You know how things happen.
You’re thirteen years old, working at your first real job, and one morning while kneeling in the weed-clogged flowerbed you look up because you sense a presence, and sure enough, standing over you, watching you from the other side of the iron gate is a small man in a colorless suit and hat, whose face looks like he has just finished smiling; and you look from his face to his hands holding the bars and that’s when you see that his two pinkies are split at the tips like snakes’ tongues and he is wearing small diamond rings on each of the four clawlike tips.
He grips the gate to show you his hands; he wants you to fear his touch.
He doesn’t speak, and you are too startled to do anything but look up, still kneeling and trying to reconcile the weirdness of the moment with the bright summer sun and whatever you were thinking before you noticed him standing above you.
For an eternal minute you look at each other, passing nothing between you.
“So,” he finally says, in a voice no different from any man. “You’re getting them by the roots?”
That’s it. That’s all that happens. You look down because you want him to leave, and he does. Then, with your fingers curled into the dirt, tight around a knot of crabgrass, you glance up, watching him walk away.
When you were thirteen, this was just another intrusion of the adult world.
Now, when you are older, you know that was the first time you saw the Devil.
You know how things happen.
You have been seven years old for three days, and after Sunday School the preacher’s kid drags you out the back door of Fellowship Hall and knocks the snap out of you in the parking lot because Annette Funicello is his girl. Say I love Darlene, he says as he slaps the side of your head, then yells your name as you run away. You turn, and the rock hits your face before you remember seeing it.
And later, when you are sitting in your partents’ car, wiating for them to finish with Coffee Hour and you’re trying not to bleed on the uypholstery, the floormats, or your church clothes–you promise yourself to avoid worhip of any sort.
Here’s another thing that happens.
In the dark one night, in the hallway between your kitchen and the back porch, you bump into a man you soon recognize as your wife’s son. He laughs when you jump; then you pat him nervously on the arm because you don’t know what he wants. He’s lucky you didn’t nail him.
“Just dropped in for some of that home cooking?” you ask.
“I’m on my way north,” he says, as if direction is the same thing as direction.
“Okay,” you say. “Okay.”
You both stand in the dark, trying to see each other’s eyes. He wants to see if you look much older; you want to see if the spite is still there–like you’ve remembered.
“Okay,” you say again. “Make yourself at home.”
“It is,” he says.
Here’s the final thing. At your parents’ house is a photograph. In the picture, you are standing between your brother and sister, behind your parents, and everybody is smiling.
Every time you see the photograph you think it’s funny how the proof of a moment, a snapshot, comes to represent everything that precedes and follows–even those occasional, elusive things like faith, hope, grace, and the comfort of your kind.
And you remember when you were smiling, waiting for the flash to startle you, thinking to yourself now this nice.
I’m from a family of characters. My father, when he was young, was Wes the Cartoon Man, a regionally famous host of a kiddie TV show. These days he is notorious for inventingg bad history. My brother, Reggie, was the sports announcer on a Nashua TV station. Last year after he was fired, he fell apart, moved to Orlando, and now he is famous for living undetected in Cinderella’s Castle for eight months.
My sister, Veronica, is unhappy, has always been unhappy. Burdened by her strangled blend of doubt and fear, she is America’s most misnathropic nurse.
Our mother sees things before they happen. When she was young, she was Sister Donica Lenore, the nun who made a bargain with God.
“If you give me chilcren of my own,” she promised, “I will raise them to serve in your Army of Saints and fight for goodness on earth.” God was pleased, and when He accepted her offer, Sister promptly left Pope Pius XII for Wes the Cartoon Man.
I’m known as The Man Who Caught Holy Hell.