One day -- inasmuch as what we would consider one day -- the Devil went on vacation to Las Vegas. The Devil wanders the earth from time to time; it says so in the Book of Job. The body that the Devil chose for this particular jaunt was tall: six-foot-two, with black hair, and an overall handsome appearance. His eyes were solid orbs of blackness. This was, perhaps, most disturbing. When a human encountered his eyes, they instantly became entranced, but upon turning away, they forgot all. His voice was almost as sinister as he was. It was a low voice that had a metallic edge to it like a DJ's, but it was a very charismatic and melodic voice and sounded like a southern drawl without the accent.
The Devil enjoyed Vegas. His favorite things to do were: shoot craps at Casino Royale, ride the go-carts out by U.S. 95, enjoy a lap dance at Crazy Horse Too strip club, and eat the seafood buffet at the Rio. The Devil did eat red meat, but he was on vacation, so why not lighten it up a little? After the buffet, the Devil normally went up to the Voodoo Lounge.
Peter Salinski worked in the entertainment industry in town. He was six-foot-one and had long, wavy brown hair and blue, seafarer's eyes -- clear and calm, but tainted, wise to the storm. His girlfriend's nickname for him was the second cumming. He was in danger of losing his job for unprofessional and unethical business practices, but continued to gamble his paycheck every tenth of the month, after paying his creditors slightly less than the minimum of what he owed them. If he won at the tables, which did happen, he would go to Crazy Horse Too and blow his cash. His mortgage was perpetually eighty-nine days late and he owed ten-K on a title loan for his BMW. He always had several bad checks out and the district attorney had sent him a letter Friday saying he was prosecuting Pete for bouncing a check he had written to buy Girl Scout cookies (the ones with chocolate swirls). Pete's web of lies was so complex that even he often got lost inside of it, and at those times, he would start stuttering. Then, after payday, or if he had won at the tables, he would stop stuttering for a few days.
Pete drove his newly washed, burgundy BMW into Crazy Horse Too's parking lot. It is not a wide parking lot and its best to go down half a block and park in any adjacent lot; that is, so long as you're planning on picking up your car before morning on the next work day. Or, you can just pull behind the building by driving in the driveway at the opposite end of the building from the main entrance. Sure, you could just valet it, but there are just a few options for you.
Pete walked into the strip club and strolled right up behind two women with thongs on. It was early Sunday morning, before the sun had come up, so there was no cover charge. He went into the main room and took a seat in one of the large sofa chairs. A waitress soon came over. She wore a short, tight, leopard-skin outfit showing plenty of cleavage.
"What will you have, Sweetie?" She asked. Locals, living in Las Vegas, are very polite.
"Can you do a cash advance on my Amex card?"
"Sure, so long as it works," she said with a wry smile.
"Then bring me a beer first and then go and get the money."
"How much do you want?" She said, dropping her smile.
"Okay," she said and walked off.
Pete looked over at the chair right next to him and noticed that a tall man with black hair was sitting next to him, holding himself very reserved. Pete was slightly taken aback because he had not remembered him being there when he had sat down. But he reminded himself how dark the place was and smiled at the gentleman, who did not say anything. Pete began to fidget and decided to break the silence. He looked over at the stranger and said, "How you doing?"
"Very well," the man's voice had an icy edge to it that made Pete's nerves crawl under his skin.
"You from around here?" Pete asked uncomfortably, trying to get the stranger to lighten up.
"No. Not too far away, though."
"Is this a game of twenty questions?"
"This is not a game. I am from hell. In fact, I rule hell. I am - - the Devil," he said, spreading his hands apart, which had been touching, finger tip to finger tip.
"Oh, well, why didn't you just say so? I live here, in Las Vegas. My name is Pete. We're practically neighbors."
"Well, I guess that's true."
"How long you've been in Vegas?"
"Only a matter of days; I'm staying at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino."
"Oh, sure, I got thrown out of there once."
"That's too bad. What were you doing?" the Devil asked and the pointed eyebrow closest to Pete shot up fast, without the head so much as even being slightly disturbed.
"Drinking and trying to pick up women."
"Seems perfectly natural to me."
"I guess there is a certain level of drunkenness---"
"---A curious concept, mediating sin; I can't imagine. But what's your story?"
"My story? Oh, I'm a born storyteller. My grandmother always said so."
"That's very nice," the Devil said and then continued, "Let's hear one."
"Hear a story?"
"Sure. Why don't we make it a game and use your soul as collateral? Just like in Chaucer, the best story gets paid by the others."
Pete laughed out loud for a moment and raised his head up. Then he looked back down at the Devil and said, "All right. But what do you pay me with?"
"You win this magical publishing pen," the Devil said and reached into his coat pocket and produced a thick, solid gold, fountain pen. He held it up, a short distance from his face and they both stared at it. The dim lighting reflected the soft, pure allure of gold that moves the hearts of men.
"Nice," Pete said and then, "I have no doubt that's real gold. But where's the ink well; does it come with one?
"It is magic. Do you understand magic?"
"What good is a pen? And what do I do with a pen, anyway, write a story?"
"Of course; this pen will guarantee that you will become published."
"So you're a publisher? Listen, Mr. Devil, maybe you haven't been around recently, but we use computers now, not pens. And writers do not even write stories anymore. You could say writers are more concerned with writing than storytelling these days. And movie deals," Pete explained as the Devil listened, scheming about something unknown and unrelated.
The Devil looked a little sullen for a second. He regained his composure and said, "What a shame. Alestair Crowley told me only the other day that in Paris---"
"---Look," Pete interrupted the Devil, "Big S -- tell you what I'm gonna do -- I'll play your game for the pen anyway. Maybe I'll figure out some use for it."
The Devil picked up a little and said, "I'll go first, then."
"Fire away," Pete replied. The cocktail waitress came over and Pete signed the receipt to get his advance and took his beer. She nodded at him, as if to say she would return with his cash in a few minutes, but he ignored her. He took a long sip from his Bud Light, leaned back, and cradled it on his round belly.
"A very long time ago, there were two brothers who were to inherit a kingdom from their father, the king. The kingdom was to be split in two parts. While one prince would get the seacoast, with all its trade and abundance, the other prince was to receive the ripe farmlands of the inland valleys that lay in the mountain ranges, with their mountain routes that lead to bordering countries. Those mountain caravan routes provided an invaluable source of trade as well, since the bordering countries on the other side of the mountain ranges were particularly wealthy. It was there the Elysian Fields lie, on the other side of the mountains.
"The king was a just and lawful man, perhaps like some kings in -- in -- in -- the Bible," the Devil was interrupted as a very voluptuous dancer, whose body was nearly completely exposed, sat down on his lap, and started rubbing him down.
"Hey Cutie, you want a dance?" she asked.
The Devil literally pushed her off of his lap. "Not right now, Aphrodite, I'm a little busy. But I'll get to you later," he said.
"Suit yourself, but you'll be sorry," she said.
The Devil mocked her with a sheepish grin and then returned to his story.
"When it came time to bequeath the lands to his two sons, the king called them to the side of his death bed. Both sons were very anxious. The king slowly said, 'Tartarus and Erebus, it is time for you to inherit my kingdom. Tartarus; you shall take the lower half of the kingdom, Erebus; the mountains and their lush valleys. Tartarus, I know how much you love the sea and the caves that line its cliff faces and how you used to get lost in those caves in your small boat as a boy. And Erebus, how you would forever wander on your journeys through the mountains trails to find "the other side" -- the Elysian Fields -- and how you never were able to. Ah, if you had only asked me.
"'The problem was what to do with my castle. It rests here, right in between your two kingdoms. So, after much thought, I devised a solution. You will war against one another until one of you is victorious. And to that victor goes the spoils; for he shall be the retainer of this great castle, and thus have the upper hand on his brother. From the looks of the expression on your faces, I can see that my decision has surprised you. Well, lawfulness is very important, my children, and since neither of you will die in this battle, what's all the consternation for? Regardless, this is my law and you will carry it out. Now, go to your separate countries, gather your armies and do battle. And let me die in peace!'
"The sons left their father's presence, after saying their final goodbyes. As the weeks and months passed, each son gathered large armies numbering tens-of-thousands. Tartarus, in particular, had a vast army, since most of the kingdom's population lived in the large, seacoast cities. His army outnumbered his bother's by nearly two-to-one. But the men of Erebus' army were more lithe and sinewy, had a higher endurance, and greater constitution than his brother's people, given their mountain altitude lifestyle. Still, Erebus had inherited his fathers mind, and immediately recognizing his disadvantage, set about creating all manner of new war weapons. In time, his army boasted a company armed with newly invented long-rifles, and, it was rumored, a secret weapon.
"Finally, the sons sent out messenger's to their rival's headquarters to say they were ready for battle. Of course, each brother tortured, and then subsequently disemboweled, alive, the messengers, because, by now, they were both very irritated with their sibling. After a few more messengers, a place and time for pitched battle was set: the wide flatlands surrounding the king's castle itself, where the high mountains level off into the plains, which then went down to the sea. It was also agreed that the castle would be off limits at all costs.
"The armies met, gathering over several days, and then commenced to fight spectacular battles. Ah, war -- it is perhaps the only worthy human accomplishment. At war, humans are at your best, and it is there where you rise to my level; it is at war where you are almost godlike," the Devil said, and waxed nostalgic a second in silence.
The waitress came to Pete's side and handed him his cash, but the Devil was not distracted by her, and continued to stare at the ceiling, lost in his own world. Pete quickly stuffed his money into his wallet and leaned back again.
The Devil returned to his story, "Nearly every battle took many weeks, and the war covered the greater part of a year. The brothers would direct their armies to advance and withdrawal, retreat or get routed. At times, with Erebus' precision weapons well placed and hunkered down, it seemed the war might not end until every single soldier fighting in Tartarus' army had been felled.
"But regrettably, though admirably, Tartartus, the brilliant tactician, was forever sending out magnificent orders to his captains, who would launch the age-old hammer and pincer move, or perhaps dart forward in a sudden, Pickets-like charge, and take the field once more, sending their adversaries running in terror. The wrath of Tartarus was most destructive. Certainly, there were no prisoners. Erebus' army would then regroup in the mountains, nursing their wounds. And within days, begin again to slowly advance, pushing the enemy back, yet again.
"Blood was everywhere, and so many dead littered the battlefield, bodies came to be used as blockades. One of the greatest single battles came to be known as 'The Battle of the Smoldering Corpses.' Erebus won that one with nothing other than his secret weapon. It was so impressive of him to wait until the very last moment to use it, and he is to be commended for having done so. What was the secret weapon, you ask? Ah ha! Biological warfare! Yes! Hahahahahaha!"
By now, a small group of strippers had gathered in the seats around the Devil and Pete, and at this point in the Devil's story, the assembled strippers breathed in a chorus of gasps. A crowd of almost ten strippers were sitting in the surrounding sofa chairs. Occasionally, one from the group would have to leave, to go dance on stage. But she would dance only on the side of the stage closest to the storytellers, and spin around her pole a lot, straining her ear to listen, as she danced monotonously.
The Devil continued, "Erebus had taken the wild asphodel plant, so beautiful and abundant, growing around the castle before the Great War, and its pallid and strange, ghostly flowers, and had removed their spores and made them into a gluey substance that he launched from his catapults at Tartarus' screaming hordes of charging, hopeless masses. The genius Erebus had concocted his biological bombs into a chemical by adding other substances, such that, when they landed on top of the lost souls, they would explode and the tiny poison spores would fly up into the air, reaching an altitude of one hundred meters, and then dissipate across the sky, encompassing the entire field of battle. Then the beautiful death slowly and surely settled down upon the enemy. Indeed, initially, what seemed to simply be some muffled explosions, did not stir the huge army of Tartarus. But then, the poor, lost men literally stopped their fighting to look up at the sky, which by now had become a dull orange color, in a kind of pathetic wonderment.
"At this precise moment, Erebus' army ran away from the field of battle. Then the spores descended on the unwary, stunned soldiers. Unfortunately, the spores put out the burning corpses that the battle was named for. But Tartarus' army had been laid in waste. They died a most horrendous death, chocking on their own vomit, just like Jimmy Hendrix. It was a truly glorious day! The insanity of warfare is so truly awesome!"
The Devil paused a moment and looked around at the strippers. He surveyed the scene, judging them for their reactions, to see how good his story was so far. Then he continued, "The king, all the while, had been mysteriously recovering, and was able to watch the battle every day from behind his vast walled castle in safety. After observing the last battle transpire, the king went inside for several days, mindful of the spores.
"Indeed, the Battle of the Burning Corpses was a watershed in the war. Thereafter, Tartarus's army never regained a foothold and the rough and ready warriors of Erebus' army were able to hunt down and tear apart the remaining deserters. Finally, Erebus reached his brother and his warriors forced him to the ground, where, withdrawing his broadsword, he beheaded his brother without so much as a prayer. The decapitated head rolled a few feet in the mud and Erebus spat on it, cursing his brother's soul to eternal damnation.
"Erebus and his ragged, yet veteran, army went to the front gates of the castle, but it was locked. Erebus expected the guard to quickly open it. The king had another plan, however, and signaled his guard to raise the portcullis and lower the drawbridge. Then the king's small, but precision guard of highly trained assassins burst forth and slew Erebus's now relatively small-numbered army. Erebus himself was brought before his father, who, as his son, showed no mercy, and drove a hot rod of rebar iron into his heart, twisting it several times to the right and left, while simultaneously thrusting, before his screaming son's face.
"Both brothers now dead, the land was in ruin. The king was once again king, he having made his sickness a fain. No one was left to challenge him and he ruled for several more years before he finally died.
"Isn't that a beautiful story? Your turn, Sir," the Devil said and the strippers sitting next to the Devil and Pete were struck with a kind of awe, unable to speak or move for several minutes, their mouths agape.
Pete also felt as if his stomach had become knotted up and for a second thought that the story was true and the "king" was sitting in a throne adjacent to him right now. But he dismissed the thought and said, "Whew, that was some story, Mr. Devil. Not sure if I can top it, but I'll give it a try. Here goes," Pete said and took a sip of beer and began.
"It all started when Ozzy Ozborne and his band visited my grandmother's house in L.A. He was there with his guitar player -- Tony something -- and the rest of the band. This also happened some time ago. My grandmother has this really nice Japanese garden behind her house. First, there's a large backyard, and then her garden that went on for a long while, and then there was the garage. The garage is big. I'm sure it could fit four cars with no problem. But you had to go through the alley to get to the garage and it was kind of an inconvenience and everyone always complained about how difficult it was to get to my grandmother's garage whenever they came to visit her.
"My grandmother had been something big in the music industry. Back then; I never really understood what her job was; all I knew, it was big, because every artist imaginable came to visit my grandmother at some time or other: Mick and Keith, Bono, John and Paul; even Peter Frampton. Sometimes, if the visitors were important like Peter Frampton, my grandmother would go to the basement and break out her stash and sit with her guests on her back porch smoking. I always lingered in my grandmother's Japanese garden for hours, even after it got dark, and I came to recognize the strange sent and the ensuing, strange conversations.
"In the garden, there were many tiny windmills that turned around, with each miniature blade piercing the water, submerging, deep into the water, and then coming back out damp. Tiny water droplets would fall from the blade, as it still rotated, for at least another one third of the wheel's continuous rotation. Flat areas lay with neatly raked sand, which the gardener had only finished raking that very morning. Flat limestone and feldspar rocks lined the edges of the pools of water in neat piles. The water was clear in the pools and streams and algae grew in them where shade was. Moss grew on the dark side of the small, Japanese Bushido mini-trees, too. I would literally get lost in my grandmother's Japanese garden for many hours.
"And the bridge, I almost forgot; the bridge is where it all started. There was a walkway through my grandmother's garden that ran from the garage to the backyard. About halfway through the garden, a bridge crossed over a small river.
"So, the time that Ozzy and his band came to visit my grandmother, they were all carrying their instrumentation for some reason -- usually no one brought their instruments to my grandmother's house, but this time they did. I didn't know if they were going to conduct a jam session.
"The drummer was a kind of big guy and he was carrying his drums behind Ozzy. And behind the drummer was the guitar player, Tony, then the bass player, and last, the manager. He was short and had almost no hair on his head. But the manager had a big mouth that he was always running.
"Ozzy had gotten across the bridge and from there you were in the back yard. My grandmother and I were standing in the back yard to greet them. Just as Ozzy got across the walk bridge, he stopped and hollered at my grandmother, he kind of talks funny, 'Heya, der Miss-y- me-ma. Are ya bloody all right?'
"Everyone calls my grandmother me-ma. She was from Tallahassee, Florida, so she naturally had a very thick, southern accent. Between Ozzy and my grandmother, I don't think anyone else would have been able to understand much of anything resembling English.
"My grandmother called back across the backyard, 'Hey der, youins bigens-time-rockin-ana-rolling, rockin, rock star! Comon bover her and sit aside me-ma!'
"'I will bes a comin ov na!' Ozzy shouted back, but behind him, the drummer had not looked up, since he had been schlepping his drums under both of his arms, and he ran right into Ozzy. Two of his big drums fell onto the walkway. One drum rolled a few feet and went plop! into the small river. Then, the guitar player ran right into the drum player, and he must have been a clumsy man, because he smashed right through the bridge railing and fell in the small river. The bass player stopped in time. Then, the manager came running up and started screaming about the damage to the drums. I thought for sure Ozzy would think the whole thing was pretty funny, but he didn't. Instead, he got very upset at his guitar player Tony for breaking my grandmother's bridge. He was cursing at his guitar player, who just lay in the small river, smiling.
"They spent the weekend, but before he left, Ozzy gave my grandmother a big check. She went to Australia for three months and when she returned, across the Pacific, it was with on big yacht, which is still parked in the docks, down in L.A. Then I understood that my grandmother was not one to be trifled with in the profession of music.
"About a year passed, and one summer my family and I were visiting my grandmother. One of our activities was playing croquet in her backyard. We were making our way through the course. Normally, the game would usually digress into this quasi-political discussion and I never cared for that. That was would be about the time I would go to my grandmother's garden.
"And then I found it; the magical guitar pick. It had been lying at the bottom of the small stream, a few feet from the bridge, under one of the rocks jutting out. So I reached in the water, under the rock, and grabbed it. I tore off through the back yard to tell my grandmother.
"'Grandma, I found the guitar's player's guitar pick from Ozzy's band!' I told her.
"'Weehell, whohoo, well'ya looken at dat? Does you be nowing hat that is?' She asked me.
"'No, grandma,' I answered.
"'It'sen a magical guitar pick! You can make a wishan it'all comeen truens,' she said.
"I was very excited and went back to the garden, clutching the guitar pick between my thumbs and index fingers, out in front of me. I intently studied the guitar pick's cat-shit yellow color and its sparkles.
"I went back to the bridge and meditated on my discovery. I was not sure what to do. If it was actually magical, and if I could indeed make a wish, what would I wish for? What if I wished for something too greedy and God punished me? Then what? I did not want to spoil my one magical wish, however. Finally, I said to the guitar pick I was squeezing, 'I'm just going to let you go.'
"I put it back where I found it, back in the stream, right underneath the same rock. And wouldn't you know, this year when I went back to look for it, the magical guitar pick had disappeared. That's it, that's my story,"
Pete said and took a long drink from his beer, finishing it. There was a long pause of silence.
The Devil seemed to want to hear more. The strippers also had the same astonished look on their faces that they had after the Devil had finished his story, but they seemed amused.
"I do not think you have won here," the Devil finally said.
"What? My story was ten times better than yours," Pete said emphatically.
"What is the point of your story, other than you lost a guitar pick? Besides, didn't you steal the idea of your guitar pick from my pen?"
"So what if I did? I think that the only way to decide the winner is to ask the girls."
The Sunday morning strippers had been very quiet as Pete and the Devil had told their stories. Pete knew all the girls, however, he having paid each of for many, many lap dances.
"Fine," the Devil said and asked the dancers, "how many of you liked my story better?"
No one raised their arms up, except for the one dancer who had tried unsuccessfully to dance for the Devil. She raised her arm very slowly into the air. The Devil looked over at Pete, who couldn't resist, "and how many of you girls liked my story better?"
All the rest of the girls raised their hands up high and cheered
loudly. Peter Salinski left with his gold pen. He drove from the back of the
building with a big smile on his face, right into the rising sun. He went
straight to a pawn shop on Las Vegas Boulevard (right next to the Say I
Do Drive-Thru), and sold it for four-hundred dollars. But he returned to
Crazy Horse and spent it on: three dances in the VIP room, two lap
dances, a couple of beers, and the remainder he used to fill up his car with
gas and get a chili dog.
© 2002 Michael Strozier, all rights reserved
appears here by permission