Devil’s Work

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“And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.”

-Job, 1:7

***

It was the heat’s fault.

Five-hundred thousand people sat in traffic while the summer sun burned away the last shreds of their patience and goodwill. James didn’t mind the gridlock so much, but he couldn’t get away from the heat. He fanned himself with a newspaper in the back of the cab, fantasizing about snow-capped peaks and endless white glaciers and frigid arctic oceans. Anything but this heat. It was Monday morning and the cabdriver was talking but James was only half listening.

“The thing God doesn’t understand,” the Driver was saying, “is that he made you more like me than like himself.”

“Is that so?” James said, as sweat down the back of his neck.

“Number one: We’re both his creations, right? You’ve always got more in common with your siblings than your parents.”

“True.”

“Number two: That whole bit about being cast from paradise for disobeying? I did that way before all of you did. I was the first thing in the whole universe to ever disobey God. So that’s something else we have in common.”

The driver counted his points on his fingers while they waited for the light to change. James saw wavy lines of heat through the window.

“Third and finally, you’re all born in sin, and that’s my specialty. Add it up, and the human race can’t help getting along better with me than you do with him. It’s your nature.”

“I’ve never thought about it that way, but I guess you’re right. What I don’t understand is—” James stopped, turning his head. “Take a right here. I want to go down Mission.”

The Driver glanced at him in the mirror. He wore dark sunglasses with perfectly rounded lenses. “The other way is faster.”

“I know,” James said. “But take it anyway.”

Mission was a long black ribbon in the sun, a throng of half-dressed humanity and concrete buildings with metal shutters and sunlight glaring on aluminum and glass. James breathed it in. It smelled like sweat and burning tar and work. Traffic was heavy, and they soon slowed to a stop. “If you wanted to make yourself late, you’ve done it,” the Driver said.

“Everyone will be late today,” James said. “We all have an excuse.”

Women with bare arms and legs and men with no shirts passed. An old man pushed an ice cream cart down the street, wiping his brow with his apron. James wanted to leap out and buy an ice cream sandwich, the cheap kind he’d liked as a kid. On the corner, four police officers in uniforms so dark blue they were almost black prodded a derelict on the sidewalk—drunk or a victim of the heat, no one could tell. “I hate this neighborhood,” the Driver said.

“I like it,” James said.

“It’s dirty.”

“That’s what I like. There’s not enough dirt in this city. We used to have more. Where did it all go?”

“Here,” the Driver said, grinning.

“I live on this street you know. Way down on the other side of town, but it’s still the same street.”

“You live in a different universe than this street.” The Driver turned around a little. With his shaved head and sunglasses he seemed to gleam all over “What’s eating you today?”

“It’s hot. The busses aren’t running. I’m not—”

“There’s something else. There were plenty of other cabs, but you took mine. You never take my cab unless you’ve got a problem. Spill it already.”

James hesitated. “Tell me one thing about yourself first.”

“Sure.”

“Why do you drive a cab?”

“It’s a decent job.”

“But why do you need a job at all? What do they pay you in? Souls?”

“No, cash. I can’t pay the rent in souls. Look, I’m just a regular guy.”

James looked at him.

“All right, so that’s not quite true. But I’ve got to get by just like a regular guy. This job is a good way to meet people, and people always interest me.” The Driver shrugged. “But I get it: You don’t trust me. I’ve got a bad reputation. Always have. That’s life.”

The Driver went to whistling as he maneuvered through traffic. They crawled block by block. James needed to get to 3rd Street and this was still 20th. The heat felt like it was squeezing him. He glimpsed his own balding head in the rearview mirror and then looked away. Someone on the street was playing loud music. He’d never heard the song but he felt like he knew all the lyrics anyway. “It’s about Nakia,” he said.

The Driver looked at him again. “Oh yeah, you two just moved in together. Trouble in paradise already?”

“No, no, I’m happy. I’m just a little…too happy.” He squirmed. The inside of the cab felt sticky; he suddenly didn’t want to touch the material of the upholstery. “I’ve always been a one-woman kind of guy. Except for one incident in college—which I deeply regret—I’ve never been the type to fuck around.”

“Has that changed?”

“No.” James sat up a little straighter. “God no.” He threaded his tie through his knotted fingers. “But I have been thinking about it. The temptation is there.”

“Oldest story in the book.”

“It’s been on my mind so much that I’m acting suspicious, and she’s getting jealous. bağdat caddesi escort We fight. The other day I even went onto a site advertising, you know, escorts?”

The Driver whistled.

“I didn’t realize how explicit it would be. I must have spent two minutes looking at this one: Two women were advertising a blowjob from both of them for a hundred and fifty dollars.”

“Good looking?”

“Not really.”

“Why’d you care then?”

James opened his mouth two or three times before finally answering. “It seemed like a really good deal.”

The Driver’s howled.

“Did you call?”

“No,” James said. “But the fact that I could seemed amazing. I had the money; Nakia was at work; I could have picked up the phone and gone and…done it…and no one would ever know. How do you deal with a thing like that? It seems like…”

“A miracle.”

James pinched his brow. “Not quite. Jesus, it’s hot.” He glanced at the meter, and then did a double take. Grabbing his briefcase and tie, he gestured for the Driver to pull over. “I’ll just walk the rest of the way. Probably faster.”

He passed up a handful of bills but the Driver waved them away. “Keep it,” he said. James blinked. A cabbie never turned down cash. It was like a shark deciding it wasn’t interested in fresh blood. But the Driver insisted. “My treat. Take Nakia somewhere nice. Somewhere air-conditioned.”

The cab rumbled off. James walked to work, his polished shoes grinding the black spots of ancient, discarded gum deeper into the sidewalk. It would have felt nice to take off his jacket, but he didn’t dare. In a crowd of naked arms and bare backs, he wanted most of all to be covered.

***

Wednesday night. Neither the heat nor the traffic eased with sunset. James saw the Driver parked in front of his office, engine idling. He got in. The Driver turned on the meter. “Missed you this morning,” he said.

“I walked.”

“The whole way? S’not good for you, man. This heat kills.”

Sweat rolled down James’ temples. The Driver pulled out but before he made the first turn James stopped him. “Don’t take me home yet,” he said. “Take me here.”

He passed the Driver a card with an address scribbled on it. The Driver seemed to eye him behind his sunglasses, then shrugged and turned the other way.

“You know, this isn’t that far away,” he said. “You could have walked again.”

“Didn’t feel like it,” James said.

It was only a six minute ride. The Driver stopped in front of a narrow building on the edge of Chinatown with a faded marquee reading: “SPA,” and beneath that “MASSAGE” in red neon letters. A gate covered the entrance, but a hand-lettered sign taped to it read “Ring bell, then pull.” James paid the Driver without saying anything. The Driver put a hand on his shoulder before he got out.

“You know what kind of place this is, right?”

James cleaned the lint off his glasses. “I’m not an idiot.”

“Rallying cry of every idiot since the dawn of time,” the Driver said. “I’ll wait for ya.”

“You’ll miss other fares.”

“Pal, I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

James rang the bell but the gate didn’t budge. He tried again; still nothing. He looked up and down the block, anxious that the approaching pedestrians would get close enough to see his face. Finally he heard a click and the gate opened. He darted inside and up narrow, carpeted steps. An electric fan propped up on a stack of paperback books blew cool air on him as he ascended. An older woman worked the front desk. She looked him up and down, but only for a second. “Been here before?” she asked. James shook his head. “Sixty dollar,” the woman said.

“That’s all?” James said, then felt stupid immediately.

“Pay more later if you want,” the woman said, and led him to one of a series of small, bedroom-like cubicles, with curtains over the open doorways and black construction paper taped over the exterior window. No one else was here, but he was instructed to undress and lie down, and then the old woman left. James turned away from the mirror as he removed his clothes. Lying face down with a too-small towel covering his bare ass, he sweated and fidgeted. This was insane. He should just leave. He should get up and put his clothes on and maybe even try to get his $60 back, but one way or the other—

Someone walking in soft slippers on the thick carpet came to the tableside. James froze like a trapped animal. A small voice, barely more than a whisper, said, “Hello.” James could only grunt in reply. He heard her kick off her slippers but he did not look up. His heart beat so fast it almost hurt. When a hand touched his shoulder he nearly jumped out of his skin. I can’t do this, he thought. There’s no way I can do this. With an inward sigh he prepared to leave—

But when he looked up the woman smiled at him, and his legs turned to jelly.

***

The Driver waited and whistled the tune on the radio. People streamed along the sidewalks as the dark blue twilight faded to black and the yellow tint of artificial lights winked on all over the city. After a little less than an hour James returned. He shut the door with particular emphasis bahçelievler escort and said only, “Home please.” His glasses were in his suit pocket. The Driver gave a jaunty salute and rolled towards Market. The taillights of the cars up ahead looked like a long procession of winking red eyes.

James was relieved that the Driver said nothing most of the way, but a few blocks from the house he pulled into a vacant parking space, stopped the meter, undid his seatbelt and actually got out and sat next to James in the backseat. He leaned in so close that the smell of his too-minty breath (James had watched him gobble breath mints by the handful sometimes) made James’ eyes water. His teeth glittered in the dark. “Details,” he said.

James squirmed. “I don’t really know what to say.”

“Who’d you see?”

James mumbled. “Bunny.”

“Bunny! Nice gal. Nice body. Been on the job a few too many years, but some guys like that. You like that?”

James blushed. “She was perfectly satisfactory.”

The Driver slapped him on the arm. “‘Perfectly satisfactory,’ I like that. Did you get the special?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” James slid down in his seat like a stubborn schoolboy. The Driver plied him.

“Feeling guilty?” The Driver said. “Got the old post-money shot remorse. Better stow that as quick as you can. Can’t change the past. I only asked what you did because in my experience most guys want to confess right after, and confessing to your girl is about the dumbest thing you can do. If you feel the urge, get it out of your system now.”

They sat for a few minutes as James wrestled to find the right words. Licking his dry lips he said, “When I got into the room, you know, I took my clothes off and laid down, and she climbed up on my back, and she started giving me a massage.”

“Right, right,” said the Driver. “Then what?”

“That’s it.”

“…nothing else? What the hell happened?” The Driver pondered for a moment. “You know, Bunny’s English isn’t that great. Maybe you missed the signal?”

“She made some hand gestures that were…pretty universal.”

“So what did you say?”

“I said no. Just the massage, please.”

The Driver took his sunglasses off. James cringed.

“Do you mean to tell me,” the Driver said, speaking slowly and distinctly, “that you went to a Chinatown massage parlor just because you actually wanted a massage?”

Helpless, James shrugged. “…yeah.”

For a second he thought the Driver was going to be angry for some reason. Then the Driver burst into hyena-like peals of laughter instead. James wanted to crawl away and never be seen again. “That,” the Driver said, “is the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever heard. Since the dawn of time, that’s the funniest thing. What in the hell were you thinking?”

“I thought it would be fun to do something secret. It felt dirty, like I wanted, but also like something I couldn’t get in trouble for. A backrub isn’t cheating, right?” He watched the taillights go by for a second. “And I could have done it, if I’d really wanted to. That’s good enough.”

“You are a strange little man,” the Driver said. “Why’d you pick that place anyway?”

“I looked it up on Yelp. And I’ve never really been with an Asian woman.”

“That a thing with you?”

“No. But it is for so many other guys, and I realized now, with Nakia, it’ll never happen for me.” He handed over a mess of bills. The Driver hummed as he counted the fare. “How you going to explain being late?”

James shrugged. “Couldn’t find a cab.”

The Driver was still laughing as he pulled away.

***

Friday night. Ten o’clock. The world shouldn’t have been able to contain heat like this. By rights the city should have melted or flared up like a struck match by now. James sat on the curb, wondering what to do and where to go, and then his phone rang. It was the Driver.

“I’m the next block up.”

James frowned. “I didn’t call a cab?”

“Guess this time a cab called you.”

James imagined the accusing eyes of his neighbors behind every window he passed. The Driver idled at the corner of Persia. The air smelled thick with rain but the clouds only lingered, sluggish, overhead. When he got in the Driver pulled away without even being told where to go. James studied the back of the Driver’s head for a moment. When no explanation came he said, “How did you know?”

“Know what?”

“That Nakia threw me out?”

“She did? Holy shit! Why?”

James swatted the upholstery. “Stupid mistake. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

“Out with it.”

“She went through my phone and found the number of the massage parlor. You can imagine what she thought.”

“You cannot be serious? Oh, that is rich. Only you, James.”

“She won’t believe that all I got was massage.”

“Of course she doesn’t believe it, she’s not an imbecile.”

“It’s the truth!”

“Doesn’t make it believable.”

James rubbed his temples. “I can’t believe this is happening to me.”

“I can. You were asking for it. Of course, now you might as well really have been fucking around on her, since she’ll never believe you weren’t. But I guess you thought bahçeşehir escort about that already.”

James thumped his head against the back of the seat.

“Nothing more tragic than the plight of the wrongfully accused,” said the Driver. “Hey, what was she doing snooping through your phone in the first place?”

James blinked. “I didn’t think to ask.”

“Kind of an invasion of privacy, isn’t it?”

“I guess.” He looked out the window; they’d crossed a lot of ground in a short amount of time. They were heading uphill, along Taylor Street. “Where are we going?”

“There’s someone I want you to meet.”

“You can’t tell me who?”

“You got anywhere better to be right now?”

James said nothing. The Driver parked outside a rowhouse and dialed a number on his phone. “We’re here,” was all he said before hanging up, and then he indicated James should wait in front of the building. Before James could again ask what was going on the Driver sped away, leaving him blinking and uncertain in the street. The hill he was on was steep, and the wind pushed against his back, threatening to send him rolling end over end down it. Somewhere overhead, thunder tolled. A strange woman was walking toward him. She asked for him by name and when he said he was who she was looking for she threw her arms around him and hugged him like they were old friends. Bewildered, James let her take him into the building, through the garage. Now in the dark, James suddenly became anxious. He swallowed. “I don’t mean to be rude,” he said, “but who are you?”

“Amber.”

“Right. …but, more specifically?”

Her smile was almost visible in the dark. “I’m a friend of a friend. He thought we should meet. Didn’t he tell you about me?”

“Not a word.”

“That naughty boy!”

“Where are we going? he said.

“To my room. Well, not my room, exactly. I call it the parlor. It’s where I entertain.”

In the back of the garage was something like a tiny, one-room apartment. It looked like a college girl’s dorm room; the bed took up about half of the space. A string of Christmas lights provided most of the illumination. Soft music was playing. The woman took James’ coat, after asking for it twice. She looked 40ish but somehow still girlish. She wore loose pants and a t-shirt, and her hair was dyed red at the ends and pulled back in ponytail. The strange room made James feel like he’d just stumbled into a tiny, magical kingdom hidden in the back of a closet. “Do you like it?” she said, closing the door behind them. “I built it myself.”

“It’s…cozy,” James said

“Do you want something to drink? Wine?”

“Yes,” James said, after deliberating for longer than was probably necessary. She had a glass ready for him.

“Why don’t you take off your shoes? Stay a while?”

“Am I staying a while?” James said, taking a sip.

“Your friend told me you were cute.”

“Yes, my…friend. Did he tell you a lot about me?”

“Just enough. He told me about him, too. I know who he really is.” She guided him to an overstuffed chair with no legs and letting him sink into it. She sat in the legless chair opposite his, drinking her own wine. “It’s going to storm,” she said.

“Maybe it’ll help end the heat.”

“Has the heat been bothering you?”

“God yes.”

“It’ll be a dry storm though. Thunder and lightning, but no rain. So what do you do?”

“I’m a couples’ counselor.”

“Are you good?”

“Not really.”

“At least you’re honest.”

“I’m great at figuring out other people’s problems but I’m terrible with my own.”

“Isn’t that true of everyone?”

“Not everyone’s professional credibility is at stake.”

Amber took her hair down. The red curls clung to her bare neck and collarbone. “So what do you want to do next?”

James swallowed. “I’m not sure I understand?”

Amber put her hand on his knee. “Your friend paid for the whole night. So we can do whatever you want. Don’t be shy about asking.”

James paused. “I’m seeing someone.”

“So am I. We have an agreement. Don’t you and your girlfriend?”

“We don’t agree on much of anything anymore. Although come to think of it, she probably just dumped me.”

“So you’re single.”

“It’s hard to say.”

She squeezed his knee harder. “Like I said, we can do anything. I give the girlfriend experience.”

“Does that mean you’ll get jealous and suspicious, won’t listen to me when I explain myself, and generally make me feel like I don’t understand anything about you or the rest of the world?”

She burst into laughter, and James laughed too. He realized it had been a long time since he’d laughed at anything. It was a relief. She moved behind him, rubbing his shoulders. “Do you want a massage? Your friend said you liked massages.”

James stood, a little shaky, and let her take his shirt off. As always, he flinched at letting a woman see any part of his naked body, but Amber’s small, friendly smile made him feel a little better. The mattress was so soft he thought he was going to sink all the way through it. She left the room for a moment and came back wearing a gauzy, rose-colored nightie. The neck was low, and James instinctively looked away from her cleavage but then, after thinking about it, deliberately looked again. She climbed up on his back, straddling him with splayed legs, and he knew, very suddenly, that she was not wearing anything underneath. “You’re tense,” she said, working her fingers into his muscles. “Do you like it gentle, or hard?”

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