The devil worked as a singer in a piano bar in Phoenix, Arizona. He went to work at eight, sang his songs until closing time. He took his breaks at the bar each day and preferred his liquor dry. It’s a good job, not the worst he’d ever had. A welcome change of scenery. He liked the constant whir of motion, being around people. Mostly though, he liked the press of bodies around the piano as he plays, the interest or non-interest the patrons took in him. Sometimes he’d play for hours and no one gave him a second glance. Other times, though, he’d catch the attention of a woman or a man, allow them to think they were seducing him. Tempting him. If the mood struck, he’d go home with them to their small apartments or stucco or adobe-style houses and lay with them in their beds. Then as they sleep, he’d creep quietly around their houses, peer into their refrigerators at their luncheon meats, mineral water, and expired take-out, take in his hands their framed vacation photographs, let his fingers rest on the spot on which they propped their arms as they made their telephone calls. He liked to see the comfortable things of everyday life.
That was only sometimes, though. Most of the time, he left the bar alone, though he didn’t often go back to the room he rented above the Chinese restaurant on the east side of town. Late at night the devil walked the streets of Phoenix and no one touched him. He liked the feel of the tepid air that blew into the city from the desert. He imagined he could feel the sand in it, grainy and small, the same sand in which a lizard dug her nest, a cactus buried its roots. Sand that he was old enough to have known as a mountain before the wind wore it down. Before, when he was young and the world was young and the possibility of goodness and the possibility of all things seemed infinite.
The devil lived like every other man, save for one small thing. He was the only one he knew who still believed in sin. Once walking down the street in the sweltering Arizona heat, he came across a raving man holding the typical cardboard sign and on that sign the man had written God isn’t dead yet. Have faith. When he asked the man about the devil, he said “God is the only true thing in this life. It’s the devil that’s a human construct.” The devil laughed and agreed.
In his wallet and behind his credit cards, the devil carried an old and tattered feather, the kind that grew soft and small on the underside of the wing. It isn’t one of his. He’d lost track of those a long time ago, figured them all to be turned to dust or fossilized in some ancient stretch of stone. Still, sometimes he took out the feather and rubbed its fluff against the thumb of his left hand, over his lips.
On windy days, the devil stood on the roof of the Chinese restaurant. He closed his eyes to better feel the push and pressure of air moving all around his body. He swore sometimes he can feel the stretch and lift of phantom, avian limbs.
In his dreams, the devil still had wings. In his dreams, the devil had Delia.
The devil liked to imagine he was in love with the cocktail waitress, a sweet and almost pretty girl out of Iowa. Delia’s hair was long and brown. She had round eyes, a soft pale body, too-small mouth into which the devil wanted to slide his silver tongue. The gap between her front teeth hurt his heart. She once had dreams of making it as a singer, of making it all the way to California, but she only made it as far as Phoenix. The devil beat her out for the job of lounge singer, but she didn’t hold it against him. She didn’t know he did it just because he could, because he knew it would hurt her and hurting her was second best to being loved by her.
Delia liked being a waitress and sometimes after the bar closed, she got the dusty acoustic guitar out of the trunk of her car and she and the devil sang songs together, their voices rising up in the strong and simple harmonies of pop radio in the empty dark of the lonely bar.
Delia had no concept of sin, just of survival. She didn’t believe in heaven or damnation or in angels. She didn’t believe in the devil either, that he was with her literally when she stole from the cash register sometimes and slipped him a few bills for his silence, or with her figuratively when she had sex with the manager for money. She believed only in what she could see and touch, was unaware of all she doesn’t know. Once the devil gave her four hundred dollars to pay her rent and she believed in him then as she knew him, as the singer, the pianist, and if she knew he did it out of love, she said nothing.
The devil had known Delia all her life, though it was only recently that he’d grown to love her. He had been with her when at eleven she, a bruised and angry girl, had smashed a lizard with a rock until it was just a red smear on the concrete, when she poked out the eyes of her brother’s fish with a pencil, when she set fire to a small nest of abandoned baby birds. She’d cried as they burned, though she didn’t know it. He’d been responsible for none of that, but watched quietly, his invisible arms wrapping her up and holding close the misery he’d wrought, warming himself on the flickering flame of her soul as he tried to blow it out like a birthday candle.
He’d been there when she was thirteen too, when she was relieved and confused, oddly hurt that her step-father had stopped creeping into her room at night to touch her as her mother slept. That sin he’d had a hand in, the ruin of a child. He’d thought little of it then. Only later when he’d come to know the sound of her voice as she sang and the soft floral scent of her hair, did it mean anything.
The hell in which the devil lived now was figurative. If he had to name it, he’d say it was the knowledge that in his life, he was completely alone. The devil prayed often. He spoke his prayers softly before he went to bed, before he went to work, before meals. He felt his prayers fly up, but no one listened. Sometimes they sat round and heavy like a pebble on his tongue. He prays for many things, but not forgiveness. Even if he thought he could, he’d dare not try Sometimes he prayed for Delia’s deliverance from him and it seemed that those prayers rose a little higher before the dropped back down to rot at his feet.
One Thursday night, it was Delia’s turn to close and the devil stayed with her to help her vacuum, wash glasses, and close out the till. She hadn’t asked him to do it. She never asked him for anything, but often he did whatever it was she needed. He liked granting her favors for free when every day he accepted blood from others in exchange for the things he could do.
He watched her as she finished counting the the money, sifting through quarters and dimes with her hands, licking her index finger every now and again to easier flip through stacks of bills. When she took a couple of twenties out of the register and slipped them into her pocked, he looked respectfully away. When she was finished, he shut of all the lights so the bar was dark, the piano like a great hulking shadow in the corner of the room.
“It’s raining,” she said as she dug her keys out of her little green purse. “Do you need a ride?”
“No, I’ll be fine. I like to walk when the weather’s like this.” He rubbed at his shoulders. They always hurt when it was damp or cold. He liked it though, that dull and mortal ache.
Delia shook her head. “Don’t be stupid. Let me give you a ride.”
They ran through the parking lot toward her ancient Chevy. The inside of the car smelled damp and she had duct taped the passenger side window up to keep out a persistent drip. The plush side of the seat was beginning to mildew.
“Sorry about the mess. I’m going to get that window sealed eventually. When tips are better or I find a better job.”
The devil didn’t mind. The rain was coming down hard that night and had soaked them both. He could feel her shivering from the chill in the seat next to him and as she drove he watched the beams of headlights light up the drops of water that still clung to her hair.
She pulled her car into one of the spots outside the Chinese restaurant and looked at him. “Hey, do you think I’m a good person?”
“Is this about the money?”
“No. Yes.” She sighed and touched a hand to her pocket where the stolen money was still tucked away. “Well do you?”
The devil was quiet for a moment. The devil was not omniscient, not all-knowing. He liked to joke that if he were, he would have known better, but he did not repeat the joke to Delia. “There isn’t any such thing as a good person. There are people who sometimes do good, people who sometimes do bad. You know that.” He pressed his index finger into the melted circle of an old cigarette burn on the arm rest between them. “I think there are weak people.”
She frowned. “You think I’m weak?”
“I think you’re human.”
He started to get out of the car, but she stopped him, her hand resting on his arm. He didn’t say anything, just closed the door so the rain didn’t get in. He was good at being quiet, waiting for people to come to him. It was what made him good at what he did.
As Delia thought about what she wanted to say, she tapped lightly at his forearm. They were friends. This was the kind of gesture one did with friends.“Okay, do you want to go somewhere?”
He thought for a moment about her long legs, what it would be like to feel his body pressed against hers, the heat of her sweat on his skin. He could make it happen, easy as a thought. “Where?”
“Vegas. Let’s go to Vegas.”
“Why not? We have hours. It’s better than going home and going to bed, yeah?”
He looked at the little flashing clock in her dashboard. It was only 11:30. The bar closed early on the weeknights. Vegas. He knew she knew he’d pay. It wasn’t the same as expecting him to. He just always did. He was not sure which of her regrets were weighing on her hard enough to press her out of town.
“Vegas. Okay. Let’s go.”
And so she backed out of the parking lot, drove onto the interstate, and followed the road and rain into another city and what the devil was softly singing was her favorite song.
She kept a bottle of something cheap under the seat of her car and the devil drank from it as she drove them to Las Vegas. The duct tape on the window wasn’t doing its job and fat drops of rain plopped down every so often onto the elbow of his mid-priced but impeccably tailored suit. By the time they arrived, his limbs were loose and his blood pumped honey-slow through his veins. When he squinted his eyes and tilted his head just right, it seemed to him that the glowing fog of neon lights looked enough like heaven.
Delia spent the devil’s money in a casino not to far off the strip. It had an Amazonian theme and the devil could hear the rush and splash of the waterfall in the lobby float above the beeping, whirring, mechanical slur. Delia played blackjack, bet high, lost everything. Each time she lost, she held out her hand to ask for more and the devil always gave it. She never asked where all his money came from and the devil knew she didn’t care. When she finally had too much to drink, the devil held onto her so she wouldn’t fall and took her up to a room he rented on the seventeenth floor of a hotel nicer than anywhere Delia had ever stayed before.
He filled a glass with water, held it to her mouth for her as she sat dazed and dizzy on the bed.
“I wanted your job,” she said, dribbling water down her chin.
“What did you do before? Why couldn’t you stay with that job? That job was meant for me.”
The devil helped her slip off her shoes, untied her long brown hair. He shivered at the texture of it in his hands. “I was on the Holy Mount of God. I walked among the fiery stones. I was blameless in my ways from the day I was created until wickedness was found in me.”
“Ezekiel,” he said and tapped the bible on the nightstand.
Delia fell asleep.
With nothing else to do, the devil continued his work on an equation that would allow him to pinpoint the exact location of heaven. He took many things into account: the speed at which the world spins; the spectrum of color in the Northern Lights; the similarities between the curvature of the chambered nautilus shell and the chambered hives of honey bees; the moon’s pull on the ocean; the sum and total weight of every human heart; the distance between the Dog Star, dead stars, Morning Star. At home he made his notes on the grease-browned wall of his bedroom. With Delia sleeping next to him, he jotted down notes on the title page torn from Gideon’s and listened to her breathe.
She woke an hour or so before dawn. When the devil reached for her in the barely-there light of the hotel room, she let him kiss her once then pushed him gently away. He sighed, knowing he could change her heart with just a whisper, but he stayed quiet. After a long moment she reached for him and the devil could see that it was guilt that made her ease off her clothes, climb onto him, bring him inside her with a small resigned moan. He reached up to feel her breast, squeezed it once and then let her do her work, knowing all she felt was a post-drunk fuzz and like there was a debt to pay. The devil thought of women then, and men, of what the body can do for another body, thought that a synonym for Heaven must be the body, must be Delia, must be love. And if Heaven is something he can never have again, did he have the right to the things he takes instead?
He gripped her hips then and moved with her until the noises she made stopped being performance. He had known Delia her entire life. He knew both her lies and her truths and he loved both. So the devil kissed her mouth and ran his tongue over the gap in her teeth. The devil fucked Delia because neither one of them knew what to make of love. He moved fast beneath her until the all of it—the final baby bird cry she made in his ear, the sweat of her forehead pressed against his, the staccato beat of the pulse he felt when he pressed her wrist to his mouth—all of it proved to him that she could want him too even if it wasn’t love and she hadn’t wanted to want him back.
In the morning, they got into back into her car. Delia stared out the window and didn’t speak as the devil drove her back to Phoenix. She turned to him once as if to tell him something, but instead she switched the radio on, sifted through static until she found a station playing crackling, weary blues. The devil felt that same ancient heaviness then in his still-beating, old-as-time, dead coal heart.
Adrienne Rivera received her MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Her stories have appeared in Copper Nickel, New Madrid Journal, and Watershed Review.
Artwork: Rob Woodcox, The Burning Point