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In the Details
Isaac Haim sits in this chair at this table in this bar every night. He has done this for so long that even when the chair is unoccupied it seems to sigh under his weight and the table blooms with his fingerprints. He will speak if he is spoken to, which isn’t often. He drinks, at a dedicated, unhurried pace, anything that is put in front of him. Mostly he just sits. But if you buy him a scotch (and sometimes if you don’t) he’ll turn and face you. He’ll take your hand (don’t be frightened). And he’ll tell you the story of the time he met the Devil.
He isn’t from around here. Not originally. He grew up out west in a town called Hopeless with a mother called Dolores and a father with no name at all. Isaac Haim was a man who felt that, in general, his life lived him rather than the other way around. This sensation had been with him since childhood. He found himself places with no recollection of how he got there. His wardrobe was full of clothes that, when worn, seemed to be constantly trying to shrug him off. His cuffs unbuttoned themselves, his ties snaked to the floor at inopportune moments or else tried to garrotte him while he was making important phone calls. The only suit he owned was the one his father died in. Was the one his father should by rights have been buried in had his mother not judged that, as her husband had never been particular in sartorial matters in life, he might be unrecognisable if suited and booted in the hereafter. She was keen that her late spouse received absolutely everything he had coming to him (and for his part he could not have complained. He had tirelessly given his young wife ‘everything she had coming to her’, made an art of it.) Concerned St Peter might be temporarily baffled by Sunday attire and wave her feckless former husband in to his eternal rest, she had removed the $10 suit at a pace that, should anyone have been around to see it, would’ve been described as unseemly. A week before his father had been twice judged in one day, by the law and then the Lord, struck down on his way back from the court house, the young Isaac was observing a column of ants march resolutely across their porch and down into a storm drain. Rubbing his sticky paws together, it had occurred to him dully that the ants displayed more purpose than he appeared capable of. The insects didn’t even have hands and they were more able to seize the day than he was. His own digits lay idle, refused to co-operate with any grand plans that he might, in an unguarded moment, have entertained.
It was this suit that hung around him sullenly the day he sat
in the offices of Hobson and Nicholas trying in vain to sell objects
that people had no need for, that he himself did not know how to
use. Water purifiers, air conditioners, things that we place in
corners to hum and malfunction. It was this suit that snagged on
an errant nail protruding from the doorframe as he tried to slink
out from under the glacial gaze of the receptionist who informed
him with her pretty pink voice that his services were not needed.
With the sound of a snigger, a gash the length of a dollar bill
appeared in his side, suit, shirt and skin opening up as one. An
intimate warmth spread across his ribs as his blood bloomed
wetly on the cotton. Distracted, he failed to notice that he was
no longer alone in the foyer with the frosty silicone attempt at
femininity that passed for a receptionist.
Isaac’s mother, if she was to be believed (and there is a
question for another day) was on first name terms with the Devil.
If you were a certain kind of woman in a certain part of America
he was as invaluable as pest control. As everyday as grief. If
Catholicism permits acts of intercession Dolores Haim could
think of no good reason why the Devil would prove lazier than
your average saint. On the contrary, he proved himself to be
tirelessly, unstoppably at work. She had tried to impress this upon her son from an early age. As a consequence there were a few things Isaac Haim thought he knew about the Devil, a starring role if ever there was one. Isaac knew he mainly stayed in the south where the winters were kinder and the people had longer memories and shorter nooses. He knew that the Devil can creep in through the silences in conversations that fall when a wicked thought is formed but goes unsaid and unacted upon. And he knew that the Devil did not concern himself with bit part players. The diabolical did not touch the walk-on part, the people who will only ever be in crowd scenes. The Devil has rooms in every parliament, every cathedral, every castle from Vatican City to Silicon Valley. He has a taste for greatness. Yes, Isaac Haim thought he knew the Devil very well.
Isaac snapped upright, looking at first to the reception desk, his gaze bouncing off the girl he found there and alighting instead on the outline of a woman silhouetted in a doorway at the back of the room. Afterwards Isaac was unsure if the door had always been there, certainly couldn’t remember seeing it when he walked in off the street. Dazed, he squinted into the dark where he imagined her face to be.
‘I… yes, I...’
He stuttered painfully and, with a drowning despair, he thought he could hear her laughing at him. His blood dripped onto the floor as the receptionist drummed her manicured talons on her desk.
‘Let me see.’
A dog called to its master would have obeyed less quickly than Isaac did, not knowing why, not knowing anything at all. He crossed the room to the doorway to find it empty, the woman’s voice echoing from the bottom of a flight of stairs like a witch in a well.
He made his way down, found himself in a small, dull, subterranean basement. One bare light bulb swung over his head and cast sinister shadows on the walls. A table, two chairs, a filing cabinet that made Isaac feel queasy, gave the impression of being infinitely capacious. A typewriter, piles and piles of completed forms of all kinds. Loan applications, health insurance papers, witness statements, surveys, and warrantees. The woman sat on the table, legs crossed, arms braced out to either side, gripping the desktop as if expecting an earthquake.
‘That looks nasty,’ she said. And he nodded because he did not know what else to do.
Isaac had a deep-seated fear of fancy dress parties. In fact costumes of any kind caused him a kind of abstract, creeping distress he couldn’t bear. You can understand why. A man who has not yet mastered playing himself will struggle intensely to put on the guise of someone else. It would be like trying to build a cathedral on a swamp. The crypt would have sunk into obscurity before any thought could be given to a steeple. To wear a mask it is necessary to possess a face to hang it on. This being the case, Isaac never attempted any kind of disguise when invited to such occasions and when challenged he would tell the only joke he knew. ‘Who have you come as?’ people would ask. And Isaac would reply, ‘I’ve come as the Devil. Because he looks like everybody else.’
Noiselessly she slipped to the floor and crossed the room towards him. Isaac stood motionless. She could not be described as beautiful though if you passed her in the street that’s the word you would fall back on in panic. She was small, slight, if Isaac had wanted to (wanting was something he was working up to) he could have rested his chin on the top of her dark head. She bent to examine the gash on his side, her fingers icy and strong. Isaac tried not to gasp but she sensed his tense hesitation and laughed, her breath cooling the blood on his shirt. For a moment he thought she was about to press her mouth to the wound on his ribcage and his heart pushed its way up into his throat, begging for release. But she didn’t. She stood up to face him. He felt an instinct to pray, a relic from childhood. She had his blood on her fingertips and pressed her palms against his similarly gory hands.
‘That’s going to need stitching.’
She licked the blood from her hands, a child eating an ice cream in a heatwave, so nonchalant that it took Isaac a full minute to realise what she was doing. By now she had fished a first aid kit from the depths of a desk draw (at least he assumed it was a first aid kit. What else would a box of sutures and scissors be doing in an office drawer?). She pulled out a chair, indicated for him to sit. Canine and dumb, he did as he was told.
‘What’s your name?’
He told her without hesitation, his full name, and then wished obliquely that he had not, and didn’t understand why. She was kneeling at his side, nimble fingers still slick with her saliva, arranging surgical thread, something out of a Caravaggio. He noticed that, despite her viciously tailored suit, her feet were bare and filthy.
‘What do you do Isaac?’
He told her honestly. Not much. And not well. And for no good reason he could understand. She carried on putting him back together quietly.
‘I think you would like to come to work for us Isaac. I think we could be good for you. You’re exactly the kind of man we’ve been looking for. Do you think you could work for us?’
He heard himself say yes, he thought he would like that, he thought he could be useful to them.
‘Better than new.’ A white dressing now glared through the tear in his shirt, framed by a crimson stain the shape of a star. Almost a star. She stood before him and he lost all sense of the scale of the room. He rose, inches from her face. Her hair smelt of smoke and he felt sure that if he had touched her then they would both have burst into flames.
‘ You can go now’ she said. ‘Come back in the morning. We’ll find some work for you to do.’
He came to himself as he walked home and though he knew he had not kissed her, knew it like he knew his name, he could still taste her when he reached the outskirts of town. She was still in his mouth as he sat on the roof of his apartment that night. Ashes and blood and something sweet and narcotic.
So it was that Isaac Haim became a junior clerk at Hobson and Nicholas. Do you know what a clerk does? He is, in general, a very small cog in a machine so large he could not tell you what it looked like, let alone what its purpose is. This suited Isaac beautifully, feeling as he did that he was only ever playing a supporting role in his own life. Hobson and Nicholas have kept offices in this town for as long as anyone can remember. In fact there’s no one now left who is able to recall a time before their premises squatted innocuously on the corner of Prosecution Boulevard; bland as a baby, unremarkable as a war. If anyone ever had cause to speak of the building at all it was to idly contemplate the preponderance of traffic accidents on that corner. Wide and sweeping with excellent visibility, it was a hugely unlikely accident blackspot. Yet if a car was to mount the kerb and take out a mother and infant, buggy and all, Battleship Potemkin style, or a puppy explode under an HGV, the corner of Prosecution Boulevard is where it would happen. In 1983 the asphalt played a particularly cruel trick, yawning open in the morning heat and swallowing a school bus whole, complete with driver and eighteen elementary school children. Spat them out one by one on the backs of sobbing firemen, tiny and limp. And if eyebrows were raised when neither the town planners, nor the geologists nor the numb-faced men in their big black cars and big black suits from upstate could explain how such a cataclysm could’ve taken place they were dropped again even while the new tarmac was still sticky and hot. The bus is still down there, always late for a school bell that will never stop ringing. Hobson and Nicholas always sent the same bouquet. Aconite, irises, mock orange and tuberose.
‘What do we do?’ Isaac had asked on his first day. There were other employees at Hobson and Nicholas, or at least he assumed there must be because he heard them trooping past his small office, chuckling, low and throaty, inside stationery cupboards and at least once he thought he heard moaning coming from that basement room where he had sat and bled that first afternoon.
‘We take care of the little things,’ the woman had said to him, ‘the things that people overlook, the things they have forgotten they did, the fine print, the specifics.’
‘Is that what you’ve always done?’
She stared at him intently, a cruel little mouth twisting into an amused smile until he flushed violently and turned away, discomfited.
‘No. No we used to be more… hands on. We used to offer a more bespoke service. Face to face. But times change. There are other ways to reach people. The world has changed and we change with it. Do we not, Isaac?’
Hobson and Nicholas were ostensibly printers by trade. They produced all manner of official documents and forms which required signing; ts crossing, is dotting. Rental agreements, mortgages, housing surveys, coroner’s reports. Contracts of all kinds. All blank and beautiful, all ready to be filled out. These came broadly complete from a variety of suppliers, a facsimile that Isaac would typeset and re-produce, making a number of very minor changes at the behest of his superior, apparently following some communication from their clients. Certain words removed or obscured. Tick-boxes introduced. ‘Please tick to confirm you have read the terms and conditions’. ‘Tick if you are happy for us to contact you’. The m of ‘mortal’ kept wearing out on his typewriter and he would end the day blackened from wrist to fingertips with an ink that proved almost impossible to remove. After some months in the job it became indelible and he kept his hands in his pockets outside of the office. With these appendices attached, the forms were sent out to the general public and every so often a batch would return for filing. He assumed that these were for archival purposes and tried not to see familiar names on them and tried not to think of the cabinet he had seen in the basement that had made his skin crawl. He did not ask Lux (for that was her name, one of her names) about them though she came to see him daily. She leaned on the back of his chair, watching over his shoulder as he worked, pacing across the claustrophobic room and leaning against the window frame. Against his will he watched her and knew she felt him watching and knew this was what she wanted of him.
‘Great men have done the job you do now, Isaac,’ she told him one evening as he was finishing, turning an ‘external’ into an ‘eternal’ here, a ‘dam’ into a ‘damn’ there. ‘Lyndon Johnson. Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson.’ He thought he felt her fingers on the back of his neck as he placed his hand on the door handle. But when he turned the foyer was empty. The receptionist had been turned off for the night. He returned to his apartment and lay fully clothed in the dark, black palms upturned to the ceiling, and burned for her. He woke screaming from dreams in which he was burned alive in his office, chained to his chair while she sat on his desk, as she had done that first day, and watched. But on waking into the stillness of his empty room he would sob like a child, trying and failing to capture that taste that was partly lust and partly immolation.
He was down in the basement looking for a new typewriter ribbon when he found it. The file with his name on. A newspaper clipping fluttered to the floor gently. It kicked his legs out from under him. He saw a police car compressed into a cube at a stop light, the interloper in an embrace between a UPS truck and tractor. His father inside, outwardly perfect, and within, everything exploding, liquefying. You could see his face up against the glass. The file fell wide open on the desk, wanton. Revealed a picture of a tiny boy, four at most, on the porch of a slum house on the outskirts of Hopeless. A tiny boy holding the hand of a skinny twenty-one year old with a face as battered and resonant as a bell. Our lady of sorrows. Dolores. A picture of him as a little boy. He wanted to be sick. He wanted to scream. A contract. A signature. A tiny, black hand print. ‘As useful as pest control.’ His mother’s mantra.
‘My former boss said it was a great thing to be a father of sons.’
He didn’t know when she had entered the room. Perhaps she had always been there. He tried to speak, gagged, reached out for her. She looked different, sharper, more defined, as though someone had turned up the contrast. He tried to focus on her but shimmering behind her were a thousand other bodies, other faces, wings unfolding nauseatingly slowly. He felt hot and sick.
‘They can be used to pay all the biggest debts. Your mother was of his way of thinking.’
She was walking towards him, agonizing and slow. He could hear something metallic beyond the basement door, a million knives dragged across a metal gurney. Or a safe-door slamming in an unnatural breeze. Gates that should have stayed chained together being rammed.
‘Some people think that if you are truly willing to give something up, honestly and purely ready to let go of it, you may never have to deliver on your promise. The intention is enough.’
She put her fingertips to his mouth, brushed the hair from his eyes.
‘That’s a lie. We always take what you have promised us. We always collect on our debts. The contract never runs out and there isn’t a court in the land that can help you. Your Supreme Court justice may not deny my existence but he will struggle I think to gain personal jurisdiction over this defendant in this juridical district. He will deem it rather unlikely that the Devil was ever present in the Western District of Pennsylvania.’
She blinked and her eyes flashed sulphurous and yellow. Isaac stumbled backwards, crashing to the floor as the chair broke beneath him. She crouched in front of him, sitting on her heels and pinning him against the wall with her gaze.
‘You’re not the Devil.’ It came out as a sob.
‘Am I not?’ She was entertained, chin on her hand, incandescent and pitiless.
‘No, no, no. You’re not, you’re not.’ He cried, he was four again, watching ants crawl across the floor, trying to scrub a little black palm clean while his mother sat at a table with a beautiful dark-haired young woman, scratching at a piece of paper.
‘You don’t know the Devil very well do you, Isaac Haim.’
She kissed him then, or at least that was the only name Isaac could give to what she did to him. She swallowed him whole, soul and will and all and it was the happiest he had ever been. A pyrotechnic protagonist finally, for one scorching second a leading man.
‘Don’t forget whose boy you are.’
This is the story Isaac Haim will tell you if you ask him. And sometimes if you don’t. What the bar man will tell you is that there hasn’t been a firm occupying the offices on the corner of Prosecution Boulevard for decades now. That they were gutted by fire and when it went out, when the authorities went in with their careful steps and their sniffer dogs, Isaac Haim was curled up in the basement like a baby. Hugging a can of gasoline. Impossibly alive. Blackened from toes to throat, they thought at first he had burned like a log. But no. It was ink and not ash that got Isaac into trouble in the end. You can see it just beyond his collar. You noticed it on his hands when you passed him his drink but you dismissed it because it’s dark in here. Like you dismissed the stopped watch and the smell of burning when he speaks. He sits here, just across from his old place of work. Because they’re going to re-open any day now. That’s what he says. Any day now.