SEAN PADRAIC MCCARTHY
RENDER UNTO SATAN
Bibi was shouting about Jesus. Running down the street with her nightgown open in front and blowing in the wind behind her. She was barefoot, it was December, the ground frozen, but it hadn’t snowed really yet, and as far as Dale knew, there were no patches of ice. It was just after eight a.m., rush hour traffic, and as she cut across Main Street, flailing her arms, two cars swerved and blared their horns.
Dale was at the window of their second floor apartment, one child–two year old Brett–on his lap, and his cell phone to his ear, trying to get hold of his brother-in-law, Phillip, upstairs. Dale’s four-year-old, Molly, had her chin resting on the sill, and the baby was screaming. Across the street, Bibi exposed her breasts to a passing car. “Love him!” she shouted. “I just love him!”
Dale had every intention of running after her, but first he needed to get hold of someone to watch the children, and he knew Phillip was up there. He had heard him walking, probably already planning his menu for dinner. When he still didn’t answer, Dale carried Brett in one arm, the baby in the car seat in the other, and nudged Molly up the stairs. He cracked open the door. Phillip was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee. A Home Goods circular spread open before him. Phillip didn’t work; he owned the house, a three family, and just collected rent. He looked at Dale.
“Just five minutes,” Dale said. “Five minutes, I swear. I’ll be right back.”
By the time he reached Bibi, she was down on her knees, her arms out before her and palms flat to the earth. She caught sight of him, and then she was off and running again. Dale would never have guessed she could move so fast.
He caught her by the tail end of the nightgown, the material tearing as he yanked her towards him, and he spun her around, grabbing her tight. Her face was just inches from his. Wide brown eyes, and long, beautiful red lips. Long dark hair, now a mess.
“I love Jesus,” she sputtered.
“I know you do,” Dale said.
“I love him. Just love him.”
“Of course you do. I know you do. But Jesus doesn’t want you outside, not in the cold. He’d rather have you inside.”
Bibi wrestled an arm free and slapped him. “Blasphemer! Don’t you tell me what He wants me to do!”
Dale winced with the pain of the slap. It was worse in the cold. He got his arms around her again, and then Phillip’s roommate, Barry–graying hair, dark circled eyes, yellow and wiry, and a cigarette dangling from his lips–was jogging down the street. Barry took one arm as Dale took the other, and they started back to the apartment.
Bibi had always been religious—raised Catholic—but things had never been like this. She had met people on line and joined a new church. She initially told Dale it was a Baptist church–Dale himself had been raised Baptist but he had gotten as far away from his parents and religion as soon as he could, first joining the service, and then moving east—but Dale wasn’t so sure; they met in a rented hall, and the preacher, the Reverend Mike Goode, zoomed in via satellite, and it didn’t seem very Baptist. “Speaking to millions at once,” Bibi had said, her eyes dilated as she grabbed Dale by the shirt front as he was trying to read a new book by Kundera. “Millions at once.”
At first, Dale hadn’t minded her going if it kept her happy—Bibi, high strung with a volcanic temper, was almost never happy–but he missed the Bibi who had started out as his pen pal and used to send him dirty letters and nude pictures when he was stationed in Germany. Polaroids of her happily cooking in the kitchen without at a stitch on. Subtle suggestions of how wonderful their life would be.
Now she tore off her nightgown, running room to room, as he soon as he got her inside. She opened the living room window and began screaming down to the street, pledging her love again, and then Dale had no choice but to wrestle her to the floor. He pinned her hands, her chest heaving, and then she spit at him. Called him the Devil. Dale could feel the spittle dripping from his nose but he didn’t dare let go of her hands. When he looked up Molly was standing there holding her doll Louie, one lazy eye, by the hair– the doll’s legs brushing the floor—staring. She must have snuck down the back stairs.
By ten a.m. he had convinced Bibi to take an extra Ativan, along with her Paxil which she had been refusing since last Wednesday. Dale had forgotten to call work—a health insurance agency that he had started at eighteen months earlier–and now he was lost in a cold sweat as he left a message with the secretary: Molly was sick again, he said, allergy flare up, he had to stay home. He had been calling in all too much lately, and he was beginning to wonder when his boss would call him in to speak to him. Bibi sat at the kitchen table, silent, stirring her coffee. The kitchen was tiny, as was the rest of the apartment, and with five of them now, Dale was wondering how long it could contain them. They wanted a bigger place, wanted a house, but he didn’t see how they could ever afford it; as it was, she was giving a hundred dollars a week to the church.
They had the gate up, the kids in the living room. The baby flat on his back on his play mat, reaching up for the cloth birds and stars hanging above him, and Brett and Molly surrounded by toys. A repeat of Blues Clues was on the television—Steve’s face growing larger in the camera; he suddenly had puppy dog eyes and an enormous nose.
Dale stepped away and took a seat across from Bibi. She had her bathrobe on now. He reached over and put his hand over hers. “Are you all right, hon?” he asked.
She took a breath. “Fine. I’m absolutely fine. I just got a little excited, that’s all. That happens sometimes, they call it ‘the excitement.’”
“Are they all naked when they get excited?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. That’s just my own thing.” She put her hand to her forehead. “I just got carried away. Sometimes I think Jesus needs to see me as I truly am.” She shook her head a little. “I know. It doesn’t sound like it makes a lot of sense. It’s hard to explain.” She waved her fingers. “If it hit you, then you would know. Then you would understand. I don’t know how to explain it to you.”
He squeezed her fingers. “Maybe you should go talk to someone.”
“Like a doctor, a new doctor. Someone besides your OB.”
She sighed. “No. That’s okay. My mother is coming over. I already called her.”
Charlotte came rushing in an hour later, purse clutched tight in her hands. She only lived five minutes away. She glared at Dale. Before they were married Charlotte had nicknamed Dale “the idiot” because he hadn’t proposed immediately after returning to the states, but since they were married he had graduated to “the asshole.” And now, with Bibi in the new church, he was getting the blame.
Bibi jumped up as soon as Charlotte entered the kitchen and pulled her into her arms. Bibi was taller, but Charlotte was wider. Her hair was dyed auburn, and her eyes were empty and blue. “I’m sorry,” Bibi sobbed, “I’m sorry.”
Charlotte patted her back. “You have nothing to be sorry about, dear. This happens to lots of women after they have babies.”
Dale had a vision. The streets full of new mothers. Half dressed, barely dressed, not dressed at all. All running about and shouting like lunatics. It would at least make his own situation easier, he figured.
“I don’t think that’s it,” Bibi sobbed. “I think it’s the Devil.”
Charlotte glared at Dale. “Asshole,” she hissed.
“Not him,” said Bibi. “I mean the Devil.”
Dale had left them alone to talk, taking the kids to the park. The park was usually empty this time of year, but the kids liked to go there to feed the ducks. He had Ernest in his carriage—wrapped in so many blankets that you could barely see him–and Brett was thundering about, picking up rocks to toss towards the water. He walked with sideways steps–looking as if he couldn’t bend his little knees–and his fingers stretched out as if were walking on ice, struggling to keep his balance. He was a solid little boy with dark hair and dark eyes, and there was an emptiness to his eyes that had been worrying Dale almost since the day he was born. Nothing inside.
Molly was different. Chatty and curious. She was chasing about the ducks now, kneeling down with an animal cracker held out between the tips of two fingers, and Brett was watching. The ducks looked hesitant, but then one approached, lunging forward, snapping quickly, and Molly dropped the cracker, and fell backwards on her bottom.
Nothing had been good lately. And Dale had to wonder where all the good had gone. Everything had been set for perfection before he returned to the states. They were soul mates, she assured him each time she wrote, each time she called. And the calls were full of dirty whispers and promises, describing herself as “monogamous nymphomaniac.” “I never realized how horny I was until I first saw a picture of you,” she had said on the phone.” She had gasped. “God…,” she had said, “now it’s like no matter where I am, every time I think of you, I have to stop and play with myself. Work, home, out shopping. Doesn’t matter. There I go. Last week I found myself climaxing in a bathroom stall at Macy’s. Can you believe that? Macy’s!”
And Dale had believed it. Wanted to believe it. At that point he had two passions in life—literature and sex—and he hadn’t even come close to getting his fill of the latter, never really had a full time girlfriend before. Growing up a Kentucky Baptist, it had been violently clear to him since the time he was old enough to look down and recognize his unit as part of himself, that you weren’t supposed to get your fill of the latter. Not unless you were intent on giving the Lord more little Baptists. When he was fifteen his father caught him in the bathroom with a magazine glossy of Courtney Love he had pulled from a People Magazine at the corner store, and then held him down in the yard rubbing dirt in his eyes, asking him repeatedly if he wanted to know how it felt to go mad and blind. Is that what he wanted? Dale had not in fact wanted that, and as soon as he had graduated high school, he had enlisted in the Army.
The Army brought him opportunities he could never have at home. He got to read Lolita, Portnoy’s Complaint, and Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and he got to spend time with a prostitute named Tess who lived down the street from his barracks and would spank him gently while reading excerpts from The Ginger Man, but he still wanted more.
And then he met Bibi through the mail. A pen pal program set up through her old church. Starting with care packages, short notes, and following with pictures, and longer letters. And then the phone calls, the promises. She had been saving herself for him, she said, all the things she so desperately wanted to do, and she hadn’t even realized it until she first heard his voice. And then it blossomed like a flower, she said. All lit on fire. She was going to light him on fire.
And she had followed through when they had finally first met. Everything he could imagine. He had finally finished his four years, and rather than return to Kentucky, he had gone straight to Boston.
Bibi was working downtown as a waitress then, and she greeted him at the airport. Still in uniform herself, high heels and black skirt. She moved with hurried, nervous flutterings, and wide eyed and open mouthed, everything she said came across as exciting, pausing after each statement as if waiting to see if he would join her in the wonder of it all. And just one look at her, one smell of her perfume, and he was willing to join her. She had pre-prepared dinner at her apartment the night before, and now all she had to do was pop it in the oven, and it would be ready in a snap. She fluttered her fingers. “And my roommate is gone for the weekend, so don’t even worry about that.”
The apartment was in Quincy. Bibi brought him into the dining room—half dining/half living—and poured him a glass of Asti Spumante. Told him she would be back in one minute, that she just had to slip the lasagna back in the oven to warm it up. “Lasagna always tastes best the second day,” she said. “So I’m actually glad I made it yesterday. It’s just one of those things.”
Dale sipped the champagne and looked about the room. The table was set—china, cloth napkins, and tapered red candles. A print of Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit hung on one wall, and Van Gogh’s Irises on the other. Beside a framed copy of George W. Bush’s first inauguration speech. A book caught his eye on the side table next to the couch. Black jacket bordered in bright green. A hardcover. He picked it up. The collected works of James Joyce. Poems, stories selected from Dubliners, excerpts from Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, and The Portrait of the Artist in its entirety. In its entirety. His heart began to pound. It was all too good to be true. She was too good to be true. Was she really reading Joyce? Dale had touched upon his literary tastes with her before in letters, but he had never mentioned Joyce. He was sure of it. And here she was with the collected works. She was right, he suddenly realized, they were soul mates.
“Are you reading this?” he asked as she hurried back into the room, a long grill lighter in hand.
“Oh, that, yeah. No big deal. I just picked it up at Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago. I love his stuff so much that I wanted something portable, you know? I mean, you can’t bring all his books with you everywhere you go.”
“No.” Dale was dumbstruck. “Of course not.”
“Dubliners is fantastic,” she said, leaning over to light the tapered candles. “So is Portrait. But so much of Ulysses just gets by me. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just stupid.”
Dale still had the book in hand. “Well, don’t sell yourself short,” he stammered. “It takes some commitment.”
She brushed the comment aside. “I devoured Dubliners, simply devoured it, but I think I’m going to have to read Ulysses again if I really want to digest it.” She locked with his eyes, her own peering into his soul. “There are so many things I want to digest.”
“Yes,” she said quietly. “But the problem is time. Where do you find the time?”
“Well, that’s one thing about Ulysses,” he said. “It certainly takes time.”
She picked up her own champagne glass. “Here,” she said. “Let’s toast. To time. And to having you back in the states. Back where you belong.” Dale clinked with her glass and sipped from the wine, and then he felt her pressing his hand in her own. She was staring into his eyes, and then a moment later, she had her hands on his shoulders, pushing him backwards and straddling him on the couch.
It didn’t stop for days—handcuffs and whipped cream and every position he could imagine–and she was just as beautiful as he hoped. Maybe not exactly an intellectual but she had some practical intelligence, and that was all they needed. They were engaged six months after he returned home, and married within the year, the conception of Molly coming two months before the nuptials. It was with Molly that things had started to change; Bibi put on a lot of weight with Molly and went to bed for two months after she was born, crying into her pillow and leaving Dale and her mother in charge of the bottles and diapers. But then on the seventy-third day she was up, and online, determined to get her head clear and to get her weight back down, she said. She ordered diet cookbooks, a poster of Ghandi, a stationary bike, exercise mats, and a treadmill. And then as soon as her weight was back down, and she was back to herself, she was pregnant with Brett.
She meditated with Brett so she wouldn’t be tempted to eat as much, and then by the time she was pregnant with Ernest, the meditation wasn’t enough, she said. If she was going to stay skinny, she needed a closer connection to God. She had met some people on line, chat rooms, and they had told her about their church, and she was just a little curious. She would never convert, she said, it would kill her mother, and besides, wasn’t that blasphemous, or at least a pretty big sin? But the women she spoke with were involved in Bible study groups, and that was what she needed, she said. A clearer understanding of the Bible. It was the only thing she could really connect to, the only book she liked to read.
Dale had sat there, a PBR in hand. “But what about Joyce?”
“James Joyce. Back when we met you told me that you wanted to digest James Joyce.”
She hesitated, looked confused. “Oh, you didn’t really buy all that did you? I just knew you liked to read, and I read your profile on line before I started sending you the packages. God, Dale, I think I’d rather drive some pencils into my eyes before ever actually reading that stuff again. There’s only one book for me.”
The meetings had gone from one to three to four nights a week, and four hours in church on Sunday. The church was in Bridgewater, and Dale attended with her a few times after she pleaded with him. An empty hall, a stark crucifix—no blood, no Christ—above the altar and an enormous flat screen television where the Reverend Michael Goode beamed in from Tempe, Arizona. The Reverend was young and handsome with dark hair and blue eyes, a cleft to his chin and the shoulders of a linebacker, and he preached to the masses across the country every Sunday, exposing evil in all walks of life, all corners of the country, the world, and encouraging his parishioners to look for it inside themselves, their spouses, inside their homes, workplaces, beds, and hearts, and to repent, to beg forgiveness. For we are all evil by nature, it dwells within all of us, he reminded them, and it is only through the light of the world that we can drive it back to Satan. Render unto Satan the things which are Satan’s, he said, and unto God, the thing’s which are God’s.
“I think the quote is Caesar, not Satan,” Dale had said to her riding home following a service.
“Caesar was Satan,” Bibi said. “Maybe you missed that.” She was quiet a moment, as if trying to think. “We all are Satan if we let ourselves be,” she said. “That’s the problem. That’s the problem with the whole world—it just takes someone like the Reverend Goode to expose it. He’s so awesome. That’s the only word I can think of to describe him—awesome. I look at him and I melt. I simply melt.”
Dale had looked at her and smiled. “If you start having dirty thoughts about him, you’re going to end up letting the Devil in.”
“You’re disgusting.” Bibi looked away. “Besides, I’m done with all of that stuff.”
She took a deep breath. “The sex stuff. I talked to the congregation, and they all agreed, it’s the only thing I can do. I told them everything. Everything you made me do.”
“What did I make you do?” he asked, a little taken back.
“You know? The bad stuff. Everything. We all have to tell each other everything eventually. It’s necessary if we’re going to repent. I mean, really repent. Without it, there can be no healing.”
“You told them all that?” he snapped. “Like in detail?”
“I had to.” She opened her pocketbook and pulled out a package of peanut butter and crackers. “Now, look what you’re making me do. You’re making me eat.”
“I’m not making you do anything. And I didn’t make you do anything before. You were all for it.”
“Don’t yell at me!”
“I’m not yelling!”
“Don’t you think I confessed my own sins?” she said, crumbs falling from her lips. “What good is it if I don’t confess my own sins. It’s my soul, not yours! Of course I told them the things I did! I even put them in a letter to the Reverend Mike so he can see it all in black and white! It’s horrible. Can’t you see that?”
“It’s not horrible,” he said. “We loved each other.” He reached out to put a hand on her knee. She just looked at it. “We do love each other,” he said.
“That’s just the Devil talking,” she said. “He wants us to think that acts like that are committed in the name of love, but they’re not. It’s horrible. He speaks through you. Love is not a four letter word.”
“Yes, it is.” Dale withdrew his hand.
“Not that kind of four letter word.”
That had been two months back. Now in the park, Brett chased after one of the ducks. Arms outstretched and mouth open. The duck retreated, one eye on the little boy as he did. Run three steps, fly three more. The boy kept coming. Dale had the baby out of the carriage now, propped in his arms as he fed him a bottle. “Stop it,” Dale said to Brett. “You can’t eat the duck.”
Brett stopped, feed spread wide apart, anchoring himself, and he clenched his fists. Raised his chin, eyes emptier than ever, and said. “Brrmmmmmm.” That’s about all he ever said. Almost two and a half years old, and he never said more than “brrmmmm.”
“Grandma ate a duck once,” Molly said, crouched over and writing in the shallow winter soil, pebbles and sand, with a stick. “She told us about it.”
“Grandma probably cooked him first,” said Dale. “I bet.”
“Maybe that’s what Brett wants to do. Maybe he wants to cook him.”
When they got back to the apartment, Charlotte was alone in the kitchen, reading T.V. Guide. She put a finger to her lips. “She’s resting now.” She stood up to go. “I think that’s all she needed. This winter is getting to everybody. It’s been going on too long.”
Dale put the baby in his crib, and turned on the T.V. for Molly and Brett. Brett approached the set, and pressed his open palms against it, then his face, but Molly was playing with her dolls and didn’t seem to mind. Dale went into the bedroom. Shades drawn, and a draft coming through the windows. They were old, wooden windows, putty flaking, that Phillip needed to replace. The floor of the room was covered in clothes, dirty and clean. Used baby bottles, the formula inside clumping and turning, and the children’s toys. Everywhere. The big red numbers on the digital alarm clock cut sharply into the shadows. Bibi lay flat on her back with a sleeping mask covering her eyes.
Dale took a seat on the edge of the bed. Reached out and put his hand over hers. “Are you feeling any better?”
She remained silent for a moment, and he ran his fingers lightly up her arm. “Honey?” he said.“Do you need anything?”
Bibi took a deep breath, but she didn’t remove the mask. “Yes,” she said. “I think I need an exorcism.”
Two nights later she came home elated from her Bible group. She tied her apron on, began going through the cabinets, pulling down spices. A package of chicken from the refrigerator. She had a seen a delicious recipe online a few days before, she said, and she was dying to try it. Dale was squeezed in between the kitchen table and the wall watching her, almost elated himself, happy to see her happy.
“It sounds delicious,” he said.
She stopped, smiled. “I didn’t even tell you what it is.”
“That doesn’t matter,” he said. “If you’re making it, I’m sure it’s delicious. You’re an awesome cook. I mean it.”
She pulled out a Pyrex pan, sprayed in some olive oil, then tore open the package of chicken, tearing the fat off the breasts with her fingers.“I hate doing this. It’s the worst part. Dammit!” She lifted a breast to her lips, caught the yellow piece of fat between her teeth and pulled. Dropped the breast into the pan and spit the fat into the sink.
Dale swallowed his breath. “Maybe you should use a knife.”
“You’re probably right. I’m just in a hurry. It’s already so late.”
“Yeah, but you don’t want salmonella or anything like that.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I washed it. Besides, I have stomach like a cast iron kettle. I’m just getting a little anxious, I mean with everything happening.”
Dale felt his mental antennae rising. He had missed something. “Everything?”
She turned at him now, beaming. “Everything. It’s all set. We made the call from the hall tonight, and can you believe it doesn’t even cost all that much? I mean, it costs, but nothing like I thought it was going to.” She ground some sea salt onto the chicken.
“What’s all set?”
He took a breath. “Like a real one?”
“Yes.” Bibi sighed. “A real one. With Reverend Mike.”
“An exorcism isn’t real unless it’s performed by a Catholic priest,” Charlotte said. “Is it a Catholic priest?”
“Ma,” Bibi said, “I’m not talking about this with you right now.” She had the baby on her lap, shirt up and breasts exposed. Both of them. Nervously switching from one to the other. “You’re too close minded.”
Charlotte had brought Bibi’s grandmother with her, and Dale had gone down to help her up the stairs. It took ten minutes. Step, pause, breath. And then the old woman would clutch his arms, unsteady on her feet, or at least pretending to be, and then she would whisper something to him and smile. Unlike Charlotte, the old woman liked him for some reason, he had no idea why. “You’re a handsome thing,” she liked to say to him. “Why if I were younger, well, who knows?”
Once in the kitchen, Dale helped her into a seat, the old woman falling heavily. She looked around panting a bit, and then lit a cigarette. She was deep into her eighties with blue white skin that was nearly transparent. Red rimmed, hooded blue eyes, and blue hair to match. “I haven’t been up here since Phillip first bought the place,” she had said to Bibi. “You’ve done a lot with it.”
“I know.” Bibi put the baby on her shoulder to burp him. Slapping hard. “You never come and visit me. It makes me crazy.”
“Well, I can’t. A woman my age, with fluid in her ankles, arthritis in my back, and three kinds of cancer. If your husband wasn’t here to help me up the stairs, I never would have made it. It’s just this news your mother tells me that got me over here. I find it very concerning.”
“It would be a lot more concerning if I didn’t do anything about it,” Bibi said. “At least I’m doing something about it.”
“Well, that’s what concerns me. Messing with other religions. You don’t know what you’re getting into.”
“We’re all Christians,” hurried Bibi. “The exorcist, Reverend Mike is Christian. He’s the head of my church. He’s incredible.”
“Your church is on Adams Street,” said Charlotte, “And it’s called Saint Gerard’s.”
“They’re both my churches,” said Bibi.“I belong to all different churches. I’m a woman of God.” She positioned the baby against her again, began to push her nipple into his mouth; tight lipped, the baby was resisting. Bibi pried his mouth open.
“A woman of God would go talk to her priest,” the grandmother said, “you don’t know what you’re getting into. This is dangerous business. You need someone who knows what they’re doing. I had a friend when I was younger who had a cousin, second cousin, I believe, who was in a similar situation, and she ended up gouging her own eyes out. It was absolutely terrible; they were never able to get them back in, I mean, not so she could see right. She spent the rest of her life wearing dark glasses.”
“And what happened to her?” Charlotte asked, hands clenched together. “Eventually, I mean.”
“The last I heard she jumped off a bridge. I’m not sure if she survived the fall. Terrible. Absolutely terrible. But you see, she went about it the wrong way, she didn’t get help through the Church. I like your eyes, they’re very pretty. It would be a shame to see something happen to them.”
“Mike, I mean the Reverend Goode is more than qualified,” Bibi said.“Believe me. He performs like twelve exorcisms a week, sometimes more when he does a really big group thing. He does rooms full of people all at once, everybody screaming and crying. Thousands of Devils. All gone. Just like that. It’s amazing.”
Dale was standing, his back to the sink. Arms folded. Charlotte kept shooting him daggers. He knew what she was thinking–he was a Baptist, he started all this.
The grandmother dragged on her cigarette, watching Bibi carefully, the room disappearing in a cloud. “What would be amazing is if you put yourself in the hands of God, the real God, and the Blessed Mother. You could see how fast things would turn around, how quickly you would get better.”
Bibi forced a laugh. “We’re all talking about the same God here. That’s what’s ridiculous.”
Her grandmother reached into her purse and pulled out a small, clear plastic bottle. Unscrewed the top, whispered something, and then threw the contents across the table, splashing it across Bibi’s face. Holy Water. Bibi winced, and then she started to cry. Her grandmother shouted a “Glory Be to the Father” prayer, and then blessed herself with the sign of the cross. Bibi took the baby and ran from the room.
Both of the women looked at Dale.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I remember in the movie, the girl said it burns.”
Charlotte’s eyes were still cutting him. “Only if you’re not Catholic.”
The day of the exorcism, Dale had been able to get nothing done. He had thought long and hard about it in the days leading up to today, tried to reason a little without arguing—the arguing just made her cry. He wanted her to stay possessed, she said, because if she was possessed she would still do wicked, dirty things. He didn’t care about her, she said, didn’t care about the Devil, and what was worst of all, he didn’t care about Jesus—he only cared about himself. Money and sex. Dale had insisted that he cared about her and about Jesus. But not the Devil, she said, and he said that he did, sometimes he cared about the Devil, but she just started to sob. Yes, the exorcism was going to cost three thousand dollars, she said, but that was nothing if it meant saving her soul.
“But what if it doesn’t?” he said.
“Save your soul?”
Her jaw dropped then, and she started to shake. “How can you say that?”
“I just mean we don’t know for sure. Sometimes it doesn’t work, right?”
“It always works if you believe.”
“In that case,” he said, “maybe we can get someone to do it for less than three grand.” And with that she had hit him in the head with her shoe.
Three thousand dollars. They didn’t have one thousand dollars, never mind three. They’d have to use a cash advance from one of their credit cards, and their credit was terrible, the card at 22.99% It would take at least three years to pay back three thousand dollars. But what if he said no and things got worse? Three kids, he couldn’t afford for things to get worse. And even if the guy was a charlatan—which Dale secretly believed he had to be—there was still the power of suggestion. She could be right—as long as she believed, it just might work; and once it worked, they could get on with their lives. A clean apartment, hot meals. No more running up the street naked, no more neglecting the children. And of course, no more dirty, kinky sex. He was hoping that little side effect of the exorcism might wear off after a couple weeks or so, but something in the pit of his belly told him that exorcism or no exorcism, the fun was gone, the dawn of the new era—keep it clean, keep it neat—was here to stay.
When he got home, the kids were watching TV in the living room and Bibi was lying spread eagle on the bed, arms out as if waiting to be crucified. Wearing a sheer blue nightie that looked as if she had nothing on beneath. She stared at Dale as he entered the room. The sun had set, the room bathed in shadows, the only light coming from the small yellow lamp beside the bed.
“Aren’t you going to tie me up?” she asked.
Dale took a breath. “Uh. What for?”
“Oh, forget it. I just saw that in a movie. I think they had to tie her to the bed because she kept levitating.”
“Do you feel like you’re going to start levitating?”
Bibi hesitated. “No. I think I ate too much for lunch.”
“Well, that’s good.”
“I think I did once though,” she blurted. “I don’t know. It might have been a dream. It was very confusing. I woke up, and I was floating above the bed, and then I looked down and I could see you sleeping—you had your hand down your shorts—but I was still sleeping next to you, so I couldn’t have been levitating, right? I mean, if I was levitating, I couldn’t have been there lying beside you.” She sat up, brushed the idea aside with her hand. “I know. Don’t pay any attention to me.It sounds crazy, I know. I just can’t wait to get this over with, and be free. Free.” She smiled. “Be back to normal.”
Dale took a seat beside her. “What time is he coming?”
“You know who.”
“You mean the exorcist?”
“I need you to say it. I need you to believe. If you don’t believe, nothing is going to happen.” She started to cry again.
Dale put his arms around her, pulled her close. “Okay, okay. The exorcist. What time is he going to be here?”
“Soon. Seven o’clock. I want the kids to be in here.”
“No,” Dale said. “The kids cannot be in here.”
“I want them to understand,” she sobbed. “To see what can happen.”
Dale took a breath. “Yeah…I don’t think that’s a good idea, sweetie. Maybe your brother can take them upstairs.”
“He can’t. He’s having an Irish linen party.”
“Well, how about mother?”
“No. That woman’s crazy. She’s not going to help.”
Dale rubbed her back. “Well, maybe I’ll just turn the T.V. up real loud, and we can keep them out in the living room. The baby should be asleep by then anyway. How long do you think this is going to take?”
Bibi wiped at her eyes. “No-one knows. Sometimes it takes just a few hours, but sometimes it can run into days. Weeks.”
“Not weeks. That would have to be a pretty stubborn devil, don’t you think?”
She shut her eyes. Breathed through her teeth. “This one is stubborn. I can feel it. You need to pray.”
Dale nodded. “Don’t worry. I will. I’ll pray.”
Bibi took his hand and placed it between her thighs. “Rub right there. Oh, God, rub right there. This is so wrong, but I can’t help it. I’m so horny,” she whispered in his ear. “I want it every which way you can fuck me. Please.” Then she yelped. “He has hold of me so bad! Rub it! Oh, please!” She pushed Dale back on the bed, and straddled him. “Quick,” she said. “We’ve got to make this quick.”
Dale looked up at her. “The kids might come in.”
Bibi took a deep breath. “You’re right.” She rolled off him and lay flat on her back again, arms outstretched and eyes squeezed tight. “Stop it!” she screamed.
Dale met the man at the door. The baby was asleep, and he had the little ones in their room. Had given Molly a Little Golden Book, and Brett a raw potato to gnaw on. Brett had some more teeth coming in and he seemed to like to gnaw on raw potatoes—it could last him an hour or more as long as he didn’t try and force the whole thing down his throat. The man was smaller than Dale had expected, and older. Round wire rimmed glasses, and a shiny bald head. Not Reverend Mike. He had seen Reverend Mike, and this was not Reverend Mike. Dale smiled. “Are you the sub?”
“The sub?” the man asked.
“For Reverend Mike. I think she thought Reverend Mike was going to be here.”
“Reverend Mike?” the man said. “He’s still out in Arizona. I’m pretty sure, I mean. He travels a lot though, is needed many places, so he could be anywhere as we speak. Satan has cast a shadow across the land.”
“He’s cast one across my home, too. At least my wife seems to think so.” Dale stepped aside allowing the man to enter. He stopped and listened, cocking his head. The house was silent except for the television. The Cartoon Network. Down low. Sponge Bob was screaming for Patrick.
“And the manifestations?” the man asked.
“How is the Devil presenting himself?”
Dale swallowed. “Well,” he said, “I guess there’s a lot of things.”
The man had Dale write out a check, furnished the receipt, and as they entered the bedroom, Bibi was sitting up, back to the headboard. Chin up, and smiling wide. Completely naked. She looked at the man, then at Dale. “Where’s Reverend Mike?”
The man shut his eyes and began to pray.
Dale nodded. “Reverend Mike is in Arizona, sweetie.”
Bibi’s eyes flashed from empty to rage back to empty. “Arizona?”
“Yes,” Dale said.
“We paid a lot of money for an exorcism.”
Dale nodded. “We did.”
“So what the fuck is he doing in Arizona?”
Dale nodded again. “Well, I guess he had a lot of people to tend to. This is Mr. Wyman. From what I understand, he’ll be performing the exorcism.”
Bibi chuckled. “Mr. Wyman? Is this some kind of joke? We paid for Reverend Mike. Everyone told me it would be Reverend Mike. They said he flies out in person.”
The man was still whispering, praying.
“Mr. Wyman is just as good.”
Bibi put her feet on the floor. Waved a hand in the air. “No offense, but ah, no. I’m not going to sit her all naked and ready while the Devil tears apart my soul, my whole insides, for Mr. Wyman. Are you kidding me? The Devil isn’t going to listen to him–the guy is shorter than you are, for chrissakes.” She walked past Mr. Wyman, and grabbed her bathrobe off the back of the door. The man turned as she did, still praying.
She waved her hand again. “This is ridiculous.”
“’And the beast was taken,’” quoted Wyman, “’and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them…’”
“Beast?” Bibi said. “Are you calling me a beast? I’ll squash you.”
“Honey,” said Dale.
“Don’t ‘Honey’ me. Dale. What did you do? Call the church and ask for the budget plan? A discount at the door? What did you pay him? A hundred bucks? Is that what my soul is worth to you, you cheap little prick? I give you three beautiful kids, and so much sex that the Devil fucking consumes me, and you’re going to bring this guy in? Are you kidding me, Dale? Is that the trade off?” She pulled on the bathrobe.
“There is no trade off when viewing the immortal soul,” said Mr. Wyman. “It is the man who falls prey to such a trade that loses himself forever. Lost to the inferno. I can see that he has you. We need to pray.”
Bibi shut her eyes, took an exasperated breath. “Listen, I’m sure you mean well, and I understand what you’re saying, I really do—I’m very devout–but they told me Reverend Mike was going to be here, I was counting on Reverend Mike, so this isn’t going to work. I don’t have time for this.”
Bibi marched across the room. Mr. Wyman had opened his Bible. He began reciting some more from Revelations. Dale hoped for a minute that hearing the verse might calm Bibi down, soothe her, and then maybe he could coax her back into the bed, and then… well, maybe if she would listen, anything was possible. The power of suggestion. The power of her beliefs. But she wasn’t calming. She went to their closet and pulled out a large duffle bag and began tossing clothes inside—shoes, panties, blouses, skirts, and slacks—still ranting. Dale was a cocksucker, a spineless little fucking worm. Pathetic, did he hear her?!! Fucking pathetic. She tossed a book at his head. Tender Is the Night. Dale ducked and the book hit the wall.
“I discern the spirit,” Mr. Wyman said. “And Christ called forth…”
“I can’t believe this,” Bibi shouted. “Just can’t believe this! All I wanted was an exorcism. A…simple…fucking…exorcism!”
“Honey,” Dale said, “that’s what he’s doing. Listen.”
Another book. Duck. “From the Reverend Mike, you fucking imbecile! You can just stop,” she spat at Mr. Wyman. “Because this is getting us nowhere. Believe me. Nowhere. My whole life has lead to nowhere!”
“Honey,” Dale said, “you’re becoming hysterical.”
“Hysterical! You’re damn right, I’m fucking hysterical. I’m possessed by the goddamn Devil and this, this, is like someone setting you up on a date with George Clooney and having George Constanza show up instead! I just can’t believe this. I really cannot fucking believe this!”
Still barefoot, she stormed towards the door. Mr. Wyman jumped aside as she did, and Dale stepped in her way, tried to get her by the shoulders, but she overpowered him immediately, and pushed him aside. Wyman had his hand up, palm open, again behind her, and his eyes shut, calling out. “And the fifth angel blew his trumpet…!”
Dale chased after her, but by the time he hit the kitchen, he could hear her footsteps on the stairs. He went to the window to see their headlights turn on, the car backing out of the driveway. He turned to see Wyman behind him. Dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Wyman said. His voice was shaking. “She was right. He has consumed her.”
The dark had settled across the city. Just headlights and streetlights—the neon of Cumberland Farms three doors down. Dale sat at the window, waiting. The dark was so heavy and quiet this time of year, you could feel it coming through the cracks of the windows, settling into the corners. Shadows. It made the electric light feel so unreal. A half hour had passed, Mr. Wyman was gone. Dale looked the phone, the antennae broken, hanging on by the wires—thrown against the wall by Bibi in a fit of rage the month before–and smeared with fingerprints. Chocolate and grape jelly. He picked it up to dial the police, but then he looked up and Brett was standing in the kitchen doorway, the raw potato stuck in his mouth. Dirt from the potato smeared all over his cheeks. Dale looked at him and tried to smile, and then he rested the phone back in its cradle. He patted his knee, and the boy scurried over to him. Yellow footie pajamas.
Dale lifted him onto his lap, and took the potato out of his mouth. The boy smiled a little, drool wetting the corners of his lips, and then he looked at Dale from the corners of his eyes and reached for the potato. Dale held the potato high. “How about I get you some supper instead? Spaghettios, right? Can’t go wrong with spaghettios.”
A quiet shuffle of noise came from the bedroom down the hall. The baby stirring, starting to cry, and then a voice beginning to sing to him. Molly. A voice so small in the quiet that the baby’s cries were already fading. It was peaceful in the quiet. Brett reached again for the potato, and Dale pulled him close and kissed his head.
Sean Padraic McCarthy’s short stories have been published or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, The Indianola Review, Existere, The Sewanee Review, 2 Bridges Review, Prole, Confrontation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Shadowgraph Magazine, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and West Trade Review among others. His story “Better Man”–originally published in december magazine—was listed as a “Distinguished Story” in The Best American Short Stories 2015, he was recently named a finalist for the Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction, and he is a 2016 recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Artist Fellowship in Fiction Award. This is his second story to appear in Red Savina Review.