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"The Devil Comes as a Mother, a Sister, a Daughter, a Friend" by Steve Passey

Tom says there is an old man named Scotty and that Scotty has seen the Devil. Tom tells this to the new hire. You ask him, Tom says, and he’ll tell you.

Scotty has been sitting in the same pub every second Friday for ten years now. He retired, but he kept to the rhythm of his workplace and attended the informal after-work socials common to the drones that filled the cubicles. He’d be there before any of the unretired arrived, and when they came in, he’d have a sit and a chat and watch the same sports highlights they watched. The company of individuals of similar circumstances, without the circumstances, is a balm to the soul. When Tom and the others including the new hire get to the pub there’s Scotty. He wears the jacket with the logo of his favorite team, like he always does, and he has already ordered.

Tell us Scotty, Tom says, tells us about the time you saw the Devil.

Scotty waves his hand. Not again, he says, that’s an old story and you’ve all heard it before.

For the new hire, Tom asked. One more time.

Have you really seen the Devil; the new hire asks?

Yes, Scotty says. Yes, I have. Right here in the Heart and Garter, on a Friday night long before the sun went down. You see, we used to have a woman working with the company named Sandra. Sandra’s husband had left her and she hated him. When I say that she hated him, it was Hate with a capital “H”, white hot and enduring - and she’d tell you about it. She had few other topics of conversation. She had a son too, but the boy had, at some time, chosen to live with his father. We’d talk about work but she’d turn the conversation to her ex-husband. We’d talk about sports and she’d bring up the former spouse. We’d talk about elections - she’d curse the memory of a man none of us had ever met. It was, in a word, tiresome. I just want to sit in here in my jacket and watch the boys on TV, see if they can win the division again. I want to drink my shandy. I want to relax. But Sandra had an agenda, or, more accurately, an agenda had her.

The new hire nodded and asked: But what does that to do with the actual Satan?

Scotty continued: One time a woman from Human Resources came with us. Her name was Candace. She was a quiet, dignified woman. She had not come before, and hasn’t been here since. She actually left the company shortly thereafter, but there is no story there, only here. She came because I’d mentioned to her that the Heart and Garter was a place where you could get a proper shandy – that’s what I drink – and she wanted to try one, so she came along with some others and of course, Sandra. We ordered our shandies, the others ordered their whatever’s. Immediately, as was her practice, Sandra raised her glass and toasted her own anger. The son-of-a-bitch is still alive, she said, here’s to nothing, and she tossed back her vodka and Coke. Candace said nothing. Sandra turned to Candice and asked in order her if she knew anything about fibromyalgia, then chronic fatigue syndrome, then something called Lyme. Candace demurred to all. I am not sure if she even tried her shandy, but she made her goodbyes shortly and left without finishing it.

(She probably tried it, Tom interjected, they are bloody awful – terrible, even – and I don’t know how anyone can drink them,) but Scotty continued on his own:

Time passed; Candace was gone. Sandra changed her name to Sandrine, or at least told everyone to start calling her that, and began to … descend, if I can use that word. Yes, descend. De-evolve. She shrank. She became small, and less than she could be, less than she should be. She was dying I thought, of vodka and Coke, anti-anxiety medications, and of sitting alone and thinking too much. She continued to toast to the hated – and apparently living only out of his spite for her - ex-husband. She showed us pictures of a grandchild. She spoke of resenting her son, who was now far away. I can only imagine what Sandra (now Sandrine) was like to live with. Unspoken at the table was the sense that the Chinese water-torture of her complaints, the endless drip-drip-drip of her bitchery, had driven those men off. I can’t actually remember a single specific complaint she had against this unknown man. I thought of her complaints – all of them - as generic. I seem to remember that she once said he chewed noisily, or that he had a child’s handwriting. One or the other or both or neither, I cannot remember the specifics but I marvel that there were so many. I am sure my wife had some of the same complaints, all wives even - men are men after all, and women, women - but they were forgotten as soon as they were uttered, and did not possess my wife in the way that Sandra (Sandrine) had been possessed. Then one day, she and I alone of the every-second-Friday-crew were here, I with my shandy, she with her vodka and Coke. She raised her glass, I demurred. I will not toast to that I told her, give it a rest. The boys – my team, I mean – were doing well. They had a chance at winning the division. I didn’t want to sit there while some woman rehashed old miseries the provenance of which I could never know, even had I cared to find out. She rolled her eyes at me and went up to the bar and then, the Devil.

How do you know he was the Devil, the new hire asked?

Scotty ignored the boy and continued: The Devil came in and sat at Sandrine’s elbow. To be sure, I did not know at first that she – for the Devil is a She – was the Devil. But from her entry I knew something of the infernal was in the room. The woman looked in no small way like our few-year’s-gone Human Resources director Candace, but more so a more perfect rendition of Candace. Candace was tall, this woman an inch taller. Candace had ruddy hair then just begun turning to grey, no longer than the base of her neck, while this woman’s hair was a cascade of red-blond like honey and cinnamon that flowed down her shoulders. Her eyes too – I have to speak of her eyes. Candace, as I remember, had green eyes turning to brown, a hazel really – this woman’s eyes were green turning to yellow, the light of the sun seen from the bottom of a well. They were marvelous. They were frightening.

Maybe it was Candace, the new hire said.

No, Scotty said, this woman was a more perfect rendition of Candace, but not Candace. She was to Candace what tigers are to housecats, or eagles to sparrows, each of the former the more perfectly idealized version of the latter. She was mythic, and so, Satan. She sat with Sandrine a while and they spoke intently, heads together. They possessed a familiarity I would have thought born of relationship, and I assumed that they knew one another. I imagine that when the Devil comes to men, she comes in some way particular to their interests, and brings other things with her, but when the Devil came to Sandrine she came as a sympathetic ear and a kindred soul - a Mother, a sister, a daughter - a friend. Sandrine spoke to her new confidante, and the Devil listened. Sandrine ranted and the Devil held her peace, Sandrine cried and the Devil gave her a shoulder. When Sandrine was done crying the Devil spoke to her, softly and at some length, and then gave her something in a manila envelope. Sandrine looked very far away at that moment, like a woman who had lost her sense of location amid the fury of her own thoughts. The Devil walked out, passing just by me and my shandy. She stopped briefly and looked at me sitting there with my drink and told me that she had always wanted to try one, but hadn’t had time yet. Maybe someday, she said, then she was gone.

Was there no scythe, the new hire asked? No stench of sulfur?

Well no, Scotty said, of course not. The Devil is not Death. The Devil comes not to harvest but to gather. It should go without saying. At any rate, the Devil walked out and left me there with my shandy and my hopes for a division title for my team. Sandrine came back with her envelope and sat down. I asked her about the contents of course, and she opened the envelope and shook out a newspaper clipping – an obituary in fact. It was her ex-husband’s obituary, and although not long it spoke well of him in the way that obituaries do and was gracious about his good character as a son and husband - he’d remarried evidently - and as a father and grandfather. I shrugged and told Sandrine that it appeared that she’d got what she wanted after all, but that surely this was unfortunate for her son and grandchild no?

Look again, she told me. Look at the date. She pointed to it with a shaking finger. I looked and the date was over six years into the future. I stammered and harrumphed. There must be some kind of mistake, I said. A typo.

Maybe, she said, but most likely not.

She took the obituary and put it back in the envelope. She left the bar and I was alone there with my shandy.

A strange gift. the new hire said, and as you might say, impossible to provenance. Did you keep a copy? What of Sandra (Sandrine) today?

Sandrine died within the year, Scotty said. She died of pancreatic cancer. It works fast. I believe the seed of it was in her well before the Devil came. I believe the Devil came with news both good and bad. The Devil spoke of the bad first, to tell her that she’d be dead before her husband, but hold on there, Sandrine, here’s the good news: he dies too. Here’s what you asked for. Read it, it is all there. I think back on the scene now, Sandrine and the Devil up at the bar, Sandrine railing and crying, and I wonder if she cried only for herself or if maybe she cried, even little, for him. I doubt it. At any rate, I have seen the Devil, she is very near to six feet tall, has hair of fire, and eyes the green of a sacrificial well.

The obituary, the new hire said, would there be any way to find it?

You can look it up, Scotty said. I know the man’s name. So yes, he died at the appointed hour, years after she passed. Of this I am sure. If you mean the obituary, the Devil’s gift to Sandrine, of that I can’t say where it might be. Sandrine was cremated, so maybe it was consigned to the crematoria fire with her. But I think not. I think more likely her son, who came out to sort through her estate and her papers such as they were, shredded it without even scanning it. Of what use is a gift of the Devil to anyone other than the one who prays for it? Especially if it’s someone else’s obituary. If you must pray to the Devil, pray for money, like everyone else. Living well is the best revenge as they say. Prescience is not worth as much - at least that kind of prescience. But I have seen the Devil, in particular circumstances, and she is exactly as I tell you she is.

A word from the author: If you must pray to the Devil, pray for money, like everyone else.

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