear, her voice like syrup; she whispered to him about how she’d like to make him feel better, and wouldn’t he like to come inside his own house and leave the car where it was. So he went with the woman whose name he didn’t know, and went into the house, and he began to feel much, much better.
And months went by, and the sugar cane grew very well, and work finished on the house, and servants made breakfast and lunch and supper and made the bed and cleaned up his messes and called him “sir” and just made his life easier all-around. And Justice had that sweet woman draped over his arm, and that big, black Cadillac, and the servants, and that wonderful rum. And he would throw wonderful parties for all his friends, and so many people came that no one could ever count all the guests, and the parties even got written about in the papers a time or two. And Justice was quite content.
And every so often the conjure man would come around, and ask how Justice liked it, and Justice would tell him that he liked it very much, indeed, but that there was just one little thing that kept it from matching his specifications exactly; and every thing that the man fixed, there was always one little detail left. And the man would fix it, and tell his price; and every year, the price climbed a little higher. And if ever Justice complained, the man would smile, and begin describing their agreement, and start to talking about “compound interest” and “net worth, inclusive” and “ad infinitum.” And Justice would sigh and pay the man whatever he’d asked. But Justice began to worry that soon the man would take everything that was left.  And he began to hatch a plan.
Now, as I’ve said, Justice was a clever man, and he’d learned quite a bit in his days, not that much of his learnin’ did him much good. But sometimes, even though a whole heap of learnin’ don’t amount to much in a man’s life, there’s one little detail that will save his skin. And Justice began to wonder where this man had come from, and who he was; for in all the years that they’d been working together, Justice had aged quite a lot; and the conjure-man well, he never seemed to change a whit. But whoever he was, he was not a friend, and not a man to be trusted. And Justice remembered someone telling him, when he was just a boy, that if you ever have an enemy, all you need to defend yourself is a bit of white chalk. With that chalk, if you can manage to draw a circle around your enemy, and when you've done that, there might as well be a brick wall around that person; try as he might, he cannot get a finger outside that ring of chalk. So, Justice came up with a plan to rid himself of the debt that threatened to rob him of everything he’d come to love in his life.
The next time that the man came back to collect his due, he was asking for a very large amount indeed. And Justice, he began to hem, and to haw, and to complain and moan and tell the man how he needed a little time to get the money, that he’d been gambling with some men in town. Now, they happened to be standing very near that same magnolia tree where they’d made the deal in the first place. And as Justice was talking, he was pacing, back and forth, back and forth. And one of his hands was in his pocket, the other running through his hair, and rubbing his chin, and waving about in the air and pointing at nothing, as he was trying to convince the man to give him just a little more time. Well, the man began to get more than a little vexed with this stalling, but he couldn’t get a word in for all of Justice’s rambling. And Justice just kept on talking, pacing, and he began to walk in a circle, all ‘round the tree, walking one way, then the other, round and round and round. At last, when he could stand it no more, the conjure-man yelled out, in a voice like a tree trunk cracking, “Enough! You’ve wasted enough of my time! You signed the contract, now pay the price I asked or I shall exact a sum more dear to you than money.”
“Oh, you know, now that I think about it, I do have the money, it’s just inside the house. Why don’t you come inside with me and get it? We can even have a drink, like friends.” And Justice backed up, towards the house; and the man tried to walk towards him, but he took two steps and found that he could go no further; try as he might, he was stuck. He tried walking to the left, and to the right; but whatever direction he went in, he could only go so far and then he’d get stuck. And Justice began to laugh, and cackle, and howl until tears began to stream down his face. And the man began to get madder and madder, and his face began to twist and his forehead to steam, and soon his eyes glowed red. “Hoo-boy, everyone thought the devil was clever, even that ol’ devil hisself! But I caught the devil! Just a bit of white chalk dust in my pants pocket, that and a pocket with a hole in it; and then, walking all round you, spilling chalk dust in the ground, I’ve made a circle round you, and now you is trapped! You thought to trick me, well I’ve had the last laugh! And I ain’t made my last dime off you, you old scoundrel! I’ll charge folks a nickel just to come look at you and laugh. And all your friends in hell will be laughing too, to see you stuck here, with folks linin’ up just to look at you!”
And that is exactly what Justice did. He put the word out that he’d caught the devil, and folks came out to see that devil, who just kept getting madder and madder, and every day looked a little less like a man and a little more like a devil.
Well, they say that pride comes before the fall; they also say that pride is the mother of all other sins, and it’s the widest net the devil will cast. And if there’s one thing the devil don’t like, it’s being beat at his own game. But I’m getting ahead of myself here, so let’s take this one step at a time. Now, Justice’s plan worked; he was able to get the word out that he’d caught a real live devil, and people were in fact lining up to pay a nickel and see the devil; for a penny extra you could throw something at him. And so many people wanted to come out and see the devil that it came to be something of a carnival. And so on Saturday nights Justice had a band come out to play, a fine jazz band, playing all the popular songs, and people from the City started showing up, and everyone had a fine time, watching the devil, and making fun a’ him. But every so often, 2 or 3 women would sidle up to old Justice and ask, how much to dance with the devil? as their husbands passed around bottles of Justice’s rum. And the devil never misses an opportunity, and so he began to sway and swing to the music, and it would get the band all excited, so they’d play even wilder, and pretty soon the whole group was all worked up into a frenzy. And the devil would call out to the girls, whose husbands were too drunk to know any different, “Come on over honey! I want to dance with you! You ever felt hellfire in your bones to sound of a slide trombone, or felt sweat mixed with brimstone, trickling down your neck, to 4/4 time?”
If there was one thing that Justice knew as well as the devil, it was how to recognize a chance to get ahead. So he began by charging the women twenty-five cents to dance with the devil, but so many women started lining up that pretty soon he was charging fifty cents, and with that many eager women, that money started adding up. And the devil, he went right along with it. He’d dance with the married girls while their husbands plied a healthy trade in Justice’s liquor, and everyone was getting on just fine. The devil danced with those girls all night, and they’d kick up quite a dust cloud some nights. And one particular August night, it was hot as a pot-bellied stove out, and the band was cookin’, and the devil was dancing with not one but two girls; and the three of them were stirring up a real cloud of smoke, their feet were moving so fast, and the devil would spin the girls all round the tree. But what Justice hadn’t noticed was that all the chalk dust was getting kicked up, too; and pretty soon the circle of dust was just plain gone. And no sooner had the dust risen and the chalk disappeared, than the devil was gone; and with him, the Cadillac, and the servants, and the rum, and the sugar cane, and, with a tortured cry, Justice himself vanished in a puff of smoke. And that was the last anyone ever saw of Justice Tigue, or that devil, or his big, black Cadillac.

Some pictures, to cleanse the palate.

As promised, here are some more pictures. Most of these are part of my "Domestic Monsters" series.

This fella just wants to go trick or treating with you. He's harmless, really.

 Here's a dapper skelly-tun having a shave before All Hallows' Eve.

 Here's a Gorgon (Medusa head) just because Tony Murphy asked me if I'd ever drawn one. Now I have.

And here's the Minnesota Vikings' logo. I drew this one one sheet of paper, colored it in with marker and colored pencil, then cut the image out with an X-acto knife, and glued it to the blue background. (It was the closest thing I had to Viking purple.) For my nephew, who's a die-hard Vikings fan.

A few pictures and a couple of words.

Okay, so I've been writing more, and drawing a bit, but I want to keep that trend going, so I've committed to updating this blog several times a month. It's good for me and (if you're reading this) hopefully a pleasant diversion for you. So, first with the words. This is a reflection I wrote this weekend. While I'm planning to continue posting nonfiction reflections, I'm also working on a novel, and may start posting sections of that, or at least some of my short stories. I honestly welcome feedback, even if it's "hey buddy, don't quit your day job." But I'll keep posting drawings, as they come. Here goes:

I am weak. 
This is not a crisis of self-confidence, you understand. It’s a recognition of a basic fact. By myself, I am able to accomplish startlingly little. I do have a certain amount of control over my reactions to my circumstances, and control over many of the choices that I make, but in many more ways, I’m weak. There are so many things that I dream of doing: of being able to change my height and flying and being a perfect husband and son and brother and helping other people conquer their social anxieties; but I can’t. I can’t change unless I’m willing to admit I need to change, and that I need help to realize that change.

Is weakness the same as complete powerlessness? No. Can I be a good man as a short man? Yes. Can I figure out my weaknesses as a husband by listening carefully to my wife and asking for her help to become better over time? Yes. Can I make resolutions to start good habits in my life? Yes.

Can I learn to fly like a hawk? No. Can I feed all the hungry people in the world? No.

It may seem like I’m being intentionally flippant, but there are plenty of things that I can’t do, that I want to do, and part of me feels like a failure when I realize how little I can really change. But then there are plenty of things I need to do that I’m capable of; but I need help to accomplish them, and humility to recognize when I’m heading in the wrong direction.

Being a religious person, I have always held the conviction that I am dependent on a higher, universal, personal, caring consciousness. (I’m intentionally avoiding precise religious terminology. I’m doing that because I’ve met lots of people, many of them very dear to me, who have found only hostility and judgment in the halls of religion, and yet many of those same people are striving to find a place for genuine, life-giving spirituality in their lives. I count it a privilege to have shared any part of their journey and am honored to share mine with them, and so I’m hoping that less charged language will speak to the commonality of both the religious and those who are taking a more individualized path to truth. I’m trusting in the wisdom of Gandalf, that not all those who wander are lost.) So, I’ve always believed in this wise consciousness that knows me and cares for me. And yet, I have often found it difficult to sit down and listen to this consciousness, and most of the time, I’ve simply been too busy to even try. But lately I’ve been trying to assess my life, to figure out what’s working and what’s holding me back, and how I can be a more effective person. For a long time I’ve been encountering anxiety and frustration, feeling like parts of my life were totally out of my control, and I've felt disconnected from some things that were very important to me. With the help of some very good friends, I’m coming to see that, even though I’ve been telling myself that I’m flawed and need help and encouragement to grow, I’ve been living “as if” I were strong and in control. I said that I believed in this power greater than myself, but I seldom checked in with that being. So I asked myself: if I really believed myself to be weak, how would my life be different? 

The first thing that came to mind was, if I really believed that I needed help, and I knew where to turn to get that help, I’d make sure I spent some time, each day, turning to that source. Part of that conversation, then, is, going to be recognizing my weaknesses and frustrations, and maybe some time recognizing my accomplishments and things I’m grateful for. But part of that time will also need to be spent listening. 

Listening is a hard thing to do, I’m finding. But, like anything, it will come with practice, and it may come slowly. So I’m going to be patient with myself. Sometimes, I imagine, listening is going to involve reading helpful books; sometimes it will involve talking to close friends and family; sometimes it involves going for a walk and getting a breath of fresh air, watching a sunset, or really relishing a nice dinner. But simply engaging in those activities isn’t enough for me; if I’m going to listen, I need to be quiet.  And that’s not easy, especially when we live such fast-paced, noise-filled lives. But I’m resolving to take 5 minutes, each day, and sit quietly, and put myself in the presence of that being who cares for me, and has a deeper understanding of the world around me, and wants to develop a supportive and life-giving relationship with me. 5 minutes away from my phone, away from exercise routines and calendars, away from coffee and books, and giving myself the gift of silence, shared with a friend. A friend who wants to help me. A friend who offers me strength when I’m willing to accept it. 
I’ve known this for a long time. But today, I’m trying to live as if it were true.