Jerry Jacobson was having a bad day.
This wasn’t in itself an uncommon occurrence (he had bad days like he had Cheerios for supper), nor was this day exceptional in its badness, but it was unique in being the last unremarkably yet unquestionably bad day Jerry Jacobson was willing to put up with.
So, on this particular bad day, Jerry Jacobson drove his dying Ford Taurus through the intersection of Main Street and Maple Lane and, instead of turning right into the subsequent cul-de-sac as he had done every day at 5:13 PM for as long as he cared to remember, he was compelled to continue straight. And he stayed on Main Street, moving away from East Den, Georgia until the pavement narrowed into gravel and then dirt and then finally into what any rational observer would have stopped considering a road and started considering simply the path of least resistance. To his left, a sun-bleached sign read Now exiting Macon County. Come back soon! in loopy, chipping cursive. Ahead, the first gas station ever built in the state— later the first gas station ever abandoned— decayed.
Jerry Jacobson pulled into this gas station. He didn’t have to, seeing as there was no functional difference between the dust of the road and the dust of the parking lot, but the thought of abandoning his car in the middle of the street seemed uncouth. So he parked, like a man properly socialized, in his closest approximation of a parking spot. Over his head, 19 cents/ gallon glinted rust red in the setting sun. He began to walk.
The antique cigar box he carried in his left pocket, heavy and bulging with unholy contents, felt as if it was going to burn a hole in his khaki trousers.
When he got to the intersection of Main Street and Highway One, Jerry Jacobson stopped. Fishing into his pocket, he withdrew the cigar box that had once belonged to his eccentric grandfather and brushed the lint off with his right hand. The intersection was less a crossroads and more a gravity well where the two paths churned together into one sagging bowl of dust. He crossed his fingers, hoping the area still constituted a contractually sufficient crossroad, and set the cigar box in his best approximation of the middle of the junction.
Sitting cross-legged like a child at storytime, Jerry Jacobson opened the lid of the cigar box and carefully removed its contents: a silver gilded soup spoon, two cloves of pickled garlic, a plastic baggie of powdered parsley, seven blackberries, and several brown and brittle bones belonging to a road-killed black cat. Using the soup spoon as a spade, he began to dig. The dirt refused to stay out of the hole. He bent the spoon.
His grandfather’s cryptic instructions echoed in his ears as he crushed the garlic in his fist and milked its juice onto the scarred earth. He had thought the old man senile when, through toothless whispers on an antiseptic hospital deathbed, he first told the story of meeting a peculiar salesman at the crossroads just past the county line. Jerry Jacobson had no reason to disbelieve his grandfather– the only person who ever made him feel acceptable– except that the old man had lived and died utterly unremarkably. He could not play the blues guitar or carry a tune; he bequeathed upon his family only a modest debt to various creditors and seemed to have no friends aside from his grandson and the mangy, monstrous black hound that followed on his heels everywhere he went.
But then the cigar box came in the mail, anonymously addressed, the day after the funeral. Two days after the hellish hound disappeared from the old man’s side without a trace. Inside the faux-gold foil wrapping was a single sheet of paper. On one side, ingredients. On the other, instructions.
Though oblivious to his mistake, Jerry Jacobson messed up the ceremony’s order when he broke the cat bones before he buried five of the blackberries. It didn’t matter, but the horned figure hiding inside the lonely bush across the street snickered to himself as he watched the human’s ineptitude.
Jerry Jacobson pushed dirt back over the hole in an attempt to cover the contents, only succeeding in caking the pile of herbs and road-kill in dust that matted like powdered foundation on an aging actress. Jerry Jacobson garnished the mess in parsley before masticating one of the two remaining blackberries and spitting it on top of the pile. He set the other on the opposite side of the demented owl pellet he had created.
Rather unceremoniously, Jerry Jacobson lumbered to his feet, unzipped the fly of his khakis, and tried to urinate on the pile. He had been cripplingly pee-shy as a schoolboy and never quite outgrew the affliction. It was the first of many character quirks that, on a charming man, could have endeared him to his peers. Instead, with his whiny voice and slight (though ever-present) body odor, it just provided a more explicit cause for social exclusion. Exposed and straddling the offering, Jerry Jacobson was not thinking about the countless sweaty hours he had spent waiting in front of Macon High School’s urinals for the perfect silence that would allow him to relieve himself. Instead, he was seized with the fear, irrational as it was this far from civilization, of being arrested for public indecency. He checked over both of his shoulders for onlookers with an unwarranted urgency. Not seeing a soul, nor registering the immortal entity squatting inside a bush and suppressing giggles at the ridiculous sight standing before him, Jerry Jacobson relaxed. First a tear-drop, then a dribble escaped him.
Jerry Jacobson did his best to draw a pentagram in urine on the offering but only succeeded in splashing the anti-altar with specks of his now yellowed afternoon coffee. In his haste to return to the security of his khakis, Jerry Jacobson forgot to shake himself dry, resulting in a few rather large blotches appearing around the pleats of his pants. He hoped to God that, if he showed up, the Devil wouldn’t notice.
The whole affair had gone much more quickly than anticipated. The sun hadn’t yet set and the man felt perverse under the judgmental eye of the light.
The figure in the bush felt uncomfortable in the sunlight too, but only because it made his entrance far less grandiose. If his audience could see him just stand up out of a bush, it would ruin the carefully curated veneer of mystery central to the Satanic brand. It is much more impressive when he appears out of the shadows. Nevertheless, he had abandoned all virtues long ago and patience was no exception. The Devil stood.
Jerry Jacobson’s eyes hadn’t left the urine-soaked earth since he concluded the ceremony, so he remained unaware as the figure disentangled his limbs from the bush, picked several brambles off of the lapel of his obsidian suit, and began to clop into the intersection. His eyes remained transfixed on the anti-altar even after the Devil stopped behind him in all his terrible splendor.
Jerry Jacobson didn’t look around because, in truth, he expected the Devil to emerge from his offering directly. He thought he had been creating a portal to the nether world, but the figure had no use for nether portals, especially not those dripping with mammalian excretions. The Devil had installed an elevator in his throne room with direct connection to the surface. As far as he was concerned, this was the most worthwhile investment he’d made since swapping the blood in the Boiling Lake of Eternal Drowning for red food coloring and tap water.
After a not inconsiderable time spent waiting for the man to notice him, the Devil cleared his throat conspicuously. Jerry Jacobson nearly jumped out of his loafers.
“Hello, um, sir,” the mortal stammered. “My name is Jerry Jacobson and I would like to make a deal.”
The Devil waited for the unfortunate man to continue. Jerry Jacobson waited for the terrible creature to respond.
“Oh! How rude of me,” Jerry Jacobson blurted out, attempting to fill the awkward silence. “What’s your name?”
No one had ever asked the Devil that question. Taken aback, he began in a resonant voice that could not quite mask his surprise, “I have many names! You may know me as Prince of Darkness, or The Morning Star.” The Devil regained his thunderous composure. “Your kind have trembled before my myriad incarnations: Mephistopheles, Beelzebub, Diabolis. I am Satan– the Opposer, the Wicked. Evil incarnate and bane of man and God alike.”
There was another silence, longer than the first. Jerry Jacobson didn’t know how to respond. “Well that is, sir, certainly very–”
“Impressive?” the Devil offered with a smirk.
“Unhelpful,” Jerry Jacobson replied with thoughtless honesty. The smirk fell from the immortal’s face. “I didn’t mean to offend you,“ he added hastily. “It’s just, you gave me a bunch of titles, not a name.” The Devil knit his great eyebrows. The man haltingly met his gaze. “What do your friends call you?”
The Devil’s forked tail flicked the dust behind him uncertainly. “They would call me Luke, I suppose,” his voice wisped. “But you must call me Lucifer!” he hastily corrected, with gruff machismo.
“Okay, Lucifer, sir. Can I ask you a favor?”
“A favor?” His awesome voice boomed. “Did I traverse the nine spheres of Hell for you to ask of me a mere favor?”
Jerry Jacobson flinched. “Of course not, Lucifer sir. What I meant was, will you accept my soul as payment for your service?”
“Name your terms, groveler.”
Jerry Jacobson swallowed the frog in his throat. “I would like—if it’s possible—“
“Of course it’s possible! I am the hegemon of all things despicable! The limit of my service is the limit of your putrid imagination.”
“Great, good. Can you make someone like me?”
Lucifer didn’t respond, so Jerry Jacobson barrelled on. “I don’t care who, and it doesn’t have to be romantic either. Just a friend. Anybody would work.” The Devil seemed unable to meet his eyes. “Lucifer, sir?”
“The thing is,” none of the multitudinous languages Lucifer learned since the fall of Babel made it easy for him to admit the limits of his powers. “I actually can’t do that.”
“You can’t do that?” Jerry Jacobson forgot his fear. “You—with your titles and your horns and your magic hoopla—can’t make somebody be my friend?” The immortal stayed silent. “Why the Hell not?”
“Well, it isn’t up to me.” The immortal’s voice sounded tinny, as if he had been speaking into a microphone that suddenly lost power. “My father, he’s got this plan for everybody, and the plan is really important. It basically keeps the whole universe in balance. So the plan makes everything in the universe do what it was planned to do so the plan will eventually work out according to plan.” Jerry Jacobson stared at the Devil with unblinking lobotomy eyes. Lucifer cleared his throat once more. “What does this have to do with you? Right, good question. The plan includes free will, so I can’t stop anybody from doing what they want to do, freely. And, it just so happens, everybody freely chooses to dislike you.”
“But I can take vengeance on those you despise! Who do you want me to kill?”
“I don’t want you to kill anybody!” Righteous anger replaced his self-pity. “And what kind of B.S. is that anyway? He’s got a plan for everybody so you can’t screw it up by changing our choices, but you can kill us?”
“Free will doesn’t extend into the realm of death, mortal.” A bit of the rehearsed ease was creeping back into Lucifer’s voice, as though he could once again read from his carefully cultivated salesman’s script.
“But the plan was for you to always kill the people you’re asked to kill?”
“I suppose, in a way, they were always going to die by my pitchfork.” Jerry Jacobson couldn’t quite parse if this last assertion was comforting or troubling to the great being before him.
“So the plan says that I was always going to have to summon you today, no matter what?”
“No, you imbecile. The plan says you were always going to choose to summon me, no matter what.”
Jerry Jacobson, perpetually a man of unassuming stature, shrank into his sweat-stained collar. Lucifer looked at the man with something resembling pity. “But you can make any other choice you want right now.” The hellfire in the immortal’s eyes glowed warmly. “What do you want me to do for you?”
“What does the plan say?”
Lucifer thought for a moment. “I don’t actually know. I’ve never seen it. It’s kind of a need-to-know type of thing.”
“Then how do you know the plan doesn’t already account for you forcing somebody to like me?”
The Devil sighed. He was arguing about bedtime with a toddler. “Because then they wouldn’t be free.”
Jerry Jacobson pouted up at him. The Devil had better things to do than entertain this circular discussion. Skin to flay, souls to crush, work to do. He turned to leave.
“How are you free?” Jerry Jacobson called after him. “What makes you any different from me if you were always going to kill the same people and take the same meetings and fall from grace and rule Hell and torture all the same souls that the plan knew were going to sin in the first place?”
The Prince of Darkness turned. “How am I free?” he asked with sarcastic incredulity. “I am an immortal being, Heaven sent and Hell received. I create plagues and pestilences, grant feasts to peasants and strike famines on kings. I am here now and I will be here when you die and I will be here when your miserable species burns this planet to the ground.” His leathery wings spread behind him in a wall of translucent flesh. “I am not like you. You are a cockroach and I am the boot that crushes you just to hear the crunch. I have power you cannot imagine. I am pure energy distilled into corporeal form so that I do not blow your molecules apart atom by atom.” He heaved an immense sigh that smelled of mustard gas and used gym socks. “You are a hamburger powered by other hamburgers.”
Lucifer loomed over the small man, his bat wings undulating behind him. It was unclear for several moments whether Jerry Jacobson registered the speech at all. He just stood, staring at the space a few inches in front of his own nose. Finally, he spoke. “And I can write C++ better than any programmer at the office. But I can’t do it if my boss doesn’t let me.” Jerry Jacobson forced his eyes up at the immortal before him. “You’re a cog just like I’m a cog just like all those poor bastards you've killed are cogs. You aren’t free to make me a friend any more than I am to flap my wings and fly to Heaven.”
The last rays of the sun were just disappearing over the Smoky Mountain. Venus winked to life in the moonless, fading sky.
The Devil slumped to the ground, all of the energy abandoning his sinewy limbs. His wings fell impotently to his sides, kicking up a cloud of parched earth that stuck fast to his jet-black suit pants.
“Well this sucks,” Lucifer whispered, almost to himself. His taloned fingers drew absentminded doodles in the dirt beside him.
“Yep,” Jerry Jacobson agreed. He joined Lucifer. There they sat, in the middle of what had once been the busiest highway south of the Mason-Dixon line, as more and more stars joined Venus above them.
Jerry Jacobson pointed to the last remaining blackberry from the ritual, which the Lord of Hell had narrowly missed crushing beneath his immortal ass. “I left that for you,” he said, interrupting their comfortable silence.
The Devil picked up the berry and examined it thoroughly before throwing it into the bush that he had been hiding in not half an hour before. “You bastard, I watched you piss all over that.”
Jerry Jacobson smiled. “I figured you’d like the taste, considering the offering you made me prepare for you.” The cat bones he’d buried stuck out of the earth next to them like needles in a voodoo doll.
Lucifer grinned devilishly at his private joke. “I don’t like that garbage. I just enjoy watching people struggle to find all the ingredients.”
The man tossed a pebble at the Devil. “I knew you were evil, but that’s just plain mean.” Jerry Jacobson rose and extended his hand to Lucifer. “Come on, there’s no reason to mope.” The immortal being considered the man’s offering with a curious mix of suspicion and hope. For the second time in all eternity, Lucifer was faced with the terrifying vulnerability of trust.
He clasped the man’s clammy hand in his own scaly palm.
Jerry Jacobson hoisted the immortal being back onto his cloven hooves. Lucifer brushed himself off, but the tawny streaks of earth turned his black suit a muddled grey. “Let’s go get something to eat,” Jerry Jacobson suggested. “I’m starving and there’s a cheap diner a few miles down the road.”
Lucifer looked back at his lonesome bush across the street. “I don’t need to eat.”
“Clearly you’ve never had chocolate chip pancakes before.” Jerry Jacobson began to walk back to his Ford Taurus. After a moment, Lucifer followed. As the pair strolled together in the night air, the man suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. “This won’t cost my soul, will it?”
“Not unless you want me to pick up the bill,” replied Luke.