DEVIL IN A GUYS GARDEN
Bettie Lee Turner
I’m not sure how the devil gained possession of my garden. I went out to grab a tomato, and there he was.
“Who are you?” I asked. It was the best response I could come up with when faced with something cloven hoofed and pointy tailed in my backyard.
“I’m a garden gnome. Go away.”
“You’re not a garden gnome, and what are you doing to my cat?” The cat, Mitzy, was squashed under one tiny hoof. (I should tell you the devil’s a lot smaller than we were led to believe.)
“Nothing, nothing,” he said, kicking loose mulch and leaves over her prone body, staring off into the sky. I can see why he masquerades as a garden gnome, he’s green.
“Stop that!” I said. “You’ve killed my cat!” Mitzy had to be dead. No way her hyperactive thyroid would let her remain in the dirt under anybody’s hoof. I tore open the garden gate, and the devil backed off, leaving my wretched cat in the trough between the lettuces and carrots. He stood with his hands behind his back, tail swishing.
I stood over her color ravaged body: grays, oranges, tiger stripes, she was a riot of patterns and hues. And definitely dead. The fall wind rattled the trees and their husky leaves. Multi-faceted golds, coppers, and reds dipped and swayed in a memorial dance. The setting would be idyllic - if there wasn’t an evil gnome standing over the carcass of my cat.
“You bring her back to life!” I said, pointing down at her remains.
He put his blackened hands to his little demon waist, and bent forward, furrowing all his facial features, trying to threaten me.
“It don’t work like that, buddy,” he said, tottering on hoofed feet. He looked like a little girl in mother’s high heels, and swished his tail constantly to keep his balance. I don’t think I can convey what a foolish figure the Prince of Darkness makes.
“Look you freak midget, I didn’t summon you - you probably want the Simmons’s kid down the block...” The devil crossed his arms and rolled his eyes, indicating his disinterest in my neighbor's spawn. “You bring my cat back and then get the hell out of my garden!”
“Look, we can make a deal,” he said, holding his arms towards me, palms up, “Let’s just call this a sacrifice.”
Now, I’m usually the most diplomatic of men. I don’t shoot bb’s at my neighbor’s dogs when they bark too much (and too often - chihuahuas. The dog rat!), but there must be something about dealing with denizens of the nether world that puts my hackles up. If he were a neighbor, hell, if he were a door-to-door salesman, I’d talk to him reasonably until we came to a compromise. Instead, I bent down, grabbed his slimy little neck, and started hauling him toward the gate.
He barely put up a protest. You’d think he’d summon lightening or at the very least fire and brimstone. He started to blather and plead, like a car salesman trying to keep his latest mark on the floor.
“Hey, buddy, what about your cat? You wanna leave it in that condition? I mean, you know, what would she think?” Now he was starting to sweat, a smell somewhere between wet dog and barbecued pork loin.
“And what are you gonna about that?” I asked, giving him a shake. He put his hands up and I could see the long, brittle fingernails. The flesh was not black, as I thought, but a viscous green. Darker even than the forest green in the crayon box. It lived in all the creases of his face, the dimples smattering his rotund belly and the folds of his neck.
“We can do something about it, I just need a little favor...”
“Ok, ok!” he said. “I need your...help?”
“Ok, help,” I conceded.
“I need something to replace the cat.”
“Are you trying to trick me? I swear, I am a God-fearing man, but so help me...”
“Oh, don’t mention that guy, I hate that guy!”
“Listen, Lucy-fur,” I said, hoping to ruffle the little freak's feathers, “you try and trick me and we’re going have a problem of biblical proportions on our hands. Do you understand?”
“No trick, no trick,” he said, waving his hands as if swatting away bugs. “But it’s nature, you know? Taking a life - eh,” he accentuated this with the universal indicator of breaking a stick, or someone’s neck. “But taking from death without putting something in it’s place can leave a huge hole, a cosmic tunnel, an ectoplasmic vortex, the whole works. You don’t want that in you back yard.”
There were a lot of things I didn't want in my back yard. A portal to the underworld is high on the list of things I don't want in my back yard. I’d have to get what he needed.
“Ok, so bring me something to take the place of the cat.” The devil must have read my mind and cut me off. “No, not a bug or a spider, you wuss, I need something I can work with, a dog or a cat. Preferably a cat.”
If it was a cat he wanted, I was definitely getting a dog.
He said I shouldn’t move Mitzy. I hated leaving her; half covered in dirt, mouth agape, belly up like a fish. I thought he could be putting me on, torturing me for his own amusement, but I decided to err on the side of caution. I left the demon and went back into my cottage. I had a plan, but I had to wait until nightfall.
Around midnight I dressed in a black jogging suit an aunt had given me for a birthday. I was halfway to my destination before I realized my error. As the silence grew around me (meaning that once the trip hammer of my heart dulled enough for me to hear anything else) the high tech, shiny material I had wrapped myself in was whiffing away like a buzzsaw. Think corduroy on a nuclear level. I imagined shaking the caterpillars from their leaves as I sauntered down the block; that at any minute white, distrusting ovals of faces would part curtains of quaint dwellings. People would storm their front yards, pull pickets from their fences or bunches of thorny roses from their beds and attack me in the street. Surely I carried my evil deed above my head in a cartoon bubble.
I glanced down and found another folly. The two white stripes running down the sides of the pants and sleeves were bright enough to attract moths. I could get a second job landing planes if I wanted. I was too far in, though, and the suit was my alibi. I teach drama to high school students, I’m thirty and not married, so anyone in this saccharine burg who doesn’t think I’m a little weird thinks I’m homosexual. Either excuse would do for my neighbors. If anyone looked out their window, they would think the bachelor teacher is out for a midnight constitutional. I’d just have to crunch and glare my way along.
The dog I had in mind was a Lhasa Apso named Sparky that had lost his spark. When he walked, it was with a limp. Usually, he dragged himself around, evident by the wads of matted fur running along his sides, clutching clumps of leaves, weeds and other yard paraphernalia. He belonged to a perfectly charming alcoholic around the corner from me. She waited tables at my favorite breakfast spot and tended (and took advantage of) the bar at the tavern. I figured I was doing them both a favor.
I approached Marcia Heatherfield’s house and surveyed the scene. The block was empty, barely a porch light twinkled on the street. The house was small and charming, as the housing association insisted, and sat at the end of a path. There was a raised porch running along the front lost in the gloom of two oaks trees. It had a gothic feel I'd never noticed in the daytime. The porch looked deeper, the windows could have hid malignant creatures behind heavy drapes, and the gate was slightly ajar, as if beckoning me to my death. I took a deep breath and stepped in the yard.
Sparky was laying inside a lean-to beside the porch. I approached him and he began to swim with joy in the mud and leaves that covered the floor.
“There, there, fella, it’s ok,” I said, bending down to pat his crusty head. His tongue lapped at the air, his body writhing in ecstasy. I put my hands inside and gingerly lifted him. Noxious doggy fumes blossomed around us. I gagged and coughed, choking as I tried to be quiet. I was trying to remember how long a person could safely hold their breathas I turned to leave. I almost dropped the dog.
Marcia stood in the gloom of the porch.
My heart started banging against my ribs. I thought I should speak first. I didn’t know what I meant to say, but I was sure it would sound calm and rational once I figured it out. All I got out was a gargle.
“Oh Paul, I knew you’d come,” she said, gesturing at me with the beer bottle in her hand. She stepped out of the shadows and the moonlight spilled across her. I was surprised at what greeted me. Her heart shaped face was swollen to an oval, bruised flesh lay under her eyes. She wore a pair of cutoffs that cut into her belly, a small roll hanging over the top button. She wasn’t fat, just generous. She wore a tight, white tee shirt, the neck cut in a deep V and the bottom tied beneath her breasts, which were also generous and in danger of losing their grip on the front of the shirt.
“I’m surprised you were able to stay away so long,” she said, her voice slurred, her eyes far away. Her head tilted back and she ran the bottle sensuously along the side of her neck. When sober, Marcia was lovely and breezy. When drunk, her charm was blunted and boorish and aroused only my pity. But the beer...I saw the condensation weeping down the side, and gulped. The walk had been short, but the suit and the errand had covered me with a light film of sweat. The bottle made its way to the curve of a breast and the knot gave way, her breasts fell and bounced, taking up a much lower position on her chest.
“Aww...shit...” she said. The look in her eye was gone, replaced by the familiar ‘where am I again?’ look, common in a drunk faced with anything unexpected. She fixed her eyes on me again and recovered, readjusting to the come hither stance and began a slow descent of the steps, sashaying like a real southern belle. Of course, if the saunter was intended, or it was just the alcohol, it didn’t matter. Either way, it was a bad time for the rotting handrail to give way.
She did an armless cartwheel, winding up dazed and shaken at the foot of the steps. With the fragile dog in my arms, all I could do was watch. She held the beer bottle till the last, letting go just in time for it to roll past me, it’s amber stream glugging over my tennis shoes. Sparky whimpered and looked down at his mistress, then craned around and looked into the vastness of my soul. That look would keep anybody honest. I admit it, before I locked eyes with those limpid pools, I wanted to beat it the hell out of there, take the devil his due and get this nightmare over with. I considered doing the right thing by her to be Sparky’s last request.
I set him down and went to her. I helped her up and tried to inspect her in the dim light. She was covered with leaves, there was a dark smear on her leg that may have been a scrape, but nothing seemed broken. Her head swiveled on its loose axis, and caught me looking her up and down. She leaned heavily onto my chest and exhaled. I think it was meant to be a cool sensual sigh, but the breath that coated my face was dense with beer and cigarettes.
“Come on, Marcia, let’s get you to bed,” I said, and as the words left my lips I found myself wishing I could grab them from the air and stuff them back down my throat.
“Kind of in a hurry, aren’tcha?” she asked. I ignored the innuendo and bore most of her weight as she tried to play the helpless belle up the steps. She wiggled against me and clutched at my chest. I looked back at Sparky, but got no sympathy.
Inside the house, the scent of beer hung in a mist. There were no lights on. I didn’t know if I woke her, or had she been drinking in the dark? The light from outside filtered through the sheers on the windows, surprisingly bright and silver. I have to admit I was surprised by the interior. I had expected late century trailer trash, but the furnishings were stylish and the house was neat.
She continued through the living room, leading me to the bedroom, still leaning against me and giggling. I tried to keep her from bumping into things while I looked around, and encouraged her with words carefully chosen.
We crossed the threshold of her bedroom and she laughed. Her bed was tall, guarded by brass head and foot boards. The moonlight, or maybe the street lamps, spread rectangular blocks across the comforter. She lurched forward, hauling me behind her and began to run, a gangly sort of thing that would have been sexy and playful if she were sober. If I didn’t pull up, we would both wind up on the bed, a piece of furniture I had no business even looking at with her in this condition. I pulled back, but she continued on and smacked into the side of the bed. In slow motion, I saw the last of her fingers slip from my own, and she crumpled to her knees, then toppled over. She didn’t have time or wasn’t able to use her hands to stop her fall and her head hit the floor with a crunch. The sound from behind the veil of hair could have been a laugh or a cry.
I bent down and brushed the curls back from her face. It parted like a curtain, and I was greeted by two silver streaks making their way down her cheeks. She looked up at me then, and it was the day to day Marcia I knew. The one that served me coffee. The one that pretended she had a headache from sinuses or allergies, and that was also what puffed her face up and made the end of her nose red. The fall had knocked her back from whatever numb place she had been hiding in. She was so open then, so hopeless. Her tears and the darkness made her pupils large and endless, her lips fighting to stay shut as she gasped for breath between sobs. She stared up at me and I think she caught her own reflection in my eyes. I think she saw what I saw, and it scared her.
I helped her to her feet and under the covers, thin and vulnerable as a piece of paper near a flame. She didn’t lay her head on the pillow, but resigned it there. I was straightening the covers over her, and she put her hand on my forearm. I can’t explain it, it was a simple gesture, something a woman does a thousand times when trying to get a man’s attention, trying to be flirtatious, or the way she will communicate with you when you are so intimate you read each other’s minds by touch. I knew what it meant - “Stop. You can stop now.”
The humiliation of the night was seeping out of her pores. I tried to smile as gently as possible. She didn’t return it, but her eyes were wide, and grateful.
Before I got to the threshold of the bedroom, before I got to the front door, before I got to the bottom of the steps and found Sparky’s cold, dead body, I knew I wouldn’t be taking Marcia Heatherfield’s dog to his doom. God got there first. I readjusted the tilted handrail and left Sparky there, heading for my own garden gate.
I didn’t know what I’d tell the devil. I felt like I had left my cottage two thousand miles away instead of just two blocks. On the walk back, I contemplated. Do I leave Mitzy to the devil? I mean, she’s already gone. Sparky is gone, that loss would be more profound for Marcia than the on-again-off-again thing I had with my cat.
I wanted to go straight to bed, but I went down the driveway to the garden. I was going to tell the devil to do what he would - I had been through enough this night. What’s a few unholy acts perpetrated in your garden, what with all the turmoil in the world? Didn’t the devil have lots of places to go? He couldn’t be there all the time, maybe we could negotiate weekends.
I didn’t have to worry. The green monster was waiting for me at the gate, and Mitzy was cleaning herself along the top of the fence. He had a stick cocked over his shoulder with a hobo-bag made out of a bandana hanging off the end. He was dabbing his eyes with a large handkerchief.
“Oh whore of babylon,” he blubbered, “If I’d have known what a sentimental sorry sack of shit you were, I never would have come here.” He came through the gate and let it bang shut behind him. “I mean, Christ-on-a-crutch, have your damn cat back. All that freakin’ trouble, I mean, TITS out to here!” He gestured with his hands, cupping two large melons in front of his chest, the hobo sack almost sliding out of his grip, “and he puts her back untouched!” I got the idea he was no longer talking to me. I reached out for Mitzy and stroked her as she cleaned the underside of a leg.
The demon headed down the driveway. Mitzy and I watched as he went, wailing and crying all the way. He turned to gesture back at us with the handkerchief, “You didn’t even get a boner!” and something else, but his voice was so wracked by sobs I couldn’t understand it. He took a left at the end of the driveway, and I haven't seen hoof nor tail of him since.