By Vincent Poturica
Featured Art: View of the City and London Bridge
About nine or ten years ago when I was not yet twenty, my friend Carlos asked me if he should sell his soul to the Devil’s best friend in exchange for a better world—I am not kidding, son. I told Carlos that selling his soul sounded a little hardcore, even for him, and that he should probably meditate on the potential consequences for at least a week. I also suggested that he contemplate his motives, i.e. whether or not he was really doing it for a good cause—though I confessed that I distrusted anyone who thought they knew what was best—or because he felt desperate regarding the recent death of our dear friend Ivan. I then told him—and he agreed—that he also probably needed to consider whether the Devil’s best friend was the best person or demon to sell his soul to, whether the Devil’s best friend was even certified to buy his soul—I admitted that I had never heard of someone selling their soul to the Devil’s best friend, but I was, of course, ignorant of many things. I then questioned the extreme subjectivity of better world, encouraging Carlos to make sure to specify as much as possible the criteria for what made this world better, for instance its natural resources, its climate, its historical record of oppression, among other factors, before he signed any contracts with his blood or whatever you did these days to officially seal transactions involving that most precious and contested conception of the self.
Carlos assured me that he’d already thought about these things, and that, yes, he was still very sad about Ivan dying, and that, yes, the Devil’s best friend was probably not the most reliable of soul dealers—his phrase, not mine—but he still trusted the Devil’s best friend for some reason, though he couldn’t explain what that reason was, maybe because she reminded him of his younger sister in that inexplicable way that some people remind you of your younger sister, if you have a younger sister, in that way that a younger sister can comfort an older brother and communicate, without words, that she knows she is just as incapable of protecting him as he is of protecting her, and that there is a kind of peace in knowing you are doomed.
Carlos also explained that by better world he just meant a world where people were a little kinder, a world where people didn’t project their insecurities by scapegoating immigrants and gay people through horrific acts of violence or by attempting to systematically exterminate entire ethnic groups or political opponents, for instance his family in El Salvador or my dad’s family in the former Yugoslavia or Ivan’s family in the former Soviet Union etc., etc.
I told him that it sounded like what he wanted was a world without humans. He told me yes, a world without humans sounded a whole lot fucking better. I told him that his vision of a better world sounded pretty self-loathing. Carlos told me—and he stared at me intensely when he said it, with burning eyes, as the cliché goes—that it was impossible not to hate yourself if you were being entirely honest.
And If I’m being entirely honest—and now that I’m married and a father, your father, and I want to model integrity for you, which means I have to be a father who tells the truth, while Mommy goes to yoga and then to her AA meeting and you sit here on my lap on this swing made of some synthetic plastic that I do not know the name of and we rock back and forth together, father and son, mirror and reflection, I want you to know that I love you, son, and that, when you’re able to say words and then organize those words into complete sentences, I want you to tell the truth, too, without having to feel ashamed, like I do, and though you will not remember this conversation, I am hoping that by talking to you openly at this stage of your cognitive gestation, that me being vulnerable with you will somehow improve your chances of growing up to be a healthier, less depressed and self-destructive person than your Mommy and me, that if I reveal the origins of my scars, for instance this scar on my left palm that tickles when you bite it with your gums like you’re doing right now, then the cycle of generational damage may be lessened or even diverted altogether, that you might actually be okay, and that’s all I want, for you to be okay—so let me start over.
What I really said, after Carlos asked me about selling his soul to the Devil’s best friend, was something like, I’m sorry, Carlos, but I’m too fucked-up to talk about this right now, and I’m not sure if you’re messing with me, man, or if you’re even talking to me, or why we’re both not already ghosts like Ivan mingling in the eerie mists of the next life. I was lying on the bathroom floor at our friend Claude’s house. I was pressing my cheek to the cool tiles and talking to a brown spider about the possibility of 2pac still being alive. I’d been huffing chloroform from an apple juice jar. Carlos brewed the stuff in his bathtub—he used it to combat insomnia—and he’d found a jar hidden in a closet at his parents’ house in Carson. He’d given it to me—he was thoughtful that way— knowing how much I enjoyed the happy melting of my face.
Carlos lifted me up and made me gulp water from the faucet. There was a birthday party going on for someone neither of us knew. I remember that there were several piñatas shaped like giant crows. I started kicking one of these crows and yelling made-up words, which I still do sometimes, before Carlos hustled me upstairs and then onto the roof. We were in the mountains outside Santa Cruz. Carlos was on spring break from college. I was on a ten-day break from my job redirecting hiking trails to save Oregon tree frogs. The stars were clear and hard, and appeared to be spaced from each other in a way that seemed planned.
I remember I was wearing a poncho that a guy from my work crew, a kid named Eagle from La Pine, had given me in exchange for several letters I had written for him to his mom—he couldn’t read. I’d assured him that he didn’t need to give me anything, that I was happy to write him the letters, but Eagle had insisted on giving me the poncho that happened to be a similar brown to the exoskeleton of the spider from the bathroom I’d been talking to. Eagle died not too long ago. I think he was driving drunk, or a drunk driver hit him—I forget. I know he served two tours in Iraq. wisI know I closed all of those letters to his mom I love you with all that I am because he really did love her that way even though she was a meth addict who used to leave him to the care of a sadistic babysitter who would tie him up with electrical cords and do awful things I will not repeat to you, but Eagle still loved her, unconditionally, which is exactly how I love you, son.
Carlos asked me again what I thought about him selling his soul to the Devil’s best friend.
I said, more sober now, What are you talking about, man?
We were smoking Newport cigarettes. I didn’t like menthols—I still don’t— but they’d been on sale.
As if on cue, the Devil’s best friend appeared with a jug of Carlo Rossi wine and a packet of gummy worms. She was heavyset, but she had a pretty face. She was wearing that Circle Jerks T-shirt where each member of the band, dressed in ridiculous pink tuxedos, holds a puppy or a kitten on the beach, and WÖNDERFUL—the umlaut over the O serving as the joke’s exclamation point—is written in the sand.
She said, I’m sorry I’m late, Carlos, the traffic was terrible—who’s this? She smiled at me and extended her hand.
She said, Hi, I’m Soly Ramirez, the Devil’s best friend.
I shook her hand and said, Oh, hello Soly, it’s good to meet you. I like your shirt.
We began passing the wine. Soly took a sip then Carlos took a sip then I took between four and seven sips until Carlos started punching me, and then I passed the wine back to Soly. No one was saying anything, so I asked Soly what her favorite animal was—she said earthworm, which made me and Carlos laugh— then I asked her what the Devil was like and how she met him.
Soly told us that the Devil had a weird sense of humor, great teeth, hard abs, and low self-esteem. She said that she’d met her at a miniature golf course in Phoenix where Soly had worked briefly after she left her ex-husband, and that she and the Devil had been lovers until they realized that they made better sense as friends, or at least that’s what Soly thought, though she wondered if the Devil still wanted to be more than friends, if she’d given Soly the power to purchase souls in an effort to woo her back, but Soly couldn’t be sure, and she didn’t want to ask the Devil because she didn’t want to upset her best friend.
I apologized for assuming that the Devil was a he.
Soly said that it was okay, I was a straight white boy conditioned by a racist patriarchy, but I was cute, so she guessed she would forgive me if I gave her a kiss. I realized that I had a boner, which surprised me, because I really wanted to know more about the Devil, if she had really been an angel once, and what hell was like, or if there even was a hell, but I was making out with Soly, and we were touching each other—this was before I met Mommy—and Carlos was hitting me and yelling, I just want to sell my soul, Soly, could I please just sell you my motherfucking soul?
So Soly and I stopped what we were doing, and she took a big kitchen knife out of her purse and said, You have to cut your palm.
And I told Carlos not to cut his palm too deeply because we were both too drunk to drive to the ER, and a lot of the people at the party were tripping on mushrooms and, if he needed stitches, we probably would crash on the way to the hospital, so he only cut himself a little.
Then Soly said, Okay, Carlos, now tell me what kind of better world you want.
Carlos said, No people, I just want a world without people.
Soly said, That’s stupid, Carlos. I’m sorry—not gonna happen.
Carlos said, What do you mean? That’s my wish. I want a world without people.
Soly said, Nope, not doing that.
Carlos said, This is bullshit, you made me cut my hand, and I don’t get what I want.
Soly said, You barely cut your hand, shut up.
Carlos said, This is bullshit.
Soly said, What’s bullshit is that Ivan is dead because I granted him his wish for ten kilos of the purest Colombian smack—I’m not gonna make that mistake, again.
Then I said, What? You’re the one who gave Ivan the dope that killed him.
Soly said, He asked for it.
Carlos said, How do you think I know Soly, Tony?
I said, Are you serious? Are you fucking serious?
Carlos said, Yes, Tony, I’m fucking serious.
I said, This is really fucked-up, Carlos.
Carlos said, Look, Tony, I know it’s fucked-up, but you’ve gotta admit that Ivan would have died whether or not he sold his soul to Soly or not. I’m just trying to look on the bright side of the situation, and make this world better, and not dwell in self-pity. I’m trying to live in the moment, man. Plus, I think Ivan would appreciate a world without people.
I thought about Ivan. I thought about the last time I saw him. It was almost ten at night, and he was eating Honey Nut Cheerios until he nodded off with his face in the bowl, blowing bubbles. He was wearing a white T-shirt on which he’d written FUCK CAPITALISM with a blue Sharpie. I lifted his head out of the milk. We were at his mom’s house in Torrance. I’d just finished my last shift at The Gap before moving to Oregon, and Ivan had texted me to come over, probably before he’d shot up and forgot that he’d texted me, which sometimes happened. I was tired and very sober. Ivan’s mom was watching CNN in the living room. She came into the kitchen while I was wiping milk and Honey Nut Cheerios from Ivan’s face with a paper towel. Ivan is a tired boy, she said. I told Ivan’s mom that I would tuck him into bed, which I did, with her help. I had never tucked Ivan into bed before, but, for some reason, I felt compelled to, like some people feel compelled to light candles for the dead. His mom helped me carry him upstairs. She helped me pull the covers over him. There was a copy of the I Ching beside an ultimate fighting magazine on his bedside table. We had played football together, and he had played in college until being kicked out for stealing a laptop—he had been cage-fighting for the last year; I’d only gone to one of his fights in San Pedro; he’d won the fight, but, even being drunk, it had been too painful for me to watch him. His mom kissed his forehead, just like I kiss you at night, before she left the room. I watched Ivan sleeping for a few minutes and allowed myself to be overcome by a mixture of sadness and disgust and wonder. I think I even said a prayer.
I asked Carlos to give me the knife.
Carlos said, Whoa, we were just playing, man—it got outta hand. Soly’s just a friend of Claude’s.
Soly said, Hey, Tony, seriously, it was a joke, you were just so faded—it was funny, but it went too far. Come here, and give me another kiss.
But I didn’t hear them. I grabbed the knife from Carlos, and I cut my hand. I thought about Ivan sleeping in the dark and how peaceful and pathetic he looked with his homemade FUCK CAPITALISM T-shirt splattered with milk, and I thought how a world without people would be so quiet and peaceful like Ivan sleeping, unable to harm himself or anyone else, with his forehead still wet from his mom’s kiss, and I think I even started singing a little, or maybe just humming, while the warm blood ran down my wrist, and I saw that world without people for a minute or so, that world of silence and so many trees, and I felt so glad, son, that I didn’t need to wish for anything.
Vincent Poturica lives with his wife and kids in rural Northern California, where he teaches at Mendocino College. His writing appears in New England Review, DIAGRAM, Western Humanities Review, and 7×7.
Originally published in NOR 18: Fall 2015