Hell in a Handbasket

Charlie, you know I'm not The Devil, right? Just like Charlie Tuna ain't the fish inside the can. I'm only an advertisement, same as you. I can't meet you at the midnight crossroads and give you demonic guitar picking skills. Hell, I can't even start a fire. I got one job--look good waving my pitchfork. Mr. Underwood's canned meat company sure doesn't mind if my wicked grin persuades people to buy a few tins of deviled ham, but just between you and me I have recently come to realize my role is a little bigger than marketing lunch meat.

I reckon that's why I'm here in the church lady's pantry with the rest of the Wednesday shopping, instead of rolling around the floorboard of some plumber's van. A piece of advice, Charlie, sloth is the deadliest sin. This morning found me lounging around the canned meat aisle at the Food Depot, last tin of deviled ham on the shelf, no plans for the day except picking my teeth with my pitchfork. I figured nobody bought canned ham anymore, so I stopped trying. I'd probably be sitting there way past my expiration date if Josephina hadn't been hunting devils.

Pick your jaw up, Charlie. I can see you know who I'm talking about. Seems like everyone's heard of Josephina, and lately she's cultivated a legend amongst us devils, but I'm one of the few she's touched. 

Up until an hour ago I possessed a seat on the enviable second-shelf-from-the-top, enthroned in the middle of the canned foods between the Libby's Vienna sausages and the Chicken of the Sea. Around ten o'clock, I noticed this girl loitering at the back of the aisle near the fish counter, eyeing every single can. Sometimes she picked one up and scrunched her eyebrows together like she was working out some riddle hidden in the label. There's this damned family-sized roast-turkey-flavored SPAM that blocks my view, but I could tell who she was by that generous slice of midriff peeking out from between her dad's old checked shirt and the abbreviated denim cutoffs the night stockers go on about. They call her jailbait Josie, like she's got some special scheme to land them in the pokey, and maybe she does, but that's her business. She was smacking raspberry bubble gum she got out of the five-cent gumball machine by the door, blowing grapefruit sized bubbles even though it had already lost all its flavor. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other while she read the labels and her lemonade jelly flip flops made a gritty shush on the vinyl floor. Her hips rolled in time with whatever was playing on the jukebox in her brain--something infernal and exactly the opposite of the sanitized crap bleeding out of the supermarket PA. I shit you not, Charlie, they play a smooth jazz version of Iron Maiden's "Number of the Beast" twice a day.

Sorry, Charlie, I get sidetracked sometimes. Let me back up a little so you get the whole story. Tuesday nights some of us get together and play poker. A few devils like me; a Dirt Devil scorpion, a Dodge Demon, the Blue Devil wood glue. Once in a blue moon, Genie polish or a bottle of witch hazel drops by, just to be sociable. Cassie D., the gold devil tattooed on the Casillero del Diablo cabernet sauvignon, usually joins us after the bars close. He's got his pick of alcoholic devils to hang out with--Old Scratch, Old Nick, Hop Devil, Fireball--but Cassie D. says they're "crass" so he mooches around with us. I know poker sounds mundane, but it's the only time we get to talk, and last night we had a single topic of conversation.

Turns out Josephina's brother-in-law is a car dealer and he took the Dodge Demon on trade for a Honda minivan of all things, but that don't bother the Demon much because it got him out of the horse barn he'd been stuck in. Josephina discovered him early Tuesday morning slouched in one of the back spaces, combing his goatee with that damned oversized fork he hauls around. The first thing she did was scrawl her own name above his in the dew glazing his deck lid. She didn't say one word about his sagging suspension or his bald tires, just plopped down in the vinyl driver's seat and made revving noises while she moved the shifter through its gears, then flipped every switch on the dash and told the Demon how she was going to drive him hard, as fast as he could run, all the way past the pecan orchards with the windows open to clear out the hay and kerosene smell, maybe run down one of the dirt roads and get him filthy with mud, and spend the whole afternoon soaping him up with Red Devil cleaner and scrubbing off every last speck of dirt.

The devil on demon action made us all cringe, but it sure was a nice touch. Of course she never even got her hands on the ignition key. Her brother-in-law wasn't about to let a fifteen year old with a learner's permit take the Demon off the lot, even after she told him he could kiss her on the lips.

The Demon likes to talk though, so he told us the story twice. Then he told us about every speeding ticket he'd coaxed his feckless owners into. Then he told us about Josephina again. I can't blame him. They say devils are everywhere, Charlie, but the Chicken of the Sea mermaid won't talk to the Underwood devil and it's the same damned story anyplace you go. We all get a little lonely but the Demon's been stuck in a barn since 1982, so we cut him a lot of slack.

We were all worked up about what Josephina did to the old Demon. Cas D. kept making bad bets and lost his stake after a few hands, then he got all pissy and bitched about us cheating. Can you believe that, Charlie? We're devils. We all cheat. So I asked him what's wrong and he sniffed a little then spilled it. Josephina had been prowling the upscale market that afternoon and she found him. You know he's just a grimacing face with big ears--no arms or legs or anything below the neck--but she touched the tip of her finger to her cherry-glossed lips, then touched it to his nose and told him how dashing he looked in his fine black tuxedo with the long tails, and how his red carnation looked just like a perfect blossom of blood on his lapel, and how she was absolutely dying for him to take her to prom…when she was old enough to invite him.

When you've got no body, words like that fuck with your brain.

Other Josephina stories crossed the poker table, most of them second hand, all of them grotesque, but I was the only devil there who hadn't had a run in with her and I confess I got a little green-eyed. Using our combined powers of deduction, we figured she was on the hunt, trying to punish us for our connection to the big red guy, so before we broke up for the night we made a pact to turn our backs (or backs of our heads or whatever we had) on her.

Which brings us back to this morning. Josephina worked her way up the aisle one can at a time, and I should have wedged myself behind that family-sized roast-turkey-flavored SPAM I mentioned, but I was itching to know what she wanted to do to me. When she got to the corned beef she saw me. Her lips curled at the corners and her hips stopped rolling, like she'd pressed a few buttons on her imaginary jukebox and the 45 was clattering over to the turntable. I don't know what the tune was, but she arched her back as the music twisted down and her whole body coiled around it. She tossed her hair and her lips parted in a little "oh" as if I bumped into her. She slithered over, her eyes just level with my shelf.

I'm not ashamed to admit I threw my pact with the poker devils out the window. But, to be fair, it's not like I could run away.

She got so close her raspberry breath ruffled my hair, and she says she's going to shoplift me, stuff me down the front of her shirt and walk right out the door with me perched in her cleavage. She says we'll ride up to Par 4 sporting goods on her ten-speed and she'll haul one of those high-tensile Diablo golf drivers, the ones designed by Ferrari, out of the big display. She'll tee me up on the plastic grass of the test range, and the last thing I'll see before she hooks the club through my head is brushed tungsten embossed with two bloody horns. And that's not the end, Charlie. She says she'll dig my dented can out of the catch net and carry me over to the big-box DIY store where they sell those stainless steel Red Devil pry bars and she's going to splay me open with the end emblazoned with The Devil's own portrait.

Again with the devil on devil action. She's inspired.

Seeing how I'm telling you all this in the comfort of a tidy pantry, it's obvious I didn't get eviscerated. Not even dented. You know what happens on Wednesday? It's double coupon day at Food Depot, which means the conservative church ladies do their shopping on Wednesday. You can spot them marching through the door from way back at the meat counter: stack of coupons thick as a paperback copy of Faust, oversize beige pocketbook taking up half the cart, silver cross necklace blazing on a beige blouse buttoned all the way to the top. I got nothing against church ladies, they're as good or bad as any other person, but they don't get up in my face and tell me how they're going to smuggle me out in their underwear. 

So I was just about begging Josephina to snatch me off the shelf and bash my brains out, when one of these beige battle angels careened down the aisle, face as sharp as a new hatchet, eyes on fire with righteous indignation at my Josephina's fashion sense. But Josephina didn't flinch. She wrapped me tight in her fist and for a glorious moment lifted me free of my shelf and high into the fluorescent light, but there was no mad dash for the door. Instead she shoved me right up in the church lady's face.
"Look at this," she says, turning me so I have to look straight into the fire of judgment burning in that woman's eyes. "Can you believe they sell this Underwood deviled ham with a big ol' horny devil playing with his pitchfork right here on the can? Just two aisles over from the baby food? I can't afford no real ham, but I sure ain't going home with this nasty thing in my bag."

She dropped me into the church lady's cart like I was a dead rat, snatched up a fat can of Armour Treet, and as she walked away she says, "I can't imagine what kind of woman takes him home."

I guess you and I both know what kind of woman takes me home.

I don't know if that was Josephina's plan all along, but I can't be mad at her. I mean, what would I accomplish tucked in her shirt? She's already going to hell in a hand basket, and she showed me what a lousy job I've been doing. All of us devils, really. We're not supposed to be lurking in the shelves and playing poker, we're supposed to be standing proud in people's kitchens, taking up two parking spaces at their offices, cleaning the dirt off their floors with an impish yet reassuring flick of our pointed tails. We're selling more than ham or wine or golf clubs, we're out here so when people look at The Devil they don't see sin, they see what gets the job done with the least amount of effort, what it takes to win the game, what tastes better than plain.

They see what they deserve. And I'm here to tell the church lady, "trust me, a little spice can't hurt nothing. Just try one bite."