Jim and the Devil - Short Story and Questions
This is a new writing format I'm trying out. It includes questions that might be thought provoking. Feel free to comment on whether it appeals to you or not.
Jim and the Devil
“The devil went down to Georgia - he was lookin’ for a soul to steal. He was in a bind ‘cuz he was way behind, and he was willin’ to make a deal….” The Charlie Daniels Band, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”
There once was a man named Jim. He was a good man, all things considered. He had a job in a local factory, which he had held for years. He was married to a good woman whom he loved and who loved him. He had two children: a boy and a girl of early high school age who neither excelled nor failed with any frequency but they were pleasant and polite, treated their elders respectfully and were generally good people, like their parents. The family attended church when it suited them, which amounted to once or twice a month, but no one held any leadership position and all eschewed the Women’s League fundraisers and other extraneous church positions, which always seemed to Jim to contain a certain self-righteousness with which he was uncomfortable.
One night, while on his way home from work in the mid-winter dusk, an idea came to his mind to take a left onto the highway and drive into the country rather than to turn right, which was the road home. He obeyed this impulse without reason or apology, as if he had done it a million times before. However, being the respectful and courteous man he was, he called his wife from his truck and left a message on the family land-line telling her and them that he might be late coming home.
With that, Jim drove into the night.
The rest of the story came to me in bits and pieces, but the gist of it is that Jim drove quite far that night, to an area with potholed back roads that twisted and turned into the mountains some distance from his home. As if by an invisible cord, Jim’s truck was drawn along with Jim inside it. And the night grew darker and the stars brighter.
Finally, at the edge of a cliff that overlooked a valley he had never seen, Jim stopped the truck and got out. A chill, icy wind blew by him, rushing over the desert stones into the bleak valley below, which he could only discern by the light of the stars on this moonless night. Jim wondered for the first time what he was doing here.
It was then that he heard it. Although “heard” is not quite the right word, there was a communication, they say, so that's the best word we have. But it's said that he felt it as much as heard it. However it is described, heard or felt, Jim became aware of a voice. It seemed to come from everywhere and yet nowhere, from his left, his right, and, alarmingly, inside his mind as well.
Turning his head this way and that, Jim saw nothing. But the voice came again. This time, he understood what it said. In a voice more air than substance, he heard his name being called in the wind, almost as a part of it.
“Jim…” it hissed.
A cold, prickly sensation started at the base of his spine and slithered its way up to his scalp. Jim straightened. As he did so, he sensed movement in the sky. Looking upward, he saw the strangest sight he'd ever seen, even on a night as strange as this had been. This isn't precisely the way it unfolded, but it was as if all the space between the stars, all the inky black, began to coalesce in the center of space, swirling clockwise as if it were going down a dark, unseen hole. It condensed into a pinprick of darkness so absolute the surrounding sky looked positively cheery by comparison. And then, most incomprehensible yet, he saw the blackness rocket down to earth, almost like a shooting star in photo negative, and land in a stand of junipers not twenty paces from where he stood. He trembled slightly, but not from the cold.
Staring toward the spot where he thought he saw the prick of darkness land, Jim began inching his way from the passenger side of the truck, where he'd been standing, toward the driver’s side. It wasn’t really fear that motivated this desire to flee as much as it was the sudden awareness that something was amiss. What was he doing here? Why wasn’t he home with his family?
It was then that the Devil stepped from the junipers.
Jim had no idea it was the Devil, at first. In fact, his first reaction was one of great relief. The man smiled in an almost embarrassed manner, his eyes laughing. Jim’s body relaxed. Air he hadn't known he had been holding released from his lungs in an audible sigh.
“You gave me a fright there, mister!” Jim called good-naturedly to the stranger.
“Aw, buddy, I'm sure sorry about that,” the Devil called back in a farmer’s drawl that set Jim further at ease. “I'm just out enjoying this beautiful night like you, I guess!”
The Devil was now striding toward Jim, his hand extended to shake far earlier than necessary in order to show Jim he meant no harm. Jim came toward him, meeting him a few steps from his truck.
When their hands met, Jim looked into the Devil’s eyes for the first time.
His eyes mirrored the same blackness that had just appeared in the sky. For the briefest of moments there were no whites, just the swirling ink. And then the whites appeared and the eyes appeared normal again, albeit as particularly dark ones. Had he just seen what he thought he had? The warmth of the Devil’s handshake had disarmed him and sent his suspicions into hiding. But after seeing his eyes, the cold feeling returned.
“I know you, Jim,” the Devil said kindly.
“I know you too, Devil,” Jim replied, coldly. For now that the stranger had called him by name, doubt could no longer hide.
The Devil frowned, but his smile remained, as if it were impolite to treat him with anything other than an excitement usually reserved for long lost, wealthy and generous relatives.
“Hey, I just want to talk to you about an idea that's been rattling around this ol’ noggin of mine a while, you know? Ever have one of those…. What do they call ‘em… epiphanies? Where you suddenly have a thought that makes you wonder what you've been doing for, I dunno, a few millennia?” He chuckled, tapping his head.
Jim couldn't help but chuckle, too, present company notwithstanding. Pleasant guy, this Devil. He knew from somewhere deep inside he should to do something to break the friendly connection between the Devil and himself and get out of there, but, as he no longer felt in any particular danger, he just nodded and smiled.
The Devil continued. “Now let me just say that you can, what do you say, cast me out, any time you want by calling the name of that guy from Galilee. Hell, even one of the ones from India or South America will work as long as you believe in him. You're in complete control, my friend. Sound good?”
“The guy from Galilee… You mean Jesus?” Jim asked, rather innocently, surprised it could be that easy.
The Devil cringed as if nails had been scratched across a nearby chalkboard. He then forced a smile that had more murder and maliciousness behind it than Jim had ever seen.
“Yep, that's the one,” the Devil drawled.
Jim thought for a few seconds. “No harm in hearing a proposal, I guess,” Jim drawled back in his native dialect. “I mean, if I'm in control and all. Be a shame to waste that epiphany, right?”
The Devil smiled and nodded, “Well, I think so, Jim.”
Jim frowned. “But what kind of guy trusts the Devil? You’re all about deception, aren’t you?”
“That’s a good point, my friend. And you’d be surprised how many people don’t ask about that when deals are being negotiated, so you’re pretty sharp. But the fact is deals I make with mortals are pretty important to me. If it got out that I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain, no one would be very interested. Plus, and this might be above your pay grade a bit, there are some laws I have to live by no matter what. So… in a manner of speaking… I have to do what I say I’m going to do or die trying.”
Jim raised his eyebrows at a question something that occurred to him. “Well…,” he started.
The Devil finished his thought with a sly smile. “Yes, I’m immortal, but you get the gist.”
Jim smiled. “Ok, then. Let’s hear it.”
“OK, so here it is. I'm going to give you three choices: three… levels of engagement with me, so to speak. And you choose the one that suits you best. Whichever you pick, I have to do. And if you don't like any of ‘em, well, you just say the magic word and I’ll vamoose. How's that?”
Jim nodded like he did when negotiating the purchase of a new truck and getting his way. “Sounds good. What are the levels of engagement?”
“Here's the first one, and if you ask me, it's the best deal of all. You allow me minor control over your body, and I’ll make you rich beyond your imagination. Money will flow to you like water downhill and your health will be fantastic. Powerful, interesting people will seek you out and your family relationships will thrive. I'll visit you and, for lack of a better term, reprogram you. I will do this every night in your dreams. Hell, you won't even remember them most of the time.”
Jim raised his eyebrows, and the Devil continued, pleased so far. “You'll just know your life is different and that it had something to do with me. Best yet, you won't care. I will make you feel quite content with all your goodies and newfound power. You won't even miss that old Church if you choose to leave it, and if you stay you might be able to help others in ways you can't imagine now because it's not an option. Believe me, brother,” the Devil smiled, “the world is my oyster, and you can be my cozy little pearl.”
Jim was impressed and not a little tempted. “What do I have to do if I want to take you up on this?”
The Devil shrugged and said, “Pretty simple, buddy. Just a quick hug seals this deal.”
“A hug? That's kind of weird. Isn't it usually a handshake for business deals?”
“This one’s a hug.” The Devil’s eyes weren't smiling quite as much. He added, “I'm not going to pinch your butt or anything, chief.”
Jim chuckled nervously. “It sounds pretty good. What happens when I die though? Do you get my soul?”
The Devil smiled his winning rictus once again. “I'm glad you asked. Look, it's well known that repentance is pretty easy if you feel the need, and it's not like I'm going to make you into a bad man or anything. You do what you want, except now you'll be what they call, ‘blessed.’ You'll be one of the lucky ones. Knowing you, Jim, I'd say you're more likely to give money to your mother than hire a grip of whores, am I right?”
“Yeah, that's about right I'd say…” Jim trailed off. Why would the Devil make deals with anyone? He asked as much.
“I need things to run a certain way, that's all,” the Devil replied. “And having a wealthy guy that's, let's say, not too good and not too bad…well, it makes my life a little easier. And no harm done for you, either. Far from it. So what do you say?”
Jim thought about it. “What are the other options?” A seed of pride welled up in his breast. Here he was, ol’ Jim, actually dealing with the Devil.
The Devil gave him a look of approval and said, “A man that knows how to bargain, I can appreciate that. Well, the other two are the same thing, just a little less…conspicuous, is all I'd say. A little less power, a little less wealth. Door number two is about half the value of the one I already explained, and door number three is about half that. Any of them are more than you have now, old friend.”
“And the hug?”
Jim couldn't believe he actually asked about it again, and even the Devil looked at him incredulously.
“Do I have bad breath or something? You're really tore up about that hug, aren't you?
“It just seems weird.”
“Well, you're in luck, my body bubble brother. Door number two is a handshake, and door three is a simple touch of the tips of our fingers. Hardly any germs get transferred.”
Jim looked concerned.
“I'm kidding!” The Devil laughed good-naturedly. “Look, I know I'm supposedly this great Deceiver and all, but really I'm just looking to make a deal here. I need more guys like you to have fun with some wealth, gloss over some things, not ask too many questions, let things go without disturbing the waters too much. Is that ok?”
“OK, Devil, I get it, but if I’m kind of doing that now, why does increasing my wealth matter?”
The Devil sighed. This guy was becoming a pain in the butt. “It’s good for me to have something for people to shoot for, my friend, that’s all. I scatter a few people out there whose success has seemed to come pretty easy and it gives folks hope… just in the things that, for lack of a better term, don’t matter. A neighbor will see you driving that new truck, taking your family on vacation, your health vibrant… and it’ll matter to them even less than it does to you how you made it happen.” The Devil paused. “I’m not about making mass murderers although I have a few of them scattered around in places of power as well. I am all about one thing, Jim.”
“What’s that?” Jim asked.
“Sleep,” the Devil replied. “Peace for the individual at any cost. But it’s not really peace, it’s just insulation from certain kinds of trouble, but they call it peace. And then I create a world so full of chaos that the embodied souls of humanity crave that insulation, that sleep, above anything else. So I give them a taste of what they call peace, a way they feel some removal from the chaos, but it’s a penance: two weeks off in fifty-two, a debt-ridden house in the suburbs, inane music, television and movies, worthless games and smart phones. I teach them to abuse sacred plant medicines rather than to use them as they were intended. In short, I give them freedom to do what they want without regard for the consequences of their actions to themselves or others – and they simply sleepwalk through their lives. That’s why I’m so popular and always will be. It’s why religious people don’t know the difference between me and the god they think they worship. They equate their brief respites with peace, prosperity and righteousness. In the end, that respite is all they care about. The peace they think they feel is as false as plastic, but they hold on to it with all they have … because it is all they have.”
Jim stared back at the Devil, a sense of hopelessness smothering him like a blanket. He had pretty much described his own existence, too.
The Devil continued, “You’re no different, and you will find no other way to exist in this world. You can do what you’ve been doing, barely scraping by, or have an easier time of it. Your choice.”
“I don’t want to be the cause of the downfall of mankind, Devil,” Jim said. A new sense of self-righteousness had welled up inside him.
“Look, Jim, seven billion people walk this planet. Are you really so special you would walk away from the chance to give your wife a real wedding ring rather than that diamond chip she wears on her finger now? You think your kids wouldn’t benefit from a trip to Washington, D.C or, hell, even the Holy Land? You can’t control anyone else, my man. And if it’s not you with the early retirement, it’s going to be someone else on your street and you can watch him live the kind of life you wanted. So … your choice. Final offer.”
A chill blew through Jim, as cold as the man in front of him, as cold as death. The stars swam and his feet felt heavy.
Jim looked down at the ground for a moment and considered all he had been told on this surreal night. When he looked up, his eyes were locked on the dark, unsmiling eyes of the Devil himself.
His decision had been made.
CHAPTER TWO: Questions
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke
I’ve just told you a story. Before I continue and tell you what Jim decides, let me ask you a few questions.
What do you think he did? Why?
What would you do? Why?
The Devil says that what people describe as peace is essentially distraction. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
At one point in the story, the Devil says, “You’re no different, and you will find no other way to exist in this world.” (Other than living by way of the “false peace” that he describes.) How is this true? In what instances is it false? How have the great spiritual teachers lived throughout history?
Is there really a Devil? If so, what are his attributes? If not, is there a “contrary force”? What has been your experience with it? Are the effects always what you would call negative? Can they ever be positive? How?
Does the Devil really make deals? If so, are there certain terms he most frequently uses? Are we ever in league with him, inadvertently or purposefully?
What did Jesus do when confronted similarly? What were the results for him?
Are we ever confronted like this? How?
CHAPTER THREE: What Jim Did and Why
“The day the Devil comes to getcha, you know him by the way he smiles…” Laurie Anderson, “The Day The Devil”
Jim’s face was stone when he stretched out his finger to touch the finger of the Prince of Darkness. Would it hurt? Would he change more than the Devil had promised?
The Devil’s eyes seemed as dead as a doll’s, his face a motionless winter landscape. A manicured nail capped his thin and bony finger. “So much like all the Devil does,” Jim thought to himself. “Death camouflaged as something pretty.” He would never have made the connection before this night, but now the metaphor shot into his mind as their fingers touched, one lifeless, the other full of life. It was hard to tell which was which at that moment. And in the next, it didn’t matter. Jim stood alone, looking down into a great valley he had never seen, dimly lit by stars. He had dreamt the whole thing, hadn’t he?
Chuckling to himself and shaking his head, he got back into his truck, turned the key and cranked the heat. It was just after midnight.
He got home well after 2 am. He found his family quietly slumbering, cold dinner in the microwave. A note from his wife expressed light concern, but no anger about his absence. Nothing seemed amiss.
They say Jim lived to a ripe age. He looked like a man fifteen years younger than he was until he suffered a stroke one Saturday morning. He was taken to the hospital and his family called in. As loved as he was, there was quite a crowd present when the doctor told them he had found an inoperable brain tumor. The pastor was called in as well, but Jim died soon after his visit, right there in the hospital. They say that this story actually came from the pastor himself, from old Jim’s final confession.
Either way, true to the Devil’s words, nothing much had changed for Jim, except he had indeed experienced a bump in prosperity after that night, a change in fortunes. From time to time it seemed like that night on the lonely hill might indeed have been more than a dream for Jim. But as his years progressed, he told himself the opposite. In the end, he wasn’t too concerned with whether it was more than a dream or not. In his quiet moments he thought to himself that if it were true, he had certainly been a good steward of the extra money that had come to him, doing as much good as he could be expected to do with it. His son started a business with money his father came into at just the right time, and he actually did take a trip with his history-buff daughter to Washington, D.C. A few years after that night, Jim had traveled with his wife to the Holy Land. When he finally passed, his son was a successful entrepreneur, his daughter a history teacher and his wife regularly gave slide shows about Israel, speaking about standing in the places where Jesus had stood. People cried and recommitted themselves to God because of their words. To Jim, the Devil lost on the deal.
But somewhere in the reaches of hell, where brimstone walls reach to the bottom of the dark and mysterious valley Jim had gazed into that night, the Devil knows differently. Numbing Jim to the reality of an easy existence was the subject of the agreement all along. What Jim never had the chance to realize, because of the deal he made, was the greatness of his soul. Certainly, he was a good and worthy man before the deal. And afterwards he was, as he noted to himself, not merely a good steward of the money he received, but a fantastic one.
But Jim did not come to earth for ease or to manage money. He came to follow a calling no less grand than Gandhi’s, John the Baptist’s or the Buddha’s. He came to lead souls, not necessarily by founding a religion or even a sect, but by living a life without fear, with no skeletons in the closet and a life that welcomes death – not as an end and not as a beginning, but as a continuation. He came to live an authentic life. Had Jim not settled for the pittance the Devil promised him, he would have come into contact with a hitchhiker passing through his area the very next day. Jim would have picked up the stranger who would have started Jim on an unimaginable journey to India, to deep reservations in North Dakota and New Mexico, and to the high Andes and the Himalaya. He would have lost much on the way, all unnecessary to the deepest calling of his soul, but he would have become as bright as the sun while he lived on earth.
The point of this story, as true as any in the Bible, is that in a nation where our food comes from afar, where our days are spent in soulless over-activity, where our freedoms cost the freedoms of others, where the power is cheap and the military is necessary…
We are all Jim.
--Eric Aspen Marley