The Devil in Jackson Township
Steven Torres

There has always been, shall we say, a warm spot in my heart for Jackson Township. I have toiled very little here while making considerable gains. In fact, I might go so far as to say that evil grows here of its own accord with barely an effort from me or anyone in my employ. When the institution of owning human chattel was in place, Jackson was one place slaves dreaded; a place where malicious owners sold the unruly. While the practice existed, I never worried and rarely visited. In the generations since, I have tried to find time for the township, to make sure things were in order you see. I was heartened at first. The township had been known for its cruelty at a time when such cruelty made some economic sense, but sadism flourished in the decades following emancipation, and, in fact, it climbed to more inventive heights than even I had ever thought possible.

I once came into Jackson Township with no other expectation than that I would find the usual petty hates, jealousies and inexplicable angers I had seen so often before. Instead I was treated to a sight I have often savored since. In the woods in the night, there were three men, hands bound behind their backs, necks tied tight with barbed wire, and a fire burning near their feet. A glance showed me that the barbed wire around each neck tied each man to the others via a cart wheel sitting atop a center pole in such a way that if one wanted to keep from hanging in midair and dying of strangulation he had to pull himself down and the other two up, the barbs digging into flesh all the while. To live, you had to kill.

One man stood outside this small circle with a whip. He cracked it now and again to keep the men dancing in and out of the fires. Their feet blistered and bled, their necks bled and bulged. I suppose they danced and tried to stay alive because they hoped that he would become merciful and release them. Any child could have seen from the look in his eyes that the three men were hoping in vain and could have expected better treatment at my hands than in that man’s care. In fact, what made this visit such a pleasure is that the children who were in the crowd of spectators – and I really do think that most of Jackson Township was in attendance that night – those children did know the men were going to die. Several shouted with glee when the first man stumbled into the fire and had not the strength to lift himself off the ground. Though the three had danced in circles for hours, this event brought a fairly quick end. The remaining two could not continue the dance with the full weight of the other slowing them no matter how viciously they were whipped. It was all they could do to keep their feet on the ground and the dead man’s body off it. When the second man surrendered to the weakness of his flesh, the third had nothing to do but hope and pray for a caring hand to cut him loose. I was half inclined to do it myself, but the crowd did nothing but disperse and the whip man plied his trade until the last one expired. The chatter of the spectators as they made their way home left me fearing nothing for this part of my empire.

I feel I cannot, therefore, be blamed if I became somewhat lackadaisical when it comes to Jackson Township. The world is large and I have much work. It certainly seemed safe enough to leave Jackson in the hands of a minor functionary. I’ll leave the excuses however and say plainly that I had not visited in two generations. Nothing in the reports from the functionary had prepared me for what I found just a week ago when I decided on a quick visit.

The racial tensions of the township still simmered and brewed. There was open bigotry, there was hate, and maybe this had lulled me into complacency. When read in the reports, this aspect of Jackson seemed not to have changed. In fact, when a small economic boom gave some a motive for theft and envy, the report of this appeared to me to signify that evil in Jackson was branching out in an entirely new direction. Imagine my surprise to find that good had taken root and was spreading.

There had been no report of this and so I dismissed the functionary and, as they say, rolled up my sleeves and set myself to work. Good is always present, of course, even in a place like Jackson, but it cannot be allowed to take root. It must be removed, but this must be done with some care. One might ask, couldn’t I just kill the good, but you quickly see how this could not be so. I could kill them, but they might become martyrs and then I’d have more work than when I started. No, no, care must be taken. I decided quickly that I would find the pillars of this growing community of goodness and rot them to crumbling. Then the structure would collapse and the lesson learned that those who preach goodness are failures and frauds. With this in mind, who would bother with goodness when what I offer is constant, useful and easy?

My search for the pillars of the community of goodness was soon over because there was only one: Edith Porter, aged seventy-two.

Now I remembered Edith, I remembered her clearly. She had been one of those children that warmed my heart all that time ago. She had giggled when the first man collapsed, and she had cheered on the man with the whip. I had seen it before, of course, early promise wasted – but Edith had not just repented, she had become a dynamo. I had seen this before too – remember Saul of Tarsus? – but it was a rare phenomenon and dangerous – remember Saul of Tarsus?

All humans have weaknesses and I figured I would exploit Edith’s. I knew her. She had once had this racial prejudice. I didn’t count on it still being alive and well, but I knew that either it remained or there would be guilt in its place – either one will serve my purpose. I orchestrated a bad day for Edith, a rude store clerk, a child to nearly knock her off her feet, a driver to cut her off, all of the wrong color. None of this solicited more than a sigh, but it was her evening prayer that made me rethink my strategy. “God, bless Bernice,” she said. Bernice was the store clerk. No guilt over feelings, not even a thought for the other two incidents. Prejudice was no longer an issue.

That night I watched her sleep the sleep of the innocent and I decided to appear to her in the morning. When the bell rang in the morning, she turned off the alarm, slipped her feet into her slippers, took her glasses from off the nightstand, put them on and looked straight at me.

“Are you the Devil?” she asked.

I hadn’t planned on revealing my identity that quickly, but the question disarmed me and so I told her plainly.

“Yes, I am.”

“I thought you’d be back.”

I had no idea what to say to this. I had never revealed myself to her before.

“You were there those years ago when they killed the three young men. You look the same,” she said making her way past me and into her bathroom. “You even have on the same suit. Excuse me,” she said, and she shut the door behind her.

Now I usually rely on some part of fear in dealing with humans, but Edith clearly did not fear me. My first reaction was to press the issue a bit and materialize inside the bathroom to show her a fraction of my powers. She had, however, said “excuse me” and one wants to be known for a gentleman. A minute or two later, she emerged.

“Would you mind if I changed into my day clothes?” she asked, and after a pause, she motioned toward the door with her head.

I stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind myself. I was looking at the prints on her hallway wall when she emerged from the bedroom in a pair of baggy overalls and a plaid shirt.

“Today’s gardening day,” she said, and she walked past me down the hall, then down the stairs. For my part, I nodded and paid some more attention to the prints. I certainly did not want to show my discomfort at being all but ignored.

After a moment or two, I followed Edith to her kitchen. I had decided to adopt a stern tone with her.

“Perhaps, you misunderstand my reason for appearing for you,” I started. She cut me off.

“No, I think I can guess that. I’m making extra strong coffee ‘cause I don’t imagine you’re here to bring me any good news. Am I right so far?”

I could not believe my good fortune. It seemed at the moment that the conversation had finally started to go as I had planned.

“No, Edith. That’s where you’re wrong. I do have good news for you. The best news, in fact. I’m here to help you, Edith.” I was smiling. Others have testified over the millennia that I have a winning smile, but Edith glanced at me over her glasses.

“You’re here to help me?”

“Yes. Exactly right. Now let me…”

Edith cut me short yet again.

“Then can you get eggs from the refrigerator?”

You can imagine precisely how deflating such a request can be when one is ready to set a snare for a soul. I handed her the eggs she wanted and stood silent as she whisked them in a bowl.

“I don’t suppose you’ll be wanting any?” she asked. I declined.

My original plan, hatched while I watched Edith sleep her peaceful sleep had been to frighten her a fair amount, then, when she was in a properly submissive state, offer her some leniency. I would show her that I was not as bad as I had been portrayed and that she could avoid my tormenting her by obeying me in only a few minor details. It was clear, however, that she was not afraid of me in the least. In fact, it seemed as though she had been expecting me since the night she first saw me all those years before. I doubted whether even levitating her off the floor, a crowd pleaser usually, would have any effect on her.

She took her plate of toast and scrambled eggs and her cup of coffee to the back porch. I held the door for her as she passed.

“You can feel free to have a seat.” She motioned to a rocking chair as she sat herself into its twin. She used a little table to hold her cup and her lap for her plate. Her view was of the morning mist dissipating to reveal a careful garden and neat lawn with woods in the distance. I took the seat she offered and enjoyed the view along with her for a moment. Rare is the opportunity for me to sit and watch something so simple as the formation of a new day.

When she finished with her breakfast, Edith turned to me and asked whether she should put away her dishes before conversing or was the conversation bound to be brief. I told her I thought she had better clear away her things as I wasn’t quite sure how long our talk might take. She washed, dried and stored away her utensils and returned to the porch sitting in the rocking chair again.

“Edith Porter,” I started. “Have you ever wanted to sin?”

“I have sinned; plenty of times. I never claimed to be a saint.”

“That’s not what I asked, Edith. I know you’ve sinned. Everyone does once in a while, even the saints. What I want to know is have you ever wanted to sin. Have you ever desired to do something which you knew to be sinful? Perhaps something that you wanted to do because it was sinful.”

Edith thought for a moment.

“I think that’s probably the best definition of sin, isn’t it? I mean, if you aren’t at all sure that it’s a sin then the way I reckon, it was just a sort of accident. You make amends, of course, when you find out about the action’s sinfulness; that’s only right. Not to philosophize too much – I do have things to do today – but I certainly have thought of sinning and, yes, there have been occasions when the sinning seemed sweeter just because it was sin.”

“And what occasions have those been?” I asked.

“Oh, all the usual stuff, I suppose: lying, cheating, stealing, fornication, the abuse of alcohol. You know the list, I’m sure. Now do you have a purpose with all these questions or should I just call on my sweet Jesus to banish you to the pits of Hell so I can get on with my day?”

She looked at me over the top of her glasses again, her annoyance showing. To be perfectly frank, my own annoyance was growing at the moment. Not that I fear her “sweet Jesus.” I have a healthy respect for him, as I would hope he has of me. The point is more that once one of these true believers begins to call on Jesus, I rarely can get a word in edgewise again and usually wind up deferring my plans for some other occasion.

“I’ll be brief,” I said. “Edith, You’ve been honest with me, and I’ll be honest with you. I know you’ve been sorely tested in your many years. I know the pain of sinning, the guilt, and I know the hurtful longings to sin if one manages not to fall; believe me, I know. I’m here to tempt you today, Edith, not with sin, but with complete and utter freedom from sin.”

She arched an eyebrow, and I spoke faster.

“Jackson Township has been a favorite place of mine for many years. Sin, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, has a home here, and that suits my purposes. You have worked to counteract that, to foil my purposes in the last several decades. At first I took no notice, but I now see that attention must be paid. Frankly, I had almost decided to vex and plague you and perhaps put it into someone’s heart to run you over in one of the parking lots, but there are difficulties with that line…”

“God said no?”

She hit a sore spot with me, and I shifted in my chair. I could kick myself for showing the weakness, but that’s water under the bridge now, so I’ll move on.

“It happens that rather than trouble you, I thought I would make you a fair wager, a proposition. Nothing too complicated. A man will come to your door this week. He will be one of my very own favorites. You must deal with him, Edith. You must treat him as he deserves. Treat him correctly, and I will never again send temptation your way.”

“And if I fail?”

“Ah, there’s the rub. If you fail, no great calamity will befall you. If you fail, I will simply be able to rest a bit easier about Jackson Township: the pillar of strength that upholds it is weak.”

Edith sat back in her chair for a moment, deep in thought. Then she got up, gave my knee a slap, and wagged a finger in my face, smiling.

“Nice try, Mr. Devil. But you’re not offering very much if I succeed. I don’t need you to tempt me, and just because you stop won’t mean I won’t ever sin again. The Good Lord forgives me my sins as it is anyway. I got to admit you almost had me there, though.”

She walked toward the steps that led to her garden, but I stopped her.

“Listen,” I said. “It appears that you like to drive a hard bargain. I tell you what, I am willing to raise the stakes. If you succeed, I will put all my powers at your command for an entire day.”

“Well, what good is that to me?”

“My powers are considerable. Don’t be fooled by what you may hear from the pulpit. I can transport you to anywhere in the world in an instant. I can bring you anything or anyone you want. I can give you the right numbers to the Mega-Jackpot Lottery; if you don’t like the idea of making a fortune from what some call a vice, you can turn around and donate that money to the charity of your choice. And let me be absolutely clear on one point. I am no genie to grant three wishes and then leave. When I say you will have my services for a full day, I mean you can make as many wishes as you like in that day, and they shall all be granted.”

Edith thought about the proposal (as generous a proposal as I have ever made anyone) but smiled again and continued walking.

“What is wrong now?” I asked, and I truly wish I hadn’t.

“Two things, Mr. Devil. First, I can’t trust you any further than I can throw you. Second, you’re looking to cheat me already in this offer of yours – I’m an old woman. I can’t stay up twenty-four hours wishing and you know it. It would only be any good to me if I could schedule you to come by for a couple of hours a month, say the first of each month for a year. Even like that, I can’t trust you, and you know it.”

“I know nothing of the kind,” I told her. “I am trustworthy. I make these deals all the time, Edith. My reputation means a lot to me. People always get what they bargain for when they deal with me. They just don’t always know what the right thing to ask for is. I can’t help that. Some people win the lottery and it makes them miserable. There’s just no helping people like that. You can trust me. I will pay if you win. The real question is can you trust yourself to use the prize wisely?”

“And what about the scheduling issue?”

“Break up the hours anyway you find comfortable.”

“And all I have to do is treat this person you send me right?”

“Exactly so.”

Edith shook my hand that morning, and we had a deal. I smiled to myself as I walked out across her front lawn. My plan had worked. The person I was about to send her was not going to be easy for her to deal with. I thought she would almost certainly lose. Her failure would spread throughout the township without the slightest help from me and her reputation would be ruined. In the event that she actually knew what to make of the person I sent to her, I felt certain the meeting would take a great deal out of her – perhaps she would be racked with guilt and shame; this is as useful to me as a lust filled heart. If she somehow avoided any ill feelings from the confrontation, she would still have her prize. Who would not be corrupted by having my near infinite powers at their command? I waited a few days and sent the man.

Franklin Jackson, a descendent of the Jacksons who had displaced the natives and founded the township centuries earlier, was ninety-nine years old, but, as anyone in Jackson Township could have told you, if he lived to be as old as his father or his father’s father, he had a decade in him yet. He was strong for his age. Tall and thin and unstooped, he knocked on Edith Porter’s front door that afternoon loud enough so that she heard him though she had been napping on the back porch. She was surprised, of course, to see him on her front steps, and she knew immediately that he was the one I had sent. Anyone in Jackson would have guessed he would be my emissary.

“Franklin Jackson. What business do we have together?”

“That ain’t no way to address your elders, Edith Porter. May I come in and sit a while?” He smiled at her, showing his teeth in a way that resembled a dog’s snarl. To his credit, the teeth he showed were original to his mouth.

Edith paused a moment but waved him in finally.

“What can I get you?” she asked when he had settled on the sofa. He waved her off.

“I need you to hear me out, Edith. I need your help, and I think you’re the only one that can be of any assistance. Will you listen to me?”

Franklin put on his most pathetic face. It was a look that had served him well often enough in the past, but there were few people who hadn’t seen him use it before to attain his ends. Edith had seen it before.

“Speak,” she said.

“They found them, Edith and you know what I’m talking about, so I don’t intend to explain.”

“You’d better explain, Franklin Jackson because if we’re going to have anything to talk about, it’s all going to be out in the open.”

“Them boys, Edith. I know you remember. You were young, but you were there. Your father brought you.”

“God rest his soul.”

“That’s right, God rest his soul.”

“Who’s they? Who found those boys you murdered?”

“The police. Look here, those boys want to put me in jail, Edith.”

“That’s what you deserve, Mr. Jackson. You killed them, and I was a witness. While there was no case, there was no point in me saying anything, but…”

“But that’s just it, Edith. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. There’s still no case really. They dug up them boys’ bones on my farm, but they can’t really say who killed them. They can’t even be too sure who those bones are. They ask me questions. They want to put me away, but I’m holding tight. The trouble is, they’re taking this whole thing so serious, I’m afraid. They said they would talk to everyone in town. Nowadays there’s only a handful of people left that know anything about what happened that night. I’ve been to see everyone that was there that night. Six of them don’t remember anything at all – they got senile or something. Three more said they wouldn’t say a word to anyone; they’re afraid of me. That leaves you.”

“I’m not afraid of you Mr. Jackson.”

“Oh, I know that. I’m not here to scare you. I’ve known you since the day you were born and I don’t think the Devil himself could put a scare into you. I’m here to beg your mercy. I killed those men. I was wicked then. You’ve known me for nearly seventy years since then. You know I haven’t ever done anything similar. I lie awake at night still for what I did that night. I just can’t go to jail for this. I’ve been in jail for a whole lifetime already.”

At this point, Franklin Jackson put on a sad face that nearly drew a tear from my eye, but Edith wouldn’t move. For a moment too brief for me to truly savor, I thought her lack of pity would consign Franklin Jackson’s soul to my care for all eternity, but then there was a shift in the conversation.

“Why don’t you confess?” she asked him.

“They’ll put me in jail for sure. I’ve been warned already, Edith. The district attorney came out to my house. There won’t be any leniency for my gray hair…” He wiped away a tear, and for the first time, I am sure it was a real one.

“I mean to God, Mr. Jackson. Why don’t you repent?”

Franklin Jackson sat on her sofa in silence a moment as though wondering whether Edith had not just spoken gibberish. I was silent myself. I had considered that Edith might make this move. Franklin had weathered a hundred preachers and tract givers without causing me a moment’s worry. You can imagine my surprise to hear him sob like a baby and agree to repent. I held onto the hope that it was one of his tricks though the sighs he uttered seemed real enough. Damn me if he didn’t follow her advice and ask God’s forgiveness breaking all sorts of clauses in his contract with me. Him I will deal with later. He will have plenty of time in his jail cell to contemplate his turning Judas on me. Edith’s actions were what concerned me just then. After all, no one places any faith in the confessions of a ninety-six year old. Everyone confesses when they feel their lives begin to ebb. What he did then wouldn’t hurt my standing in Jackson Township even though he called the district attorney from Edith’s living room and the police came to take him away right in front of my eyes.

I went with Franklin to his jail cell, watched him be photographed and fingerprinted, and I left him sitting on his cot, whistling a hymn. Pathetic.

Back at Edith’s, in the early evening, I found her on her back porch in a rocking chair. I sat in the one next to her.

“Are you back?” she asked.

“As you see.”

“I didn’t think I’d see you again.”

“I have a debt to pay,” I told her. “You did win the bet, and, as I’ve said, I have a reputation to maintain.”

“I’ll release you from the terms of the bet if you want,” she offered.

Of course, I could not accept her generosity. I had come to Jackson Township to destroy her and there is no better way to destroy a soul than to offer it limitless power. Winning the bet is exactly what I had wanted from her all along.

“Shall I see you on the first of next month?”

“Come early.”

“I’ll be here as you wake. Dream well, Edith. Everything you have ever wanted is about to be placed in the palm of your hand.”

It has been six months now and with each two-hour shift, I drink deeper of the bitterness of disappointment. She has no desire to travel to the far reaches of the galaxy; she holds no grudges against others that can only be eradicated with their slow torture. She will have nothing to do with riches. I have thus far failed to tempt her in any way. She has no imagination for evil, or if she does, she will not share it with me. I am in constant fear that she will try to convert me. Worse still are those tasks she has set for me, tasks I daren’t refuse since, as I’ve said, I have a reputation to uphold.

On my first visit, I cleaned her gutters. I have snaked out her drains not forgetting the main pipe leading out to the septic tank. I have trimmed an acre of trees, and cleaned out the stall of the one shoat she keeps. In short, I begin to believe that she is torturing me rather than the other way round as would be the natural order of things. I… Ah, there’s the doorbell. The Ladies Church Auxiliary League is here today for a breakfast meeting, and I haven’t yet finished setting out the food. I have a million things to do before I go today. Excuse me.

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