The Devil’s Gospel: Chapter 1.4 – The Cigar-Smoking Baby
The Cigar-Smoking Baby
At 4:45 sharp, I popped into Jack’s Ruby on a higher plane.
Invisible to most humans, except the occasional schizo or psychic, I established myself in an empty booth next to the front window, then removed the booth and the table to the higher plane, too, though they still appeared fixed to the floor. First, because now the booth would stay empty in the “real” world (though if asked, neither the waitresses nor the cashier would quite be able to put their fingers on why the booth should remain unoccupied; just a vague feeling of, “Uh, maybe you don’t want to sit there, Mister. Maybe I think somebody puked there.”) Much easier to keep an eye out for Theo if I didn’t have to look through somebody’s head to do it.
And second, I wanted something to rest my chocolate chip pancakes on.
For no reason I’d been able to suss, I was Pavlovian with diners: something in my Being had cross-programmed “chocolate chip pancakes” with Formica counters and vinyl stools, and every time I found myself in one, I suddenly became starved for a tall, hot stack of chocolatey flapjacks with lakes of syrup and butter.
So as soon as the table and its condiments joined me, I manifested a heap of sweet, steaming pancakes and a large glass of orange juice, just before the front door dinkled…
I looked up, but it was only a pierced and tattooed busboy arriving for the dinner shift. He’d just shot half a gram of heroin up a vein in his penis and was feeling no pain.
Turned out this saved his life.
It reminded me, however, despite my four rumbling stomachs, that if my enemy was leading Theo to Jack’s Ruby, there was a good chance that whomever or whatever was fucking with me was already here, so before I took my first bite, I glanced around, vibing for trouble – but came up with nothing.
Two waitresses: one seasoned Brooklynite, one newly emigrated from Pakistan. Closet-transvestite cashier. Smacked-out busboy. Pedophile cook in the kitchen. All human.
And as for the customers:
Man at the counter nearest the door; soup and sandwich; surgical tool salesman; two separate Moron fine, Mormon families, each unaware of the other’s existence.
Three old biddies in the booth behind him; cardigans and purple dye jobs on visible scalps; tea and french fries; soaked in each other’s envy.
Over my shoulder, a flannel-wearing drunk passed out at the far end of the counter, The New York Post tented over his head. Must’ve been a regular, since no one moved to roust him. I took mental note, since I couldn’t see his face, but as he, too, was human, I let it go for the moment.
Who was left?
Behind the drunk, a young man and woman in a relationship shared a booth. It had been longer than a year, so they sat on opposite sides. He was thinking of a way to tell her they needed to have more sex. She was thinking of a way to leave him without having to have sex with him again. I checked them to come back and mess with if Theo didn’t appear soon, when –
“Hello, fuckwad,” chirped the voice of a two year-old.
I turned back around to find an apple-cheeked toddler sitting cross-legged on the tabletop behind my pancakes. By definition, he was a cherub: one of those pudgy baby angels we’ve inspired humans to overmarket past the vomiting point, thus removing any sense of their holiness – a dis they, as a group, take rather personally – but the word didn’t do justice to my little friend here.
Besides the usual white loincloth/diaper, he wore a vest made of flattened Budweiser cans, a jaunty grey fedora only slightly bigger than a cupcake, and a fake moustache – under which, between his four tiny teeth, he chomped a lit cigar.
I barely knew where to start.
“Frank,” I said civilly.
“Fuckwad,” he mocked me, equally civil.
“Suck my one-incher.”
I sighed. “Since when did you God-types get so hostile? Can’t you let us evil guys have anything?”
“Since when is profanity evil?” he piped through his tiny larynx.
“Well, it’s at least frowned upon. Can’t we at least have what’s frowned upon?”
Frank thought about it, blowing itty-bitty smoke rings. “Nope. Not in this world. Open season here.” He flicked his cigar ash into my eye. “But you already figured that out, didn’tcha, bright boy?”
I scowled, my eye tearing up with sulfur and humiliation. “So you know what happened this morning.”
“Do I know what happened this morning?” Frank giggled gleefully, slapping his small chubby knee. “Gee-ho-vah, what a ‘tard of a demon! Do I know what happened? Everyone Inside’s laughin’ their fucking nuts off! I mean, why do you think I’m here?”
The bell over the door dinkled, and again I checked for Theo, but this time it was just some ancient Polish couple hunched so close together for mutual support they appeared to be a single human creature with four legs and two fluffy white eyes.
“Ow!” I exclaimed, as the ceramic bowl of butter-pats glanced off my head.
Frank stood up on his bandy legs, gaining an intimidating, oh, six inches or so.
“I was talking to you, dickhole,” Frank glared.
“I know, I get it, God’s courier, holy holy and all that shit. You didn’t have to bean me.”
“Getting your attention is the only time I’m allowed to use violence, and you think I’m not gonna take advantage?” Frank chuckled, yanked the tip of his fedora down, bit his cigar, then crossed his arms over his puffed-up chest.
I couldn’t resist.
“Aww, that’s downright cute.”
His open palm smacked my cheek, hard.
“Dammit, Frank! I was listening!”
He shrugged. “Couldn’t be sure.”
“Knock it off!” I complained. (And you think I’m a wuss? You go get bitchslapped by a messenger of God. Come back. We’ll talk.)
“Got some e-mail for you, demon.”
“Again with the—” I tossed up my claws. “Hasn’t God instituted some sort of hate-speech policy with you people yet?”
“Nice try,” Frank scoffed, “but you know damn well that’s your department.”
I smiled. “You have to admit Jepheth’s idea was sweet.”
“Oh yeah, get ‘em so distracted with parsin’ and suin’ each other they start hatin’ everybody,” Frank nodded. “Great. Was it his idea to put me on the fuckin’ gift wrap, too?”
“Go on then, my bitter little baby,” I said amiably, shifting forward in my seat. I crossed my spiky elbows on the table and gazed at him with a snide look of rapt attention. “But if it’s another ‘Stop fucking around with that,’ I’d sure as Hell like to know why. I back- and foregrounded Theo Rabinowitz two thousand years, and he’s not pivotal to anything It’d be interested in.”
Frank cocked his head at me, smirked, then deliberately stuck his bare grimy toes into my chocolate-chip pancakes and squished them around. “Dare you presume to know what It would be interested in?” He removed his foot from my breakfast and, in that peculiar bendy way infants have, pulled it directly to his mouth and began sucking chocolate off his toenails.
I sat there for a moment, then shook my head.
“Seriously, Frank, that’s gross. And I’m evil.”
 You shouldn’t be surprised, our fondness for human food – after all, evidence to the contrary we’re the ones who invented gluttony.
 Until you see someone’s face – their spiritual face, the one that lies just beyond their physical face – never underestimate anyone, not even a human. Gandhi beat the everloving shit out of me one steamy Indian summer night. Nonviolence, my kicked arse.
 Sidenote: an interesting universe, if you’d care to visit. I’d recommend stopping by just to watch humans try to groom their eyeballs with hairbrushes. Lots of pain. Hysterical.
Frank grinned with all four teeth, and looked me straight in the eye as he licked a glob of chocolate from between his pinky and next-to-last toe. “And I am of the holy cherubim, choir of angels, beloved child envoy of God.” He lowered his saliva-coated foot. “Yet thanks to your kind, my face is on toilet paper. People wipe their ass with my face.”
Told you they take it personally.
I tried to move on. “I’m just saying, Theo’s line dies out before Armageddon rolls around, he’s due to blow a gasket in this life, anyway – the only one who gives a shit how he bites it is mearghhJesusChrist!” I shrieked, thudding against the back of the booth, claws to my face.
“Still not listenin’,” Frank reprimanded, puffing his cigar and wiping his thumb clean of my eye-juices on his diaper.
“Fucking bloody ball sacks, Frank!” I snarled, clutching at the oozing hole in my head, agony radiating in waves down my neck. “Do you know what a pain it is to grow another eye in this dimension?”
“Watch me poke out the other one, bitch,” he warned. “Keep talkin’.”
A thousand responses flashed through my mind – including stuffing his plump little body in my mouth and mauling it into bloody chum with twelve rows of razor-sharp teeth – but that definitely would’ve gotten me Toxic Algae Patrol (or worse), so instead I clenched all six jaws and focused my remaining eye on Frank, silent.
After a moment, the toddler nodded. “That’s better.”
Frank began pacing the table like a barefoot miniature Patton, stabbing the air with his cigar. “Now, first thing is, you don’t have clue fuckin’ one what God wants, do you, ‘cause who the shit does? If It wants Theodore Rabinowitz to flip out of this dimension and go be Moses or Mohammed or the Xytech alien leader from the 33rd century somewhere, I guarantee you the guy’s either gonna grow a beard or mutate opposable knees.”
Frank bent down, shoved his cigar into the orange marmalade and swiped up the metal container of coffee creamer. He flipped open the lid and took a long swig. White drops flew from his false moustache as he continued, “Second thing is, as a friend of mine says, you’re gettin’ a mite too comfortable in your britches, son.”
And your “folksy” American makes me want to heave, I thought.
The cherub frowned. You realize I’m on the job, he thought back at me. I can read your mind, fuckwad.
Yeah, but you can’t hit me for thinking.
“Couldn’t be sure,” he shrugged.
“GODDAMMIT, FRANK!” I shouted, my voice echoing through the planes.
The mirror spanning the back wall of the diner cracked violently into oblong spiderwebs, causing the Pakistani waitress to hit the floor, thinking it was gunfire. As the puzzled cashier leaned back to inspect the damage, I rubbed my other cheek (of course the little shit had nailed each in turn) and shot single-eyed daggers at the toddler.
“By all means. Deliver your message. Then would you pretty please with rotted creamer on top get the fuck out of here?”
“To continue, suuhhrrrpppp—” Frank took another slow swallow of cream to annoy me, then licked his Cupid’s bow lips. “As of late, your efforts at bedevilin’ have raised some curious eyebrows.”
“That’s a ridiculous sentence. And nobody Inside even has eyebrows.”
“Okay, Chachi, I’ll dumb it downer,” he duh’ed me. “Somewhere in the Hierarchy – where even the tiniest acts of inconsequential lame-o’s like yourself get recorded – it’s been noted,” he said, waddling right up to my face, “you’ve been creatin’ more and more convoluted schemes to effect smaller and smaller evils.”
I shrugged. “So? I’m in the details.”
Frank snorted. “You’re slippin’.”
“WHAT?” I roared, nearly upending the table off its bolted-down stem.
The gas burners in the kitchen shot up to the ceiling, scorching the pedophile cook (who, ironically, screamed like a little girl), while the glasses stacked under the front counter exploded, sending shards into the legs of the Brooklyn waitress, to the tune of 87 stitches at County General. (Where I also foresaw she’d pick up a necrotizing MRSA infection. Bonus!) Unfortunately I sensed the pierced and tattooed busboy – who on any other day would have been kneeling in front of the glasses, restocking them – had just nodded out in the john.
Oh, well. Can’t win ‘em all.
“Okay, did you just see that?” I asked Frank, waving my talons around at the injured staff and frightened patrons. “I’ve got burning people in the kitchen, blood all over the floor, an amputation on the way, and that’s just my pride being hurt. Does It really want me to prove on Its precious humans how very not slipping I am?”
Frank eyed me for a beat, then put down the creamer.
Peeling off his fake moustache, he folded it in half and tucked it into the band of his fedora like a soggy feather. Replacing the grey cupcake hat on his head, he held out his fat little hands and intoned ominously,
“…………………………, you are to be tested.”
right. like i’m just gonna give ‘em my name like that. brilliant, pissbreath.
The use of my full unholy name was disconcerting, but I forced myself to feign nonchalance.
“That’s the message? Please. What kind of ‘test’? Driving? Spelling? Killing? ‘Cause I’ll send this whole fucking place up in a gas explosion and kill everyone in it without batting an eye.” I paused. “My… one, y’know, eye. I wouldn’t bat it.”
“Oh, clogdancin’ Christ on the cross,” groaned Frank.
“And you call that slipping?” I snapped. I hated to admit it, but the bullying tyke was starting to get under my skin.
Frank pursed his tiny lips. “Bad jokes and killing humans do not a devil make.”
“Yeah, yeah, so sayeth my cock.”
Suddenly a rich tenor vibration erupted in the center of the cherub’s chest, and from his child’s eyes shone forth a light so vast and bright I cringed from it.
“So sayeth God.”
And then It was gone.
My first time in Its presence since the time before time, in no-time.
After all my eternities spent searching for It.
And I’d turned away.
No, cringed away.
Maybe I wasn’t evil.
Maybe I was just a ‘tard of a demon.
The light ebbing, Frank patted his vest, searching for something. He cleared his throat, then hawked up a God-sized loogie and spat it into my orange juice, half of which splashed out onto the table.
“So,” Frank rasped. “Get the message, chump?”
“No,” I bitched. “I mean, hey – appreciate the Voice-mail and all, but as usual, It’s pretty opaque as to what the fuck It wants.”
“That’s why It sent me.”
Presently Frank found what he was looking for: a cigar he’d tucked in a beer can on the back of his vest. As he gnawed off the end with his bitsy teeth, he asked, “What do you know about Signs and Symbols, douche?”
I rolled my eyes. “That’s like asking a human about their ABC’s.”
“Yeeaahhh,” Frank drew out, “and about 3 billion folks are fuckin’ Chinese.”
Suddenly the toddler disappeared from the table, then returned in a flash, his cigar now lit and unleashing clouds of ambrosia-scented smoke.
“Man, you fucked up that cook, all right.”
“See?” I jabbed at my chest. “Evil.”
Frank sighed and tipped his thumb under the lip of his fedora. “As I was sayin’, Signs & Symbols have been practically screamin’ at you to open your eyes for the last fifty dimensions or so – the blind nun you raped and killed, 16th century? Tia Alba? Mrs. Shuman? Me pokin’ your eye out – any of this ringin’ a bell?”
“Maybe I was ignoring it all on purpose.” I examined my claws.
“Fine, good,” he lifted his chubby palms in acquiescence. “If you’ve got some insanely complicated Hellish Conspiracy, we’re all for it.” Realizing how that sounded, Frank backpedaled quickly, “All right, not for it, but that’s in the natural order of things. What seems to bother It is when Beings created for one purpose go off lollygaggin’ doin’ somethin’ else.”
I had no Hellish Conspiracy.
And worse, though it may seem odd – long, long odds, admittedly – almost inconceivable – in all my endless Existence, I’d never considered that simply not wreaking havoc might wreak havoc on God’s Plan.
Satan’s six sweaty balls, I thought, ashamed.
I am a ‘tard of a demon.
Frank loosed a giggle even Stalin would’ve found adorable.
“You’d be surprised how many of you never figure that out.”
“So what?” I thundered, now furious. Fuck Theo, fuck God, fuck Plans, fuck this universe and Kenny Stokes and the rat and Mrs. Shuman! I just wanted to go somewhere far away and grow myself another eye. “So Signs and Symbols didn’t get my attention. You did. I’ll be on my worst behavior from now on, devil’s nonexistent honor. Can I go now?”
The cherub suckled his new stogie and stared at me with a look I can only describe as… compassion.
I was fucking horrified.
“What? What is it?”
Frank blew out the last of his smoke, then repeated:
“…………………………, you are to be tested.”
“Okay, so I can’t get out of it,” I haggled. “Say I don’t pass. What am I looking at here? Toxic algae for another thousand millennia? Trapped inside the radiant heart of a saint for a lifetime? What?”
And here Frank looked away, uncomfortable.
“You’re to be wiped out of Existence.”
all right, all right!
I’ll admit it. I peed the booth a little. But only a little.
“What?” I gasped. “Sent to Hell forever?”
“To be eaten by Lucifer?”
“Like the other Irredeemables?”
“But they disappear there! They unbecome! They just… wipe out!”
“That they do.”
“But I can’t Non-Exist! I can’t just not Exist!”
“Sorry, kid, but that’s what’s on the table.”
I peed a little more.
“But, but, but,” I stammered.
Frank nodded sagely, his tiny cupcake hat bobbing over his eyes.
“But, but, but,” I stammered.
“How long you plannin’ to do that?” Frank asked.
“But I haven’t even done anything!” I cried.
“That’s Its problem.”
“Fine! I’ll prove to It I’m worthy of Existence, worthy of being a devil! I’ll possess some Nazis. Mengele, would It like Mengele again? No, I’ll kill children! Sick children! No – no – healthy children! What’s the test? What does It want me to do?”
Frank looked at me with a mixture of sympathy and satisfaction.
“It wants you to fall in love with a human.”
And that’s when I shat the booth. I’m not proud of it. It smelled.
Frank’s nose wrinkled. “Did you just—?”
“I’m not proud of it. How the bloody cockfucking Hell am I supposed to do that, Frank?” I’d begun to sweat hydrochloric acid. “What’s the point— how will It— falling in love? I do not come equipped for that! No mercy, no pity – no comprende?”
“Doesn’t stop some humans.”
“That’s because they’re very, very stupid! What’s It trying to prove with me, other than setting me up to fail?”
“Dearest Being. Doesn’t It always provide you all the help you need?”
All my jaws dropped open. “Are you fucking joking?”
“Yeah,” Frank snickered, and tapped the ash from his cigar. “But this happenin’ to be a matter of Existence or Non-, It’s decided to give you a consultant. Think of him as your death row lawyer. That oughtta cheer you up.”
“Oh Christ,” I winced. “It’s not you, is it?”
“Fuckin’ heavens forfend, demon. I got better shit to do than watch you not get all weepy-eyed.”
“But that’s what I’m saying, Frank!” I yelled, banging my fists on the table.
Framed photographs flew off the diner’s walls, causing the Pakistani waitress to duck and scream. Every customer but the passed-out drunk had already fled the place. The waitress apologized to the 911 operator for screaming in her ear, meanwhile cradling her blood-soaked Brooklyn co-worker in her arms and praying, inshallah, the ambulance would come soon.
“Asking a devil to fall in love is against the laws of Nature, Frank. It’s like… like asking a whale to live on land – a human to fly – a mother to eat her newborn baby!”
“Shamu; Southwest Airlines; and mice do it all the time,” Frank retorted. “You? I think you’re pretty much cornholed, but you know how It loves to make it look like you had a chance.”
“The game is rigged!” I howled, fear zinging through my voice. I don’t know why, but it made me feel better, so I shouted it again, “The game is rigged!”
Frank shook his head and patted me on the spiny shoulder. “Look, kid, it’s a tough road to – go – tough row to – hoe – whatever the fuckin’ sayin’ is. Me, myself? I’m hopin’ you zip straight to Hell and boom you’re an appetizer – to where no one, includin’ me, even remembers you Existed – but that’s just ‘cause I don’t like you personally. However, as usual—” the cherub rolled his eyes “—God has Its Plan. So trust me, if this consultant guy is the last-ditch chance It’s giving you, you either take it, or you’re not worth Existin’ anyway.”
I blinked at Frank with my one remaining eye.
“Where’s my lawyer?”
The cherub pointed his cigar out the diner window, down the block. “See that yellow cargo truck down th—”
I didn’t let him finish. In a flash I’d wrenched his fat little palm off my shoulder, broken the arm in two places, and stuffed him full in my maw, his Budweiser vest scraping against my teeth.
I let him scream for the merest second – “You motherf—” – before gnashing all six sets of my jaws together, popping his little baby body like a blood sausage, with crunchy toffee bone bits inside. He tasted just as good as I remembered, sticky and sweet and juicy – I’d only eaten a few cherubs in my time, the penalty being so annoyingly good – but I figured (correctly, as it turned out) that since I was being tested by God, It wouldn’t let me be sidetracked by essentially meaningless acts.
I mean, sure, Frank had felt the pain of his corporeal body being crushed and swallowed, but even now he was probably in Heaven giving God his worst impression of me, hoping to sway It to the side of just sending me to Hell outright.
Which wouldn’t work, of course, God being fundamentally unable to be swayed, but the pissed-off toddler would do his best anyway, maybe even throw a holy tantrum, which I’d have paid good money to see, but as it was, I had to find…
Yellow cargo truck, parked all the way down the north side of the block. A fat, bearded human sat in the cab, iPod earbuds dug into his canals, wires draped in a V across his chest, beneath a green foam baseball cap that read Women Need Men Like Men Need Beer. Certainly didn’t look the type to school me on how to fall in love, unless it was with an icy Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Immediately I poked at his thought scroll and came up with a name: Winston Lewis Bircham. Yeesh. His mother must have hatedhim. (Flipping back: Yep. She did.) Digesting an Egg McMuffin. Listening to Lady Gaga howl two millimeters from his eardrums while thinking, I should go see that Korean girl in the blonde wig down at the massage parlor.
Was Frank fucking serious? This was my advisor in the amorous arts?
Just then Bircham looked at his watch, decided he had time enough to spare for a quick blowjob, then started the engine of his cargo truck, pulling out into the flow of traffic. My eye sharpened, my muscles tensed – in a few seconds he had gained speed, approaching the intersection adjacent to the diner.
Was I supposed to follow him?
Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten that idiot baby so soon.
Indeed, I was so focused on Winston Lewis Bircham, and Bircham so focused on the prospect of a blowjob, that neither of us were aware of the sirens… at least, not until after the brakes had screeched, the horns had shrieked, and the yellow truck smashed into the ambulance coming for the mutilated waitress.
The ambulance flipped over on its side and both vehicles careened across the intersection in a shower of spitting sparks, explosions of glass and debris, creaming a pedestrian tying his shoe on the corner before bouncing off a light pole and spinning to a stop.
The accident surprised me so much I hiccupped, and Frank’s grey fedora popped out onto the table, unscathed. Turning my one-eyed gaze back through the window, I found Winston Bircham unconscious, leaning over the wheel of his smoking, disabled truck. His hat had flown off, his earbuds were missing, and a flap of forehead flesh hung over his eye like the red curtain of a theater.
Next, I caught sight of the pedestrian’s bloody body lying half in the gutter.
The other half was in the street.
The first shrill note of a woman’s scream rang out, and I wanted to join her as—
Theo Rabinowitz appeared in the booth next to me, wearing his Birkenstocks.