The Devil I Know

The Devil I Know May 27, 2015

The devil has been prowling around Patheos like a roaring lion. Yesterday, Simcha Fisher warned that CharlieCharliechallenge, the hot new kids’ party game, is a form of occult lite that could lead grade schoolers on a roundabout road to perdition precisely by appearing so harmless. Her point is that Satan likes a bargain. Getting your immortal soul will please him all the more if he doesn’t have to teach you to play bottleneck slide guitar in return. He’d rather you hand it to him as a joke.

Living close by Salem, Simcha knows better than to take an alarmist tone. Neither does Dr. Gregory Popčak take one on his own blog, where he tackles Charlie by quoting the relevant sections of the catechism. Also to keep the potential threat in perspective, Dr. Popčak raises a point easily overlooked. “Satan,” he writes, “is boring…We worship the God who kicked Satan’s butt. Don’t waste time with losers.”

In contrast to denying Satan’s literal existence at one extreme, and seeing him everywhere at the other, this is one of those Golden Mean-type positions on which Catholicism can rest its claim to sanity. Yes, there is a personal devil. Yes, he means to do mankind dirt – and can. And yes, he’s smart. But he is nowhere near as smart as he likes to think. If he were, he’d never have picked a fight with God. He’d have kept up his position as morning star, Tiepolo would have filled acres of canvas with his radiant punim, and the Dominican Republic would be flooding the major leagues with power-hitters named Lucifero.

The good news for mortals is that the same overconfidence can tip his hand, causing him to foil his own plans in a Gargamel-ish way, when dealing with us.

I know because he did it with me.

It happened about 10 year ago. I was then going through, hands down, the worst time of my life. After five years, working in finance had disgusted me to the point where I left the field, slamming the door behind me and taking a job on the ramp at America West, which was then merging with U.S. Airways. I hoped that hard manual labor in the fresh air would reinvigorate me, cleanse me with authenticity, the way it had Peter in Office Space.

It didn’t. But the pay cut did force me to abandon the weekend coke habit I’d picked up through some hard-closing friends who owned a condo in Fountain Hills. In fact, apart from Rick, I had to rebuild my circle of friends from scratch. One of the replacements was a guy named Kurt, who’d served in Special Forces and to prove it had marked his shoulder with a pair of arrows crossed over a dagger, along with the motto DE OPPRESSO LIBER. His duties had left him enough free time to moonlight as a bodyguard and collections agent for a Fayetteville escort service. Compared with schmoozing old ladies into paying front points on a 2/28 ARM, this sounded both glamorous and honest.

Colorful resume aside, Kurt was a very nice person. It was apparent that, for reasons I was afraid to pry out of him, he was going through the worst time of his life. On that basis, we clicked. And it was with a sense that we were both stuck at the bottom of the barrel that I asked him one night, for old times’ sake, whether he knew where we could score some blow.

He did, he said, but it might take some time. Time being no object – I had the next two days off – I handed him 40 dollars, expecting him to kick in another 40. Eighty dollars was the going rate for a gram, which should have kept the two of us more or less happy for an evening.

Kurt made a phone call. After a couple of hours, he got a phone call back. He said our order had come through, and left to pick it up. Half an hour later, he returned and laid a cellophane bag on the counter.

Certain details escape me at this point. I seem to recall Kurt confessing he’d been unable in the end to match me dollar for dollar. Whatever the reason, the bag did not bulge with the familiar lunar chunks; instead, the bottom portion held a finger’s worth of what looked like tiny lavender beads.

It took me a second, but I realized it was crystal meth.

Many aversions have a rational basis, but I can’t justify the one I felt toward the contents of that bag. It wasn’t concern for my health – mental or physical – much less for the public good. God had not yet entered the equation. What I felt was snobbery. In my mind, cocaine retained a touch of cachet – it had been the refreshment of Sherlock Holmes and Freud and the gang at Studio 54. Just looking at crystal meth made me wonder whether I should change my name to Cletus.

But if I hesitated, I didn’t hesitate for long. I’d conceived the evening’s entertainment in a spirit of damn-it-all, and I’d paid hard cash for the product in my hand. While Kurt went to the bathroom, I emptied the bag onto the white stove top and split the pile in two with a credit card. Then I crushed down the shards of my half. They made two of the dinkiest, sorriest lines I’d ever seen. Snorting them up, one after the other, I felt a faint ripple of relief that this damn-it-all evening would end quickly, leaving me too dissatisfied ever to arrange another.

Right after I finished, Kurt stepped into the kitchenette. I told him that I’d done my share, and that the rest was his. Just then two things happened: Kurt gaped at me, and I grew to a height of about 11 or 12 feet. Some runaway inner expansion seemed to stretch my limbs and swell my muscles until I was amazed that the kitchenette could still hold all of me. All the while, Kurt was saying something about how I shouldn’t measure out glass in coke dosages.

Now you tell me, I thought. Even then, reveling for the moment in the novelty of finding my being so suddenly enhanced, I saw his point. This high was qualitatively different from a cocaine high. There was no euphoria, not even an illusion of joy. What there was instead was an indescribable rush of power along with a complete loss of inhibition. At least for a few minutes at a time, cocaine makes you feel as though you’ve been taken up into a high mountain and shewn all the kingdoms of the world. Crystal meth – or at least an unwise dose of it – makes you feel like the Wehrmacht.

My body loved it. My mind cried no mas. The power was too much for it and the restraint too little. Now I understood how tweakers got carried away in robberies and ended up beating their victims to death. This was something I had never cared to understand. Achieving consciousness of kind with the lowest type of criminal is a psychic swim through a Tijuana sewer, and I wanted more than anything to be clean again.

There are times when social obligations come in handy. Kurt was still there and had to be entertained. It was becoming apparent that the drug had affected us in opposite ways: him it had made talkative, me it had silenced. This worked well for my purposes. As long as I could sit tight and goad myself through the civilized motions of active listening, mirroring Kurt with nods and affirming grunts, I could just about persuade myself that normalcy and innocence were not states permanently lost to me.

Kurt talked and I listened for a good seven hours, till long after sunup. I can’t recall a word of what he had to say. But in my own sizzling head formed the germ of an idea so new and strange that it took months to think through. What I’d felt wasn’t an infusion of power at all. It was the slipping away of a soul. You can’t lose something unless it exists and you have it, so…

Theologize all you want — I maintain Old Scratch screwed the pooch. By seeing that I got too much of what I thought I wanted, too quickly, he sprang the trap before I’d put my foot firmly in it, yelled “BOO!” before I’d started to turn the corner. For my part, I did what all startled prey do: after making what were no doubt some entertaining faces, I bolted and ran in the opposite direction.

But there I go like Apollyon, getting ahead of myself, pushing too quickly toward the happy ending. “Jumping at shadows” is a cliché for most people, but it’s the chief pastime for meth users in the long, tooth-grinding waking nightmare that begins once their neurotransmitters have receded and ends only once their bodies are as exhausted as their brains. For me, that nightmare lasted another 65 hours, give or take. I didn’t have any sick days left, but I managed to find someone to cover my shift. Not even the Father of Lies could make me believe that driving a baggage tug around taxiing aircraft was a good idea.

In one of his poems, Wilfrid Owen compares the gagging face of a gassed foot soldier to “a devil’s, sick of sin.” I won’t pretend that line came to me to me just then – I was too preoccupied wincing at the sound of crickets mating in my sink. But when it did come, my first thought was of how I must have looked huddling in my afghan and staining my couch’s upholstery with cold sweat. Much later came the lesson: Sin does make you sick; it’s sickening. If you’re lucky – as I was – you reject it in the way that a body throws up something toxic, like rotten meat or mustard gas.

Dr. Popčak calls Satan a loser (but not before calling him “boring”). Terry Eagleton calls evil “a nothingness or negativity, an inability to be truly alive” far on the flip side from the “energy or exuberance” that is virtue, not to mention the “infinite abyss of self-delighting energy” that is God. I don’t know how energetic or exuberant I can become, or how near that good abyss I can hope to approach. Nevertheless, that decade-old ordeal — self-inflicted, but doubtless Satan-willed — taught me, for the first time, that I was in danger of dying, but also that I wasn’t quite dead.

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