By: L.E. Schwaller
Don’t you know there ain’t no devil,
there’s just God when he’s drunk
It had taken three hard days and nights of drinking his way through Dublin to get Thomas to the front steps of The Church Bar. He had spent those dedicated days and nights stumbling up and down narrow wet streets, bothering the locals and urinating on the cold cobblestone of back alleys and the floors of pub bathrooms. It had taken all of that slurping for courage to get him where he stood, raspy and cotton-mouthed, at the base of the very same steps he had once climbed to attend church as a boy. But now, as he stood there in the dark, gulping down the bitter night air, a fear overtook him. He could never admit it, but he was afraid—afraid of the superstition, the legend, the old wives’ tale. He wasn’t sure he even believed in the devil, but he needed him now. And so it was fear, fear of a ghost story he wasn’t sure he believed, that cemented his wobbling, drunken feet to the sidewalk. He began to worry then that he had come all this way, maxing out his last in a long line of credit cards for an overseas flight, just to turn around and head back to his wasted life with nothing to show for all this effort.
A cackle of laughter trickled out of The Church Bar, resounding in the courtyard like a wheezing old man. Thomas looked back over his shoulder, thinking of the old church with longing and nostalgia. Though it had long since been converted into a bar and tourist trap, it still felt holy to him, as if thirty years of time and change hadn’t occurred. As if there was still a common culture of faith and church. It was that nostalgia that renewed his courage as he closed his eyes and inhaled, filling his lungs with air.
He took off like a shot, sprinting as fast as he could around the church in the dark. The vibrant light passing through the stained glass windows flashed by him, all the stages of the crucifixion illuminated by the bar inside. He came ‘round the back of the church, racing past the golden tower – a monument of spiraling stairs plated in gold and protected by glass at the edge of Mary Street. He kept running past the front door. His feet were stinging, chest burning. Again he passed the gaudy stages of the crucifixion, then the golden tower, and the front door again. He continued on, rounding the church for the third and final time. The sound of his feet beating against the pavement echoed, the heavy patter following him, chasing him. He ran faster, pushing himself despite the growing pain and weight of each stride. As he reached the front steps for the final time, the echo of his footsteps continued their pursuit and he couldn’t bring himself to stop. Instinct told him to keep running, to never stop, so he clenched his eyes shut again and ran harder, finally stuttering to a stop in the middle of Wolfe Tone Park some fifty meters past the front of the church, nearly weeping as he finished.
He put his hands on top of his head then paced and coughed, his lungs on fire. The mucous welled up in his throat and he spit, tasting the stale beer. While patting the outside of his pockets, feeling for a cigarette, he wished that he had managed to quit just once out of all those years of trying. He flicked his lighter, inhaled, then waited. As a boy, he had been warned about running around St. Mary’s three times in the dark, that it was a damnable sin, an unforgivable curiosity. And yet he barely knew what to expect. Still, he was there for a reason. So he continued to wait. Patiently, with the delusional stoicism of a determined man.
The park was desolate. Shadows danced in the orange glow of streetlamps, shifting and bouncing across the discarded tombstones that lined the worn brick wall bordering the former churchyard. He looked into the shifting silhouettes, waiting. His hands trembled slightly, the fear and whiskey and adrenaline all coursing through his veins with each audible thumping of his heart. It was foggy, he thought, even for Dublin. He hadn’t been there for nearly thirty years, but it still felt like home.
A cold wind moaned, swaying the leafless tree branches in Wolfe Tone Park. The spindly offshoots of the naked Field Maples rubbed against each other, back and forth with the winds, an orchestra of ghastly violins. Thomas abandoned his pacing and doubled over, still struggling for breath, the cigarette dangling from his lips. The park had been built a few years back for the local children overtop the old church cemetery. He remembered playing there as a child, running and hiding among the gravestones. It occurred to him then that the legend might not work. After all, this wasn’t a church anymore. It was a bar filled with kitsch and drunken tourists.
He took a step forward and squinted, biting his lower lip as he peered at the base of the stone stairs, trying to discern between shadow and concrete. But there was nothing, nothing but the light of streetlamps and the empty steps that led up to the front of the bar.
He caught his quivering hand and clenched it into a fist, then laughed.
“Stupid child’s games,” he mumbled. It had all been for nothing. He turned on his heels, stepped forward then stumbled again, righting himself against a fence and laughing. He noticed that his hands still trembled, so he sent his cigarette into the bushes with a flick and shoved them into his tired jacket pockets before starting back to the comfort of the bar that would always be St. Mary’s to him.
The doors were still the same, he remembered as he pushed through into the warm air of The Church Bar. His head felt airy and dazed now, almost euphoric, as he stepped into the bright open vestibule. Such a strange ambiance. The old polished hardwood leading up to the newly constructed bar in the center. The restaurant seating on the balcony above that was once the chorus loft. The music stage made of the altar and pulpit and tabernacle to the front. All of it lighted by a row of golden elephantine chandeliers hanging from the high, rib-vaulted ceilings. It still smelled of Sundays but tasted like all the other evenings of the week.
“A pint, Landlord. If you please,” Thomas commanded the bartender with a wave of his hand as he propped himself on a barstool and fumbled through his pockets, pulling out a wad of crumpled notes and laying them on the bar. He checked his reflection in the mirror behind the rows of liquor bottles, a haggard, hungry face staring back, his cheeks sunken, the skin ruddy and chaffed from the night air. His salt and pepper hair was windswept, so he tried to straighten it with his hands.
The pub was full, all the tables crowded with chatting and laughing tourists and Dubliners. Thomas was one of only three sitting at the bar, the only three who were serious about what they were doing there, hunched over their drinks with despondent, expressionless faces.
As he sat, his mouth drying, he looked over the top of the bar to one of the many religious statues, the relics of a holier time. In the far corner was a statue of St. Jude, sculpted in marble, holding a Bible in one hand, his neck adorned with a gilded chain. The patron saint of lost causes was looking out with dark eyes. Thomas noticed the flaming tongue of the Holy Spirit floating above the statue’s head. The bartender slid the stout in front of Thomas, so he toasted the statue with a smile and drank, imagining himself the patron saint of serious drinkers with an unfettered dedication to his cause.
Suddenly, the heavy doors of the bar swung open and slammed against the plaster walls, resounding in a thunderous crash. A hush swept over the bar like a hand passing through smoke. The lull in conversation, swills, and clinking clanks seemed to last for days. Thomas turned and watched an ominous fog roll through the entrance of the bar. He squinted, as everyone else did, trying to peer through the dense haze billowing in through the same doors that once brought in all the wretched sinners of Dublin, all those seeking salvation at least.
Thomas felt a bead of sweat roll down the back of his neck. Then the fog dissipated. The Stranger—that all too familiar Stranger with as many names as there are sparks of a fire—walked into the light. He looked nothing like Dante or Milton imagined as he tried to appear menacing, scowling as he did his best to deliver on the suspense. However, the effect was lost on the crowd who stared at him, standing in the doorway next to the long dried stoups, strangely dressed from head to toe in flamboyant red silk pajamas, his pointed slippers sparkling like Dorothy before she clicked her heels. His black hair was in disarray, the scraggly curls twisted and matted to the sides of his head, standing tall and sticking up in the shape of two benign horns.
The Stranger snarled, gnashing fanged but harmless white teeth at his audience. The hush that had fallen over the bar quickly faded, then a stifled chuckle rose up. Snickers and chortles followed, all of it growing louder and louder. Within a few seconds everyone in the bar began to laugh, everyone but Thomas that is, doubling over as they mimicked the absurdity of his bed-head and pointing at his pajamas and slippers as if it were all a show, a sacrilegious comedy being performed in such perfectly bad taste within the walls of the former church.
He, that most infamous He, had grown so used to being met with terror. He rather enjoyed the fear that overtook a room when he entered. So, naturally, he was taken aback at the crowds’ reaction. Glancing down at his outfit he realized he had forgotten to change out of his pajamas and groaned, rolling his eyes. Then, with an annoyed snap of his fingers, he cast everyone motionless, leaving only Thomas untouched by the spell. The patrons were still, lifelike but unmoving in time like wax statues. The bartender held a pint glass under the still running tap. Stout overflowed and ran down his arm, streaming onto the floor from his bent elbow. Not an eyelash among the patrons waivered with a blink. They were frozen, necks craning, mouths open with laughter, or closed, stuck in a swallow or chew of a bar nut. A woman just a few tables from Thomas had been returning from the restroom when the Stranger had appeared, and there she was stranded, stuck hovering a half foot above her chair where she had been easing herself down at a table.
The Stranger shook his head, perturbed and disappointed. With a wave of his hand, the heavy doors obeyed, slamming shut behind him. Thomas looked away, staring vacantly into his pint as he listened to the patter of footsteps sauntering toward him, weaving through the tables packed with fossilized men and women. Each soft tapping step of the Stranger’s blood-red slippers on the wooden floors sounded like the first drops of rain against a window pane.
The Stranger then let out a sharp whistle and Thomas turned just in time to see him wink mischievously then hop to his left before reaching back and swinging, slapping one of the frozen men across the face. The smack echoed through the vestibule, but the Stranger didn’t pause to listen. He just went on dancing between the tables, making his way closer to Thomas with a sashay to his left or a skip to his right, and misdeeds at every step between. He paused to bend over and spit into a man’s beer. It popped and sizzled, boiling and bubbling over the rim of the glass like a beaker of acid.
Thomas felt a sickness welling up from somewhere deep inside. A fiery heat began fuming from the church vents, steam churning and sending Thomas’ stomach reeling into a maelstrom of queasiness. He watched the Stranger dance closer and closer, the red silk pajamas flowing and shaking as he moved. There was panic in Thomas’ short, forced breaths, but he dared not move from his barstool.
The Stranger did another side step and snatched the chair from beneath the woman he had struck still just before her wide ass could touch the seat. He twirled around, chair in hand, and flung it effortlessly over his shoulder. Thomas watched as the chair arced high through the air and then winced as it shattered across a man’s knee, snapping as if it had met an iron beam, the pieces splintering and rattling on the floor. The Stranger never faltered, the movements of his dance continued toward Thomas, fluid yet with the precision of a well-rehearsed routine. He plucked a full pint from the caressing grip of a drunk a few stools away then finally reached Thomas, the man he had traveled so far to see at such an ungodly hour.
“Do you have any idea what time it is?” the Stranger asked as he took a drink from the pint he had stolen. He let out a groggy sigh, then pulled himself on top of a stool next to Thomas.
Thomas started to speak, but each syllable was a struggle of stutters and stammers. His mouth was chalky, his tongue weighed down.
“Cat got your tongue?”
Thomas coughed as he choked down another long drink. “Something like that.”
In that moment, that brief pause when the two of them were seated next to each other and sipping at their pints, it was as if they were just two men sharing a quiet drink at a bar.
“Did I wake you?” Thomas asked, still averting his eyes.
The Stranger looked down at his absurd pajamas then raised a single brow up to Thomas.
“Sorry,” Thomas said, even though it seemed ridiculous to apologize. “I sort of lost track of time about three days ago. I have to be honest, I figured you didn’t need sleep.”
“Well you figured wrong.”
Thomas laughed a little, turning his head slightly to face the Stranger, but stopped abruptly as he watched him raise the pint to his lips. The tips of his fingers were pointed like the tongues of flames, and it seemed to Thomas that they were dancing. He found himself mesmerized, a pathetic moth drawn to flickering candlelight.
“I can’t believe I’m up here again at two in the morning,” the wicked Stranger shook his head.
“So does that mean you’re on Greenwich Mean Time?”
“No, Central European,” the Stranger replied. “I’ve had vested interest in that region for generations now.” He looked forward and sniffed, brushing his hand across his sharp nose. “I gotta tell you, Thomas. There was a time when nobody had the courage to make it three times around this church in the dark.”
Thomas leaned over his drink and looked down into the dark stout, searching for his reflection somewhere in the mud.
“You paying attention?” Thomas nodded to answer but remained sullen, shuffling his feet at the base of his barstool. “Good. I hate to be so nostalgic, reminiscing pathetically about how it was then, but there was a time when I could sleep. Before this place became a bar, I mean. You remember, don’t you?”
The Stranger laughed. “You know you can’t lie to me, right? I know all your tells.”
Thomas sighed. He had gotten used to being a great liar.
“You remember when the neighborhood kids were here nearly every night of the week, running around in the cemetery in the dark and playing Ghost in the Graveyard. They had never heard of that game before you taught them. It took a little American boy to teach them such an insidious and spooky game.” His voice pitched as he wriggled his fingers, a caricature of evil.
“I’m not sure what changed,” the Stranger said. “People used to have faith and fear. Remember Owen Kerrigan? He was the bravest of all your boyhood friends. I remember watching, waiting and hoping that he might make it. You were what, eleven then?”
“It was your last night in Dublin, remember?”
“Of course I do.”
“It was you who dared him to summon me. And he almost made it. I watched as Owen ran, sprinting as fast as those fat little legs would carry him,” his laugh was clichéd and sinister, expected. “You and all your friends were standing on the church steps, cheering him on as he came ‘round. For a moment, I thought he might make it. I had never seen anyone who wasn’t desperate or pathetic make it. No offense,” he said, turning to Thomas. “I watched him on his third time around. I was ready for him. You were all so young and innocent. A rarity for me. A sweet delicacy I always love to taste. I would have taken all of you that night. Do you know that?”
“But he didn’t make it all the way around that last time,” Thomas responded.
The Stranger swallowed hard and turned to Thomas, laughing as he leaned back on his stool, stout nearly bursting from his nose. “No, he sure didn’t,” the Stranger went on. “He was nearly there. He only had twenty, maybe thirty meters more to go, but it was too much. The fear got to him. So he dove, face first onto the pavement, sobbing and screaming for his mother. Remember?” the Stranger smacked Thomas on the back as he laughed. It was like they were old friends, having a beer together and laughing over old times and stories. Except Thomas wasn’t laughing. He sat poised, or pretending to be poised, as he listened and calculated. “He took all the skin off his hands and those chubby little knees,” the Stranger continued. “You all laughed at him as he hollered and sobbed. He had gravel stuck in his hands. His chin was torn open, and you just laughed at him, chiding him for being such a coward. Remember?”
“Yes, I remember. I was there.”
“No need to raise your voice and snap at me, Thomas,” he said, holding his hand to his chest to feign offense. “Sometimes it’s just nice to talk about the good old days, back when things were the way they were supposed to be. Back when this whole legend meant something. Now, every few nights there’s some drunk asshole with enough courage to make it around.”
Thomas finished off his beer and slid the glass forward a touch. He watched it with anticipation as it nearly fell over then teetered and wobbled before settling on its base.
“I miss the fear. I miss being able to sleep,” the Stranger sighed.
Thomas nodded and the two of them sat in silence for a moment.
“So, what is it that you want?” the Stranger said.
Thomas turned, and for the first time looked straight into the eyes of the Stranger. There was a bottomless depth to those eyes, a sadness and madness that sucked him in. He felt more lost in them than he had been in his entire life, but he was desperate.
“Come on, you summoned me. You have to want something.”
“I didn’t know you were like a genie,” Thomas said, dropping his eyes as he turned his head away.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but nobody is willing to go through all of that just to wake me up in the middle of the night so we can have a beer together.” The Stranger was calculated, stony. “So I ask again, what do you want?”
Thomas breathed deeply through his nose. His skin was dry, the gray whiskers of his five o’clock shadow itched. Finally, he took another long, heavy breath before turning back and staring into the eyes of the Stranger.
“I want to be happy.”
“Sounds like a problem for your shrink,” the Stranger said as he stood up and leaned over the bar, reaching forward with his empty pint glass and holding it overtop the bartender’s hand to refill it under the still flowing Guinness tap. “Just put that one on my tab,” he snickered and fell back onto his stool.
“I want to be young again and have success. I want money.” Thomas felt himself choking up. “And I want my beautiful wife back.”
“Understandable,” he replied.
Thomas gritted his teeth for courage then breathed in deeply. “I want all of the things I threw away and more. I’ll pay any price. I’m willing to give anything for it.”
“Anything,” Thomas said with a certainty even he believed.
“Well,” the Stranger thought for a moment. “You sort of put me in an awkward position here.”
There was a silence that felt like drowning. Thomas expected to hear the old church bells toll, he almost longed for it, anything to break the silence.
“You see, Thomas,” the Stranger started. “You’ve requested a great deal there. You’ve asked me to undo nearly your entire life. To rebuild everything you tore down and threw away. On top of that, you want wealth and the world.”
St. Jude caught Thomas’ eye once more. He was as lifeless as the people in the bar. What good had come from the cult of saints? That mythology masquerading as faith and salvation?
“And for all of that,” the bright red Stranger brought him back, “you haven’t anything to offer me really, have you?”
“I offer you my soul.”
“Your soul?” He laughed again. “And what credit do you think that gives you?”
“Isn’t that what you want?”
“I have to be honest,” the Stranger said. “Your soul isn’t worth much. In the end, I’ll probably get it anyway. All I have to do is wait.I don’t have to give you a damn thing.”
Thomas sat back, tears welling up in his eyes.
“Thanks for the drink,” the Stranger said as he hopped off his barstool and started for the door.
“Wait!” Thomas pleaded, rising from his stool as he reached out to stop him.
The Stranger paused for a moment and looked back over his shoulder. He was smiling, a sharp, knowing grin that was playfully devoid of any comfort. “I’ll see you soon,” he said, then walked away.
Thomas watched helplessly as the Stranger dissolved into the fog of the Dublin night. He felt the same desperate, hollow feeling he had grown used to, that lonesome abandonment. Though now it was somehow worse. There was truly no hope anymore. His last, damnable chance had yielded nothing and he realized then that he was worse off than before, that he had nothing to look forward to. This last pitiful shot had been nothing more than a fantasy, a legend that was only true enough to be cruel. So he sat back down on his barstool and stared down again, finding no solace in his empty pint.
The opened doors slammed shut once more. In that instant, as the heavy reverberation waned, the world around Thomas moved again, and everything picked up where it had left off. Sentences were finished and drinks were swallowed. For all the people around him, it was as if a record had skipped and the song kept on moving forward without missing a beat.
A few things seemed a bit off, though, altered even. There was the drunk at the end of the bar who couldn’t find his pint, and the man whose face stung. He cursed and accused everyone around him of slapping him, but nobody could take the blame. A man across the bar cried out in pain, clutching his knee as his friends looked on in dismay. And then there was the woman. The heavyset blonde in the awkwardly twisted skirt who fell to the floor with a smack, bruising her tailbone and flashing her lime green panties to all of St. Mary’s. She lay on her back laughing, all of them laughing.
[ L.E. Schwaller was born in rural Mid-Missouri in 1984. He studied English Literature and Creative Writing at Rockhurst University before earning a Master of Arts in English with an emphasis in creative writing at Creighton University. His short fiction was awarded the Carol Muske-Dukes Award in 2009 and in 2011 his piece ‘Flood’ won first prize in Rambunctious Review’s annual fiction competition. His novel ‘The Third Sunday of Every June’ is slated for release in the spring of 2014. He lives in Chicago.]