There’s a lotta darkness in this world. That’s a lowercase ‘d’ dark, mind ya. There’s also the capital ‘D’ kind, but that’s another kinda thing all together. Now, some people’ll tell ya that it’s the big Darkness that ya gotta watch out for, and in some ways they’d be right. Could’a agreed with them on that a long time before a good friend’a mine went and showed me just how far down the crazy rabbit hole goes. Demons, vampires, all’a that Monster Madness b******t…turns out it ain’t quite as much malarkey as yer rational mind’d like ya to believe.
That enormous Darkness, well, that’s biblical, end’a the world type stuff. But the thing about that, it’s obvious, y’see? That kinda thing, any number of people’ll stand up ta fight it. It’s basic human survival. S’why there’s so many damned zombie uprising fantasies out there: everybody wants ta grab their shotgun and go get them some sweet hot action. Goddamn mastabatory is what it is. And that’s why there ain’t no way in hell the world’ll ever end that way.
We’d know that if we’d just pay attention. Society and culture’s got any number’a references to the little darkness bein’ the one ta get ya. The world won’t end in a bang but a whimper. The road ta hell is paved with good intentions. An’ my personal favorite: the devil’s in tha details.
This is a story about those details, and that devil. If yer lookin’ for some kinda action movie blockbuster finish I’d ask ya ta get off now, cause there won’t be any’a that. Plenty’a other places ya can go fer all the vicarious thrills and heroics ya could ever want. I’d encourage ya ta do so. All yer gonna do is just be makin’ my point for me. Big evil’s excitin’ and stimulates the imagination, but people can’t be bothered with the little one. S’why it’s so damn insidious.
Anybody still here? Then let’s set tha stage. A few years back I was in a pretty bad way. My only boy Billy’d been killed on his way home from basketball practice by a junky lookin’ ta make a quick score. I live outsida Philly an’ such things still aren’t unheard of, though they’re a lot less common nowadays, thank God. Anyways, my boy was dead and his mom an’ I ended up splitting up soon after due ta the stress. I managed ta get myself fired from my job and mosta my days were spent either crawlin’ outta the bottom of a bottle or searchin’ around, seeing if I could get a line on his killer. Most’a the time both.
Well, one day I found tha b*****d. Punk wuz crashed at a flop house, high outta his mind, sprawled on’a mattress stained with dirt an’ God knows what else. I walked up ta my boy’s killer, an’ considered him. He was young, only a few years older’n Billy probly, jaw covered by a little scraggle’a yellow beard. He was wearin’ this stupid knit cap, a whole buncha striped colors. It’s how I knew fer sure I had the right guy, that cap was the only detail the one witness of my boy’s murder could remember.
I grabbed the filthy pillow lyin’ next ta him an’ set it atop’a his glazed face before pullin’ out my forty-five ta finish the deed. I sat there for what felt like forever but was probably only a minute’r two, the barrel of my gun makin’ a depression in tha pillow where I was pushin’ it down against his forehead. It’s not like we were tha only people in the room, all around me were a buncha other junkies crashed in various stages of f****d up. But at the same time it was just him, an’ me, an’ the gun.
My hand was shakin’, from fear, and rage, an’ adrenaline, and there was this little kernel of blackness somewhere inside my chest just screamin’ at me ta pull the trigger. An’ somehow, some way… I didn’t. I stumbled outta that crack house feelin like a balloon that’s had all’a its air let out, just totally drained. It ain’t that I never killed before, got plenty’a that in a handful’a tours to Iraq. But this woulda been the first time I committed murder, and brother, if ya don’t think there’s a difference then ya need to spend some more time thinkin’ on it.
So, by the grace’a God or just dumb luck I managed to save my soul from the devil for another day. The experience managed ta scare me straight, the thoughta what I’d almost done and what my life had nearly turned into enough to make me wanna puke. I vowed then and there I was gonna make a change.
Fast forward about twelve months. Ever so gradually I’d managed ta pull my life outta the gutter. I’d cut back significantly on the drinking and thought about goin’ to meetings in the basement of the local church, but ultimately decided against it. I figured I had it under control and really didn’t feel like sharing my story just yet. Things kept getting better and after a few months I even got a job as a security guard for this hoity-toit high school down the main line. About that time’s when Johnny gave me a call.
I was good friends with a guy Jack, or at least had been back in the day. We’d broken our teeth in the army together, gone through basic and a first deployment in the same unit, thick as thieves. We’d been outta touch for the better part’ve a decade, but more just because our lives had grown apart then there’d been any kinda fallin’ out. We got assigned to different stations, Jack got out, I stayed in. Life happens, ya feel me?
Johnny was Jack’s older brother. I’d met him a few times, enough that if I ran into him I’d be sure ta wave him down, but what were the odds of that? Well pretty good, turned out. Johnny was in Philly for some kinda conference. Jack knew I lived in the area and told his brother ta check up on me on account’a Billy. Johnny called and told me we should go grab a drink. I was unenthusiastic, seein’ I tended to do my drinkin’ alone as I didn’t need anyone eggin’ me on, but what was I gonna do? I didn’t feel like insultin’ my friend’s brother, even if we hadn’t exactly talked for a few years. I told him I had second shift so it might be a little late, but he said no problem, he’d go ahead an’ get started without me.
I finally rolled up ta the hotel in my old beater at about half past twelve. Johnny was sittin’ in the lobby an’ he stood up when he saw me walk through the door.
“Gabe, how you been man?”
“Passing well, Johnny. How’s yer brother?”
“Good, good. Say,” he glanced over at a well-dressed fella sitting next to him, “let me introduce you to Bernard.”
Bernard was the living Webster definition of Eurotrash. Fake tan, stupid short a*s stubble beard, tailored German suit, spoke three languages and could be a pretentious d**k in all of ‘em. Ya know the type. Turns out Johnny had just met Bernard earlier in the evening. The guy was Polish but workin’ for a Swiss branch of Johnny’s company. This conference was his first time in America, an’ he was lookin’ ta get f****d, or at the very least f****d up. Johnny asked if I’d mind if Bernard’d come along for the ride, an’ grudgingly I said no problem.
Now, it was midnight on a Wednesday, or Thursday I suppose, so we had’ta drive around a bit before we found somewhere we could get a beer. The name’a the establishment we ended up at was tha Fireside, though why I couldn’ tell ya cause there wasn’t anything like a fireplace inside. It was a total dive. I’d been in plenty like it in my army days, an’ just walkin’ in I could tell we should probably think about headin’ back the way we came. But Johnny was insistent that we wouldn’t be able ta find a better place and Bernard figured it’d give him the real ‘merican experience he was hopin’ for. So that was settled.
Johnny and Bernard were both already well on their way to a pretty solid headache tha next mornin’ from their pregame at the hotel. They picked up right where they’d left off with Johnny askin’ the poleaxe pretendin’ ta be a bartender whut kinda microbrews they had. She gave him this look that’d curdle milk. Tha only other folks in the bar were a handful’a locals shootin’ pool on the other side’a the room that were already eyin’ us up. I felt the hairs on the back’a my neck start to stand up, a feelin’ I was all too familiar with from my time in Sadr City.
“Johnny, I seriously think we need ta think about going.”
“Ah, come on, Gabe. One drink!”
“Fine,” I nod at the barkeep, “three Buds.”
She gave me something like a smile on a barricuda before settin’ three red an’ white cans in front of us. And so we settled in. Johnny and Bernard tried ta explain ta me exactly what it was their company employed ‘em ta do. Johnny told me how Tiffany was pregnant with their second an’ he was sure this one’d be a boy. I sat there with my beer in front of me, occasionally taking a swallow as I tried to listen, but really my focus was still held by the four pool players shootin’ looks at us from across the room. I did some mental math, nodding along with the conversation. I figgered I could take two of ‘em, sure, and Johnny could maybe handle one. But Bernard couldn’t punch his way outta’ a wet paper bag. I wasn’t liking the odds. I started ta interrupt Bernard who wuz tellin’ us all about his daily workout routine when one’a the locals finally decided ta make his way over.
“You foreign?” he looked at Bernard, tha smella booze giving away the fact he was well inta it. From experience, I could tell he was lookin’ fer a fight.
“Bernard here’s from Switzerland,” Johnny said.
“Actually,” Bernard slurred, “I’m from Poland.”
“Well sheeeet,” our new friend grinned maliciously, “my wife’s half Polish. Hey, a*****e,” he turned to Johnny, “why ya gonna say he’s Swiss if he’s a Polack? Ya can’t go around disrespecting people like that.”
The booze’d slowed Johnny’s normally quick wit.
“I mean, he works in Switzerland…”
“Nah, it’s all right, it’s all right,” the tough was smiling with his teeth, “I gotcha. Hey, Bernard, wuzzit? You wanna come out back with me and have a cigarette?”
Bernard was on his slightly swaying feet immediately.
“Bernard, buddy,” I looked at him, “I think we need ta get goin. You guys have the conference in tha mornin’.”
He rolled his eyes. “F**k the conference. I’m going for a smoke.”
The local patted my shoulder.
“Yeah, friend, we’re just goin’ fer a smoke. Won’t be a minute.”
Before I could say anythin’ further they were already out the back door. Johnny was back in his drink, already forgetting the whole thing.
“Johnny,” I asked him, “how invested in yer new buddy are ya?”
He shot me a quizzical look.
“Cuz I’m pretty sure he’s about ta get his a*s kicked out back, and I’m of a mind ta just walk out on him before they decide ta take it out on us too.”
Johnny just laughed at me.
“Gabe, really? These guys are harmless.”
“No, they really ain’t, Johnny. I’m gonna tell ya again, we need ta leave. Now grab your stuff and let’s get outta here. I’m just pullin’ my life together and the last thing I need is ta be getting’ into bar fights. Let’s go find a pay phone and call the cops ta come make sure Bernard walks outta here ok. We can do it anonymous so if I’m wrong, even though I’m not, there won’t be any harm done.”
Johnny got mad then, a drunken kinda anger.
“F**k off, man. Look, if you want to leave, that’s fine. We can make our own way back to the hotel. I was just doing Jack a favor looking in on you anyway.”
“Now, come on…”
“No. Dammit, I need this. Another kid on the way? You know the last time I got to go out? Seriously. F**k. Off.”
I opened my mouth ta say somethin’ else, but then thought better of it. Words wouldn’t change anything. I had work the next day, and dammit I wasn’t gonna screw up my teeterin’ hold on a somewhat normal kinda life fer a thankless drunk. An a*s kicking’d serve Johnny right. I stood up, tossed some bills on the bar and walked out without a look back, even though I still hadda bad feeling I couldn’t quite shake.
You’ll remember earlier, I said I’d saved my soul fer another day when I didn’t sanction Billy’s killer. Little did I know this’d be the day.
Y’see I didn’t end up callin’ the cops after I left. I thought about it, sure, but then decided that, nah, there’s two’a Johnny and Bernard. One of them’ll be in enough’a one piece to help the other out after their thumpin’s. An’ like I said, it’d serve them right.
Well, came ta find out the next day that I’d been dead on about the a*s kickin’. Didn’t stop with a beatin’ though. The papers said is wuz a beer bottle across the head that finally killed Johnny, but he’d also been stabbed a dozen times, so who knows?
I went into a bit of a depression for a while after. Fell off the wagon fer a bit, almost lost my security job, though somehow I didn’t. Skipped the funeral, didn’t want ta face Jack. He never called me, dunno if he ever even found out I was there.
So what’s my point? We tend ta think of the devil as some red faced, horned m**********r, an’ after all I’ve seen I’ll admit the possibility that somethin’ like that maybe even exists. But that’s the capital ‘D’ Darkness, the one anybody’d stand up ta fight against.
In terms of strict definition, ‘Satan’ is just an adversary, somethin’ ya struggle against. What if, instead’a down in the land of hellfire an’ brimstone, the devil lives inside every single one of us? What if he’s just a little voice, tellin’ ya ta do things that maybe even make sense, but that ya know in yer gut are just plain wrong? How would we know ta fight?
How would we know we haven’t already lost?