What Devil Is This?
It’s Christmas Eve, and you’re high on oxy, lying flattened on the floor in the middle of the living room, legs straight, arms stretched, staring up at nothing, frozen in this moment, lights out, shades pulled, in the dark and quiet, only the listless flicker from the last glowing embers in the fireplace that cast curious shadows on the stucco ceiling, waiting to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. But Jesus doesn’t come around here very often — all you ever get are the devils.
Your mother warned you about the devils, early on, and often. She blamed everything on the devils: Grandpa Hank’s emphysema, Grandma Daphne’s varicose veins, Cousin Timbo’s sugar, your father’s leukemia, all that happened with you. Your mother blamed everything on the devils: the drought that one summer, the rockslide that one spring, the ice storms in the winter and the wildfires in the fall (especially the wildfires in the fall). She blamed the devils for when the power was shut off, on Valentine’s Day of all days, even though the bill hadn’t been paid in three months on account of the plant closing (also blamed on the devils).
Your mother blamed everything on the devils, one devil or another. “What devil is this?” you would hear her cry out (and can still hear her) more exasperated than anything, just something else to have to deal with, no different than a leaking faucet or a flat tire, whenever there was more bad news, and there was always more bad news, shuffling in her fuzzy slippers over the threadbare carpeting to the back bedroom to fetch her Bible from the rickety wooden nightstand and pray. Your mother prayed, and she prayed. She prayed to all those saints, grim looking, burdened men in robes of reds and greens and golds, with thick, heavy, suffocating beards, their creased and tattered pictures plastered everywhere in your parents’ house when you were growing up, nary a blank space without some saint’s face on it, and you would’ve thought that alone would be enough to drive the devils away. Yet they kept returning (and still return) one devil or another — because Jesus doesn’t come around here very often.
You used to pray, your mother’s son, would bow down on bended knees at the foot of your bed, dutifully, twice daily, no matter your condition, no matter the circumstance, the very beginning of the morning and the final moment at night. Pray unceasingly, you were taught, you would practice. You prayed for forgiveness, and you prayed for hope, and you prayed for peace of mind. You prayed for strength, and you prayed for courage, and you prayed for resolve. You prayed some days until your mouth ran dry and your stomach grumbled, until tears streamed from your eyes. You prayed for a sign that everything would be all right. You prayed to let all those saints know you were waiting. But your prayers turned stilted and perfunctory, and angry and abrupt, when your prayers went unanswered, when your prayers fell on deaf ears, to those invisible ghosts who couldn’t care less. And then your prayers become yelling and screaming and pleading when nothing got through, not a single word, when nothing you said made any difference. And finally, you ceased praying altogether.
It’s Christmas Eve, and everyone is at church for the evening service, all gussied up in their Sunday best, lighting candles and singing hymns and reciting scripture. You remember it well from when you would sit in the middle pew on the left side without falter. But it’s been a while, not since Pastor Andy died. His funeral was the last you stepped foot inside that quaint church down the two-lane country road just outside the city proper. It just occurred to you, as you stood over his body, stiff and straight like a department store mannequin, starched dark suit, tucked snug inside a shiny oak coffin draped in pale blue linen, white bow, with the line of the congregation, an assortment of humanity, growing exponentially and out the door, all patiently waiting for the same reason, that if a man of faith and devotion and virtue as Pastor Andy wasn’t immune to succumbing to cancer (and how swiftly his poor soul passed), what chance did anyone have?
You decided why bother, what the hell — bad things were going to happen anyway, and good things might happen anyway, and at least this way you had more free time to piddle about in the yard or go driving or sit and think or do nothing. Not that you didn’t still believe, you just didn’t see why you should put forth the extra effort when everything was out of your hands to begin with and there wasn’t a goddamn thing you could do about it. Your mother scolded you for “such blasphemy — shame, shame!” and claimed the devils were to blame, yet she promised to pray for you all the same, and that was fine by you, even better. If anyone’s prayers had any chance of making it to heaven it had to be your mother’s, for no other reason than the sheer volume and frequency, one or two were bound to make it through.
It’s Christmas Eve, and you’re high on oxy, your preferred high for special occasions. An oxy high is a peaceful, easy, effortless high, not like bourbon or beer or red wine that make you work for it. You just relax and let the oxy high come to you, lift you ever so slightly lighter and carry you away on gossamer wings through the clutter and disorder of your mind, drifting and floating to somewhere pleasant with the eternal promise of forever. An oxy high is a high you never want to leave, a high you never want to give up. An oxy high makes you forget everything that came before it, or at least not care near as much. You can disappear in an oxy high. When you do return (if you have to), it’s not like bourbon or beer or red wine where you land with a crash and a burn. An oxy high will set you down gently, to sleep, to dream — wonderful, vivid, technicolor dreams. An oxy high cares for you when no one else does.
She hated when you took oxy, even when it was prescribed, even when you required it for medicinal purposes (and what a loose definition you have for that now). She saw what it did to too many others, how they became tethered to the tenderness of that poison. But she didn’t want you smoking cigarettes either. She worried about you like that. She worried about a lot of things like that. Until she didn’t. Until she up and left on that cool and damp October evening, clickety-clacking off in the brown leather riding boots you bought her, the screen door smacking and rattling shut, and you were speechless to do anything about it. You cursed Jesus and all those saints that day (and each day since). Everything about you collapsed into nothing that evening and crumbled apart, and no amount of praying was going to help. “What devil is this?” you cried out.
It’s Christmas Eve, and you’re high on oxy, the secret stash you hide away on the top shelf in the very back of your bedroom closet buried beneath a mound of wool sweaters that you save for a rainy (or snowy) day, left over after your surgery, when you were laid up for a year, your stomach a gaping wound, your “lost year” you call it (and not your only one) though your mother still swears it was a blessing you were returned to the living. You haven’t seen it that way, haven’t learned any lessons from your misery, reckoned that if there were some divine reason you should know, which is why you’re waiting to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, because maybe you just might catch Jesus’ attention on this day, for once, for some answers. But Jesus doesn’t come around here very often — all you ever get are the devils.
This short story is part of the collection, Three in the Morning and You Don’t Smoke Anymore (Insomnia Edition), available now exclusively as an e-book on Amazon and for Kindle Unlimited.