They let us use the community center to talk about books. It made sense. What I was doing, it was pretty much community service. Not the kind mandated by a judge. This was more self-imposed.
Eight months ago, not drunk or in a rush or driving through the rain, I’d skipped through a stop sign after picking my son up from third grade, ran us into a furniture truck. Jeremy didn’t die against the dashboard that day, but the surgeries are still coming. His prom date, she’s going to have to look inside to see the real him.
In quick succession, then, I flamed out of my year-to-year contract at our branch of the state university, was back to stocking tools and air conditioners at night.
And this. Talking about books.
More and more, I was thinking it was the only good thing I had in me. My only real gift. And that, if I didn’t share it, then the next time one of Jeremy’s bills came due, my wife’s dad wasn’t going to come through with a check, or the surgeon that day was going to have had one too many drinks at lunch.
I’d put up a flyer at the library, the laundromat, the carwash, both coffee shops.
There were seven of us, most Wednesdays.
This week we were reading Stephen King again. Marcy from the bank had recommended him, because, she said, she was too scared to read him alone. So we went with her into those dark places. Well, I’d already been, but I toured them through—the life, the times, the legend—and then passed a photocopied story out for next week. For this week.
The story was “The Man in the Black Suit.” It was about a nine-year-old kid a century ago, just out fishing one day, then encountering the devil, barely getting away. It had some resonance to it, but no real gore. What I planned to tell the group was that how it worked was it was taking this kid’s blind faith—America’s stubborn Christianity—and making it real all at once. So, really, the story was a confirmation, a celebration. The old man who had been the boy, the old man writing this down in his diary, he was one of the lucky ones, the ones who never had to doubt if angels and demons were real. He knew.
So, the study question, it was going to be which is better, to know or not to know?
And, yes, of course Jeremy was nine that day I picked him up from third grade. He was a year older than his classmates—I’d taught in China for a year, when there were no jobs here—but his age didn’t mean anything to him yet. And now he was probably going to be two years behind. But alive. That’s the epithet I kept tagging onto everything: but alive. As in, this could all be worse. I should be thankful for whatever fell on me next.
Since my shift started at nine, we usually met at six, dinnertime. Each week a different person would bring a casserole, pass out the plates. This week it was Lew’s turn. He was retired Air Force, said he’d taken a stack of paperbacks with him on both tours in ’72. That he was the only one in his bunkhouse who would stay awake reading.
He brought chicken dumplings in a crock pot.
Aside from him, and Marcy—she of the bank—there was Drake, a straitlaced city planner, the one who’d told us about the community center; there was Evelyn, who always brought her crocheting but hardly ever said anything; and Jackie and her daughter Gwen, a junior in high school, there very much against her will for a taste of what literature was going to be like in college.
In the flyer, I’d of course mentioned my background.
So, we were a healthy group of bookworms. A good mix of backgrounds and ages, anyway, if not very diverse.
When the dumplings were gone and adequately praised, we put our plates under our chairs and dove into King.
Because it was his night—for food, but you could tell he felt responsible for the discussion as well—Lew pinched his jeans up his thighs, leaned forward like telling us a secret, and said that he hoped none of the ladies took a fright to this particular story.
Evelyn tittered, her needle flashing, and I got the sense that one of these nights Lew was going to ask her for coffee afterwards, and she was going to suggest the perfect place.
“Scared me,” Drake said.
He was still wearing his tie from the day’s work. Not loosened or anything.
“Me too,” I lied, just to not leave him hanging.
While King had stories that were terrifying, this one was, in comparison, safe. By burying the nine-year-old’s story in the frame of an old man’s journal, it was locating the devil in another time, another place. One far, far from us.
Jackie elbowed her daughter just enough to get her to talk: “You could tell right away who he was. From the eyes.”
“Those eyes,” Jackie said, seconding her daughter’s motion.
“How did he see out of them?” Lew said, leaning back, crossing his arms.
I nodded, was liking this.
The good thing about voluntary book discussions is that I don’t have to play dentist. Getting people to talk’s not like pulling teeth.
“Because they were—because there were flames in his eye sockets, right?” Marcy said.
We all nodded, as if seeing the devil again, as King had drawn him: tall, neatly dressed in a black suit. Subtle claws at the ends of his fingertips. Instead of eyes, just orange flickering flames. And a mouth that could open well past what any human jawbone would allow. And the teeth. Those teeth.
“Maybe he doesn’t have to subscribe to our rules of biology,” I said, looking around the circle for support.
“He has to eat,” Gwen said, all on her own. “He eats that fish, right?”
“It’s not a human hunger, though,” Lew said. “Just doing it for meanness, like. To show off, scare that kid.”
“Good, good,” I said, wanting to stand because it’s the main way I know to think. “But, remember, this is eighty years ago for this old man remembering it now. What would you say if I offered that he just encountered a bad man in the woods that day, then, because of his upbringing, he started to remember him as the devil. He started to add the stuff he knew from Sunday school. Claws, flame, teeth . . . ”
“He does fall asleep before it all happens,” Evelyn said, hooking another stitch, pulling it through.
She was our cynic.
“But is it any less scary if it’s a dream or if it’s real?” Marcy asked.
“Or even if it was just a serial killer,” Jackie added. “That’s pretty scary too, isn’t it?”
“Damn straight,” Lew said, clapping his knee.
“But for every killer there’s a cop, right?” I asked.
Shrugging nods all the way around. This is what they would have been paying for, had they been paying.
“So, follow me now. If there’s devils, then there’s also . . . ?”
“More devils?” Gwen said.
“Kids,” Marcy corrected.
“He means angels,” Evelyn said, stabbing with a needle.
I nodded like I’d been caught, was about to shift gears into my thesis when Lew said, “But who wants to read a story about an angel, right?”
I lowered my face to smile—he was right—and when I looked back up to the group, the twin doors on the other side of the gym were opening up.
Because they were on cylinders, were designed to not crush fingers, we all got the guy’s outline before we got him.
He was tall, spindly, top-hatted. His dark suit ragged at the edges, and not quite long enough for his legs or his arms.
For an instant his eyes flashed, taking my breath away, but in the next instant he was wearing a pair of those old pince-nez, their twin lenses catching the light.
Beside me, Gwen flinched. Jackie took her hand, pulled it across, to her own lap.
“Speak of the—” Lew said just loud enough for the book circle, and chuckled.
The spindly man hooked a stray chair by the door, dragged it all the long way across the wooden floor of the gym to us and set it down, opposite me.
“Room for one more?” he asked.
“How’d you hear about us?” I said, trying to sound casual.
He gave me a smile and a wink, then flapped open a much-folded piece of paper. One of my flyers. All of which I was pretty sure I’d collected, once we had a quorum.
“Looks like he’s invited,” Evelyn said.
“A scarf,” the spindly man said, about her crochet-job.
“Don’t know just yet,” Evelyn said back. Definitely a challenge in her voice. For all of us.
We had a rhythm, had already relaxed into our assigned roles.
The spindly man’s eyes made the circuit of our little circle, lingering maybe a touch too long on Gwen, then launching two fingers off his right eyebrow in salute to Lew.
“Even the money-handlers,” he said, about Marcy.
“And you?” she said right back to him, like he wasn’t the first ornery customer she’d had to deal with.
“Just happened to be strolling by,” he said, refolding the flyer, stuffing it in the waist pocket of his vest. “What’s the story, doc?” he said then, right to me.
I breathed in, breathed out.
Evidently we were doing this.
“Stephen King,” I said, then, pointedly, “ ‘The Man in the Black Suit.’ ”
“Ahh,” the spindly man said, his eyes on Gwen again. “The King man cometh. I know him well, you could say.”
“We were just talking about how if you admit devils,” Drake said, “then that means the door must be open for angels as well.”
“Or more demons,” the spindly man said, sitting back into his chair. “Inside every angel, there’s a demon waiting to claw out, right? But please, don’t let me interrupt.”
And so we went valiantly forward. Just with not much heart.
Instead of listening, or contributing, the spindly man extracted Marcy’s plate from under her chair, then used his finger to scoop her thin layer of leftover dumplings into his wide mouth.
I heard myself traipsing back through Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” for the group, trying to establish it as the literary antecedent for King this time out. Upon hearing “Hawthorne,” Jackie of course made Gwen recite what she knew about The Scarlet Letter.
It gave the spindly man more excuse to stare her up and down. To—and this was the only word for it—malinger.
“But—” I started, not at all sure where I was going, just that I had to pull his eyes off Gwen.
The spindly man was already speaking, though: “Go into the forest, taste the intangible. You come back with the story, never the proof. Am I right?”
Silence. Welcome to the land of crickets, I said in my head, quoting one of my former students.
Lew coughed an old man cough deep in his chest. Marcy scuffled her shoes on the gym floor. Drake stared into his lap, his fingertips drumming some arcane, personal rhythm against each other.
“Good,” I said at last. “Proof. It’s what we were talking about before you got here. If you can prove the vital tenets of a religion, then you lose the possibility of faith. So, King’s man in this black suit, by showing this boy that he was real, he also cored out the boy’s eventual leap of faith. Leaving him to lead a hollow life, as established by all the years between nine and ninety being, as far as we see on the page, empty, devoid of content. Not even interesting enough to paraphrase.”
Sometimes you have to knock a student down with preparation.
The spindly man just grinned a sharp grin.
“Proof,” he said. “We’ve all got proof, man. I bet every one of us has a story like this kid’s. Don’t we?”
Nobody said no.
“You,” he said to Marcy. “You’ve seen the devil, haven’t you?”
“We usually don’t—” I tried, but he held a hand out to me like a crossing guard might, his palm and fingers straight up.
Worse, I actually stopped.
“I don’t know what it was,” Marcy said.
The spindly man smiled. Lowered his hand.
“We were twelve,” Marcy said. “I’d told my mom I was staying at Reese’s, and she said she was staying at my house. You know. So we were going to camp under the old windmill. It was a dare.”
“Dare, dare,” the spindly man urged.
“Of course we didn’t sleep,” Marcy said, her eyes flashing up to Jackie in something like apology, as if she were being a bad influence on Gwen here. “Then, about two or three in the morning, our flashlights both died at once. And we looked up the side of the windmill. The moon was bright that night, and right above us.”
“No,” Lew said, and I looked to him.
Did he know where this story was going?
“And then, coming down the side of the windmill, already about ten feet from the top, I don’t know. There was somebody, okay? Maybe it was just a jacket a worker had left tied up there.”
“Because they always do that,” the spindly man said.
“We ran,” Marcy said. “We ran and we ran, and he was behind us the whole way. We just knew.”
“And you came back with the story,” the spindly man said. “That’s your proof. Good. Do we think she’s lying, folks? Is her story enough for you, or do you need her to have scars on her back, from sharp fingernails? Or a dead friend, who wasn’t quite fast enough?”
“She did die,” Marcy said, her voice cracking a bit. “Later that year. Got hit on the highway, trying to go . . . we didn’t know where. Oh God.”
She turned her head, balancing tears in her eyes.
“And you?” the spindly man said to Lew.
“Me,” Evelyn said, uncharacteristically. “One night coming home from bringing dinner to my husband on the night shift, I noticed the fuel gauge was too far in the red. And there were only cotton fields between me and home, and there were these wild packs of dogs that year. My cousin had already been mauled. But then, right when the engine sputtered, a pair of headlights popped on in my rearview, and stayed there all the way until I pulled into the driveway. And then the car died.”
“An angel,” Gwen said.
Evelyn just stared at the spindly man.
“Next,” he said, no humor in his voice at all.
“Who are you anyway?” Lew said.
“Somebody who needs proof,” the spindly man said.
“Of what?” Lew said.
“The intangible,” the spindly man over-enunciated. “You know.”
“I don’t have to tell you,” Lew said. “I never even told my wife.”
“Of course, of course,” the spindly man said, all manners now. “Just leave Marcy running home through the darkness all alone.”
Lew looked from the spindly man to Marcy. Then to me.
“So maybe I saw something once,” he said.
Just to have control again, I nodded for him to continue.
The spindly man shifted his chair in anticipation.
“We were at . . . well, it doesn’t matter,” Lew started off. “Way past the DMZ. Deep, no support. Somebody was shooting at us from a fortified position. So we ventilated his little roost, and he stopped shooting like you have to. Because you’re dead.”
“Exactly,” the spindly man said. “The dead don’t shoot, of course they don’t. What is this, television?”
Lew wasn’t listening to him anymore, though.
“Only, once we broke cover, that dead sniper, he came back up over the lip of his little parapet. Except—I was the only one to see it—he was still dead. And there was another man up there with him. Moving that dead sniper’s arms like a puppet. Putting his finger on the trigger. We lost three more men that day.”
“And you made it home,” the spindly man said. “Good for you. You’re living, breathing proof of the intangible. You saw it, respected it, and were given your life in return. Who else, now?”
There was Jackie, Gwen, Drake, and me.
“When her father died,” Jackie started, her hand gripping Gwen’s knee, but then Drake cut in: “I used to lie in my bed all night. I knew there weren’t any monsters in the closet, or under the bed. That was stupid. But outside. Outside was much bigger.”
“It is, it is,” the spindly man said, smiling again, his lips thin enough as to hardly even be there at all.
“So one night,” Drake said. “One night I decided I was going to call it out. My fear, I mean. I was going to get up, go to my window, peek out the corner. If nobody was there, then it was just all in my head. But then, when I pulled the curtain to the side, there was a pair of eyes looking back at me.”
The spindly man laughed in his chest.
Jackie gripped Gwen’s hand harder.
“It was my own reflection,” Drake said then, right to the spindly man. “It was proof I was being stupid. That I was a kid. Does that count?”
“Did it feel stupid?” the spindly man asked. “Or did you sleep in your parents’ room that night?”
Drake didn’t say anything. Just drummed his fingers.
“After my husband passed over,” Jackie said then, speaking for her and Gwen both, evidently, “we could hear something in the garage some nights.”
“Mom,” Gwen said, trying to shut her up.
“And one time I finally went out there, with a spatula.”
“To scramble some brains . . . ” the spindly man said.
“There was a puppy,” Jackie said. “He’d left us a puppy.”
“The garage door was open, Mom,” Gwen said.
“And, tell me,” the spindly man said, “did you keep it, this puppy? Are you giving it unmonitored access to your house now?”
“Unmonitored?” Lew said, defensive.
“Who knows what our pets are up to when we’re away,” the spindly man said, angling his narrow face over at me now. “They could stand up on two legs, walk all around. Sniff at the vents for things only a dog could smell living up there. Waiting up there.”
“Stop,” Evelyn said.
The spindly man was still watching me.
“Good professor?” he said.
I looked from face to face of the group.
This wasn’t at all where I’d meant this discussion to go. But, I had to admit, what we were doing, it was showing what we brought to the story. Which had to reveal, in part, the means by which it had got to us. Like an archetypal well of shared stories. One King had the savvy to tap into.
We all had a devil on our back trail.
Or, in my case, in front of me.
“The day of the wreck,” I said, swallowing loudly. At least in my ears. “The driver of the furniture truck. I don’t think he was a person. Not anymore. I think he’d been waiting all day just to cross that intersection. He was—he was smiling when we hit him. And you don’t smile, do you? What kind of a person smiles when a kid’s about to get disfigured for life?”
Jackie reached across Gwen to pat my thigh.
“Now,” the spindly man said, to the group. “The good doctor here. Do you actually believe a man in a black suit was driving that truck that day, or has his own memory and guilt altered his memory of it?”
“This is over,” I said, standing, my chair scraping away from me. It was too loud in the tight gym. Too sudden. And I didn’t care.
“But—” Marcy said.
“He’s right,” Lew said, standing as well, his eyes with mine.
The soldier, always looking for someone to guard. It was so clichéd, so stupid. And I was so thankful for him.
He went around collecting plates, everybody else standing to help, to arrange.
Everybody except the spindly man.
He hadn’t moved from his chair. He was just letting the group course around him, his arms crossed like he was in a pout, and wanted us to know it.
As was custom in our little group, I stayed in what had been our circle, shook hands and gripped shoulders. It made me feel like the captain going down with the ship. Lew held onto my hand longer than he had to, pulled me close.
“You good?” he said, meaning the spindly man.
“I’m golden,” I said, and smiled to prove it, then ducked my head for Evelyn to drape her just-made scarf around my neck.
She pecked me on the cheek, Drake shook my hand, and the last one through the double doors was Gwen. She looked back to me, her eyes plaintive, almost. Like she was telling me no.
I raised my hand in farewell.
Behind me, the spindly man coughed into his hand.
“We have to leave now,” I told him.
“Thought it went until eight,” he said, standing to face me.
When I reached for his chair, to put it up, he took it instead, jerked it away.
“Good selection,” he said. “ ‘The Man in the Black Suit.’ ” I identify with it, you could say.”
“You never told us your proof,” I said. “Of the intangible.”
We were standing at center court.
“Some of us don’t need proof,” he said, measuring his words. “But, tonight. Next campfire I find myself at, I might tell the riveting story of the book group. The one who didn’t know what they were playing with. The one who thought stories are just made up. What do you think, doc? I got a winner there?”
“Tonight was a horror story for us,” I told him, more than a little proud of myself for coming up with that, “not you.”
“So I take I’m . . . uninvited?” he said.
“Will that stop you?” I said back.
He looked to the dark gym behind me. To get me to look as well, it seemed.
I didn’t. I wouldn’t.
“Maybe tonight’s story isn’t even over yet,” he said, then, before I could reply, he was pushing back into the double doors. “Tell Captain Lewis thank you if you will, for the dish. And for remembering.”
“Rememb—?” I started, but now he was tipping his hat, bowing out.
I finally breathed.
And looked behind me, now that I could.
The whole gym was dark, a patchwork of deeper and deeper shadows. At work tonight, there were going to be walls and walls of shadows, I knew. Me moving silently through them with a cart, a dolly, a back brace. A broken son. One I was so grateful for, it hurt.
I wanted to cry, I think.
Instead, I straightened the spindly man’s chair. It was already straight, but I wanted to make it straighter.
Next I turned like always, to nod bye to the ghost of the book group. To thank it for keeping me sane, for letting me give back, pay my dues.
And then I walked across the thick blue sideline, for the double doors that would lock comfortably behind me, and only looked up when I was almost there, to the crash-bars, the door handles.
Two points of flame, flickering in the reflection.
My back straightened and I gulped air as quietly as I could.
Behind me. The spindly man, he’d crept around to a side door, let himself in, was standing behind me now, his fingertips extending into claws, his rows of teeth glistening against each other, his eyes on fire.
I jerked back from the reflection. It was a stupid move, should have sent me right into his chest.
I even looked again, which is always the first mistake, the first step onto that slippery slope.
Just emptiness behind me. The whole gym, nobody.
I spun back around to the doors, sure he’d got around me somehow, would be waiting.
It was just me.
I nodded that I was being stupid, that I was scaring myself like Drake had been talking about, and took another step forward.
The orange eyes faded in again.
I shook my head no, no.
The eyes did too.
And then, like I had to, I cupped my hand over the right side of my face. And then lowered that hand, covered my other eye.
It was me.
I was the devil, I am the devil, the one smiling behind the wheel that day.
In Stephen King’s story, the kid’s dad’s looking over his shoulder into the tangled woods, he’s cueing in to some indistinct rustling in the trees. Some smell, some evil presence.
My face was lost in the brush, though.
He couldn’t see me hunched over and grinning, my face wet with tears, my split tongue reaching up to dab them off my cheek.
“Run,” I’d said to that kid, that nine-year-old. Or, I’d tried to, with every trick I had. If he stayed, then something might happen to him, something bad.
But it does anyway.
Originally published in Fearful Symmetries.